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   Chapter 27 THE FEET OF THE GOD

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 15234

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

When Kemper, in an emotional moment, had declared that he would give up his trip to Europe, he had expected that Laura would see in the sacrifice a convincing proof of the stability of his affection; but, to his surprise, she had accepted the suggestion as a shade too much in the natural order of events. Europe, empty of his presence, would have been in her eyes a desert; and that any grouping of mountains or arrangement of buildings could offer the slightest temptation beside the promised month in the Adirondacks appeared to her as entirely beyond the question. If the truth were told he did immeasurably prefer the prospect of a summer spent by her side, but he felt at the same time-though he hardly admitted this even to himself-that in remaining in America he was giving up a good deal of his ordinary physical enjoyments. It was not that he wanted in the very least to go; he felt merely that he ought to have been seriously commended because he stayed away. Since he had never relinquished so much as a day's pleasure for any woman in the past, he was almost overcome by appreciation of his present generosity.

For a time the very virtue in his decision produced in him the agreeable humour which succeeds any particular admiration for one's own conduct. Of all states of mind the complacent suavity resulting from self-esteem is, perhaps, the most pleasantly apparent in one's attitude to others; and no sooner had Kemper assured himself that he had made an unusual sacrifice for Laura than he was rewarded by the overwhelming conviction that she was more than worth it all. In some way peculiar to the emotions her value increased in direct relation to the amount of pleasure he told himself he had given up for her sake.

When at last he had freed himself from a few financial worries he had lingered to attend to, and was hurrying toward her in the night express which left New York, he assured himself that now for the first time he was comfortably settled in a state which might be reasonably expected to endure. The careless first impulse of his affection would wane, he knew-it were as useless to regret the inevitable passing of the spring-but beyond this was it not possible that Laura might hold his interest by qualities more permanent than any transient exaltation of the emotions? He thought of the soul in her face rather than of the mere changing accident of form-of the smile which moved like an edge of light across her eyes and lips-and this rare spiritual quality in her appearance appealed to him at the instant as vividly as it had done on the first day he saw her. This charm of strangeness had worn with him as nothing in the domain of the sensations had worn in his life before. In the smoking car, when he entered it a little later, he found a man named Barclay, whom he saw sometimes at his club; and they sat talking together until long after midnight. Barclay was a keen, aggressively energetic person, who lived in a continual rush of affairs, which had not kept him from a decided over-development about the waist. He was married to an invalid wife, who, as he now told Kemper, was threatened with consumption and condemned to spend the whole year in the Adirondacks. Kemper had seen her once, and though she was neither pretty nor intelligent, he remembered her with respect as the owner of a property of forty millions. The knowledge of this fact covered her with a certain distinction in his mind, and because of it he condoned almost unconsciously the absence in her of any more personal attraction than that of wealth. The marriage, so far as he could judge, had been, from Barclay's point of view, entirely satisfactory-domestic affairs occupied no place whatever in the man's existence, which was devoted exclusively to speculation in stocks; and he had solved the eternal problem of philosophy by reducing life, not to a formula, but to a figure. Of scandal there had never blown the faintest breath about him; he paid apparently as little attention to other women as to his wife; and money, Kemper decided now, not without an irrational envy, appeared to satisfy as well as absorb his every instant.

"Yes, it's a great thing to get back to the woods now and then," Barclay was saying, "I usually manage to run up for Sunday-and then I find time to look over all the news of the week."

By "news," Kemper was aware he meant only the changes in the stock market; but his recognition that the man had not so much as a casual interest above the accumulation of wealth, did not detract in the least from the admiration with which Barclay inspired him. This was a life that counted! he thought with generous enthusiasm; and success incarnate, he felt, was riding beside him in the train.

Barclay had drawn a paper from his pocket, and was following the list of figures with the point of his toothpick. Though there was but one subject upon which he possessed even the rudiments of knowledge, the fact that he could speak with authority in a single department of life had conferred upon him a certain dignity of manner; and so Kemper, as he fell into conversation with him, found himself wishing that he might arrange to be thrown with him during the month of his vacation. Money, though he himself was ignorant of it, possessed almost as vital an attraction for him as he found in love.

But the next morning, when he descended from the train and saw Laura awaiting him against a green background of forest, all recollection of Barclay and his financial genius, was swept from his thoughts. As he looked at her small distinguished figure, and met her charming eyes, radiant with love, he told himself that he had, indeed, got to the good place in his life at last. The pressure of her hand, the surrender in her look, the tremor of her voice, appealed to his inflammable senses with a freshness which he found as delicious as the dawn in which they stood.

"To think that I'm only beginning to live when I've past forty years!" he exclaimed, as they rolled in the little cart over the forest road.

Laura held the reins, and while she drove he flung his arm about her with a boyish laugh.

"But this is heavenly-how did you manage it?" he asked.

"Oh, I came alone in the cart because I wanted these first minutes all to ourselves," she answered, "I didn't want even Gerty to see how happy we could be." And it seemed to her as she spoke that all that she had demanded of happiness was fulfilled at last.

A week later she could still tell herself that the dream was true. Kemper had thrown himself into his love making with all the zest, as he said, of his college days; and there was in his complete absorption in it something of the exclusive attention he devoted to a game of billiards. It was a law of his nature that he should live each minute to its utmost and let it go; and this romance of the forest was less an idyl to him than a delicious experience which one must enjoy to the fullest and have over. There were moments even when Laura saw his temperamental impatience awake in his face, as if his thoughts were beginning already to plunge from the fruition of to-day after the capricious possibility which lies in to-morrow. In the midst of the forest, under the gold and green of the leaves, she realised at times that his moods were more in harmony with the city streets and the rush of his accustomed eager life.

And yet to Kemper the month was full of an enchantment which belonged half to his actual existence and half to some fairy stories he remembered from his childhood. It was more beautiful than the reality, but still

it was not real; and this very beauty in it reminded him at times of the vanishing loveliness which results from a mere chance effect-of the sunlight on the green leaves or the flutter of Laura's blue gown against the balsam. In the very intensity of his enjoyment there was at certain instants almost a terrified presentiment; and following this there were periods of flagging impulse when he asked himself indifferently if a life of the emotions brought as its Nemesis an essential incapacity for love? If Laura had only kept up the pursuit a little longer, he complained once in a despondent mood, if she had only fluttered her tinted veil as skilfully as a woman of the world might have done. "Yet was it not for this unworldliness-for this lack of artifice in her-that I first loved her?" he demanded, indignant with her, with nature, with himself. She had surrendered her soul, he realised, with the frankness of inexperience; the excitement of the chase was now over forever, and he saw stretching ahead of him only the radiant monotony of love. Was the satiety with which, in these listless instants, he looked forward to it merely, he questioned bitterly, the inevitable end to which his life had reached?

Lying in a hammock on the broad piazza of Gerty's camp, he asked himself the question while he watched Laura, who stood at a little distance examining some decorations for the hall.

"Oh, I'd choose the green tapestry by all means," he heard her say; and he told himself as he listened to the ordinary words that if she had been a perfect stranger to him he would have known her voice for the voice of a woman who was in love. Was she really lacking, he asked himself in amusement, in the quality which he called for want of a better phrase-"the finesse of sentiment?" or was the angelic candour of her emotion only the outward expression of that largeness of nature which inspired him at times with a respect akin to awe? The absence of any coquetry in her attitude impressed him as the final proof of her inherent nobility; and yet there were instants when he admitted almost in spite of himself, that he would have relished the display of a little amorous evasion. Laura, he believed, was perfectly capable of a great emotion, but the great emotion, after all, he concluded humorously, was less conducive to his immediate enjoyment than was the small flirtation.

The two women were still discussing the bit of tapestry; and while he watched them, a ray of sunlight, piercing the bough of a maple beside the porch, felt with a charming brightness upon Gerty's hair Each brilliant red strand he noticed, appeared to leap instantly into life and colour.

It was pure effect, a mere creation of changing light and shade and yet, as he looked, he was aware of a sudden tremor in his blood. The time had been when Gerty had rather liked him, he remembered-or was it, after all, merely that he had exaggerated the subtle suggestion in her look? Something had passed between them-just what it was, he could hardly recall with distinctness-a mere fervent glance, perhaps a half spoken phrase, or at most a cousinly kiss which had contained the passion of a lover. The incident had passed, and though he told himself now that it had vanished entirely from his memory, he felt that it had left behind a vague longing that it might some day occur again.

"I can't for the life of me remember what it was, nor how it happened," he thought. "It was out of the question, of course, that I should fall in love with Perry's wife-and yet, by Jove, I'd like to know what she felt about it all. I'm glad," he added earnestly after a moment, "that Laura doesn't happen to be the flirtatious kind." Nevertheless he continued to wonder, as he looked at the sunlight on Gerty's hair, if there could have been, after all, a grain of truth in those hints she had so carelessly let fall.

* * *

Early in August Laura was summoned home by the illness of Angela; and Kemper, after a few days spent with her in the city, started upon a yachting cruise which occupied him for two weeks. On the day of his return, when as yet he had not seen Laura he accidentally ran across Adams shortly before the luncheon hour.

"Look here, old chap, let's lunch together at the club," he suggested, adding with a laugh, "if I let you go now, heaven knows when I'll be so fortunate as to knock up against you any more."

Adams readily agreed; and a little later, as they sat opposite each other at table, he showed, as usual, a sincere enough enjoyment of his companion's society. Though he had never taken Kemper as he said, "quite seriously," there were few men whom he found it pleasanter to meet at dinner.

"I wish you came more in my way," he observed, while Kemper gave the order, with the absorbed attention he devoted to such details, "I don't believe I've laid eyes on you but once in the last six months."

"Oh, you've something better to think of," returned Kemper carelessly. "Do you know," he pursued after a moment's thought, "I'm sometimes tempted to wish that I could change place with you and get beaten into shape for some serious work. It's the only thing in life that counts, when you come to think of it," he concluded with an irritation directed less against himself than against his fate.

"Well, I can't say I'd object to standing in your shoes for a while," rejoined Adams, "I've a taste for the particular brand of cigar you smoke."

"Oh, they're good enough-in fact everything is good enough-it comes too easily, that's the trouble. I've never found anything yet that was seriously worth trying for."

Adams regarded him for a moment with a smile, to which his whimsical humour lent a peculiar attraction.

"I, on the other hand, have tried pretty hard for some things I didn't get," he answered, "the difference between us, I guess, is that I had a tough time in my youth and you didn't. A man's middle age is usually a reaction from his youth."

"I've never had a tough time anywhere," replied Kemper, almost in disgust, "it's' been too soft-that's the deuced part of it. And yet I've got the stuff in me for a good fight if the opportunity would only come my way."

The expression of satiety-of moral weariness-was etched indelibly beneath the brightness of his smile; and yet, Adams, looking at him, remembered, a little bitterly, that this man had won from him the woman whom he loved. To Kemper belonged both her body and her spirit; the touch of her hand no less than the charm of her intellect! At the thought his old human longing for her awoke and stirred restlessly again in his heart.

"Yes, the only thing is to have one particular interest," resumed Kemper, "to occupy oneself with something that is eternally worth while. Now, look at Barclay-I went up in the train with him to the Adirondacks, and, upon my word, I never envied a man more in my whole life. You know Barclay, don't you?"

Adams nodded. "I'd find a little of his financial ability rather useful myself," he observed. Then he broke into a boyish laugh at a recollection the name aroused, "the last time I had a talk with him was at the beginning of our war with Spain, and he told me he was interested in news from the front because he happened to own some Spanish bonds."

Kemper joined in the laugh. "Oh, he's narrow, of course," he replied, "but all the same I'd like the chance to get in his place. By Jove, I don't believe he's ever bored a minute of the day!" And it seemed to him, as he thought of Barclay, that his own life held nothing for him but boredom from this time on.

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