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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 5. Treats Of The Poverty Of Riches
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 5. Treats Of The Poverty Of Riches Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2044

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 3. Disenchantment - Chapter 5. Treats Of The Poverty Of Riches

PART III. DISENCHANTMENT CHAPTER V. TREATS OF THE POVERTY OF RICHES

On the morning of Connie's death, Gerty, dropping in shortly before luncheon, brought the news to Laura.

"Do you know for once in my life my social instinct has failed me," she confessed in her first breath, "I am perfectly at a loss as to how the situation should be met. Ought one to ignore her death or ought one not to?"

"Do you mean," asked Laura, "that you can't decide whether to write to him or not?"

"Of course that's a part of it, but, the main thing is to know in one's own mind whether one ought to regard it as an affliction or a blessing. It really isn't just to Providence to be so undecided about the character of its actions--particularly when in this case it appears to have arranged things so beautifully to suit everybody who is concerned."

"It was, to say the least, considerate," remarked Laura, with the cynical flavour she adopted occasionally from Kemper or from Gerty, "and it is certainly a merciful solution of the problem, but does it ever occur to you," she added more earnestly, "to wonder what would have happened if she hadn't died?"

"Oh, she simply had to die," said Gerty, "there was nothing else that she could do in decency--not that she would have been greatly influenced by such a necessity," she commented blandly.

"I'd like all the same to know how he would have met the difficulty, for that he would have met it, I am perfectly assured."

"Well, I, for one, can afford to leave my curiosity unsatisfied," responded Gerty; then she added in a voice that was almost serious. "Do you know there's really something strangely loveable about the man. I sometimes think," she concluded with her fantastic humour, "that I might have married him myself with very little effort on either side."

"And lived happily forever after on the _International Review?_"

"Oh, I don't know but what it would be quite as easy as to live on clothes. I don't believe poverty, after all, is a bit worse than boredom. What one wants is to be interested, and if one isn't, life is pretty much the same in a surface car or in an automobile. I don't believe I should have minded surface cars the least bit," she finished pensively.

"Wait till you've tried them--I have."

"What really matters is the one great thing," pursued Gerty with a positive philosophy, "and money has about as much relation to happiness as the frame has to the finished picture--all it does is to show it off to the world. Now I like being shown off, I admit--but I'd like it all the better if there were a little more of the stuff upon the canvas."

"If you were only as happy as I am!" said Laura softly.

For a moment Gerty looked at her with a sweetness in which there was an almost maternal understanding. "I wish I were, darling," was what she answered.

Her hard, bright eyes grew suddenly wistful, and she looked at Laura as if she would pierce through the enveloping flesh to the soul within. Of all the people she had ever known Laura was the only one, she had sometimes declared, who had never lied to her. The world had lied to her, Kemper had lied to her, Perry had lied to her more than all; and she had come at last to feel, almost without explaining it to herself, that the truth was in Laura as in some obscure, mystic sense the sacrament was in the bread and wine upon the altar. Though she herself was quite content to slip away from her ideals, she felt that to believe in somebody was as necessary to her life as the bread she ate. It made no difference that she should number among the profane multitude who found their way back to the fleshpots, but her heart demanded that her friend should remain constant to the prophetic vision and the promised land. Laura was not only the woman whom she loved, she had become to her at last almost a vicarious worship. What she couldn't believe Laura believed in her stead; where she was powerless even to be good, Laura became not only good but noble. And through all her friendship, from that first day at school to the present moment, she remembered now that no hint of jealousy had ever looked at her from Laura's eyes. "A thrush could hardly borrow the plumage of a paroquet," Trent had said; and the brilliant loveliness which had disturbed the peace of other women she had known, had produced in Laura only an increasing delight, a more fervent rapture. As she looked on the delicate, poetic face of the woman before her, she found herself asking, almost in terror, if it were possible that her friend was not only reconciled but positively enamoured of the world? Had Laura, also, entered into a rivalry which would be as relentless and more futile than her own? Would she, too, waste her life in an effort to give substance to a shadow and to render permanent the most impermanent of earthly things? But the question came and went so abruptly that the minute afterward she had entirely forgotten the passage of it through her mind.

"What a bore of a summer I shall have," she observed lightly, with one of those swift changes of subject so characteristic of her restless temperament. "The doctor has ordered me back to camp in the Adirondacks, and unless Arnold and yourself take pity on me heaven knows whether I'll be any better than a fungus by the autumn."

She was arranging her veil before the mirror as she spoke, and she paused now to survey with a dissatisfied frown one of the large black spots which had settled across her nose. "I told Camille I couldn't stand dots like these," she remarked with an equally irrelevant flash of irritation.

"Of course I'll come for July if you ask me," replied Laura, ignoring the question of the veil for the sake of the more important issue, "I can't answer for Arnold, but I think it's rather what he's looking forward to."

"Oh, he told me yesterday that he'd come if I could persuade you. He didn't have the good manners to leave me in doubt as to what the attraction for him would be."

Laura's happy laugh rewarded her. "This will be the first summer he's spent in America for ten years," she replied, "so I hope he'll find me worth the sacrifice of Europe."

"Then he's really given up his trip abroad for you?"

"There's hardly need to ask that--but don't you think it a quite sufficient reason?"

"Oh, I guess so," returned Gerty carelessly. "Once I'd have been quite positive about it, but that was in the days when I was a fool. Now I'm not honestly sure that you're doing wisely to let him stay. A man is perfectly capable of making a sacrifice for a woman in the heat of emotion, but there are nine chances to one that he never forgives her for it afterward. Take my advice, my dear, and simply _make him go--shove the boat off yourself if there's no other way. He'll probably love you ten times more while he's missing you than he will be able to do through a long hot summer at your side."

"Gerty, Gerty, how little you know love!" said Laura.

"My dear, I never pretended to. I've given my undivided time and attention to men."

"Well, he doesn't want in the least to go--he'll tell you so himself when you see him--but I do wish that your views of life weren't quite so awful."

Gerty was still critically regarding her appearance in the mirror, and before answering she ran her hand lightly over the exquisite curve of her hip in her velvet gown.

"I'm sorry they strike you that way," she responded amiably, "because they are probably what your own will be five years from now. Then I may positively count on you both for July?" she asked without the slightest change in her flippant tone, "and I'll try to decoy Billy Lancaster for August. He's still young enough to find the virgin forest congenial company."

"But I thought Perry hated him!" exclaimed Laura, in surprise.

"He does--perfectly--but I can't see that you've made an argument out of that. Billy's really very handsome--I wish you knew him--he's one of the few men of my acquaintance who has any hair left on the top of his head."

Her flippancy, her shallowness left Laura for a minute in doubt as to how she should accept her words. Then rising from her chair, she laid her restraining hands on Gerty's shoulders.

"My darling, do be careful," she entreated.

The shoulders beneath her hands rose in an indifferent shrug. "Oh, I've been careful," laughed Gerty, "but it isn't any fun. Perry isn't careful and he gets a great deal more out of life than I do."

"A great deal more of what?" demanded Laura.

For an instant Gerty thought attentively, while the mocking gayety changed to a serious hardness upon her face.

"More forgetfulness," she answered presently. "That's what we all want isn't it? Call it by what name you will--religion, dissipation, morphia--what we are all trying to do is to intoxicate ourselves into forgetting that life is life."

"But it isn't what I want," insisted Laura, "I want to feel everything and to know that I feel it."

"Well, you're different," rejoined Gerty. "What I'm after is to be happy, and I care very little what form it takes or what kind of happiness mine may be. I've ceased to be particular about the details even--if Billy Lancaster is my happiness I'll devour him and never waste an idle moment in regret. Why should I?--Perry doesn't."

"So there's an end to Perry?"

"An end! Oh, you delicious child, there's only a beginning. Perry's cult is the inaccessible--present him with all the virtues and he will run away; ignore him utterly and he'll make your life insupportable by his presence. For the last twenty-four hours I assure you he's stuck to me--like a briar."

"Then it's all for Perry--I mean this Billy?" asked Laura.

Gerty shook her head while her brows grew slowly together in an expression of angry bitterness.

"It was in the beginning," she responded, "but I'm not sure that it is now--not entirely at any rate. The boy's worship is incense to my nostrils, I suppose. Yes, I've always been a monument of indifference to men, but I confess to an increasing enthusiasm for Billy's looks."

"An enthusiasm which Perry doesn't share?"

The laughter in Gerty's voice was a little sad. "I declare it really hurts me that I've ceased to notice. The poor silly man offered to give up his golf to go motoring with me yesterday afternoon, and I went and was absolutely bored to death. I couldn't help thinking how much more interesting Billy is."

Her veil was at last adjusted to her satisfaction; and with a last brilliant glance, which swept her entire figure, she turned from the mirror and paused to draw on her gloves while she bent over and kissed Laura upon the cheek.

"Goodbye, dear, if Billy turns out to be any real comfort, I'll share him with you."

"Oh, I have a Billy of my own!" retorted Laura; and though her words were mirthful there was a seriousness in her look which lasted long after the door had closed upon her friend. She was thinking of Adams, wondering if she should write to him, and how she should word her note; and whether any expression of sympathy would not sound both trivial and absurd? Then it seemed to her that there was nothing that she could say because she realised that she stood now at an impassable distance from him. The connection of thought even which had existed between them was snapped at the instant; and she felt that she was no longer interested in the things which had once absorbed them. The friendship was still there, she supposed, but the spirit of each, the thoughts, the very language, had become strangely different, and she told herself that she could no longer speak to him since she had lost the power to speak in any words he might understand.

"How can I pretend to value what no longer even interests me?" she thought, "and if I attempt to explain--if I tell him that my whole nature has changed because I have chosen one thing from out the many--what possible good, after all, could come of putting this into words? Suppose I say to him quite frankly: 'I am content to let everything else go since I have found happiness?' And yet is it true that I have found it? and how do I know that this is really happiness, after all?"

It seemed to her, as she asked the question, that her whole life dissolved itself into the answer; and she became conscious again of the two natures which dwelt within her--of the nature which lived and of the nature which kept apart and questioned. She remembered the night after her first meeting with Kemper and the conviction she had felt then that her destiny lay mapped out for her in the hand of God. Her soul on that night had seemed, in the words of the quaint old metaphor, a vase which she held up for God to fill. The light had run over then, but now, she realised with a pang, it had ceased to shine through her body, and her vase was empty. Even love had not filled it for her as her dream had done.

Again she asked if it were happiness, and still she could find no answer. The quickened vibration of the pulses, the concentration of thought upon a single presence, the restless imagination which leaped from the disappointment of to-day to the possible fulfilment of to-morrow--these things were bound up in her every instant, and yet could she, even in her own thoughts, call these things happiness? She told off her minutes by her heartbeats; but there were brief suspensions of feeling when she turned to ask herself if in all its height and force and vividness there was still no perceptible division between agony and joy.

For at times the way grew dark to her and she felt that she stumbled blindly in a strange place. From the heights of the ideal she had come down to the ordinary level of the actual; and she was as ignorant of the forces among which she moved as a bird in the air is ignorant of a cage. Gerty alone, she knew, was familiar with it all--had travelled step by step over the road before her--yet, she realised that she found no help in Gerty, nor in any other human being--for was it not ordained in the beginning that every man must come at last into the knowledge of the spirit only through the confirming agony of flesh?

"No, I am not happy now because he is not utterly and entirely mine," she thought, "there are only a few hours of the day when he is with me--all the rest of the twenty-four he leads a life of which I know nothing, which I cannot even follow in my thoughts. Whom does he see in those hours? and of what does he think when I am not with him? Next week in the Adirondacks we shall be together without interruption, and then I shall discern his real and hidden self--then I shall understand him as fully as I wish to be understood." And that coming month appeared to her suddenly as luminous with happiness. Here, now, she was dissatisfied and incapable of rest, but just six days ahead of her she saw the beginning of unspeakable joy. An impatient eagerness ran through her like a flame and she began immediately the preparations for her visit.

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