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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 10. The End Of The Path
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 10. The End Of The Path Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :3357

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 10. The End Of The Path

PART III. DISENCHANTMENT
CHAPTER X. THE END OF THE PATH

Having decided that Laura was to be married on the nineteenth of December, Mrs. Payne had gathered not only the invitations, but the entire trousseau into the house three weeks before the date upon which she had fixed. Laura, who had at first entered enthusiastically into the question of clothes, had shown during the last fortnight an indifference which was almost an open avoidance of the subject; and the lively old lady was forced to conduct an unsupported campaign against dressmakers and milliners.

"It's fortunate, to put it mildly, my dear, that you have me to attend to such matters," she remarked one day, "or you would most likely have started on your wedding journey a dowd--and there can be no happy marriage," she concluded with caustic philosophy, "which is not founded upon a carefully selected trousseau."

"If his love for me depends on clothes, I don't want it," replied Laura in an indignant voice.

Mrs. Payne shook her false gray curls, until the little wire hairpins which held them in place slipped out and dropped into her lap.

"It might very well depend upon something more difficult to procure," she retorted with reason. Then in a last effort to arouse Laura into the pride of possession, she brought out her multitude of boxes and unfolded her treasures of old lace.

At the time Laura looked on with listless inattention, but two days later she returned in a change of mood which put to blush the worldly materialism of Mrs. Payne.

"Aunt Rosa, you're right," she said, "I haven't paid half enough attention to my clothes. I believe, after all, that clothes are among the most important things in life."

"I regard it as a merciful providence that you have come to your senses in time," observed the old lady, with a sincerity which survived even the extravagance into which her niece immediately plunged--for, after looking carelessly over the contents of the large white boxes, Laura turned away as if disappointed, and demanded in her next breath a sable coat.

"Arnold admired a woman in a sable coat yesterday," she said, with a gravity which impressed Mrs. Payne as almost solemn.

But her reaction into the vanities of the world was as short lived as her former disdain of them; and by the time the sable coat arrived she had almost begun to regret that she had ever asked for it. Since the selection of it she had heard Kemper quite as carelessly express approval of an ermine wrap, and her heart had suddenly sickened over the fruitlessness of her ambition. She was still trying on the coat under Mrs. Payne's eyes, when Gerty, coming in, as she announced, to deliver a message, paused in the centre of the room as if petrified into an attitude of admiration.

"My dear, you're so gorgeous that you look like nothing short of a tragic actress. Well, you ought to be a happy woman."

"If clothes can make me happy, I suppose I shall be," rejoined Laura. "Aunt Rosa has spared neither her own strength nor Uncle Horace's money."

"That's because I love you better than my ease and Horace loves you better than his foundling hospital," replied Mrs. Payne.

Standing before the long mirror, Laura looked with a frown at the sable coat, which gave her, as Gerty had said, the air of a tragic actress. Her dark hair, with its soft waves about the forehead, her brilliant eyes, and the delicate poetic charm of her figure, borrowed from the costly furs a distinction which Gerty felt to be less that of style than of personality.

"He will like me in this," she thought; and then remembering the ermine wrap, which was becoming also, she wondered if another woman would buy it, if Kemper would see it at the opera, and if he would, perhaps, admire it again as he had done that day.

"If he does I shall regret these though they were so much more costly," she concluded, "and my whole pleasure in them may be destroyed by a chance remark which he will let fall." She understood, all at once, the relentless tyranny which clothes might acquire--the jealousy, the extravagance, the feverish emulation, and the dislike which one woman might feel for another who wore a better gown. "Yet if I give my whole life to it there will always be someone who is richer, who is better dressed and more beautiful than I," she thought. "Though my individuality wins to-day, to-morrow I shall meet a woman beside whom I shall be utterly extinguished. And there is no escape from this; it is inevitable and must happen." A shiver of disgust went through her, and it seemed to her that she saw her life as plainly as if the glass before her revealed her whole future and not merely her figure in the sable coat. She shrank from her destiny, and yet she knew that in spite of herself, she must still follow it; she longed for her old freedom of spirit, and instead she struggled helplessly in the net which her own temperament cast about her. "Is it possible that I can ever enter into this warfare which I have always despised?" she asked, "into this conflict of self against self, of vanity against vanity? Shall I, like Gerty, grow to fear and to hate other women in my foolish effort to keep alive a passion which I know to be worthless? Shall I even come in the end to feel terror and suspicion in my love for Gerty?" But this last thought was so terrible to her that she lacked the courage with which to face it, and so she put it now resolutely aside as she had learned to put aside at will all the disturbing questions which her conscience asked.

"I know that you are over head and ears in it all," Gerty was saying, "and I shouldn't have dropped in if I hadn't just been called to the telephone by Arnold. He was, of course, rushing off to a meeting about those everlasting mines--Perry's in it, too, and it's really helped his mind to get the better of his lungs at last."

"But I thought Arnold was coming this afternoon," returned Laura, a little hurt.

With a laughing glance at Mrs. Payne, who sat counting silk stockings by the window, Gerty buried her face in her muff while she shook with unaffected merriment.

"Oh, my dear, what a wife you'll make if you haven't learned to mask your feelings!" she exclaimed, "but as for Arnold, he wants me to bring you to his rooms for tea. The Symonds portrait has come and he'd like us to see it before it's hung. He'll hurry back, he says, the minute that abominable meeting is over-though between you and me he is almost as much interested in those mines as he is in his marriage."

The disappointment in Laura's face was succeeded by an expression of impatient eagerness, and a little later as she drove with Gerty through the streets she was able to convince herself that the uncertainty of the last fortnight had yielded finally to the perfect security for which she longed Sitting there in Gerty's carriage, she felt with a compassionate heart-throb, that out of her own fulness she could look down and pity the emptiness of her friend's life; and this thought filled her bosom with a sympathy which overflowed in the smile she turned upon the brilliant woman at her side.

"I find myself continually rejoicing because you are to take a house up town," remarked Gerty, as she pressed Laura's hand under the fur robe. "When you come back we'll see each other every day, and when you land, I'll be there to welcome you with the house full of flowers and the dinner ordered."

"There's no use trying to realise it all, I can't," responded Laura; and the interest with which she entered immediately into a discussion of furnishing and housekeeping banished from her mind all recollection of the despondency, the tormenting doubts, of the last few weeks. Yes, all would go well--all must go well in spite of everything she had imagined. Once married she would see this foolish foreboding dissolve in air, and with the wedding ceremony she would enter into that cloudless happiness which she had expected so confidently to find in the Adirondacks. This new hope possessed her instantly to the exclusion of all other ideas, and she clung to it as passionately as she had clung to every illusion of the kind which had presented itself to her imagination.

When they reached his rooms, Kemper had not returned, and while Gerty amused herself by examining every photograph upon his desk and mantel, Laura drew a chair before the portrait, which was a bold, half-length study painted with a daring breadth of handling. The artist was a new French painter, who had leaped into prominence because of a certain extravagance of style which he affected; and his work had taken Kemper's fancy as everything took it either in art or in life which deviated in any marked eccentricity from the ordinary level of culture or of experience.

"There's something queer about it--I don't like it," said Laura, with her first glance. "Why, it makes him look almost brutal--there's a quality in it I'll never grow accustomed to."

Then, as she looked a moment longer at the picture, she saw that the quality in Kemper which the painter had caught and arrested with an excellent technique upon the canvas, was the resemblance to Perry Bridewell which had offended her when she noticed it the other day. It was there, evidently--this foreign painter had seized upon it as the most subtle characteristic of Kemper's face--and in dwelling upon it in the portrait as he had done, she realised that he had attempted to produce, not so much the likeness of the man, as a startling, almost sinister study of a personality. What he had shown her was the temperament, not the face of her lover--not her lover, indeed, she told herself the next instant, but Madame Alta's.

"I can't get used to it--I'll never like it," she repeated, and rising from her chair, as if the view of the portrait annoyed her, she went over to the centre table to glance idly over the current fiction with which Kemper occupied his leisure hours. Her eyes were still wandering aimlessly over the titles of the books, when her attention was diverted by the sound of Wilkins' voice, lowered discreetly to an apologetic whisper; and immediately afterward she heard the softened soprano of a woman, who insisted, apparently, upon leaving the elevator and crossing the hail outside. The conversation with Wilkins had reached Gerty's ears at the same instant, and she, too, sat now with her enquiring gaze bent on the door, which opened presently to admit the ample person of Madame Alta. At sight of them she showed no tremor of surprise, but stood poised there, in an impressive stage entrance, upon the threshold, presiding, as it were, over the situation with all the brilliant publicity which her exquisite gift conferred. Her art had not only placed her below the level of her sex's morality, it had lifted her above any embarrassment of accident, and as she hesitated for a single smiling minute in the doorway, she appeared more at home in her surroundings than either of the two women who stood, in silence, awaiting her advance. With her ermine, her ostrich feathers, her smile, and her scented powder, she impressed Laura less as extinguishing her by the splendour of a presence than as smothering her in the softness of an effect. For it was at Laura that, after the first gently enquiring glance, she levelled her words as well as her caressing look.

"It was such a happy chance to meet you that I couldn't let it slip," she said, as she bore down upon her with a large, soft hand outstretched, "Mr. Kemper has been so good a friend to me that I am overjoyed to have the opportunity of telling you how much I think of him. He has been really the greatest help about some speculations, too--don't you think he has quite a genius for that kind of thing?"

For a moment Laura looked at her in a surprise caused less by the other's entrance than by her own inward composure. For weeks she had told herself that she hated Madame Alta in her heart, yet, brought face to face with her, feeling the soft pressure of her hand, she realised that she had hated merely a creature of straw and not this woman whose humanity was, after all, of the same flesh and blood and spirit as her own. By the wonder of her intuition she had recognised in her first glance the thing which Kemper, for all his worldly knowledge, had missed in his more intimate association, and this was that the soul of the woman before her had not perished, but was still tossed wildly in the fires of art, of greed, of sensuality. Between her lover and the prima donna she knew that for this one instant at least, she was strong enough to stand absolutely detached and incapable of judgment. And in a sudden light, as from a lamp that was turned inward, she saw that if she could but maintain this attitude of pity, she would place her happiness beyond any harm from the attacks of Madame Alta or of her kind. She saw this, yet she felt that the vision was almost useless, for even while she stood there the light went out and she knew that it would not shine for her again.

"I know but little of that side of him," she answered, smiling. "It is pleasant to hear that he has a gift I did not suspect."

"Oh, I dare say he has others," retorted Madame Alta, "but I came about these very speculations to-day," she added, "and since he isn't at home--if you'll let me--I'll leave a note on his desk. I start for Chicago to-night for a month of continuous hard work. Until you know what it is to race about the country for your life," she wound up merrily, "never stop to waste your pity on a day labourer."

With a smiling apology to Gerty, she crossed to Kemper's desk, where she wrote a short note which she proceeded coolly to place in an envelope and seal. As she moistened the flap of the envelope with her lips, she turned to glance at Laura over her ermine stole.

"I hope you'll remember to tell him that my visit was by no means thrown away, since I saw you," she remarked, with her exaggerated sweetness.

"Why not wait and tell him yourself?" suggested Laura, so composedly that she wondered why her heart was beating quickly, "he'll probably be back in a few minutes for tea, and in that case it wouldn't be necessary for me to deliver so flattering a message."

"Oh, but I want you to--I particularly want you to," insisted the other, creating, as she rose, a lovely commotion by the flutter of her lace veil and her ostrich feathers. "I send him my liveliest congratulations, and the part he'll like best is that I am able to send them by you."

The door closed softly after her, and Gerty, going to the window, threw it open with a bang which served as an outlet to the emotion she lacked either the courage or the opportunity to put into words.

"I don't like her perfume," she observed, with an affected contortion of her nostrils, "there's something to be said for the odour of sanctity, after all."

"Why, I thought it delicious," returned Laura, as if astonished. "It even occurred to me to ask her where she got it."

"Well, I'm thankful you didn't," exclaimed Gerty; and she concluded dismally after a moment, "What hurts me most is to think I've wasted bouquets on her over the footlights, for a more perfectly odious person--"

"I found her wonderfully handsome," remarked Laura, in a voice which had a curious quality of remoteness, as if she spoke from some dream-like state of mental abstraction. "Wonderfully handsome," she insisted, indignant at the scornful denial in Gerty's look.

"Well, it's the kind of handsomeness that makes me want to scratch her in the face," rejoined Gerty, with the unshakable courage of her impressions.

Turning away from her friend, Laura went over to the desk as if drawn in spite of her resolution, by the large sealed envelope lying on the white blotter. The handwriting of the address, with its bold, free flourish at the end, appeared to fascinate her eyes, for after looking at it attentively a moment, she took it up and brought it over to the hearth where Gerty stood.

"Yes, she is wonderfully handsome," she repeated; and her tone was so indifferent that it came with a shock of surprise to Gerty, when she bent over and laid the letter upon the burning logs. Dropping on her knees, she watched the paper catch fire, redden in the flame, turn to ashes, and at last dissolve in smoke. Then she leaned forward and pushed the logs together, as if she wished to destroy some last vestige of the words which were still visible to her eyes.

"Laura!" called Gerty sharply. She had made a step forward, but as Laura rose from her knees and faced her, she fell back into her former attitude.

"If you want to tell him," said Laura coldly, "you may do it when he comes. I shan't mind it in the least."

"Tell him!" cried Gerty, and her voice shook with a tremor she could not control, "but, oh! Laura, what made you do it?"

She knew that she wanted to go away by herself and weep; but she could not tell at the moment whether it was for Laura or for her own disappointment that she was more concerned. Her whole outlook on life was altered by the thing which Laura had done; she felt that she no longer believed in anybody and that it was impossible for her to go on living as she had lived until to-day.

"I don't know," replied Laura, with a curiosity so vague that it sounded almost impersonal, "I don't know why I did it." As she uttered the words the question seemed to absorb her thoughts; then, before Gerty caught the sound of Kemper's approaching footsteps, she knew that he must be coming by the abruptness of the change with which Laura spoke.

"I wonder why it is that men never appreciate the necessity for tea!" she exclaimed, and laughing she went quickly toward the door. "I don't believe you'd have cared if you'd found us starving on your threshold," she wound up with reproachful gayety.

"Oh, I hoped you'd ordered it," said Kemper, "upon my word I'm sorry--I fear you must have had a stupid wait."

He entered with his breathless, though smiling, apology, touched the bell for Wilkins as he crossed the room, and offered his hand first to Gerty and then to Laura with an equally enthusiastic pressure. The clear red was still in his face, and his eyes beamed with animation as he stood warming himself before the fire.

"Have you been here long?" he asked, looking at his watch with a slight frown. "By Jove, I'm a good half hour after time. What did you do with yourselves while you cursed me?"

"First we looked at the portrait--which I hate--then we read the names of all your silly books," responded Laura, with a dissimulation so natural that Gerty was divided between regret for her sincerity and admiration for her acting.

"Well, it doesn't do to quarrel not only with our bread and meat, but with our automobiles, too," protested Kemper lightly, "It's a good thing I've gone in for, and it all came of my riding up in the train with Barclay to the Adirondacks--otherwise he'd have been too sharp to have put me on to the tip." Then his rapid glance travelled to the portrait leaning against a chair, and he put a question with the same eager interest he had shown in the subject of mining. "So you've had time to come to judgment on the French fellow. What do you think of him?"

"It's not you--I won't believe it," replied Laura merrily, "if he's right, then I've been deluded into marrying the wrong man."

"Oh, he goes in for style, of course," remarked Kemper, closing one eye as he fell back and examined the picture, "most of the French people do, you know."

The radiance which belonged to an inner illumination rather than to any outward flush of colour, had suffused Laura's face, until she seemed to glow with an animation which revealed itself not only in her look and voice, but in her whole delicate figure, so fragile, yet so full of energy. There was something unnatural, almost feverish in the brightness of her eyes and in the rapid gestures of her small expressive hands. To Gerty she appeared to resemble a beautiful wild bird, helplessly beating its wings in the fowler's net.

"But isn't their style mostly affectation as their strength is only coarseness?" she asked eagerly, wondering as she spoke, what her words meant and why she should have chosen these out of the whole English language. "Isn't it truth, after all," she added, with the same excited emphasis, "that we need in life?" It occurred to her suddenly that she was repeating words which someone else had said before her, and she tried to remember what the occasion was and who had uttered them.

Then as she looked at Kemper, she found herself wondering if they would be obliged, in order to make life bearable, to lie to each other every day they lived? The letter which she had destroyed was her half of this lie, she saw, and it seemed to her that Kemper's share was in his old love for Jennie Alta. But, to her surprise, when she thought of this it aroused no torment, hardly any disturbance in her heart, for Kemper and his love for her appeared to her now in an entirely new and different aspect, and she realised that because of the lie between them, even the emotion he aroused in her had turned worthless in her eyes.

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