“Mrs. Maurier insisted on dropping in—“
Mrs. Maurier vanquished him anew. “Mister Gordon!” she sailed into the room, bearing her expression of happy astonishment like a round platter stood on edge. “How do you do? Can you ever ever forgive us for intruding like this?” She went on in her gushing italics. “We just met Mr. Talliaferro on the street with your milk, and we decided to brave the lion in his den. How do you do?” She forced her effusive hand upon him, staring about in happy curiosity. “So this is where genius labors. How charming: so—so original. And that—“ she indicated a corner screened off by a draggled length of green rep “—is your bedroom, isn’t it? How delightful! Ah, Mr. Gordon, how I envy you this freedom. And a view—you have a view also, haven’t you?” She held his hand and stared entranced at a high useless window framing two tired looking stars of the fourth magnitude.
“I would have if I were eight feet tall,” he corrected. She looked at him quickly, happily. Mr. Talliaferro laughed nervously.
“That would be delightful,” she agreed readily. “I was so anxious to have my neice see a real studio, Mr. Gordon, where a real artist works. Darling—“ she glanced over her shoulder fatly, still holding his hand ”—darling, let me present you to a real sculptor, one from whom we expect great things . . . Darling,“ she repeated in a louder tone.
The niece, untroubled by the stairs, had drifted in after them and she now stood before the single marble. “Come and speak to Mr. Gordon, darling.” Beneath her Aunt’s saccharine modulation was a faint trace of something not so sweet after all. The niece turned her head and nodded slightly without looking at him. Gordon released his hand.
“Mr. Talliaferro tells me you have a commission.” Mrs. Maurier’s voice was again a happy astonished honey. “May we see it? I know artists don’t like to exhibit an incomplete work, but just among friends, you see. . . . You both know how sensitive to beauty I am, though I have been denied the creative impulse myself.”
“Yes,” agreed Gordon, watching the niece.
“I have long intended visiting your studio, as I promised, you remember. So I shall take this opportunity of looking about—Do you mind?”
“Help yourself. Talliaferro can show you things. Pardon me.” He lurched characteristically between them and Mrs. Maurier chanted:
”Yes, indeed. Mr. Talliaferro, like myself, is sensitive to the beautiful in Art. Ah, Mr. Talliaferro, why were you and I given a love for the beautiful, yet denied the ability to create it from stone and wood and clay. . . .”
Her body in its brief simple dress was motionless when he came over to her. After a time he said:
Her jaw in profile was heavy: there was something masculine about it. But in full face it was not heavy, only quiet. Her mouth was full and colorless, unpainted, and her eyes were opaque as smoke. She met his gaze, remarking the icy blueness of his eyes (like a surgeon’s she thought) and looked at the marble again.
“I don’t know,” she answered slowly. Then: “It’s like me.”
“How like you?” he asked gravely.
She didn’t answer. Then she said: “Can I touch it?”
“If you like,” he replied, examining the line of her jaw, her firm brief nose. She made no move and added: “Aren’t you going to touch it?”
“I’ve changed my mind,” she told him calmly. Gordon glanced over his shoulder to where Mrs. Maurier pored volubly over something. Mr. Talliaferro yea’d her with restrained passion.
“Why is it like you?” he repeated.
She said irrelevantly: “Why hasn’t she anything here?” Her brown hand flashed slimly across the high unemphasis of the marble’s breast, and withdrew.
“You havn’t much there yourself.” She met his steady gaze steadily. “Why should it have anything there?” he asked.
“You’re right,” she agreed with the judicial complaisance of an equal. “I see now. Of course she shouldn’t. I didn’t quite—quite get it for a moment.”
Gordon examined with growing interest her flat breast and belly, her boy’s body which the poise of it and the thinness of her arms belied. Sexless, yet somehow vaguely troubling. Perhaps just young, like a calf or colt. “How old are you?” he asked abruptly.
“Eighteen, if it’s any of your business,” she replied without rancor, staring at the marble. Suddenly she looked up at him again. “I wish I could have it,” she said with a sudden sincerity and longing, quite like a four-year old.
“Thanks,” he said. “That was quite sincere, too, wasn’t it?” Of course you can’t have it, though. You see that, don’t you?”
She was silent. He knew she could see no reason why she shouldn’t have it.
“I guess so,” she agreed at last. “I just thought I’d see, though.”
“Not to overlook any bets?”
“Oh, well, by to-morrow I probably won’t want it, anyway. . . . And if I still do, I can get something just as good.”
“You mean,” he amended, “that if you still want it to-morrow you can get it. Don’t you?”
Her hand, as if it was a separate organism, reached out slowly, stroking the marble. “Why are you so black?” she asked.
“Not your hair and beard. I like your red hair and beard. But you. You are black. I mean . . .” her voice fell and he suggested Soul? “I don’t know what that is,” she stated quietly.
“Neither do I. You might ask your Aunt, though. She seems familiar with souls.”
She glanced over her shoulder, showing her scented upholstered bulk between them. “Wonderful, wonderful,” she was exclaiming in sincere astonishment. “And this . . .” her voice died away and she gazed at the marble, dazed. Mr. Talliaferro echoed her immaculately, taking to himself the showman’s credit.
“Do you see what he has caught?” he bugled melodiously. “Do you see? The spirit of youth, of something fine and hard and clean in the world; something we all desire until our mouths are stopped with dust.” Desire with Mr. Talliaferro had long since become an unfulfilled habit requiring no longer any particular object at all.
“Yes,” agreed Mrs. Maurier. “How beautiful. What—what does it signify, Mr. Gordon?”
“Nothing, Aunt Pat,” the niece snapped. “It doesn’t have to.”
“What do you want it to signify? Suppose it signified a–a dog or an ice cream soda, what difference would it make? Isn’t it all right like it is?”
“Yes, indeed, Mrs. Maurier,” Mr. Talliaferro agreed with soothing haste, “It is not necessary that it have objective significance. We must accept it for what it is: pure form untrammeled by any relation to a familiar or utilitarian object.
“Oh, yes: untrammeled.” Here was a word Mrs. Maurier knew. “The untrammeled spirit, freedom like the eagle’s.”
“Shut up, Aunty,” the niece told her. “Don’t be a fool.”
“But it has what Talliaferro calls objective significance,” Gordon interrupted brutally. “This is my feminine ideal: a virgin with no legs to leave me, no arms to hold me, no head to talk to me.”
“Mister Gordon!” Mrs. Maurier stared at him over her compressed breast. Then she thought of something that did possess objective significance.
Fairchild went directly to the marble and stood before it, clasping his hands at his burly back. The Semitic man sat immediately on entering the room. Preëmpting the single chair. The host was busy beyond the rep curtain which consitituted his bedroom, from where he presently reappeared with a bottle of whiskey. He had removed both shirt and undershirt now, and beneath a faint reddish fuzz his chest gleamed with heat, like an oiled gladiator’s.
“I see,” Fairchild remarked as the host entered, “that you too have been caught by this modern day fetich of virginity. But you have this advantage over us: yours will remain inviolate without having to shut your eyes to its goings-on. You don’t have to make any effort to keep yours from being otherwise. Very satisfactory. And very unusual. The greatest part of man’s immolation of virginity is, I think, composed of an alarm and a suspicion that some one else may be, as the term is, getting it.”
“Perhaps Gordon’s alarm regarding his own particular illusion of it is, that some one else may not get it,” the Semetic man suggested.
“No, I guess not,” Fairchild said, “He don’t expect to sell this to anybody, you know. Who would pay out good money for a virginity he couldn’t later violate, if only to assure himself it was the genuine thing?”
“Leda clasping her duck between her thighs could yet be carved out of it, however,” the other pointed out; “it is large enough for that. Or—“
“Swan,” corrected Fairchild.
“No. Duck,” the Semitic man insisted.” Americans would prefer a duck. Or udders and a fig leaf might be added to the thing as it stands. Isn’t that possible, Gordon?”
“Yes. It might be restored,” Gordon admited drily. He disappeared again beyond the curtain and returned with two heavy tumblers and a shaving mug bearing a name in gothic lettering of faded gilt. He drew up the bench on which his enamel water pitcher rested, and Fairchild came and sat upon it. Gordon took the shaving mug and went to lean his tall body against the wall. His intolerant hawk’s face was like bronze in the unshaded glare of the light. The Semitic man puffed at his cigar. Fairchild raised his glass, squinting through it.
“Udders, and a fig leaf,” he repeated. He drank, and set his tumbler down to light a cigarette. “After all, that is the end of art. I mean—“
“We do get something out of art,” the Semitic man agreed. “We all admit that.”
“Yes,” said Fairchild. “Art reminds us of our youth, of that age when life don’t need to have her face lifted every so often for you to consider her beautiful. That’s about all the virtue there is in art: it’s a kind of Battle Creek, Michigan, for the spirit. And when it reminds us of youth, we remember grief and forget time. That’s something.”
“Something, if all a man has to do is forget time,” The Semitic man rejoined. “But one who spends his days trying to forget time is like one who spends his time forgetting death or digestion. That’s another instance of your unshakeable faith in words. It’s like morphine, language is. A fearful habit to form: you become a bore to all who would otherwise cherish you. Of course, there is the chance that you may be hailed as a genius after you are dead long years, but what is that to you? There will still be high endeavour that ends, as always, with kissing in the dark, but where are you? Time? Time? Why worry about something that takes care of itself so well? You were born with the habit of consuming time. Be satisfied with that. Tom-o’-Bedlam had the only genius for consuming time: that is, to be utterly unaware of it.”
“But you speak for the artists. I am thinking of the majority of us who are not artists and who need protection from artists, whose time the artists insist on passing for us. We get along quite well with our sleeping and eating and procreating, if you artists only let us alone. But you accursed who are not satisfied with the world as it is and so must try to rebuild the very floor you are standing on, you keep us all fidgety and alarmed. So I believe that if art served any purpose at all, it would at least keep the artists themselves occupied.”
Fairchild raised his glass again. “It’s more than that. It’s getting into life, getting into it and wrapping it around you, becoming a part of it. Women can do without art—old biology takes care care of that. But men, men . . . A woman conceives: does she care afterward whose seed it was? Not she. And bears, and all the rest of her life—her young troubling years, that is—is filled. Of course the father can look at it occasionally. But in art, a man can create without any assistance at all: what he does is his. A perversion, I grant you, but a perversion that builds Chartres and invents Lear is a pretty good thing.” He drank, and set his tumbler down.
“Creation, reproduction from within. . . . Is the dominating impulse in the world feminine, after all, as aboriginal peoples believe? . . . There is a kind of spider or something. The female is the larger, and when the male goes to her he goes to his death: she devours him during the act of conception. And that’s man: a kind of voraciousness that makes an artist stand beside himself with a notebook in his hand always, putting down all the charming things that ever happen to him, killing them for the sake of their problematic something he might or he might not ever use. Listen,” he said, “love, youth, sorrow and hope and despair—they were nothing at all to me until I found later some need of a particular reaction to put in the mouth of some character of whom I wasn’t at that time certain, and that I don’t yet consider very admirable. But maybe it was because I had to work all the time to make a living, when I was a young man.”
“Perhaps so,” the Semitic man agreed. “People still believe they have to work to live.”
“Sure you have to work to live,” Fairchild said quickly.
“You’d naturally say that. If a man has had to deny himself any pleasures during his pleasuring years, he always likes to believe it was necessary. That’s where you get Puritans from. We don’t like to see any one violate laws we observed, and get away it. God knows, heaven is a dry reward for abnegation.
Fairchild rose and went to stand again before the fluid, passionate fixity of the marble. “The end of art,” he repeated. “I mean, to the consumer, not to us: we have to do it, they don’t. They can take it or leave it. Probably Gordon feels the same way about stories that I do about sculpture, but for me . . . “ He mused upon the marble for a time. “When the statue is completely nude, it has only a coldly formal significance, you know. But when some foreign matter like a leaf or a fold of drapery (kept there in defiance of gravity by God only knows what) draws the imagination to where the organs of reproduction are concealed, it lends the statue a warmer, a—a—more—“
”Speculative significance,” supplied the Semitic man.
“—speculative significance which I must admit I require in my sculpture.”
“Certainly the moralists agree with you.”
William Faulkner, 1897-1962. Mosquitos,1927
Images: William Faulkner. Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1925. Photograph by W.C. Odiorne
William Faulkner. Letter from Paris with self portrait, 1925