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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 6. The Finer Vision
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 6. The Finer Vision Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :1930

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 6. The Finer Vision

PART II. ILLUSION
CHAPTER VI. THE FINER VISION

So far as Connie was concerned the trip South had been, to all outward appearance at least, entirely successful. Adams had watched her bloom back into something of her girlish prettiness, and day by day, in the quiet little Florida village to which they had gone, the lines of nervous exhaustion had faded slowly from her face. For the first two weeks she had been content to lie motionless in the balmy air beneath the pines, while she had yielded herself to the silence with a resignation almost pathetic in its childish helplessness. But with her returning vigour the old ache for excitement awoke within her, and to stifle her craving for the drug which Adams had denied her, she had turned at last to the immoderate use of wine. So, hopelessly but with unfailing courage, he had brought her again to New York where he had placed her in the charge of a specialist in obscure diseases of the nerves.

Except for the hours which he spent in his office, he hardly left her side for a minute day or night, and the strain of the close watching, the sleepless responsibility, had produced in him that quivering sensitiveness which made his self-control a bodily as well as a mental effort. Yet through it all he had never relaxed in the fervour of his compassion--had never paused even to question if the battle were not useless--if Connie herself were worth the sacrifice--until, almost to his surprise, there had come at last a result which, in the beginning, he had neither expected nor desired. A closer reconciliation with life, a stronger indifference to the mere outward show of possession, a deeper consciousness of the reality that lay beyond, above and beneath the manifold illusions--these things had become a part of his mental attitude; and with this widening vision he had felt the flow in himself of that vast, universal pity which has in it more than the sweetness, and something of the anguish of mortal love. In looking at Connie he saw not her alone, but all humanity--saw the little griefs and the little joys of living creatures as they were reflected in the mirror of her small bared soul. Though he had schooled himself for sacrifice he found presently that he had entertained unawares the angel of peace--for it was during these terrible weeks that the happiness at which Gerty Bridewell had wondered possessed his heart.

On the afternoon of Trent's visit, Adams left his office a little earlier than usual, for he had promised Connie that he would take her to see a new ballet at her favourite music hall. When he reached his house she was already dressed, and while he changed his clothes in his dressing-room, she fluttered restlessly about the upper floor, looking remarkably fresh and pretty in a gown of delicate blossom pink. From a little distance the faint discolour of her skin, the withered lines about her mouth and temples were lost in a general impression of rosy fairness; and as he watched her hurried movements, through the door of her bedroom, Adams found it almost impossible to associate this sparkling beauty with the half-frenzied creature he had nursed two weeks ago. One of her "spells of joy," as she called them was evidently upon her; and even as he accepted thankfully the startling change in her appearance, there shot into his mind an acute suspicion as to the immediate cause.

"Connie," he said, standing in front of her with his hair brush in his hand, "will you give me your word of honour that you have taken nothing to-day except your proper medicine?"

A quick resentment showed in her eyes, but she veiled it a moment afterward by a cunning expression of injured innocence. "Why, how could I?" she asked, in a hurt voice, "the nurse was with me."

It was true, he knew--the nurse had been with her all day, and yet as he looked more closely at her animated face and brilliant eyes the suspicion hardened to absolute conviction in his mind. The change from the fragile weakness of the morning to this palpitating eagerness could mean only the one thing, he knew--Connie had found some secret way to gratify her craving and the inevitable reaction would set in before many hours.

Turning away again he finished his dressing to the accompaniment of her high-pitched ceaseless prattle. Her conversation was empty and almost inconsequent, filled with rambling descriptions of the newest gowns, with broken bits of intimate personal gossip, but the very rush of words which came from her served to create an atmosphere of merriment at dinner. A little later at the music hall she insisted upon talking to Adams in exaggerated whispers, until the pointless jokes she made about the arms or the legs of the dancers, sent her into convulsions of noiseless hysterical laughter. Through it all Adams sat patiently wondering whether he suffered more from the boredom of the ballet or from the neuralgia caused by a draught which blew directly on the back of his neck. That the show amused Connie was sufficient reason for sticking it out until the end, but there were moments during the long evening, when he felt, as he sat with his blank gaze fixed upon the glancing red legs on the stage, that every stifled yawn was but an unuttered exclamation of profanity.

"Now really and truly was it worth it?" he asked, with a laugh, when they stood again at their own door.

"But didn't you think it lovely?" enquired Connie, irritably, as she entered the hall and paused a moment under the electric light. The excitement had faded from her face, leaving it parched and wan as from a burned out fire, and the sinister blue shadows had leaped out in the hollows beneath her eyes.

"I think you were," he answered merrily, following her as she turned away and went slowly up the staircase.

A smile at the compliment flickered for an instant upon her lips; then as she reached her bedroom, her strength failed her utterly, and with a little moaning cry she swayed forward and fell in a huddled pink heap upon the floor. As he lifted her she begged piteously for wine--brandy--for anything which would drive away the terrible faintness.

"It is like falling into a gulf," she cried, "I am slipping away and I can't hold myself--"

He measured a dose of cognac and gave it to her with a little water, but when, after swallowing it eagerly, she begged for more, he shook his head and began undressing her as he would have undressed a child. A touch at the bell, he knew, would bring her maid, but a powerful delicacy constrained him as he was about to ring; these were scenes whose very hideousness made them sacred, and with Connie's distracted raving in his ears, he became suddenly thankful for the absolute loneliness, for the empty house around him. As she lay upon the bed where he had placed her, looking, he thought even then, like a crushed blossom in her gown of pale pink chiffon, he bent over her in an anguish of pity which oppressed him like a physical weight. The very hatred in her eyes as she looked up at him made the burden of his sympathy the heavier to bear. Had she loved him it might have been easier for her, but he knew now that in her sanest days she felt no stronger sentiment for him than tolerant gratitude. And during her frantic nights the violence of her detestation was but an added torture. There were times even, and this was so now, when she sought by bodily force to gain possession of the drug which she had hidden under the carpet or beneath the pillows of the couch, and in order to control her struggles, he was obliged to resort to his greater physical strength. After this she looked up and cursed him with a wonderful florid, almost oriental splendour of language, while throwing off his coat, he brushed from him the hanging shreds of the torn pink chiffon gown.

At seven o'clock in the morning when the nurse came to relieve him, he was still sitting, as he had sat all night, in a chair beside Connie's bed.

"So she has had one of her bad attacks, I feared it," said the nurse, with a sympathetic glance directed less at Connie than at her husband.

"Yes, it was bad," repeated Adams quietly; and then rising to his feet he staggered like a drunken man into his bedroom across the hall. Still wearing his evening clothes he flung himself heavily upon the sofa and fell at once into the profound sleep of acute bodily exhaustion. Two hours later when he awoke to take the coffee which the kindly nurse brought to him, he found that his slumber, instead of refreshing him, had left him sunk in a sluggish melancholy with a clogged and inactive brain.

"She is very quiet now," said the woman, a tall, strong person of middle age, "and strangely enough the spell has hardly weakened her at all--she has had her breakfast and speaks of going out for a little shopping after luncheon."

"Well, that's good news!" exclaimed Adams heartily, as he hastily swallowed his black coffee. Then, holding out his cup to be refilled, he shook his head with the winning humorous smile which was his solitary beauty. "This coffee will have to write two pages in my magazine," he said, "so pour abundantly, if you please."

Sitting there in his dishevelled evening clothes, with his thin, sallow face under his rumpled hair, he made hardly an impressive figure even when viewed in the effulgent light of romance as a devoted husband. There was nothing of the heroic in his appearance; and yet as the nurse looked down upon him she felt something of the curious attraction he had for men like Arnold Kemper or Perry Bridewell--men whose innate principles of life differed so widely from his own. It was impossible to build a sentimental fiction about him, she thought--he had no place among the broad shouldered, athletic gentlemen who bewitched her in the pages of the modern novel--but she recognised, for the first time, as she stood gravely regarding him, that there could be a love founded upon other attributes than these. To be loved as he loved Connie seemed to her at the instant a very beautiful and perfect thing.

"I think you have suffered more from it than your wife has," she observed, as she replaced the cup upon the tray.

Adams broke into his whimsical laugh. "You don't judge fair," he retorted, "wait until I'm washed and in my right clothes again. If there's anything on earth that turns a man into a corpse, it is an evening suit by daylight."

Then, as she went out with the tray, he endeavoured, while he changed his clothes, to pull himself, by an effort of will, into proper shape to meet the day's work before him.

An hour afterward, as he walked through the morning sunlight to his office, he found that his unusual melancholy had vanished before the first breath of fresh air. A sense of detachment--of world-loneliness came over him as he looked at the passing crowd of strangers, but there was no sadness in the feeling, for he felt within himself the source as well as the renewal of his peace. He had never regarded himself as what is called a religious man--it was more than ten years since he had entered a church or heard a sermon--yet in this very relinquishment of self, was there not something of the vital principle, of the quickening germ of all great religions? Though he had never said in his thoughts "I believe this" or "I hold by this creed or that commandment," his nature was essentially one in which the intellect must be supreme either for good or for evil; and in his soul, which had been for so long the battlefield of a spiritual warfare, there had dawned at last that cloudless sunrise of faith in which all lesser creeds are swallowed up and lost. If he had ever attempted to put his religious belief into words, he would probably have said with his unfailing humour that it "sufficed to love his neighbour and to let his God alone."

Now, as he passed rapidly through the humming streets, his thoughts were so anxiously engrossed by Connie's condition that, when his name was uttered presently at his elbow, he started and looked up like one awakening uneasily from a dream. The next moment the air swam before him and he felt his blood rush in a torrent from his heart, for the voice was Laura's, and he discovered when he turned that she was looking up eagerly into his face.

"Nothing short of a meditation on the seven heavens can excuse such absorption of mind," she said.

"You came like a spirit without my suspecting that you were near," he answered, smiling.

She laughed softly, giving him her full face as she looked up with her unfathomable eyes and tremulous red mouth. At the first glance he noticed a change in her--an awakening he would have called it--and for a minute he lost himself in a vague surmise as to the cause. Then all other consciousness was swept away by pure delight in the mere physical fact of her presence. For the instant, while they walked together through the same sunshine over the same pavement, she was as much his own as if they stood with each other upon a deserted star.

"It has been so long since I really saw you," she said, after a moment's pause, "I wondered, at first, if you were ill, but had that been so I was sure you would have written me."

Even her voice, he thought, had altered; it was fuller, deeper, more exquisitely vibrant, as if some wonderful experience had enriched it.

"Connie was ill, not I," he answered quietly. "I took her South for a fortnight, and since getting back I've hardly been able to go anywhere except to the office."

She glanced at him with a sympathy in which he detected a slight surprise--for so long as Connie had been well and happy he had rarely mentioned her name even to his closest friends.

"I hope, at least, that she is better by now," responded Laura with conventional courtesy.

"Oh, yes, very much better," he replied; "but tell me of yourself--I want to hear of you. Is there other verse?"

For a minute she looked away to the rapidly moving vehicles in the street; then turning quickly toward him, she spoke with one of the impulsive gestures he had always found so charming and so characteristic.

"There is no verse--there will never be any more," she said. "Shall I tell you a secret?"

He bent his head. "A dozen if you like."

"Well, there's only one--it's this: I wasn't born to be a poet. It was all a big mistake, and I've found it out in plenty of time to stop. I'd rather do other things, you know; I'd rather live."

"Live," he repeated curiously; and the incidents of his own life flashed quickly, one by one, across his mind. Marriage, birth, death, the illusion of desire, the disenchantment of possession; to place one's faith in the external object and to stake one's happiness on the accident of events--did these things constitute living for such as she?

"When you say 'life' do you not mean action?" he asked slowly.

"Oh, I want to be, to know, to feel," she replied almost impatiently. "I want to go through everything, to turn every page, to experience all that can be experienced upon the earth."

A smile was in his eyes as he shook his head. "And when you have accomplished all these interesting things," he said, "you will have gained from them--what? The lesson, learned perhaps in great sorrow, that the outward events in life are of no greater significance than the falling of the rain on the growing corn. Nothing that can happen or that cannot happen to one matters very much in the history of one's experience, and the biggest incident that ever came since the beginning of the world never brought happiness in itself alone. It may be," he added, with a tenderness which he made no effort to keep from his voice, "that you will arrive finally at the knowledge that all life is forfeiture in one way or another, and that the biggest thing in it is sometimes to go without."

His tone was not sad--the cheerful sound of it was what impressed her most, and when she looked up at him she was almost surprised by the smiling earnestness in his face.

"Do you mean that this is what you have learned?" she asked.

Her seriousness sent him off into his pleasant laugh. "Whatever I have learned it has not been ingratitude for a meeting like this," he responded gayly. "It is one of my unexpected joys."

"And yet it's a joy that you take small advantage of," she remarked. "I'm almost always at home and I'm very often wishing that you would come. As a last test, will you dine with me to-morrow night?"

While she spoke, for the briefest flicker of her eyelashes, she saw him hesitate; then he shook his head.

"I fear I can't," he replied regretfully, "the nurse goes home, you see, and there's no one left with Connie. When she's well again I'll come gladly if you'll let me."

Her face flushed a little. "I'm sorry I asked you," she said; "I ought to have thought--to have known."

He felt the wrench within him as if he had torn out a living nerve, for it was the end between them and he had meant that it should be so. Life would have no compromises with illusions, he knew--not even with the last and the most beautiful of desires.

"On the other hand your wish made me very happy," he returned.

She had stopped when they reached a corner, and he realised, with a pang, that the chance meeting was at an end. As she stood there in the pale sunshine, his eyes hung upon her face with an intensity which seemed to hold in it something of the tragedy of a last parting. At the moment he told himself that so far as it lay in his power he would henceforth separate his life from hers; and as he made the resolution he knew that he would carry her memory like a white flame in his heart forever.

An instant afterward he went from her with a smile; and as she turned to look after him, moved by a sudden impulse, she felt a vague stir of pity for the gaunt figure passing so rapidly along the crowded street. While she watched him she remembered that there were worn places on the coat he wore, and with one of the curious eccentricities of sentiment, this trivial detail served to surround him with a peculiar pathos.

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