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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 7. In Which Failure Is Crowned By Failure
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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 7. In Which Failure Is Crowned By Failure Post by :Teresa Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :May 2012 Read :2230

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The Wheel Of Life - Part 2. Illusion - Chapter 7. In Which Failure Is Crowned By Failure

PART II. ILLUSION
CHAPTER VII. IN WHICH FAILURE IS CROWNED BY FAILURE

At one o'clock, when Adams left his office to go home to luncheon--a custom which he had not allowed himself to neglect since Connie's illness--he found Mr. Wilberforce just about to enter the building from the front on Union Square.

"Ah, I've caught you as I meant to," exclaimed the older man, with the cordial enthusiasm which Adams had always found so delightful. "It's been so long a time since I had a talk with you that I hope you'll come out somewhere to lunch?"

"I only wish I could manage it," replied Adams, "but I must look in for a minute on Mrs. Adams--she's been ill, you know."

He saw the surprise reflected in his companion's face as he had seen it a little earlier in Laura's; and at the same instant he felt a sensation of annoyance because of his inability to act upon his impulse of hospitality. He would have liked to take Mr. Wilberforce home with him; but remembering the probable quality of the luncheon which awaited him, he repressed the inclination.

"Is that so? I'm sorry to hear it," remarked the other in the conventional tone in which Adams' friends always spoke of Connie. "Well, I'll walk a block or two with you in your direction," he added as they turned toward Broadway. "Laura told me, by the way, that she was so fortunate as to have a glimpse of you this morning."

Adams nodded and then looked quickly away from the other's searching eyes. "Yes, we met rather early in the street," he responded; "she seems to me to be looking very well, and yet she's altered, somehow--I can't say exactly how or where."

"Then you've noticed it," returned Mr. Wilberforce, with a sigh, and he asked almost immediately: "Does she appear to you to be happier than she was?"

"Happier? Well, perhaps, but I hardly analysed the impression she produced. There was a change in her, that was all I saw."

"Did she speak to you, I wonder, of her book?"

Adams laughed softly. "She spoke of it to say that she was tired of it," he answered, "but that is only the inevitable reaction of youth--it's a part of the universal rhythm of thought, nothing more."

Mr. Wilberforce shook his head a little doubtfully. "I wish I could feel so confident," he returned, while a quick impatience--almost a contempt awoke in Adams' mind. Was it possible that this man beside him, with his white hairs, his blanched skin, his benign old-world sentiments, was, like Trent, a mere worshipper of the literary impulse in its outward accomplishment? Did he love the poet in the woman rather than the woman in the poet? As Adams turned to look at him, he thought, not without a certain grim humour, that he beheld another victim to the vice of sentimentality; and in his mental grouping he placed his companion among those who, like Connie, were in bondage to the images of their imaginations.

"And yet even if she should cease to write poems she will always live one," he added lightly.

"Yes, she will still be herself," agreed Mr. Wilberforce, but his words carried no conviction of comfort; and when he turned at the corner to take his car, it was with the air of a man oppressed by the weight of years.

When Adams reached home he found Connie, dressed in her blue velvet with the little twinkling aigrette, on the point of starting for an afternoon drive with her nurse in the Park. The events of the night had been entirely effaced from her mind by the newer interests of the day; and as he looked at her in amazement, it seemed to him that she bore a greater resemblance to the rosy girl he had first loved than she had done for many weary and heart-sick months. When he left her, presently, to go back to his office, it was with a feeling of hopefulness which entered like an infusion of new blood into his veins. The relapse might have been, after all, less serious than he had at first believed, and Connie's cure might become soon not only a beautiful dream, but an accomplished good. He thought of the sacrifices he had made for it--not begrudgingly, but with a generous thankfulness that he had been permitted to pay the cost--thought of the sleepless nights, the neglected work, the nervous exhaustion which had followed on the broken laws of health. At the moment he regretted none of these things, because the end, which he already saw foreshadowed in his mental vision, seemed to him to be only the crowning of his last few weeks. Even the bodily and moral redemption of Connie appeared no longer difficult in the illumination of his mood; for his compassion, in absorbing all that was vital in his nature, seemed possessed suddenly of the effectiveness of a dynamic force.

"Already she is better," he thought, hopefully; "I see it in her face--in her hands even, and when she is entirely cured the craving for excitement will leave her and we shall be at peace again. Peace will be very like happiness," he said to himself, and then, with the framing of the sentence, he stopped in his walk and smiled. "Peace is happiness," he added after a moment, "for certainly pleasure is not." With the words he remembered the bitter misery of Connie who had lived for joy alone--the utter disenchantment of Arnold Kemper, who had made gratified impulse the fulfilling of his law of life. Back and forth swung the oscillation between fugitive desire and outward possession--between the craving of emptiness and the satiety of fulfilment--and yet where was the happiness of those who lived for happiness alone? Where was even the mere animal contentment? "Is it only when one says to Fate 'take this--and this as well--take everything and leave me nothing. I can do without'--that one really comes into the fulness of one's inheritance of joy? Was this what Christ meant when he said to His disciples 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you?' In renunciation was there, after all, not the loss of one's individual self, but the gain of an abundance of life."

The afternoon passed almost before he was aware of it, and when he finished his work and drew on his overcoat, he saw, as he glanced through his office window, that it was already dusk. As he reached the entrance to the elevator, he found Perry Bridewell awaiting him inside, and he kept, with an effort, his too evident surprise from showing in his face.

"Why, this is a treat that doesn't happen often!" he exclaimed with heartiness.

"I was passing and found you were still here, so I dropped in to walk up with you," explained Perry, but there was a note in his voice which caused the other to glance at him quickly with a start.

"Are you ill, old man?" asked Adams, for Perry appeared at his first look to have gone deadly white. "Is there anything that I can do? Would you like to come up and talk things over?"

Perry shook his head with a smile which cast a sickly light over his large, handsome face. "Oh, I'm perfectly well," he responded, "I need to stretch my legs a bit, that's all."

"You do look as if you wanted exercise," commented Adams, as they left the building; "too much terrapin has put your liver wrong, I guess."

At the corner, they passed a news-stand, and as Adams stopped for his evening paper, he noticed again the nervous agony which afflicted Perry during the brief delay.

"Look here, what's up, now?" he enquired, holding his paper in his hand when they started on again, "are you in any trouble and can I help to get you out? I'll do anything you like except play the gallant, and I only draw the line at that because of my temperamental disability. So, something _is wrong?" he added gayly, "for you haven't even observed the pretty woman ahead there in the pea-green bonnet."

"Oh, I'm not in any mess just now," replied Perry, with a big, affectionate shake like that of a wet Newfoundland dog.

Adams threw a keener glance at him. "No scrape about a woman, then?" he asked, with the tolerant sympathy which had made him so beloved by his own sex.

"Oh, Lord, no," ejaculated Perry, with a fervour too convincing to be assumed.

"And you haven't lost in Wall Street?"

"On the other hand I made a jolly deal."

"Well, I give it up," remarked Adams cheerfully; then as he spoke, the glare from an electric light fell full upon the headlines of the folded paper in his hand, and he came to a halt so sudden that Perry, falling back to keep step with him, felt himself spinning like a wound up top.

"My God!" said Adams, in a voice so low that it barely reached Perry's ears. An instant later a quick animal passion--the passion of the enraged male--entered into his tone and he walked quickly across the pavement to the sheltering dusk of a cross street. "May God damn him for this!" he cried in a hoarse whisper.

Following rapidly in his footsteps, Perry caught up behind him, and made an impulsive, nerveless clutch at the unfolded paper. "I knew you'd see it; so I wanted to be along with you," he said in a voice like that of a tragic schoolboy.

Adams turned to him immediately, with a restraint which had succeeded his first quivering exclamation. "So you knew that Brady's wife meant to sue for a divorce?" he asked.

Perry bowed his head--in the supreme crisis of experience he had always found the simple truth to be invested with the dignity of an elaborate lie. "I had heard it rumoured," was what he said.

"And that my wife--"

"I'll swear I never believed it," broke in Perry, with a violent assurance.

From the emotion in his voice one would have supposed him, rather than Adams, to be the injured husband; and the fact was that he probably suffered more at the instant than he had ever done in the whole course of his comfortable life.

"Well, I suppose I ought to be very much obliged to you," replied Adams, with an agonised irony to the injustice of which Perry was perfectly indifferent, "but I can't see that it matters much so long as the thing is true."

"But it's a lie," protested Perry with energy. "I mean the whole damned business."

"What isn't?" demanded Adams bitterly, as he stuffed the crumpled paper into the pocket of his coat. Then, stopping again as they reached a crossing, he held out his hand and enclosed Perry's in a cordial grip.

"I'm very grateful to you," he said; "but if you don't mind, I think I'll walk about a bit alone. I've got to think things over." He hesitated a moment and then added quietly, "I know you'll stand by me whatever comes?"

"Stand by you!" gasped Perry, and the sincere response of his whole impressionable nature brought two large, round tear drops to his eyes; "by Jove! I'd stand it for you!"

For an instant Adams looked at him in silence, while his familiar smile flickered about his mouth. Then he reached out his hand for another grip, before he turned away and walked rapidly into the dim light of the cross street.

"I must walk about and think things out a bit," he found himself saying presently in his thoughts; "there's a tangle somewhere--I can't pull it out."

Stopping under a light he drew the newspaper from his pocket, but as he unfolded it, one of Connie's wild letters to Brady flashed before his eyes; and crushing the open sheet in his hand, he flung it from him out into the gutter. The darkness afforded what seemed to him a physical shelter for his rage, and as he turned toward it, he felt his first blind instinct for violent action give place to a kind of emotional chaos, in which he could barely hear the thunder of his own thoughts. He knew neither what he believed nor what he suffered; his power to will and his power to think were alike suspended, and he was conscious only of a curious deadness of sensation, amid which his ironic devil, standing apart, asked with surprise why he did not suffer more--why his anger was not the greater, his restraint the less? His philosophy, at the moment, had turned to quicksand beneath his feet; and it was this utter failure of himself which forced upon him the anguish of readjustment, the frenzied striving after a clearer mental vision. As he hurried breathlessly along the narrow, dimly lighted street into which he had turned, he felt instinctively that he was groping blindly for some way back into his former illumination, for some finer knowledge of spirit, which at present he did not appear to possess. Not to act upon brute impulse, but to listen in agony until he heard the voice of reason above the storm of his passion--until he heard the soul speaking beyond the senses--this was the one urgent need he felt himself to be aware of--the one intelligent purpose that remained with him through his flight.

"No--I have failed and it is all over," was the first distinct thought that he framed. "By her own act she has put the last barrier between us. She is my wife no longer, for, through herself, she has brought disgrace upon us both." Again he remembered the sacrifices he had made for her, not with the generous rejoicing of the morning, but with a fierce bitterness which was like a bodily hurt. "She is no longer my wife," he repeated; "nor am I her husband--for by her own sin she has made me free." Yet the word carried no conviction to his conscience, and he knew, in spite of his assurance, that nothing had happened since yesterday to change the relations between Connie and himself--that if he had pitied her then there was only the double reason why he should pity her now. Had this added wrong made her less helpless? had it put moral fibre into her heart? "All this had happened yesterday--had happened even six months ago, yet last night I sat by her bed--I was filled with sympathy--and was it only because I was in ignorance then of something which I know now? Yesterday I sacrificed for her both my rest and my work, but was she worthier of pity at that hour than she is at this. She has not changed since, nor has the thing which I have just discovered; it is only I who am different because it is I alone who have come into knowledge of the evil."

He thought of the hideousness of it all--of the punishment that awaited her, of her convulsed face, of her violent gestures, and even of the pale pink chiffon gown, which made her resemble a crushed blossom as she lay upon the bed. That was only last night, and yet in the reality of experience a thousand years had intervened in his soul since then.

The next instant he remembered again, with a throb of exhilaration that he was free. By her own act she had given him back his freedom--she had returned him to his life and to his work. As for her if she chose to fall back into her old bondage, who was there in heaven or on earth that could hold him to account? Every law that had been made by man since the beginning of law was upon his side; and every law declared to him that he was free. Free! The word went like the intoxication of joy to his head; then, even while the exhilaration lasted, he shivered and came abruptly to a halt.

From the light of the crossing a woman had come close to him and touched him upon the arm, making her immemorial appeal with a sickening coquetry in her terrible eyes. She was, doubtless, but the ordinary creature of her class, yet coming as she did upon the brief rapture of his recovered liberty, she appeared as a visible answer to the question he had asked his soul. He shook his head and walked on a few steps; then coming back again he gave her the money that was in his pocket.

"Is this the message?" he put to himself as he turned away. "Is this the message, or is it only the ugly hallucination of my nerves?" With an effort he sought to shake the image from him, but in spite of his closed mind it still seemed to him that he saw Connie's future looking back at him from the woman's terrible eyes. "And yet what have I to do with that woman or she with Connie?" he demanded. "I have so far as I am aware never injured either in my life, nor by any act of mine have I helped to make my wife what she is to-day--one with that creature in the street and with her kind. The law acquits me. Religion acquits me. My own conscience acquits me more than all." But the argument was vain and empty so long as he saw Connie's future revealed to him through the eyes of the harlot he had left at the crossing. The helplessness of ignorance, of the will that desired to will the good, came over him at the moment and he could have cried aloud in his terror because his soul had reached the boundaries between its angel and its devil. In his decision he appeared to himself to stand absolutely solitary and detached--put away from all help from humanity or from human creeds. The law courts told him nothing, nor did religion--then, at the instant of his sharpest despair of knowledge, there came back to him, as in a vision of light, the scene two thousand years ago in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. The people passing about him in the street became suddenly but shadows, even the noise of the cars no longer broke in confusion upon his ears; and in the midst of the silence in which he stood, he heard the Voice as Simon had heard it then: "I have somewhat to say unto thee."

A moment afterward the vision was gone, and he looked round him dazed by the flashing of the lights. "What does it matter about my life which is almost over?" he asked. "I will help Connie, so far as I have strength, to bear her sin against me--and as for the rest it is nothing to me any more." Then, as the resolution took shape in his mind, he was conscious of a feeling of restfulness, of a relief so profound that it pervaded him to the smallest fibre of his being. The whole situation had changed at the instant; his offended honour was no longer offended, nor was his righteous anger still righteous. Though the naked truth must face him in all its brutishness, he knew, from the feeling within him, that by an act of thought, which was not an act, he had drawn the sting of the poisoned arrow from his wound. Not only had the bitterness passed from his shame, but there had come, with the relinquishment of the idea of personal wrong, a swift rush of exaltation, like a strong wind, through his soul. Almost unconsciously he had yielded his will into the hands of God, and immediately, as in the prophecy "all these things had been added" unto the rest.

Turning at once he walked rapidly in the direction of his house, while a clock in a tower across the way pointed to the stroke of nine o'clock. The bodily exertion had begun to wear upon him during the last few minutes. His feet ached and there was a bruised feeling in all his muscles. When he came at last to his own door the sensation of fatigue had blotted out the acuteness of his perceptions.

The lights were blazing in the hall; there was evidently an unusual commotion among the servants; and as he entered, Connie's nurse came to meet him with a white and startled face.

"Have you seen Mrs. Adams?" she asked hastily. "She separated from me in a shop and though I searched for her for hours, I could not find her."

For a breathless pause he stared at her in bewildered horror; then his eyes fell upon a note lying conspicuously on the hall table, and he took it up and tore it open before he answered. The words on the paper were few, and after reading them, he folded the sheet again and replaced it in the envelope. For an instant longer he still hesitated, swallowing down the sensation of dryness in his throat.

"She will not come back to-night," he said quietly at last; "she has gone away for a few days."

Then turning from the vacant curiosity in the assembled faces, he went into his study and shut himself alone in the room in which the memory of his dead child still lived.

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