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   Chapter 5 USHERS IN THE MODERN SPIRIT

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 17646

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"So you have seen her," Adams had remarked the same afternoon, as he walked with Trent in the direction of Broadway. "Do you walk up, by the way? I always manage to get in a bit of exercise at this hour."

As Trent fell in with his companion's rapid step, he seemed to be moving in a fine golden glow of enthusiasm. A light icy drizzle had turned the snow upon the pavement into sloppy puddles of water, but to the young man, fresh from his inexperience, the hour and the scene alike were of exhilarating promise.

"I feel as if I had been breathing different air!" he exclaimed, without replying directly to the question. "And yet how simple she is-how utterly unlike the resplendent Mrs. Bridewell-"

He stopped breathlessly, overcome by his excitement, and Adams took up the unfinished sentence almost tenderly. "So far, of course, she is merely a beautiful promise, a flower in the bud," he said. "Her genius-if she has genius-has not found itself, and the notes she strikes are all mere groping attempts at a perfect self-expression. Yet, undoubtedly, she has done a few fine things," he admitted with professional caution.

"But if, as you say, her emotional self does not go into her poems, what becomes of it?" enquired Trent, with a curiosity too impersonal to be vulgar. "For she, finely tempered as she is, suggests nothing so much as a beautiful golden flame."

Adams started, and flashed upon the other a glance as incisive as a search-light.

"Then you, too, recognise her beauty?" he asked in a tone which had a kindly jealousy.

"Am I a fool?" protested Trent, laughing.

'You heard Kemper?"

"I heard him proclaim himself an ass. Well, let him, let him. Would you hand out one of your precious first editions to the crowd?"

"You're right, you're right," assented Adams, and followed his remark with a sudden change of subject. "I am interested, Mr. Trent, in what you yourself have come to do."

"I-Oh, I have done nothing," declared Trent.

"In your aims, then, let us say, I understand that you intend to try the drama?"

"Well, I confess to having done a play that I think isn't bad," replied Trent, blushing over all his fresh, smooth-shaven face. "Benson has promised me a hearing."

"Ah, I know him-he's always eager for new blood. Perhaps you wouldn't mind my speaking a word or two to him?

"Mind!" exclaimed the younger man, his voice shaking. "Why, I can't tell you how happy it would make me."

They had reached Eighteenth Street, and Trent paused a moment on the corner before turning off to the big red-brick apartment house where he was temporarily placed. "I'd like to walk up to Thirty-fifth with you," he added, "but my mother is expecting me and it makes her nervous when I stay out after dark. She's just from the country, you know, and she gets confused by the noise." He hesitated an instant and then finished with embarrassment. "I wish so much that she could know you.'

"It is a pleasure I hope for very shortly," responded Adams. "How does she like New York, by the way?"

Under the electric light Trent's eyes seemed to run entirely to sparkles. "Ah, well, it's rather lonely for her. She misses the callers at home who used to come to spend the day."

"We must try to change that," said the other as he moved off, while Trent noted that despite his genial sympathy of manner there had been no mention of Mrs. Adams. Where was she? and what was she? questioned the younger man in perplexity, as he crossed to his apartment house at the corner of Fourth Avenue.

At Twenty-third Street Adams had turned almost unconsciously into Fifth Avenue, for so detached was the intellectual remoteness in which he lived that he might have been, for all his immediate perceptions of his surroundings, strolling at dusk along a deserted Western road. He was so used to dwelling on the cool heights of a dearly bought, a hardly wrung, philosophy that he had become at last almost oblivious of the mere external details of life. To live at all had been for him a matter of fine moral courage, and his slight, delicate emaciated, yet dauntless, figure was in itself the expression of a resolute will to endure as well as to resist. When a man has faced death at close range for fifteen years he is, in a measure, bound to become either indifferent satyr or partial saint, and even in the extremity of his first revolt his personal ideal had stood, like the angel with the flaming sword, between Adams and the quagmire of bodily materialism. He was not, perhaps, as yet even so much as a deficient stoic, but he had wrung from suffering a certain high loyalty to human fellowship and a half humorous, if wholly gallant, determination to keep fast at any cost until the very end. Why he had made the fight he did not ask himself, nor could he have answered. His ambition, his marriage, even the ordinary sensuous enjoyments of life, had crumbled as the mythical Dead Sea apples upon his lips, yet the failure of his own mere individual pursuit of happiness had in no-wise soured the sweet and finely flavored optimism of his nature.

The fragrance from the violets worn by a passing woman struck him presently, and he looked outside of himself almost with a start. Around him many women were walking briskly under raised umbrellas, and some showed pretty faces freshened like flowers by the icy rain. He himself had forgotten the rain, had forgotten even the cold which pierced his chest, and, suddenly remembering the directions of his physician, he fastened his overcoat more closely and hastened across the street, passing rapidly in and out among the moving vehicles until he gained, over the sloppy crossing, the safety of the opposite sidewalk. Here he turned in the direction of Madison Avenue and finally, drawing out his latchkey, entered one of the dingy, flat-faced, utterly conventional brown houses which make up so large a part of the characterless complexion of New York life.

The interior was brilliantly lighted, and he was shrinking noiselessly into his study at the back when he heard his name called from the drawing-room threshold and saw his wife standing there while she put on a long white evening cloak over a filmy effect of cream-coloured lace. She was a small, pretty woman, with a cloud of fluffy, artificially blonde hair and large, innocent, absolutely blank blue eyes. A year ago she had resembled, if one might imagine the existence of such a being, a perfectly worldly wise and cynically minded baby, but twelve months of late suppers and many plays had already blighted her rose-leaf skin and sown three fine, nervous little wrinkles between her delicately arched eyebrows. She was very vivacious, but, as Gerty Bridewell had observed, it was a vivacity that was hardly justified, since possessing neither the means nor the manner exacted by the more exclusive circles, she had been compelled to compromise with a social body which made up in members what it lacked as an organism. Her dash and her prettiness sufficed to place her comfortably here, but beyond a speaking acquaintance with Gerty, who confessed that she was too charitable to be exclusive she had not as yet approached that small shining sphere whose inmates boast the larger freedom no less than the finer discrimination. The larger freedom, it seemed at times, was all of it that she was ever to attain, for, venturing a little too boldly once or twice with a light head, she had at last found herself skating gingerly over a veritable sleet of scandal. She got herself rumoured about so persistently that from being merely improbable, she had become, in Gerty's words again, "one of the very last of the impossibilities." And of late Adams' friends had begun to ask themselves quite seriously, "why in the deuce he didn't keep a hand upon his wife." How much he knew or how much there was, in reality, to know had become in a limited circle almost the question of the hour, until Perry Bridewell had demanded in final exasperation "whether Adams was ridiculously ignorant or outrageously indifferent?"

But if the curious had been permitted to observe the object of their uncertainty as he stood under the full glare before his festive wife they would have found neither ignorance nor indifference in his manner. He regarded her with a frank, fatherly tolerance, in which there was hardly a suggestion of a more passionate concern.

"Wrap up well," he said, as his glance shot over her, "there's a biting wind outside."

Connie screwed up her delicate eyebrows and the fine little wrinkles leaped instantly into view. There was a nervous irritation in her look, which recoiled from her husband as from a blank and shining wall.

"I'm dining at Sherry's with the Donaldsons," she explained. "I knew you wouldn't come, so I didn't even trouble

you to decline."

"You're right, my dear," he rejoined gayly.

"Mr. Brady has called for me," she went on with the faintest possible hesitation in her voice, "and as we're all going to the theatre afterward I shall probably be late. Don't bother about sitting up for me-I have a key."

"Well, take care of yourself," responded Adams pleasantly, adding to a young man who appeared in the drawing-room doorway, "How are you, Mr. Brady? Please don't let Mrs. Adams be so foolish as to stand outside in the wind. I can't make her take care of her cold."

"Oh, I'll promise to look out for it," replied Brady, standing slightly behind Connie, and arranging by a careless movement the white fur on her cloak. His handsome wooden features possessed hardly more character than was expressed by his immaculately starched shirt front, but he was not without a certain wholly superficial attraction, half as of a sleek, well-groomed animal and half as of a masculine conceit, naked and unashamed.

Connie tinkled out her nervous, high-pitched, vacant little laugh, which she used to fill in gaps in conversation much as a distinguished virtuoso might interlude his own important efforts with selections of light vocal strains.

"Roger is always worrying about my health," she said, "but the truth is that it's so good I'll never begin to value it until it's gone." Her excited, fluttering manner blew about her almost with a commotion of the atmosphere, and reminded Adams at times of a tempestuous March breeze shaking a fragile wind flower. It was unnatural, overdone, unbecoming, but it seemed at last to have got quite beyond her control, and the pretty girlish composure he remembered as one of her freshest charms, was lost in her general violence of animation. Of late he knew that she had fought off her natural exhaustion by the frequent use of stimulants, and it seemed to him that he saw their immediate effects in her flushed cheeks and too brightly shining eyes.

"Don't stay out late," he urged again; "you've been rushing like mad these last weeks and you need rest."

"But I never rest," rejoined Connie, still laughing, "and I honestly hope that I shan't come to a stop until I die."

She fastened her cloak under the fall of lace, and, when Brady had slipped into his overcoat, Adams turned back to open the hall door, which let in a biting draught.

"Ta-ta! don't sit up!" cried Connie breathlessly, as, more than ever like a filmy wind flower in a high wind, she was blown down the steps, across the slushy sidewalk, and into the hired carriage.

When they had gone Adams went into the dining-room and dined alone without dressing, as he had done almost every evening for the last few months. The Irish maid waited upon him with a solicitude in which he read his pose of a deserted husband, and he tried with a forcible, though silent, bravado to dispel her very evident assumption. Connie had certainly not deserted him against his will, and when her absence had begun to show as so incontestable a relief it seemed the basest ingratitude to force upon her reckless shoulders the odium of an entirely satisfying arrangement. After a day of mental and physical exertion the further effort of a conversation with her was something that he felt to be utterly beyond him, and the distant Colorado days when she had played the part of a soft, inviting kitten and he had responded happily to the appeal for constant petting, now lay very far behind them both-buried somewhere in that cloudless country they had left. Neither of them wanted the petting back again, and as he rose from his simple dinner and entered his study at the end of the hall he heaved a sigh of conscious thankfulness that it was empty.

While he lighted his pipe his eyes turned instinctively to his precious first editions of which Trent had spoken, and then straight as an arrow to a photograph of Laura which stood with several others upon his writing table. The eyes of most men would have lingered, perhaps, on one of Connie, which was taken, indeed, at her best period and in a remarkably effective pose, but Adams' glance brushed it with an indifference only unkind in its mute sincerity, while he sought the troubled gaze of Laura, who wore in the picture a shy and startled look, like that of a wild thing suddenly trapped in its reserve. He had never, even in his own mind, analysed his feeling for the woman whom he was content to call his friend-he hesitated to condemn himself almost because he feared to question-but whenever he entered alone his empty room he knew that he turned instinctively to draw strength and courage from her pictured face. It was a face that had followed after the ideal beauty, and in her spiritual isolation, as of one devoted to an inner vision, he had always found the peculiar pathetic quality of her charm. Into her verse, chastened and restrained by the sense for perfection which dwelt in her art, she had put, he knew, this same cloistral vision of an unrealised world-a vision which had expanded and blossomed in the luxuriant if slightly formal garden of her intellect. The world she looked upon was a world, as Adams had once said, "seen through the haze of a golden temperament"-the dream of an imaginative mysticism, of a conventual purity, a dream which is to the reality as the soul of a man is to the body. And it was this inspired divination, this luminous idealism, which had caused Adams to exclaim when he put down her first small gray volume: "Is it possible that we can still see visions?"

A little later, when he came to know her, he found that the vision she looked upon had coloured not only her own soul, but even the outward daily happenings of her life. For him she was from the first compacted of divine mysteries, of exquisite surprises, and he loved to fancy that he could see her genius burning like a clear flame within her and shining at vivid moments with a still soft radiance in her face. He always thought of her soul as of something luminous, and there were instants when it seemed to touch her eyes and her mouth with an edge of light. Beyond this her complexities remained for him as on the day when he first saw her-if she was obscure it was the obscurity of a star seen through a fog-and the desire to understand lost itself presently in the bewilderment of his misapprehension. At last, however, he had put her, as it were, tentatively aside, had relinquished his attempt to reduce her to a formula with the despairing admission that she was, take her as you would, a subtlety that compelled one to a mental effort. The effort which he had up to this time associated with the society of women had been of anything but a mental character. There was the effort of putting one's best physical foot in advance, the effort of keeping one's person conspicuously in evidence and one's intellect as unobtrusively in abeyance-the material effort of appearing always in one's best trousers, the moral effort of presenting always one's worst intelligence. It had seemed to him until he met Laura-and his opinion was the effect of a limited experience upon a large philosophic ignorance-that the female sex played the part in Nature which is performed by the chorus in a Greek tragedy-that it shrilly voiced the horrors of the actual in the face of a divine indifference-and strenuously insisted upon the importance of the eternal detail. From Connie he had gathered that the feminine mind tended naturally toward a material philosophy-toward a deification of the body, a faith in the fugitive allurement of the senses, and because of his earlier initiation he had taken Laura's intellectual radiance as the shining of a virtually disembodied spirit. His own senses had led him, he recognised now, to disastrous issues; his love for Connie had been the prompting of mere physical impulse, and he had emerged from it with a feeling of escaping into freedom. Too much Nature he had learned during those months of mental apathy is in its way quite as destructive as too little-there must be a soul in desire to keep it alive, he understood at last, or the perishing body of it will decay for lack of a vital flame in the very hour of its fulfilment. A colder man might have come to such knowledge along impersonal paths, a coarser one would never have gone beyond it, but in Adams the old fighting spirit-a survival of the uncompromising Puritan conscience-had brought him up again, soul and body, to struggle afresh for a cleaner and a sharper air. Life had meant more to him in the beginning than a mere series of sensations-more even than any bodily conditions, any material attainment; and it was the final triumph of his austere vision that it should mean most of all when it seemed to a casual glance to contain least of actual value.

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