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   Chapter 2 IN WHICH THE ROMANTIC HERO IS CONSPICUOUS BY HIS ABSENCE

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 26444

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


As the light fell on her face Gerty Bridewell awoke, stifled a yawn with her pillow, and remembered that she had been very unhappy when she went to bed. That was only six hours ago, and yet she felt now that her unhappiness and the object of it, which was her husband, were of less disturbing importance to her than the fact that she must get up and stand for three minutes under the shower bath in her dressing-room. With a sigh she pressed the pillow more firmly under her cheek, and lay looking a little wistfully at her maid, who, having drawn back the curtains at the window, stood now regarding her with the discreet and confidential smile which drew from her a protesting frown of irritation.

"Well, I can't get up until I've had my coffee," she said in a voice which produced an effect of mournful brightness rather than of anger, "I haven't the strength to put so much as my foot out of bed."

Her eyes followed the woman across the room and through the door, and then, turning instinctively to the broad mirror above her dressing table, hung critically upon the brilliant red and white reflection in the glass. It was her comforting assurance that every woman looked her best in bed; and as she lay now, following the lines of her charming figure beneath the satin coverlet, she found herself wondering, not without resentment, why the possession of a beauty so conspicuous should afford her only a slight and temporary satisfaction. Last week a woman whom she knew had had her nose broken in an automobile accident, and as she remembered this it seemed to her that the mere fact of her undisfigured features was sufficient to be the cause of joyful gratitude. But this, she knew, was not so, for her face was perfectly unharmed; and yet she felt that she could hardly have been more miserable, even with a broken nose.

Here she paused for an instant in order to establish herself securely in her argument, for, though she could by no stretch of the imagination regard her mind as of a meditative cast, there are hours when even to the most flippant experience wears the borrowed mantle of philosophy. Abstract theories of conduct diverted her but little; what she wanted was some practical explanation of the mental weariness she felt. What she wanted, she repeated, as if to drive in the matter with a final blow, was to be as happy in the actual condition as she had told herself that she might be when as yet the actual was only the ideal. Why, for instance, when she had been wretched with but one man on the box, should the addition of a second livery fail to produce in her the contentment of which she had often dreamed while she disconsolately regarded a single pair of shoulders? That happiness did not masquerade in livery she had learned since she had triumphantly married the richest man she knew, and the admission of this brought her almost with a jump to the bitter conclusion of her unanswerable logic-for the satisfaction which was not to be found in a footman was absent as well from the imposing figure of Perry Bridewell himself. Yet she told herself that she would have married him had he possessed merely the historical penny, and the restless infatuation of those first months was still sufficiently alive to lend the colour of its pleasing torment to her existence.

Lying there, in her French embroidered night dress, with her brilliant red hair pushed back from her forehead, she began idly to follow the histories of the people whom she knew, and it seemed to her that each of them was in some particular circumstance more fortunate than she. But she would have changed place with none, not even with her best friend, Laura Wilde, who was perfectly content because she lived buried away in Gramercy Park and wrote vague beautiful verse that nobody ever read. Laura filled as little part in what she called "the world" as Gramercy Park occupied in modern progress, yet it was not without a faint impulse of envy that Gerty recalled now the grave old house mantled in brown creepers and the cheerful firelit room in which Laura lived. The peace which she had missed in the thought of her husband came back to her with the first recollection of her friend, and her hard bright eyes softened a little while she dwelt on the vivid face of the woman to whom she clung because of her very unlikeness to herself. Gradually out of the mist of her unhappiness the figure of Laura rose in the mirror before her, and she saw clearly her large white forehead under the dark wing-like waves of hair, the singular intentness of her eyes, and the rapt expectancy of look in which her features were lost as in a general vagueness of light.

Though it was twenty years since she had first seen Laura Wilde as a child of ten, the meeting came to her suddenly with all the bright clearness of an incident of yesterday. She remembered herself as a weak, bedraggled little girl, in wet slippers, who was led by a careless nurse to a strange German school; and she felt again the agony of curiosity with which, after the first blank wonder was over, she had stared at the children who hung whispering together in the centre of the room. As she looked a panic terror seized her like a wild beast, and she threw up her hands and turned to rush away to the reassuring presence of grown up creatures, when from the midst of the whispering group a little dark girl, in an ugly brown frock, ran up to her and folded her in her arms.

"I shall love you best of all because you are so beautiful," said the little dark girl, "and I will do all your sums and even eat your sausage for you." Then she had kissed her and brought her to the stove and knelt down on the floor to take off her wet slippers. To this day Gerty had always thought of her friend as the little girl who had shut her eyes and gulped down those terrible sausages for her behind her teacher's back.

The maid brought the coffee, and while she sat up to drink it the door of her husband's dressing-room opened and he came in and stood, large, florid and impressive, beside her bed.

"I'm afraid I shan't get back to luncheon," he remarked, as he settled his ample, carefully groomed body in his clothes with a comfortable shake, "there's a chap from the country Pierce has sent to me with a letter and I'll be obliged to feed him at the club, but-to tell the truth-there's so little one can get really fit at this season."

To a man for whom the pleasures of the table represented the larger share of his daily enjoyment, this was a question not without a serious importance of its own; and while he paused to settle it he stood, squaring his chest, with an expression of decided annoyance on his handsome, good-humored face. Then, having made a satisfactory choice of dishes, his features recovered their usual look of genial contentment, and he felt carelessly in his pocket for the letter which he presently produced and laid on Gerty's pillow. His life had corresponded so evenly with his bodily impulses that the perfection of the adjustment had produced in him the amiable exterior of an animal that is never crossed. It was a case in which supreme selfishness exerted the effect of personality.

Leaving the letter where he had placed it, Gerty sat sipping her coffee while she looked up at him with the candid cynicism which lent a piquant charm to the almost doll-like regularity of her features.

"You did not get three hours sleep and yet you're so fresh you smell of soap," she observed as an indignant protest, "while I've had six and I'm still too tired to move."

"Oh, I'm all right-I never let myself get seedy," returned Perry, with his loud though pleasant laugh. "That's the mistake all you women make."

Half closing her eyes Gerty leaned back and surveyed him with a curious detachment-almost as if he were an important piece of architecture which she had been recommended to admire and to which she was patiently trying in vain to adjust her baffled vision. The smaller she screwed her gaze the more remotely magnificent loomed his proportions.

"How you manage it is more than I can understand," she said.

Perry stared for a moment in an amiable vacancy at the coffee pot. Then she watched the animation move feebly in his face, while he pulled at his short fair moustache with a characteristic masculine gesture. Physically, she admitted, he had never appeared to a better advantage in her eyes.

"By the way, I had a game of billiards with Kemper and we talked pretty late," he said, as if evolving the explanation for which she had not asked. "He got back from Europe yesterday you know."

"He did?" Her indifferent gaiety played like harmless lightning around his massive bulk. "Then we may presume, I suppose, on Madame Alta for the opera season?"

He met the question with an admiring chuckle. "Do you really mean you think he's been abroad with her all this time?"

"Well, what else did he get his divorce for?" she demanded, with the utter disillusion of knowledge which she had found to be her most effective pose.

Perry's chuckle swelled suddenly into a roar. "Good Lord, how women talk!" he burst out. "Why, Arnold has been divorced ten years and he never laid eyes on Jennie Alta till she sang over here three years ago. There was nothing in it except that he liked to be seen with a celebrity-most men do. But, my dear girl," he concluded in a kind of awful reverence, "what a tongue you've got. It's a jolly good thing for me that I'm your husband or you wouldn't leave me a blessed patch of reputation to my back."

His humor held him convulsed for several minutes, during which interval Gerty continued to regard him with her piquant cynicism.

"Well, if it wasn't Madame Alta it was somebody who is voiceless," she retorted coolly. "I merely meant that there must have been a reason."

"Oh, your 'reasons'!" ejaculated Perry. Then he stooped and gave the letter lying on Gerty's pillow a filip from his large pink forefinger. "You haven't told me what you think of this?" he said.

Picking up the letter Gerty unfolded it and read it slowly through from start to finish, the little ripple of sceptical amusement crossing and recrossing her parted lips,

RAVENS NEST,

Fauquier County, Virginia,

December 26, 19-.

My Dear Perry: Nobody, of course, ever accused you of being literary, nor, thank Heaven, have I fallen under that aspersion-but since the shortest road to success seems to be by circumvention, it has occurred to me that you might give a social shove or two to the chap who will hand you this letter sometime after the New Year.

His name is St. George Trent, he was born a little way up the turnpike from me, has an enchanting mother, and shows symptoms of being already inoculated with the literary plague. I never read books, so I have no sense of comparative values in literature, and consequently can't tell whether he is an inglorious Shakespeare or a subject for the daily press. His mother assures me that he has already written a play worthy to stand beside Hamlet-but, though she is a charming lady, I'm hardly convinced by her opinion. The fact remains, however, that he is going to New York to become a playwright, and that he has two idols in the market place which, I fancy, you may be predestined to see demolished. He is simply off his head to meet Roger Adams, the editor of The-something or other I never heard of-and-remember your budding days and be charitable-a lady who writes poems and signs herself Laura Wilde. I prepared him for the inevitable catastrophe by assuring him that the harmless Mr. Adams eats with his knife, and that the lady, as she writes books, isn't worth much at love-making-the purpose for which woman was created by God and cultivated by man. Alas, though, the young are a people of great faith!

Commend me to Mrs. Bridewell, whom I haven't seen since I had the honour of assisting at the wedding.

Yours ever,

BEVERLY PIERCE.

As she finished her reading, Gerty broke into a laugh and carelessly threw the letter aside on the blue satin quilt.

"I'm glad to hear that somebody has read Laura's poems," she observed.

"But what in thunder am I to do with the chap?" enquired Perry. "God knows I don't go in for literature, and that's all he's good for I dare say."

"Oh, well, he can eat, I guess," commented Gerty, with consoling irony.

"I've asked Roger Adams to luncheon," pursued Perry, too concerned to resent her lack of sympathy, "but there are nine chances to one that he will stay away."

"Experience has taught me," rejoined Gerty sweetly, "that your friend Adams can be absolutely counted on to stay away. Do you know," she resumed after a moment's thought, "that, though he's probably the brainiest man of our acquaintance, I sometimes seriously wonder what you see in him."

A flush of anger darkened Perry's clear skin, and this sudden change gave him an almost brutal look. "I'd like to know if I'm a blamed fool?" he demanded.

Her merriment struck pleasantly on his ears.

"Do you want to destroy the illusion in which I married you?" she asked. "It was, after all, simply the belief that size is virtue."

The flush passed, and he took in

a full breath which expanded his broad chest. "Well, I'm big enough," he answered, "but it isn't Adam's fault that he hasn't got my muscle."

With a leisurely glance in the mirror, he settled his necktie in place, twisted the short ends of his moustache, and then stooped to kiss his wife before going out.

"Don't you let yourself get seedy and lose your looks," he said as he left the room.

When he had gone she made a sudden ineffectual effort to rise from bed; then as if oppressed by a fatigue that was moral rather than physical, she fell back again and turned her face wearily from the mirror. So the morning slipped away, the luncheon hour came and went, and it was not until the afternoon that she gathered energy to dress herself and begin anew the inevitable and agonising pursuit of pleasure. The temptation of the morning had been to let go-to relax in despair from the fruitlessness of her endeavor-and the result of this brief withdrawal was apparent in the order which she gave the footman before the open door of her carriage.

"To Miss Wilde's first"-the words ended abruptly and she turned eagerly, with outstretched hand, to a man who had hurried toward her from the corner of Fifth Avenue.

"So you haven't forgotten me in six months, Arnold," she said, with a sweetness in which there was an almost imperceptible tone of bitterness.

He took her hand in both of his, pressing it for an instant in a quick muscular grasp which had in it something of the nervous vigor that lent a peculiar vibrant quality to his voice.

"And I couldn't have done it in six years," he replied, as a singularly charming smile illumined his forcible rather than regular features, and brought out the genial irony in his expressive light gray eyes. "If I'd gone to Europe to forget you it would have been time thrown away, but I had something better on my hands than that-I've been buying French racing automobiles-"

As he finished he gave an impatient jerk to the carriage door, a movement which, like all his gestures, sprang from the nervous energy that found its outlet in the magnetism of his personality. People sometimes said that he resembled Perry Bridewell, who was, in fact, his distant cousin, but the likeness consisted solely in a certain evident possession of virile power-a quality which women are accustomed to describe as masculine. He was not tall, and yet he gave an impression of bigness; away from him one invariably thought of him as of unusual proportions, but, standing by his side, he was found to be hardly above the ordinary height. The development of his closely knit figure, the splendid breadth of his chest and shoulders, the slight projection of his heavy brows and the almost brutal strength of his jaw and chin, all combined to emphasise that appearance of ardent vitality which has appealed so strongly to the imagination of women. Seen in repose there was a faint suggestion of cruelty in the lines of his mouth under his short brown moustache, but this instead of detracting from the charm he exercised only threw into greater relief the genial brightness of his smile.

Now Gerty, glancing up at him, remembered a little curiously, the whispered reason for his long absence. There was always a woman in the wind when it blew rumours of Kemper, though he was generally considered to regard the sex with the blithe indifference of a man to whom feminine favour has come easily. How easily Gerty had sometimes wondered, though she had hardly ventured so much as a dim surmise. Ten years, she would have said, was a considerable period from which to date a passion, and she remembered now that ten years ago Kemper had secured a divorce from his wife in some Western court. There had been no particular scandal, no damning charges on either side; and a club wit had remarked at the time that the only possible ground for a separation was the fact that Mrs. Kemper had grown jealous of her husband's after-dinner cigar. Since then other and varied rumours had reached Gerty's ears, until finally there had blown a veritable gale concerning a certain Madame Alta, who sang melting soprano parts in Italian opera. Then this, too, had passed, and, with the short memory of city livers, Gerty had forgotten alike the gossip and the heroines of the gossip, until she noted now the lines of deeper harassment in Kemper's face. These coming so suddenly after six months of Europe caused her to wonder if the affair with the prima donna had been really an entanglement of the heart.

"Well, I may not be as fast as an automobile," she presently admitted.

"But you're twice as dangerous," he retorted gaily.

For an instant the pleasant humour in his eyes held her speechless.

"Ah, well, you aren't a coward," she answered coolly enough at last. Then her tone changed, and as she settled herself under her fur rugs she made a cordial inviting gesture. "Come in with me and I'll take you to Laura Wilde's," she said; "she's a genius, and you ought to know her before the world finds her out."

With a protesting laugh Kemper held up his gloved finger.

"God forbid!" he exclaimed with a shrug which struck her as a slightly foreign affectation. "The lady may be a female Milton, but Perry tells me that she isn't pretty."

He touched her hand again, met her indignant defence of Laura with a nod of smiling irony, and then, as her carriage started, he turned rapidly down Sixty-ninth Street in the direction of the Park.

In Gerty the chance meeting had awakened a slumbering interest which she had half forgotten, and as she drove down Fifth Avenue toward Laura's distant home she found herself wondering idly if he would let many days go by before he came again. The thought was still in her mind when the carriage turned into Gramercy Park and stopped before the old brown house hidden in creepers in which Laura lived. So changed by this time, however, was Gerty's mood that, after leaving her carriage, she stood hesitating from indecision upon the sidewalk. The few bared trees in the snow, the solemn, almost ghostly, quiet of the quaint old houses and the deserted streets, in which a flock of sparrows quarrelled under the faint sunshine, produced in her an odd and almost mysterious sense of unreality-as if the place, herself, the waiting carriage, and Laura buried away in the dull brown house, were all creations of some gossamer and dream-like quality of mind. She felt suddenly that the sorrows which had oppressed her in the morning belonged no more to any existence in which she herself had a part. Then, looking up, she saw her husband crossing the street between the two men with whom he had lunched, and even the impressive solidity of Perry Bridewell appeared to her strangely altered and out of place.

He came up, a little breathless from his rapid walk, and it was a minute before he could summon voice to introduce the cheerful, fresh-coloured youth on his right hand.

"I've already told Mrs. Bridewell about you, Mr. Trent," he said at last, "but I'm willing to confess that I haven't told her half the truth."

Gerty met Trent's embarrassed glance with the protecting smile with which she favoured the young who combined his sex with his attractions. Then, when he was quite at ease again, she turned to speak to Roger Adams, for whom, in spite, as she laughingly said, of the distinction between a bookworm and a butterfly, she was accustomed to admit a more than ordinary liking.

He was a gaunt, scholarly looking man of forty years, with broad, singularly bony shoulders, an expression of kindly humour, and a plain, strong face upon which suffering had left its indelible suggestion of defeated physical purpose. Nothing about him was impressive, nothing even arresting to a casual glance, and not even the shooting light from the keen gray eyes, grown a little wistful from the emotional repression of the man's life, could account for the cordial appeal that spoke through so unimposing a figure. As much of his personal history as Gerty knew seemed to her peculiarly devoid of the interest or the excitement of adventure; and the only facts of his life which she would have found deserving the trouble of repeating were that he had married an impossible woman somewhere in Colorado, and that for ten years he had lived in New York where he edited The International Review.

"Perry tells me that Mr. Trent has really read Laura's poems," she said now to Adams with an almost unconscious abandonment of her cynical manner. "Have you examined him and is it really true?"

"I didn't test him because I hoped the report was false," was Adams' answer. "He's welcome to the literary hash, but I want to keep the caviar for myself."

"Read them!" exclaimed Trent eagerly, while his blue eyes ran entirely to sparkles. "Why, I've learned them every one by heart."

"Then she'll let you in," responded Gerty reassuringly, "there's no doubt whatever of your welcome."

"But there is of mine," said Perry gravely, "so I guess I'd better quit."

He made a movement to turn away, but Gerty placing her gloved hand on his arm, detained him by a reproachful look.

"That reminds me of the mischief you have done to-day," she said. "I met Arnold Kemper as I left the house, and when I asked him to come with me what do you suppose was the excuse he gave?"

"The dentist or a twinge of rheumatism?" suggested Adams gravely.

"Neither." Her voice rose indignantly, and she enforced her reprimand by a light stroke on Perry's sleeve. "He actually said that Perry had told him Laura wasn't pretty."

"Well, I take back my words and eat 'em, too," cried Perry.

He broke away in affected terror before Trent's angry eyes, while Gerty gave a joyful little exclamation and waved her hand toward one of the lower windows in the house before which they stood. The head of a woman, framed in brown creepers, appeared there for an instant, and then, almost before Trent had caught a glimpse of the small dark eager figure, melted again into the warm firelight of the interior. A moment later the outer door opened quickly, and Laura stood there with impulsive outstretched hands and the cordial smile which was her priceless inheritance from a Southern mother.

"I knew that you were there even before I looked out of the window," she exclaimed to Gerty, in what Adams had once called her "Creole voice." Then she paused, laughing happily, as she looked, with her animated glance, from Gerty to Trent and from Trent to Adams. To the younger man, full of his enthusiasm and his ignorance, the physical details of her appearance seemed suddenly of no larger significance than the pale bronze gown she wore or the old coffee-coloured lace knotted upon her bosom in some personal caprice of dress. What she gave to him as she stood there, looking from Adams to himself with her ardent friendly glance, was an impression of radiant energy, of abundant life.

She turned back after the first greeting, leading the way into the pleasant firelit room, where a white haired old gentleman with an interesting blanched face rose to receive them.

"I have just proved to Mr. Wilberforce that I could 'feel' you coming," said Laura with a smile as she unfastened Gerty's furs.

"And I have argued that she could quite as well surmise it," returned Mr. Wilberforce, as he fell back into his chair before the wood fire.

"Well, you may know in either way that my coming may be counted on," said Gerty, "for I have sacrificed for you the society of the most interesting man I know."

"What! Is it possible that Perry has been forsaken?" enquired Adams in his voice of quiet humor. In the midst of her flippant laughter, Gerty turned on him the open cynicism of her smile.

"Now is it possible that Perry has that effect on you?" she asked with curiosity. "For I find him decidedly depressing."

"Then if it isn't Perry I demand the name," persisted Adams gayly, "though I'm perfectly ready to wager that it's Arnold Kemper."

"Kemper," repeated Laura curiously, as if the name arrested her almost against her will. "Wasn't there a little novel once by an Arnold Kemper-a slight but striking thing with very little grammar and a great deal of audacity?"

"Oh, that was done in his early days," replied Adams, "as a kind of outlet to the energy he now expends in racing motors. I asked Funsten, who does our literary notices, if there was any chance for him again in fiction, and he answered that the only favourable thing he could say of him was to say nothing."

"But he's gone in for automobiles now," said Gerty, "they're so much bigger, after all, he thinks, than books."

"I haven't seen him for fifteen years," remarked Adams, "but I recognise his speech."

"One always recognises his speeches," admitted Gerty, "there's a stamp on them, I suppose, for somehow he himself is great even if his career isn't-and, after all," she concluded seriously, "it is-what shall I call it-the personal quantity that he insists on."

"The personal quantity," repeated Laura laughing, and, as if the description of Kemper had failed to interest her, she turned the conversation upon the subject of Trent's play.

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