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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 10. In Which Adams Comes Into His Inheritance
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 10. In Which Adams Comes Into His Inheritance Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1540

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 10. In Which Adams Comes Into His Inheritance

PART II. ILLUSION
CHAPTER X. IN WHICH ADAMS COMES INTO HIS INHERITANCE

Five minutes had hardly passed after Laura was alone before the servant brought up the name of Roger Adams, and an instant later he was holding her hand in his cordial grasp. At his appearance she had for a moment a sense of the returning reality of things--the vigour of his hand clasp, the strong, kindly look of his face, the winning, protective tenderness of his smile, these gave her an impression of belonging to the permanent instead of to the merely evanescent part of life. When he sat down in the big leather chair from which Kemper had risen, and removing his glasses, fixed upon her the attentive gaze of his narrow, short-sighted eyes, she felt immediately the first sensation of peace that she had known for many weeks. His hand, long, heavily veined, muscular, and yet finely sensitive, lay outstretched upon the mahogany lid of her desk, and she found herself presently contrasting it with the square, brown, roughly shaped hand of Kemper. Her senses, her brain, her heart were still full of her lover, yet she was able to feel through some strange enfranchisement of her dual nature, that there was a mental directness, an impassioned morality about the man she did not love in which the man she loved was entirely lacking. But the knowledge of this curiously enough, served to increase rather than to diminish the persistent quantity of her emotion, and the few minutes during which Kemper had been absent from her had sufficed to exaggerate his image to a statue that was heroic in its proportions. It was as if her heart--she was still lucid enough to think in a figure of speech--were an altar dedicated to the perpetual flame before a deity who had already showed himself to be both terrible and obscure.

Now as she sat looking, with her rapt gaze, at the man before her, she was thinking how absolutely and without reservation was her surrender to those particular qualities which Roger Adams did not represent. Here, at this approaching crisis in her experience, it might have been supposed that her sense of humour would have lent something of its brilliance as a safeguard, but the weakness of her temperament lay in the very fact that her humour entered only into those situations where it could ornament without modifying the actual conditions of thought--that she devoted to her passion for Kemper, as to the other merely temporary phenomena of the senses, a large intensity of outlook which only the eternal could support with dignity.

Her gaze dropped back from the heights, and he felt that she became less elusive and more human.

"I've thought of you so often and so much," she remarked with her smile of cordial sweetness.

"Not so often as I've thought of you." He laid, as he spoke, a folded paper upon the desk, "There's an English review of the poems. It's rather good so I thought you might care to see it."

She unfolded the paper; then pushed it from her with an indifferent gesture. "It seems so long ago I can hardly believe I wrote them," she returned, conscious as she uttered the mere ordinary words of a subdued yet singularly vivid excitement, which seemed the softer mental radiance left by an illumination which was past.

"I wonder why it should seem long to you," said Adams slowly. "I remember you used to complain that one was obliged to fly through phases of thought in order to test them all."

"I'm not sure that I want to test them all now," she replied. "When one gets to a good place one would better stop and rest."

"Then you are in a good place?" he asked, looking at her intently from his short-sighted eyes, which appeared to contract and narrow since he had taken off his glasses.

"I don't know," she evaded the question with a smile, "but if I am, I warn you, I shall stand still and rest."

He laughed softly. "I dare say you're right, if there's such a state as rest on the earth," he answered.

The cheerful sound of his voice brought the tears suddenly to her eyes, and she remembered a man whom she had once seen in a hospital, smiling after a frightful accident through which he had passed.

"Are you yourself so tired?" she asked.

"I?" he shook his head. "Oh, I was using the glittering generalities again."

"And yet you seldom take even the smallest of vacations," she insisted.

"One doesn't need it when one is broken in as I am. There's a joy in getting one's work behind one that the luxury of idleness does not know."

"All the same I wish you'd stop awhile." Then she gave him one of her long, thoughtful looks and spoke with the beautiful, vibrant note in her voice which he had called its "Creole quality." "We have been such old, such close, such dear friends," she went on, "that I wonder if I may tell you how profoundly--how sincerely--"

She faltered and he took up her unfinished sentence with the instinct to put her embarrassment at ease. "I knew it all along, God bless you," he said. "One feels such things, I think."

"One ought to," she responded.

"It's been hard," he pursued frankly; and she was struck by the utter absence of picturesqueness, of the whining tone of the victim in his treatment of the situation. There was no appeal to her sympathy in his manner, and he impressed her suddenly as a man who had come into possession of a power over the results of events if not over the passage of events themselves. "It's been harder, perhaps, than I can say--poor girl," he added quickly.

With a start she sat erect in her chair. "And you can stop to think of her?" she demanded.

The hand lying on the arm of his chair closed and unclosed itself slowly, without effort. "Can't you?" he asked abruptly.

"Not sincerely, not naturally," she answered. "I think of you."

She saw a spasm of pain pass suddenly into his face, a too ardent leaping, as it were, of the blood.

"You would understand things better," he said presently, after a pause in which she felt that she had witnessed a quick, sharp struggle, "if you had ever watched the slow moral poisoning of cocaine--or had ever been," he added with a harsh, grating sound in his usually quiet voice, "at the mercy of such a damned brute as Brady."

His sudden rage shook her like a strong wind, and she liked him the better for his relapse into an elemental passion in the cause of righteousness.

"I'm glad you cursed him," she remarked simply. "I like it!"

He smiled a little grimly. "So do I."

"And yet how terrible it is," she said, with an effort to work herself into a sentiment of pity for Connie which she did not feel. "It makes the whole world look full of horror."

"Well, it's a comfort to think I never argued that it wasn't a hard road," he returned, with the whimsical humour which seemed only to deepen her sense of tragedy. "I've merely maintained that the only excuse for living is to make it a little easier."

He rose as he spoke and held out his hand with a smile. "So long as you're happy, don't bother to think of me," he said; "but if there ever comes a time when you need a sword-arm, let me know."

Would she ever find that she had need of him? he asked himself presently as he walked rapidly homeward through the streets. Was it in the remotest probability of events that he should ever know the delight of putting forth his full strength in her service? Like a beautiful dream the thought stayed by him for many minutes, and his mind dwelt upon it as upon some rare, cherished vision that lies always behind the actual energies of life. He thought of her dark, eloquent eyes, of the imaginative spirit in her look, and of that peculiar blending of strength with sweetness which he had found in no woman except herself. It was a part of the power she exercised that in thinking of her the physical images appeared always to express a quality that was not in themselves alone.

Then, because he must let her go forever, he set himself patiently to detach her presence from his memory. To think of her had become, he knew, the luxury of weakness, and in order to test his strength for renouncement, he brought his mind deliberately to bear upon the immediate necessity before him. It was useless to say to himself that he could as soon give up his dream as his desire. The endurance of his will, he realised, was equal to whatever sacrifice he was called upon to make and live.

"I can do without--take this--take all and leave me nothing," he had said in the hour of his deepest misery; and with the knowledge of his strength to renounce all that which lay outside himself had come also the knowledge of his power to possess whatever was within his soul. Life was forfeiture and he had given up the world that he might gain himself. Since the night when he had distractedly sought God through the city, he had become gradually aware that he moved in the midst of a large unspeakable peace, for in willing as God willed he had entered, he found, into a happiness which was independent and almost oblivious of the external tragedy in which he lived. Neither sickness nor poverty, nor the shame of Connie's sin, nor the weakness of his own flesh, had power to separate him from the wisdom which had come to him under the eyes of the harlot at the crossing. In seeking the essential thing he had wandered for years in a circle which had led him back at last to his own soul. Beyond this, he saw there was little further to be lost and nothing to be learned. "Give me more light, my God!" he had prayed in agony of spirit; and the answer had come in a mental illumination which had made the crooked places plain and the obscure meanings clear. At last he was happy, for at last he had learned that the man who loses all else and has God possesses everything.

His loneliness--surely there was never a man more alone since the beginning of time--had failed suddenly to disquiet him; and as he looked from his remote vision upon the people about him, there flowed through his mind that ultimate essence of knowledge which enables a man to recognise himself when he encounters the stranger in the street.

Several weeks later he heard from Gerty Bridewell of Laura's engagement to Arnold Kemper. He had dropped in to see Perry one afternoon upon an insignificant piece of business, and Gerty in her husband's absence, had insisted upon receiving his call.

"I'll reward you with a bit of news," she said, with a nervous and troubled gesture. "Laura will be married in the autumn."

"Married?" He looked at her a little blankly, for after having armoured himself to meet an expected blow, he was almost surprised to find that he was not insensible to the shook. "Married! and to whom?"

"To Arnold, of course. Didn't you suspect that it would happen?"

He shook his head. "Of all men he's the last I'd ever have thought of." With the words a vision of Kemper rose before him, robust, virile, sensual, with his dominant egoism and his pleasant affectations, half hero and half libertine.

"Well, of all men he's probably the only one that could have done it," replied Gerty; "he's positively wild about her, there's some comfort to be got from that--and Laura--"

"And Laura?" he repeated the name for she had broken off quickly after having uttered it.

"Oh, Laura is very much in love, it seems. I don't believe she herself knows exactly why--but then one never does."

"Well, let's wish them happiness with all our hearts," he said, and added a little wistfully, "If it could only come by wishing."

"Ah, if it could!" was Gerty's plaintive echo; then her voice dropped into a sigh of perplexity, and she leaned toward him in a flattering confidential manner. "Do you know there are some men who are cads only in their relations to women," she observed; "leave out that element from their make-up and they're all round first-rate fellows."

"I dare say you're right," he answered, and thought of Perry Bridewell, "but why do you select this instant," he added humorously, "to formulate your philosophy of sex?"

Her earnestness fled and she leaned back in her chair laughing. "Oh, I don't know--perhaps--because one doesn't like to lose an aphorism even if it pops into one's head at the wrong time."

Then as he rose to go she pressed his hand with a grip that was almost boyish. "How I wish you liked me half as much as I like you," she said.

"I do--I shall always," he responded in his whimsical manner. "There's absolutely no limit to my liking--only I know it would be the surest way to bore you to death."

She laughed a little wearily. "It would be so nice to be really liked," she pursued. "Nobody likes me. A good many have loved me in one way or another, but I want to be just liked."

He saw the pathetic little frown gather between her brows, and in spite of the pain in his own heart, he felt a profound and pitiful sympathy. "Well, we'll make a compact upon it," he declared, holding her hand for an instant in his hearty grasp. "I promise to like you until you tell me frankly that you're bored."

The eager child quality he seldom saw was in her look and she was about to make some impulsive answer to his words, when there was the sound of a heavy step outside the door and they heard the next instant Perry's hilarious voice.

"Well, I'm jolly glad you kept him, Gerty, but, by Jove, I wonder how you hit it off. He's not your sort, you know."

The child quality vanished instantly from her face, and Adams watched the mocking insolence creep back upon her lips.

"On the other hand we're perfectly agreed," she said. "I don't confine my admiration to your type, you know."

"You don't, eh? Well, that's a good joke!" exclaimed Perry, with a break into his not unpleasant, though sensual laugh. As he stood, squaring his handsome chest, in the centre of the room, Adams felt that the mere animal splendour of the man had never been more impressive.

"I find to my great pleasure that Mrs. Bridewell and I are very good friends," remarked Adams, after a moment in which he had taken in Perry's full magnificence with his humorous short-sighted gaze, "and she has promised on the strength of it to extend to me the favour of her protection. No, I can't stay now," he added, in answer to Perry's protestations. "I'll see you again to-morrow--there's really not the faintest need to hurry."

And with a feeling that he was stifling in the over-heated flower-scented rooms, he went quickly from the house into the street.

There was no reason why the news of Laura should disquiet him--by no possible twist of his imagination could he bring the event of her marriage into any direct bearing on his own life, yet as he walked at his rapid, nervous pace toward his home in Thirty-fifth Street, he felt a burning sore like a great jagged wound in his breast. That merely human part of him, which was mixed so vitally into the intellectual fervour of his love, suffered from the loss almost as if it had been some fresh physical hurt. Was it possible that his avowal of renunciation had sought to keep back some particular treasure? some darling frailty? Or was his suffering at the moment but the first involuntary quiver of the nerves which would pass presently leaving him at one with his fate again? "Was I content to give her up only so long as she belonged to no other man?" he asked. "Could I have relinquished her friendship so easily had I known that her love was not for me, but for Kemper?" Again the image of Kemper appeared to him, genial, impulsive, sensual--and he felt that if it had been another and a different man, he could have borne the loss of Laura with a finer courage.

Then the unworthiness of his mental attitude forced itself upon his reflections, and he realised that with his first return to his old state of selfish blindness, the illumination that had shone in his soul was gradually obscured. Could it happen to him that he should again lose the light? Again walk in darkness? His thoughts were no longer clear with that crystalline clearness of the day before, and it seemed to him suddenly that the key to all wisdom, which he had found so lately, had failed at the critical moment to unlock the fortified doors. That temporary and purely human reaction, which is the inevitable fleeting shadow cast on the mind by any spiritual irradiation, appeared in his present mood to contain within itself the ultimate abyss of failure. The single instant when he lost hold on God stretched itself into an eternity of nothingness through his soul.

He had walked rapidly and far, and looking up at his first almost automatic stop, he found that he had not only passed by his own house, but that he had come as far down as the corner of Twentieth Street and Broadway. The afternoon had waned before he knew it, and the streets were now filled with people returning from their day's work in offices or in shops. On one side a newsboy was offering him the evening papers, and on the other a man had thrust a bunch of half-faded violets into his face.

As he stood now, hesitating for a moment beside the crossing, he became dimly aware that he had passed quickly from one state of consciousness into another, from the brief period of dream into the briefer transition which precedes the awakening--and that there was a distinct gap between his former and his present frame of mind. He _was awakening--this he realised as he watched the crowd which surged rapidly by on either side--and there came to him almost with the conviction a vivid presentiment that the full return of his senses would bring at the same time a clearer and a deeper conception of life. His short unhappiness showed suddenly as a nightmare, and while he looked at the men and women among whom he stood, he felt that the egoism of his love for Laura had broadened into a generous stream of humanity which filled the world. The personal had passed suddenly into the universal; the spirit of desire had showed itself to be one with the spirit of pity; and the very agony of the rebellion through which he had come appeared as he looked back upon it to have enriched his consciousness of the tragedy in other lives. To live close to mankind, to make a little easier the old worn road, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the labourer at his toil, these were the impulses which sprang like a new growth from his past selfish longing. "Let me feel both the joy and the sorrow among which I move," was the prayer he now found strength to utter.

With renewed energy he turned to go onward, when, as he stepped upon the crossing by which he stood, he saw that a woman at his side was weeping softly, without noise, as she walked. Something of his old restraint, his old embarrassment, checked him for a moment; then he saw that she was poor and middle-aged and plainly clad, and he turned to speak to her, though still with a slight hesitation.

"I wish you would do me the kindness to tell me your trouble," he said.

She stopped short in her walk and looked up with a nervous squint of her eyes, while the undried tears were still visible on her large mottled cheeks. As she stood there, timid and silent, before him, he saw that the basket contained a squirming mass of gray fur, and stooping to look at it more attentively, he found that the fur belonged to a number of small animals, huddled asleep on the fragment of a red and white plaid shawl. He liked the woman's face and he liked, too, the little creatures in the basket; and more than this he felt the great need of helping as the one means to bridge the extreme spiritual isolation in which he stood. To give one's self! Was not this final surrender of the soul the beginning of all faith as of all love?

"I believe that you need help," he said, in the winning voice which had always had a strange power to open out the hearts of others, "and I know that I need to give it."

In the midst of the crude noises of the street, surrounded by the screaming newsboys and the clanging cars, he saw that she paused for an instant to cast a quick, frightened glance about her.

"If you'll believe what I say," she replied, in a voice which had gained the assurance of a heartfelt conviction, "I was just praying for help to come, but somehow it always seems to take one's breath clean away when there's an answer. I've been trying to sell some of the little creatures," she went on, "but they don't go well to-day and I guess Jim won't be able to hold out till I get the money for his funeral."

"And Jim is your husband?" he asked quietly.

"I married him more than thirty years ago," she answered, stooping to wipe her eyes with a hard rub on the sleeve of her jacket, "and he was always a good worker until this sickness came. I've never known him to miss a day's work so long as he had his health," she added proudly, "and that, too, when so many other husbands were soaking themselves in drink."

"And he's ill now?" asked Adams, as she paused.

"He's been dying steadily for a week, sir," she answered with the simple directness of the grief which takes account only of the concrete fact, "and I've been working day and night to make up his burial money by the time he needs it. If he'd only manage to last a day or two longer I might lay up enough to keep him out of the paupers' lot," she finished with a kind of awful cheerfulness.

It was this cheerfulness, he found, glimmering like some weird death-fire over the actual horror, which made his realisation of the tragedy the more poignant, and lent even a certain distinction to the poverty which she described. Here, indeed, was the supreme vulgarity of suffering--and before it his own personal afflictions appeared as unsubstantial as shades. At least he had had the empty dignity of receiving his sorrow with a full sense of its importance, but with this woman the very presence of grief was crowded out by the brutal obligation to meet the material demands of death. Death, indeed, had become but an incident--a side issue of the event--and the funeral had usurped the place and the importance of a law of nature.

"Let me go home with you--I should like it," he said when they had started to walk on again; and then with an instinctive courtesy, he took the basket from her and slipped it over his own arm. A little later, when following her directions, they entered a surface car for the West Side, he placed the basket on his knees and sat looking down at the small gray kittens that awaking suddenly began to play beneath his eyes. The jostling crowd about him, the substantial panting figure of the woman beside him, and more than all the joyous animal movements of the kittens in his lap, seemed somehow to return to him that intimate relation to life which he had lost. He no longer felt the sensation of detachment, of insecurity in his surroundings; for his own individual existence had become in his eyes but a part of the enlarged universal existence of the race.

As the car stopped the woman motioned to him with an imperative gesture, and then as they reached the sidewalk, she pointed to a fruiterer's stand on the outside of a tenement near the corner.

"It is just above there--on the third floor," she said, threading her way with a large determined ease through the children playing upon the sidewalk.

When he mounted presently the dimly lighted staircase inside, it seemed to Adams that the whole house, close, poorly-lighted, dust laden as it was, was filled to the echo with the ceaseless voices of children--laughing voices, crying voices, scolding voices, voices lifted as high in joy as in grief. So strong was his impression of the number of the little inmates that he was almost surprised when the woman pushed open a door on the third landing and led the way into a room which appeared deserted except for the occupant of the clean white bed by the window.

The whole place was scrupulously neat, he saw this at the first glance--saw the well swept floor, the orderly arrangement of the chairs, the spotless white cambric curtains parted above the window sill, on which a red geranium bore a single blossom out of season. Several large gray cats arose at the woman's entrance and came crying to the kittens in the basket; and she motioned to Adams to put the little creatures on the floor. Then going to the bed she stooped over the man who lay there--outstretched and perfectly motionless as if wrapped in a profound and quiet slumber. One iron-stained misshapened hand lay on the outside of the coverlet and as Adams looked at it, he saw in it a symbol of the whole tragedy upon which he gazed. The face of the sleeper was hidden from him, but so expressive was the distorted, toil-hardened hand, with the fingers fallen a little open as if in relief from a recently dropped tool, that the voice of the woman sounding in his ears merely put into words his own unspoken knowledge.

"Ah, he's gone," she said. "He promised me he'd hold out if he could, but I guess he couldn't manage it."

Then standing there in the bare, cleanly swept room, bright with the voices of children which floated in from the staircase, Adams was conscious, with a consciousness more vital and penetrating than he had ever felt before, that the place, the universe and his own soul were filled to overflowing with the infinite presence of God.

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