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   Chapter 23 THE DEIFICATION OF CLAY

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 13534

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Not until a month after the announcement of Laura's engagement did she come face to face for the first time with the ugly skeleton which lies hidden beneath the most beautiful of dreams. The spring had passed in a troubled rapture; and it was on one of the bright, warm days in early June that she found awaiting her on the hall table when she came in from her walk a letter addressed in a strange handwriting and bearing a strange foreign postmark. Beside this was a note from Kemper explaining a broken engagement of the day before; and she read first her lover's letter, which ended, as every letter of his had ended since the beginning of their love, "Yours with my whole heart and soul, Arnold."

With an emotion which repetition could never deaden, she stooped to kiss the last sentence he had written, before she turned carelessly to take up the strange foreign envelope, which she had thrown, with her veil and gloves, on the chair at her side. For a moment she pondered indifferently the address; then, almost as she broke the seal, the first words she read were those which lay hidden away in the love letter within her hand, "Yours with my whole heart and soul, Arnold."

In her first shock, even while the blow still blinded her eyes, she turned to seek wildly for some possible solution; and it was then that she discovered that the letter, in Kemper's handwriting, was addressed evidently to some other woman, since it bore the date of a day in June just three years before she had first met him. Three years ago he had declared himself to belong, heart and soul, to this other woman; and to-day, with no remembrance in his mind, it seemed, of that former passion, he could repeat quite as ardently the old threadbare avowal. How many times, she asked herself, had he used that characteristic ending to his love letters?-and the thing appeared to her suddenly to be the veriest travesty of the perfect self-surrender of love.

She was a woman capable of keen retrospective jealousy, and as she sat there, beaten down from her winged ecstasy by the blow that had struck at her from the silence, she told herself passionately that her life was wrecked utterly and her brief happiness at an end. Then, with that relentless power of intellect, from which her emotions were never entirely separated, she began deliberately to disentangle the true facts from the temporary impulses of her jealous anger.

"I am wounded and yet why am I wounded and by what right?" she demanded, with a pathetic groping after the self-condemnation which would acquit her lover, "he has lived his life, I know-I have always known it-and his letter has only brought forcibly before me a fact which I have accepted though I have not faced it." And it occurred to her, with the bitter sweetness of a consoling lie, that he could not have been false to her three years ago, since he was not then even aware of her existence. To dwell on this thought was like yielding to the power of an insidious drug, and yet she found herself forcing it almost deliriously against her saner judgment. "How could he wrong me so long as I was a stranger to him?" she repeated over and over. "On the day that he first loved me, his old life, with its sins and its selfish pleasures, was blotted out." But her conscience, even while she reasoned, told her that love could possess no power like this-that the man who loved her to-day, was the inevitable result of the man who had loved other women yesterday, and that there was as little permanence in the prompting of mere impulse as there was stability in change itself. So the voice within her spoke through the intolerable clearness of her intellect; and in her frantic desire to drown the thing it uttered, she repeated again and again the empty words which her heart prompted. Yet she knew even though she urged the falsehood upon her thoughts, that it was less her argument that pleaded for Kemper than the memory of a look in his face at animated instants, which rose now before her and appealed disturbingly to her emotions.

Three ways of conduct were open to her, she saw plainly enough. Wisdom suggested that she should not only put the letter aside, but that she should banish the recollection of its existence from her life. But, while she admitted that this would be the most courageous treatment of the situation, she recognised perfectly that to act upon such a decision was utterly beyond her strength. Though she were to destroy the object, was the memory of it not seared indelibly into her brain? and would not this memory return to embitter long afterward her happiest moments? "When he kisses me I shall remember that he has kissed other women and I feel that I shall grow to hate him if he should ever write to me again in those lying words." But she knew intuitively that he would use the same ending in his next letter, and that she would still be powerless to hate him, if only because of his disturbing look, which came back to her whenever she attempted to judge him harshly. "I might really hate him so long as he was absent from me, and yet if he came again and looked at me in that way for a single instant, I know that, in spite of my resolution, I would throw myself into his arms." And she felt that she despised herself for a bondage against which she struggled as hopelessly as a bird caught in a fowler's net.

Of the two ways which remained to her, she chose, in the end, the course which appeared to her to be the least ungenerous. She would not read the letter-the opening and the closing sentences she had seen by accident-for, when all was said, it had not been written for her eyes; and it struck her, as she brooded over it, that there would be positive disloyalty in thus stealing in upon the secrets of Kemper's past. No, she would place it in his hands, she determined finally, still unread; and in so doing she would not only defeat the purpose of the sender, but would prove to him as well as to herself that her faith in him was as unalterable as her love. After all to trust was easier than to distrust, for the brief agony of her indecision had brought to her the knowledge that the way of suspicion is the way of death.

And so when he came a little later she gave the letter, at which she had not again looked, into his hands. "Here is something that reached me only this morning," she said. "It is not worth thinking of, and I have read only the first and the last sentence."

At her words he unfolded the paper, throwing a mere casual glance, as he did so, upon the thin foreign envelope, which appeared to convey to him no hint of its significant contents.

Then, after a hurried skimming of the first page, he turned back again and carefully studied the address in a mystifi

cation which was pierced presently by a flash of light.

"By Jove, so she's heard it!" he exclaimed; and the instant afterward he added in a kind of grudging admiration, "Well, she's a devil!"

The incident appeared suddenly to engross him in a manner that Laura had not expected, and he stooped to examine the postmark with an attention which gave her, while she watched him, a queer sense of being left out quite in the cold.

"But why, in thunder, should she care?" he demanded.

"She?" there was no trouble in her voice, only an indifferent question.

"Oh, it's Jennie Alta, of course-she's perfectly capable of such a thing." Then, reaching out, he drew Laura into his arms with a confidence which had the air, she thought, of taking the situation almost too entirely for granted-of accepting too readily her attitude as well as his possession of her. "My darling girl, what a regular brick you are!" he said.

Though she realised, as he spoke, that this was the reward of her silence and her struggle, she told herself, in the next breath that, in some way, it was all inadequate. She had expected more than a phrase, and the very fact that the note of earnestness was absent from his voice but made her desire the sound of it the more passionately. Again she felt the baffled sensation which came to her in moments of their closest intimacy. Had his soul, in truth, eluded her for the last time? And was there in the profoundest emotion always a distance which it was forever impossible to bridge? Yet the uncertainty, the very lack of a fuller understanding only added fervour to the passion that burned in her heart.

"It's all over now, so we may as well warm ourselves by the failure of her deviltry," he observed presently, as he flung the crumpled paper into the fire. "I'm downright sorry she'll never know how little harm she's done."

"It might, I suppose, have been worse," suggested Laura.

"Well, I suppose so-and you mean me to believe that you didn't even read it?" he enquired with tender gayety.

She gave him her eyes frankly as an answer to his appeal for faith. "Why should I? I love you," she replied.

For an instant-a single sufficing instant-he met her look with an earnestness that was equal to her own. The man in him, she almost cried out in her exultation, was touched at last.

"May God grant that your confidence will never fail me," he rejoined a little sadly.

"When that comes it will be time to die," was her answer.

Taking her hand in his he held it in a close pressure for several minutes. Then the earnestness she had arrested fled from her touch, and when he spoke again she could not tell whether his words were uttered sincerely or simply as the outcome of his sarcastic humour.

"If you were a flesh-and-blood woman instead of an eccentric sprite," he remarked, "I suppose you'd want me to make a clean breast of the whole affair, but I can't because, to tell the truth, I've forgotten everything about it."

"Then you didn't honestly love her, so it doesn't matter."

"Love her! Pshaw!" Though he laughed out the words there was an angry flush in his face. "Do you think I'm the kind of man to love a mere singing animal? And besides," he concluded with a brutal cynicism which repelled her sharply, "I'm of an economical turn, you know, and the love of such women comes too high. I've seen them eat up a fellow's income as if it were a box of Huyler's." The words were no sooner uttered than his mood changed quickly and he was on his feet. "But I didn't mean to give you the whole morning, sweetheart, I merely looked in to say that I wanted you to come out with me in the car this afternoon. There's a fine breeze blowing."

For a thoughtful moment she hesitated before she answered. "I told Roger Adams that I should be at home," she returned, "but I dare say he won't mind not seeing me."

"Oh, I dare say," he retorted gayly. "Well, I'll pick you up, then, on the stroke of five."

As he left the room she went over to the window, and when he came out a little later, he turned upon the sidewalk to glance up at her and wave his hand. She was happy, perfectly happy, she told herself, as she looked eagerly after the last glimpse of his figure; but even while she framed the thought into words, she was conscious that her heart throbbed high in disappointment and that her eyes were already blind with tears.

When Adams sent up his card, at twenty minutes before five o'clock, she lingered a few moments before going downstairs in her motoring coat and veil. In response to her embarrassed excuses, he made only a casual expression of regret for the visit he had missed.

"It's a fine afternoon-just right for a run," he remarked, adding after a brief hesitation. "It's the proper thing, I suppose, to offer you congratulations, but I'm a poor hand, as you know, at making pretty speeches. I wish you happiness with all my heart-that's about all there is to say-isn't it?"

"That's about all," she echoed, "and at least if I'm not happy I shall have only myself to blame."

The silence that followed seemed to them both unnatural and constrained; and he broke it at last with a remark which sounded to him, while he uttered it, almost irrelevant.

"I've never seen much of Kemper, but I always liked him."

"I know," she nodded, "you were chums at College."

"Oh, hardly that, but we knew each other pretty well. He's a lucky chap and I hope he has the sense to see it."

"There's no doubt whatever of his sense!" she laughed. Then, growing suddenly serious, she leaned toward him with her old earnest look. "No one has ever known him, I think, just as I do," she went on, "because no one understands how wonderfully good he really is. He's so good," she finished almost triumphantly, as if she had overcome by her assertion a point which he disputed, "that there are times when he makes me feel positively wicked."

Having no answer ready but a smile, he gave her this pleasantly enough, so that she might take it, if she chose, for a complete agreement. Though his heart was filled with repressed tenderness, there was nothing further now that he could say to her, for he realised as he looked into her face, that there was little room in her happiness either for his tenderness or for himself. An aversion, too, to meeting Kemper awoke in him, and so, after a few minutes of trivial conversation, he rose and held out his hand.

"I'm very busy just now, so I may not see you again for quite awhile," he said at parting, "but remember if ever you should want me that I am always waiting."

A little later, as he walked up the street in the June sunshine, he saw Kemper's new automobile spinning rapidly from the direction of Fifth Avenue.

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