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   Chapter 24 THE GREATEST OF THESE

The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 11458

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


For a minute after Kemper had passed in his car, Adams turned back and stood looking down the long street filled with pleasant June sunshine. In the distance a hand-organ was grinding out a jerky sentimental air, and beside him, at the corner by which he stood, a crippled vender of fruit had halted his little cart of oranges and apples.

A year ago Adams might have told himself, in the despair of ignorance, that since Laura had given her love to Kemper she was lost to him forever. But he had learned now that this could not be true-that she was too closely knit into his destiny to separate herself entirely from it; and there came to him, while he stood there, a strange mystic assurance that she would some day feel that she had need of him again. His love had passed triumphantly through its first earthly stages, and in the large impassioned yearning with which he thought of her there was, so far as he himself was conscious, but little left of a sharper personal desire. All desire, indeed, which has its root in the physical craving for possession seemed to have gone out of him in the last few months; and since the earliest dawn of that deeper consciousness within his soul, he had almost ceased to think of himself as an isolated individual life.

To let go the personal was to fall back again on the Eternal; between the soul and God, he had learned in his deepest agony, there is room for nothing more impregnable than the illusion of self. As Roger Adams-as a mere separate existence, he was a failure. The things which he had desired in life he had not possessed; the things which he had possessed he had ceased very soon, in any vital sense, to desire. Of his life's work, so big at the beginning, he saw now that he had made but a small achievement-a volume of essays on the writings of other men and a few years editing of a magazine which had absorbed his strength without yielding him the smallest return of fame. On every side, from all avenues of hope or of mere impulse, there had crowded upon him, he admitted smiling, but disappointment and disillusion. He had played for happiness as every man plays for it from the cradle, he had staked his throw as boldly, he had made his resolves as desperately, as any of his fellows, and yet at the end of his forty years he had not a single object to put forward as his reward. Nothing remained to him! As the world counts success he could show only failure.

But the larger vision was still before him, and he knew that all these thoughts were the cheapest falsehood. In spite of appearances, in spite of the outward emptiness of his existence, he had not failed; and in the hour that he had put life aside he had for the first time in his whole experience begun really to live. In surrendering his own small individual being he knew that he had entered into the possession of a being immeasurably larger than his own.

He looked at the fruit vender smiling, and the man's answering smile came to him like the clasp of fellowship. "Did he, too, understand?" was Adams' unspoken question, "had he, also, found the key that unlocked his prison?" and there flowed into his heart something of the rapture with which Laura had cried: "I've grown to the light!" In each exclamation there was ecstasy, but in hers it was the short, troubled ecstasy of the senses, which hears its doom even in the hour of its own fulfilment; while from his finer joy there shone forth that radiant energy, in which is both warmth and light, both rest and action, which illumines not only the soul within, but transfigures and refines the mere dull ordinary facts of life.

As he stood there the car passed him again, and Laura and Kemper both turned, smiling, to look back at him. When Laura's long white veil was lost, with a last flutter, in the sunshine, he nodded to the fruit vender, and crossing to Broadway started in the direction of his home.

He had asked Trent to dine with him-the boy looked fagged he thought, and it might do him good to talk freely about his play. Then he recalled several letters that he had put aside for the sake of seeing Laura; and retracing his steps, he went back to his office and sat down before his desk. It surprised him sometimes to find how little irksome such uninteresting details had become.

They talked late over their cigars and coffee, and when at last Trent rose, with a laughing reminder of his mother, and went out into the hall to put on his overcoat, Adams passed by him, after a final handshake, and entered his darkened study at the end of the hall. He heard the door close quickly as Trent left the house, and his mind was still full of the boy's dramatic ambitions, as he paused beside his desk and bent down to raise the wick of the green lamp. He had fallen into the habit of sitting up rather late now, and there was a paper on his blotting-pad which he was preparing for the coming issue of his magazine. After glancing hastily over, he found that the last few sentences were rearranging themselves in his thoughts, and he had set himself patiently to the redraughting of the paragraph, when a slight sound at the door caused him to look up suddenly with the suspended blue pencil still, in his hand. It was too late for the maids, he knew-they had already gone to bed before Trent left-and he knew also that the person who entered at this hour must have opened the outer door by means of a latch-key. The soft, slow movement outside sent a nervous shiver through him; he was aware the next instant that he gripped the pencil more closely in his hand; and then, rising to his feet with a breathless impulse to be face to face at once with the inevitable moment, he made a single step forward, while he wa

tched the knob turn, the door open slowly, and Connie cross the threshold and pause confusedly as if blinded by the lamplight.

The pencil dropped from his hand; he heard it fall with a thud upon the carpet; and then he heard nothing else except the beating of his own arteries in his ears. Time seemed to stop suddenly and then to whirl madly forward while he stood rooted to his square of carpet, with his useless hands hanging helplessly at his sides. It was the supreme instant his life that was before him, and yet he was as powerless to meet it as the infant in the womb to avert the hour of its birth. Dumb and petrified by very force of the will within him, he waited immovable on the spot of carpet, while his eyes saw only the visible wreck of the woman who stood upon his threshold. His dreams of her had been visions of horror, but the most pitiable of them had fallen far short of the reality as he saw it now. From her streaked blonde hair, already powdered with gray, to her exhausted bedraggled feet, which seemed hardly to support her trembling body, she stood there, terrible and full of anguish, like the most tragic ghost of his imaginary horrors. Face to face with each other they were held speechless by the knowledge that there was no word by which the past might be justified or the future made any easier for them to meet; and as in all great instants of life the thing that was said between them was uttered at last in an unbroken silence.

Then as they stood there a slight sound changed the atmosphere of the room. The shade of the lamp, which Adams had raised too high, cracked with a sharp noise and fell to the floor in broken pieces; and at the shock Connie gave a hysterical shriek and lifted to Adams the frightened glance of her ignorant blue eyes.

"I-I had nowhere to go and I am very tired," she said, in her old tone of childish irritation, "I don't think I was ever so tired in my life before."

Her voice snapped the icy constraint which held him and he knew now that he was ready to face the hour on its own terms. His will was as the strength of the strong, and he felt standing there, that he would ask no quarter of his fate. Let it be what it would, he knew that it was powerless to close on him again the door of his prison.

"Then you did right to come back; Connie," he said quietly, "you did right to come back."

His words rang out almost exultantly, but the moment afterward he was terrified by their immediate effect-for Connie-throwing herself forward upon the floor, burst wildly into one of her old spells of weeping, calling upon God, upon himself, and upon the man whom she had loved and hated. The frenzied beating of her small, helpless hands, the streaming of her tears, the quiver of her wrecked, emaciated body, the convulsed agony that looked at him from her face-these things made their appeal to that compassion by which he lived, and he found that the way which he had thought difficult had become to him as familiar as the breath he drew.

"It is all over now-there is nothing but quiet here," he said.

She lay still instantly at his words, her face half hidden in the cushions of the sofa; and turning from her he went into the dining-room and brought back a glass of wine and some bread and milk. As he fed her, she opened her lips with a little humble, tired movement which was utterly unlike the Connie whom he remembered. Was it possible that in her degradation she had learned the first rare grace of spirit which is meekness?

"Take it all, every drop," he said once, when she would have pushed the spoon away; and turning obediently, she swallowed the last drops of milk.

"It is very good," she murmured as he rose to put down the emptied bowl. The words brought a quick moisture of recollection to his eyes, and he found himself asking if the time had come at last when Connie could find pleasure in the taste of bread and milk?

After this she lay motionless on the floor until he carried her upstairs and placed her upon the bed as he had done so often on her past reckless nights. But there was no remembrance in his mind now of that former service; and as he turned on the electric light and drew the blankets over her shivering body, he was hardly surprised even by the readiness with which events, left perfectly alone, had managed to adjust themselves. Why he had acted as he had done, he could not have told; had he stopped to think of it he would probably have said that he had seen no other way. Connie as his wife, as the mother even of his dead child, had come to mean nothing to him any more; but Connie as something far deeper than this-as the object of inexhaustible compassion, as the tragedy of mortal failure-possessed now a significance which no human relation could cover by a name. Beyond the abandoned wife, he could see-not less clearly than on that night when he had waited in the snow outside the opera house-the small terrified soul caught in a web of circumstance from which there was no escape.

Standing at daybreak in the centre of his study floor, he remembered the last humble look with which she had closed her eyes; and he saw in it a gratitude that was like the first faint dawning of the daybreak. For the first time in his life he had watched in Connie's eyes the struggle for consciousness which was as the struggle of an animal in whom a soul had come painfully to birth; and the memory of it sent a strange, an almost divine happiness to his heart. Was it possible that the will of God had moved here while he slept? Was it possible, he asked himself in an ecstasy of wonder, that in spite of all sin, all failure, all degradation, all despair, he had really won Connie's soul?

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