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   Chapter 9 PROVES THAT A POOR LOVER MAY MAKE AN EXCELLENT FRIEND

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 15987

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


That night in her sitting-room, while she corrected the proof-sheets of her new book of verse, Laura remembered Kemper's face as he sat across from her on the long seat of the almost empty stage. Beyond him was the humming city, where the lights bloomed like white flowers out of the enveloping dusk, and when he turned his profile, as he did once, against a jeweller's window, she saw every line of his large, strongly marked features silhouetted with distinctness on a brilliant background. Twice during the ride down she had been conscious, as when they left Gerty's house together, that he was more masculine than any man she had known closely in her life, and at first she had told herself that his nervous activity-the ardent vitality in his appearance-was too aggressive to be wholly pleasing. She had been used to a considerate gentleness from men, and his manner, though frankly sympathetic, had seemed to her almost brusque.

Even now, while she laid her work aside to think of him, she was hardly sure that his genial egoism had not repelled her. Her instinct told her that he could be both kind and generous, that he was capable of unselfish impulses, and full, too, of a broad and tolerant humanity, yet there was something within her-some finer spiritual discernment-which rose to battle against the attraction he appeared to possess. He was not mental, he was not even superficially bookish, and yet because of a certain magnetic quality-a mere dominant virility-she found herself occupied, to the exclusion of her work, with the words he had uttered, with the tantalising humour in his eyes.

"I am glad that I did not ask him to call," she thought as she took up her pencil. "He does not interest me and very likely I shall never see him again. He was pleasant certainly, but one can't make acquaintances of every stranger one happens to meet." Then it seemed to her that she had been distant, almost rude, when he had bidden her good-night, and as she remembered the engaging frankness of his smile, the eager yet humble look with which he had waited at her door for the invitation she did not give, she regretted in spite of herself that she had been so openly inhospitable. After all there was no reason that one should turn a man from one's door simply because his personality didn't please one's fancy. For a moment she dragged her mind for some word, some look in which she might have found a shadow of excuse for the dislike she felt. "No, he said nothing foolish," she confessed at last, "he was only kind and friendly and it is I who have offended-I who have allowed myself to feel an unreasonable aversion." All at once an irritation against herself pervaded her thoughts, and she determined that if she met him again she would be more cordial-that she would force herself to show a particular friendliness. The recollection of his love for Madame Alta came to her, and she felt at the same time a sharp curiosity and a deep disgust-"A man like that must love with madness," she thought, and next, "but how do I know if it were love between them and why should I judge?" Her clasped hands went to her eyes and she prayed silently: "Keep me apart, O Lord, keep me pure and apart!"

For a while she sat with bowed head, then, as her hands fell into her lap, she broke into a little tender laugh at herself. "What a fool I am, after all," she lamented; "here I have seen a man whom I do not like-once, for an hour-and he has so troubled my quiet that I cannot put my mind upon my work. What does it matter, and why should a stranger who displeases me have power to compel my thoughts? It was but a trifle-the distraction of an hour, nothing more-and, whether I like him or not, by to-morrow I shall have forgotten his existence."

But she remembered his face as he sat across from her in the dimly lighted stage, and she felt again, with a start, that he was the first man she had ever known. "Yet he does not attract me, and I shall never see him again," she thought after a moment. She took up a little religious book from her desk and tried in vain to fix her wandering attention. Life appeared all at once very full and very beautiful, and as she thought of the thronging city around her it seemed to her that she herself and the people in the street and the revolving stars were held securely in the hand of God. The belief awoke in her that she was shielded and set apart for a predestined good, an exalted purpose, and she wondered if the purpose were already moving toward her out of the city and if its end would be only the fulfilling of the law of her own nature. Then she thought of Angela in her closed chamber. Had she been shielded? Was she also set apart? But the thought did not disturb her, for she herself seemed of a larger growth, of a braver spirit, than Angela or than her aunts or than Uncle Percival, who had missed life also. They had been defeated, but was it not because they had lacked in themselves the courage to attain?

The next morning, after she had had her tea and toast in her room, she went, as was her custom, into Angela's chamber. Early as it was, Mrs. Payne had already apparelled herself in her paint and powder and driven down. Seen by the morning sunlight, her smeared face with its brilliant artificial smile revealed a pathos which was rendered more acute by its effect of playful grotesqueness. She was like a faded and decrepit actress who, fired by the unconquerable spirit of her art, forces her wrinkled visage to ape the romantic ecstasies of passion. Age which is beautiful only when it has become expressive of repose-of serene renouncement-showed to Laura's eyes only as a ghastly and comic travesty of youth.

Angela was having her breakfast at a little table by the window, and at Laura's entrance she turned to her with a sigh of evident relief.

"Rosa has come down to speak to you particularly," she explained. "There is something she has very heavily on her mind."

Mrs. Payne had wheeled herself about at the same instant; and Laura, after regarding her uncertainly for a moment, impressed a light caress upon her outstretched jewelled fingers.

"I didn't sleep a wink, my dear," began the old lady in her most conciliatory tones, "not a blessed wink after Horace told me."

The questioning stare in Laura's face had the effect of jerking her up so hurriedly that the words seemed to trip and stumble upon her lips.

"I might have had it from yourself, of course," she added with an aggrieved contortion of her features, "but as I was just telling Angela, I would not for worlds intrude upon your confidence."

"But what has he told you?" asked Laura, curiously, "and what, after all, did I tell Uncle Horace?"

Mrs. Payne settled herself comfortably back in her chair, and, picking up a bit of Angela's toast from the tray, nibbled abstractedly at the crust.

"What under heaven would he have told me but the one thing?" she demanded. "Mr. Wilberforce has at last proposed."

"At last!" echoed Laura, breaking into a laugh of unaffected merriment. "Well, he was long about it!"

At the words Angela leaned toward her, stretching out her frail hands in a pleading gesture.

"Don't marry, Laura," she entreated; "don't-don't marry. There is only misery from men-misery and regret."

"I believe he has millions," remarked Mrs. Payne, in the tone in which she might have recited her creed in church, "and as far as a husband goes I have never observed that there was any disadvantage to be found in age. My experience of the world has taught me that decrepitude is the only thing which permanently domesticates a man."

Laura sat down across from her, and then clasping her hands together made her final determined stand.

"You needn't try to persuade me, Aunt Rosa," she answered, "for I wouldn't marry him-no, not if he had billions."

For a brief interlude Mrs. Payne returned her gaze with silent yet expressive dignity.

"There's really no occasion to become vi

olent," she observed at last, "particularly in the presence of poor Angela."

"But I like it! I like it," declared Angela, "it is her marriage that I couldn't bear."

Mrs. Payne turned her reproachful look for a moment upon the weaker sister.

"I am very sure, my dear, that we can bear anything the Lord chooses to send," she remarked, "especially when we feel that our cross is for another's good. Is there any reason," she wound up to Laura again, "for the obstinate position you appear to take?"

Laura shook her head.

"I don't take any position," she replied, "I simply decline to be made to marry him, that's all."

"But you like him-I've heard you say so much with my own ears."

"You never heard me say I liked him for a husband."

"It would have been highly indelicate if I had," observed Mrs Payne, "but since he has proposed I may as well impress upon you that any kind of liking is quite sufficient argument for a marriage which would be so suitable in every way. And as to the romantic nonsense-well it all comes very much to the same thing in the long run, and whether you begin by loving a man or by hating him, after six months of marriage you can ask nothing better than to be able to regard him with Christian forbearance."

Laura turned away impatiently as Uncle Percival put his bland, child-like face in at the open door.

"I hope you had a quiet night, Angela," he said in his high, piping voice; "the morning is a fine one and I've already had my turn." Then, holding his coat closely over a small bundle which he carried, he greeted Mrs. Payne with a deprecating smile. "You're down early, Rosa; it's a good habit."

Mrs. Payne surveyed him with an intolerant humour.

"I'm not undertaking to cultivate a habit at my time of life," she responded, raising her voice until it sounded harsh and cracked; then she became a prey to a devouring suspicion. "What is that under your coat?" she demanded sternly.

Uncle Percival's flaccid mouth fell open with a frightened droop, and he took instantly the demeanour of a small offending schoolboy.

"It-it's only a little present for Angela," he replied. "I thought it might interest her, but I hardly think you would care for it, Rosa."

"What is it?" persisted Mrs. Payne in her unyielding calmness.

The object moved beneath his coat, and, pulling it out with a timid yet triumphant gesture, he displayed before their astonished eyes a squirming white rabbit.

"I hoped it might interest Angela," he repeated, seeking in vain for sympathy in the three amazed faces.

The rabbit struggled in his grasp, and after holding it suspended a moment by the nape of its neck, he cuddled it again beneath his coat. "A woman was selling them in the street," he explained in a suppressed voice. "She had a box filled with them. I bought only one."

"That was fortunate," returned Mrs. Payne, severely, "for you will have to carry the creature back at once-or drown it if you prefer."

"But I thought Angela would like it," he said with a disappointed look.

Angela closed her eyes as if shutting out an irritating sight.

"What in the world would I do with a white rabbit?" she enquired.

"But I could take care of it," insisted Untie Percival. "I should like to take care of it very much."

Laura drew the rabbit from his coat and held it a moment against her bosom.

"It's a pretty little thing," she remarked carelessly, and added, "why not keep it for yourself, Uncle Percival?"

As he glanced up at her the light of animation broke in his face.

"Why shouldn't I, indeed, why shouldn't I?" he demanded eagerly, and hurried out before Mrs. Payne, with her Solomonic power of judgment, could bring herself to the point of interference.

"I hope that will be a lesson to you with regard to men," she observed as a parting shot while she tied her bonnet strings.

An uncontrollable distaste for her family swept over Laura, and she felt that she could suffer no longer the authority of Mrs. Payne, the senility of Uncle Percival or the sorrows of Angela. As she looked at Mrs. Payne she was struck as if for the first time by her ridiculous grotesqueness, and she experienced a sensation of disgust for the old lady's stony eyes and carefully painted out wrinkles.

Without replying to the moral pointed by Uncle Percival and the white rabbit, she left the room and hastily dressed herself for her morning walk. The house had grown close and oppressive to her and she wanted the January cold in her face and limbs. At the moment she was impatient of anything that recalled a restraint of mind or body.

When she came in two hours later, after a brisk walk in the park, she found Mr. Wilberforce awaiting her in the drawing-room downstairs. He looked older she thought at the first glance in the last few days, but there was a cheerfulness, a serenity, in his face which seemed to lend itself like a softening light to his beautiful pallid features. He was a man who having fought bitterly against resignation for many years comes to it peacefully at last only to find that he has reaped from it a portion of the "enchantment of the disenchanted." Her intuition told her instantly that he had given up hope of love, but she recognized also, through some strange communion of sympathy, that he had attained the peace of soul which follows inevitably upon any sincere renouncement of self.

"I am so glad, dear friend," she said, holding his hand for a moment as she sat beside him.

He looked at her silently with his brilliant eyes which burned in the midst of his blanched and withered face like two watch-fires that are kept alive in a scorched desert.

"For a while I thought it might be," he replied after a long pause. "I asked you to give me what I have never had-my youth. You could not do it," he added with a smile, "and at first it seemed to me that there remained only emptiness and disappointment for the future, but presently I learned wisdom in the night." He hesitated an instant and then added gravely, "I saw that if you couldn't give me youth, you could at least make my old age very pleasant."

"I can-I will," she answered in a broken voice, and it seemed to her that all the bitterness had turned to sweetness in his look. Was the divine wisdom, after all, she wondered, not so much the courage which turned the events that came to happiness as the greater power which created light where there was nothing. Only age had learned to do this, she knew, and she was conscious of a quick resentment against fate that only age could put into passion the immortal spirit which youth craved in vain.

"I asked a great deal," he said, "but I shall be content with a very little."

"With my whole faith-with all my friendship," she replied; and as she spoke the words, her heart contracted with a spasm which was almost that of terror of the unknown purpose to which she felt, with a kind of superstitious blindness, that she was pledged. Fate had offered her this one good thing, and she must put it from her because she waited in absolute ignorance-for what? For love it might be, and yet her woman's instinct taught her that the only love which endures is the love of age that has never been young for youth so elastic that it can never grow old. Then swift as the flash of self-revelation she saw in imagination the eager yet humble look with which Arnold Kemper had waited before her door, and, though she insisted still that the picture displeased her fancy, she knew that passion to meet response in her must come to her clothed in a virile strength like his.

"I wish from my soul that it might have been," she murmured, but even with the words she knew that she had all her life wished for a different thing-for a love that was wholly unlike the love he offered.

"It has been," he answered, while his grave gentleness fell like dew on the smouldering fire in his eyes. "It has been, my dear, and it will be always until I die."

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