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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 10. Shows The Hero To Be Lacking In Heroic Qualities
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 10. Shows The Hero To Be Lacking In Heroic Qualities Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1625

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 1. Impulse - Chapter 10. Shows The Hero To Be Lacking In Heroic Qualities

PART I. IMPULSE
CHAPTER X. SHOWS THE HERO TO BE LACKING IN HEROIC QUALITIES

When he had parted from Laura Adams walked down Fifth Avenue to Thirty-fifth Street and then turned east in the direction of his own house. He found upon entering that Connie, as usual, was dining out, and after he had eaten his poorly served dinner alone in the dining-room, he went upstairs with the intention of slipping into his smoking jacket and returning to his study for a peaceful smoke. The electric lights were blazing in Connie's bedroom, and when he went in to extinguish them, moved by some instinct of economy, he found that the room was in even greater disorder than that to which he had grown, after years of uncomplaining discomfort, outwardly if not inwardly resigned. Of a naturally systematic habit of thought, Connie's carelessness had been for him one of those petty annoyances of daily life to meet which he had always felt that philosophy had been especially designed; but to-night the chaos struck him so forcibly that he found himself vaguely questioning if it were possible for a human creature to sleep in such a spot? Picking up several gowns from the middle of the floor, he returned them to the wardrobe, and set himself to clearing the bed of an array of satin shoes. Her silver hair brushes had fallen on the hearth rug, and in replacing them upon the bureau his eye fell on a small, half-empty phial lying beneath a pile of lace-edged handkerchiefs. Looking at it a little closer he found that it contained a solution of cocaine.

For a moment surprise held him motionless; then as if to refute and explain away any ordinary reason for her possession of the drug, he remembered, in a comprehensive flash the recent violent changes in her character--her uncontrollable attacks of nervousness, her spasmodic movements and her sudden flowing, almost hysterical, volubility of speech. His heart contracted with a sensation like that of terror, and he was turning away again when his glance was arrested by a heap of crumpled bills lying loosely in one corner of the open drawer. Recollecting that she had complained the day before of the smallness of her allowance, he drew out the papers for a casual examination--but it needed much less, in fact, than this to assure him that her expenses had not only gone immeasurably beyond her own limited allowance, but that they had considerably exceeded his slightly larger income. Her debts had evidently run up to a sum which she had lost the courage to confess even to herself, and, while the gravity of the situation entered into him, he smoothed out the torn and crumpled sheets and went with them to his study. Until to-night he had looked upon Connie's extravagance merely as an innocent childish failing, resulting from an inherent incapacity, as she laughingly said, "to do sums," but now as he sat under the green lamp shade, anxiously multiplying item after item, it seemed to him that this recent recklessness involved not only her private happiness but his own personal honour. He was a hot-tempered man by nature, and at first the very absurdity of her expenditures, the useless, costly trifles which made up the amount, produced in him an unreasoning passion of anger. Had she been in the house he would have gone to her in the first shock of his temper, but her ceaseless pursuit of pleasure had put her beyond his reach, so he sat silently staring at the neatly arranged heap of papers while his exasperation cooled within him.

Presently, still sitting motionless in his chair, he felt the absolute quiet of the room take effect upon his mood, and with the peculiar tolerance confirmed as much by balked ambition as by years of enforced and bitter patience he began with a philosophic and impersonal leniency to soften in his judgment of Connie's case. At the moment there was no tenderness, he told himself, in the view he took, and he gave to her merely the distant, habitual charity that he would have extended to the stranger in the street. To give to her in the very least seemed to him suddenly almost impossible when he remembered that from a forlornly foolish caprice she had plunged him into a debt of several years. He had worked hard, with broken health, in a profession of small financial returns, but to his own simple tastes his income might have brought not only perfect material ease, but the enjoyment of comparative luxury. Still there was Connie--he had always in every situation remembered that there was Connie--and in order to insure her present comfort as well as to provide for her future livelihood, he had contrived to limit his expenses to the merest necessities. One only gratification he had allowed himself--his eyes travelled gloomily round his precious book-lined walls and he found himself wondering if those particular treasures would bring their full value in the open market? He regarded them meditatively, almost religiously, with the impassioned eye of the collector who is born not cultivated. Yet there were among them no high-priced, particular rarities, for he had always counted the cost with the deliberation which he felt to be the better part of impulse. Financially they did not represent a great deal, he admitted; then, as if flinching before a threatened sacrilege, he looked away again, while he remembered with a quick recognition of the ludicrous, that among the articles for which Connie had not paid was a pair of pearl ear-rings. The item had taken a prominence oddly out of keeping with its significance, and he found that it irritated him more than the thought of objects of a decidedly greater cost. That any woman, that his wife in particular, should want a pair of ear-rings appeared to him little short of the barbaric.

But the incident was trifling, and a minute later it had faded entirely from his reflections. As he sat there in his easy-chair in the lamp light his thoughts turned slowly backward, travelling over the tragic yet uneventful history of his life. He remembered his childhood on a little Western farm, the commonplace poverty of his people, and his own burning, agonised ambition, which had sent him through college on a pittance, swept the highest honours from his graduation year, and wrecked at last what had been at his starting out a fairly promising physical constitution. He recalled, too, the sleepless enthusiasm of his last term at Harvard, the terrible exhaustion which had made his final triumph barren, and the long illness which had brought him in the end, with shattered health, to the door of the great specialist in lung diseases. At this day he could shut his eyes and summon back with distinctness the smallest detail of the interview. He went over again his tedious wait in the outer office--the scattered magazines upon the table, the utterly inartistic prints upon the wall, the ticking of the tall bronze clock on the mantel, and even the number of the page he had been reading in a periodical, for--following a methodical habit--he had unconsciously made a mental note of the figures when he laid the magazine aside to face the examination behind the folding doors. With the patient attention to minutia which was a part of his literary instinct, his memory followed the great man across the ugly yellow squares in the carpet and fixed itself upon a row of small green bottles standing in a wooden rack upon the table. Through the half hour of his visit, which brief as it was casually dismissed him to his death, those slender green phials seemed to his fancy to hold an absurd and grotesque prominence. "In a climate like this I'd give you three years--maybe a little longer--yes, I think I may grant a little longer," the great man had remarked, with what seemed to Adams a ridiculous assumption of yielding a concession. "In a dryer air you might even be good, we may say, until thirty-five or forty." He shrugged his shoulders with a gesture intended to convey his sympathy but which succeeded only in expressing his personal importance, and Adams had walked out from the stuffy little ether-smelling office with a feeling curiously like that he had known as a boy when during a school game of football, he found himself suddenly thumped upon the heart. On the doorstep he had stopped and laughed aloud, struck by the persistency with which the green bottles dominated his impressions.

After this there had come a blank of a few weeks--a blank of which he remembered nothing except that he had struggled like an entrapped beast against his fate--against his fruitless labour, his sacrificed ambition, the unavailing bitterness of his self-denial--against the world, destiny, life, death, God! But the very intensity of his rebellion had brought reaction, and it was in the succeeding apathy of spirit that he had packed his few belongings and started for the Colorado country. Behind him he was leaving all that made life endurable in his eyes, and yet he was leaving it from some half animal instinct which caused him to preserve the mere naked strip of existence that he no longer valued. He hated himself for going, yet he went that he might hate himself the more bitterly with each step of the journey.

The lamp on his desk flared up fitfully and as he turned to lower the wick his eyes fell on Connie's picture. The uplifted babyish face came back to him as he had first seen it under floating cherry-colored ribbons, and his anger of the last half-hour melted and vanished utterly away. For the sake of those few months, when the waning fire within him had leaped despairingly toward the flame of life, he knew that he could never quite put Connie from his heart--for the sake of his short romance and for the sake, too, of his child that had lived three hours. The thin, heavily veined hand on the arm of his chair quivered for an instant, and he felt his pulses throb quickly as if from acute physical pain. From the pitiable failure of his marriage, from his loneliness and disillusionment there came back to him the three hours when he had looked upon the face of his living child--the hours of his profoundest emotion, his completest reconciliation. He had never regarded himself as an emotionally religious man, yet ten years ago, on the night that his boy died, he had felt that an immortal and indissoluble part of himself had gone out into the void. For the first time he had come to the deeper reality of life--through the flowing of the agonised longing within himself toward that permanent universal consciousness of which all human longings are but detached and wandering forms. From that time death had held for him a more personal promise; and the obligation to live, to fulfil one's present opportunities, had become charged with another meaning than he had been used to read into what he called his mere animal responsibility. The boy who had died was for him in a close, an intimate relation, still vitally alive; and with one of those quaint yet pathetic blendings of memory with imagination the little undeveloped soul had blossomed, not invisibly, incommunicably, but into actual daily companionship with his thoughts.

Sitting there under the green lamp, he himself showed as an insignificant figure to possess an ear for the divine silences, an eye for the invisible beauty. His long, gaunt body lay relaxed and inert upon the leather cushions, and his knotted, bony hands--the hands of a scholar and a thinker--were stretched, palms downward, on the rolled arms of his chair. There was nothing in his appearance--nothing in his worn, humorous face under the thin brown hair, to suggest the valiant lover, the impressionable dreamer. Yet in the innermost truth of his own nature he was both, and his grief, of which in his strange, almost savage, reserve he had never spoken even to his wife, had softened gradually into the gentlest of his dreams as well as the profoundest of his regrets. "The little chap," as he always called the child, in his thoughts, had grown for him into an individuality which for all its nearness was yet clearly distinct from his own. Adams had lived day by day with him, had sat face to face with him in his lamp-lighted room, had carried him successfully through the first childish books that he might have studied, had even launched him into the Latin he might have learned. A boy to train, to educate, a mental companionship such as he loved to fancy he would have found in a young, eager mind, had since his marriage become the one burning desire of his heart, and even to-night sitting, as he so often did, alone in his house, his thoughts dwelt with a playful tenderness upon the boy who might have brought his _Caesar to his footstool. He was a man of instinctive moral cleanness, and even in his imagination he had always kept the riotous senses severely in the check of reason. In the domain of the affections he had wanted nothing desperately, he told himself, except his child; and so intense had this yearning of fatherhood become in him that there were moments of bitter loneliness when he seemed almost to feel the touch of the boy's hand upon his knee. He had strange hours, even when his dream became more vivid to him than the pressing reality of events.

The clicking of the latchkey as it was put into the lock aroused him presently, and immediately afterward he heard the closing of the outer door, a brief "Good-night!" in Connie's high-pitched voice, and her rapid steps as they crossed the carpet in the hall. While he waited, hesitating to follow her upstairs, his door opened and shut quickly, and she came in and threw herself into a chair beside the lamp. Her blonde head fell heavily back upon the cushions and the light, streaming directly upon her face, revealed to his startled eyes all the intenser angularities produced by the last twelve months--angularities which seemed, somehow, to belong less to the features themselves than to the restless intelligence which lay behind them. Connie's features had always appeared too small for expression; too correctly formed for any deviating individuality, but the impression made upon Adams now was that they had grown so thin--so transparent in their fineness--that he looked through them to the nervous animation confined and struggling in her fragile body. The same animation throbbed like a pulse in her emaciated bosom, which only the extreme smallness of her bones kept still lovely in its low-cut evening gown. She was devoured, consumed by the agony of restlessness which shook through her, directing and controlling her slender judgment like a perpetual and imperfectly subdued convulsion of passion.

For an instant he looked at her in attentive silence, then, as her fingers wrestled uncertainly with the cords of her evening wrap, he rose from his chair and bent forward to assist her.

"It's in a hard knot," she said irritably. "I can't undo it."

While he released the fastening and drew back his glance fell upon the little bluish hollows in her temples, over which the light curls were skilfully arranged, and as he realised fully her wasted physical resources, it seemed to him that an allusion to anything so sordid as a mere financial difficulty would sound not only trivial but positively indecorous as well. With a whimsical trick of memory he recalled abruptly a man under sentence of death in a Western gaol who had received the night before his execution a bill for a dozen bottles of champagne. Connie's extravagance appeared to him suddenly but a kind of moral champagne--the particular _hasheesh that she had chosen from unhappy consciousness. To live at all one must live with a dream, he knew, and to his present flashing vision it seemed that Connie's ecstasy of possession and his own ecstasy of desire served a like end when they transfigured for a little while the brutal actuality from which there was no escape except by the way of a man's own soul.

"You're ill," he said at last in a compassionate voice, "and there's nothing for you but to get out of New York as soon as possible."

She looked disconcerted, almost incensed, by the suggestion.

"You can't send me to Florida," she returned, "and that's where everybody goes at this season."

A trembling like that of faintness which is fought off by an effort of will ran over her, and he watched the pale, unsteady quiver of her eyelids.

"I will send you there--I'll send you anywhere," he said, "if you will promise me--"

The words were hard to come, and while he stumbled over them she looked up with a startled exclamation. Her glance travelling to his face, swept over the desk beside which he stood and was arrested by the pile of unpaid bills, which he had pushed, as he spoke, further away from the lamp light. A hot, angry flush overspread her face, and she made a nervous movement that brought her to her feet with a spring.

"You had no right to look at them," she burst out sharply, "they are all wrong. Half of them were not meant for me."

The lie was so foolish, so ineffectual and without excuse, that he flinched and turned his eyes away--for the shame of it seemed to belong less to her than to himself. At the instant he was conscious of a stinging sensation in his veins as of a man who realises for the first time that he has fallen into dishonour.

"I did not mean to mention that--at least not now," he said quickly. "We'll call it off and try to keep clean out of debt in the future. I fear your allowance does seem rather shabby to you, but it can't be helped. It takes every cent of the balance to run the house and pay my life insurance."

He waited an instant, hoping that his matter-of-fact statement of the situation--his freedom from implied reproach--might call forth some expression, however slight, of her appreciation. But her glance flashed over him, critical, disapproving, and he became aware, through a wonder of intuition, that even at the moment she was possessed by her passion for externals, was weighing his personal details as he stood in the lamp light, and deciding impartially that he made but a poor physical showing. Her unfavourable verdict was impressed upon him so strongly that it produced a revulsion of anger. He felt, somehow, that their positions were reversed, that she had him now at her mercy, and failing to reduce him by flattery, had chosen to wither him by contempt.

"There's not a woman I know who could dress decently on what I have," she rejoined, skilfully adjusting him into the necessity of defence.

He gathered up the papers, and placing them in a drawer of his desk, closed it sharply. There was a sordid indecency about the discussion which stung him like the stroke of a whip.

"I am sorry," he returned coolly, "but I have done my best. There is nothing more to be said." His eyes lingered for a moment on her thin bosom where the bones were beginning to be faintly visible through the ivory flesh. Then he looked at her sharpened face and saw that the three little wrinkles were stamped indelibly between her eyebrows. As he watched her she lifted her head with the babyish tilt he had first seen under cherry-coloured ribbons. "I will find the money to send you to Florida," he said slowly, "if you will promise me--to give up drugs."

She gathered her wraps about her and made a movement as if to leave the room. "Drugs! Why, how ridiculous!" she exclaimed with a laugh, though he felt the cold edge of hatred in her voice.

Still laughing, she went out and up the staircase, and a few minutes afterwards he heard her nervous step in the room above. He took out the bills again and spent half the night in the effort to realise the exact amount of his indebtedness.

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