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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 6. Shows That Mr. Worldly-Wise-Man May Belong To Either Sex
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 6. Shows That Mr. Worldly-Wise-Man May Belong To Either Sex Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1432

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 6. Shows That Mr. Worldly-Wise-Man May Belong To Either Sex

PART I. IMPULSE CHAPTER VI. SHOWS THAT MR. WORLDLY-WISE-MAN MAY BELONG TO EITHER SEX

Several afternoons later Trent was to have further light thrown on the character of Christina Coles by a chance remark of Roger Adams, into whose office he had dropped for a moment as he was on his way to make his first call upon Mrs. Bridewell.

After a few friendly enquiries about the young man's own work, and the report of a promising word from the great Benson, Adams took up a letter lying loose among the papers on his big littered desk.

"Half the tragedy in New York is contained in a letter like this," he observed. "Do you know, by the way, that the mass of outside literary workers drawn in at last by the whirlpool constitutes almost a population? Take this girl, now, she is so consumed by her ambition, for heaven knows what, that she comes here and starves in an attic rather than keep away in comfort. That reminds me," he added, with a sudden recollection, "she's from your part of the country."

"Indeed!" An intuition shot like a conviction into Trent's mind. "Could her name, I wonder, by any chance be Coles?"

"You know her then?"

"I've met her, but do you mean to say that ability is what she hasn't got?"

"For some things I've no doubt she has an amazing amount, only she's mistaken its probable natural bent. She strikes me as a woman who was born for the domestic hearth, or failing that she'd do admirably, I dare say, in a hospital."

"It's the literary instinct, then, that's missing in her?"

"Not the instinct so much as the literary stuff, and in that she's not different from a million others. She is evidently on fire with the impulse to create, but the power--the creative matter--isn't in her. Let her keep up, and she'll probably go on doing 'hack' work until her death."

"But she's so pretty," urged Trent with a chivalric qualm--and he remembered her smooth brown hair parted over her rosy ears, her blue eyes, fresh as flowers, and the peculiar steadfastness that possessed her face.

"The more's the pity," said Adams, while the muscles about his mouth twitched slightly, as they always did when he was deeply moved, "it's a bigger waste. I wrote to her as a father might have done and begged her to give it up," he went on, "and in return," he tapped the open sheet, "she sends me this fierce, pathetic little letter and informs me grandly that her life is dedicated. Dedicated, good Lord!" he exclaimed compassionately, "dedicated to syndicated stories in the Sunday press and an occasional verse in the cheaper magazines."

"And there's absolutely nothing to be done?" asked Trent.

Adams met the question with a frown.

"Oh, if it would make it all come right in the end, I'd go on publishing her empty, trite little articles until Gabriel blows his trumpet."

"It wouldn't help, though, after all."

"Well, hardly--the quick way is sure to be the most merciful," he laughed softly with the quality of kindly humour which never failed him, "we'll starve her out as soon as possible," he declared.

As if to dismiss the subject, he refolded the letter, slipped it in its envelope, and placed it in one of his crammed pigeon-holes. "Thank God, your own case isn't of the hopeless kind!" he exclaimed fervently.

"Somehow success looks like selfishness," returned Trent, showing by his tone the momentary depression which settled so easily upon his variable moods.

At the speech Adams turned upon him the full sympathy of his smile, while he enclosed in a warm grasp the hand which the young man held out.

"It's what we're made for," he responded cheerily, "success in one way or another."

His words, and even more his look, remained with Trent long afterwards, blowing, like a fresh strong wind, through the hours of despondency which followed for him upon any temporary exaltation. The young man had a trick of remembering faces, not as wearing their accustomed daily look, but as he had seen them animated and transfigured by any vivid moment of experience, and he found later that when he thought of Adams it was to recall the instant's kindly lighting of the eyes, the flicker of courageous humour about the mouth and the dauntless ring in the usually quiet voice. He realised now, as he walked through the humming streets, that success or failure is not an abstract quantity but a relative value--that a man may be a shining success in the world's eyes and a comparative failure in his own. To Trent, Adams had for years represented the cultured and scholarly critic--the writer who, in his limited individual field, had incontestably "arrived." Now, for the first time, he saw that the editor looked upon himself as a man of small achievements, and that, inasmuch as his idea had been vastly more than his execution, he felt himself to belong to the unfulfilled ones of the earth.

When, a little later, he reached Mrs. Bridewell's house in Sixty-ninth Street the servant invited him, after a moment's wait below, into her sitting-room upstairs, and, following the man's lead, he was finally ushered into a charming apartment upon the second floor. A light cloud of cigarette smoke trailed toward him as he entered, and when he paused, confused by broken little peals of laughter, he made out a group of ladies gathered about a tiny Oriental table upon which stood a tray of Turkish coffee. Gerty rose from the circle as he advanced, and moved a single step forward, while the pale green flounces of her train rippled prettily about her feet. Her hair was loosely arranged, and she gave him an odd impression of wearing what in his provincial mind he called a "wrapper"--his homely name for the exquisite garment which flowed, straight and unconfined, from her slender shoulders. His mother, he remembered, not without a saving humour, had always insisted that a lady should appear before the opposite sex only in the entire armour of her "stays" and close-fitting bodice.

Gerty, as she mentioned the names of her callers, subsided with her ebbing green waves into the chair from which she had risen, and held her cigarette toward Trent with a pretty inviting gesture. Her delicate grace gave the pose a piquant attraction, and he found himself watching with delight the tiny rings of smoke which curled presently from her parted lips. As she smoked she held her chin slightly lifted, and regarded him from beneath lowered lids with an arch and careless humour.

"If you'd been the Pope himself," she remarked, as an indifferent apology, "I'd hardly have done more than fling the table-cover over my head. Even you, after you'd spent a morning trying on a velvet gown, would require a lounge and a good smoke."

He admitted that he thought it probable, and then turned to one of the callers who had spoken--a handsome woman with gray hair, which produced an odd effect of being artificial.

"I wish I'd done nothing worse than try on clothes," she observed, "but I've been to lunch with an old lover."

"Poor dear," murmured Gerty, compassionately, as she passed Trent a cup of coffee, "was he so cruel as to tell you you'd retained your youth?"

"He did worse," sighed the handsome woman, "he assured me I hadn't."

"Well, he couldn't have done more if he'd married you," declared Gerty, with her gleeful cynicism.

"He was too brutally frank for a husband," remarked a second caller as she sipped her coffee. "You showed more discretion, Susie, than I gave you credit for."

"Oh, you needn't compliment me," protested Susie; "in those days he hadn't a penny."

"Indeed! and now?"

"Now he has a great many, but he has attached to himself a wife, and I a husband. Well, I can't say honestly that I regret him," she laughed, "for if he has lived down his poverty he hasn't his passion for red--he wore a red necktie. Why is it," she lamented generally to the group, "that the male mind leans inevitably toward violent colours?"

"Perhaps they appeal to the barbaric part of us," suggested Trent, becoming suddenly at ease amid the battle of inanities.

"Have you a weakness for red, too, Mr. Trent?" enquired Gerty.

The sparkle in his eyes leaped out at her challenge.

"Only in the matter of hair," he retorted boldly.

She regarded him intently for a moment, while he felt again as he had felt at Laura Wilde's, not only her fascination--her personal radiance--but the conviction that she carried at heart a deep disgust, a heavy disenchantment, which her ostentatious gayety could not conceal. Even her beauty gave back to him a suggestion of insincerity, and he wondered if the brightness of her hair and of her mouth was as artificial as her brilliant manner. It was magnificent, but, after all, it was not nature.

"Because I warn you now," she pursued, after the brief pause, "that if you bind your first play in red I shall refuse to read it."

"You can't escape on that ground," rejoined Trent, "I'll make it green."

"Well, you're more civilised than Perry," declared Gerty, with one of her relapses into defiant ridicule, which caused Trent to wonder if she were not acting upon an intuition which taught her that a slight shock is pleasantly stimulating to the fancy, "and I suppose it's my association with him that convinces me if we'd leave your sex alone it would finally revert to the savage state and to skin girdles."

"Now don't you think Perry would look rather nice in skins?" enquired the handsome woman. "I can quite see him with his club like the man in--which one of Wagner's?"

"It isn't the club of the savage I object to," coolly protested Gerty, "it's the taste. Perry has been married to me five years," she continued, reflectively, "a long enough period you would think to teach even a Red Indian that my hair positively shrieks at anything remotely resembling pink. Yet when I went to the Hot Springs last autumn he actually had this room hung for me in terra-cotta."

Trent cast a blank stare about the tapestried walls.

"But where is it?" he demanded.

"It's gone," was Gerty's brief rejoinder, and she added, after a moment devoted to her cigarette, "now that's where it pays to have the wisdom of the serpent. I really flatter myself," she admitted complacently, "that I've a genius, I did it so beautifully. Your young innocent would have mangled matters to the point of butchery and have gloried like a martyr in her domestic squabbles, but I've learned a lesson or two from misfortune, and one of them is that a man invariably prides himself upon possessing the quality he hasn't got. That's a perfectly safe rule," she annotated along the margin of her story. "I used to compliment an artist upon his art and an Apollo upon his beauty--but it never worked. They always looked as if I had under-valued them, so now I industriously praise the folly of the wise and the wisdom of the fool."

"And the decorative talent of Perry," laughed one of the callers.

"You needn't smile," commented Gerty, while Trent watched the little greenish flame dance in her eyes, "it isn't funny--it's philosophy. I made it out of life."

"But what about the terra-cotta?" enquired Susie.

"Oh, as I've said, I did nothing reckless," resumed Gerty, relaxing among her cushions, "I neither slapped his face nor went into hysterics--these tactics, I've found, never work unless one happens to be a prima donna--so I complimented him upon his consideration and sat down and waited. That night he went to a club dinner--after the beautiful surprise he'd given me he felt that he deserved a little freedom--and the door had no sooner closed upon him than I paid the butler to come in and smoke the walls. He didn't want to do it at all, so I really had to pay him very high--I gave him a suit of Perry's evening clothes. It's the ambition of his life, you know, to look like Perry."

"How under heaven did he manage it?" persisted Susie. "The smoke, I mean, not the resemblance."

"There are a good many lamps about the house and we brought them all in, every one. The butler warned me it was dangerous, but I assured him I was desperate. That settled it--that and the evening clothes--and by the time Perry returned the room was like an extinct volcano."

"And he never found out?" asked Susie, as the callers rose to go.

"Found out! My dear, do you really give him credit for feminine penetration? Well, if you will go--good-bye--and--oh--don't look at my gown to-morrow night or you'll turn blue with envy," then, as Trent started to follow the retreating visitors, she detained him by a gesture. "Stay awhile, unless you're bored," she urged, "but if you're really bored I shan't say a word. I assure you I sometimes bore myself."

As he fell back into his chair Trent was conscious of a feeling of intimacy, and strange as it was, it dispelled instantly his engrossing shyness.

"I'm not bored," he said, "I'm merely puzzled."

"Oh, I know," Gerty nodded, "but you'll get over it. I puzzle everybody at first, but it doesn't last because I'm really as clear as running water. My gayety and my good spirits are but the joys of flippancy, you see."

"I don't see," protested Trent, his eyes warming.

She laughed softly, as if rather pleased than otherwise by the frankness of his admiration. "You haven't lost as yet the divine faith of youth," she said, carelessly flicking the ashes of her cigarette upon the little table at her elbow. Then, tossing the burned end into a silver tray, she pushed it from her with a decisive movement. "I've had six," she observed, "and that's my limit."

"What I'm trying to understand," confessed Trent, leaning forward in his earnestness, "is why you should care so greatly for Miss Wilde?"

Gerty flashed up suddenly from her cushions. "And pray why shouldn't I?" she demanded.

"Because," he hesitated an instant and then advanced with the audacity born of ignorance, "you're as much alike as a thrush and a paroquet."

She laughed again.

"So you consider me a paroquet?"

"In comparison with Laura Wilde."

"Well, I'd have said a canary," she remarked indulgently, "but we'll let it pass. I don't see though," she serenely continued, "why a paroquet shouldn't have a feeling for a thrush?"

He shook his head, smiling. "It seems a bit odd, that's all."

"Then, if it's any interest to you to know it," pursued Gerty, with a burst of confidence, "I'd walk across Brooklyn Bridge, every step of the way, on my knees for Laura. That's because I believe in her," she wound up emphatically, "and because, too, I don't happen to believe much in anybody else."

"So you know her well?"

"I went to school with her and I adored her then, but I adore her even more to-day. Somehow she always seems to be knocking for the good in one, and it has to come out at last because she stands so patiently and waits. She makes me over every time she meets me, shapes me after some ideal image of me she has in her brain, and then I'm filled with desperate shame if I don't seem at least a little bit to correspond with it."

"I understand," said Trent slowly; "one feels her as one feels a strong wind on a high mountain. There's a wonderful bigness about her."

"It's because she's different," explained Gerty, "she's kept so apart from life that she knows it only in its elemental freshness--she has a kind of instinct for truth just as she has for poetry or for beauty, and our little quibbles, our incessant inanities have never troubled her at all."

The servant entered with a card as she finished, and after reading the name she made a quick movement of interest.

"Ask him to come up," she said to the man, adding immediately as Trent rose to go, "it's Arnold Kemper. Will you stay and see him?"

Trent shook his head, while he held out his hand with a laugh. "I won't stay," he answered; "I don't like him."

She looked up puzzled, her brows bent in an enquiring frown. "Not like him! Why, you've never met."

"What has that to do with it?" he persisted lightly. "One doesn't have to meet a man to hate him."

"One does unless one's a person of stupid prejudices."

"Well, maybe I am," he admitted, "but I have my side."

As the portieres were drawn back, he turned hastily away, to come face to face with Gerty's caller the next instant upon the threshold. Keen as his curiosity was he took in, at his brief glance, only that Kemper presented a bright and brave appearance and walked with a peculiarly energetic step.

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