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   Chapter 8 THE IRRESISTIBLE FORCE

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 21029

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Gerty was leaning forward among her cushions and as her visitor approached she held out her hand, still faintly scented with cigarettes. "Will you have coffee," she asked, "or shall I ring for tea?"

He sat down in the chair from which Trent had risen and replied with a gesture of happy physical exhaustion. "Let me have some coffee," he answered, "I've been out golfing all the morning, and if you don't prove mentally stimulating I shall fall asleep before you. How many holes do you think I played to-day?"

Gerty shrugged her shoulders over the little coffee pot. "I don't know and it doesn't interest me," she retorted. "After six months of Europe do you still make a god of physical exertion?"

The genial irony of his smile flashed back at her, and his eyes, half quizzical, half searching, but wholly kind, wandered leisurely down her slender figure. Even as he lazily sipped his coffee, with his closely clipped, rather large brown head lying against the chair-back, she was made to feel, not unpleasantly, the compelling animal magnetism-the "personal quantity," as she had called it-that lay behind the masculine bluntness of manner he affected. "Aren't you rather tumbled?" he enquired, with an animated glance, and, though he was fond of boasting that he was the only man he knew who never flattered women, Gerty was conscious of a sudden flush and the pleased conviction that she must be looking her very best. It was a trick of his, she knew, to flatter, as it were, by paradox, to deal with delicate inuendos and to compliment by pleasant contradiction. She had not been a woman of the world without reaping the reward of knowledge, and now, as she leaned back and smiled brilliantly into his face, she knew that, despite the apparent abruptness of his beginning, they would descend inevitably to the play of personal suggestion. His measure had been taken long ago, she told herself, and lay tucked away in the receptacle which contained the varied neatly labelled patterns of her masculine world; but at the same time she was perfectly aware that within five minutes he would pique afresh both her interest and her liking. "You can't warm yourself by fireworks," she had once said to him, and a moment later had paused to wonder at the intrinsic meaning of a daring phrase which he had spoken.

Still sipping his coffee, he regarded her with the blithe humour which lent so great a charm to his expression.

"I don't see why you object to exercise when it saves my life," he observed as he took up a cigarette and then bent forward to hold it to the flame of the alcohol lamp.

"I don't object except when it bores me out of mine," responded Gerty lightly.

He was still smiling when he raised his head.

"You used to like it yourself," he persisted.

"I used to like a great many things which bore me now."

"Yes, you used to like me," he retorted gaily.

She had so confidently expected the remark, had left so frank an opening for it, that while she watched him from beneath languid eyelids a little cynical quiver disturbed her lips. The game was as old as the Garden of Eden, she had played it well or ill from her cradle, and at last she had begun to grow a trifle weary. She had found the wisdom which is hidden at the core of all Dead Sea fruit, and the bitter taste of it was still in her mouth. The world for her was a world of make-believe-of lies so futile that their pretty embroidered shams barely covered the ugly truths beneath, and, though she had pinned her faith upon falsehood and had made her sacrifice to the little gods, there were moments still when the undelivered soul within her awoke and stirred as a child stirs in the womb. Even as she went back to the game anew, she was conscious that it would be a battle of meaningless words, of shallow insincerities-yet she went back, nevertheless, before the disgust the thought awoke had passed entirely from among her sensations.

"I believe I did," she confessed with a charming shrug.

"But you turned against me in the end-women always do," he lamented merrily, as he flicked away the ashes of his cigarette. Then, with a perceptible start of recollection, he paused a moment and leaned forward to look at her more closely. "By the way, I had a shot at your friend to-day," he said, "the lady who looks like an old picture and does verse. Why on earth did she take to poetry?" he demanded impatiently. "I hate it-it's all sheer insanity."

"Well, some few madmen have thought otherwise," remarked Gerty, adding immediately, "and so you met Laura. Oh, you two! It was the irresistible force meeting the immovable body. What happened?"

He regarded her quite gravely while his cigarette burned like a little red eye between his fingers.

"Nothing," he responded at last. "I didn't meet her-I merely glimpsed her. She has a pair of eyes-you didn't tell me."

Gerty nodded.

"And I forgot to mention as well that she has a nose and a mouth and a chin. What an oversight."

"Oh, I didn't bother about the rest," he said, and she wondered if he could be half in earnest or if he were wholly jesting, "but, by Jove, I went overboard in her eyes and never touched bottom."

For a moment Gerty stared at him in blank amazement, in the midst of which she promptly told herself that henceforth she would be prepared for any eccentricities of which the male mind might be capable. A hot flush mantled her cheek, and she spoke in a voice which had a new and womanly ring of decision.

"You would not like her," she said, "and she would hate you."

With an amused exclamation he replaced his coffee cup upon the table. "Then she'd be a very foolish woman," he observed.

"She believes in all the things that you scoff at-she believes in the soul, in people, and in love-"

He made a protest of mock dismay. "My dear girl, I've been too hard hit by love not to believe in it. On the contrary, I believe in it so firmly that I think the only sure cure for it is marriage."

At her swift movement of aversion his laughing glance made a jest of the words, and she smiled back at him with the fantastic humour which had become almost her natural manner. It was a habit of his to treat sportively even the subjects which he reverenced, and in reality she had sometimes felt him to be less of a sober cynic than herself. He took his pleasures where he found them, and there was a touch of pathos in the generous eagerness with which he was ready to provide as well for the pleasures of others. If he lacked imagination she had learned by now that he did not fail in its sister virtue, sympathy, and his keen gray eyes, which expressed so perfectly a gay derision, were not slow, she knew, to warm into a smiling tenderness.

"Laura is the most earnest creature alive," she said after a moment.

"Is that so? Then I presume she lacks a sense of humour."

"She has a sense of honour at any rate."

With a laugh he settled his figure more comfortably in his chair, and while she watched the movement, a little fascinated by its easy freedom, she felt a sudden impulse to reach out and touch his broad, strong shoulders as she might have touched the shoulders of a statue. Were they really as hard as bronze, she wondered, or was that suggestion of latent power, of slumbering energy, as deceptive as the caressing glance he bent upon her? The glance meant nothing she was aware-he would have regarded her in much the same way had Perry been at her side, would have shone quite as affectionately, perhaps, upon her mother. Yet, in spite of her worldly knowledge, she felt herself yielding to it as to a delicate flattery. Her eyes were still on him, and presently he caught her gaze and held it by a look which, for all its fervour, had an edge of biting irony. There was a meaning, a mystery in his regard, but his words when at last they came sounded almost empty.

"Oh, that's well enough in its way," he said, "but as a safeguard there's no virtue alive that can stand against a sense of humour. An instinct for the ridiculous will keep any man from going to the devil."

She shot her defiant merriment into his face. "Has it kept you?"

"I?-Oh, I wasn't bound that way, you know-but why do you ask?"

For a breath she hesitated, then, remembering her mystification of an instant ago, she felt a swift desire to punish him for something which even to herself she could not express-for too sharp a prick of unsatisfied curiosity, or was it for too intense a moment of uncertainty?

"Oh, one hears, you know," she replied indifferently.

"One hears! And what is it that one hears?"

His voice was hard, almost angry, and she despised herself because the fierce sound of it made her suddenly afraid.

"Do you know what a man said to me the other day," she went on with a cool insolence before which he became suddenly quiet. "Whom the gods destroy they first infatuate-with an opera singer."

She delivered the words straight from the shoulder, and as she finished he rose from his chair and stood looking angrily down upon her.

"Did you let me come here for this?" he demanded.

"O Arnold, Arnold!" the gayety rang back to her voice, and she made a charming little face of affected terror. "If you're going to be a bear I'll run away."

She stretched out her hand, and he held it for an instant in his own, while he fell back impatiently into his chair.

"The truth is that I was clean mad about her," he said, "about Madame Alta-but it's over now, and I abominate everything that has ever set foot on the stage."

"Was she really beautiful?" she enquired curiously.

He laughed sharply. "Beautiful! She was flesh-if you mean that."

An angry sigh escaped him, and Gerty lighted a fresh cigarette and gave it to him with a soothing gesture. The nervous movements which were characteristic of him became more frequent, and she found herself wondering that they should increase rather than diminish the impression of virile force. For a while he smoked in silence; then, with his eyes still turned away from her, he asked in a changed voice.

"Tell me about your friend-she interests me."

"She interests you! Laura?"

"There's something in her that I like," he pursued, smiling at her exclamation. "She looks human, natural, real. By Jove, she looks as if she were capable of big emotions-as if, too, you could like her without making love. She's something new."

Gerty's amazement was so sincere that she only stared at him, while her red lips

parted slightly in a breathless and perfectly unaffected surprise. Something new! Her wonder faded slowly, and she told herself that now at last she understood. So he was still what he had always been-an impatient seeker after fresh sensations.

"I thought you were too much like Perry to care about her," she said.

His amused glance made the remark appear suddenly ridiculous. "I'm different from Perry in one thing at least," he retorted. "You didn't marry me."

"Well, I dare say it's a good thing you never gave me the chance," she tossed back lightly. "I don't let Perry rave, you know, even over Laura. Not that I'm unduly jealous, but that I'm easily bored."

"I can't imagine you jealous," he commented, keeping as usual close to the intimate intention.

"And of Perry! I should hope not!" Her gesture was one of amused indifference. "Jealousy is the darling virtue of the savage, and I may not be a saint, but at least I'm civilized. Give me food and a warm fire and clothes to my back, and I'm quite content to let the passions go."

"Even love?" he asked, still smiling.

She shrugged her shoulders-gracefully as few women can. "Love among the rest-I don't care-why should I? Make me comfortable."

An impulse which was hardly more than a consuming interest in humanity-in the varied phenomena of life-caused him to draw quickly nearer.

"You say that because you've 'arrived,'" he declared. "You've 'arrived' in love as your friend has in literature. The probationary stage after all is the only one worth while, and you've gone too far beyond it."

"I've gone too far beyond everything," she protested, laughing. "I'm a graduate of the world. Now Laura-"

The name recalled his thoughts and he repeated it while she paused. "Laura-it has a jolly sound-and upon my word I haven't seen a woman in years who has had so much to say to me before I've met her. Do you know, I already like her-I like her smooth black hair, without any of your fussy undulations; I like her strong earnest look and the strength in her brow and chin; I even like the way she dresses-"

Gerty's laugh pealed out, and he broke off with a movement of irritation. "Is it possible that Laura is an enchantress," she demanded, "and have I followed the wrong principle all my life? Has my honest intention to please men led me astray?"

"Oh, you may be funny at my expense if you choose," he retorted, "but I've had enough of fluff and feathers, and I like the natural way she wears her clothes-" Again he smoked in an abstracted silence, and then asked abruptly: "Will you take me some day to see her?"

She shook her head.

"Take you? No, you've missed your opportunity."

"But I'll make another. Why not?"

"Because I tell you frankly she would hate you."

"My dear girl, she wouldn't have a shadow of an excuse. No woman has ever hated me in my life."

"Then there's no use seeking the experience. You'd just as well accept the fact at once that Laura couldn't bear you-"

A laugh followed from the door while the words were still in the air, and turning quickly they saw Laura pausing upon the threshold.

"And pray what is it about Laura?" she asked in her cordial contralto voice. "A person who has borne living in the house with a flute may be said to have unlimited powers of endurance."

She moved forward and Kemper, while he sprang to his feet and stood waiting for the introduction, became swiftly aware that with her entrance the whole atmosphere had taken a fresher and a finer quality. The sophistication of the world, the flippant irony of Gerty's voice gave place immediately before her earnest dignity and before the look of large humanity which distinguished her so vitally from the women whom he knew. He felt her sincerity of purpose at the same instant that he felt Gerty's shallowness and the artificial glamour of the hot-house air in which he had hardly drawn breath. There was an appeal in Laura's face which he had never seen before-an expression which seemed to him to draw directly from the elemental pulse; and he felt suddenly that there were depths of consciousness which he had never sounded, vivid experiences which he had never even glimpsed. "She is different-but how is she different?" he asked himself, perplexed. "Is she simply a bigger personality, or is she really more of a woman than any woman I have ever known? What is it in her that speaks to me and what is it in myself that responds?" And it seemed to him both strange and wonderful that he should be drawn by an impulse which was not the impulse of love-that a woman should attract him through qualities which were independent of the allurement of sex. A clean and perfectly sane satisfaction was the immediate result; he felt that he had grown larger in his own eyes-that the old Adam who had ruled over him so long had become suddenly dwarfed and insignificant. "To like a woman and yet not to make love to her," he repeated in his thoughts. "By Jove, it will be something decent, something really worth while." Then he remembered that he had never known intimately a woman of commanding intellect, and the novelty inspired him with the spirit of fresh adventure.

She had bowed to him over the large muff she carried, and he spoke lightly though his awakened interest showed in his face and voice. "I was the unfortunate subject of Gerty's decision," he said. "Is there no appeal from it?"

Her answering smile was one of indifferent kindliness; and he liked, even while he resented her sincerity of manner. "Appeal! and to whom?" she enquired.

"To you-to your mercy," he laughed.

She glanced at Gerty with a look which hardly simulated a curiosity she apparently did not feel.

"But why should you need my mercy?" she demanded, as she sat down on a little sofa heaped with cushions.

His gaze, after resting a moment on the smooth black hair beneath her velvet hat, turned to the exquisite shining waves which encircled Gerty's head.

"Ask my cousin," he advised with merriment.

Whatever Gerty's reason for not caring to bring them together may have been, she concealed it now beneath a ready acceptance of the situation.

"Oh, he tried to make me promise to take him to see you," she explained, "but I've told him you'd show him no quarter because he hasn't read your poems."

Laura raised her eyes to his face, and he had again the sensation of looking into an unutterable personality.

"I'm glad you haven't read them," she rejoined, "for now you won't be able to talk to me about them."

"So you don't like to have one talk about them?"

She met his question with direct simplicity. "About my verse? I shouldn't like to have you do it."

"And why not I?" he demanded, laughing.

"Oh, I don't know," she returned, her eyes lighting with the humour of her frankness, "can one explain? But I'm perfectly sure that it's not the kind of thing you'd like. There's no action in it."

"So Gerty has told you that I'm a strenuous creature?"

"Perhaps. I don't remember." She turned to Gerty, looking down upon her with a tenderness that suffused her face with colour. "What was it that you told me, dearest?"

"What did I tell you?" repeated Gerty, still clasping Laura's hand. "Oh, it must have been that he agrees with some dreadful person who said that poetry was the insanity of prose."

Laura laughed as she glanced back at him, and he contrasted her deep contralto notes with Gerty's flute-like soprano.

"Well, he may not be right, but he is with the majority," she said.

Her indifference piqued him into the spirit of opposition, and he felt an immediate impulse to compel her reluctant interest-to arouse her admiration of the very qualities she now disdained.

"Well, I take my poetry where I find it," he rejoined, "and that's mostly in life and not in books."

From the quick turn of her head, the instant's lifting of her emotional reserve, he saw that the words had arrested her imagination-that for the first time since her entrance she had really taken in the fact of his existence as an individual.

"Then you are not with the majority, but you are right!" she exclaimed.

"Is it not possible to be both?" he asked, pleased almost more than he would admit by the quickening of her attention.

"I think not," she answered seriously, "don't you?"

"I never think," he laughed with his eyes upon hers, "I live."

The animation, which was like the glow from an inner illumination, shone in her face, and he thought, as Trent had thought before him, that her soul must burn like a golden flame within her-a flame that reached toward life, knowledge and the veiled wonders of experience.

"And so would I if I were a man," she said.

She rose, clasping the furs at her throat, then folding Gerty in her arms she kissed her cheek.

"I stopped for a moment to look at you, nothing more," she confessed. "It was a choice between looking at you and at the Rembrandt in the Metropolitan, and I chose you." As she held Gerty from her for an instant and then drew her into her embrace again, Kemper saw that her delight in her friend's beauty was almost a rapture, that her friendship possessed something of a religious fervour.

"Do stay with me," pleaded Gerty; "I want you-I need you."

"But you dine out."

"Oh, I forgot. Wait, I'll break it. I'll be ill."

Laura smiled her refusal and, stooping, picked up her large, fluffy muff.

"I'll come to-morrow," she returned, "and it won't cost us a lie. Good bye, my bonnie, what do you wear?"

Gerty waved her hands in a gesture of unconcern.

"It rests with the fates and with Annette," she replied. "Green, blue, white; I don't care."

"But I do," persisted Laura; "let it be white." She looked at Kemper and bowed silently as she turned toward the door; then, hesitating an instant, she came back and held out her hand with a cordial smile. "It has been very pleasant to meet you," she said.

"Mayn't I at least see you down?" he asked. "How do you go?"

"There's really no need to trouble you," she answered, "I shall go a part of the way in the stage."

She went out, and as he followed her down the staircase he asked himself again the puzzling question: "She is different from other women-but how is she different?" And still he assured himself with confidence that what he liked in her was her serene separateness from the appeal of passion. "This is the thing that lasts-that really lasts for a lifetime," he said in his thoughts.

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