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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 11. On The Wings Of Life
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 11. On The Wings Of Life Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2487

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 11. On The Wings Of Life

PART II. ILLUSION
CHAPTER XI. ON THE WINGS OF LIFE

It was on the morning after Gerty's conversation with Adams that Laura carried the news of her engagement to Uncle Percival.

"I've something really interesting for you this morning," she began, taking his withered little hand in hers as she sat down on the high footstool before his chair.

His wandering blue eyes fixed her for a moment, then, turning restlessly, travelled to his flute which lay silent on the table on his elbow.

"Ah, but I'm ahead of you for once," he remarked with his amiable toothless smile, "there's a new batch of rabbits in the yard and I've already seen 'em. Don't tell Rosa, my dear," he cautioned in a whisper, "or she'll be sure to drown 'em everyone."

Releasing his hand from her clasp, he reached for his flute, and, with a pathetic delight in the presence of his enforced listener, raised the mouth of the instrument to his lips. The tune he played was "The Last Rose of Summer," and Laura sat patiently at his side until the end. With the final note, even as he laid the flute lovingly across his knees, she saw that the music had strengthened and controlled his enfeebled mind.

"I want to tell you that I shall be married in the autumn, dear Uncle Percival," she said with a renewed effort to penetrate the senile abstraction in which he lived.

"Married!" repeated the old man, with an indignant surprise for which she was entirely unprepared. "Married! Why, what on earth makes you do a ridiculous thing like that? It's out of the question," he continued with an angry vehemence, "it is utterly and absurdly out of the question."

For an instant it seemed to Laura that she had absolutely no response to offer.

"But almost everyone marries in the end, you know," she said at last.

"I have lived very comfortably to be eighty-five," retorted Uncle Percival, "and I never married."

"Oh, but you never fell in love," persisted Laura.

"In love? Tush!" protested the old man with scorn, "and why should you? I have never felt the need of it."

"Well, I don't think one can help it sometimes," remonstrated Laura, a little helplessly. "One doesn't always want it, but it comes anyway."

"Then if I didn't want it I wouldn't let it bother me," said Uncle Percival, adding immediately. "What does Rosa think of this state of things, I wonder--Rosa is a very sensible woman."

"Oh, she's heartily pleased--everybody is pleased but you."

Uncle Percival shook his head in stubborn disapproval. "People are always pleased at the mistakes of others," he observed, "it's human nature, I suppose, and they can't help it, but I tell you I've seen a great deal too much of love all my life--and it's better left alone, it's better left alone."

Rising dejectedly, he wandered off to his rabbits, while Laura, as soon as the curtains at the door had fallen together again behind his shrunken little figure, forgot him with that complete forgetfulness of trivial details which is possible only to the mind that is in the possession of an absorbing emotion. All hesitation, all uncertainty, all disappointment, had been swept from her consciousness as if by a destroying and purifying flame; and for the past few weeks she had lived with that passionate swiftness of sensation which gives one an ecstatic sense of rushing, like a winged creature, through crawling time. Life, indeed, was winged for her at the moment; her soul flew; and she felt her happiness beating like a caged bird within her breast. The agony of the imprisoned creature was there also, for she loved blindly without understanding why she loved--and yet it was this hidden mystery of her passion, this divine miracle which attended its conception, that filled the world about her with the invisible, announcing hosts of angels. She could explain nothing--life, death, birth, the ordinary incidents of every day were but so many signs and portents of 'the unseen wonders; and every breath she drew seemed as great a miracle to her as the raising of Lazarus from the tomb.

Closing her eyes she thought of the afternoon before when she had gone out with her lover in his automobile. Life at the instant had condensed itself into a flash of experience, and his face as he looked at her had been clear and strong as the wind which rushed by them. "Faster! faster! let us go faster!" she had begged, "let me live this one hour flying," and even with the words she had wondered if the same rapture would ever enter into her love again? Was it possible to touch the highest point of one's being twice in a single lifetime? Was it given to any human creature to repeat perfection? And he? Would he ever know it again? she questioned, with an uncertainty sharp as a sword that pierced her through. Would she ever find in his eyes a look that would be anything but a shadow of the look she had seen on the day before? Was happiness, after all, as fluid a quantity as the emotion which gave it birth?

Standing beside the table, she leaned her cheek for a moment upon the roses in the Venetian vase; and it seemed to her, as the petals brushed her face, that she felt again his eager kisses fall on her eyes and throat. The memory sent her blood beating to her pulses; and she saw his face in her thoughts as she had seen it on that afternoon, transfigured and intensified by the peculiar vividness of her perceptions.

"There has been nothing like this in my life before," he had said in a passion of sincerity, "there has been nothing in my life but you from the beginning." The irony was gone then from his voice; she had found no hint of even the satirical humour in his eyes; and as she remembered this now it seemed to her that she had there for the first time--for the one and only moment since she had known him--succeeded in holding by her touch that deeper chord of his nature for which she had always felt herself to be instinctively groping.

She was still brooding over the rapture of yesterday, when the door opened quickly and Kemper came in with the eager haste in which he appeared to live every instant of his life. At the first glance she saw that the ardour of the last afternoon was still in his eyes, and the next moment she found herself yielding to his impatient kisses.

"I was trying to decide whether I love you more when you are with me or when you are away," she said with a joyful laugh.

"Well, as for me, I love you exactly a hundred times more when I see you," he retorted gayly.

His words seemed, as she repeated them, an affront to her insatiable desire for the perfection of love.

"Then if you never saw me again you would be able to forget me?" she asked a little wounded.

He laughed easily with a quick return to his pleasant banter, "I hope so. What's the use of loving when nothing comes of it?"

When nothing comes of it! A cloud dimmed the radiant clearness of her morning; then she met the strong tenderness in his eyes, and with an effort, she thrust her disappointment aside, as she had thrust it aside at every meeting since the beginning of her love.

"I have always wondered if happiness were as happy as people thought," she said gravely, "and now I know, I know."

"And is it really?" he asked, with the confident smile which piqued her even while it fascinated.

For answer she lifted to him "the seraphic look" which he had never seen in any face but hers; and as he met her eyes it appeared to him that all other women whom he had loved were but tinted shadows--that they were one and all utterly devoid of the mystery by which passion lives. Here in her face he saw at last the charm and the wonder of sex made luminous; and while he watched her emotion quiver on her lips, he began to ask himself if this were not the assurance in his own heart of a feeling that might endure for life? Would this, too, change and perish as his impulses had changed and perished until to-day?

"Shall I tell you what I have been thinking since last night?" she questioned in a voice that was like a song to his ears, "it is that I have been all my life a plant in a dark cellar, groping toward the light and never finding it--always groping, groping."

She leaned toward him, placing her hands, the lovely, delicate hands he loved, upon his shoulders, "I've grown to the light! I've grown to the light!" she whispered joyously.

He raised her hand to his lips, and his teeth closed softly over each slender finger one by one.

"So I am the light?" he enquired with tender humour.

She shook her head. "Not you, but love."

A short laugh broke from him. "But where, my dear sweetheart," he retorted? "would love be without me?"

"I don't dare to think," she was too earnest to take his jest with lightness, "it is strange, isn't it?--that but for you I should never have known--this."

"Who can tell? There might have come along another fellow and you'd probably have made love quite as prettily to a substitute."

"Never!" she shook her head with an indignant protest, "and you?" she added softly after a moment.

"And I? What?"

"Without me could you have felt it quite like this?"

She waited breathlessly, but the ironic spirit had got the better of his tenderness.

"My dear girl," he rejoined, "what a question?"

"But could you?-tell me," she implored in sudden passion.

"Well, I devoutly hope so," he answered lightly, "it's a thing I should'nt like to have missed, you know."

He leaned back closing his eyes; and immediately, without warning and against his will, there rose before him the seductive face of Madame Alta, and he recalled her exquisite voice, with its peculiar high note of piercing sweetness. Then he remembered his wife, and, one by one, the other women whom he had loved and forgotten or merely forgotten without loving. They meant so little in his existence now, and yet once, each in her own bad time had engrossed utterly his senses. In what rare quality of sentiment could this love differ from those lesser loves that had gone before?

But he was not given to introspection, and so the disturbing question left him almost as readily as it had come. When one attempted to think things out, there was no hope of escaping the endless circle with a clear head. No, he wasn't analytical, thank Heaven!

While he was still rejoicing in what he called his "practical turn of mind," he remembered suddenly an appointment at his club which he had made a week ago and then overlooked in the absorbing interest of his engagement.

"By Jove, you'll get me into an awful scrape some day," he remarked cheerfully as he hurried into his overcoat. "I might have lost fifty thousand dollars by letting this thing slip."

His manner had changed completely with the awakened recollection; and finance in all its forms--the look of figures, the clink of coin--had assumed instantly the position of romance in his thoughts. For the moment Laura was crowded from his mind, and she recognised this with a pang sharp and cold as the thrust of a dagger.

"If you only knew how much you'd nearly cost me," were his last words as he ran down the steps.

At the corner he met Gerty's carriage and in response to her inviting gesture, he gave an order to the coachman as he sprang inside.

"Well, this is a godsend," he observed with a grateful sigh while he wrapped the fur rug carelessly about him. "A drive with a pretty woman leaves a surface car a good many miles behind. And you are unusually pretty this morning," he commented with a touch of daring gallantry.

"I ought to be," returned Gerty defiantly, "for heaven knows I take trouble enough about it. Oh, I _am glad to see you!" she finished gayly, "how is Laura?"

He met her question with his genial smile. "She makes a pretty good pretence at happiness," he answered.

"And so she's really over head and ears in love?"

"Does it surprise you that she should find me charming?" he asked, laughing.

She nodded with unshaken candour.

"I was never so much surprised in all my life."

If his smile was ready it did not fail to betray a touch of vanity that was almost childlike.

"And yet there was a time when you yourself rather liked me," he retorted with his intimate and penetrating glance.

"Was there?" She avoided his look though her tone was almost insolent, "my dear fellow, I never in my life liked you better than I like you at this minute--but we are speaking now of Laura's liking not of mine. Oh, Arnold, Arnold, I am in a quake of fear."

"About Laura? Then get over it and don't be silly."

"And you are honestly and truly and terribly in earnest?"

"My dear girl, I'm going to marry her--isn't that enough? Does a man commit suicide except when he's sincere?"

Her shallow cynicism had dropped from her now, and she turned toward him with an unaffected anxiety in her face.

"Then it will last--it must."

"Last!" An expression of irritation showed in his eyes, and he shrugged his shoulders with an impatient movement. "Of course it won't last--nothing does. If you want the eternal you must seek it in eternity."

"So in the end it will be like--all the others?"

Because the question annoyed him he responded to it with a frankness that was almost brutal. "Everything is like everything else," he returned, "there's nothing new, least of all in the emotions."

For a minute she looked at him in silence while the steady green flame appeared to him to grow brighter in her eyes. Was it contempt or curiosity that he saw in her face?

"Poor Laura!" she said at last very softly. "Poor happy Laura!"

At her words his dissenting laugh broke out, but he showed by his animated glance a moment later that it was of herself rather than of Laura that he was thinking.

"Is it such a terrible fate, after all, to become my wife?" he enquired.

His look challenged hers, and lifting her insolent bright eyes, she returned steadily the smiling gaze he bent upon her.

"Oh, dear me, yes," she answered merrily, "it is almost if not quite as bad as being Perry's." The carriage had stopped at the door of his club, and his mind was already at work over the approaching interview.

"Well, you escaped the lesser for the greater ill," he responded pleasantly, as he gave her hand a careless parting pressure.

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