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   Chapter 3 TREATS OF AN ECCENTRIC FAMILY

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 21400

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


When the last caller had gone Laura slid back the folding doors which opened into the library and spoke to a little old gentleman, with a very bald head, who sat in a big armchair holding a flute in his wrinkled and trembling hand. He had a simple, moonlike face, to which his baldness lent a deceptive appearance of intellect, and his expression was of such bland and smiling goodness that it was impossible to resent the tedious garrulity of his conversation. In the midst of his shrivelled countenance his eyes looked like little round blue buttons which had been set there in order to keep his features from entirely slipping away. He was the oldest member of the Wilde family, and he had lived in the house in Gramercy Park since it was built by his father some sixty years or more ago.

"Tired waiting, Uncle Percival?" asked Laura, raising her voice a little that it might penetrate his deafened hearing.

As he turned upon her his smile of perfect patience the old gentleman nodded his head quickly several times in succession. "I waited to play until after the people went," he responded in a voice that sounded like a cracked silver bell. "Your Aunt Angela has a headache, so she couldn't stand the noise. I went out to get her some flowers and offered to sit with her, but this is one of her bad days, poor girl." He fell silent for a minute and then added, wistfully, "I'm wondering if you would like to hear 'Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon'? It used to be your mother's favourite air."

Though he was an inoffensively amiable and eagerly obliging old man, by some ironic contradiction of his intentions his life had become a series of blunders through which he endeavoured to add his share to the general happiness. His soul was overflowing with humanity, and he spent sleepless nights evolving innocent pleasures for those about him, but his excess of goodness invariably resulted in producing petty annoyances if not serious inconveniences. So his virtues had come to be regarded with timidity, and there was an ever present anxiety in the air as to what Uncle Percival was "doing" in his mind. The fear of inopportune benefits was in its way as oppressive as the dread of unmerited misfortune.

Laura shook her head impatiently as she threw herself into a chair on the other side of the tall bronze lamp upon the writing table. On the stem of an eccentric family tree she was felt to be the perfect flower of artistic impulses, and her enclosed life in the sombre old house had not succeeded in cultivating in her the slightest resemblance to an artificial variety. She was obviously, inevitably, impulsively the original product, and Uncle Percival never realised this more hopelessly than in that unresponsive headshake of dismissal. Laura could be kind, he knew, but she was kind, as she was a poet, when the mood prompted.

"Presently-not now," she said, "I want to talk to you awhile. Do you know, Aunt Rosa was here again to-day and she still tries to persuade us to sell the house and move uptown. It is so far for her to come from Seventieth Street, she says, but as for me I'd positively hate the change and Aunt Angela can't even stand the mention of it." She leaned forward and stroked his arm with one of her earnest gestures. "What would you do uptown, dear Uncle Percival?" she inquired gently.

The old man laid the flute on his knees, where his shrunken little hands still caressed it. "Do? why I'd die if you dragged me away from my roots," he answered.

Laura smiled, still smoothing him down as if he were an amiable dog. "Well, the Park is very pleasant, you know," she returned, "and it is full of walks, too. You wouldn't lack space for exercise."

"The Park? Pooh!" piped Uncle Percival, raising his voice; "I wouldn't give these streets for the whole of Central Park together. Why, I've seen these pavements laid and relaid for seventy years and I remember all the men who walked over them. Did I ever tell you of the time I strolled through Irving Place with Thackeray? As for Central Park, it hasn't an ounce-not an ounce of atmosphere."

"Oh, well, that settles it," laughed Laura. "We'll keep to our own roots. We are all of one mind, you and Aunt Angela and I."

"I'm sure Angela would never hear of it," pursued Uncle Percival, "and in her affliction how could one expect it?"

For a moment Laura looked at him in a compassionate pause before she made her spring. "There's nothing in the world the matter with Aunt Angela," she said; "she's perfectly well."

Blank wonder crept into the old gentleman's little blue eyes and he shook his head several times in solemn if voiceless protest. Forty years ago Angela Wilde, as a girl of twenty, had in the accustomed family phrase "brought lasting disgrace upon them," and she had dwelt, as it were, in the shadow of the pillory ever since. Unmarried she had yielded herself to a lover, and afterward when the full scandal had burst upon her head, though she had not then reached the fulfilment of a singularly charming beauty, she had condemned herself to the life of a solitary prisoner within four walls. She had never since the day of her awakening mentioned the name of her faithless or unfortunate lover, but her silent magnanimity had become the expression of a reproach too deep for words, and her bitter scorn of men had so grown upon her in her cloistral existence that there were hours together when she could not endure even the inoffensive Percival. Cold, white, and spectral as one of the long slim candles on an altar, still beautiful with an indignant and wounded loveliness, she had become in the end at once the shame and the romance of her family.

"There is no reason under the sun why Aunt Angela shouldn't come down to dinner with us to-night," persisted Laura. "Don't you see that by encouraging her as you did in her foolish attitude, you have given her past power over her for life and death. It is wrong-it is ignoble to bow down and worship anything-man, woman, child, or event, as she bows down and worships her trouble."

The flute shook on Uncle Percival's knees. "Ah, Laura, would you have her face the world again?" he asked.

"The world? Nonsense! The world doesn't know there's such a person in it. She was forgotten forty years ago, only she has grown so selfish in her grief that she can never believe it."

The old man sighed and shook his head. "The women of this generation have had the dew brushed off them," he lamented, "but your mother understood. She felt for Angela."

"And yet it was an old story when my mother came here."

"Some things never grow old, my dear, and shame is one of them."

Laura dismissed the assertion with a shrug of scornful protest, and turned the conversation at once into another channel. "Am I anything like my mother, Uncle Percival?" she asked abruptly.

For a moment the old man pondered the question in silence, his little red hands fingering the mouth of his flute.

"You have the Creole hair and the Creole voice," he replied; "but for the rest you are your father's child, every inch of you."

"My mother was beautiful, I suppose?"

"Your father thought so, but as for me she was too little and passionate. I can see her now when she would fly into one of her spasms because somebody had crossed her or been impolite without knowing it."

"They got on badly then-I mean afterward."

"What could you expect, my dear? It was just after the War, and, though she loved your father, she never in her heart of hearts forgave him his blue uniform. There was no reason in her-she was all one fluttering impulse, and to live peaceably in this world one must have at least a grain of leaven in the lump of one's emotion." He chuckled as he ended and fixed his mild gaze upon the lamp. Being very old, he had come to realise that of the two masks possible to the world's stage, the comic, even if the less spectacular, is also the less commonplace.

"So she died of an overdose of medicine," said Laura; "I have never been told and yet I have always known that she died by her own hand. Something in my blood has taught me."

Uncle Percival shook his head. "No-no, she only made a change," he corrected. "She was a little white moth who drifted to another sphere-because she had wanted so much, my child, that this earth would have been bankrupt had it attempted to satisfy her."

"She wanted what?" demanded Laura, her eyes glowing.

The old man turned upon her a glance in which she saw the wistful curiosity which belongs to age. "At the moment you remind me of her," he returned, "and yet you seem so strong where she was only weak."

"What did she want? What did she want?" persisted Laura.

"Well, first of all she wanted your father-every minute of him, every thought, every heart-beat. He couldn't give it to her, my dear. No man could. I tell you I have lived to a great age, and I have known great people, and I have never seen the man yet who could give a woman all the love she wanted. Women seem to be born with a kind of divination-a second sight where love is concerned-they aren't content with the mere husk, and yet that is all that the most of them ever get-"

"But my father?" protested Laura; "he broke his heart for her."

A smile at the fine ironic humour of existence crossed the old man's sunken lips. "He gave to her dead what she had never had from him living," he returned. "When she was gone everything-even the man's life for which he had sacrificed her-turned worthless. He always had the seeds of consumption, I suppose, and his gnawing remorse caused them to develop."

A short silence followed his words, while Laura stared at him with eyes which seemed to weigh gravely the meaning of his words. Then, rising hurriedly, she made a gesture as if throwing the subject from her and walked rapidly to the door.

"Aunt Rosa and Aunt Sophy are coming to dine," she said, "so I must glance at the table. I can't remember now whether I ordered the oysters or not."

The old man glanced after her with timid disappointment. "So you haven't time to hear me play?" he asked wistfully.

"Not now-there's Aunt Angela's dinner to be seen to. If Mr. Bleeker comes with Aunt Sophy you can play to him. He likes it."

"But he always goes to sleep, Laura. He doesn't listen-and besides he snores so that I can't enjoy my own music."

"That's because he'd rather snore than do anything else. I wouldn't let that worry me an instant. He goes to sleep at the opera."

She went out, and after giving a few careful instructions to a servant in the dining-room, ascended the staircase to the large square room in the left wing where Angela remained a

wilful prisoner. As she opened the door she entered into a mist of dim candle light, by which her aunt was pacing restlessly up and down the length of the apartment.

To pass from the breathless energy of modern New York into this quiet conventual atmosphere was like crossing by a single step the division between two opposing civilisations. Even the gas light, which Angela could not endure, was banished from her eyes, and she lived always in a faint, softened twilight not unlike that of some meditative Old-World cloisters. The small iron bed, the colourless religious prints, the pale drab walls and the floor covered only by a chill white matting, all emphasised the singular impression of an expiation that had become as pitiless as an obsession of insanity. On a small table by a couch, which was drawn up before a window overlooking the park, there was a row of little devotional books, all bound neatly in black leather, but beyond this the room was empty of any consolation for mind or body. Only the woman herself, with her accusing face and her carelessly arranged snow-white hair, held and quickened the imagination in spite of her suggestion of bitter brooding and unbalanced reason. Her eyes looking wildly out of her pallid face were still the beautiful, fawn-like eyes of the girl of twenty, and one felt in watching her that the old tragic shock had paralysed in them the terrible expression of that one moment until they wore forever the indignant and wounded look with which she had met the blow that destroyed her youth.

"Dear," said Laura, entering softly as she might have entered a death chamber. "You will see Aunt Rosa and Aunt Sophy, will you not?"

Angela did not stop in her nervous walk, but when she reached the end of the long room she made a quick, feverish gesture, raising her hands to push back her beautiful loosened hair. "I will do anything you wish, Laura, except see their husbands."

"I've ceased to urge that, Aunt Angela, but your own sisters-"

"Oh, I will see them," returned Angela, as if the words-as if any speech, in fact-were wrung from the cold reserve which had frozen her from head to foot.

Laura went up to her and, with the impassioned manner which she had inherited from her Southern mother, enclosed her in a warm and earnest embrace. "My dear, my dear," she said, "Uncle Percival tells me that this is one of your bad days. He says, poor man, that he went out and got you flowers."

Angela yielded slowly, still without melting from her icy remoteness. "They were tuberoses," she responded, in a voice which was in itself effectual comment.

"Tuberoses!" exclaimed Laura aghast, "when you can't even stand the scent of lilies. No wonder, poor dear, that your head aches."

"Mary put them outside on the window sill," said Angela, in a kind of resigned despair, "but their awful perfume seemed to penetrate the glass, so she took them down into the coal cellar."

"And a very good place for them, too," was Laura's feeling rejoinder; "but you mustn't blame him," she charitably concluded, "for he couldn't have chosen any other flower if he had had the whole Garden of Eden to select from. It isn't really his fault after all-it's a part of fatality like his flute."

"He played for me until my head almost split," remarked Angela wearily, "and then he apologised for stopping because his breath was short."

A startled tremor shook through her as a step was heard on the staircase. "Who is it, Laura?"

Laura went quickly to the door and, after pausing a moment outside, returned with a short, flushed, and richly gowned little woman who was known to the world as Mrs. Robert Bleeker.

More than twenty years ago, as the youngest of the pretty Wilde sisters, she had, in the romantic fervour of her youth and in spite of the opposition of her parents, made a love match with a handsome, impecunious young dabbler in "stocks." "Sophy is a creature of sentiment," her friends had urged in extenuation of a marriage which was not then considered in a brilliant light, but to the surprise of everybody, after the single venture by which she had proved the mettle of her dreams, she had sunk back into a prosperous and comfortable mediocrity. She had made her flight-like the queen bee she had soared once into the farthest, bluest reaches of her heaven, and henceforth she was quite content to relapse into the utter commonplaces of the hive. Her yellow hair grew sparse and flat and streaked with gray, her pink-rose face became over plump and mottled across the nose, and her mind turned soon as flat and unelastic as her body; but she was perfectly satisfied with the portion she had had from life, for, having weighed all things, she had come to regard the conventions as of most enduring worth.

Now she rustled in with an emphatic announcement of stiff brocade, and enveloped the spectral Angela in an embrace of comfortable arms and bosom. Her unwieldy figure reminded Laura of a broad, low wall that has been freshly papered in a large flowered pattern. On her hands and bosom a number of fine emeralds flashed, for events had shown in the end that the impecunious young lover was not fated to dabble in stocks in vain.

"Oh Angela, my poor dear, how are you?" she enquired.

Angela released herself with a shrinking gesture and, turning away, sat down at the foot of the long couch. "I am the same-always the same," she answered in her cold, reserved voice.

"You took your fresh air to-day, I hope?"

"I went down in the yard as usual. Laura," she looked desperately around, "is that Rosa who has just come in?" As she paused a knock came at the door, and Laura opened it to admit Mrs. Payne-the eldest, the richest and the most eccentric of the sisters.

From a long and varied association with men and manners Mrs. Payne had gathered a certain halo of experience, as of one who had ripened from mere acquaintance into a degree of positive intimacy with the world. She had seen it up and down from all sides, had turned it critically about for her half-humorous, half-sentimental inspection, and the frank cynicism which now flavoured her candid criticism of life only added the spice of personality to her original distinction of adventure. As the wife of an Ambassador to France in the time of the gay Eugénie, and again as one of the diplomatic circle in Cairo and in Constantinople, she had stored her mind with precious anecdotes much as a squirrel stores a hollow in his tree with nuts. Life had taught her that the one infallible method for impressing your generation is to impress it by a difference, and, beginning as a variation from type, she had ended by commanding attention as a preserved specimen of an extinct species. Long, wiry, animated, and habitually perturbed, she moved in a continual flutter of speech-a creature to be reckoned with from the little, flat, round curls upon her temples, which looked as if each separate hair was held in place by a particular wire, to the sweep of her black velvet train, which surged at an exaggerated length behind her feet. Her face was like an old and tattered comic mask which, though it has been flung aside as no longer provocative of pleasant mirth, still carries upon its cheeks and eyebrows the smears of the rouge pot and the pencil.

"My dear Angela," she now asked in her excited tones, "have you really been walking about again? I lay awake all night fearing that you had over-taxed your strength yesterday. Mrs. Francis Barnes-you never knew her of course, but she was a distant cousin of Horace's-died quite suddenly, without an instant's warning, after having walked rapidly twice up and down the room. Since then I have always looked upon movement as a very dangerous thing."

"Well, I could hardly die suddenly under any circumstances," returned Angela, indifferently. "You've been watching by my death-bed for forty years."

"Oh, dear sister," pleaded Mrs. Bleeker, whose heart, was as soft as her bosom.

"It does sound as if you thought we really wanted your things," commented Mrs. Payne, opening and shutting her painted fan. "Of course-if you were to die we should be too heart-broken to care what you left-but, since we are on the subject, I've always meant to ask you to leave me the shawl of old rose-point which belonged to mother."

"Rosa, how can you?" remonstrated Mrs. Bleeker, "I am sure I hope Angela will outlive me many years, but if she doesn't I want everything she has to go to Laura."

"Well, I'm sure I don't see how Laura could very well wear a rose-point shawl," persisted Mrs. Payne. "I wouldn't have started the subject for anything on earth, Angela, but, since you've spoken of it, I only mention what is in my mind. And now don't say a word, Sophy, for we'll go back to other matters. In poor Angela's mental state any little excitement may bring on a relapse."

"A relapse of what?" bluntly enquired honest Mrs. Bleeker.

Mrs. Payne turned upon her a glance of indignant calm.

"Why a relapse of-of her trouble," she responded. "You show a strange lack of consideration for her condition, but for my part I am perfectly assured that it needs only some violent shock, such as may result from a severe fall or the unexpected sight of a man, to produce a serious crisis."

Mrs. Bleeker shook her head with the stubborn common sense which was the reactionary result of her romantic escapade.

"A fall might hurt anybody," she rejoined, "but I'm sure I don't see why the mere sight of a man should. I've looked at one every day for thirty years and fattened on it, too."

"That," replied Mrs. Payne, who still delighted to prick at the old scandal with a delicate dissecting knife, "is because you have only encountered the sex in domestic shackles. As for me, I haven't the least doubt in the world that the sudden shock of beholding a man after forty years would be her death blow."

"But she has seen Percival," insisted Mrs. Bleeker; and feeling that her illustration did not wholly prove her point added, weakly, "at least he wears breeches."

"I would not see him if I could help myself," broke in Angela, with sudden energy. "I never-never-never wish to see a man again in this world or the next."

Mrs. Payne glanced sternly at Mrs. Bleeker and followed it with an emphatic head shake, which said as plainly as words, "So there's your argument."

"All the same, I don't believe Robert would shock her," remarked Mrs. Bleeker.

"Never-never-never," repeated Angela in a frozen agony, and, rising, she walked restlessly up and down again until a servant appeared to inform the visiting sisters that dinner and Miss Wilde awaited them below.

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