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   Chapter 31 THE SECRET CHAMBERS

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 16806

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Waking in the night, with a start, Laura asked herself why she had burned the letter. As she lay there in the darkness it seemed to her that the sudden light shone in her thoughts again, and she saw everything made clear to her as she had seen it while she held Jennie Alta's hand. In that instant she had looked beyond the small personal emotions to the woman's soul with its burden of greed and sensuality, and because she had been able to do this, she had felt herself to be composed and released from hatred. To discern the soul was to feel not only tolerance, but pity for the flesh, and it appeared to her now that in that one moment she had ceased to be herself alone, and had shared in the divine wisdom which the sudden light had revealed to her in her breast. Yet the instant afterward her personality had triumphed and she had burned the letter!

The illumination within her faded now, and as she lay there with wide open eyes, she saw only the surrounding darkness. Her own motives were still vague to her; when she tried to remember the prompting of her thoughts she could recall only a physical pain which had entered her bosom while she looked at the large white envelope upon the blotter. "Before this I had never lied in my life," she said, "I had never been capable of the slightest dishonest act, I had even taken a pride in my truth like the pride some women take in beauty-and yet I did this thing without effort and I do not know now why I did, nor what I thought of at the time, nor whether I regretted it the moment afterward."

With a resolution which had seldom failed her, she attempted to banish the recollection from her mind; and turning her face from the pale darkness of the window, she closed her eyes again and lay breathing quietly. "Why should I worry-it will all come right-everything will come right if I have patience," she thought, trying to persuade herself to sleep.

But she had no sooner shut her eyes than she began to live over again the afternoon in Kemper's room; and her heart beat so high that she heard the muffled sound under the coverlet "Why did Gerty look at me so?" she asked. "Did she really look at me as if she were afraid, or was it only my imagination?" From Gerty her excited thoughts flew back to Kemper and it seemed to her that she had read scorn and suspicion in the beaming glance he had thrown upon her-in the breathless apology of his entrance. "Had he met her downstairs? Did he know all the time? and was he only waiting for Gerty's absence to accuse me face to face of my dishonesty? But it was a very little thing," she argued aloud, as if justifying herself to a presence beside her bed, "it was such a little thing that it had almost escaped my memory." Then, as she uttered the words, she realised that the justification she attempted was for her own soul rather than for her lover; and she saw that whether Kemper suspected or not made no vital difference to her so long as the dishonesty was there. "The unspoken lie is still between us and his knowledge of it can neither take it away nor undo the fact that it has been. And if I burned the letter might I not be guilty of even greater things under the same impulse? Since I trust neither him nor myself what is there but misery in any future that we may share? Shall I give him up even now? Can I give him up?" But as she demanded this of herself there returned to her the look in his eyes at certain animated instants, and she felt that the charm of his look, which meant nothing, was stronger to hold her than a multitude of reasons. "If I could forget this look in his face, I might forget him," she thought, "but though I struggle to forget it I cannot any more than I can forget the letter lying on his desk."

Again she closed her eyes in a fresh effort to shut out consciousness; but when she determined to sleep the darkness seemed to grow suddenly alive about her, and starting up in a spasm of terror, she lighted the candle on the table beside her bed.

"In the morning I shall tell him," she exclaimed aloud, "I shall tell him everything and if he looks at me with anger I shall go away and not see him any more." At the time it appeared to her very easy, and she felt that it made no difference to her however things might happen on the morrow. "It will be as it will be, and I cannot alter it, for in any event I shall be miserable whether I marry him or give him up." Then she remembered that though she had pardoned Kemper greater sins than this, by the courage of his attitude he had always succeeded in placing her hopelessly in the wrong. "Even after his meeting with Madame Alta it was he who forgave me," she thought with the strange mental clearness, which destroyed her happiness without lessening her emotion, "and through his whole life, however deeply he may wrong me, I know that I shall always be the one to justify myself and seek forgiveness. Is it, after all, only necessary to have the courage of one's acts that one may do anything and not be punished?"

The light of the candle flickering on the mirror gave back her own face to her as if reflected in the dim surface of a pool. She watched the shadows from a vase, of autumn leaves come and go across it, until it seemed to her that the rippling reflection resembled a drowned face that was still her own; and shrinking back in horror, she sat holding the candle in her hand, so that the light would shine on the walls and floor.

"Yes, that is settled-I shall tell him to-morrow," she said, as if surrendering her future into the power of chance or God or whatever stood outside herself, "it will happen as it must, I cannot change it." For a moment there was some comfort in the fatalism of this thought, and after blowing out the candle, she turned her face to the wall and fell at last into a troubled sleep. But her sleep even was filled with perplexing questions, which she continued to ask herself with the same piercing mental clearness that tormented her when she was awake; and she passed presently into a vivid dream, in which she rescued the letter with burned hands, from the fire, and carried it to Kemper, who laughed and kissed her burns and threw the letter back into the flames. "It has never really happened-you have imagined it all," he said, "you've dreamed Jennie Alta and now you're dreaming me and yourself also. Look up, for you are just beginning to awake." And when she looked up at his words, his face changed suddenly and she saw that it was Roger Adams who held her hands.

From this dream she awoke with a more distinct memory of Adams than she had had for many days; and she felt again the impulse to unburden her heart to him, which she had resisted on the afternoon they walked together down Fifth Avenue. The dawn had begun to break, and while she waited impatiently for the growing light, she resolved with one of those promptings of wisdom, in which ordinary reason appeared to have no part, that when the morning came she would go to Adams' office before seeing Kemper. Then she remembered the distance which had sprung between them in the last few months, and it seemed to her to have grown still more impassable since the evening before. But because the visit offered an excuse to postpone her confession to Kemper until the afternoon, she caught at it with an eagerness, which hurried her into her hat and coat as soon as her pretence of breakfasting with Angela was at an end.

The morning was bright and clear, and as she walked through the early sunshine in the street, she remembered the day, so long ago now, when she had met Adams going to his office at this hour, and she recalled, with a smile, that she had pitied him then because of the worn places on his overcoat. She no longer pitied him now-Gerty, herself, Perry Bridewell, even Kemper, she felt, might be deserving of compassion, but not Adams. Yes, she, herself, in spite of her boasted strength had come at last to feel the need of being loved for the very weakness she had once despised. But she knew that, though Adams might understand and forgive this weakness, in Kemper it would provoke only the scorn which she had begun to fear and dread. Yet her intellect rather than her heart told her that Adams was a stronger man than Kemper and that his wider sympathies proved only that he was, also, the larger of the two. Was the difference between them merely on

e of goodness, after all, her intellect, not her heart, demanded, and was it true that the perfect love could not enter except where this goodness had been to blaze the way before it in the soul?

As she walked through the streets fanciful comparisons between the two men thronged in her brain, but when presently she reached Adams' office, and stood beside his desk, with her hand in his hearty grasp, she realised all at once that the visit was useless, and that there was nothing she could say to him which would not sound hysterical and absurd.

"So, thank heaven, there's something I can do for you!" he exclaimed, with his cordial smile. "Wait till I get into my overcoat and then we'll see about it."

"No-no," she protested in a terror, which she could not explain even to herself, "don't come out with me-there's nothing you can do. I came because I couldn't help myself," she added, smiling; "and I'll go for no better reason, in a little while."

"Well, I'm ready whenever you say so. If it's to overturn Brooklyn Bridge, I'll set about it for the asking."

"It isn't anything so serious-there's nothing really I want done," she answered gayly, though the pain in her eyes stabbed him to the heart, "all I wanted was to make sure of you-to make sure, I mean, that you are really here."

"Oh, I'm here all right!" he replied, with energy. She looked at him steadily for a moment with her excited eyes which had grown darkly brilliant.

"Do you know what I sometimes think?" she said, breaking into a pathetic little laugh, "it is that I remind myself of one of those angels who, after falling out of heaven, could neither get back again nor reconcile themselves to the things of earth."

Her hand lay on his desk, and while she spoke he bent forward and touched it an instant with his own. Light as the gesture was, it possessed a peculiar power of sympathy; and she was conscious as he looked at her that there was no further need for her to speak, because he understood, not only all that she had meant to put into words, but everything that was hidden in her heart as well.

"I can't preach to you, Laura," he said, "but-but-oh, I can't express even what is in my mind," he added. "I wish I could!"

"It wouldn't help me," she replied, "because although I am not reconciled with the things of earth I want to be-oh, how I want to be!"

"But you can't be-not you," he said. "You're of that particular fibre which grows stronger through pain, I think-and, in the end, how much easier it is to be made all spirit or all clay-it's the combination, not the pure quantity that hurts."

"I wonder if you ever know what it is?" she rejoined. "Does the earth ever pull you back when you want to climb?"

His smile faded, and he looked at her again with the sympathy which accepted, without explanation, not only her outward aspect, but the soul within. "There's not much in my life that counts for a great deal, Laura," he said, "but you come in for considerably the larger share of it. At this moment I am ready to do either of two things, as you may wish-I am ready to stand aside and let your future settle itself as it probably will, or I am ready, at your word, to hear everything and to judge for you as I would judge for myself. No-no, don't answer me now," he added, "carry it away with you, and remember or forget it, as you choose."

Though there were tears in her eyes as she looked at him, she turned away, after an instant, with a flippant laugh.

"Why, it all sounds as if I were really unhappy!" she exclaimed, "but you won't believe that, will you?"

"I'll gladly believe otherwise when you prove it."

"But haven't I proved it? Don't I prove it every day I live?"

"You prove to me at this minute that you are particularly wretched," he returned.

"I am not-I am not," she retorted angrily, while a frown drew her dark brows together. "You have no right to think such things of me-they are not true."

"I have a right to think anything that occurs to me," he corrected quietly, "though I am willing to beg your pardon for putting it into words. Well, since you assure me that you are entirely happy, I can only say that I am overjoyed to hear it."

"I am happy," she insisted passionately; and a little later when she was alone in the street, she told herself that a lie had become more familiar to her than the truth. The conversation with Adams appeared a mistake when she looked back upon it-for instead of lessening it seemed only to increase the weight of her troubles-so she determined presently to think no more either of Adams or of the reasons which had prompted her impulsive visit to him. To forget oneself! Yes, Gerty was right in the end, and the object of all society, all occupations, all amusements, showed to her now as so many unsuccessful attempts to escape the haunting particular curse of personality. Gerty escaped it by her frivolous pursuits and her interminable flirtations, which meant nothing; Kemper escaped it by living purely in the objective world of sense; Adams escaped it-The name checked her abruptly, and she stopped in her thoughts as if a light had flashed suddenly before her eyes. Here, at last, was the explanation of happiness, she felt, and yet she felt also, that it presented itself to her mind in an enigma which she could not solve-for Adams, she recognised, had mastered, not escaped, his personality. The poison of bitterness was gone, but the effectiveness of power was still as great; and his temperament, in passing through the fiery waters of experience, was mellowed into a charm which seemed less a fortunate grace of aspect than the result of a peculiar quality of vision. Was it his own life that had opened his eyes until he could look into the secret chambers in the lives of others?

In Gramercy Park she found Mrs. Payne waiting for her with the carriage, and she accepted almost eagerly the old lady's invitation to spend the morning in a search for hats. At the moment it seemed to her that hats offered as promising an aid to forgetfulness as any other, and she threw herself immediately into the pursuit of them with an excitement which enabled her, for the time, at least, to extinguish the fierce hunger of her soul in supplying the more visible exactions of her body.

At luncheon Gerty appeared, wearing a startling French gown, which, she said, had just arrived that morning. After the first casual greeting they fell into an animated discussion of the choice of veils, during which Gerty declared that Laura had never selected the particular spots which would be most becoming to her features. "You get them too large and too far apart," she insisted, picking up a black net veil from a pile on Laura's table, "even I with my silly nose can't stand this kind."

Laura's eyes were fixed upon her with their singular intensity of look, but in spite of the absorption of her gaze, she had not heard a single word that Gerty uttered.

"Yes, yes, you're right," she said; but instead of thinking of the veils, she was wondering all the time if Gerty had really forgotten her jealousy of Madame Alta and the letter she had burned.

"I shall tell him this afternoon and that will make everything easy," she thought; and when, after a little frivolous conversation Gerty had remembered an engagement and driven hurriedly away, the situation appeared to Laura to have become perfectly smooth again. At the announcement of Kemper's name, she crossed the room to meet him with this impulse still struggling for expression. "I shall tell him now, and then everything will be made easy," she repeated.

But when she opened her lips to speak, she found that the confession would not come into words, and what she really said was:

"It has been a century since yesterday, for I've done nothing but shop."

Laughing he caught her hands, and she saw with her first glance, that he was in one of his ironic moods.

"I thought I'd netted a wren," he answered, "but it seems I've caught a bird of Paradise."

"Then it was your ignorance of natural history, and not I, that deceived you," she retorted gayly, "because I didn't spread my wings for you, did you imagine that they were not brilliant?"

There was a note almost of relief in her voice as she spoke-for she knew now that, so long as he refused to be serious, she could not tell him until to-morrow.

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