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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 8. "The Small Old Path"
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 8. 'The Small Old Path' Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1398

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 8. "The Small Old Path"

PART II. ILLUSION CHAPTER VIII. "THE SMALL OLD PATH"

"Her letters of course gave her away," observed Gerty thoughtfully, as she smoothed her long glove over her arm and looked at Laura with the brilliant cynicism which belonged to her conspicuous loveliness, "Arnold says it is always the woman's letters, and I'm sure he ought to know."

"Why ought he to know?" asked Laura, turning with an impatient movement from the desk at which she sat. Her gaze hung on the soft white creases of kid that encircled Gerty's arm, but there was an abstraction in her look which put her friend at a chilling distance.

Gerty laughed. "Oh, I mean he's a man of the world and they always know things."

For an instant Laura did not respond, and during the brief silence her eyes were lifted from Gerty's arm to Gerty's face. "I sometimes think his worldliness is only a big bluff," she said at last.

"Well, I wouldn't trust his bluff too much, that's all," retorted Gerty.

A smothered indignation showed for a moment in Laura's glance. "But how do you know so much about him?" she demanded.

"I?--oh, I've had my fancy for him, who hasn't? He's like one of those eclair vanille one gets at Sherry's--they look substantial enough on the surface, but when one sticks in the fork there's nothing there but froth. He's really quite all right, you know, so long as you don't stick in the fork."

"But I thought you liked him!" protested Laura, pushing back her chair and rising angrily to her feet.

"I do--I love him--but that's for myself, darling, not for you."

"Do you mean me to think," persisted Laura in a voice that was tense with horrified amazement, "that you are jealous of _me_?"

A long pause followed her words, for Gerty, instead of replying to the question had turned to the window and was staring out upon the bared trees in Gramercy Park. The quiet of it for the moment was almost like the quiet of the country, and the two women who loved each other seemed suddenly divided by miles of silent misunderstanding. Then, with a resolute movement, Gerty looked full into Laura's face, while the light flashed upon a mist of tears that hung over her reproachful eyes.

"Oh, Laura, Laura!" she said softly.

With a cry of remorse Laura threw herself upon her knees beside the window, kissing the gloved hands in Gerty's lap.

But Gerty had wiped her tears away and sat smiling her little worldly smile of knowledge. "I am jealous of you, but not in the way you meant," she answered. "I am jealous for myself, for the one little bit of me that is really alive--the part of myself that is in you. I am afraid to go over again with you the old road that I went over with myself--the old wanting, wanting, wanting that ends in nothing."

"But why should I go over it?" asked Laura, from her knees, and the flush in her face coloured all her manner with a fine deception.

Gerty's mocking gayety rang back into her voice. "You might as well ask me why I am still fool enough to be in love with Perry," she returned with her flippant laugh, "it's a part of what Arnold calls 'the damnable contradiction of life.' You might as well ask Connie Adams why she was born bad?"

"Was she--and how do you know it?" demanded Laura.

"I don't know." Gerty's shrug was exquisitely indifferent. "But it's more charitable, I fancy, to suppose so. Have you seen Roger, by the bye?"

Laura shook her head. "I would rather not. There is nothing one could say."

"Oh, I don't know--one might congratulate him on his liberation, and that's something. I dare say he'll have to get a divorce now, though Perry says he hates them."

"Then I don't believe he'll do it, he doesn't live by the ordinary ethics of the rest of us, you know. Will she marry Brady, do you think?"

"Marry Brady? My blessed innocent, Brady wouldn't marry her. He has about as much moral responsibility as a fig tree that puts forth thistles--and besides who could blame him? She's half crazy already from cocaine, and no man on earth could stand her for a month."

No man on earth! Laura leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes, for she remembered the figure of Roger Adams as he moved away from her through the sunlight in the crowded street. She saw his worn clothes, his resolute walk, and the patience which belonged to the infinite stillness in his face; and, for one breathless moment, she seemed to feel the approach of the spirit which worked silently amid the humming material things that made up life.

Gerty had risen and was fastening her white furs at her throat. "I must go to Camille's," she said, "for she has just got in some new French gowns and she has promised to give me the first look. Of course, one can't really trust her," she added suspiciously, "and I shouldn't be in the least surprised to find that she'd let Ada Lawley get ahead of me. It is simply marvellous how that woman always manages to produce a striking effect. She was at the opera last night in peacock blue when every other woman was wearing that dead, lustreless white. Do you know I sometimes wonder if I follow the fashion almost too closely."

"You could never look like any one else so it doesn't matter."

"And yet I spend two-thirds of my time trying to extinguish the little individuality I possess," laughed Gerty, as she turned upon the threshold. "I wear the same wave in my hair, the same colour in my gown, the same length to my gloves. Oh, you fortunate dear, thank heaven you have never kept a fashion!"

She went out with her softened merriment, while Laura, throwing herself into the chair beside the window, looked down upon the carriage which was waiting before the door. After a moment she saw Gerty come out and cross the sidewalk, lifting her velvet skirt until she showed a beautifully shod foot and a glimpse of black embroidered stocking. She gave a few careless directions to the footman who arranged her rugs, and then as the carriage door closed, she leaned out with her brilliant smile and waved her hand to Laura at the window above. The winter sunlight seemed to pass away with her when at last she turned the corner.

With a sigh Laura's thoughts followed the carriage, envying the beauty and the fashion of her friend for the first time in her life. A strange fascination enveloped the world in which Gerty lived, and the old familiar atmosphere through which she herself had moved so tranquilly was troubled suddenly as if by an approaching storm. The things which she had once loved now showed stale and profitless to her eyes, while those external objects of fortune, to which she had always believed herself to be indifferent, were endowed at the moment with an extraordinary and unreal value. It was as if her whole nature had undergone some powerful physical convulsion, which had altered not only her outward sensibilities but the obscure temperamental forces which controlled in her the laws of attraction and repulsion. What she had liked yesterday she was frankly wearied of to-day. What she had formerly hated she now found to be full of a mysterious charm. Books bored her, and her mind, in spite of her effort at restraint, dwelt longingly upon the trivial details which made up Gerty's life--upon those bodily adornments on which her friend had staked her chance of married happiness. The endless round of dressmakers, shops, and feverish emulation appeared strangely full of interest; and her own quiet life showed to her as utterly destitute of that illusory colour of romance which she found in her vision of Gerty's and of every other existence except her own. She beheld her friend moving in a whirl of colour, through perpetual laughter, and the picture fascinated her, though she knew that in the naked reality of things Gerty was far more unhappy than she herself. Yet Gerty's unhappiness appeared to her to be distinguished by the element of poetry in which her own was lacking.

A terrible _ennui possessed her, the restless desire for a change that would obliterate not only the circumstances in which she was placed, but even the personal fact of her own identity. She wanted an experience so fresh that it would be like a new birth--a resurrection--and yet she could tell neither what this experience would be nor why she wanted it. All that she was clearly aware of was that her surroundings, her family, her friends, the small daily events of her life and her own dissatisfaction, had become stale and repugnant to her mood, and she thought of the day before her as of a gray waste of utterly intolerable hours.

"Nothing will happen in it that has not happened every twenty-four hours since I was born," she said; "it is always the same--everything is the same, and it is this monotony that seems to me insupportable. As I sit here at this window I feel it to be impossible that I should ever drag myself through the remainder of this afternoon, and through the evening which will be like every other evening that I have spent. Aunt Rosa will repeat her exhaustless jokes, Aunt Angela will make her old complaints, Uncle Percival will begin to play upon his flute." And these things when she thought of them--the stories of Mrs. Payne, the despair of Angela, the piping of Uncle Percival's flute--appeared to her to exact a power of moral endurance which she felt herself no longer to possess. A disgust more terrible than grief seized upon her--a revolt from the commonplace which she knew to be worse than tragedy.

Then in the midst of her depression she remembered that on the following afternoon she would see Arnold Kemper, and the hours appeared instantly to open into the light. The end of everything was there just twenty-four hours ahead, and she felt, like a physical agony, the necessity to stifle the consciousness of time, to kill the minutes, one by one, as they crept slowly into sight. She thought of the meeting in this very room, of the gown that she would wear, of the words that she would speak, of the curious exquisite mixture of attraction and repulsion, of the ardent tenderness she would find in his look. This tenderness, she felt, was the solitary expression of the real man--of the man whom Gerty had never known, whom Madame Alta had not so much as glimpsed; and the assurance produced in her a secret rapture which was all the sweeter for being exclusively her own. She wondered where he was at the instant--how he would pass the hours which dragged so heavily for her--and the interest which had vanished so strangely from her own existence attached itself immediately to his. The people he knew, the club he went to, even the motor cars he drove, were surrounded in her thoughts with a fresh and vivid charm. Apart from this there was no longer any charm--hardly any animation about the life she led. A single idea had enlarged itself at the cost of all the others, and she had a sense of standing amid a desert waste, in the drab miles of which a solitary palm-tree flourished.

"And yet why should I hunger for his presence and what is there in it when it comes that is worth this wanting?" she asked in dismay of her own longing. "When I am away from him I think of nothing except of the hour when I shall see him again, and yet when the meeting comes I am not happy and he is always a little different from what I hoped that he would be. I have no particular satisfaction when I see him, but when he goes the longing and the dream begin again and I build up other ideals of him which he will destroy the first time that we come together. Is it because I have never really got to the thing that he is eternally--to the soul of him--that he creates in me this agony of expectancy and of disappointment? When I meet him to-morrow may it not happen that for the first time he will fulfill all the ideals of him that I have made?"

And it seemed to her almost impossible that she should wait the twenty-four intervening hours before making her final discovery--that she should exist a day and a night in utter vacancy while the ultimate moment still beckoned her from to-morrow. Would time never pass? Was there no way of strangling it before it came to birth? She picked up her favourite books from her desk--Spinoza, Shelley, "The Imitation of Christ"--but the throbbing vitality in her own breast caused the printed pages to turn chill and lifeless.

A mirror was placed over the mantel and she looked closely into it, meeting her profound gaze and the poetic charm which hung like an atmosphere about her delicate figure. She felt at the instant that she would have given her life--her soul even and its infinite possibilities--for an exterior of Gerty's brilliant beauty. The blackness of her hair, the prominence of her brow, the faint amber pallor of her skin, provoked her into a sensation of anger; and she turned away with an emotion that was almost one of bitterness. A minute later it seemed to her that the afternoon would pass more quickly if she spent it out of doors, and as she slipped into her walking clothes she thought with relief of the crowded streets and of the noises that would drown the consciousness of her own thoughts. When Angela called to her as she passed along the hall it was with a movement of irritation that she turned the handle of the door and entered the invalid's room, where the pale winter sunshine fell over the tall white candles and uncarpeted floor.

Mrs. Payne, in her black velvet and old rose point, sat by the window reading aloud in her shrill voice extracts from a society paper which she had brought for the purpose of entertaining her sister. In the conventual atmosphere in which Angela lived the biting scandals and malicious gossip of the worldly old woman always produced upon Laura an impression of mere vulgar insincerity. To have lived over seventy years and still to find one's chief interest in the social indiscretions of one's neighbours was a fact which would have been pathetic had it been less ridiculous. Tottering reluctantly to her grave, in the centre of a universe filled with a million mysteries of dead and living suns, she was absorbed to the exclusion of all larger matters in the question as to whether or not "Tom Marbury had compromised Mrs. Billy Pearce?"

"As if it mattered," sighed Angela from her couch. "As if it really mattered to me in the least."

Mrs. Payne fixed upon her a painted pair of eyes set in lustreless vacancy between two flashing diamond earrings. "That's because you live so out of the world, my dear," she observed, "that you have ceased to feel any longer a rational interest in life."

"But is life all somebody's impropriety?" enquired Angela, with the meekness of a child.

"It is that--or charities," returned Mrs. Payne. "You may take your choice between the two. It was only after I failed to interest you in our day nursery that I turned to the social news."

"But you haven't tried the sports," suggested Laura, with a laugh, while she felt the presence of her aunts to have become an intolerable burden.

Mrs. Payne raised her blackened eyebrows, and sat smoothing out the crumpled paper with her claw-like jewelled fingers. It seemed to Laura that she wore her body to-day as if it were a tattered, yet industriously mended garment for which her indomitable spirit would soon have no further use. Everything about her was youthful except the flesh which wrapped her, and that was hideously, was grotesquely ancient. Yet she had once been both a beauty and a belle, famed for her quick affairs and her careful indiscretions; and as Laura watched her she saw in this living decay but the inevitable end and weariness of pleasure. Of her many lovers, which remained to her to-day? With the multiplied sensations of her youth what had her loveless age to do? She had hardly laid up even a sweetness of memories, or why did she feast upon uncovered scandals as a vulture upon carrion?

"What poor dear Angela needs is an object in life--a passion," remarked Mrs. Payne, picking up her gold-rimmed eye glasses which hung on a little jewelled chain from her bosom. "I used to say that when I got too old for an emotion I wanted to be chloroformed, but I found, thank heaven, that with care one's emotions may last one pretty well to one's eightieth year. When men fail one cards are left, and after cards, I daresay, there would come gossip. It is for this reason," she pursued with conviction, "that I am trying to persuade Angela to take up a little bridge."

"A little bridge!" gasped Laura, and from sheer amazement she sat down on the foot of Angela's couch.

"I was considering the moral support of it, of course," resumed Mrs. Payne. "First of all I would advise some inspiring religious conviction, but as religion does not appeal to her, I suggested bridge."

"It might as well be white rabbits, I don't see the difference," protested Angela, rolling over upon her side with a despairing movement of fatigue.

"The difference, my dear, is that white rabbits are dirty little beasts," observed the elder woman.

Angela lay back upon her sofa and regarded her sister with a smile sharp and cold as the edge of a knife. "I wonder why you were more fortunate than I, Rosa," she said, after a pause, "for in my heart I was always a better woman."

Mrs. Payne laughed her hard little mirthless laugh, and stretched out her withered hand with a melodramatic gesture. "But I was never a fool, my dear," was her retort, "and there are few women of whom it can be said with truth that they were never at any time, from the beginning to the end of their career, a fool. Nobody is a fool always, but there are very few people who escape it throughout their lives."

"Oh, I was," sighed Angela submissively, "I know it, but I was punished."

"It is the one thing for which we can count quite certainly upon being punished in this life," remarked Mrs. Payne, with a kind of moral satisfaction, as of one who was ranged upon the side of worldliness if not of righteousness. "Other sins are for eternity, I suppose, but I have never yet seen a fool escape the deserts of his folly. It is the one reason which has always made me believe so firmly in an overruling Providence. Are you going out, my child?" she asked, as Laura rose.

"I am stifling for want of air," replied the girl, shrinking away from the unnatural flash of her aunt's eyes. "I'll read to aunt Angela when I come in, but just now I must get out." Then as Mrs. Payne still sought to detain her, she broke away and ran rapidly down into the street.

But she was no sooner out of doors than it seemed to her that she ought to have stayed in her room--that the minutes would have passed more swiftly in unbroken quiet. Her senses were absorbed in the single desire to have the day over--to begin to-morrow; and it seemed to her that when once the night was gone, she would be able to collect her thoughts with clearness, that the morning would bring some lucid explanation of the disturbance that she felt to-day. Then it occurred to her that she would follow Gerty's example and seek a distraction in the shops, and she took a cab and drove to her milliner's, where she tried on a number of absurdly impossible hats. She bought one at last, to realise immediately as she left the shop that she would never persuade herself to wear it because she felt that it gave her an air of Gerty's "smartness" which sat like an impertinence upon her own individual charm. Glancing at her watch she found that only two hours had gone since she left the house, and turning up the street she walked on with a step which seemed striving to match in energy her rapid thoughts.

"You have effaced every other impression of my life," he had said to her yesterday; and as she repeated the words she remembered the quiver of his mouth under his short brown moustache, the playful irony of the smile that had met her own. Had he meant more or less than the spoken phrase? Was the strength of his handclasp sincere? Or was the caressing sound of his voice a lie, as Gerty believed? Was he, in truth, fighting under all the shams of life for the liberation of his soul? or was there only the emptiness of sense within him, after all? She felt his burning look again, and flinched at the memory. "Every glance, every gesture, every word speaks to me of things which he cannot utter, which are unutterable," and yet even with the assurance she felt as if she were living in an obscure and painful dream--as if the element of unreality were a part of his smile, of his voice, of the feverish longing from which she told herself that she would presently awake. It was as if she moved an illusion among illusions, and yet felt the unreal quality of herself and of the things outside.

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