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The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 17464

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The odd part was, he admitted next morning as he sat at breakfast, that from first to last he had not found one moment's pleasure in the society of Madame Alta. Pleasure in a suitable quantity he was inclined to regard as sufficient excuse for the most serious indiscretion; but in this case the temptation to which he had yielded appeared to him, by the light of day, to be entirely out of proportion to any actual enjoyment he had experienced. An impulse which was neither vanity nor daring, but a mixture of the two, had swept away his resolve before he was clearly aware, as he expressed it, "of the drift of the wind." He had not wanted to go with her and yet he had gone, impelled by some fury of adventure which had seemed all the time to pull against his saner inclinations.

While he ate his two eggs and his four pieces of toast, as he had done every morning for the last fifteen years, he remembered, with a mild pang of remorse, that he had not seen Laura since his return. Without doubt she had expected him last evening, had put on, probably, her most becoming gown to receive him; and the thought of her disappointment entered his heart with a very positive reproach. This reproach, short lived as it was, had the effect of enkindling his imaginary picture of her; and the eagerness with which he now looked forward to his visit completely crowded from his mind the recollection that, but for his own fault, he might have seen her with as little effort on the evening before.

As he sat there over his breakfast, with an unfolded newspaper on the table beside him, he realised, in a proper spirit of thankfulness, that he had never felt himself to be in a more thoroughly domestic mood. His face, in which the clear red from his country trip was still visible, settled immediately into its most genial lines, while he expanded his chest with a deep breath which strained the topmost button on the new English waistcoat which he wore. The sober prospect of marriage no longer annoyed him when he thought of it, and he could even look forward complacently to seeing the same woman opposite to him at breakfast for twenty years.

"By Jove, I've come to the place when to settle down and live quietly is the best thing I can do," he concluded, as he helped himself to marmalade. "I've reached the time of life when a man has to pull up and go easily or else break to pieces. It's all very well to take one's fling in youth, but middle age is the period for retrenchment."

Then, while he still congratulated himself upon the expediency of virtue, another image appeared in his reflections, and the paternal instinct, so strong in men of his kind, responded instantly to the argument which clothed his mere natural impulse. Marriage, he told himself, would mean a son of his own, and the stability which he had always missed in any relation with a woman would be secured through the responsibility which fatherhood involved. Here was the interest his life had lacked, after all-here was the explanation of that vacancy his emotions had not filled; and it appeared to him that his loves had failed in definiteness, in any vital purpose, because he had never seen himself fulfilled in the son which he now desired.

"I shouldn't wonder if this is what I've been wanting all the time," he thought; and the generous fervour, the ideal purity, he had never been able to introduce into his romances, gathered luminously about the cradle of his unborn child. It seemed to him, as he smoked his second cigar in the face of this paternal vision, that he had stumbled by accident upon the one secret of happiness which he had overlooked; and it was while the beaming effulgence of this mood still lasted, that he finished his papers, and determined to look in upon Laura on his way down town. The memory of last evening was placed at the distance of a thousand miles by his sudden change of humour, and it seemed as useless to reproach himself for an act so far beyond his present area of personality as it would have been to moralise upon an indiscretion in ancient history. A little later, as he ascended Laura's steps, he felt serenely assured that he had made the best possible disposition of his future.

To his surprise she was not in her sitting-room when he entered, and it was several minutes before she came in, very quietly and with an averted face. When he would have taken her in his arms, she drew back quickly with an indignant and wounded gesture. Her eyes were burning, but he had never heard her speak in so hard a voice.

"You were in town last night," she said, and by her look more than her words he was brought face to face with the suspicion that she was capable of a jealous outburst.

"I wanted to come, but I couldn't," he answered, with an attempt at his quizzical humour. "I rushed here as soon as I dared this morning-isn't that enough to prove something?"

Again he made a movement to take her in his arms, but her face was so unyielding that his hands, which he had outstretched, fell to his sides. From the look in her eyes he could almost believe that she had grown to hate him in the night; and at the thought his earlier impetuous emotion flamed in his heart.

"Don't lie to me," she said passionately, "there's nothing I hate so much as a lie."

"I never lied to you in my life," he answered, as he drew back with an expression of cold reproach-for it seemed to him that her attack had offered an unpardonable affront to his honour.

"When you did not come I sent a note to you-I feared something had happened-I hardly knew what-but something. The note came back. They told the messenger-" the words were wrenched out of her as by some act of bodily torture, and, at last, in spite of her struggle, she could go no further. Pausing she looked at him in silence, while her hand pressed into her bosom as if to keep down by physical force the passion which she could no longer control by a mental effort. The violence of temper which in a coarser-a more flesh-and-blood beauty-would have been repelling and almost vulgar, was in her chastened and ennobled by the ethereal quality in her outward form-and the emotion she expressed seemed to belong less to the ordinary human impulses than to some finer rage of spirit which was independent of the gesture or the utterance of flesh.

"And you suspected what?" he demanded, in a hurt and angry voice, "you were told some story by a servant-and without waiting for my explanation-without giving me a decent chance to clear myself-you were ready, on the instant, to believe me capable-of what?"

Her suspicion worked him into a furious resentment; and the consciousness that he, himself, was at fault was swallowed up by the greater wrong of her unuttered accusation. While he spoke he was honestly of the opinion that their whole future happiness was wrecked by the fact that she believed him capable of the thing which he had done.

"I would die now before I would justify myself to you," he added.

Before the unaffected resentment in his face, she was suddenly, and without knowing it, thrown into a position of defence.

"What could I believe? What else was there for me to believe?" she asked in a muffled voice. Then, as she looked up at him, it seemed to her that for the first time she saw the man as he really was in the truth of his own nature-saw his egoism, his vanity, his shallowness and saw, too, with the same mental clearness, that he had ceased to love her. But at the instant with this vision before her, she told herself that the discovery made no difference-that it no longer mattered whether he loved or hated her. Afterward, when he had gone, her perceptions would be blunted again and she would suffer, she knew; but now, while she stood there face to face with him, she could not feel that he bore any vital part in her existence.

"You must believe whatever your feeling for me dictates," he retorted. "I shall not stoop to meet a charge of which I am still ignorant-I have loved you," he added, "more than I have ever loved any man or woman in my life."

"You have never loved me-you do not love me now," she responded coolly.

She had not meant to speak the words; they held no particular meaning for her ears; and yet they had no sooner passed her lips than she had a strange impression that they remained like detached, living things in the space between them. Why she had spoken as she had done, she could not tell, nor why she had really cared so little at the instant when she had uttered her passionate reproach. Then she remembered a wooden figure she had once seen on the stage-a figure that walked and moved its arms and uttered sounds which resembled a human voice-and it se

emed to her that she, herself, was this figure and that her gestures and the words she spoke were the result of the hidden automaton within her.

She saw him pass to the door, look back once, and then leave the room with his rapid step, and while her eyes followed him, she felt that the man who had just gone from her with that angry glance was a different individual from the man whom she still loved and for whom she would presently suffer an agony of longing. Then as the sound of the hall door closing sharply fell on her ears, she passed instantly from the deadening lethargy of her senses into a vivid realisation of the thing which had just happened-of the meaning of the words which she had spoken and of the look which he had thrown back at her as he went. A passion of despair rose in her throat, struggling for release until it became a physical torture, and she cried out in her loneliness that nothing mattered-neither truth nor falsehood-so long as she could be brought again face to face with his actual presence.

But-if she had only known the truth!-Kemper had never desired her so ardently as in the hour when he told himself that, by his own fault, he had lost her forever; she had never shown herself so worthy to be won as when she had looked down upon him from the remoteness of her disdain. Like many men of flexible morality, he entertained a profound respect for any rigid ethical standard; and had Laura maintained her unyielding attitude, he would probably have suffered a hopeless passion for her to the end of his embittered but still elastic experience. Though he was hardly aware of it, the only virtues he could perfectly appreciate were the ones which usually present themselves in a masculine shape-courage, honour, fair play among men and chivalry to women; and it seemed to him that Laura, in exacting his entire fidelity, was acting upon an essentially masculine prerogative. The more she demanded, the more, unconsciously to himself, he felt that he was ready to surrender-and he cursed now the intervention of Madame Alta with a vehemence he would never have felt had the course of his love flowed on smoothly in spite of his relapses.

"What a damned fool I made of myself," he confessed, as he walked rapidly away from Gramercy Park. "I got no pleasure from seeing Jennie Alta-not an atom of enjoyment even-and yet I've ruined my whole life because of her, and the chances are nine to one that if I had it to go over I'd act the same blooming idiot again. And all the time I'm more in love with Laura than I've ever been with any woman in my life. Here's the whole happiness of my future swept away at a single blow."

And the domestic dream which Madame Alta had destroyed was mapped out for him by his imagination, until she seemed, not only to have prevented his marriage, but, by some singular eccentricity of feeling, to have murdered the son who had played so large a part in his confident expectations.

"But why should this have happened to me when I'm no worse than other men?" he questioned, "when I'm even better than a hundred whom I know? I've never willingly harmed any human being in my life-I've never cheated, I've never lied to get myself out of a tight place, I've never breathed a word against the reputation of any woman." He thought of Brady, who, although he was a cad and had ruined Connie Adams, was now reconciled with his wife and received everywhere he went; of Perry Bridewell whose numerous affairs had never interfered with either his domestic existence or his appetite. Beside either of these men he felt himself to glow inwardly with virtue, yet he saw that his greater decency had not in the least prevented his receiving the larger punishment; and it seemed to him that he must be pursued by some malign destiny because, though he was so much better than Brady or Perry Bridewell, he should have been overtaken by a retribution which they had so easily escaped. An unreasonable anger against Laura pervaded his thoughts, but this very anger lent fervour to the admiration he now felt for her. He knew she loved him and if-as in the case of no other woman he had ever known-her love could be dominated and subdued by her recognition of what was due her honour, his feeling rather than his thought, assured him that he would be reduced to a moral submission approaching the abject. Though he hoped passionately that she would yield, he realised in his heart that he would adore her if she remained implacable. Love is not always pleased with reverence, but reverence, he saw dimly through some pathetic instinct for virtue, is the strongest possible hold that love can claim. He, himself, would always live in the external world of the senses, yet deep within him, half smothered by the clouds of his egoism, there was still a blind recognition of that other world beyond sense which he had shut out. To this other world, for the time at least, Laura, with all the enchantment of the distance, appeared to belong.

The morning, with its unusual burden of introspection, was, perhaps, the most miserable he had ever spent, and after he had lunched at his club-when to his surprise he found that his appetite was entirely undisturbed by his mental processes-he returned to his rooms before starting dejectedly for a long run in his automobile. But a letter from Laura was the first object he noticed upon his desk, and his afternoon plans were swept from his mind with the beginning of her heart-broken entreaty for reconciliation. While he read it there was recognition in his thoughts for no feeling except his rapture in her recovery, and he took up his pen with a hand which trembled in the shock of his reaction from despair to happiness. Then, while he still hesitated, in a mixture of self-reproach and tenderness, there was a knock at his door, it opened and shut quickly, with an abruptness which even in inanimate things speak of excitement, and Laura, herself, breathing rapidly and very pale, came hurriedly across the room.

"I could not stay away-you did not answer my note-it would have killed me," she began brokenly; and as he stretched out his arms she threw herself into them with a burst of tears.

"Oh, you angel!" he exclaimed, in a tenderness which was almost an ecstasy of feeling; and then, moved by a passion of sympathy, he called her by every endearing name his mind could catch at or his voice utter. The depth of his nature responded in all its volume, as she lay there weeping for joy, in his arms, and in her coming to him as she had done he beheld then only an exquisite proof of her nobility of soul, of the unworldly innocence for which he loved her. In that embrace, for that one supreme instant, their spirits touched more nearly than they had ever done in the past or would ever do again in the future-for even while he held her the tide of being receded from its violence and they drew apart.

"If you had only waited I should have come to you at once," he said, looking at her in a rapture which, though he himself was ignorant of it, struggled against a disappointment because she had shown herself to be closer to his own level than he had believed.

Drawing slightly away Laura stood shaking the tear drops from her lashes, while she regarded him with her radiant smile. The misty brightness of her eyes showed to him in an almost unreal loveliness.

"I didn't care-nothing mattered to me," she answered, "it made no difference what the world said-nor whether I lived or died."

Though the flattery of her coming moved him strongly, he found himself wishing while she spoke that she had not proved herself to be so ardently regardless of conventions-that she had appeared, for once, less natural and more worldly-wise.

"Well, I'll take you home now," he said, smiling; then as he saw her gaze, passing curiously about the room, rest enquiringly upon the portrait of Madame Alta, he broke into a laugh which sounded, for all its pleasantness, a little strained.

"That goes out of the way as soon as I can get something to cover the spot," he remarked, adding gayly, "Symonds says he will finish his portrait of me next week, and I'll hang it there until you claim it."

Her face had clouded, and without looking at him she moved toward the door. "Are you really glad that I came?" she asked abruptly, turning upon the threshold.

"Glad! My darling girl, I'm simply overjoyed. You gave me the most miserable morning of my life."

It was the truth-he knew it for the truth while he uttered it, but, in his heart of hearts, he felt without confessing it to himself, that his love had dropped back from that divine height beyond which mere human impulse becomes ideal passion.

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