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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 9. The Triumph Of The Ego
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 9. The Triumph Of The Ego Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1182

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 9. The Triumph Of The Ego

PART II. ILLUSION
CHAPTER IX. THE TRIUMPH OF THE EGO

He came punctually at three o'clock on the following afternoon, and even as he entered the room, she was conscious of a slight disappointment because, in some perfectly indefinable way, he was different from what she had hoped that he would be.

"This is the first peaceful moment I have had for twenty-four hours," he remarked, as he flung himself into a chair before the small wood fire; "a man I knew was inconsiderate enough to die and make me the guardian of his son, and I've had to overhaul the chap's property almost before the funeral was over."

A frown of nervous irritation wrinkled his forehead, but as he turned to her it faded quickly before the kindling animation in his look. "By Jove, I've thought of you every single minute since I was here," he pursued. "What a persistent way you have of interfering with a fellow's peace of mind. I've known nothing like it in my life."

"I hope at least I didn't damage the property," she observed, and almost with the words she wondered why she had longed so passionately yesterday for his presence. Now that he had come she felt neither the delight of realised expectation nor the final peace of renouncement.

"Well, it wasn't your fault if you didn't," he replied, leaning his head against the chair-back and looking at her with his intimate and charming smile. "I had to fight hard enough to keep you out even of the stocks. Was I as much in your way, I wonder?"

She shook her head. "In my way? I wouldn't allow it. Why should I?"

"Why, indeed?" his genial irony was in his glance and he held her gaze until she felt the warm blood mount swiftly to her forehead. "Why, indeed unless you wanted to?" he laughed.

His eyes moved to the window, and she followed the large, slightly coarsened features of his profile and the fullness of his jaw which lent a suggestion of brutality to his averted face. Was it possible that she found an attraction in mere animal vitality? She wondered; then his caressing glance was turned upon her, and she forgot to ask herself the useless question.

"So I must presume, then, that I haven't disturbed you?" he enquired gayly.

Her eyes lingered upon him for a moment before she answered. "Oh, no, it wasn't you, it was Gerty," she replied.

He drew nearer until the arm of his chair touched her own. "I thought at least that my character was safe with Gerty," he exclaimed, not without the annoyance of an easily aroused vanity.

"I don't know what you'd think about the danger," she returned with seriousness, "but I simply hate the kind of things she told me."

His frown returned with gathered energy. "Is that so? What were they?"

"Oh, I don't know--nothing definite--but about women generally."

"Women! Pshaw! You're the only woman. There isn't any other on the earth."

Her hand lay on the arm of her chair, and he reached out and grasped her wrist, not gently, but with a violent pressure. "I'll swear there isn't another woman in existence," he exclaimed.

An electric current started from his fingers through the length of her arm; she felt it burning into her flesh as it travelled quickly from her wrist to her heart. For one breathless moment she was conscious of his presence as of a powerful physical force, and the sensation came to her that she was being lifted from her feet and swept blindly out into space. Then, drawing slightly away, she released herself from his grasp.

"I give you fair warning that if you repeat that for the third time, I shall believe it," she retorted coolly.

"I'm trying to make you," he returned in a strained voice. "Why are you such a sceptic, I wonder," he added as he fell back into his chair. "Can't you tell the real thing when you come across it?"

"The real thing?" Her words were almost a whisper.

"Are you so used to shams that you don't recognise a man's love when you see it?"

She leaned toward him, her black brows drawn together with the sombre questioning look which had always fascinated him by its strangeness. Beyond the look, what was there? he asked with an intense and eager curiosity. What passionate surprises existed in her? What secret suggestions of a still undiscovered charm? The wonder of her temperament rose before him, exquisite, remote, alluring, and he felt the appeal she made thrill like the spirit of adventure through his blood. Again he stretched out his hand, but with a frown he drew it back before it touched her.

"Can't you see that I love you?" he said with an angry hoarseness.

His face, his voice, the gesture of his outstretched hand startled her into a quick feeling of terror, and she shrank back with a childlike movement of alarm. Where was her dream, she demanded with an instinctive repulsion, if this was the only living reality of love? Then his face changed abruptly beneath her look, and as the strong tenderness of his smile enveloped her, she was conscious of a sudden ecstasy of peace.

"Did I frighten you?" he asked, smiling.

She shook her head, resting her fingers for an instant upon his hand. "I don't believe you could frighten me if you tried," she answered.

He raised his eyebrows with his characteristic blithe interrogation, "Well, I shouldn't like to try, that's all."

"I give you leave--my courage is my shield."

"But I don't want to frighten you." His voice was softer than she had ever heard it. "We aren't afraid of those we love, you know."

"Why should I love you?" she enquired gayly.

His pleasant irony was in his laugh. "Because you can't help yourself--you're obliged to--it's your fate."

She frowned slightly. "I have no fate except the one I make for myself."

He bent toward her and this time his hand closed with determination upon hers. "Well, you may make me what you please," he said.

Her hand fluttered like an imprisoned bird in his grasp, but he held it with a pressure which sent the blood tingling sharply to the ends of her fingers. His strength hurt her and yet she found a curious pleasure in the very acuteness of her sensations.

"There's no use fighting," he said with a short laugh, "we can't help ourselves. You'll have to marry me, so you may as well give in."

His tone was mocking, but she felt his tenderness as she had felt it a moment before, resistless and enveloping. As she smiled up at him, he bent quickly forward and kissed her brow and eyes and mouth, then lifting her chin he kissed, also, the soft fulness of her throat. When she put up her hands in protest, he crushed them back upon her bosom by the strength of his lips.

She closed her eyes, yielding for one breathless instant to the passion of his embrace. Her dream and her longing melted swiftly into realisation, and she told herself that the agony of joy was sharper than that of grief. This was like nothing that she had imagined, and she felt an impulse to fly back into the uncertainty that she had left--to gain time in which to prepare for the happiness which she told herself was hers. Yet was it happiness? Her soul trembled as if from some almost imperceptible shock of disillusionment, and she knew again the sense of unreality which had come to her in the street on the day before. Again she felt that she was in the midst of a singularly vivid dream from which she would presently awake to life--and this dream seemed the result of her dual nature, as if even her emotions belonged less to her real existence than to an unconscious projection of thought.

The impulse to escape re-awoke in her, and yet she was clearly aware that she would no sooner fly from him than her insatiable longing would drive her back anew. His attraction appeared strangely the greater as she withdrew the further from his actual presence, and she knew that if he were absent from her for a day the uncertainty that he aroused would become intolerable. "Does the soul that I see in him--the soul of which mine is but the reflection--really exist, or have I created an image out of mere emptiness?" she asked; and even with the thought it seemed to her that she saw a new seriousness--a profounder meaning in his face. Gerty had never touched the hidden springs, nor had any other woman except herself, and the knowledge of this gave her an ecstatic consciousness of power.

When she raised her eyes she saw that he had fallen back into his chair and was watching her intently with a puzzled and ardent look.

"You won't keep me hanging on for an eternity," he said, with the nervous contraction of his forehead she knew so well. "If we must go to the scaffold, let's go at once."

"To the scaffold?" She smiled at him for the purpose of prolonging the thrill of the uncertainty.

"Oh, I hate marriage, you know," he returned impatiently, "there's not another woman on earth who could get me into it."

She nodded. "Well, that is to be hoped if not believed."

He made an impulsive movement toward her. "Believe it or not, so long as you marry me," he exclaimed.

His flippancy grated upon her, and she turned from his words to the elusive earnestness which mocked at her from his face. If she might only arrest and hold this earnestness, then surely she might reach the depths of his nature and be at peace.

"It never seemed possible to me that I should marry a man who has had another wife," she said, with an emotion which was almost a regret for the old ideal of conduct from which she had slipped away.

"A wife! Nonsense!" She saw the indignant flash of his eyes and the nervous quiver of the hand with which he pulled at his short moustache. Though he did not touch her she felt instinctively that his personality had been put forth to overmaster her. "She was nothing but a schoolboy's folly, and I've forgotten that I ever knew her. She's safely married again now, so for heaven's sake, don't be foolish!"

"And how do you know that in ten years you will not have forgotten me?" she asked.

For a brief pause he did not reply; then he bent toward her and she hung for a rapturous instant upon the passionate denial in his face. The look that she loved and dreaded was in his eyes, and she struggled blindly in her own helplessness before it. He was so close to her that it seemed as if the breath were leaving her body in the intensity of the atmosphere she breathed.

"Forget you, my own sweetheart!" he exclaimed, and the trivial words were almost an offence against the emotional dignity of the moment.

She rose to her feet, stretching out her hand until she stood as if keeping him at a distance by the mere fragile tips of her fingers.

"If I love you, I shall love you very, very much," she said.

With a laugh he bent his lips against her hand. "You'll never love me half so much as I love you, you bit of thistledown," he answered.

"It will be either a great happiness or a greater misery," she went on, hesitating, retreating, as she withdrew her hands and pressed them upon her bosom.

"There's no misery any more--it is the beginning of life," he rejoined.

She laughed softly, a little tender, yielding laugh; then at the very instant when he would have caught her in his arms, she slipped quickly back until her desk came between them.

"You must give me time--I must think before I let myself care too much," she said.

In the end she gave him her promise and he went from her with a rare and vivid feeling of exhilaration. For the time he told himself that he wanted her more than he remembered ever to have wanted anything in his whole life; and his sated emotion of a man of pleasure, responded with all the lost intensity of youth. Was it credible that he was already middle-aged--was already growing a little bald? he demanded, with a genuine delight in the discovery that his senses were still alive.

On his way up to his rooms, he dropped, by habit, into his club, and after a word or two with several men whom he seldom met, he crossed over to join Perry Bridewell, who sat in an exhausted attitude in a leather chair beside the window. Outside a stream of carriages, containing richly dressed women moved up Fifth Avenue, dividing as it approached the mounted police at the corner, and Perry, as Kemper went up to him, was following with a dulled fish-like glance the pronounced figure of a lady who held the reins over a handsome pair of bays.

"That's a fine figure of a woman--look at her hips," he observed, with relish, as Kemper stopped beside him.

"I saw her yesterday. Gerty says she's terrific form," commented Kemper, gazing to where the object of their admiration vanished in a crush of vehicles.

"Oh, they always say that of a woman with any figure to speak of," remarked Perry. "Unless she's as flat as an ironing board, somebody is sure to say she's vulgar. For my part I like shape," he concluded with emphasis.

A vision of Gerty's slender, almost boyish figure, with its daring carriage, rose before Kemper, and he bit back the cynical laugh upon his lips. Did one require, after all, a certain restraint in life, a cultured abstinence before one could really appreciate the finer flavour of the aesthetic taste? His old aversion to marriage returned to him as he looked at Perry, sunk in his domestic satiety, and his exhilaration of a moment ago gave place to a corresponding degree of depression. He had done the irrevocable thing, and, as usual, it was no sooner irrevocable than the joyous seduction of it fled from his fancy. Marriage was utterly repugnant to him, and yet he knew not only that there was no withdrawing from his position, but that he would not wish to withdraw himself if he had the power. The instant that the possibility of losing Laura occurred to him, he felt again the full, resurgent wave of his desire. He wanted her, and if to marry her was the one way to possess her, then--the devil take it--marry her he would!

A tinted note was brought to Perry Bridewell, who, after reading it, sat twirling it between his fingers with a bored and discontented look on his handsome florid face.

"Take my advice, and when you get clear of an affair, keep out," he remarked, in a disgusted voice. "By Jove, I'm sometimes tempted to wish that I were as cold blooded as old Adams."

"Old Adams?" Kemper repeated the name, with a quickened interest. "Well, I'd hardly envy him his experience with the sex," he exclaimed.

"You would if you saw him--he simply never thinks about a woman so far as I know, and at least he's well enough rid of his wife, at last. She's on Brady's hands, thank heaven!"

Kemper shrugged his shoulders. "It serves her right, I suppose, but I shouldn't care to be on Brady's hands, that's all."

"Oh, he'll chuck her presently, you'll see."

"And afterward--" Kemper was leaning over Perry while he critically examined a pretty woman who was passing under the window.

"There's no afterward," laughed Perry; "you know how such women end."

As he glanced at the note again, the bored and discontented look came back upon his face, and he tore the envelope carelessly across and flung it with a jerk into the waste basket.

"Pshaw! it's all a confounded nuisance--the whole business of sex," he remarked as he rose to his feet. Then while the disgust still lingered in his expression, a servant entered and handed him a second note written upon the same faintly tinted paper. Immediately as if by magic his face was transfigured by the animated satisfaction of the conqueror, and instinctively his hand wandered to the ends of his fair moustache, to which he added an eloquent upward twirl. From the condition of a mere sullen and dejected animal--he sprang instantly into the victorious swagger of the complacent male.

"Sorry, but I'm in an awful hurry," he remarked in his usual hearty voice. "Look me up later in the evening and we'll have a game of billiards."

He went out, still twirling the fine ends of his moustache, and Kemper followed, after a short delay, to where his newest French motor car was waiting before the door.

A little later as he moved slowly amid the crush of vehicles in Fifth Avenue, it occurred to him that since Perry was so agreeably engaged, he might himself come in for a share of Gerty's society, and stopping before her door, he sent up a request that she would come with him for a short quick run up Riverside. Next to Laura herself he felt that he preferred Gerty because he knew that she would enter into a lively banter upon the subject that filled his thoughts, and his emotion was so fresh that there was a piquant charm in her sprightly allusion to the mere fact of its existence. When she came down at the end of a few minutes, wearing her long tan motoring coat and a fluttering white chiffon veil, he felt a quick impatience of the first casual phrases with which she leaned back in the car and settled her hanging draperies about her.

"Go as fast as you like," he said to the chauffeur, and then reaching into his pocket, he drew out his glasses and offered her a pair.

She shook her head, with an indignant gesture of refusal. "If I perish I perish, but I won't perish hideously!" she exclaimed.

With a laugh he slipped the elastic over his cap. "What a bore it must be always to keep beautiful," he remarked. "You can't imagine the positive delight there is in the freedom of ugliness."

"I dare say." She had turned her head to look at a passing carriage, and he saw the lovely delicacy of her profile through the blown transparent folds of her veil. "I shall know it some day," she added presently, "for after I've safely passed my fiftieth birthday, I mean never to look into a glass again. Then I'll break my mirrors and be really happy."

"No, you won't, my dear cousin," he rejoined, "for you'll continue to see yourself in Perry's eyes."

He watched with a sensation of pleasure the graceful shrug of her shoulders under her shapeless coat.

"Oh, there's no chance of that," she assured him; "he is always in them himself?"

The vague curiosity in his thoughts took form suddenly in words. "Where's he now, by the way, do you know?"

Her musical, empty laugh was as perfect as the indifferent glance she gave him. "Enjoying himself, I hope," she answered. "He hung around me until I sent him out in the sheer desperation of weariness."

Though her lashes did not quiver, he knew not only that she lied, but that she was perfectly aware of the assurance and extent of his knowledge. The hopeless gallantry of her deception appealed to the fighting spirit in his blood, and he found himself wondering foolishly if Laura could have played with so high an air the part of a neglected wife. To a man of his peculiarly eager temperament there existed a curious fascination in the idea of pushing to its limit of endurance an unalterable constancy. Would Laura have uttered her futile lies with so exquisite an insolence? or would she have acted in tears the patient Griselda in her closet? The virtue of truthfulness was the one he had most nearly associated with her, and it seemed to him impossible that she should stoop to shield herself behind a falsehood. Yet he could not dispel his curiosity as to how she would act in circumstances which he felt to be impossible and purely imaginary.

He wanted to speak of her to Gerty, but a restraint that was almost embarrassment kept him silent, and Gerty herself could not be induced to abandon her flippant satirical tone. So Laura was not mentioned between them; and he felt when at last he brought Gerty to her door again that, on the whole, the drive had been a disappointment. He had meant to seek her sympathy with his love for her friend, and instead he had been met by a fine, exquisite edge of cutting humour. For once he had felt the need to be wholly in earnest, and Gerty had taken nothing seriously, least of all the hint which he had dropped concerning the ultimate stability of his emotion. If she had got her heartache from his sex, he saw clearly that she meant to have her laugh on it as well; and the only remark from which she had let fall even momentarily her gay derision was in answer to some phrase of his in which had occurred the name of Roger Adams.

"Roger Adams!" she had echoed with a fleeting earnestness, "do you know I've always had a fancy that he is meant for Laura in another life."

"In another life?" he questioned merrily.

"Oh, things went crosswise here, you see," she answered, "but somewhere else, who knows? They may all be straightened out."

The question of Laura's possible fate in "another life" failed somehow to disturb him seriously; but as he drove presently down the darkening street, under the high electric lights, he found himself wondering vaguely why Gerty had so persistently associated her friend with Roger Adams.

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