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   Chapter 15 TREATS OF THE ATTRACTION OF OPPOSITES

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 14000

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


As soon as Trent had left the room Laura felt that the silence became oppressive and constrained. For the first time in her life she found herself overwhelmed with timidity-with a fear of the too obvious word-and this timidity annoyed her because she was aware that she no longer possessed the strength with which to struggle against it. That it was imperative for her to lighten the situation by a trivial remark, she saw clearly, yet she could think of nothing to say which did not sound foolish and even insincere when she repeated it in her thoughts. Had she dared to follow her usual impulse and be uncompromisingly honest, she would have said, perhaps: "I am silent because I am afraid to speak and yet I do not know why I am afraid, nor what it is that I fear." In her own mind she was hardly more lucid than this, and the mystery of her heart was as inscrutable to herself as it was to Kemper.

Then, presently, a rush of anger-of hot resentment-put courage into her determination, and raising her head, with an impatient gesture, she looked indifferently into his face. He was still sitting in the square of sunlight, which had almost faded away, and as she turned toward him, he met her gaze with his intimate and charming smile. Though his words were casual usually and uttered in a tone of genial raillery, this smile, whenever she met it, seemed to give the lie to every trifling phrase that he had spoken. "What is the use of all this ridiculous fencing when you fill my thoughts and each minute of the day I think only of you," said his look. So vivid was the impression she received now, that she felt instantly that he had caressed her in his imagination. Her heart beat quickly, while she rose to her feet with an indignant impulse.

"What is it?" he asked and she knew from his voice that he was still smiling. "What is the matter?"

Picking up his typewritten manuscript, she returned with it to her chair, drawing, as she sat down, a little farther away.

"I merely wanted to look over this," she returned, "Mr. Trent interrupted me in my reading."

"Then you've something to thank him for," he remarked gayly, and added in the same tone, "I noticed that he is in love with you-and I am beginning to be jealous."

For an instant she looked at him in surprise; then she remembered his affected scorn of what he called "social cowardice"-his natural or assumed frankness-and she shook her head with a laugh of protest.

"He in love! Well, yes, he's in love with his imagination. He's too young for anything more definite than that."

"A man is never too young to fall in love," he retorted, "I had it at least six times before I was twenty-one."

The laughter was still on her lips. "You speak as if it were the measles."

"It is-or worse, for when you've pulled through a bad attack of the measles you may safely count yourself immune. With love-" he shrugged his shoulders.

"Do you mean," she asked lightly, "that one can keep it up like that-forever."

He shook his head.

"Oh, I think a case is rare," he replied, "after seventy-five. One usually dies by then."

"And is there never-with a man, I mean-really one?"

"Oh, Lord, yes, there's always one-at a time."

His laughing eyes were probing her, and as she met them, questioningly, she found it impossible to tell whether he was merely jesting or in deadly earnest. With the doubt she felt a sharp prick of curiosity, and with it she realised that in this uncertainty-this flashing suggestion of all possibilities or of nothing-dwelt the singular attraction that he had for her-and for others. Was he only superficial, after all? Or did these tantalising contradictions serve to conceal the hidden depths beneath? Had she for an instant taken him entirely at his word value, she knew that her interest in him would have quickly passed-but the force which dominated him, the lurking seriousness which seemed always behind his laughter, the very largeness of the candour he displayed-these things kept her forever expectant and forever interested.

"I hate you when you are like this," she exclaimed, almost indignantly.

"A woman always hates a man when he tells her the truth," he retorted. "She has a taste for sweets and prefers falsehood."

"It may be the truth as you have seen it," she answered, "but that after all is a very small part of the whole."

"It's big enough at least to be unpleasant."

"Well, it's your personal idea of the truth, all the same," she insisted, "and you can't make it universal. It isn't Gerty's for instance."

"You think not?" he made a face of playful astonishment. "Well, how about its hitting off our friend Perry?"

"Perry!" she replied disdainfully. "Do you know if he weren't so simple, I'd detest him."

"But why?" His eyebrows were still elevated.

"Because he thinks of nothing under the sun but the sensations of his great big body."

"Well, that may not be magnificent," he paraphrased gayly, "but it is man."

"Then, thank heaven, it isn't woman!" she exclaimed.

"Do you mean to tell me," he leaned forward in his chair and she was conscious suddenly that he was very close to her-closer, in spite of the intervening space, than any man had ever been in her life before, "do you honestly mean to tell me that women are different?"

The expression of his face altered as it always did before an approaching change in his mood, and she saw in it something of the satiety-the moral weariness-which is the Nemesis of the soul that is led by pleasure. It was at this moment that she felt an exquisite confidence in the man himself-in the man hidden behind the cynicism, the affectation, the utter vanity of words.

"Oh, they can't devote themselves to their own sensations when they have to think so much of other people's," she responded merrily; and she felt again the strange impulse of retreat, the prompting to fly before the earnestness that appeared in his voice. While he was flippant, her intuitions told her that she might be serious, but when the banter passed from his tone, she turned to it instinctively as to a defence.

"But those that I have known"-he stopped and looked at her as if he weighed with an experienced eye the exact effect of his words.

She laughed, but it was a laugh of irritation rather than humour. "Perhaps you did not select your examples very wisely," she remarked.

Her look arrested him as he was about to reply, and he spoke evidently upon the impulse of the moment. "Did Gerty tell you about Madame Alta?" he enquired.

She shook her head with an evasion of the question, "I don't remember that it was Gerty."

"But you have heard of her?"

"I've heard her," she answered. "It is a very beautiful voice."

He frowned with a nervous irritation, and she saw from his impatient movements that he was under the influence of a disagreeable excitement.

"Well, I was once in love with her," he said bluntly.

She made an indifferent gesture.

"And now I hate her,

" he added with a sharp intonation.

"Is that the ordinary end of your romances?" she questioned without interest.

"It wasn't romance," he replied bitterly; "it was hell."

Again she caught the note of satiety in his voice, and it stirred her to a feeling of sympathy which she despised in herself.

"At least you worked out your own damnation," she returned coolly.

"One usually does," he admitted. "That's the infernal part of it. But I'm out of it now," he pursued with an egoism which rejoiced in its own strength. "I'm out of it now with a whole skin and I hope to keep decent even if I don't get to heaven. You might not think it," he concluded gravely, "but I'm at bottom as religious a chap as old John Knox."

"You may be," she observed without enthusiasm, "but it's the kind of religion which impresses me not at all."

"Well, it might have been better," he said, "but I never had a chance. I've known such devilish women all my life."

Humour shone in her eyes, making her whole face darkly brilliant with expression. "Do you know that you show a decided family resemblance to Adam," she observed.

"It does sound that way," he laughed, "but there's some hard sense in it, after all. A woman has a tremendous effect on a man's life-I mean the woman he really likes."

"Wouldn't it be safer to say the 'women'?" she suggested.

"Nonsense. I was only joking. There is always one who is more than the others-any man will tell you that."

"I suppose any man will-even Perry Bridewell."

"Why not Perry?" he demanded. "You can't imagine how he used to bore the life out of me about Gerty-but Gerty, you know," he added in a burst of confidence which impressed her as almost childlike, "isn't exactly the kind of woman to a-a lift a fellow."

Before his growing earnestness she resorted quickly to the defence of flippancy. "Nor is Perry, I suppose, exactly the kind of man that is lifted," she observed, with a laugh.

He looked at her a moment with a smile which had even then an edge of his characteristic genial irony. "You are the sort of woman who could do that," he said abruptly.

"Could lift Perry? Now, God forbid!" she retorted gayly.

"Oh, Perry be hanged!" he exclaimed, with the candid ill-humour which, strangely enough, had a peculiar attraction for her. "If I had known you fifteen years ago I might be a good deal nearer heaven than I am to-day."

The charm of his earnestness was very great, and she felt that the sudden sensation of faintness which came over her must be visible in her fluttering eyelids and in her trembling hands.

"I haven't faith in a salvation that must be worked out by somebody else," she said, in a voice she made cold by an effort to render it merely careless.

An instant before he had told himself with emphasis that he would go no further, but the chill remoteness from which she looked at him stirred him to an emotion that was not unlike a jealous anger. She seemed to him then more brightly distant, more sweetly inaccessible than she had done at their first meeting.

"Not even when it is a salvation through love?" he asked impulsively, and at the thought that she was possibly less indifferent than she appeared to be, he felt his desire of her mount swiftly to his head.

Her hand went to her bosom to keep down the wild beating of her heart, but the face with which she regarded him was like the face of a statue. "No-because I doubt the possibility of such a thing," she said.

"The possibility of my loving you or of your saving me?"

"The possibility of both."

"How little you know of me," he exclaimed, and his voice sounded hurt as if he were wounded by her disbelief.

She raised her eyes and looked at him, and for several seconds they sat in silence with only the little space between them.

"It is very well," she said presently, "that I believe nothing that you say to me-or it might be hard to divide the truth from the untruth."

"I never told you an untruth in my life," he protested angrily.

"Doesn't a man always tell them to a woman?" she enquired.

For an instant he hesitated; then he spoke daringly, spurred on by her indifferent aspect. "He doesn't when-he loves her."

"When he loves her more than ever," she returned quietly, as if his remark held for her merely an historic interest, "Perry Bridewell loves Gerty, I suppose, and yet he lies to her every day he lives."

"That's because she likes it," he commented, with a return of raillery.

"She doesn't like it-no woman does. As for me I want the truth even if it kills me."

"It wouldn't kill you," he answered, and the tenderness in his voice made her feel suddenly that she had never known what love could be, "it would give you life." Then his tone changed quickly and the old pleasant humour leaped to his eyes, "and whatever comes I promise never to lie to you," he added.

She shook her head. "I didn't ask it," she rejoined, with a sharp breath.

"If you had," he laughed, "I wouldn't have promised. That's a part of the general contrariness of men-they like to give what they are not asked for."

"Well, I'll never ask anything of you," she said, smiling.

"Is that because you want to get everything?" he enquired gayly.

A pale flush rose to her forehead, and the glow heightened the singular illumination which dwelt in her face. "Would the best that you could give be more than a little?"

"It would be more than a woman ever got on earth."

"Well, I'm not sure that I would accept your valuation," she remarked, with an effort to keep up the light tone of banter.

"Then make your own," he answered, as he rose from his chair, but his eyes and the strong pressure of his hand on hers said more than this.

"When I've read through the manuscript I'll talk to you about it," she observed, as he was leaving "If you really want them published, though, they must be considerably altered."

"Oh, do it yourself," he returned, with an embarrassed eagerness. "Do anything you please-put in the literary stuff and all that."

He spoke with an entire unconsciousness of the amount of work he asked of her, and she liked him the better for the readiness with which he took for granted that she possessed the patience as well as the will to serve him.

"Well, we'll talk about it later," she said, and then for the first time during the conversation she raised upon him, in all its mystery of suggestion, that subtle fascination of look which he felt at the instant to be her transcendent if solitary beauty. Through the afternoon he had waited patiently for this remembered smile-had laid traps for it, had sought in vain to capture it unawares, and had she been a worldly coquette bent upon conquest, she could not have used her weapons with a finer or more decisive effect. After more than two hours in which her remoteness had both disappointed and irritated him, he went away at last with her face at its most radiant moment stamped upon his memory.

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