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   Chapter 36 RENEWAL

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 18874

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

In that strange spiritual death-which was still death though the members of her body lived-Laura seemed to lose gradually all personal connection with the events through which she had passed; and when after three months she turned again to look back upon them, she found that they stood out, clear, detached, and remote as the incidents of history. She was not only dead herself, but the whole world about her showed to her in a curious aspect of unreality, as if a thin veil obscured it, and there were moments when even Adams and Gerty seemed to her to be barely alive. To the last she had refused to return to Gramercy Park, and on the night that she reached Gerty's house she had been aware that she was slipping away from any actual contact with her former life. Her body might breathe and move, but her soul and even her senses had become inanimate, and she felt that they had ceased to take part in any words she uttered.

Though she had persistently denied herself to her aunts, she sent for Mr. Payne on the first day that she was able to sit up, and the only softness she showed was in answer to the compassionate kiss he placed upon her forehead.

"My child, my child, what did I tell you?" he asked gently.

"It is because of that I wanted to see you," she said, "because you are the only person, I believe, who can really understand."

"I think I can, my dear."

"You have had beautiful dreams, too, that were false ones?"

"It isn't that the dreams are false," he replied, "but that the stuff of this earth isn't the kind to grow illusions. They must either wither in the bud or be wrenched up root and branch."

"And there's only the ugly reality, after all?"

"There's only the reality, but it isn't ugly when one grows accustomed to it. You'll find it good enough for you yet, my child."

"No-no," she said, "I've always lived on pretty lies, I see that now-I've always had to find an outlet for my imagination, however false. My poetry was never more than this-it was all quotation-all a reflection of the things I had wanted to feel in life. I never wrote a sincere line," she added.

He pressed her hand-it was his way of showing that he loved her none the less because she was not a poet-and then as the unnatural wanness overspread her face, he went out softly, leaving her in Gerty's care. By different roads they had come at last to the same place in life-she with her blighted youth and he with his beautiful old age and his disappointed hopes.

With the beginning of the year Gerty went South with her, but the soft air or the cold made little difference to Laura, when, as she said, she could feel neither. There had been no outburst of grief; since the night when she had wept on Gerty's bosom, she had not shed a tear; and once when Gerty had alluded to Kemper in her hearing, she had listened with the polite attention she might have bestowed upon the name of a stranger. At Gerty's bidding she came or went, admired or disapproved, but of her old impulsive energy there was so little left that Gerty sometimes wondered if her friend had really, as she insisted, "turned to stone." For Laura's face even had frozen until it wore the impassive smile of a statue, and there was in her movements and her voice something of the insensibility of extreme old age. She was no longer young, nor was she middle-aged; it was as if she had outlived, not only the emotions, but the years of life.

In April they came back again, and on the morning after their return Gerty paid a dejected visit to Adams in his office.

"I can do nothing with her-she's turned to stone," she said.

"Oh, she'll come alive again," he responded. "Where is she?"

"In Gramercy Park. It makes no difference to her now where she is, nor whether she sees Mrs. Payne or not. She even sits for hours and listens to Uncle Percival play upon his flute."

"It will be the death of her," he answered gravely. "Is there nothing we can do?"

"Nothing. I've done everything-she's really stone."

"Well, we'll bring her round," said Adams cheerfully; but when he saw Laura herself in the afternoon, he instinctively turned his eyes away from the frozen sweetness in her look. He was aware that she made an effort to be pleasant, but her pleasantness reminded him of an artificial light on a figure of snow.

"I had hoped you would grow stronger in the South," he said, though all conversation seemed to him to have become suddenly the most impersonal thing on earth.

"But I am strong," she answered, "I am never ill a day."

"There's something about you, all the same, that I don't like," he responded frankly.

"I know," she nodded, smiling, "you aren't used to seeing a dead person walk about. But it's very comfortable when you grow accustomed to it," she added, with a laugh.

At this he would have brought a more intimate note into his voice, but she evaded his first hint of earnestness by a cynical little jest she had picked up from Gerty. Her intention-if she intended anything-he saw clearly now was to confine her perceptions to the immediate surface of life presented before her eyes. She spoke with animation of the country she had left, of Gerty's gayeties, of the wonderful brightness of the weather; but when by a more serious question he sought to penetrate below this fluency of words, he was repelled again by the impression of a mere hollow amiability in her manner. After a few casual remarks he left her with the most hopeless feeling he had known for months, and when, as the days went on, he endeavored fruitlessly to arouse in her a single sincere interest in human affairs, he found himself wondering if it were possible for any creature to be still alive and yet to resemble so closely a figure of marble. Day after day he came only to yield at last to his baffled efforts; and the thin cold smile with which she responded to his words appeared to him sadder than any passionate outburst of tears. Even Connie on that last afternoon had seemed to him more human and less unapproachable than Laura now.

Through the spring he saw her almost every day, and when in June he put her on the train with Gerty for the Adirondacks, he came away with the clutch, as if from a hand of ice, at his heart. He had given her his best and yet he had not penetrated by word or look beneath the unnatural gentleness which enveloped her like an outer covering. Then his heart hardened and he felt that he cursed Kemper for the thing which he had killed.

Back again in the forest, under the green and gold of the leaves, Laura asked herself why the associations of that last summer failed so strangely to disturb her as she looked on the familiar road and mountains? A single year or a whole lifetime ago, it was all one to her now, and while she wandered along the paths down which she had walked with Kemper in the most blissful hours of her love, she found herself almost regretting that she had ceased to suffer-that since her heart was broken it had lost even the power to throb. In the city she had felt herself to be a part of the houses and the streets, and as perfectly indifferent to the passage of life as they; but here with her heart against Nature's she would have liked to pulsate with the other live things in the forest. For the first time for months she began as the days went by, to quicken to an interest in the songs of the birds, or the sunsets on the mountains, or the springing up of a new flower beside the doorstep. And as in every rebound of the emotions from extreme despair, her connection with life came at last through the eye of the mind rather than through the heart, and the lesson was taught her neither by Gerty nor by Adams, but through an awakening to the beauty in the sights and the sounds of the green natural world about her.

Gerty had left her one afternoon, and as the cart drove away she went out of the house and sat down in the sun upon the roadside which bordered the edge of the wood. Behind her was the silence of the forest, and straight ahead the faint purple hills rose against a pale sky above which the white clouds sailed like birds. For a while she gazed with blind eyes at the view for the sake of which the spot was chosen, but the mountains and the sky left her unmoved, and leaning her arm presently upon the warm earth, she lay looking at a little blue flower blooming in the sand at her feet. Her shadow stretched beside her in the road, and it seemed to her that there was as little difference, save in her consciousness, between her and her shadow, as there was between her shadow and the flower. Even her love and her disillusion showed to her now as of no larger consequence than the wind blowing upon her shadow or the dew and the storm falling upon the flower. Then as the minutes passed and her gaze did not waver from the blue petals filled with sunshine, she was aware gradually, as if between dream and waking, of a peculiar deepening of her mental vision, until there was revealed to her, while she looked, not only the outward semblance, but the essence of the flower which was its soul. And this essence of the flower came suddenly in contact with the dead soul within her bosom, while she felt again the energy which is life flowing through her body. At this instant, by that divine miracle of resurrection she began to live anew-to live not her old life alone, but a life that was larger and fuller than the one

which had been hers. She began to live anew in herself as well as in the sky and in humanity and in the songs of birds; and in this ecstasy of recovered life, she felt her soul to be of one substance, not only with God and the stars, but with the flower and the child in the street as well. For that love which had recoiled from its individual object overflowed her heart again until she felt that it had touched the boundaries of the world.

When Adams saw her in the autumn, he discovered the change almost with the first touch of her hand. Not only the outward form, but the indwelling intellect was alive again, and all that reminded him of her past anguish were a deeper earnestness in her smile and a faint powdering of silver on the dark wing-like waves of her hair. That veiled joy which is the expression of the soul that has found peace shone in her face with a radiance which if less bright was to him more beautiful than the sparkling energy she had lost. For the life and the passion of her womanhood were still there, mellowed and ennobled by that shadow of experience without which mere beauty of feature had always seemed to him a meaningless and empty shape. His belief was justified forever in that instant, and he recognised in her then one of those nobler spirits who in passing through the tragedy of disillusionment drain from it the strength without the bitterness that is its portion.

"I want to work, to help," she said eagerly, almost with her first breath, and while he listened with a tenderness tinged with amusement, she described to him the elaborate plans she had made for going among the poor. "It isn't that the poor need help any more than the rich," she added, "but the poor are the only ones that I can reach."

He nodded, smiling, while he watched the animated gestures of her hands. Her poetry, her groping for love, her longing at last to give help to the oppressed, each phase of thought or feeling through which she had passed, showed to him only as the effort of the soul within her to find expression. In this passionate search after the eternal upon earth was she not, in reality, only seeking in outward forms the thing which was herself?

"I will help you, of course," he answered, with a gravity which he found it difficult afterward to maintain, for from that moment she had thrown her heart into the work of uplifting until her whole existence appeared to round presently about this new point of interest. While he could follow her here, he waited almost impatiently for the reaction of her temperament which would bring her back to him, he felt, as inevitably as the changes of the seasons would bring the spring again to the earth.

On Christmas Eve she had arranged for some celebration among the poor on the East Side, and when they came away together, she asked him to take her to Gerty's house instead of to Gramercy Park. Then as they walked along the cross-town blocks from the elevated road, she alluded for the first time to the evening a year ago when he had found her in her deepest misery.

"I thought then that my life was over," she said, "but to-day I have put my foot upon my old grief and it has helped me to spring upward. The world is so full for me now that I can hardly distinguish among so many vivid interests-and yet nothing in it is changed except myself. Do you know what it is to feel suddenly that you have found the key?"

"I know," he replied, "for I have found it, too, and it is love."

"Love for the world-for all mankind," she corrected. "No, don't look at me like that," she added, "I am perfectly happy to-day, but it is the happiness of freedom."

For a moment he did not answer; then he turned his eyes upon the bright pallor of her cheek showing above the dark furs she wore, and there was a smile in his eyes though his voice, when he spoke, was grave.

"Do you know what I have sometimes thought about that, Laura," he said, "it is that I all along, from first to last, have known your heart better than you knew it for all your desperate certainty."

"I never knew it," she responded; "I do not know it now."

"And yet I think I do," he answered.

She shook her head. "It is no longer a mystery-there is only light in it to-day."

"I never thought you loved Kemper," he went on. "What you built your dream upon was an imaginary image that wore his shape. In my heart, even when I stood aside-when I was forced to stand aside because of other claims upon me-I think I was sure all the time that your love was meant for me at last."

"For you? Oh, no, not now," she answered.

"It's a bold way of saying it, I suppose," he pursued, "here I am neither rich nor successful as the world counts these things-in debt probably for several years to come, and with not so much as an athletic lustre to my name. It's not a cheerful picture I'm drawing, but because there's a struggle in it I am not afraid to ask you to come and share it. I wonder if you know how I have loved you, Laura."

"I have known since-since that night," she replied.

"The one argument I have to offer," he said, smiling, "is that in spite of the unpromising outlook, I happen to be the only man on earth who could make you happy."

"You might have been once," she responded.

"And if once, why not now? Is not forever as good as yesterday?"

"Do you know why?" she answered, turning upon him in sudden passion. "You think I am brave and yet I am afraid-afraid, though I won't admit it, every minute that I live. I walk the streets in terror of a memory."

"But I do not," he answered quietly. "Do you doubt my power to keep what I have won-my dearest?"

At the word the colour rose to her cheek, but as they reached Gerty's door, she stopped and put her hand into the one which he held out.

"Like everything else it has come too late," she said.

He shook his head, and then pressing her hand, let it fall.

"I can be patient a little longer," he responded before he turned away.

His words were still in her thoughts when she entered the house; and as she went quickly upstairs to Gerty's sitting-room, she wondered what counsel of indecision she would content herself with at last? Then as she crossed the threshold into the warm firelight, she discovered that Gerty was absent and that Arnold Kemper was standing upon the hearth rug.

As he recognised her he came forward, smiling, and held out his hand.

"So we've met again, after all, Laura," he remarked, without embarrassment.

At the sound of his voice there had come a single high throb of her heart and immediately afterward she was aware of an exultation which showed in the uplifting of her head and in her shining eyes-for as she looked into his face she measured for the first time the distance which divided her dream from her awakening.

"One always meets again, you know," she answered, "but if you're waiting for Gerty now, she is usually after time."

"Women always are," he commented gayly, with his foreign shrug.

The window was just behind him, and as he glanced out into the street, she looked at him in the puzzled wonder with which one seeks in unchanged features; a discernible justification of a passion which is altered. Where was the power to-day against which her heart had beat so helplessly a year ago? Was it possible that she had felt the charm in this man who was already middle-aged, who was satisfied with the mere concrete form of life, and in whose eyes she could see now the heaviness which grows through self-indulgence? His old intimate smile, his disturbing ironic glance, even the quickening of his first passive interest into the emotional curiosity which was the strongest impulse his world-weariness had left alive-each and all of these effects which she remembered impressed her as little to-day as did the bulky fascination of Perry Bridewell. When at last she could escape in the flutter of Gerty's entrance, she left the room and the house with a tremor of her pulses which was strangely associated with a delicious sense of peace-for this chance meeting had revealed to her not only Kemper but herself.

As she walked slowly toward the golden circle of the sky which was visible through the bared trees in the park, she recognised with every fibre of her body as unerringly as with her intellect that she had come at last into that knowledge which is the centre of outgoing life. And as Adams had seen in his deeper vision, that all life is an evolution into the consciousness of God, so she divined now through her mere vague instinct for light, that all emotion is but the blind striving of love after the consciousness of itself. Her whole experience flashed back before her, and in that swiftness of memory which prefigures either an accession of vitality or a tragic death, she understood that both her illusion and her disenchantment were necessary to the building of the structure within her soul. She had mounted by her mistake as surely as by her aspiration, and every pang which she had suffered was but the rending of the veil between her flesh and spirit.

Looking up as she walked she saw, without surprise, that Adams was standing under the bared trees before her; and with her first glance into his face she realised that there are moments charged with so deep a meaning that all explanations, all promises, all self-reproaches become only such vain and barren things as words.

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