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   Chapter 14 THE MOTH AND THE FLAME

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 25279

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Several weeks after this, on the day that Trent's first play was accepted, he dropped in to Adams' office, where the editor was busily giving directions about the coming Review.

"I know you aren't in a mood for interruptions," began the younger man, in a voice which, in spite of his effort at control, still quivered with a boyish excitement, "but I couldn't resist coming to tell you that Benson has at last held out his hand. I'm to be put on in the autumn."

Adams laid down the manuscript upon which he was engaged, and turned with the winning smile which Trent had grown to look for and to love.

"Well, that is jolly news," he said heartily, "you know without my saying so that there is no one in New York who is more interested in your success than I am. We'll make a fine first night of it."

"That's why I dropped in to tell you," responded Trent, while his youthful enthusiasm made Adams feel suddenly as old as failure. "I came about a week ago, by the way, but that shock-headed chap at the door told me you were out of town."

Adams nodded as he picked up the manuscript again.

"I took Mrs. Adams south," he replied. "Her health had given way."

"So I heard, but I hope she's well again by now?"

"Oh, she's very much better, but one never knows, of course, how long one can manage to keep one's health in this climate. I hate to make you hurry off," he added, as the other rose from his chair.

"I want to carry my good news to Miss Wilde," rejoined Treat. "Do you know, she was asking about you only the other day."

"Is that so? I've hardly had time for a word with her for three weeks. Mrs. Adams has not been well and I've kept very closely at home ever since I got back. Will you tell her this from me? It's a nuisance, isn't it, that life is so short one never has time, somehow, for one's real pleasures? Now, Laura Wilde is one of my real pleasures," he pursued, with his quiet humour, "so when there's a sacrifice to be made, its always the pleasure instead of the business that goes overboard. Oh, it's a tremendous pity, of course, but then so many things are that, you know, and its confoundedly difficult, after all, to edit a magazine and still keep human."

The winning smile shone out again, and Treat noticed how it transfigured the worn, sallow face under the thin brown hair.

"Well, you may comfort yourself with the reflection that it's easy to be human but hard to edit a magazine," laughed the younger man, adding, as he went toward the door and paused near the threshold, "I haven't seen you, by the way, since Miss Wilde's last poems are out. Don't you agree with me that her 'Prelude' is the biggest thing she's done as yet?"

"The biggest-yes, but there's no end to my belief in her, you know," said Adams. "She'll live to go far beyond this, and I'm glad to see that her work is winning slowly. Every now and then one runs across a rare admirer."

"And she is as kind as she is gifted," remarked Trent fervently. Then he made his way through the assistant editors in the outer office, and hastened with his prodigious news to Gramercy Park.

Laura was alone, and after sending up his name he followed the servant to her study on the floor above, where he found her working with a pencil, as she sat before a brightly burning wood fire, over a manuscript which he saw to his surprise was not in verse. At his glance of enquiry she smiled and laid the typewritten pages carelessly aside.

"No, it's not mine," she said. "They're several short stories which Mr. Kemper did many years ago, and he's asked me to look over them. I find, by the way, that they need a great deal of recasting."

"Is it possible," he exclaimed in amazement, "that you allow people to bore you with stuff like that?"

The smile which flickered almost imperceptibly across her lips mystified him completely, and he drew his chair a little nearer that he might bring himself directly beneath her eyes.

"Oh, well, I don't mind it once in a while," she returned, "though he hasn't in the very least the literary sense."

"But I wasn't aware that you even knew him," he persisted, puzzled.

"It doesn't take long to know some people," she retorted gayly; then as her eyes rested upon his face, she spoke with one of her sympathetic flashes of insight: "You've come to bring me good news about the play," she said. "Benson has accepted it-am I not right?"

"I'm jolly glad to say you are!" he assented with enthusiasm. "It will be put on in the autumn and Benson has suggested Katie Hanska for the leading r?le."

His voice died out in a joyous tremor, and he sat looking at her with all the sparkles in his young blue eyes.

"I am glad," said Laura, and she stretched out her hand, which closed warmly upon his. "I can't tell you-it's useless to try-how overjoyed I am."

"I knew you'd be," he answered softly, while his grateful glance caressed her. The triumph of the day-which seemed to him prophetic of the triumph of the future-went suddenly to his head, and in some strange presentiment he felt that his emotion for Laura was bound up and made a part of his success in literature. He could not, try as he would-disassociate her from her books, nor her books from his, and as he sat there in ecstatic silence, with his eyes on her slender figure in its soft black gown, he told himself that the morning's happy promise united them in a close, an indissoluble bond of fellowship. He saw her always under the literary glamour-he felt the full charm of the poetic genius-the impassioned idealism which she expressed, and it became almost impossible for him to detach the personality of the woman herself from the personality of the writer whom he felt, after all, to be the more intimately vivid of the two.

"I knew you'd be," he repeated, and this time he spoke with a passionate assurance. "If you hadn't been I'd have found the whole thing worthless."

She looked up still smiling, and he watched her large, beautiful forehead, on which the firelight played as on a mirror. "Well, one's friends do add zest to the pleasure," she returned.

For a moment he hesitated; then leaning forward he spoke with a desperate resolve. "One's friends-yes-but you have been more than a friend to me since the beginning-since the first day. You have been everything. I could not have lived without you."

He saw her curved brows draw quickly together, and she bent upon him a look in which he read pity, surprise and a slight tinge of amusement. "Oh, you poor boy, is it possible that you imagine all this?" she asked.

"I imagine nothing," he answered with a wounded and despairing indignation, "but I have loved you-I have dreamed of you-I have lived for you since the first moment that I saw you."

"Then you have been behaving very foolishly," she commented, "for what you are in love with is a shadow-a poem, a fancy that isn't myself at all. The real truth is," she pursued, with a decision which cut him to the heart, "that you are in love with a literary reputation and you imagine that it's a woman. Why, I'm not only older than you in years, I'm older in soul, older in a thousand lives. There is nothing foolish about me, nothing pink and white and fleshly perfect-nothing that a boy like you could hold to for a day-"

She broke off and sat staring into the fire with a troubled and brooding look-a look which seemed to lose the fact of his presence in some more absorbing vision at which she gazed. He noticed even in his misery that she had suffered during the last few weeks an obscure, a mysterious change-it was as if the flame-like suggestion, which had always belonged to her personality, had of late gathered warmth, light, effectiveness, consuming, as it strengthened, whatever had been passive or without definite purpose in her nature. Her face seemed to him more than ever to be without significance judged by a purely physical standard-more than ever he felt it to be but a delicate and sympathetic medium for the expression of some radiant quality of soul.

"I did not know-I would not have believed that you could be so cruel," he protested with bitterness.

"I can be anything," she answered slowly, drawing her gaze with an effort from the fire. "Most women can."

The glory of the morning passed from him as suddenly as it had come, and he told himself with the uncompromising desperation of youth that for all he cared now his great play might remain forever in oblivion. Life itself appeared as empty-as futile as his ambition-so empty, indeed, that he began immediately in the elastic melancholy which comes easily at twenty-five-to plan the consoling details of an early death. When he remembered his buoyant happiness of a few hours ago it seemed to him almost ridiculous, and he experienced a curious sensation of detachment, of having drifted out of his proper and peculiar place in life. "I shall never be happy again and I am no longer the same person that I was yesterday-or even a half hour ago," he thought with a determination to be completely miserable. Yet even while the words were in his mind he found himself weighing almost instinctively the literary value of his new emotion, and to his horror the situation in which he now stood began slowly to take a dramatic form in his mental vision. The very attitude into which he had unconsciously fallen-as he paused with his face averted and his hand tightening with violence upon a book he had picked up-showed to his imagination as a bit of restrained emotional acting beyond the footlights.

"Then there's nothing I can do but go straight to the devil," he declared with resolution, and at the same instant he found to his supreme self-contempt that he was wondering how the speech would sound in the mouth of an actor in his drama.

"Or write another play," suggested Laura, while he started quickly and turned toward the door.

"I'll never write another," he said in a voice of gloom, which he tried with all his soul to make an honest expression of his state of mind. "I wish now I hadn't written this one. I wouldn't if I'd known."

"Then it's just as well that you didn't," she returned with a positive motherly assurance. "My poor dear boy," she added soothingly, "you are not the first man of twenty-five who has mistaken the literary mania for the passion of love, and I fear that you will not be the last. There seems, curiously enough, to be a strange resemblance between the two emotions. If you'd only look at me plainly without any of your lovely glamour you'll see in a minute what nonsense it all is. Why, you are all the time in your heart of hearts in love with some little blonde thing with pink cheeks who is still at school."

He turned away in a passion of wounded pride; then coming back again he stood looking moodily down upon her.

"I'll prove to you if it kills me that I've spoken the truth," he declared, and it seemed to him that the words were not really what he meant to say-that they came from him against his will because he had fitted them into the mouth of an imaginary character.

"Oh, please don't," she begged.

"I suppose I may still see you sometimes?" he enquired.

"Oh, dear, yes; whenever you like."

Then while he stood there, hesitating and indignant, the servant brought her a card, and as she took it from the tray, he saw a flush that was like a pale flame overspread her face.

"It's Mr. Kemper now," she said. "Why will you not stay and be good and forget?"

"I'd rather meet the devil himself at this minute," he cried in a boyish rage that brought tears to his eyes. "It seems to me that I spend half my life getting out of his way."

"But don't you like him?" she enquired curiously. "Every one likes him, I think."

"Well, I'm not every one," he blurted out angrily, "for I think him a consummate, thickheaded ass."

"Good heavens!" she gayly ejaculated, "what a character you give him." Then, as he was leaving the room, she reached out, and taking his hand, drew him against his will, back to his chair. "You shall not go like this-I'll not have it," she said. "Do you think I am a stone that I can bear to spoil all your beautiful triumph. Here, sit down and I promise to make you like both him and me."

As she finished, Kemper came in with his energetic step and his genial greeting, and she introduced the two men with a little flattering smile in Trent's direction. "You have the honour to meet our coming playwright," she added with a gracious gesture, skilfully turning the conversation upon the younger man's affairs, while she talked on with a sweetness which at once dist

racted and enraged him. He listened to her at first moodily and then with an attention which, in spite of his resolution, was fixed upon the fine points of his play as she made now and then friendly suggestions as to the interpretations of particular lines or scenes. The charming deference in her voice soothed his ruffled vanity and it seemed to him presently that the flattering intoxication of her praise sent his imagination spinning among the stars.

Kemper listened to it all with an intelligent and animated interest, and when he spoke, as he did from time to time, it was to put a sympathetic question which dismissed Trent's darling prejudice into the region of departed errors. To have held out against the singular attraction of the man, would have been, Trent thought a little later, the part of a perverse and stiffnecked fool. It was not only that he succumbed to Kemper's magnetism, but that he recognised his sincerity-his utter lack of the dissimulation he had once believed him to possess. Then, as Kemper sat in the square of sunlight which fell through the bow window, Trent noticed each plain, yet impressive detail of his appearance. He saw the peculiar roughness of finish which lent weight, if not beauty, to his remarkably expressive face, and he saw, too, with an eye trained to attentive observation, that the dark brown hair, so thick upon the forehead and at the back of the neck, had already worn thin upon the crown of the large, well-turned head. "In a few years he will begin to be bald," thought the younger man, "then he will put on glasses, and yet these things will not keep him from appealing to the imaginary ideal of romance which every woman must possess. Even when he is old he will still have the power to attract, if he cannot keep the fancy." But the bitterness had gone out of his thoughts, and a little later, when he left the house and walked slowly homeward, he discovered that a hopeless love might lend a considerable sweetness to a literary life. After all, he concluded, one might warm oneself at the flame, and yet neither possess it utterly nor be destroyed.

His mother sat knitting by the window when he entered the apartment, and he saw that the table was already laid for dinner in the adjoining room.

"I ordered dinner a little earlier for you," she explained as she laid aside the purple shawl while the ball of yarn slipped from her short, plump knees and rolled under the chair in which she sat. Never in his recollection had he seen her put aside her knitting that the ball did not roll from her lap upon the floor, and now as he stooped to follow the loosened skein, he wondered vaguely how she had been able to fill her life with so trivial and monotonous an employment.

"I wish you could get out," he said, as he sat down on a footstool at her feet and leaned his head affectionately against her knees. "I don't believe you've had a breath of air for a month."

"Why, I never went out of doors in the snow in my life," she responded, "at least not since I was a child-and it always snows here except when it rains. Do you know," she pursued, with one of her mild glances of curiosity through the window, "I can't imagine how the people in that big apartment over there ever manage to get through the day. Why, the woman stays in bed every morning until eleven o'clock and then the maid brings her something like chocolate on a tray. She wears such beautiful wrappers, too, I really don't see how she can be entirely proper, and then she seems to fly in such rages with her husband. There are some children, I believe," she went on with increasing animation, "but they are never allowed to set foot in her room, and this afternoon when she dressed to go out I saw her try on at least four different hats and every single one of them green."

"Poor creature!" observed Trent, with a laugh, "it must be worse than living under the omnipresent eye of Providence. By the way, I told the man to come up and have a look at the radiator. Did he do it?"

She laid her large, plump hand upon his head with a touch that was as soft as her ball of yarn.

"The manager came himself," she replied, "but we got to talking and after I found out how much trouble he had had in life-he lost his wife and two little boys all in one year-I didn't like to say anything about the heating. I was afraid it would hurt his feelings to find I had a complaint to make-he seemed so very nice and obliging. And, after all," she concluded amiably, "the rooms do get quite warm, you know, just about the time we are ready to go to bed, so all I need to do is to wear my cloak a little while when I first get up in the morning. It will be a very good way to make some use of it, for I never expect to go out of doors again in this climate."

"You'll have to go once," he said gayly, "to the first rehearsal of my play. You can't afford to miss it."

"Oh, I'll muffle up well on that occasion," she answered. "Did you see Mr. Benson this morning? and what did he say to you?"

"A great deal-he was quite enthusiastic-for him, you know."

"I wonder what he is like," she murmured with her large, sweet seriousness. "Is he married, and has he any children?"

"I didn't investigate. You see I was more interested in my own affairs. He wants Katie Hanska to take the leading part. You may have seen her picture-it was in one of the magazines I brought you."

"Did you enquire anything about her?" she asked earnestly, "I mean about her character and her bringing up. I couldn't bear to have the part played by any but a pure woman, and they tell me that so many actresses aren't-aren't quite that. Before you consent I hope you'll find out very particularly about the life she has led."

"Oh, I dare say she's all right," he remarked, with the affectionate patience which was one of his more amiable characteristics. "At any rate she has the mettle for the r?le."

"I hope she's good," said his mother softly, and she added after a moment, "do you remember that poor Christina Coles I was telling you about not long ago?"

"Why, yes," replied Trent; "the pretty girl with the blue eyes and the uncompromising manner? What's become of her, I wonder?"

"I fear," began his mother, while she lowered her voice and glanced timidly around as if she were on the point of a shameful disclosure, "I honestly fear that she is starving."

"Starving!" exclaimed St. George, in horror, and he sprang to his feet as if he meant to plunge at once into a work of rescue. "Why, how long has she been about it?"

"I know she has stopped coming to see me because her clothes are so shabby," returned Mrs. Trent, with what seemed to him a calmness that was almost cruel, "and the charwoman tells me that she lives on next to nothing-a loaf of baker's bread and a bit of cheese for dinner. It takes all the little money she can rake and scrape together to pay her room rent-for it seems that the papers have stopped publishing her stories."

"For God's sake, let's do something-let's do it quickly," exclaimed Trent, in an agony of sympathy.

"I was just thinking that you might run up and see if she would come down to dine with us," said the old lady; "it really makes me miserable to feel that she doesn't get even enough to eat."

"Why, I'll go before I dress-I'll go this very minute," declared the young man. "Shall I tell her that we dine in half an hour or do you think, if she's so very hungry, you might hurry it up a bit?"

"In half an hour-she'll want a little time," replied his mother, and she added presently, "but she's so proud, poor thing, that I don't believe she'll come."

The words were said softly, but had they been spoken in a louder tone, Trent would not have heard them for he had already hastened from the room.

In response to his knock, Christina opened her door almost immediately, and when she recognised him a look of surprise appeared upon her face.

"Won't you come in?" she asked, drawing slightly aside with a politeness which he felt to be an effort to her, "my room is not very orderly, but perhaps you will not mind?"

She wore a simple cotton blouse, the sleeves of which were a little rumpled as if they had been rolled up above her elbows, and her skirt of some ugly brown stuff was shabby and partly frayed about the edges-but when she looked at him with her sincere blue eyes, he forgot the disorder of her dress in the touching pathos of her gallant little figure. She was very pretty, he saw, in a fragile yet resolute way-like a child that is possessed of a will of iron-and because of her prettiness he found himself resenting her literary failures with an acute personal resentment. The tenderness of his sympathy seemed to increase rather than diminish his hopeless love for Laura, and while he gazed at Christina's flower-like eyes and smooth brown hair, which shone like satin, there stole over him a poetic melancholy that was altogether pleasant. It was as if he had suddenly discovered a companion in his unhappiness, and he thought all at once that it would be charming to pour the sorrows of his love into the pretty ears hidden so quaintly under the smooth brown hair. Love, at the moment, appeared to him chiefly as something to be talked about-an emotion which one might turn effectively into the spoken phrase.

She drew back into the room and he followed her while his sympathetic glance dwelt upon the sleeping couch under its daytime covering of cretonne, upon the small gas stove on which a kettle boiled, upon the cupboard, the dressing table, the desk at which she wrote, and the torn and mended curtains before the single window. Though she neither apologised nor showed in her manner the faintest embarrassment, he felt instinctively that her fierce maidenly pride was putting her to torture.

"I came with a message from my mother," he hastened to explain as he stood beside her on the little strip of carpet before the gas stove, "she sends me to beg that you will dine with us this evening as a particular favour to her. She is so much alone, you know, that a young visitor is just what she needs."

Christina continued to regard him, as she had done from the first, with her sincere, unsmiling eyes, but he saw a flush rise slowly to her face in a wave of colour, turning the faint pink in her cheeks to crimson.

"I am very much obliged to her," she said, in her fresh attractive voice, "but I am just in the middle of a story and I cannot break off just now. I write," she added positively, "every evening."

As she finished she picked up some closely written sheets from the desk and held them loosely in her hand, enforcing by a gesture the unalterableness of her decision. "I hope you will give her my love-my dear love," she said presently, with girlish sweetness, "and tell her how sorry I am that it is impossible."

"You are writing stories, then-still?" he asked, lingering in the face of her evident desire to be rid of him.

"Oh, yes, I write all the time-every day."

"But do you find a market for so many?"

She shook her head: "The beginning is always hard-have you never read the lives of the poets? But when one gives up everything else-when one has devoted one's whole life-"

Knowing what he did of her mistaken ambition, her fruitless sacrifices, the thing appeared to him as a terrible and useless tragedy. He saw the thinness of her figure, the faint lines which her tireless purpose had written upon her face-and he felt that it was on the tip of his tongue to beg her to give it up-to reason with her in the tone of a philosopher and with the experience of the author of an accepted play. But presently when he spoke, he found that his uttered words were not of the high and ethical character he had planned.

"She will be very much disappointed, I know," he said at last; and though he told himself that a great deal of good might be done by a little perfectly plain speaking, still he did not know how to speak it nor exactly what it would be.

"Thank her for me-I-I should love to see her oftener if I had the time-if it were possible," said Christina. And then he went to the door because he could think of no excuse sufficient to keep him standing another minute upon the hearthrug.

"I hope you will remember," he said from the threshold, "that we are always down stairs-at least my mother is-and ready to serve you at any moment in any way we can."

The assurance appeared to make little impression upon her, but she smiled politely, and then closing the door after him, sat down to eat her dinner of cold bread and corned meat.

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