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The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 16761

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Late in October Kemper went South for a couple of weeks shooting; and It was not until the first day of November that he parted from his companions of the trip and returned to New York. He had enjoyed every minute of his absence-until the last few days when the strangeness appeared, somehow, to have worn from his out-door life-and as he drove now, on the bright autumn afternoon, from the station to his rooms, he was agreeably aware that he had never felt physically or mentally in better shape. After a fortnight spent away from civilisation, he found a refreshing excitement in watching the crowd in Fifth Avenue, the passing carriages, and particularly the well-dressed figures of the women in their winter furs. Taken all in all life was a pretty interesting business, he admitted; and he remembered with eagerness that he would see Laura again before the day was over. Though he had barely thought of her once during the past two weeks, this very forgetfulness served to surround her with the charm of novelty in his awakened memory.

A woman in a sable coat rolled past him in an automobile; and his eyes followed her with an admiration which seemed strangely mixed with a vague longing in his blood-a longing which was in some way produced by the animated street, the changing November brightness and the crispness of frost which was in the air. Then he caught sight of a milliner's pretty assistant carrying a hat box along the sidewalk, and his gaze hung with pleasure upon her trim and graceful figure in a cheap cloth coat bordered with imitation ermine. A feeling of benevolence, of universal good will pervaded his heart; his chest expanded in a sigh of thankfulness, and it seemed to him that he asked nothing better than to be alive. He was in the mood when a man is grateful to God, charitable to himself and generous to his creditors.

The cab stopped before his door, and while he paid the man, he gave careful directions to Wilkins about the removal of his shooting traps. Then he entered the apartment house, and passing the elevator with his rapid step, went gayly humming up the staircase.

On the third landing he paused a moment to catch his breath, and as he laid his hand, the instant afterward, on the door of his sitting-room, he became aware of a faint, familiar, and yet almost forgotten perfume, which entered his nostrils from the apartment before which he stood. The perfume, distant as it was, revived in him instantly, with that curious association between odours and visual memory, a recollection which might otherwise have slumbered for years in his brain-and though he had not thought of Jennie Alta once during the summer and autumn months, there rose immediately before him now the memory of her dressing table with the silver box in which she kept some rare highly scented powder. Every incident of his acquaintance with her thronged in a disordered series through his brain; and it was with an odd presentiment of what awaited him, that he entered his sitting room and found her occupying a chair before his fireside. When she sprang up and faced him in her coarsened beauty, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should accept the fact of her presence with merely an ironic protest.

"So you've turned up again," he remarked, as he held out his hand with a smile, "I was led to believe that the last parting would be final."

"Oh, it was," she answered lightly, "but there's an end even to finality, you know."

The flute-like soprano of her voice fell pleasantly upon his ears, and as he looked into her face he told himself that it was marvellous how well she had managed to preserve an effect of youthfulness. Under the flaring wings in her hat her eyes were still clear and large and heavy lidded, her thin red lips still held the shape of their sensual curve. A white fur boa was thrown carelessly about her neck, and he remembered that underneath it, encircling her short throat there was the soft crease of flesh which the ancient poets had named "the necklace of Venus."

"Well, I can but accept this visit as a compliment, I suppose," he observed with amiable indifference, "it means-doesn't it? that you won your fight about the opera contract?"

An expression of anger-of the uncontrolled, majestic anger of a handsome animal, awoke in her face, and she pulled off her long white glove as if seeking to free herself from some restraint of custom. Her hand, he noticed, with a keen eye for such feminine details, was large, roughly shaped and over fleshy about the wrist.

"I'd starve before I'd sing again by that old contract," she responded. "No, it's not opera-Parker refused to pay me what I asked and I held out to the end-I shall sing in concert for the first time, and I shan't be happy until I have every seat in the opera house left empty."

He laughed with an acute enjoyment of her repressed violence. "Oh, you're welcome to mine," he returned good-humouredly, "but what is the day of your great first battle?"

"Not until December. I'm going West and South before I sing in New York."

"Then you aren't here for much of a stay, after all?"

She shook her head and the orange coloured wings in her hat waved to and fro.

"Only a few days at a time. After Christmas I sail back again. In February I'm engaged for Monte Carlo."

Then her expression underwent a curious change-as if personality, colour, passion pulsed into her half averted face-and the hard professional tones in which she had spoken were softened as if by an awakening memory.

"So you still keep my portrait, I see," she observed, lifting her eyes to the picture above the mantel, "you don't hate me, then, so bitterly as I thought."

He shrugged his shoulders with the gesture he had acquired abroad.

"I did take it down, but it left a smudge on the wall, so I had to put it back again."

"Then you sometimes think of me?" she enquired, with curiosity.

"Not when I can help it," he retorted, laughing.

His ironic pleasantry stung her into an irritation which showed plainly in her face; and she appeared, for the first time, to bend her intelligence toward some definite achievement.

"And is that always easy?" she asked, in a tone of mere flippant banter.

A petty impulse of revenge lent sharpness to his voice. "Easier than you think," he responded coolly.

"Well, I suppose, I'll have to take the punishment," she answered, as lightly as before; and then turning to the mantelpiece again, she raised her glance to the portrait. "I never liked it," she commented frankly, "he's got me in an unnatural position-I never stood like that in my life-and there's an open smirk about the mouth."

He saw her face in the admirable pose which he remembered-the chin held slightly forward, the cheek rounded upward, the eyes uplifted-and for an instant he waited, half hoping that her voice of wine and honey would roll from between her lips. But she was frugal of her notes, he recalled the instant afterward.

"I've always considered it a pretty fair likeness," he remarked.

"Then you've always considered me pretty hideous," she flashed back in annoyance.

As she swung round upon the hearthrug, the white fur boa slipped from her throat, and he saw "the necklace of Venus" above the string of opals that edged her collarless lace blouse.

"On the contrary I admire you very much when you are in a good humour," he observed in his genial raillery.

"Then you thought I had a temper?"

He laughed softly, as if at a returning recollection. "A perfectly artistic one," he answered.

Her annoyance disappeared beneath his gaze, and the smile he had but half forgotten-a faint sweet ripple of expression, which seemed less the result of an inner working of intelligence than of some outward fascination in the curve of mouth and chin-hovered, while he watched her attentively, upon her bright red lips. In the making of her the soul he recognised had dissolved into the senses; and yet the accident of her one exquisite gift had conferred upon her the effect, if not the quality of genius. Because of the voice in her throat she appeared to stand apart by some divine election of nature.

"I believe I did slap your face once," she confessed, laughing, "but I begged your pardon afterward-and you must admit that you were sometimes trying."

"Perhaps-but what's t

he use of bringing all this up now? It's well over, isn't it?"

"Isn't it?" she repeated softly; and he had an odd impression that her voice was melting into liquid honey. The thought made him laugh aloud and at the sound she relapsed quickly into her indifferent attitude.

"Of course, it's over," she resumed promptly. "If it were not over-if I didn't feel myself entirely safe-do you think that I'd ever dare come back again?"

The absence of any hint of emotion in her words produced in him an agreeable feeling of security, and for the first time he went so close to her that he might almost have touched her hand.

"Safe?" he repeated, smiling, "then were you ever really in danger?"

Her glance puzzled him, and she followed it a moment afterward with a sentence which had the effect of increasing, rather than diminishing, the obscurity in which he floundered.

"In danger of losing my head, do you mean?" she asked, "Wasn't that question answered when I ran away?"

But the next instant she burst into a laugh of ridicule, and threw herself back into the chair upon the hearthrug, with the particular fall of drapery by which she delighted the eyes of her audience in the opera house.

"I asked your man to bring me tea, for I'm famished," she remarked; "do you think he has forgotten it?"

"He had, probably, to go out to buy the cakes," he replied, with a touch upon the bell which was immediately answered by Wilkins bearing the silver tray. As she rose to make tea, Kemper took the fur boa from her shoulders and held it for a minute to his nostrils.

"You use the same perfume, I notice," he observed.

She waited until the door had closed upon Wilkins, and then looked up, smiling, as she handed him his cup.

"There are two things one should never change," she returned, "a perfume and a lover."

With a laugh he tossed the fur upon the sofa. "By Jove, you've arrived at the conventional morality at last."

"Is it morality?" she rejoined sweetly, "I thought it was experience."

"Well, any way, you're right and I'm moral," he remarked, "the joy of living, after all, is not in having a thing, but in wanting it."

"Which proves, as I have said," she concluded, "that one love is as good as a thousand."

There was a sharp edge of ridicule to his glance; but the words he spoke were uttered from some mere impulse of audacity.

"I wonder if I taught you that?" he questioned.

Leaning slightly forward she clasped her large white hands upon her knees; and the position, while she kept it, showed plainly the rounded ample length of her figure.

"I might tell you the truth-but, after all, why should I?" she demanded.

An emotional curiosity which was almost as powerful as love flamed in his face. How much or how little did she feel? he wondered; and the vanity which was the inspiration of his largest as well as his smallest passion, dominated for the time all other impressions which she produced.

"Would it be possible for you to tell the truth if you tried?" he asked.

"I never try-all the harm on earth comes from women telling men the truth. It is the woman who tells the truth who becomes-a door mat. If I ever felt myself in danger of speaking the truth-" she hesitated for a quick breath, while her eyes drew his gaze as by a cord-"I would run away."

It was his turn to breathe quickly now. "You did run away-once."

"I ran because-" her voice was so low that he felt it like a breath upon his cheek.

"Because?" he echoed impatiently; and the vehemence in his tone wrought an immediate change in her seductive attitude. With a laugh that was almost insolent, she rose to her feet and looked indifferently down upon him.

"Oh, that's over long ago and we've both forgotten. I came to-day only to ask the honour of your presence at my first concert."

An impulse to irritate her-to provoke her into an expression of her hidden violence-succeeded quickly the curiosity she had aroused; and he felt again the fiendish delight with which, as a savage small boy, he had prodded the sleeping wild animals in their cages in the park.

"I'm not sure that I can arrange it," he responded, "I may be off on my honeymoon, you know."

"Ah, yes," she nodded while he saw a perceptible flicker of her heavy eyelids, "but when, if I'm not impertinent, does the interesting event take place? I might be able to postpone my concert," she concluded jestingly.

He shook his head. "You can't do that because I expect it to last forever."

"One usually does, I believe, but it is easy to miscalculate. Have you a photograph visible of the lady?"

He shook his head, but with the denial, his glance travelled to a picture of Laura upon his desk; and crossing the room, she took it up and returned with it to the firelight, where she dropped upon her knees in order to study it the more closely.

"Has she money?" was her first enquiry at the end of her examination.

"If she has I am not aware of it," he retorted angrily.

"Well, I wonder what you see in her," she remarked, with her attentive gaze still upon the picture, "though she looks as if she'd never let a man go if she once got hold of him."

Her vulgar insolence worked him into an uncontrollable spasm of anger; and with a smothered oath he wrenched the photograph from her and flung it into the open drawer of his desk.

"She is too sacred to me to be made the subject of your criticism," he exclaimed.

Whether she was frankly offended or unaffectedly amused he could not tell, but she burst into so musical a laugh that he found himself listening to it with positive pleasure.

"There! there! don't be foolish-I was only joking," she returned, "please don't think for one minute that it's worth my while to be jealous of you."

"I don't think so," he replied, with open annoyance, "but I wish you wouldn't come here."

She had taken up her fur and stood now wrapping it about her throat, while her eyes were fixed upon him with an expression he found it impossible to read. Was it anger, seduction, passion or disappointment? Or was it some deeper feeling than he had ever believed it possible for her face to show?

"It is the last time, I promise you," she said, "but do you know why I came this afternoon?"

"Why?-no, and I doubt if you do."

For a moment she was silent; then he watched the curious physical fascination grow in her smile.

"I came because I had a very vivid dream about you on the boat last night," she said, "I dreamed of that evening, during the first winter, in my dressing-room after the second act in 'Faust.' I thought I had forgotten it, but in my sleep it all came clearly back again-every minute and-"

"And?" the word burst from him eagerly as he leaned toward her.

"I broke a bottle of perfume, do you remember?" her soft laugh shook in her full, white throat, "your coat still smelt of it next day, you said."

Her wonderful voice, softened now to a speaking tone, seemed to endow each word, not only with melody, but with form and colour. They became living things to him while she spoke, and the night he had almost forgotten, stood out presently as in the glow of a conflagration of his memory. He smelt again the perfume which she had spilled on his coat; he saw again the fading roses, heaped on chairs and tables, that overflowed her dressing room. It was the night of her great triumph-the eyes with which she looked at him still held the intoxication of her own music-and it was to the applause of a multitude, that, alone with her behind the scenes, he had first taken her in his arms.

"It's all over, I tell you," he said angrily; "so what's the use of this?"

"It's never over!-it's never over!" she repeated in her singing voice.

She was very close to him at last; but breaking away with an effort, he crossed the room and laid his hand upon the door.

"It was over forever two years ago," he said, "and now good-bye!"

He held out his hand, but without taking it, she stood motionless while she looked at him with her unchanging smile.

"Then I'll let it be good-bye," she answered, "but not this way-not just like this-"

Her voice mocked him; and moved by an impulse which was half daring, half vanity, he closed the door again and came back to where she stood.

"So long as it's good-bye, I'll have it any way you wish," he said.

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