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   Chapter 13 AN ADVANCE AND A RETREAT

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 16001

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was the day after this, while Laura was still in Kemper's thoughts, that he ran across her as she came out of a church in Twenty-ninth Street. At the first glance she appeared a little startled, but the disturbance was so slight that it passed swift as a shadow across her face, and the next instant the illumining smile which he had thought of as her one memorable beauty shone from her eyes and lips.

"At first I hardly recognised you," she explained, "you don't look quite as I remembered you."

His amused glance lingered upon her face. "So you did remember me?" he said and the retort was so characteristic of the man that Gerty Bridewell would have paused waiting for it after she had spoken. If there was the smallest loophole apparent in the conversation through which the personal intention might be made to enter, he took to it as instinctively as the fox takes to the covert. The mere uttered words were what he might have responded to any woman who unconsciously gave him the opportunity, yet as he looked down upon Laura, in her velvet hat and black furs, at his side, he was filled with amazement at the interest aroused in him by her slender, though delicately suggestive figure. He felt the magnetic touch of her through the very flutter of her skirts-felt the fervour of her soul, the warmth of her personality, and he found himself attracted by her as by the mystery of a bright and distant flame. The intensity of life-the radiant energy of intellect-was in her look, in her voice, in her smile-and he knew instinctively that she was capable of larger issues-of higher heights and deeper depths-than any woman he had ever known. She puzzled him into a sympathy which quickened with each fresh instant of uncertainty, and it seemed to him, while she moved by his side, that the illusion of mystery was the one perennial charm a woman could possess-a mystery which lay not only in the flame and shadow of her expression, but in the intenser irregularities of her profile, in the curved darkness of her eyebrows, in the fulness of her mouth, in the profound eloquence of her eyes, in the pale amber of her skin, which was like porcelain touched by a flame, in her gestures, in her walk, in her delicate bosom and slender swaying hips, in her voice, her hands, her words, and in the blackness of her abundant hair braided low upon the nape of her slender neck. And this illusion-stronger than the illusion of beauty because more subtle, more tantalisingly inexplicable, caught and held his attention with a vivid and irresistible appeal.

At his words she had turned toward him with an animated gesture, while her hand in its white glove slipped from the large muff she held.

"It would be a poor memory that could not hold three days," she laughed.

"Three days?" He raised his eyebrows with a blithe interrogation which lent a peculiar charm to his expression. "Why, I thought that I had known you forever!"

She shook her head in a merry protest, though she felt herself flush slowly under the gay deference in his eyes.

"Forever is a long day. There are few people that it pays to know forever."

"And how do you know that you are not one of them-for me?" he asked.

"How do I know?" she took up the question in a voice which even in her lightest moments was not without a quality of impassioned earnestness. "The one infallible way of knowing anything is to know it without really knowing how or why one knows. My intuitions, you see, are my deeper wisdom."

"And what do your intuitions have to say in regard to me?"

"Only," she responded, smiling, "that it would be dangerous for us to attempt an acquaintance that should last forever."

"Dangerous!" the word excited his imagination and he felt the sting of it in his blood. "What harm do you think would come of it?"

"The harm that always comes of the association between opposites," she answered quickly, and the laughter, he was prompt to notice, had died from her voice, "the harm of endless disagreements, of lost illusions."

"Why should our illusions, if we were so fortunate as to have them, inevitably be lost?" he asked, provoked into an assurance of his interest by the serene disinclination she displayed.

"Because they invariably are if they are illusions?" she responded, "and you and I could never be absolute realities to each other, since to reach the reality in a person one must not only apprehend but comprehend as well. I doubt if there can be any permanent friendship between people who are totally unlike."

Half angrily he swung the stick he carried at his side. "Then what becomes of the attraction of opposites?" he insisted.

"A catastrophe usually," she returned.

Her composed indifference irritated him more than he was willing to admit even to himself. Never in his recollection had he encountered a woman who showed so marked a disinclination for his society; and the wonder of her avoidance challenged him into the exercise of the personal magnetism he had always found so invincible in its attraction. Had she met his advances with unaffected feminine eagerness, he would have parted, probably, from her at the next corner, but her polite indifference kept him, though indignant, still at her side. Of adulation he was weary, but a positive aversion promised a new and exhilarating experience of life.

"But why are you so sure that we are opposites?" he enquired presently.

"How am I sure that you prefer fair women-and adore an ample beauty?" she retorted lightly. "My intuitions again!"

"Your intuitions are so numerous that they must be sometimes wrong," he remarked.

"Oh, my intuitions are helped out by Gerty's observation," she laughed in response.

"Ah, I see," he said: and it seemed to him that he understood now her open avoidance, her barely concealed dislike, and the distant reticence which made her appear to him as remote as a star. Gerty had whispered of his affairs-perhaps of Madame Alta, and in Laura's unworldly vision his delinquencies had showed strangely distorted and out of drawing. His anger blazed up within him, yet he knew that the attraction of the woman beside him was increased rather than diminished by his resentment.

"So my pretty cousin has given me a bad character," he observed, and his annoyance roughened his usually genial voice.

"On the other hand she admires you very much," Laura hastened to assure him; "she sings your praises with unflagging energy."

"Then, this, I suppose, you have counted a curse to me," he quoted a little bitterly.

As she walked beside him she felt the contact of the nervous irritation she had provoked, and she found suddenly that almost in spite of herself she was rejoicing in the masculine quality of his presence-in his muscular strength, in the vibrant tones of his voice and in the ardent vitality with which he moved. But the force of his personality was a force against which she felt that she would struggle until the end.

"I'm not sure about the curse," she answered, "but Gerty's heroes and mine are rarely the same, you know."

"Then, I suppose, it's virtue that you are after," he remarked.

She looked gravely up at him before she bowed her head in assent. "I like virtue," she responded quietly. "Don't you?"

"God knows, I do," he replied without hesitation in the grandiloquent tone he loved to assume upon occasions. "But do you think," he added presently, "that a man can acquire virtue unless it has been born in him?"

"I think it is another name for wisdom," she replied, "and that is often found late and in hard places."

He looked at her with an attention which had become absorbed, exclusive. "Do you know, I thought virtue was what women didn't care about in men?" he said, and his voice was tense with curiosity.

"Perhaps you mistake the conventions for virtue," she rejoined; "men usually do." Then after a moment she added frankly, "But I know very little of what women like or don't like. I've never really

known but two besides my aunts-and one of these is Gerty."

"And you are very fond of Gerty?" he enquired.

As she looked up at him it seemed to him that her smile was a miracle of light. "I love her more than anyone in the whole world," she said.

Again she perplexed him, and with each fresh perplexity he was conscious of an increasing desire to understand. "But I thought all women hated one another," he observed.

"That's because men have ruled the world in two ways," she returned, and her protest was not without a smothered indignation; "they have made the laws and they have made the jokes."

Her championship of her sex amused even while it attracted him-he saw in it a kind of abstract honour which he had always believed to be lacking in the feminine mind-and at the same instant he remembered the rancorous jealousy which had controlled Madame Alta's relations with other women, the petty stings he had seen dealt at Gerty by her less lovely acquaintances, and the thousand small insincerities he heard around him every day. The very enthusiasm with which she spoke, the intensity in her face, the decision in her voice, impressed him in a manner for which he was utterly unprepared. In the world in which he moved an enthusiasm which was not at the same time an affectation would have appeared awkwardly out of place. Women whom he knew were vivaciously excited over their winnings or losses at bridge whist, but he could not recall that he had ever seen a single one of them stirred to utterance by any impersonal question of injustice. To be sure there were charitable ones among them, he supposed, but he had always tended by a kind of natural selection toward the conspicuously fair, and the conspicuously fair had proved invariably to be the secretly selfish as well. His social life appeared to him now, as he walked by Laura's side, to have been devoid of sincerity as of intelligence, and he recalled with disgust the exquisite empty voice of Madame Alta, her lyric sensuality, and the grossness of her affairs with her many lovers. Was it the after taste of bitterness in his "wine and honey" which caused it to turn suddenly nauseous in his remembrance?

"And so women can really like one another without jealousy?" he questioned, laughing.

"What is there to be jealous of?" she retorted quickly. "For after all one is one's self, you know, and not another. Gerty is beautiful and I am not, but her loveliness is as keen a delight to me as it is to her-keener, I think, for she is sometimes bored with it and I never am. And she is more than this, too, for she is as devoted-as loyal as she is lovely."

"To you-yes," he answered slowly, for he was thinking of the Gerty whom he had known-of her audacious cynicism, her startling frankness, her suggestive coquetry. Was it possible that this creature of red and white flesh, of sweetness and irony, was really a multiple personality-the possessor of divers souls? Had he seen only the surface of her because it was to the surface alone that he had appealed? Or was it that Laura's creative instinct had builded an image out of her own ideals which she had called by Gerty's name? He did not know-he could not even attempt to answer-but the very confusion of his thoughts strengthened the emotional interest which Laura had aroused. And as each new and vivid sensation effaces from the mind every impression that has gone before it, so at this moment, in the ardent awakening of his temperament, there existed no memory of the past occasions upon which other women had allured as irresistibly his inflamed imagination. So far as his immediate reflections were concerned Laura might have been the solitary woman upon a solitary planet. If he had paused to remember he might have recalled that he had fallen in love with the girl whom he afterward married between the sunset and the moonrise of a single day-that his passion for Madame Alta leaped, full armed, into being during her singing of the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet"-but he did not pause to remember, for with that singular forgetfulness which characterises the man of pleasure, the present sensation, however small, was still sufficient to lessen the influence of former loves.

They strolled slowly down to Gramercy Park, and this time, as they stood together before her door, she asked him, flushing a little, if he would not come inside.

"I only wish I could," he answered, taking out his watch, "but I've promised to meet a man at the club on the stroke of five. If you'll extend the privilege, however, I'll take advantage of it before many days."

His words ended in a laugh, but she felt a moment afterward, as she entered the house and he turned away, that he had looked at her as no man had ever done in her life before. She grew hot all over as she thought of it, yet there had been nothing to resent in his easy freedom and she was not angry. The gay deference was still in his eyes, but beneath it she had been conscious for an instant that the whole magnetic current of his personality flowed to her through his look. That the glance he had bent upon her was one of his most effective methods of impressing his individuality she did not know. Gerty could have told her that he resorted to it invariably at the psychological instant-and so, perhaps, could Madame Alta had she chosen to be confidential. As a conscious or unconscious trick of manner it had served its purpose in many a place when words appeared a difficult or dangerous medium of expression-but to Laura in her almost cloistral ignorance it was at once a revelation and an enlightenment. When it passed from her she found that the face of the whole world was changed.

Indoors Mr. Wilberforce and Gerty Bridewell were awaiting her, but it seemed to her that her attitude toward them had grown less intimate-that she herself, her friends, and even the ordinary surroundings of her life were different from what they had been only several hours before. She wanted to be alone-to retreat into herself in search of a clearer knowledge, and even her voice sounded strangely altered in her own ears.

"You look as if you had been frightened, Laura; what is it?" asked Gerty, pressing her hand.

"It is nothing," returned Laura, with a glance; "it is only that my head aches." She pressed her hands upon her temples, and the throbbing of her pulses against her finger tips confirmed her words. When, after a few sympathetic questions, they rose to go, she was aware all at once of a great relief-a relief which seemed to her an affront to friendship so devoted as theirs.

"Roger tells me that we are to have the new book on Wednesday," said Mr. Wilberforce, as he stood looking down upon her with the peculiar insight which belongs to the affection of age. Then it seemed to her suddenly that he understood the cause of her disturbance and that there were both pity and disappointment in his eyes.

"I hope so," she answered, smiling the first insincere smile of her life, for even as she uttered the words she knew that she no longer felt the old eager, consuming interest in her work, and that the making of books appeared to her an employment which was tedious and without end. Why, she wondered vaguely, had she devoted her whole life to a pursuit in which there was so little of the pulsation of the intenser realities? She felt at the instant as if a bandage had dropped from before her eyes, and the fact that Kemper as an individual did not enter into her thoughts in no wise lessened his tremendous moral effect upon her awakening nature. Not one man, but life itself was making its appeal to her, and for the first time she realised something of the intoxication that might dwell in pleasure-in pleasure accepted solely as a pursuit, as an end in and for itself alone. Then, a moment later, standing by her desk in her room upstairs, she remembered, in an illuminating flash, the look with which Kemper had parted from her at her door.

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