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The Wheel of Life By Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow Characters: 18760

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

For a week after her home-coming Connie lay ill and almost unconscious in her chamber. Since her first wild outburst on the night of her return she had allowed no hint of remorse or gratitude to break through the obstinate silence upon her lips; and the impression she gave Adams, on his occasional visits to her room, was of a soul and body too exhausted for even the slightest emotional activity. She had made of her life what her desire prompted; and she seemed to suggest now, lying there wrecked and silent, that the end of all self-gratification is in utter weariness of spirit.

Then gradually, as the long June days went by, life appeared feebly to renew itself and move within her. At first it was only a look, raised to Adams, when he bent over her, with something of the pathetic, expectant wonder of a sick child; then a helpless expressive gesture, and at last he found in her eye a clearer and fuller recognition of her surroundings and of himself. The gratitude he had seen on that terrible night surprised him again one day as he spoke to her; and after this he began to watch for its reappearance with an eagerness which he himself found it difficult to understand. Of all virtues gratitude was most lacking in the woman who had been his wife; and this slow, silent growth of it, showed to him as no less a miracle than the coming of the spring or the resurrection of the dead earth beneath the rain. There were moments even, when he felt that he must move softly, lest he disturb the working of those spiritual forces which make for righteousness by strange and wonderful ways. Strange and wonderful, indeed, he had found, beyond all miracles were the means by which the soul might be brought back to the knowledge of its immortal destiny. Was it not under the eyes of a harlot that he, himself, had seen the mystery which is God's goodness? and so might he not find that Connie had learned, in the depths of her self-abasement, that the light which surrounds the pleasures of the senses is full of enchantment only for the distant, deluded vision?

But there were other hours when he asked himself if he were strong enough for the thing which he had before him-strong enough, not for the swift, exalted moment of the sacrifice, but for the daily fret and torment of a perfectly unpoetic self-denial. Would the light go out again and the exaltation fail him before many days? Then he remembered the pathos of her struggling smile, the timid groping of her hands, the deprecating gratitude he found in her look; and it seemed to him when all other resources were exhausted-when his energy, his duty, his religion flagged-that his compassion would still remain in his heart to render possible all that was impossible to his will alone. Compassion! this, he came to find in the end, was the true and the necessary key to any serious understanding of life.

He was still putting these questions to himself, when, coming in one afternoon from his office, he found Connie, wearing a loose fitting wrapper of some pale coloured muslin, awaiting him in an easy chair beside her window. It was the first time that she had left her bed; and when he offered a few cheerful congratulations upon her recovered strength, she looked up at him with a face which still showed signs of the hideous ravages of the last few months. In her hollowed cheeks, in her quivering unsteady lips, and in the dull grayness of her hair, from which the golden dye had faded, he could find now no faint traces of that delicate beauty he had loved. At less than thirty years she looked the embodiment of uncontrolled and reckless middle-age.

"It isn't that I'm really better-not really," she said, in answer to his look almost more than to his words, "but the doctor told me that I must get up and dress to-day. He wants me to go to the hospital this afternoon."

Her voice was so composed-so unlike the usual nervous quiver of her speech-that at first he could only repeat her words in the vague blankness of his surprise.

"To the hospital? Then you are ill?"

"I asked him not to tell you," she replied, with a tremor of the lips which had almost the effect of a smile, "he didn't understand-he couldn't, so I wanted you to hear it first from me. I'll never be any better-I'll never get really well again-without such an operation-and he thinks, he says, that it must be at once-without delay."

As she spoke she stretched out her hand for a glass of water that stood at her side, and in the movement her wedding ring slipped from her thin finger and rolled to a little distance upon the floor. Picking it up he handed it back to her, but she placed it indifferently upon the table. Her attitude, with its dull quiet of sensation, impressed him at the instant almost more than the greater importance of what she told him. Was it this acceptance of the thing, he wondered, which appeared to rob it of all terror in her mind? and was the dumb resignation in her face and voice, merely an expression of the physical listlessness of despair? There was about her now that peculiar dignity which belongs less to the human creature than to the gravity of the moment in which he stands; and he remembered vividly that he had never watched any soul in the supreme crisis of its experience without the stirring in himself of a strange sentiment of reverence. Even the most abandoned was covered in that exalted hour by some last rag of honour.

"Then you have suffered great pain?" he asked, because no other words came to him that he could utter.

"Weeks ago-yes-but not now. It does not hurt me now."

"And you thought, yourself, that it was so serious as this?"

She shook her head. "Oh, no, I never thought of it. When it came I drove it off with brandy."

The absence in her of any appeal for pity moved him far more than the loudest outcry could have done.

"Poor girl!" he said, and stopped in terror, lest he had obtruded the personal element into a situation which seemed so devoid of feeling.

"It was a pity," she returned to his surprise very quietly; and without looking at him, she spoke presently in a voice which struck him as having a strange quality of hollowness, "it was a pity; but it can't be helped. You might try and try because you're made that way, but it wouldn't, in the end, do the very least bit of good. If I live till to-morrow and get well and come out of the hospital, it will all be over just exactly what it was before. Not at first, perhaps-oh, I know, not at first!-but afterward, when things bored me, the taste would come back again."

"Hush!" he said quickly, with a forward movement, "hush! you shall not think such things!"

"The taste would come back again!" she repeated, with a kind of savage sternness. "I am not strong and the doctor told me long ago that there was no cure."

"Then he lied-there is always a cure."

"There is not-there is not," she insisted harshly, dwelling upon the words because in them she found a keen agony which relieved her lethargy of bitterness, "I am different now for a while, but it would not last. I am very tired, but after I have rested-"

"What would not last?" he broke in, as she hesitated over her unfinished sentence.

For a long pause she waited, searching in vain, he saw, for some phrase which might describe the thing she had not as yet thought out clearly in her own dazed mind. Then, at last, she spoke almost in a whisper, "the freedom."

The word gave him a sudden shock of gladness. "Then you are free to-day-you feel it now?"

She raised her hand, pushing back her faded hair, as if she would look more closely at an object which rose but dimly before her eyes.

"I want you to know all-everything," she went on slowly, "I want you to understand how low I sank-to what fearful places I came in the end. At first it was merely discontent, and I felt that it was only happiness I wanted. I loved him-for a time, I think, I really loved him-you know whom I mean-but at last, when I began to weary him, when he knew what I took, he cursed me and left me alone in the street one night. Then a devil was let loose within me-I wanted hell, and I went further-further."

Her voice was still lifeless, but while she spoke he felt his teeth bite into his lips with a force which stung him to the consciousness of what she said. There awoke in him a triumph, almost a glory in the rage he felt, and he knew now why men had always believed in a hell-why they had even come at last to hope for it.

"I never meant to come back," she began again, after a pause in which the tumult of his feeling seemed to fill the air with violence, "but I had reached the end of wretchedness, I was tired and hungry, and nothing that happened really mattered. If you had told me to go away I don't think that I should have cared. I meant, in that case, to sell my coat for a bottle of brandy, and to put an end to it all while I had the courage of drink."

Her bent disordered head trembled slightly, but she appeared to him to have passed in her misery beyond the bounds where any human sympathy could be of use. She was no longer his wife, nor he her husband; she was no longer even a fellow mortal between whom and himself there might be some common ground of understanding. Absolutely alone and unapproachable, he knew that she had reached the ultimate desolation of her soul.

"It was because you did not send me away that I have told you," she said quietly. "It is because, too, I want you to know that I-understand."

To the end her thoughts were but poor faltering, half-developed things; yet he knew what she meant to say, though she, herself, had divined it only through some pathetic, dumb instinct.

"I think I know what you mean," he said presently, when it appeared to him that her confession was over; but after he had spoken she took up her sentence with the dead calm in which she had come to rest.

"There's no use saying that I'm sorry and yet-I am sorry."

Her look of weariness was so great that with the words she seemed to lose instantly her remaining strength; and he gathered in her silence, an impression that she was reaching blindly out to him for help.

"Promise me that you will stay with me as long as they will let you?" she implored, with a quick return to her convulsion of childish terror.

He promised readily; but when the time came for her to go, she had entirely recovered her aspect of listless fortitude, and during the short drive to the hospital, she talked, without stopping, of perfectly indifferent subjects-of the dust in the street, the deserted look of the closed houses, and of the wedding present she wished to buy for a maid who was to be married in the coming week.

"Let it be something really thee," she asked, and this single request marked for him, as she uttered it, a change in Connie greater than any he had seen before.

At the hospital he expected a relapse into her hysterical dread, but, to his surprise, she watched the surgical preparations with a calmness in which there was a kind of passive curiosity. While the nurse laid out her nightdress on the small white iron bed, and braided her hair in two long, slender braids, she assisted with a patient attention to such details which seemed hardly to account for the terrible event for which they prepared. Her hair, he noticed, was combed straight back from her forehead in the fashion in which she might have worn it as a little girl; and this simple change gave her an expression which was almost one of injured innocence. Age and experience were suddenly wiped out of her face, not by any act of mental illumination, but merely by the ruffles of her white nightdress and the simple childish fashion in which they had combed her hair.

When they came to take her upstairs to the operating room upon the roof, he would have gone also, but after reaching the top landing, she turned to him upon the threshold and told him that she would rather he came no farther.

"I can bear everything better alone now," she said; and so when they carried her inside he turned away and entered the little waiting room at the other end of the hall. The place stifled him with the odours of chloroform and ether, and going to the window, he threw open the blinds and leaned out into the street. With the first breath of air in his face, he realised that it was he, and not Connie, who had turned coward at the end; and he wondered if it were merely waning vitality which had assumed in her an appearance of such natural dignity. She had lived her life in terror of imaginary horrors and now in presence of the actual suffering she could show herself to be absolutely unafraid. Not she but he, himself, now shivered at the thought of her unconscious body in the surgeon's hands, and he felt that it would be a positive relief to change places with her at the instant-to confront in her stead either the returning pangs of consciousness or the greater mystery of her unawakening.

In the small, newly painted room, which smelt of chloroform and varnish, he sat staring through the half open door to the hall where a surgeon, wearing a shirt with roiled-up sleeves, had just hurried by. A nurse passed carrying a basin from which a light steam rose; then a young doctor with a brown leather bag, and presently a second surgeon, who walked rapidly, and turned up his cuffs over his fat arms, just before he reached the threshold.

Connie was no longer his wife, Adams had told himself; and yet this fact seemed not in the least to lessen the importance of the news which he awaited. For the first time he understood clearly how trivial are any mere social relations between man and woman.

Then, while he watched the hand of the clock on the mantel drag slowly around the great staring face, he compelled his thoughts gradually to detach themselves from her helpless body, as it lay outstretched on the table across the hall, and to regather about the girlish figure he had first seen under cherry coloured ribbons. The old vibrant emotion was but ashes; try as he would he could bring back but a pale memory of that golden moment; and this emptiness where there had once been life, lessened forever in his mind the value of all purely human passion. But his personal attitude to her was lost suddenly in his wider regret that such tragedies were possible-that the girl with the delicate babyish face could have become a creature to whom vice was a desired familiar thing.

"Did the outcome lie in my hands? and might I have prevented it?" he demanded. "If I had stood in the way of her impulse, would it have turned aside from me at the last?" And the salvation of the world appeared to him to depend upon just this courageous coming between evil and the desire which it invited-for had not the soul of the weak, been delivered, in spite of all moral subterfuge, into the power of the strong?

Then his vision broadened, and he looked from Connie's life to the lives of men and women who were more fortunate than she; but all human existence, everywhere one and the same, showed to him as the ceaseless struggle after the illusion of a happiness which had no part in any possession nor in any object. He thought of Laura, with the radiance of her illusion still upon her; of Gerty, groping after the torn and soiled shreds of hers; of Kemper, stripped of his and yet making the pretence that it had not left him naked; of Perry Bridewell, dragging his through the defiling mire that led to emptiness; and then of all the miserable multitude of those that live for pleasure. And he saw them, one and all, bound to the wheel which turned even as he looked.

The door across the hall opened and they brought Connie out, breathing quietly and still unconscious. He followed the stretcher downstairs; but after they had placed her upon the bed, he came back again and sat down, as before, in the little stuffy room. Presently he would go home, he thought, but as the night wore on, he became too exhausted for further effort, and closing his eyes at last, he fell heavily asleep.

When he awoke the day was already breaking, and the electric light burned dimly in the general wash of grayness. About him the atmosphere had a strangely sketchy effect, as if it had been laid on crudely with a few strokes from a paint brush.

The window was still open, and going over to it he leaned out and stood for several minutes, too tired to make the necessary effort to collect his thoughts, while he looked across the sleeping city to the pale amber dawn which was beginning to streak the sky with colour. The silence was very great; in the faint light the ordinary objects upon which he gazed-the familiar look of the houses and the streets-appeared to him less the forms of a material substance than the result of some shadowy projection of mind. All the earth and sky showed suddenly as belonging to this same transient manifestation of thought; and gradually, as he stood there, his perceptions were reinforced by a sense which is not that of the eye nor of the ear. He neither saw nor heard, yet he felt that the spirit had moved toward him on the face of the dawn; and the "I" was not more evident to his illumined consciousness than was the "Thou." He beheld God, with the vision which is beyond vision; the light of his eyes, the breath of his body were less plain to him than was the mystery of his soul. And the universal life, he saw-spirit and matter, fibre and impulse, vibration of atom and quiver of aspiration-was but an agonised working out into this consciousness of God. With the revelation his own life was changed as by a miracle of nature; right became no longer difficult, but easy; and not the day only, but his whole existence and the end to which it moved were made as clear to him as the light before his eyes.

Again he thought of Laura, still under the troubled radiance of her illusion, and his heart dissolved in sympathy, not for her only, but for all mankind- for Kemper, whom she loved, for Gerty, for Connie, for Perry Bridewell. "They seek for happiness, but it is mine," he thought; "and because they seek it first, it will keep away from them forever. It is not to be found in pleasure, nor in the desire of any object, nor in the fulfilment of any love-for I, who have none of these things, am happier than they."

He turned away from the window toward the door, and it was at this instant that one of the nurses ran up to him.

"We thought you had gone home," she said, "so we have rung you up by telephone for an hour-" She stopped and paused hesitating for an instant; then meeting the quiet question in his look, she added simply, "Your wife died, still unconscious, an hour ago."

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