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   Chapter 32 IN WHICH LAURA ENTERS THE VALLEY OF HUMILIATION

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 14214

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Two weeks later Laura was still able to assure herself that it was this lack of "seriousness" in Kemper's manner which had kept her from alluding to the burned letter. Since the morning on which she had seen Adams, she felt that she had merely skimmed experience without actually touching it; and three days from the date of her marriage she was as far from any deeper understanding of the situation as she had been in the beginning of her love. In the end it was so much easier to ignore her difficulties than to face them; and it seemed to her now that she was forced almost in spite of herself into Gerty's frivolous attitude toward life. To evade the real-to crowd one's existence with little lies until there was no space left through which the larger truth might enter-this was the only solution which she had found ready for her immediate need.

Adams she had not met again; once he had called, but impelled by a shrinking which was almost one of fear, she had turned back on the threshold and refused to see him. Even Gerty she had tried to avoid since the afternoon in Kemper's rooms, but Gerty, who was in her gayest mood, drove down every day "to overturn," as she carelessly remarked, "the newest presents."

"I'm heartily glad you're going to Europe," she said, "and I hope by the time you come back you'll have lost that nervous look in your face. It never used to be there and I don't like it."

At her words Laura threw an alarmed glance at the mirror; then she turned her head with a laugh in which there was a note of bitterness.

"It came there in my effort to make conversation," she answered. "I've been engaged to Arnold eight months and we've talked out every subject that we have in common. Do you know what it is to be in love with a man and yet to rack your brain for something to say to him?" she finished merrily.

"That's because you ought to have married Roger Adams, as I was the only one to suggest," retorted Gerty, "then you'd have had conversation enough to flow on, without a pause, till Judgment Day. It's a very good thing, too," she added seriously, "because the real bug-a-boo of marriage is boredom, you know."

"But how can two people bore each other when they are in love?" demanded Laura, almost indignant.

The possibility appeared to her at the moment as little short of ridiculous, yet she knew, in her heart of hearts, that she faced, not without approaching dread, the thought of those two months in Europe; and she admitted now for the first time that beyond the absorption of their love, she and Kemper had hardly an interest which they shared. Even the eyes with which they looked on Europe would be divided by the space of that whole inner world which stretched between them. Yet because of the supremacy of this one sentiment she had striven to crush out her brain in order that she might have the larger heart with which to nourish the emotion which held them together. In the pauses of this sentiment she realised that their thoughts sprang as far asunder as the poles, and as she looked from Gerty to the wedding presents scattered in satin boxes on chairs and tables, the fact that the step she took was irrevocable, that in three days she would be Kemper's wife, that there was no possible escape from it now, produced a sudden sickening terror in her heart. Then with a desperate clutch at her old fatalistic comfort, she told herself that it would all come right if she were only patient-that with her marriage everything would be settled and become entirely simple.

Gerty was unpacking a case from a silversmith's when Kemper came in; and he gave a low whistle of dismay as he glanced about the room strewn with boxes.

"By Jove, I believe they think we're going to set up a business!" he exclaimed.

"Oh, you can't imagine how all this comes in for entertaining," replied Gerty, shaking out her skirt as she rose from her knees.

Laura's eyes were on Kemper's face, and she saw that it wore a look of annoyance beneath the conventional smile with which he responded to Gerty's words. Something had evidently happened to displease him, and she waited a little anxiously half hoping for, half dreading her friend's departure.

"I trust you'll go through the ceremony more gracefully than Perry did," Gerty was saying with a teasing merriment, while she broke a white rosebud from the vase of flowers and fastened it in his coat. "I declare he quite spoiled the whole effect, he looked so frightened. I never realised how little sense of humour Perry has until I saw him at the altar."

"Well, it isn't exactly a joke, you know," retorted Kemper.

For the first time, as Laura watched him, she remembered that he had been through it all before without her; and the thought entered her heart like a dagger, that even now there was another woman alive somewhere in the world who had been his wife-who had been almost as much loved, almost as close to him as she herself was to-day. The thought sickened her, and she felt again her blind terror of a step so irrevocable.

Gerty had gone at last; and Kemper, after walking twice up and down the room, stopped to examine a silver coffee service with an attention which was so evidently assumed that Laura was convinced he might as well have fixed his gaze upon the fireplace. His thoughts were busily occupied in quite an opposite direction from his eyes, for turning presently, he laid down the sugar bowl he had picked up, and went rapidly to the mantel piece, where he took down a photograph of Roger Adams.

"You don't see much of Adams now?" he remarked enquiringly.

"Not much," she went over to the mantel and glanced carelessly at the picture in his hand. "I never shall again."

"How's that? and why?"

"Oh, I don't know-one never sees much of one's friends after marriage, somehow. To supply the world to me," she added gayly, "is a part of the responsibility of your position."

Though his gaze was fixed intently upon her face, she saw clearly that he had hardly taken in her words, for while she spoke his hands wandered to the inside pocket of his coat, as if he wished to make sure of a letter he had placed there.

"By the way, Laura, a queer thing happened to-day," he said, frowning.

She looked up a little startled.

"A queer thing?"

"I had a letter from Madame Alta asking why I hadn't sold some stock I'd been holding for her? She lost a good deal by my not selling and she was in a devilish temper about it."

Laura had not lowered her eyes, and as he finished she smiled into his face.

"And you did not sell?" she asked.

"I never got the letter-but the odd part is she says she came to see me about it the day you were there with Gerty-that she saw you and that she left the letter with you to deliver-"

He broke off and stood waiting with a half angry, half baffled look; and then as she was still silent he picked up a red leather box from the table, laid it down again and came nearer to where she stood.

"Is it all a lie, Laura?" he demanded.

The justification which she had attempted alone in the night cam

e back to her while she stood there with her hands, which felt like dead things, hanging limp at her sides. "It was so very little that it escaped my memory," was what she had said to herself in the darkness; but now, face to face with him in the light of day, she could not bring her mind to think these words nor her lips to utter them.

"No, it isn't a lie-it is true," she answered.

"It is true?" he repeated in an astonishment which gave place to anger as he went on. "Do you mean you really met her in my rooms?"

"I met her there-I met her there!" she rejoined in a bitter triumph of truth which seemed, somehow, a relief to her.

"And you did not tell me?"

She shook her head. "I'd never have told you."

"But the letter? What became of the letter?"

She had drawn a step away from him, not in any fresh spirit of evasion, but that she might gain a better view of the look with which he confronted her. Her eyes had not wavered from his since the first question he had asked, but her hands were nervously knotting and unknotting a silver cord which she had picked up from a jeweller's box upon the table at her side.

"Why didn't I get the letter, Laura?" he asked again.

"Because I burned it," she answered slowly, "I burned it in the fire in your room just before you came in-I burned it," she repeated for the third time, raising her voice to clearer distinctness.

A dark flush rose to his face and the sombre colour gave him an almost brutal look.

"In God's name why did you do it?" he asked; and she saw the contempt in his eyes as she had seen it before in her imagination. "I am to presume, I suppose, that you were prompted by jealousy?" he added. "An amiable beginning for a marriage."

"I don't know why I did it," she replied, in a voice which was so constrained as to sound unfeeling. "I didn't know at the time and I don't know now. Yes, I suppose jealousy is as good a reason as any other."

"And is this what I am to expect in the future?" he enquired, with an irony which he might as well have flung at a figure of wood. "Good God!" he exclaimed as his righteous resentment swept from his mind all recollection of his own relapses. "Are you willing to marry a man whom you can't trust out of your sight?"

The force with which he uttered the words drove them so deeply into his consciousness that he was convinced by his own violence of the justice in the stand he took. "Have you absolutely no faith in me?" he demanded.

For a moment the question occupied her thoughts.

"No, I don't think I have any now," she answered, "I've tried to make myself believe I had-I've told a lie to my conscience about it every day I lived-but I don't think I've ever really had faith in you since that night-"

"And yet you are willing to marry me?" he asked, and the scorn in his voice stung her like a physical blow. He looked at her with an angry glance, and while his eyes rested upon her, she understood that he had never really seen her in his life-that he had never penetrated beyond the outward aspect, the trick of gesture.

"No!-No!" she cried out suddenly, as if she had awakened in terror from her sleep. At the instant she saw herself through his eyes, humiliated, beaten down, unwomanly, and she was possessed by a horror of her own individuality which she felt in some way to be a part of her horror of the man who had revealed it to her.

In his perplexity he had fallen back a step and stood now pulling nervously at his moustache with a gesture which recalled his resemblance to Perry Bridewell. This gesture, more than any words he spoke, shocked her into an acuteness of perception which was almost unnatural in its vividness. It was as if her soul, so long drugged to insensibility, had started up in the last battle for liberation.

"No-no-it is impossible!" she repeated.

"Aren't you rather late in coming to this decision?" he enquired with a short laugh.

But his irony was wasted upon her, for she saw only the look in his eyes, which revealed her deception to her in a blaze of scorn-and she felt that she hated him and herself with an almost equal hatred.

"I am sorry, but-but I can't," she stammered. Feeling her words to be ineffectual she cast about wildly for some reason, some explanation however trivial-and in the effort she found her eyes wandering aimlessly about the room, taking in the scattered wedding presents, his dejected yet angry look, and the fading white rosebud Gerty had pinned jauntily in his coat. Then at last she realised that there was nothing further that she could say, so she stood helplessly knotting the silver cord while she watched the furious perplexity in which he tugged at his moustache.

"I can't for the life of me see why you should be so damned jealous, Laura," he burst out presently, thrust back from the surface conventions into a brute impulse of rage.

"I told you I didn't know," she answered irritably, "I told you that-"

"Of course, I'm willing to let it go this time," he went on, with what she felt to be a complacent return to his lordly attitude, "there's no use making a fuss, so we may as well forget it-but, for heaven's sake, don't give me a jealous wife. There's nothing under heaven more likely to drive a man insane."

Some elusive grace in her attitude-a suggestion of a wild thing poised for flight-arrested him suddenly as he looked at her; and she saw his face change instantly while the fire of passion leaped to his eyes.

"Be a darling and we'll forget it all!" he exclaimed.

He made a step forward, but shrinking back until she appeared almost to crouch against the wall, she put out her hands as if warding off his approach.

"Don't touch me!" she said; and though she spoke in a whisper, her words seemed to shriek back at her from the air. The thought that she was fighting for the freedom of her soul rushed through her brain, and at the instant, had he laid his hand upon her, she knew that she would have thrown herself from the window.

"I don't want to touch you," he returned, cooling immediately, "but can't you come to your senses and be reasonable?"

"If you don't mind I wish you'd go," she said, looking at him with a smile which was like the smile of a statue.

"If I go now will you promise to get sensible again?" he asked, with annoyance, for it occurred to him that since he had made up his mind to be magnanimous, she had repulsed his generosity in a most ungrateful fashion.

"I am sensible," she responded, "I am sensible for the first time for months."

"Well, you've a pretty way of showing it," he retorted. His irritation got suddenly the better of him, and fearing that it might break out in spite of his control, he turned toward the door. "For God's sake, let's make the best of it now," he added desperately.

In his nervousness he stumbled against the table and upset the red leather box which contained the coffee service.

"I beg your pardon," he said, and stooping to pick it up, he replaced the silver in the case before he went into the hall and closed the door behind him.

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