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   Chapter 6 IN WHICH A YOUNG MAN DREAMS DREAMS

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 15400

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Since coming to New York Mrs. Trent had taken a small apartment in a big apartment house, where she lived with her son a perfectly provincial as well as a strictly secluded life. She was a large, florid, motherly old lady who still wore mourning for a husband who had been killed while fox hunting twenty-five years ago. Her face resembled a friendly and auspicious full moon, and above it her shining hair rolled like a parting of silvery clouds. Day or night she was always engaged in knitting a purple shawl, which appeared never to have been finished since her son's infancy, for his earliest recollection was of the plump, soft balls of brilliant yarn and the long ivory knitting needles which clicked briskly while she worked with a pleasant, familiar sound. To this day the clicking of those needles brought to his mouth the taste of large slices of bread and jam, and to his ears the soothing murmur of Bible stories told in the twilight.

She was always, too, serene gossip that she was, full of a monotonous, rippling stream of words, and if her days in New York were trying to her body and burdened with homesickness for her heart, no one-not even St. George himself-had ever surprised so much as a passing shadow upon her face. The young man's untiring pursuit of managers and of players had left her continually alone, but she busied herself cheerfully about her housekeeping, and found diversion in yielding to an inordinate curiosity concerning her neighbours. Once or twice she had questioned him about his absence, and this was especially so the morning after his meeting with Laura Wilde.

"You didn't tell me where you were yesterday, St. George," she observed at breakfast; "did you meet any one who is likely to be of use? I remember Beverly Pierce told me that everything had to come through introductions in the North."

He looked at her steadily a moment before replying, taking in all the lovely details of her appearance behind the coffee tray-the morning sunlight on her white hair and on the massive, hand-beaten, old silver service, the solitary rose he had purchased in the street standing between them in a slender Bohemian vase, brought from the rare old china in the press just at her back, the dainty hemstitching on her collar and cuffs of fine thread cambric, and lastly the vivid spot of color made by the knitting she had laid aside.

"I met Laura Wilde," he answered presently, "but as you never read poetry you can't understand just what it means."

As she held the cream jug poised above his coffee cup Mrs. Trent smiled back at him with a placid wonder.

"Who is she, my son? A lady-I mean a real one?"

"Oh, yes, sterling."

"But she writes verse you say! Is it improper?"

His eyes shone with amusement. "Improper! Why, what an idea!"

"I'm sure I don't know how it is," responded his mother, carefully measuring with her eye the correct allowance of cream, "but somehow women always seem to get immodest when they take to verse. It's as if they went into it for the express purpose of airing their improprieties."

"I say!" he exclaimed, with gentle mockery, "have you been reading 'Sappho' at your age?"

She continued to regard him blandly, without so much as a flicker of humour in her serene blue eyes. "Your grandfather used to be very fond of quoting something from 'Sappho,'" she returned thoughtfully, "or was it from Mr. Pope? I can't remember which or what it was except that it was hardly the kind of thing you would recite to a lady."

Trent laughed good-humouredly as he received his coffee cup.

"Well you can't point a moral with Miss Wilde," he rejoined, "you'd be at liberty to recite her to anybody who had the sense to understand her."

"Is she very deep?"

"She's profound-she's wonderful-she's a genius."

Mrs. Trent shook her head a little doubtfully. "I don't see that a woman has any business to be a genius," she remarked. "And I can't help being prejudiced against women writers, your father always was. It's as if they really pretended to know as much as a man. When they publish books I suppose they expect men to read them and that in itself is a kind of conceit."

Trent yielded the point as he helped himself to the cakes brought in by an old negro servant.

"Well, I shan't ask Miss Wilde to call on you," he laughed, "so you won't be apt to run across the learned of your sex."

"Oh, I shouldn't mind myself," responded the old lady, with amiability, "but I do hate to have you thrown with women that you wouldn't meet at home."

"I certainly shouldn't meet Miss Wilde at home if that is what you mean."

"It's bad enough to live in a partitioned cage like this," resumed Mrs. Trent, in her soft, expressionless voice, "and to dry your clothes on your neighbour's roofs, but I can bear anything so long as we are not forced to associate with common people. Of course I don't expect to find the manners of Virginia up here," she added as a last concession, "but I may as well confess that the people I've come across don't seem to me to be exactly civil."

"Just as we don't seem to them to be particularly worldly-wise, I dare say."

She nodded her head, almost without hearing him, while her even tones rippled on over her quaint ideas, which shone to her son's mind like little silver pebbles beneath the shallow stream.

"I'm almost reconciled to the fact that old ladies wear colours and flowers in their bonnets," she pursued, "to say nothing of low-neck dresses, but it does seem to me that they might show a little ordinary politeness. I met the doctor coming out of the apartment downstairs, so in common decency I went immediately to enquire who was sick, and carried along a glass of chicken jelly. The woman who opened the door was rather rude," she finished with a sigh. "I don't believe such a thing had ever happened to her before in the whole course of her life."

Trent gave her a tender glance across the coffee service.

"Probably not," he admitted, "but I wouldn't waste my jelly if I were you."

"I sha'n't" she determined sadly, "and that's the thing I miss most of all-visiting the sick."

"You might devote yourself to the hospitals-there are plenty of them it seems."

Her resignation, however, was complete, and she showed no impulse to reach out actively again. "It wouldn't be the same, my dear-I don't want strange paupers but real friends. Do you know," she added, with a despair that was almost abject, "I was counting up this morning the people I might speak to if I met them in the street, and I got them in easily on the fingers of one hand. That included," she confessed after a hesitation, "the doctor, the butcher's boy and the woman who comes to scrub. It would surprise you to find what a very interesting woman she is."

Trent rose from his chair and, coming round to where she sat, gave her a boyish hug of sympathy. "You're a regular angel of a mother," he said and added playfully, while he still held her, "even then I don't see how you make it five."

She put up her large white hand and smoothed his hair across his forehead. "That's only because I made an acquaintance in the elevator yesterday," she replied.

"In the elevator! How?"

"The thing always makes me nervous, you know-I can't abide it, and I'd much rather any day go up and down the seven flights-but she met me as I started to walk and persuaded me to come inside. Then she held my hand until I got quite to the bottom."

"Indeed," said Trent suspiciously; "who was she?"

"Her name is Christina Coles, and she came from Clarke County. I knew her grandfather."

"Thank Heaven!" breathed Trent, and his voice betrayed his happy reassurance

.

"She's really very pretty-all the Coles were handsome-her great-aunt was once a famous beauty. Do you remember my speaking of her-Miss Betty Coles?" He shook his head, and she proceeded with her reminiscence.

"Well, she was said to have received fifty proposals before her twenty-fifth birthday, but she never married. On her last visit to me, when she was a very old lady, I asked her why-and her answer was: 'Pure fastidiousness.'" She had picked up her purple shawl, and the long ivory knitting needles began to click.

"But I'm more interested in the young lady of the elevator-What is she like?"

"Not the beauty that Betty was, but still very pretty, with the same blue eyes and brown hair, which she wears parted exactly as her aunt did fifty years ago. I fear, though," she finished in a whisper, "I really fear-that she writes."

"Is that so? Did she tell you?"

"Not in words, but she carried a parcel exactly like your manuscripts, and she spoke-oh, so seriously-of her work. She spoke of it quite as if it were a baby."

"By Jove!" he gasped, and after a moment, "I hope at any rate that she will be a comfort."

With her knitting still in her hands, she rose and went to the window, where she stood placidly staring at the sunlight upon the blackened chimney-pots. "At least I can talk to her about her aunt," she returned. Then her gaze grew more intense, and she almost flattened her nose against the pane. "I declare I wonder what that woman is doing out there on that fire-escape," she observed.

After he had got into his overcoat Trent came back to give her a parting kiss. "Find out by luncheon time," he returned gaily.

When presently he entered the elevator he found it already occupied by a young lady whom he recognised from his mother's description as Christina Coles. She was very pretty, but, even more than by her prettiness, he was struck by her peculiar steadfastness of look, as of one devoted to a single absorbing purpose. He noticed, too, that the little tan coat she wore was rather shabby, and that there was a small round hole in one of the fingers of her glove. When she spoke, as she did when leaving the key with the man in charge of the elevator, her voice sounded remarkably fresh and pleasant. They left the house together, but while she walked rapidly toward Broadway he contented himself with strolling leisurely along Fourth Avenue, where he bent a vacant gaze on the objects assembled in the windows of dealers in "antiques."

But his thoughts did not so much as brush the treasures at which he stared, and neither the hurrying crowd-which had a restless, workaday look at the morning hour-nor the noisily clanging cars broke into the exquisitely reared castle of his dreams. Since the evening before his imagination had been thrilling to the tune of some spirited music, flowing presumably from these airy towers, and as he went on over the wet sunlight on the sidewalk, he was still keeping step to the exalted if unreal measures. Never in his life; not even in his wildest literary ecstasies, had he felt so assured of the beauty, of the bountifulness, of his coming years-so filled with a swelling thankfulness for the mere physical fact of birth. He was twenty-five, he believed passionately in his own powers, and he was, he told himself with emphasis, in love for the first and only time. In the confused tangle of his fancy he saw Laura like some great white flower, growing out of reach, yet not entirely beyond endeavour, and the ladder that went up to her was made by his own immediate successes. Then the footlights before his play swam in his picture and he heard already the applause of crowded houses and felt in his head the intoxication of his triumph. Act by act, scene by scene, he rehearsed in fancy his great drama, seeing the players throng before the footlights and seeing, too, Laura applauding softly from a stage box at the side. He had had moments of despondency over his idea, had grovelled in abject despair during trying periods of execution, but now all uncertainty-all misgivings evaporated like an obscuring fog before a burst of light. The light, indeed, had at the moment the full radiance of a great red glow such as he had seen used for effective purposes upon the stage-and just as every object of scenery had taken, for the time, a portion of the transfiguring suffusion-so now the external ugly details among which he moved were bathed in the high coloured light of his imagination.

But if the end is sometimes long in coming, it comes at last even to the visions of youth, and when his tired limbs finally dragged his soaring spirit to earth, he took a passing car and came home to luncheon. The glamour had faded suddenly from his dreams, as if a bat's wing had fluttered overhead, and in his new mood, he felt a resurgence of his old self-consciousness. He was provoked by the suspicion that he had shown less as a coming dramatist than as a present fool, and he contrasted his own awkwardness with Adams' whimsical ease of manner. Did a woman ever forget how a man appeared when she first met him? Would any amount of fame to-morrow obliterate from Laura's memory his embarrassment of yesterday? He had heard that the surface impression was what counted in the feminine mind, and this made him think enviously, for a minute, of Perry Bridewell-of his handsome florid face and his pleasant animal magnetism. Perry was stupid and an egoist, and yet he had heard that Mrs. Bridewell, for all her beauty and her wit, adored him, while he openly neglected her. Was the secret of success, after all, simply an indifference to everyone's needs except one's own? or was it rather the courage to impress the world that one's own were the only needs that counted?

He was late for luncheon but his mother had waited for him, and he found when he entered the drawing room that Christina Coles was with her. The girl still wore her hat, but she had removed her jacket, and it lay with a little brown package on the sofa. As she spoke to him he was struck afresh by the singular concentration of her expression.

"Your mother tells me that you've written a play," she began, a little shyly; "she says, too, that it is wonderful."

"'She says' is well put," he retorted gaily, "but I hear that you, also, are among the prophets."

"I am nothing else," she answered earnestly. "It is everything to me-it is my life."

Her frankness startled him unpleasantly, and but for her girlish prettiness, he might have felt himself almost repelled. As it was he merely glanced appealingly at his mother, who intervened with a gesture of her knitting needle. "She writes stories," explained the old lady, appearing to transfix her subject on the ivory point; "it is just as I imagined."

The girl herself met his eyes almost fiercely, reminding him vaguely of the look with which a lioness might defend her threatened young.

"I've done nothing yet," she declared, "but I mean to-I mean to if it takes every single hour I have to live." Then her manner changed suddenly, and she impressed him as melting from her hard reserve. "Oh, she tells me that you've met Laura Wilde!" she said.

The sacred name struck him, after his impassioned dreaming, like a sharp blow between the eyes, and he met the girl's animated gesture with a look of blank aversion.

"I've met her-yes," he answered coldly.

But her enthusiasm was at white heat, and he saw what he had thought mere prettiness in her warm to positive beauty. "And you adore her work as I do?" she exclaimed.

After a moment's hesitation his ardour flashed out to meet her own. "Oh, yes, I adore her work and her!" he said.

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