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The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 15248

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

When Kemper looked at his watch on Laura's steps, he found that he had time only to pay a promised call on Gerty Bridewell before he must hurry home to get into his dinner clothes. In his pocket, carelessly thrust there as he left his rooms, was a note from Gerty begging him to drop in upon her for a bit of twilight gossip; and though the request was made with her accustomed lightness, he knew instinctively that she had sought him less for diversion than for advice, and that her reckless pen had been guided by some hidden agitation. When he thought of her it was with a sympathy hardly justified by the outward brilliance of her life-wealth, beauty, power, all the things which he would have called desirable were hers, and the vague compassion she awoke in him appeared to him the result of a simple trick of pathos which she knew how to assume at times. To be sorry for Gerty was absurd, he had always looked upon a hunger for married romance as a morbid and unhealthy passion, and that a woman who possessed a generous husband should demand a faithful one as well seemed to him the freak of an unreasonable and exacting temper. "Men were not born monogamous"-it was a favourite cynicism of his, for he was inclined to throw upon nature the full burden of her responsibility.

Then, as he signalled a cab at the corner of Fifth Avenue, and after seating himself, clasped his gloved hands over the crook of his walking stick, his thoughts returned, impatient of distraction, to the disturbing memory of Laura.

He had gone too far, this he admitted promptly and without consideration-another minute of her bewildering charm and he felt, with a shiver, that he might have blundered irretrievably into a declaration of love. What a fool he had been, after all, and where was the result of his painfully acquired caution-of his varied experiences with many women? Before entering her doors he had told himself emphatically that the thing should go no further than a pleasant friendship, and yet an hour later he had found his thoughts fairly wallowing in sentiment. To like a woman and not make love to her-was that dream of his purer desires still beyond him-still in the distant region of the happier impossibilities? Marriage had few allurements for him-the respect he felt for it as an institution was equalled only by the disgust with which he regarded it as a personal condition; and a shudder ran through him now as he imagined himself tied to any woman upon earth for the remainder of his days. Without being unduly proud in his own conceit, he was clearly aware that he might be looked upon through worldly eyes as a desirable match-as fair game for a number of wary marriageable maidens; and it did not occur to him that even Laura herself might by any choice of her own, still stand hopelessly beyond his reach. The thing that troubled him was the knowledge of his own impetuous emotions-with the shield of Madame Alta withdrawn was it not possible that a sudden passion might plunge him headlong even into the abyss of marriage?

"What a consummate, what an unteachable ass I am," he thought as he stared moodily at the passing cabs, "and the odd part of it is that the newest attraction always brings with it a fatal belief in its own permanence. I have been madly in love a dozen times since I left college and yet it seems impossible to me that what I now feel has ever had a beginning or can ever have an end. By Jove, I could almost swear that I've never gone through this before." Then he remembered suddenly one of Laura's most characteristic movements-the swift turn of her profile as she averted her face-and he tried to imagine the quickened sensation with which he might have stooped and kissed the little violet shadow on her neck. "Pshaw!" he exclaimed with angry determination, "does a man never get too old for such rubbish? Am I no better than one of the dotards who hold on to passion after they have lost their teeth?" But in spite of his contemptuous cynicism it seemed to him that he was more in earnest than he had ever been in his life before. There had been nothing so grave-nothing so destructive as this in the impulse which had driven him to Madame Alta.

Gerty was awaiting him alone in her sitting-room upstairs, and as he entered, she stretched out her hands with a gesture of reproachful eagerness.

"You're so late that I've barely a half hour before dressing," she said.

"Why, in heaven's name, didn't you write me sooner?" he enquired, as he threw himself into a chair beside the couch on which she lay half buried amid cushions of pale green satin, "it was a mere accident that I had this spare time on my hands. Where's Perry?"

She shook her head with the piquant disdain he knew so well. "Amusing himself doubtless," she replied, adding with one of her uncontrollable flashes of impulse, "Do you, by the way, I wonder, ever happen to see Ada Lawley now?"

The question startled him, and he sat for a minute staring under bent brows at her indignant loveliness; though she had shrieked out her secret in the tongues of men and of angels, she could have added nothing further to his knowledge. The wonderful child quality which still survived in her beneath all her shallow worldliness dawned suddenly in her wide-open, angry eyes, and he saw clearly at last the hidden canker which was eating at her impatient heart. So this was what it meant, and this was why she had reminded him at times of a pierced butterfly that hides a mortal anguish beneath the beauty of its quivering wings?

"Oh, she isn't exactly the kind to blush unseen, you know," he responded lightly.

"But what is her attraction? I can't fathom it," persisted Gerty, with a burning curiosity. "Is it possible that men think her handsome?"

He laughed softly at her impatience, and then leaning back in his chair, took up her question in a quizzical tone. "Is she handsome? Well, that depends, I suppose, upon one's natural or acquired taste. Some people like caviar-some don't."

Though she choked down her eagerness, he saw it still fluttering in her beautiful white throat. "Then I may presume that she is caviar to the respectable?" she said with a relapse into her biting sarcasm.

He made a gesture of alarmed protest: "You are to presume nothing-it is never wise to presume against a woman."

"Then I won't if you'll tell me," she returned, "if you'll tell me quite honestly and sincerely all that you think."

Before the mockery in his eyes she fell back with a sigh of disappointment, but he answered the challenge presently in what she had once described as his "paradoxical humour."

"Oh, well, my views have all been distant ones," he said, "but I should judge her to be-since you ask me-a lady who insists upon a remarkable natural beauty with a decidedly artificial emphasis."

He paused for a moment in order to enjoy the flavour of his epigram; but Gerty was too much in earnest to waste her animated attention upon words.

"Oh, of course she makes up," she retorted, "they all do that-men like it."

His puzzling smile dwelt on her for an instant. "Well, I'd rather a woman would be downright bad any day," he said, "it shows less."

"But is she bad?" asked Gerty, almost panting in her pursuit of information. "That's what I want to know-of course she's artificial on the face of it."

"On the face of her, you mean," he corrected, and concluded promptly, "but I've never said anything against a woman in my life and it's too late to begin just as I'm getting bald. Doesn't it suffice that the Lady has kept her pipe tuned to the general melody


"You mean she's careful?"

"I mean nothing-do you?"

With a determined movement she sprang into a sitting position, and drawing the cushions beneath her arm, rested her elbow, bare under the flowing sleeve, upon the luxurious pile of down. He saw the dent made by her figure in the green satin covers, and it gave him a sensation of pleasure while he watched it fade out slowly.

"I-oh, I mean a great deal," she responded in her reckless voice, "I'm as clear, I've always said, as running water, and what you mistake for flippancy is merely my philosophy."

"A philosophy!" he laughed, "then you've gone too deep for me."

"Oh, it isn't deep-it's only this," she rejoined gayly, "he laughs best who laughs most."

"And not who laughs last?"

She shook her head as she played nervously with the lace upon her sleeve. "No, because the last laugh is apt to be a death rattle."

"You give me the shivers," he protested, with a mock shudder, "do you know you are always clever when you are jealous?"

"But I am not jealous," she retorted indignantly; "there's nobody on earth that's worth it-and besides I'm too happy. I'm as happy as the very happiest human being you know. Who's that?"

He thought attentively for a moment: "By Jove, I believe it's Roger Adams," he replied, amazed at his discovery.

For a while Gerty leaned back upon her pillows and considered the question with closed eyes. "I think you're right," she admitted at last, "but why? Why? What on earth has he ever got from life?"

"He has got a wife," he retorted, with his genial irony.

"Well, I suppose he congratulates himself that he hasn't two," was her flippant rejoinder.

Kemper laughed shortly. "I'm not sure that she doesn't equal a good half dozen."

"And yet he is happy," said Gerty thoughtfully. "I don't know why and I doubt if he knows either-but I truly and honestly believe he's the happiest man I've ever met. Perhaps," she concluded with a quick return to her shallow wit, "it's because he doesn't divide his waking hours between dressmakers and bridge whist."

"But why do you if it bores you so," protested Kemper, "I'd be hanged before I'd do it in your place."

The little half angry, half weary frown drew her eyebrows together, and she sat for a minute restlessly tapping her slippered foot upon the floor. "Oh, why do women lie and cheat and back-bite and strangle the little souls within them-to please men. Your amusements are built on our long boredom."

Was it merely the trick of pathos again, he wondered, or did the weariness in her voice sound as true as sorrow? Was she, indeed, as Laura so ardently believed, capable of larger means, of finer issues, and was her very audacity of speech but a kind of wild mourning for the soul that she had killed? A month ago he would not have asked himself the question, but his feeling for Laura had brought with it, though unconsciously, a deeper feeling for life.

"All the same I wouldn't bore myself if I were you," he returned, "and I don't think frankly men are worth it."

She laughed with an impatient jerk of her head. "Oh, it's easy to moralise," she remarked, "but I have enough of that, you know, from Laura."

"From Laura? Then she is with me?"

"She thinks so, but what does she know of life-she has never lived. Why, she isn't even in the world with us, you see." A tender little laugh escaped her. "I've even seen her," she added gayly, "read Plotinus at her dressmaker's. She says he helps her to stand the trying on."

The picture amused him, and he allowed his fancy to play about it for a moment. "I can't conceive of her surrendering to the vanities," he said at last.

"You can't?" Gerty's tone had softened, though she still spoke merrily. "Well, I call no woman safe until she's dead."

His imagination, always eager in pursuit of the elusive possibility, sprang suddenly in the train of her suggestion, and he felt the sting of a dangerous pleasure in his blood.

"Do you mean that it is only her outward circumstances, her worldly ignorance, that has kept her so wonderfully indifferent?" he asked.

"So she is indifferent?" enquired Gerty with a smile.

"To me-yes."

"Oh, I didn't know that-I suspected-" her pause was tantalising, and she drew it out with an enjoyment that was almost wicked.

"You suspected-" he repeated the words with the nervous irritation which always seized him in moments of excitement.

"I honestly believed," she gave it to him with barely suppressed amusement, "that she really disliked you."

His curiosity changed suddenly to anger, and he remembered, while he choked back an impulsive exclamation, the rage for mastery he had once felt when he found a horse whose temper had more than matched his own. "Did she tell you so?" he demanded hotly.

"Oh, dear, no-she wouldn't for the world."

"Then you're wrong," he said with dogged resolution; "I can make her like me or not just as I choose."

"You can?" she looked lovely but incredulous.

"Why do you doubt it?"

"Because-oh, because you are too different. Do you know-and this is as secret as the grave-if I thought Laura really cared for you it would drive me to despair. But she won't-she couldn't-you aren't half-you aren't one hundredth part good enough, you know."

In spite of his smile she saw that there was a tinge of annoyance in the look he fixed upon her. "By Jove, I thought you rather liked me!" he exclaimed.

"I do-I love you-I always have." She stretched out her hand until the tips of her fingers rested upon his arm. "You are quite and entirely good enough for me, my dear, but I'm not Laura, and strange as it may seem I honestly care a little more for her than for myself. So if you are really obliged to fall in love again, suppose you let it be with me?"

"With you?" He met her charming eyes with his ironic smile. "Oh, I couldn't-I was brought up on your kind, and perfect as you are, you would only give me the tiresome, familiar society affair. There isn't any mystery about you. I know your secret."

"Well, at least you didn't learn it from Madame Alta," she retorted.

"From Madame Alta! Pshaw! she was never anything but a vocal instrument."

"Do you remember the way she sang this?" asked Gerty; and springing to her feet she fell into an exaggerated mimicry of the prima donna's pose, while she trilled out a languishing passage from "Faust." "I always laughed when she got to that scene," she added, coming back to the couch, "because when she grew sentimental she reminded me of a love-sick sheep."

"Then why do you resurrect her ghost?" he demanded. "So far as I am concerned she might have lived in the last century."

"And yet how mad you used to be about her."

"'Mad'-that's just the word. I was." He drew out his watch, glanced at it, and rose to his feet with an ejaculation of dismay, "Why, you've actually made me forget that we aren't living in eternity," he said. "I'll be awfully late for dinner and it's every bit your fault."

"But think of me," gasped Gerty, already moving in the direction of her bedroom, "I dine at Ninety-first Street, and I must get into a gown that laces in the back." She darted out with a bird-like flutter; and running quickly down the staircase, he hurried from the house and into a passing cab. During the short drive to his rooms his thoughts were exclusively engrossed with the necessity of making a rapid change and framing a suitable apology for his hostess. The annoyance of the rush served more effectually to banish Laura than any amount of determined opposition would have done.

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