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Raymond opened the door with a flourish, pushed the electric switch and preceded his two guests into the dimly illuminated room.
"Here we are, gentlemen."
"Nice diggings you have here," Stephen said.
"Damn right," Raymond agreed. "I'm nuts about 'em. Sam doesn't like my studio, though. He thinks it's decadent."
"I merely objected to some of the decorations, Ray."
"Namely, the red and black draperies, the red and black bed cover, the crimson wicker chairs, the riotous hook rugs, and Paul's erotic drawings. You see, Steve, Sam thinks it's all rather flamboyant and vulgar. He can't forget that he's a Nordic and that I'm a Negro, and according to all the sociology books, my taste is naturally crass and vulgar. I must not go in for loud colors. It's a confession of my inferior race heritage. Am I right, Sam?"
"It's all Greek to me anyhow," Stephen murmured. "I like the room.... And these pictures are rather astonishing. Who did them?"
"The most impossible person in the world," Samuel answered.
"Wrong again," Raymond said. "Paul is one of the most delightful people in the world. I only hope he drops in before you leave, Steve. You'll enjoy meeting him."
"He certainly handles his colors well."
"But his pictures are obscene," Samuel protested. "They are nothing but highly colored phalli."
Raymond shrugged his shoulders.
"You argue with him, Steve. I'm worn to a frazzle trying to make him see the light. Everything that Sam doesn't understand, he labels depraved and degenerate. As an old friend, maybe you're willing to take up his education where I'm leaving off. Right now, I'm going to have a highball. Shall I fix three?"
Raymond retired to the alcove addition to his studio, and prepared the three highballs. When he returned to the room, Stephen Jorgenson was minutely examining the various drawings which adorned the wall, while Samuel stood stiffly in front of the false fireplace, patently annoyed by his friend's interest in what he considered obscene trivia.
"I made yours weak, Sam."
"You have educated him, at that," Stephen said. "When he was at the University of Toronto, he wouldn't even take a drop of ale."
"I'm glad I didn't know him then. He's impossible enough now."
Raymond smiled maliciously at Samuel, then held his glass aloft.
"Here's to your first time in Harlem, Stephen Jorgenson, to your first day in New York, and to your first visit to these United States. Prosit."
Raymond and Stephen drained their glasses. Samuel sipped a little of the liquid, made a wry face, then placed his glass upon the ledge of the mantlepiece.
"It's funny," Raymond mused, "how things happen. Three hours ago we were total strangers. Twenty-four hours ago we were not even aware of one another's existence. And now, Steve, I feel as if I had known you all of my life. It's strange, too, because the acquaintanceship began under such evil auspices. First of all Samuel introduced us, and I always dislike Samuel's friends. He knows the most godawful people in the world ... social service workers, reformed socialistic ministers, foreign missionaries, caponized radicals, lady versifiers who gush all over the place, Y. M. C. A. secretaries and others of the same dogassed ilk. They are all so saccharine and benevolent. They talk of nothing but service to mankind, not realizing that the greatest service they could render mankind would be self extermination. And you have no idea how they sympathize with me, a poor, benighted Negro.
"Consequently, when I came to dinner tonight, I was prepared to be bored and uncomfortable. Sam had told me nothing except that he had a foreign friend whom he wanted me to meet. And surprisingly enough you were foreign, foreign to everything familiar either to Samuel or myself."
"You were foreign to me, too," Stephen said.
"I know it," Raymond replied. "And you can imagine my surprise to find that you were the uncomfortable one. It rather startled me to find someone usurping my position at one of Samuel's dinners. I didn't know—I still don't know for that matter—what our host had told you about me. And of course I had no idea what you thought or felt about Negroes. I got the impression, though, that you were anticipating some sort of cannibal attack. Actually. The expression on your face as you entered the cafe plainly said: I hope these Negroes find their dinners ample. Otherwise they're liable to pounce upon me."
"Ray—" Samuel exclaimed. There was a note of reproof in his voice, but before he could continue, Stephen spoke:
"By golly, you're right. I was frightened. After all I had never seen a Negro before in my life, that is, not over two or three, and they were only dim, passing shadows with no immediate reality. New York itself was alarming enough, but when I emerged from the sub-way at 135th Street, I was actually panic stricken. It was the most eerie experience I have ever had. I felt alien, creepy, conspicuous, ashamed. I wanted to camouflage my white skin, and assume some protective coloration. Although, in reality, I suppose no one paid the slightest attention to me, I felt that everyone was sizing me up, regarding me with hostile eyes. It was ghastly. The strange dark faces, the suspicious eyes, the undercurrent of racial antagonism which I felt sweeping around me, the squalid streets, barricaded by grim tenement houses, and then that depressing public dining room in which Samuel and I were the only white persons. I was ready to bolt."
"See, Sam," Raymond said, "how unconsciously cruel you are? Of all the places to bring an innocent foreigner the moment he sets foot in America. Harlem terrifies me, and I've been here long enough to be acclimated, to say nothing of my natural affinity to the place."
"I think Steve's exaggerating."
"Exaggerating my great aunt. I'm guilty of understatement, if anything."
"Certainly," Raymond said. "There are perhaps a dozen or more things you'd like to say about your impressions, but you desist for fear of wounding me. Don't, for God's sake. I'm not the least bit self conscious about my race. And I prefer brutal frankness to genteel evasion anytime."
Stephen's keen, blue eyes once more regarded the small and slender Negro who sat opposite him, noting the smooth dark skin to which the amber colored bulbs imparted red overtones, and becoming particularly interested in the facial features. They were, Stephen thought, neither Nordic nor Negroid, but rather a happy combination of the two, retaining the slender outlines of the first, and the warm vigor of the second, thus escaping both Nordic rigidity, and African coarseness. Equally as interesting were the eyes. When in repose they seemed to be covered by some muddy mask, which rendered them dull and lifeless. But Stephen had noticed that when Raymond became animated, his eyes shed this mask and became large, brilliant and fiery
Samuel interrupted his reverie.
"I think it's time we were getting downtown, Steve."
"Why? Have we something else to do? This place is so restful, I don't want to move."
"Stay, then," Raymond said. "Sam's afraid I'll contaminate you if you stay around me too long."
"You're being ridiculous, Ray."
"Tell me," Stephen said. "Do you two always get along so famously?"
"Umhuh," Raymond answered. "We're really quite fond of one another, though. Otherwise I'd never countenance Samuel's Puritanism and spirit of uplift, and I'm sure he'd resent my persistent badgering. We disagree about everything. And yet there are moments when we get great pleasure out of one another's company. I need Sam's steadying influence, and he is energized by what he calls my animalism."
He smiled affectionately at the discomfited Samuel, who nervously shifted his feet, then turned to the mantelpiece, caught sight of the drink he had forgotten, and once more took the glass in his hand.
"Are you still nursing that?" Raymond asked. "I'm ready for another. How about you, Steve?"
"I can't say that I'm crazy about the taste of your gin, but I suppose the effect is desirable."
"Quite. You must get used to Harlem gin. It's a valuable and ubiquitous commodity. I couldn't do without it."
Raymond once more went into the alcove to refill the empty glasses, his mind busy contrasting the two Nordics who were his guests. Stephen was tall and fashioned like a Viking. His hair, eyes and complexion all testified to his Norse ancestry. Samuel was small, pale, anemic. His hair was blond and his eyes were blue, but neither the blondness nor the blueness were as clearly defined or as positive as Stephen's. Samuel's ancestors had been dipped in the American melting pot, and as a result, the last of the line bore only a faint resemblance to his original progenitors.
"Tell me more about the fellow who drew these," Stephen said as Raymond returned to the room and handed him a full glass of gin and gingerale.
"Nothing doing," Raymond replied. "Paul's a person you've got to see to appreciate. You wouldn't believe what I could tell you. It's about time he was dropping in. He knew I was going out to dinner tonight. That's why he isn't here now."
"Tell me this, then," Stephen asked, "do all these hideous Harlem houses have such nice interiors?"
"Not by a damn sight. Most of them are worse inside than out. You should see some of the holes I've had to live in. It just happens that my present landlady is a visionary as well as a business woman. She has dreams. One of them is that some day she will be a best selling author. That accounts for this house. She knew the difficulties experienced by Harlem artists and intellectuals in finding congenial living quarters, and reasoned that by turning this house over to Negroes engaged in creative work, she would make money, achieve prestige as a patron, and at the same time profit artistically from the resultant contacts."
"Is the house entirely filled with these ... er ... creative spirits?"
"Not yet. But we have hopes. Only the top floor remains in the hands of the Philistines. One of the ladies up there claims to be an actress, but we doubt it, and neither of her two children are precocious. The other tenant on that floor is a mysterious witchlike individual, who was living here when Euphoria leased the house, and who refused to be put out. Pelham, Eustace, Paul, and myself make up the artistic contingent. Wait till you meet the others. They're a rare collection."
Ten minutes later, Paul and Eustace entered the room.
"Oh, hell," Paul said, "another Nordic. Ain't he a beauty, Eustace?"
"Cut the comedy, Paul. I want to introduce you to Stephen Jor-genson. He just arrived in America today, and this is of course his first visit to Harlem. Don't scare him to death. This is Paul, Steve. He's responsible for all these abominable drawings. And this is Eustace Savoy, actor, singer, and what have you. He runs a den of iniquity in the basement, and is also noted for his spoonerisms."
"Mad to gleet you," Eustace said, living up to his reputation.
"Have you ever been seduced?" Paul asked. "Don't blush. You just looked so pure and undefiled that I had to ask that."
Stephen looked inquiringly at Raymond.
"Don't mind Paul. He's harmless."
"I like your drawings," Stephen said.
"You should," Paul replied. "Everybody should. They're works of genius."
"You're as disgusting as ever, Paul."
"I know it, Sam, but therein lies my charm. By the way, how did you ever get to know such a gorgeous man as this.... You know, Steve," he added abruptly, "you should take that part out of your hair and have it windblown. The hair, not the part. Plastering it down like that destroys the golden glint."
"Oh, I say ..." Stephen began.
"That's all right. I never charge for expert advice. Where's the gin, Ray?"
"In the alcove, of course."
"But you mustn't dride the hinks," Eustace said.
"You're not at all funny," Samuel muttered.
"I'm sorry, Sam. Wait'll I have a couple of drinks. Then I'll shise and rine."
He and Paul went into the alcove.
Paul was very tall. His face was the color of a bleached saffron leaf. His hair was wiry and untrained. It was his habit not to wear a necktie because he knew that his neck was too well modeled to be hidden from public gaze. He wore no sox either, nor underwear, and those few clothes he did deign to affect were musty and dishevelled.
Eustace was a tenor. He was also a gentleman. The word elegant described him perfectly. His every movement was ornate and graceful. He had acquired his physical bearing and mannerisms from mid-Victorian matinee idols. No one knew his correct age. His face was lined and drawn. An unidentified scalp disease had rendered him bald on the right side of his head. To cover this mistake of nature, he let the hair on the left side grow long, and combed it sidewise over the top of his head. The effect was both useful and bizarre. Eustace also had a passion for cloisonné bric-a-brac, misty etchings, antique silver pieces, caviar, and rococo jewelry. And his most treasured possession was an onyx ring, the size of a robin's egg, which he wore on his right index finger.
Stephen was frankly bewildered by these two strange beings who had so unceremoniously burst into the room, and forced themselves into the spotlight. Truly, as Raymond had said, this house did harbor a rare collection of individuals.
"I hope you didn't drain the bottle," Raymond said, as Paul and Eustace pranced merrily back into the room, carefully nursing their filled glasses.
"But we thought all of that was for us," Paul said.
"Where did you come from, Steve?" Paul asked.
"Oh, that's where they make snuff."
"I'm ready to go whenever you are, Steve," Samuel was restless and bored.
"But you can't take him away so soon. I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet," Paul protested. "I've got to tell him about my drawings. He looks like he might have sense enough to appreciate them."
"He's tired, Paul, and once you start to talk, we won't get home tonight."
"But I don't want to go home yet, Sam."
"See there," Paul exclaimed triumphantly, "I knew he had sense. Tell me about yourself, Steve." Paul squatted himself on the floor before Stephen's chair.
"There's nothing to tell. I was born in Canada. My father was Norwegian, my mother was a Dane. I was educated at the University of Toronto where I met Sam and identified myself as much as possible with things American. My folks moved back to Copenhagen. I spent the summer with them, and I'm here now to get a Ph.D. from Columbia."
"Because there's nothing else to do. If I stop going to school, I'll have to work, and the only kind of work I can do is professorial. I don't want to do that, so, as long as the old man foots the bills, FU stay in school."
"See," Paul exclaimed. "He is one of us."
"God forbid," Samuel said, stifling a yawn.
"Now, Paul, tell me about your drawings."
"That's easy. I'm a genius. I've never had a drawing lesson in my life, and I never intend to take one. I think that Oscar Wilde is the greatest man that ever lived. Huysmans' Des Esseintes is the greatest character in literature, and Baudelaire is the greatest poet. I also like Blake, Dowson, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Poe and Whitman. And of course Whistler, Gauguin, Picasso and Zuloaga."
"But that's not telling me anything about your drawings."
"Unless you're dumber than I think, I've told you all you need to know."
There was a timid knock on the door.
"Come in," Raymond shouted.
Pelham sidled into the room. He was short, fat and black, and was attired in a green smock and a beret which was only two shades darker than his face.
"Hello, everybody" His voice was timid, apologetic. "I didn't know you had company."
"That's all right," Raymond reassured him. "Mr. Jorgenson, this is Pelham Gaylord. He's an artist too."
"Pleased to meet you," Stephen proffered his hand. Gingerly Pelham pressed it in his own, then quickly, like a small animal at bay, stepped back to the door, and smiled bashfully at all within the room.
"Pelham's the only decent person in the house," Samuel said.
"You mean he's the only one you can impress." It was Paul who spoke. "But I'm tired of sitting here doing nothing. There's no life to this party. We need to celebrate Steve's arrival. We need some liquor. Let's go to a speakeasy."
"Who's going to pay the bill?" Raymond asked.
"Who?" Paul repeated. "Why, Steve of course. It's his celebration, and he's bound to have some money."
"But ..." Samuel started to protest.
Excerpted from Infants of the Spring by Wallace Thurman. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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