MoboReader > Literature > The Wheel of Life

   Chapter 10 OF MASQUES AND MUMMERIES

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 19194

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


In the afternoon of the next day Laura received by a special messenger an urgent appeal from Gerty Bridewell.

"Come to me at once," said the note, which appeared to have been written in frantic haste. "I am in desperate trouble and I need you."

The distress of the writer was quite as apparent as the exaggeration, and while Laura rolled rapidly toward her in a cab, she prepared herself with a kind of nervous courage to bear the brunt of the inevitable scene. Perry was at the bottom of it she knew-she had answered such summonses often enough before to pre-figure with unerring insight the nature of the event. He had shown his periodical inclination to a fresh affair, his errant fancy had wandered in a particular direction, and Gerty's epicurean philosophy had failed as usual to account for the concrete fact. To Laura the amazing part was not so much Perry's fickleness, which she had brought herself to accept with tolerant aversion, as the extraordinary value Gerty placed upon an emotion which was kept alive by an artifice at once so evident and so ineffectual. There was but one thing shorter lived than his repentance she knew, and that was the sentiment of which he was charitably supposed to have repented. By nature he was designed a lover, and it seemed, broadly viewed, the merest accident of circumstances that he should tend toward variety rather than toward specialisation.

A man passing in the street bowed to her as the cab turned a corner, and, as she recognised Arnold Kemper, she wondered vaguely if he had aught in common with his cousin. A slight resemblance to Perry Bridewell offended her as she recalled it, and, while her resentful sympathy flew to Gerty, she felt almost vindictive against the masculine type he appeared physically to represent.

"O Lord, keep me apart!" she prayed fervently, as she had prayed in the night, for it appeared to her that the shield of faith was the one shield for the spirit against the besieging vanities of life. Gerty's faith had fallen from her long ago, and, as she remembered this, Laura felt a jealous impulse to snatch her friend away from the restless worldliness and the inordinate desires. The pitiable soul of Gerty showed to her suddenly as a stunted and famished city child struggling for life in an atmosphere which carried the taint of death, and in her imagination the picture was so vivid that she saw the face of the child turned toward her with a wistful, imploring look.

The cab stopped with a jerk, and in a little while she was knocking softly at the closed door of Gerty's chamber. Almost immediately it opened and the French maid came out.

"Madame is ill with a headache," she explained, pointing to the closed shutters, "she refuses to eat."

Putting her impatiently aside, Laura closed the door upon her, and then crossing to the windows threw back the shutters to let in the late sunshine.

"A little light won't hurt you, dearest," she said, with a smile.

Gerty, still in her nightgown with a Japanese kimono flung carelessly about her and her hair falling in a brilliant shower upon her shoulders, was sitting before her bureau making a pretence of sorting a pile of bills. In spite of this pathetic subterfuge, her beautiful green eyes held a startled and angry look, and her face was flushed with an excitement like that of fever.

"I was sorry I sent for you the moment afterward," she said, hardly yielding to Laura's embrace, while she nervously tore open a bill she held and then tossed it aside without glancing over it. "It's the same thing over again-there's no use talking about it. I shall die."

"You cannot-you cannot," protested Laura, still holding her in her arms. "You are too beautiful. You were never in your life lovelier than you are to-day."

"And yet it does not hold him," broke out Gerty, in sudden passion, "and it will never be any better, I see that. If it's not one it's another, but it's always somebody. A year ago he promised me that I should never have cause for jealousy again-he swore that and I believed him-and now this-this-"

Her anger choked her like a sob, and she tore with trembling fingers at the papers in her lap. Then suddenly her brow contracted with resolution, and she went through a long list of items as if the most important fact in life were the amount of money she must pay to her dressmaker.

"Of course you know what I think," murmured Laura with her lips at Gerty's ear.

"That he isn't worth it," Gerty nodded, while her indignant and humiliated expression grew almost violent. "Well, I think so, too. Of course he isn't, but that doesn't make it any better-any easier."

"You mean you couldn't give him up?"

"When I'm dead I may, not before." She closed her eyes and a long shudder ran through her body. "It has been nothing but a fight since I married-a fight to keep him. I used to think that marriage meant rest, contentment, but I know now that it means a battle-all the time-every instant. I've never had one natural moment, I've never since the beginning been without a horrible suspicion-and I see now that I never shall be. He likes me best I know-in his heart he really puts me first-but there are others and I won't have it. I'll be alone, I'll be the only one or nothing. I said I wouldn't be beaten the first time, and I won't-I won't be beaten." She paused an instant to draw breath. "And I haven't been," she wound up in bitter triumph.

"You'll never be, darling," declared Laura; "who is there on earth to shine against you?"

The violence faded from Gerty's face, yielding to an expression of disgust, of spiritual loathing-the loathing of a creature that hates the thing it loves.

"But it isn't worth it, it isn't worth it," she moaned, pushing the papers away from her with an indignant gesture, and rising from her chair to walk hurriedly up and down the floor. "It isn't worth it, but I'm bound to it-I can't get away. I'm bound to the wheel. Do you think if I could help myself-if I could be different-that I would turn into a mere bond-slave to my body? Why, a day labourer has rest, but I haven't. There's not a moment when I'm not doing something for my beauty, or planning effects, or undergoing a treatment. I never sleep as I want to, nor bathe as I want to, nor even eat what I like. It's all somebody's system for preserving something about me. I've lived on celery and apples to keep from growing fat and taken daily massage to keep from getting thin-and yet I never wake up in the morning that I don't turn sick for fear I'll discover my first wrinkle in the glass. Now imagine," she finished with a cynical laugh, "Perry going upon a diet for any sentimental reasons, or sacrificing terrapin in order to retain my affection!"

"I can't," confessed Laura bluntly, "it's beyond me, but I wish you wouldn't. I wish you'd try to hold him by something different-something higher."

"You can't hold a person by what he hasn't got," returned Gerty with the flippant ridicule she so desperately clung to-a ridicule which she used as unsparingly upon herself as upon her husband. Then, after a pause, she resumed her bitter musing in the same high-strung, reckless manner. "A wrinkle would kill me," she pursued; "I'd rather endure any agony-I'd be skinned alive first like some woman Perry laughed about. Yet they must come-they're obliged to come in fifteen-ten-perhaps in five years. Perhaps even to-morrow. Do you suppose," she questioned abruptly, with a tragic intensity worthy of a less ignoble cause, "that when one gets old one really ceases to mind-that one dies out all inside-the sensations I mean, and the emotions-before the husk begins to wither?" She paused a moment, but as Laura continued to regard her with a soft, compassionate look she turned away again and, touching an electric button in the wall, flooded the room with light. The change was so startling that every object seemed to leap at once from twilight vagueness into a conspicuous prominence. On a chair in the corner was carelessly flung a white chiffon dinner gown, and a pair of little satin slippers had been thrown upon the floor beside it, where they lay slightly sideways, with turned-out toes, as they had fallen from the wearer's feet. The pathos which seems so often to dwell in trifling inanimate objects spoke to Laura from the little discarded shoes, and again society appeared to her as a hideous battle in which the passions preyed upon the ideals, the body upon the soul. She thought of Perry Bridewell, of his healthy animalism, his complacent self-esteem, while her heart hardened within her. Was love, when all was said, merely a subjection to the flesh instead of an enlargement of the spirit? Did it depend for its very existence upon the dress-maker's art and the primitive instinct of the chase? Had it no soul within it to keep it clean? Could it see or hear only through the eye or the ear of sense?

"O Gerty, Gerty," she said, "if I could only make you see!"

But Gerty, with one of those swift changes of humour which made her moods at once so unexpected and so irresistible, had burst into a peal of mocking laughter.

"I'm prepared to conquer or to die," she said merrily; and going to a large white box on the bed, she opened it and dangled in the air a gorgeous evening gown of silver gauze shot with green. "This cost me a thousand dollars," she commented in the hard, business-like tones Laura had begun to dread. "I was keeping it for the ball next week, but there's no call like the call of an emergency. The horrid creature he fancies will

be there," she added, surveying her exquisite armful with an admiring, unhappy glance, "and it will be war to the death between us, if it costs him every cent he has." She fell thoughtfully silent, to break out at the end of a minute or two with a remark which had the value of an imparted confidence: "She-I mean the creature-wore one something like it, only not nearly so handsome-last night-and it made her look frightfully gone off-even Perry noticed it."

Spreading the gown carefully upon the bed, she went to the mirror and regarded herself with passionate scrutiny.

"Will you wait and see me dress?" she asked; "Annette has my cold bath ready. I must have a colour, but I shan't be a minute in the tub."

"Do you mean that you are really going out to-night?" asked Laura, remembering the despairing note of a few hours ago.

Gerty nodded. "To a dinner and a dance. Do you think that I will play the neglected wife?"

A glow had sprung to her eyes that was like the animation with which an intrepid hunter might depart upon a desperate chase-and through all her elaborate toilette-the massaging of her face, the arranging of her hair, the perfuming of her beautiful neck and arms-she chatted gayly in the same flippant yet nervous voice. When at last the maid had withdrawn again, Gerty, pausing before Laura in a shimmer of silver gauze that reminded one of a faintly scented moonlight, bent over and touched her cheek with feverish lips.

"It is war to the knife," she laughed; and the peculiar radiance of colour, which gave her beauty a character that was almost violent, made her at the moment appear triumphant, exultant, barbaric. To Laura she had never seemed more beautiful nor more unhappy. Then suddenly her manner underwent a curious change, and her accustomed mask-the smiling surface of a woman of the world-settled as if by magic upon her face. Perry Bridewell was at the door, and she opened it for him with an unconcern at which Laura wondered.

"Come in if you want to," she said coolly, "Laura doesn't mind."

She drew back into the middle of the room, fastening her glove with insolent indifference, while his startled gaze hung upon her in an amazement he lacked the mental readiness to hide.

"By Jove, are you going out?" he asked. "I thought you were downright ill and I was about to call up the doctor. I'm jolly glad-I declare I am," he added humbly.

From the sincere anxiety in his voice, Laura surmised at once that Gerty's exasperation had preceded by some hours her cooler judgment. He looked as uncomfortable as it was possible for a man of his optimistic habit of mind to feel, and an evident humiliation was traced upon his countenance as if by several hasty touches of a crayon pencil.

But his features were intended so manifestly to wear a look of cheerful self-esteem that his dejection, honest as it was, produced an effect of insincerity, and it seemed to Laura that his other and more natural expression was still lying somewhere beneath this superficial remorse. Considered as physical bulk he was impressive, she admitted, in a large, ruddy, highly obvious fashion; then he appeared suddenly so stupid and child-like in his discomfiture that she felt her heart softening in spite of her convictions. At the instant he resembled nothing so much as a handsome, good-humoured, but disobedient, dog patiently awaiting a reprimand.

"On my word I'm jolly glad," he repeated, and stopped because he could think of nothing further to say that did not sound foolish in his own perturbed mind.

"Oh, I'm not utterly lacking in humanity," retorted Gerty, "and one has to be not to admit a moral obligation to one's hostess. Besides," she confessed, with smiling pleasantry, "I shall rather enjoy Ada Lawley's face when she sees my gown. She told me last night that she would never be caught wearing silver gauze again until she wanted to look every day as old as she really is. It was rather hard on her, poor thing, for Arnold says she'd rather lose her character any day than her complexion-not that she has very much of either left by now," she corrected with her cutting laugh.

Before the studied insolence of her attack Perry drew back quickly in surprise, and his eyelids winked rapidly as if a lighted candle had flashed before them. Then, with that child-like need of having his eyes opened, of being made to see, his attention was fastened upon the brilliant figure of his wife, and her beauty seemed at the moment to burn itself into his slow-witted brain.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed, and again, "By Jove!"

"I'm glad you like it," replied Gerty, with a careless shrug. "I may not be a model woman from a domestic point of view, but at least I've managed to keep both my colour and my reputation." She crossed to the bureau, and opening a drawer took out a green and silver fan. "I really needn't trouble you to come, you know," she remarked indifferently. "Arnold will be there and I dare say he'll be willing to come back in my carriage."

"I dare say he will," observed Perry, not without a jealous indignation, "and I dare say you'd be pleased enough if I'd let him."

Gerty laughed as she closed the drawer with a bang. "Well, I shouldn't exactly mind," she rejoined.

Reconciliation, such as it was, the brief reunion of suspicion and broken faith was apparently in rapid progress, and, filled with a pity not unmixed with disgust, Laura put on her fur coat and went slowly down the staircase. The last sound that followed her was the flute-like music of Gerty's laugh-a little tired, heart-sick, utterly disillusioned laugh.

A man was going by on the sidewalk as she went out, and when the closing of the house door caused him instinctively to look up, she saw that it was Roger Adams. He stopped immediately and waited for her until she descended the steps.

"Are you bound now," he asked, "for Gramercy Park?"

She nodded "But I'd like to walk a block or two. I've been shut up all the afternoon with Gerty."

"She's not ill, I hope," he remarked, as he fell into step at her side. "I've always had a considerable liking for Mrs. Bridewell, and for Perry, too. He's a first-rate chap."

For a moment Laura walked on rapidly, without replying. It seemed to her abominable that Adams should confess to an admiration for Perry Bridewell, and the generous humanity which she had formerly respected in him now offended her.

"He is not a favourite of mine," she commented indifferently; then moved by a flitting impulse, she added after a pause, "By the way, do you know, I've met his cousin."

Adams looked a little mystified as he echoed her remark.

"His cousin?" But in an instant further light broke upon him. "Oh, you mean Arnold Kemper!"

"I met him at Gerty's," explained Laura, "but I can't say honestly that he particularly appealed to me. There's something about him-I don't know what-that runs up against my prejudices."

Adams laughed.

"I rather fancy the prejudices are more than half gossip," he observed.

"I'd forgotten what I'd heard about him," rejoined Laura, shaking her head.

They had reached a crossing, and he dropped a little behind her while she walked on with the flowing yet energetic step she had inherited from her Southern mother. On the opposite corner he came up with her again and resumed the conversation where they had let it fall.

"I never see Kemper now," he said, "but I still feel that we are friends in a way, and I believe if I were to run across him to-morrow he'd be quite as glad to see me as if we hadn't parted fifteen years ago. The last time I saw much of him, by the way, we roughed it together one autumn on the coast of Nova Scotia, and I remember he volunteered there to go out in the first heavy gale to bring in some fishermen who had been caught out in the ice. They tied a rope around his waist and he went and brought the men in, too, though we feared for a time that his hands would be frozen off."

"Oh, I dare say he has pluck," observed Laura, and though her voice was constrained, she was conscious of a sudden moral exhilaration, such as she sometimes experienced after reading a great poem or seeing a Shakespearian tragedy upon the stage. The lights and the noises and the people in the street became singularly vivid, while she moved on in an excitement which she could not explain though she felt that it was wholly pleasurable. Kemper was present to her now in a nobler, almost a glorified, aspect, and she began, though she herself was hardly aware of it, to idealise him with the fatal ardour of a poet and a dreamer. There was a splendour to her in his old heroic deed-a glow that transfigured, like some clear northern light, the storm and the danger and even the ice bound fishermen-and she told herself that it would be impossible ever to atone to him for her past rudeness.

"Perhaps I was unjust," she remarked presently, "but one is never proof against intuitive impressions, and after all it does not greatly matter."

Then she looked at Roger Adams as he walked in the electric light beside her. She saw how haggard were the lines in his face, that he was bent in the shoulders as if from some mental burden, and the delicacy of his long, slender figure appeared to her almost as a physical infirmity. It occurred to her at the instant that his bodily defects had never before showed so plainly to her eyes, and it was with a flash of acute self-consciousness-a flash as from a lantern that has been turned inward-that she realised that she was comparing him with Arnold Kemper.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares