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   Chapter 4 APOLOGISES FOR AN OLD-FASHIONED ATMOSPHERE

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 14194

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


As soon as dinner was over Uncle Percival retired with Mr. Bleeker into the library, from which retreat there issued immediately the shrill piping of the flute. Mr. Bleeker, with an untouched glass of sherry at his elbow and an unlighted cigar in his hand, sank back into the placid after-dinner reverie which is found in the rare cases when old age has encountered a faultless digestion. The happiest part of his life was spent in the pleasant state between waking and sleeping, while as yet the flavour of his favourite dishes still lingered in his mouth-just as the most blissful moments known to Uncle Percival were those in which he piped his cherished airs upon his antiquated instrument. The eldest member of the Wilde family was very old indeed-had in fact successfully rounded some years ago the critical point of his eightieth birthday, and there was the zest of a second childhood in the animation with which he had revived the single accomplishment of his early youth. That youth was now more vivid to his requickened memory than the present was to his enfeebled faculties. The past had become a veritable obsession in his mind, and when he fingered the old flute strength came back to his half-palsied hands and breath returned to his shrunken little body. His own music was the one sound he heard in all its distinctness, and he hung upon it with an enjoyment which was almost doting in its childish delight.

So the fluting went on merrily, while Mrs. Payne and Mrs. Bleeker, after fidgeting a moment in the drawing-room, decided that they would return for a word or two with Angela. "It is really the only place in the house where one can escape Percival's music," declared Mrs. Payne, who frankly confessed that she had reached the time of life when to bore her was the chief offence society could commit, "so, besides the comfort I afford dear Angela, it is much the pleasantest place for me to pass the evening. I've always been a merciful woman my child," she pursued shaking her little flat, false gray curls above her painted wrinkles, "for never in my life have I cast a stone at anyone who amused me; but as for Percival and his flute! Well, I won't say a disagreeable word on the subject, but I honestly think that a passion at his age is absolutely indecent."

She was so grotesquely gorgeous with her winking diamonds and her old point lace, which yawned over her lean neck, that the distinction she had always aimed at seemed achieved at last by an ironic exaggeration.

"At least it is a perfectly harmless passion," suggested her husband, a beautiful old man of seventy gracious years.

"Harmless!" gasped Mrs. Payne. "Why, it has wrecked the nerves of the entire family, has given me Saint Vitus' dance, has kept Laura awake for nights, has reduced Angela to hysterics, and you actually have the face to tell me it is harmless! Judged by its effects, I consider it quite as reprehensible as a taste for cards or a fancy for a chorus girl. Those are vices at least that belong to our century and to civilisation, but a flute is nothing less than a relic of barbarism."

"Well, it's worse on me than on anyone else," said Laura, with the dominant spirit which caused Mr. Payne to shiver whenever she tilted against his wife. "My room is just above, and I get the benefit of every note."

The tune issuing from the library had changed suddenly into "The Land o' the Leal," and by the lamp light Uncle Percival could be seen, warm and red and breathless but still blissfully fluting to the sleeping Mr. Bleeker, whose face, fallen back against the velvet cushions, wore a broad, beatific smile.

"He gets his happiness from it at least," persisted Laura. "I suppose it's a part of his life just as poetry is a part of mine, and to be happy at eighty-two one is obliged to be happy in an antedated fashion."

Then, as the two aunts swept from the room to join Angela, Laura seated herself at Mr. Payne's side and caught the hand which he outstretched. Of all the family he had been her favourite since childhood, and she sometimes told herself that he was the only one who knew her as she really was-who had ever penetrated behind her vivid outside armour of personality. He was a man of great unsatisfied tenderness, who indulged a secret charity as another man might have indulged a vicious taste. All his inclinations strained after goodness, and had he possessed the courage to follow the natural bent of his nature toward perfection he might have found his happiness in the peaceful paths of exalted virtue. But the constant dropping of cynicism will extinguish an angel, and, instead of becoming a shining light to his generation, he had dwindled into a glow-worm beneath the billows of his wife's velvet gown.

Now, as Laura held his hand, she bent upon him one of her long, meditative looks. "Uncle Horace, of all this queer family is Aunt Rosa the queerest or am I?"

Mr. Payne shook his silvered head. "I don't think you're a match for Rosa yet, my dear," he answered with his gentle humour. "Wait till you've turned seventy-then we'll see."

"But I'm not like other women. I don't think their ways. I don't even want the things they want."

The old man's smile shone out as he patted her hand. "That means, I suppose, that you don't want to be married. Who is it this time? Ah, my child, you are born to be adored or to be hated."

Without replying to his question, Laura lifted her full, dark eyes to his face. As he met the intellectual power of her glance, he told himself that he understood the mysterious active principle of her personality-how the many were repelled while the few returned to worship. One felt her, was repulsed or possessed by her, even in her muteness.

"I don't see how any one who has ever dreamed dreams," she said at last, "could fall in love and marry-it is so different-so different."

"So you have refused Mr. Wilberforce? Well, well, he has reached the age when a poor lover may make an excellent friend-and besides, to become Rosa's mouthpiece for a moment, he is very rich."

"And old enough to be my father-but it isn't that. Age has nothing to do with it, nor has congeniality-it is nothing in real life that comes between, for I am fond of him and I don't mind his white hairs in the least, but I can't give up my visions-my ideal hopes."

"Ah, Laura, Laura," sighed the old man, "the trouble is that you don't live on the earth at all, but in a little hanging garden of the imagination."

"And yet I want life," she said.

"We all want it, my child, until we've had it. At your age I wanted it, too, for I had my dreams, though I was not a poet. But there are precious few of us who are willing in youth to accept the world on its own terms-we want to add our little poem to the universal prose of things."

"But it is life itself that I want," repeated Laura.

"And so I wanted Rosa, my dear, every bit as much."

"Rosa!" There was a glow of surprise in the look she turned upon him.

"You find it hard to believe, but it is true nevertheless. I had my golden dream like eve

ryone else, and when Rosa loved me I told myself it had all come true. Well, perhaps, in a measure it has, only, after all, Rosa turned out to be more suited to real life than to poetic moonshine."

"I can't imagine even you idealizing Aunt Rosa," said Laura, "but that I suppose is the way life equalises things."

"That way or another, and the worst it can do for us is to return us our own dreams in grotesque and mutilated forms. That will most likely be your portion, too, my child, for life has hurt every poet since the world began, and it will hurt you more than most because you are so big a creature."

Laura stirred suddenly and, after gazing a moment at the fire, turned upon him a face which had grown brilliant with animation. "I want to taste everything," she said. "I want to turn every page one after one."

"And yet you live the life of a hermit thrush-you have in reality as little part in that bustling turmoil of New York out there as has poor Angela herself."

"But my adventures will come to me-I feel that they will come."

"Then you're happy, my dear, for you have the best of your adventures as you call them in your waiting time."

She leaned toward him, resting her cheek on his gentle old hand, and they sat in silence until Mrs. Payne swept down upon them in her sable wraps and demanded the attendance of her husband.

The hall door closed upon the sisters before Laura had quite come back from her abstraction, which she did at last with a sigh of relief at finding herself alone. Then, leaving Uncle Percival nodding in the library, she went upstairs to the cosy little study which opened from her bedroom on the floor above. The wood fire on the brass andirons was unlighted, and striking a match she held it to the little pile of splinters underneath the logs, watching, with a sensation of pleasure, the small yellow flames lick the crumpled paper and curl upward. Rising after a moment, she stood breathing in the soft twilight-coloured atmosphere she loved. The place was her own and she kept it carefully guarded from a too garish daylight, while the beloved familiar objects-the shining rows of books, the dull greenish hangings, the costly cushioned easy-chairs, the few rare photographs, the spacious writing table and the single Venetian vase of flowers-were always steeped in a softly shadowed half-tone of light.

As she looked about her the comfort of the room entered into her like warmth, and, opening her arms in a happy gesture, she threw herself among the pillows of the couch and lay watching the rapid yellow flames. Even in the midst of her musing she laughed suddenly to find that she was thinking of the phrase with which Funsten had dismissed the name of Arnold Kemper: "The only favourable thing one can say of him is to say nothing." Was it really so bad as that she wondered, with a dim memory that somewhere, back in an obscure corner of her bookshelves, lay his first thin, promising volume published now almost fifteen years ago. Rising presently, she began a hasty search among a collection of little novels which had been banished ignominiously from the light of day, and, coming at last upon the story, she brought it to the lamp and commenced a reading prompted solely by the moment's impetuous curiosity. Utterly devoid as it was of literary finish or discerning craftsmanship, the book gripped from the start by sheer audacity-by its dominant, insistent, almost brutal and entirely misdirected power. It was less the story that struck one than the personal equation between the lines, and the impression she brought away from her breathless skimming was that she had encountered the shock of a tremendous masculine force.

Her head fell back upon the cushions, and she lost herself in the vague wonder the book aroused. Life was there-the life of the flesh, of vivid sensation, of experience that ran hot and swift. The active principle, so strong in the predestined artist, stirred suddenly in her breast, and she felt the instant of blind terror which comes with the realisation of the fleeting possibilities of earth. Outside-beyond her-existence in its multitudinous forms, its diversity of colour, swept on like some vast caravan from which she had been detached and set apart. Lying there she heard the call of it, that tremendous music which shook through her and loosened a caged voice within herself. Her own poetry became for her but a little part of the tumultuous, passionate instinct for life within her-for life not as it was in its reality but as she saw it transfigured and enkindled by the imagination that lives in dreams.

Suddenly from the darkened silence of the house below a thin sound rose trembling, and then, gaining strength, penetrated into the closed chambers. Uncle Percival was at his flute again; he had arisen in the night to resume his impassioned piping; and, rising hurriedly, Laura lit her candle and went out into the hall, where a streak of light beneath Angela's door ran like a white thread across the blackness. Listening a moment, she heard inside the nervous pacing to and fro of tired yet restless feet, and after a short hesitation she turned the knob and entered.

"Oh, Aunt Angela, did the flute wake you?" she asked.

For answer the long white figure stopped its frantic movement and turned upon her a blanched and stricken face out of which two beautiful haunted eyes stared like living terrors-terrors of memory, of silence, of the unseen which had taken visible forms.

"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" cried Angela breathlessly, raising her quivering hands to her ears. "I have heard it before! I have heard it-long before!"

She paused, gasping, and without a word Laura turned and ran down the dark staircase, while with each step the air that Uncle Percival played sounded louder in her ears.

The door of the library was open, and as she entered she called out in a voice that held a sob of anger, "Uncle Percival, how could you?"

His attentive, deafened ears were for his music alone, and, letting the flute fall from his hands, he turned to look at her with the pathetic, innocent enquiry of a good but uncomprehending child. At the sight of his smiling, wrinkled face, his gentle blue eyes and the wistful droop of disappointment at the corners of his mouth, her indignation changed suddenly to pity. It seemed to her that she saw all his eighty years looking at her from that furrowed face out of those little wandering round blue eyes-saw the human part of him as she had never seen it before-with its patience of unfulfilment, its scant small pleasures, its innocent senile passion at the end; saw, too, the divine part, hidden in him as in all humanity-that communion of longing which bound his passionate fluting, Angela's passionate remorse and her own passionate purity into the universal congregation of unsatisfied souls.

The sharp words died upon her lips and, kneeling at his side, she took his shrivelled little hands into her warm, comforting clasp. "Dear Uncle Percival, I understand, and I love you," she said.

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