THE WHEEL OF LIFE
New York Doubleday, Page & Company
By the Same Author
THE DELIVERANCE THE BATTLE-GROUND THE FREEMAN, AND OTHER POEMS THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE PHASES OF AN INFERIOR PLANET THE DESCENDANT
PART I. Impulse
CHAPTER I. In Which the Romantic Hero is Conspicuous by His Absence II. Treats of an Eccentric Family III. Apologises for an Old-fashioned Atmosphere IV. Ushers in the Modern Spirit V. In Which a Young Man Dreams Dreams VI. Shows That Mr. Worldly-Wise-Man May Belong to Either Sex VII. The Irresistible Force VIII. Proves That a Poor Lover May Make an Excellent Friend IX. Of Masques and Mummeries X. Shows the Hero to Be Lacking in Heroic Qualities XI. In Which a Lie Is the Better Part of Truth
PART II. Illusion
I. Of Pleasure as the Chief End of Man II. An Advance and a Retreat III. The Moth and the Flame IV. Treats of the Attraction of Opposites V. Shows the Dangers as Well as the Pleasures of the Chase VI. The Finer Vision VII. In Which Failure Is Crowned By Failure VIII. "The Small Old Path" IX. The Triumph of the Ego X. In Which Adams Comes Into His Inheritance XI. On the Wings of Life
PART III. Disenchantment
I. A Disconsolate Lover and a Pair of Blue Eyes II. The Deification of Clay III. The Greatest of These IV. Adams Watches in the Night and Sees the Dawn V. Treats of the Poverty of Riches VI. The Feet of the God VII. In Which Kemper Is Puzzled VIII. Shows That Love Without Wisdom Is Folly IX. Of the Fear in Love X. The End of the Path
PART IV. Reconciliation
I. The Secret Chambers II. In Which Laura Enters the Valley of Humiliation III. Proves a Great City to Be a Great Solitude IV. Shows That True Love Is True Service V. Between Laura and Gerty VI. Renewal
IN WHICH THE ROMANTIC HERO IS CONSPICUOUS BY HIS ABSENCE
As the light fell on her face Gerty Bridewell awoke, stifled a yawn with her pillow, and remembered that she had been very unhappy when she went to bed. That was only six hours ago, and yet she felt now that her unhappiness and the object of it, which was her husband, were of less disturbing importance to her than the fact that she must get up and stand for three minutes under the shower bath in her dressing-room. With a sigh she pressed the pillow more firmly under her cheek, and lay looking a little wistfully at her maid, who, having drawn back the curtains at the window, stood now regarding her with the discreet and confidential smile which drew from her a protesting frown of irritation.
"Well, I can't get up until I've had my coffee," she said in a voice which produced an effect of mournful brightness rather than of anger, "I haven't the strength to put so much as my foot out of bed."
Her eyes followed the woman across the room and through the door, and then, turning instinctively to the broad mirror above her dressing table, hung critically upon the brilliant red and white reflection in the glass. It was her comforting assurance that every woman looked her best in bed; and as she lay now, following the lines of her charming figure beneath the satin coverlet, she found herself wondering, not without resentment, why the possession of a beauty so conspicuous should afford her only a slight and temporary satisfaction. Last week a woman whom she knew had had her nose broken in an automobile accident, and as she remembered this it seemed to her that the mere fact of her undisfigured features was sufficient to be the cause of joyful gratitude. But this, she knew, was not so, for her face was perfectly unharmed; and yet she felt that she could hardly have been more miserable, even with a broken nose.
Here she paused for an instant in order to establish herself securely in her argument, for, though she could by no stretch of the imagination regard her mind as of a meditative cast, there are hours when even to the most flippant experience wears the borrowed mantle of philosophy. Abstract theories of conduct diverted her but little; what she wanted was some practical explanation of the mental weariness she felt. What she wanted, she repeated, as if to drive in the matter with a final blow, was to be as happy in the actual condition as she had told herself that she might be when as yet the actual was only the ideal. Why, for instance, when she had been wretched with but one man on the box, should the addition of a second livery fail to produce in her the contentment of which she had often dreamed while she disconsolately regarded a single pair of shoulders? That happiness did not masquerade in livery she had learned since she had triumphantly married the richest man she knew, and the admission of this brought her almost with a jump to the bitter conclusion of her unanswerable logic—for the satisfaction which was not to be found in a footman was absent as well from the imposing figure of Perry Bridewell himself. Yet she told herself that she would have married him had he possessed merely the historical penny, and the restless infatuation of those first months was still sufficiently alive to lend the colour of its pleasing torment to her existence.
Lying there, in her French embroidered night dress, with her brilliant red hair pushed back from her forehead, she began idly to follow the histories of the people whom she knew, and it seemed to her that each of them was in some particular circumstance more fortunate than she. But she would have changed place with none, not even with her best friend, Laura Wilde, who was perfectly content because she lived buried away in Gramercy Park and wrote vague beautiful verse that nobody ever read. Laura filled as little part in what she called "the world" as Gramercy Park occupied in modern progress, yet it was not without a faint impulse of envy that Gerty recalled now the grave old house mantled in brown creepers and the cheerful firelit room in which Laura lived. The peace which she had missed in the thought of her husband came back to her with the first recollection of her friend, and her hard bright eyes softened a little while she dwelt on the vivid face of the woman to whom she clung because of her very unlikeness to herself. Gradually out of the mist of her unhappiness the figure of Laura rose in the mirror before her, and she saw clearly her large white forehead under the dark wing-like waves of hair, the singular intentness of her eyes, and the rapt expectancy of look in which her features were lost as in a general vagueness of light.
Though it was twenty years since she had first seen Laura Wilde as a child of ten, the meeting came to her suddenly with all the bright clearness of an incident of yesterday. She remembered herself as a weak, bedraggled little girl, in wet slippers, who was led by a careless nurse to a strange German school; and she felt again the agony of curiosity with which, after the first blank wonder was over, she had stared at the children who hung whispering together in the centre of the room. As she looked a panic terror seized her like a wild beast, and she threw up her hands and turned to rush away to the reassuring presence of grown up creatures, when from the midst of the whispering group a little dark girl, in an ugly brown frock, ran up to her and folded her in her arms.
"I shall love you best of all because you are so beautiful," said the little dark girl, "and I will do all your sums and even eat your sausage for you." Then she had kissed her and brought her to the stove and knelt down on the floor to take off her wet slippers. To this day Gerty had always thought of her friend as the little girl who had shut her eyes and gulped down those terrible sausages for her behind her teacher's back.
The maid brought the coffee, and while she sat up to drink it the door of her husband's dressing-room opened and he came in and stood, large, florid and impressive, beside her bed.
"I'm afraid I shan't get back to luncheon," he remarked, as he settled his ample, carefully groomed body in his clothes with a comfortable shake, "there's a chap from the country Pierce has sent to me with a letter and I'll be obliged to feed him at the club, but—to tell the truth—there's so little one can get really fit at this season."
To a man for whom the pleasures of the table represented the larger share of his daily enjoyment, this was a question not without a serious importance of its own; and while he paused to settle it he stood, squaring his chest, with an expression of decided annoyance on his handsome, good-humored face. Then, having made a satisfactory choice of dishes, his features recovered their usual look of genial contentment, and he felt carelessly in his pocket for the letter which he presently produced and laid on Gerty's pillow. His life had corresponded so evenly with his bodily impulses that the perfection of the adjustment had produced in him the amiable exterior of an animal that is never crossed. It was a case in which supreme selfishness exerted the effect of personality.
Leaving the letter where he had placed it, Gerty sat sipping her coffee while she looked up at him with the candid cynicism which lent a piquant charm to the almost doll-like regularity of her features.
"You did not get three hours sleep and yet you're so fresh you smell of soap," she observed as an indignant protest, "while I've had six and I'm still too tired to move."
"Oh, I'm all right—I never let myself get seedy," returned Perry, with his loud though pleasant laugh. "That's the mistake all you women make."
Half closing her eyes Gerty leaned back and surveyed him with a curious detachment—almost as if he were an important piece of architecture which she had been recommended to admire and to which she was patiently trying in vain to adjust her baffled vision. The smaller she screwed her gaze the more remotely magnificent loomed his proportions.
"How you manage it is more than I can understand," she said.
Perry stared for a moment in an amiable vacancy at the coffee pot. Then she watched the animation move feebly in his face, while he pulled at his short fair moustache with a characteristic masculine gesture. Physically, she admitted, he had never appeared to a better advantage in her eyes.
"By the way, I had a game of billiards with Kemper and we talked pretty late," he said, as if evolving the explanation for which she had not asked. "He got back from Europe yesterday you know."
"He did?" Her indifferent gaiety played like harmless lightning around his massive bulk. "Then we may presume, I suppose, on Madame Alta for the opera season?"
He met the question with an admiring chuckle. "Do you really mean you think he's been abroad with her all this time?"
"Well, what else did he get his divorce for?" she demanded, with the utter disillusion of knowledge which she had found to be her most effective pose.
Perry's chuckle swelled suddenly into a roar. "Good Lord, how women talk!" he burst out. "Why, Arnold has been divorced ten years and he never laid eyes on Jennie Alta till she sang over here three years ago. There was nothing in it except that he liked to be seen with a celebrity—most men do. But, my dear girl," he concluded in a kind of awful reverence, "what a tongue you've got. It's a jolly good thing for me that I'm your husband or you wouldn't leave me a blessed patch of reputation to my back."
His humor held him convulsed for several minutes, during which interval Gerty continued to regard him with her piquant cynicism.
"Well, if it wasn't Madame Alta it was somebody who is voiceless," she retorted coolly. "I merely meant that there must have been a reason."
"Oh, your 'reasons'!" ejaculated Perry. Then he stooped and gave the letter lying on Gerty's pillow a filip from his large pink forefinger. "You haven't told me what you think of this?" he said.
Picking up the letter Gerty unfolded it and read it slowly through from start to finish, the little ripple of sceptical amusement crossing and recrossing her parted lips,
RAVENS NEST, Fauquier County, Virginia, December 26, 19—.
My Dear Perry: Nobody, of course, ever accused you of being literary, nor, thank Heaven, have I fallen under that aspersion—but since the shortest road to success seems to be by circumvention, it has occurred to me that you might give a social shove or two to the chap who will hand you this letter sometime after the New Year.
His name is St. George Trent, he was born a little way up the turnpike from me, has an enchanting mother, and shows symptoms of being already inoculated with the literary plague. I never read books, so I have no sense of comparative values in literature, and consequently can't tell whether he is an inglorious Shakespeare or a subject for the daily press. His mother assures me that he has already written a play worthy to stand beside Hamlet—but, though she is a charming lady, I'm hardly convinced by her opinion. The fact remains, however, that he is going to New York to become a playwright, and that he has two idols in the market place which, I fancy, you may be predestined to see demolished. He is simply off his head to meet Roger Adams, the editor of The—something or other I never heard of—and—remember your budding days and be charitable—a lady who writes poems and signs herself Laura Wilde. I prepared him for the inevitable catastrophe by assuring him that the harmless Mr. Adams eats with his knife, and that the lady, as she writes books, isn't worth much at love-making—the purpose for which woman was created by God and cultivated by man. Alas, though, the young are a people of great faith!
Commend me to Mrs. Bridewell, whom I haven't seen since I had the honour of assisting at the wedding.
Yours ever, BEVERLY PIERCE.
As she finished her reading, Gerty broke into a laugh and carelessly threw the letter aside on the blue satin quilt.
"I'm glad to hear that somebody has read Laura's poems," she observed.
"But what in thunder am I to do with the chap?" enquired Perry. "God knows I don't go in for literature, and that's all he's good for I dare say."
"Oh, well, he can eat, I guess," commented Gerty, with consoling irony.
"I've asked Roger Adams to luncheon," pursued Perry, too concerned to resent her lack of sympathy, "but there are nine chances to one that he will stay away."
"Experience has taught me," rejoined Gerty sweetly, "that your friend Adams can be absolutely counted on to stay away. Do you know," she resumed after a moment's thought, "that, though he's probably the brainiest man of our acquaintance, I sometimes seriously wonder what you see in him."
A flush of anger darkened Perry's clear skin, and this sudden change gave him an almost brutal look. "I'd like to know if I'm a blamed fool?" he demanded.
Her merriment struck pleasantly on his ears.
"Do you want to destroy the illusion in which I married you?" she asked. "It was, after all, simply the belief that size is virtue."
The flush passed, and he took in a full breath which expanded his broad chest. "Well, I'm big enough," he answered, "but it isn't Adam's fault that he hasn't got my muscle."
With a leisurely glance in the mirror, he settled his necktie in place, twisted the short ends of his moustache, and then stooped to kiss his wife before going out.
"Don't you let yourself get seedy and lose your looks," he said as he left the room.
When he had gone she made a sudden ineffectual effort to rise from bed; then as if oppressed by a fatigue that was moral rather than physical, she fell back again and turned her face wearily from the mirror. So the morning slipped away, the luncheon hour came and went, and it was not until the afternoon that she gathered energy to dress herself and begin anew the inevitable and agonising pursuit of pleasure. The temptation of the morning had been to let go—to relax in despair from the fruitlessness of her endeavor—and the result of this brief withdrawal was apparent in the order which she gave the footman before the open door of her carriage.
"To Miss Wilde's first"—the words ended abruptly and she turned eagerly, with outstretched hand, to a man who had hurried toward her from the corner of Fifth Avenue.
"So you haven't forgotten me in six months, Arnold," she said, with a sweetness in which there was an almost imperceptible tone of bitterness.
He took her hand in both of his, pressing it for an instant in a quick muscular grasp which had in it something of the nervous vigor that lent a peculiar vibrant quality to his voice.
"And I couldn't have done it in six years," he replied, as a singularly charming smile illumined his forcible rather than regular features, and brought out the genial irony in his expressive light gray eyes. "If I'd gone to Europe to forget you it would have been time thrown away, but I had something better on my hands than that—I've been buying French racing automobiles—"
As he finished he gave an impatient jerk to the carriage door, a movement which, like all his gestures, sprang from the nervous energy that found its outlet in the magnetism of his personality. People sometimes said that he resembled Perry Bridewell, who was, in fact, his distant cousin, but the likeness consisted solely in a certain evident possession of virile power—a quality which women are accustomed to describe as masculine. He was not tall, and yet he gave an impression of bigness; away from him one invariably thought of him as of unusual proportions, but, standing by his side, he was found to be hardly above the ordinary height. The development of his closely knit figure, the splendid breadth of his chest and shoulders, the slight projection of his heavy brows and the almost brutal strength of his jaw and chin, all combined to emphasise that appearance of ardent vitality which has appealed so strongly to the imagination of women. Seen in repose there was a faint suggestion of cruelty in the lines of his mouth under his short brown moustache, but this instead of detracting from the charm he exercised only threw into greater relief the genial brightness of his smile.
Now Gerty, glancing up at him, remembered a little curiously, the whispered reason for his long absence. There was always a woman in the wind when it blew rumours of Kemper, though he was generally considered to regard the sex with the blithe indifference of a man to whom feminine favour has come easily. How easily Gerty had sometimes wondered, though she had hardly ventured so much as a dim surmise. Ten years, she would have said, was a considerable period from which to date a passion, and she remembered now that ten years ago Kemper had secured a divorce from his wife in some Western court. There had been no particular scandal, no damning charges on either side; and a club wit had remarked at the time that the only possible ground for a separation was the fact that Mrs. Kemper had grown jealous of her husband's after-dinner cigar. Since then other and varied rumours had reached Gerty's ears, until finally there had blown a veritable gale concerning a certain Madame Alta, who sang melting soprano parts in Italian opera. Then this, too, had passed, and, with the short memory of city livers, Gerty had forgotten alike the gossip and the heroines of the gossip, until she noted now the lines of deeper harassment in Kemper's face. These coming so suddenly after six months of Europe caused her to wonder if the affair with the prima donna had been really an entanglement of the heart.
"Well, I may not be as fast as an automobile," she presently admitted.
"But you're twice as dangerous," he retorted gaily.
For an instant the pleasant humour in his eyes held her speechless.
"Ah, well, you aren't a coward," she answered coolly enough at last. Then her tone changed, and as she settled herself under her fur rugs she made a cordial inviting gesture. "Come in with me and I'll take you to Laura Wilde's," she said; "she's a genius, and you ought to know her before the world finds her out."
With a protesting laugh Kemper held up his gloved finger.
"God forbid!" he exclaimed with a shrug which struck her as a slightly foreign affectation. "The lady may be a female Milton, but Perry tells me that she isn't pretty."
He touched her hand again, met her indignant defence of Laura with a nod of smiling irony, and then, as her carriage started, he turned rapidly down Sixty-ninth Street in the direction of the Park.
In Gerty the chance meeting had awakened a slumbering interest which she had half forgotten, and as she drove down Fifth Avenue toward Laura's distant home she found herself wondering idly if he would let many days go by before he came again. The thought was still in her mind when the carriage turned into Gramercy Park and stopped before the old brown house hidden in creepers in which Laura lived. So changed by this time, however, was Gerty's mood that, after leaving her carriage, she stood hesitating from indecision upon the sidewalk. The few bared trees in the snow, the solemn, almost ghostly, quiet of the quaint old houses and the deserted streets, in which a flock of sparrows quarrelled under the faint sunshine, produced in her an odd and almost mysterious sense of unreality—as if the place, herself, the waiting carriage, and Laura buried away in the dull brown house, were all creations of some gossamer and dream-like quality of mind. She felt suddenly that the sorrows which had oppressed her in the morning belonged no more to any existence in which she herself had a part. Then, looking up, she saw her husband crossing the street between the two men with whom he had lunched, and even the impressive solidity of Perry Bridewell appeared to her strangely altered and out of place.
He came up, a little breathless from his rapid walk, and it was a minute before he could summon voice to introduce the cheerful, fresh-coloured youth on his right hand.
"I've already told Mrs. Bridewell about you, Mr. Trent," he said at last, "but I'm willing to confess that I haven't told her half the truth."
Gerty met Trent's embarrassed glance with the protecting smile with which she favoured the young who combined his sex with his attractions. Then, when he was quite at ease again, she turned to speak to Roger Adams, for whom, in spite, as she laughingly said, of the distinction between a bookworm and a butterfly, she was accustomed to admit a more than ordinary liking.
He was a gaunt, scholarly looking man of forty years, with broad, singularly bony shoulders, an expression of kindly humour, and a plain, strong face upon which suffering had left its indelible suggestion of defeated physical purpose. Nothing about him was impressive, nothing even arresting to a casual glance, and not even the shooting light from the keen gray eyes, grown a little wistful from the emotional repression of the man's life, could account for the cordial appeal that spoke through so unimposing a figure. As much of his personal history as Gerty knew seemed to her peculiarly devoid of the interest or the excitement of adventure; and the only facts of his life which she would have found deserving the trouble of repeating were that he had married an impossible woman somewhere in Colorado, and that for ten years he had lived in New York where he edited The International Review.
"Perry tells me that Mr. Trent has really read Laura's poems," she said now to Adams with an almost unconscious abandonment of her cynical manner. "Have you examined him and is it really true?"
"I didn't test him because I hoped the report was false," was Adams' answer. "He's welcome to the literary hash, but I want to keep the caviar for myself."
"Read them!" exclaimed Trent eagerly, while his blue eyes ran entirely to sparkles. "Why, I've learned them every one by heart."
"Then she'll let you in," responded Gerty reassuringly, "there's no doubt whatever of your welcome."
"But there is of mine," said Perry gravely, "so I guess I'd better quit."
He made a movement to turn away, but Gerty placing her gloved hand on his arm, detained him by a reproachful look.
"That reminds me of the mischief you have done to-day," she said. "I met Arnold Kemper as I left the house, and when I asked him to come with me what do you suppose was the excuse he gave?"
"The dentist or a twinge of rheumatism?" suggested Adams gravely.
"Neither." Her voice rose indignantly, and she enforced her reprimand by a light stroke on Perry's sleeve. "He actually said that Perry had told him Laura wasn't pretty."
"Well, I take back my words and eat 'em, too," cried Perry.
He broke away in affected terror before Trent's angry eyes, while Gerty gave a joyful little exclamation and waved her hand toward one of the lower windows in the house before which they stood. The head of a woman, framed in brown creepers, appeared there for an instant, and then, almost before Trent had caught a glimpse of the small dark eager figure, melted again into the warm firelight of the interior. A moment later the outer door opened quickly, and Laura stood there with impulsive outstretched hands and the cordial smile which was her priceless inheritance from a Southern mother.
"I knew that you were there even before I looked out of the window," she exclaimed to Gerty, in what Adams had once called her "Creole voice." Then she paused, laughing happily, as she looked, with her animated glance, from Gerty to Trent and from Trent to Adams. To the younger man, full of his enthusiasm and his ignorance, the physical details of her appearance seemed suddenly of no larger significance than the pale bronze gown she wore or the old coffee-coloured lace knotted upon her bosom in some personal caprice of dress. What she gave to him as she stood there, looking from Adams to himself with her ardent friendly glance, was an impression of radiant energy, of abundant life.
She turned back after the first greeting, leading the way into the pleasant firelit room, where a white haired old gentleman with an interesting blanched face rose to receive them.
"I have just proved to Mr. Wilberforce that I could 'feel' you coming," said Laura with a smile as she unfastened Gerty's furs.
"And I have argued that she could quite as well surmise it," returned Mr. Wilberforce, as he fell back into his chair before the wood fire.
"Well, you may know in either way that my coming may be counted on," said Gerty, "for I have sacrificed for you the society of the most interesting man I know."
"What! Is it possible that Perry has been forsaken?" enquired Adams in his voice of quiet humor. In the midst of her flippant laughter, Gerty turned on him the open cynicism of her smile.
"Now is it possible that Perry has that effect on you?" she asked with curiosity. "For I find him decidedly depressing."
"Then if it isn't Perry I demand the name," persisted Adams gayly, "though I'm perfectly ready to wager that it's Arnold Kemper."
"Kemper," repeated Laura curiously, as if the name arrested her almost against her will. "Wasn't there a little novel once by an Arnold Kemper—a slight but striking thing with very little grammar and a great deal of audacity?"
"Oh, that was done in his early days," replied Adams, "as a kind of outlet to the energy he now expends in racing motors. I asked Funsten, who does our literary notices, if there was any chance for him again in fiction, and he answered that the only favourable thing he could say of him was to say nothing."
"But he's gone in for automobiles now," said Gerty, "they're so much bigger, after all, he thinks, than books."
"I haven't seen him for fifteen years," remarked Adams, "but I recognise his speech."
"One always recognises his speeches," admitted Gerty, "there's a stamp on them, I suppose, for somehow he himself is great even if his career isn't—and, after all," she concluded seriously, "it is—what shall I call it—the personal quantity that he insists on."
"The personal quantity," repeated Laura laughing, and, as if the description of Kemper had failed to interest her, she turned the conversation upon the subject of Trent's play.
TREATS OF AN ECCENTRIC FAMILY
When the last caller had gone Laura slid back the folding doors which opened into the library and spoke to a little old gentleman, with a very bald head, who sat in a big armchair holding a flute in his wrinkled and trembling hand. He had a simple, moonlike face, to which his baldness lent a deceptive appearance of intellect, and his expression was of such bland and smiling goodness that it was impossible to resent the tedious garrulity of his conversation. In the midst of his shrivelled countenance his eyes looked like little round blue buttons which had been set there in order to keep his features from entirely slipping away. He was the oldest member of the Wilde family, and he had lived in the house in Gramercy Park since it was built by his father some sixty years or more ago.
"Tired waiting, Uncle Percival?" asked Laura, raising her voice a little that it might penetrate his deafened hearing.
As he turned upon her his smile of perfect patience the old gentleman nodded his head quickly several times in succession. "I waited to play until after the people went," he responded in a voice that sounded like a cracked silver bell. "Your Aunt Angela has a headache, so she couldn't stand the noise. I went out to get her some flowers and offered to sit with her, but this is one of her bad days, poor girl." He fell silent for a minute and then added, wistfully, "I'm wondering if you would like to hear 'Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon'? It used to be your mother's favourite air."
Though he was an inoffensively amiable and eagerly obliging old man, by some ironic contradiction of his intentions his life had become a series of blunders through which he endeavoured to add his share to the general happiness. His soul was overflowing with humanity, and he spent sleepless nights evolving innocent pleasures for those about him, but his excess of goodness invariably resulted in producing petty annoyances if not serious inconveniences. So his virtues had come to be regarded with timidity, and there was an ever present anxiety in the air as to what Uncle Percival was "doing" in his mind. The fear of inopportune benefits was in its way as oppressive as the dread of unmerited misfortune.
Laura shook her head impatiently as she threw herself into a chair on the other side of the tall bronze lamp upon the writing table. On the stem of an eccentric family tree she was felt to be the perfect flower of artistic impulses, and her enclosed life in the sombre old house had not succeeded in cultivating in her the slightest resemblance to an artificial variety. She was obviously, inevitably, impulsively the original product, and Uncle Percival never realised this more hopelessly than in that unresponsive headshake of dismissal. Laura could be kind, he knew, but she was kind, as she was a poet, when the mood prompted.
"Presently—not now," she said, "I want to talk to you awhile. Do you know, Aunt Rosa was here again to-day and she still tries to persuade us to sell the house and move uptown. It is so far for her to come from Seventieth Street, she says, but as for me I'd positively hate the change and Aunt Angela can't even stand the mention of it." She leaned forward and stroked his arm with one of her earnest gestures. "What would you do uptown, dear Uncle Percival?" she inquired gently.
The old man laid the flute on his knees, where his shrunken little hands still caressed it. "Do? why I'd die if you dragged me away from my roots," he answered.
Laura smiled, still smoothing him down as if he were an amiable dog. "Well, the Park is very pleasant, you know," she returned, "and it is full of walks, too. You wouldn't lack space for exercise."
"The Park? Pooh!" piped Uncle Percival, raising his voice; "I wouldn't give these streets for the whole of Central Park together. Why, I've seen these pavements laid and relaid for seventy years and I remember all the men who walked over them. Did I ever tell you of the time I strolled through Irving Place with Thackeray? As for Central Park, it hasn't an ounce—not an ounce of atmosphere."
"Oh, well, that settles it," laughed Laura. "We'll keep to our own roots. We are all of one mind, you and Aunt Angela and I."
"I'm sure Angela would never hear of it," pursued Uncle Percival, "and in her affliction how could one expect it?"
For a moment Laura looked at him in a compassionate pause before she made her spring. "There's nothing in the world the matter with Aunt Angela," she said; "she's perfectly well."
Blank wonder crept into the old gentleman's little blue eyes and he shook his head several times in solemn if voiceless protest. Forty years ago Angela Wilde, as a girl of twenty, had in the accustomed family phrase "brought lasting disgrace upon them," and she had dwelt, as it were, in the shadow of the pillory ever since. Unmarried she had yielded herself to a lover, and afterward when the full scandal had burst upon her head, though she had not then reached the fulfilment of a singularly charming beauty, she had condemned herself to the life of a solitary prisoner within four walls. She had never since the day of her awakening mentioned the name of her faithless or unfortunate lover, but her silent magnanimity had become the expression of a reproach too deep for words, and her bitter scorn of men had so grown upon her in her cloistral existence that there were hours together when she could not endure even the inoffensive Percival. Cold, white, and spectral as one of the long slim candles on an altar, still beautiful with an indignant and wounded loveliness, she had become in the end at once the shame and the romance of her family.
"There is no reason under the sun why Aunt Angela shouldn't come down to dinner with us to-night," persisted Laura. "Don't you see that by encouraging her as you did in her foolish attitude, you have given her past power over her for life and death. It is wrong—it is ignoble to bow down and worship anything—man, woman, child, or event, as she bows down and worships her trouble."
The flute shook on Uncle Percival's knees. "Ah, Laura, would you have her face the world again?" he asked.
"The world? Nonsense! The world doesn't know there's such a person in it. She was forgotten forty years ago, only she has grown so selfish in her grief that she can never believe it."
The old man sighed and shook his head. "The women of this generation have had the dew brushed off them," he lamented, "but your mother understood. She felt for Angela."
"And yet it was an old story when my mother came here."
"Some things never grow old, my dear, and shame is one of them."
Laura dismissed the assertion with a shrug of scornful protest, and turned the conversation at once into another channel. "Am I anything like my mother, Uncle Percival?" she asked abruptly.
For a moment the old man pondered the question in silence, his little red hands fingering the mouth of his flute.
"You have the Creole hair and the Creole voice," he replied; "but for the rest you are your father's child, every inch of you."
"My mother was beautiful, I suppose?"
"Your father thought so, but as for me she was too little and passionate. I can see her now when she would fly into one of her spasms because somebody had crossed her or been impolite without knowing it."
"They got on badly then—I mean afterward."
"What could you expect, my dear? It was just after the War, and, though she loved your father, she never in her heart of hearts forgave him his blue uniform. There was no reason in her—she was all one fluttering impulse, and to live peaceably in this world one must have at least a grain of leaven in the lump of one's emotion." He chuckled as he ended and fixed his mild gaze upon the lamp. Being very old, he had come to realise that of the two masks possible to the world's stage, the comic, even if the less spectacular, is also the less commonplace.
"So she died of an overdose of medicine," said Laura; "I have never been told and yet I have always known that she died by her own hand. Something in my blood has taught me."
Uncle Percival shook his head. "No—no, she only made a change," he corrected. "She was a little white moth who drifted to another sphere—because she had wanted so much, my child, that this earth would have been bankrupt had it attempted to satisfy her."
"She wanted what?" demanded Laura, her eyes glowing.
The old man turned upon her a glance in which she saw the wistful curiosity which belongs to age. "At the moment you remind me of her," he returned, "and yet you seem so strong where she was only weak."
"What did she want? What did she want?" persisted Laura.
"Well, first of all she wanted your father—every minute of him, every thought, every heart-beat. He couldn't give it to her, my dear. No man could. I tell you I have lived to a great age, and I have known great people, and I have never seen the man yet who could give a woman all the love she wanted. Women seem to be born with a kind of divination—a second sight where love is concerned—they aren't content with the mere husk, and yet that is all that the most of them ever get—"
"But my father?" protested Laura; "he broke his heart for her."
A smile at the fine ironic humour of existence crossed the old man's sunken lips. "He gave to her dead what she had never had from him living," he returned. "When she was gone everything—even the man's life for which he had sacrificed her—turned worthless. He always had the seeds of consumption, I suppose, and his gnawing remorse caused them to develop."
A short silence followed his words, while Laura stared at him with eyes which seemed to weigh gravely the meaning of his words. Then, rising hurriedly, she made a gesture as if throwing the subject from her and walked rapidly to the door.
"Aunt Rosa and Aunt Sophy are coming to dine," she said, "so I must glance at the table. I can't remember now whether I ordered the oysters or not."
The old man glanced after her with timid disappointment. "So you haven't time to hear me play?" he asked wistfully.
"Not now—there's Aunt Angela's dinner to be seen to. If Mr. Bleeker comes with Aunt Sophy you can play to him. He likes it."
"But he always goes to sleep, Laura. He doesn't listen—and besides he snores so that I can't enjoy my own music."
"That's because he'd rather snore than do anything else. I wouldn't let that worry me an instant. He goes to sleep at the opera."
She went out, and after giving a few careful instructions to a servant in the dining-room, ascended the staircase to the large square room in the left wing where Angela remained a wilful prisoner. As she opened the door she entered into a mist of dim candle light, by which her aunt was pacing restlessly up and down the length of the apartment.
To pass from the breathless energy of modern New York into this quiet conventual atmosphere was like crossing by a single step the division between two opposing civilisations. Even the gas light, which Angela could not endure, was banished from her eyes, and she lived always in a faint, softened twilight not unlike that of some meditative Old-World cloisters. The small iron bed, the colourless religious prints, the pale drab walls and the floor covered only by a chill white matting, all emphasised the singular impression of an expiation that had become as pitiless as an obsession of insanity. On a small table by a couch, which was drawn up before a window overlooking the park, there was a row of little devotional books, all bound neatly in black leather, but beyond this the room was empty of any consolation for mind or body. Only the woman herself, with her accusing face and her carelessly arranged snow-white hair, held and quickened the imagination in spite of her suggestion of bitter brooding and unbalanced reason. Her eyes looking wildly out of her pallid face were still the beautiful, fawn-like eyes of the girl of twenty, and one felt in watching her that the old tragic shock had paralysed in them the terrible expression of that one moment until they wore forever the indignant and wounded look with which she had met the blow that destroyed her youth.
"Dear," said Laura, entering softly as she might have entered a death chamber. "You will see Aunt Rosa and Aunt Sophy, will you not?"
Angela did not stop in her nervous walk, but when she reached the end of the long room she made a quick, feverish gesture, raising her hands to push back her beautiful loosened hair. "I will do anything you wish, Laura, except see their husbands."
"I've ceased to urge that, Aunt Angela, but your own sisters—"
"Oh, I will see them," returned Angela, as if the words—as if any speech, in fact—were wrung from the cold reserve which had frozen her from head to foot.
Laura went up to her and, with the impassioned manner which she had inherited from her Southern mother, enclosed her in a warm and earnest embrace. "My dear, my dear," she said, "Uncle Percival tells me that this is one of your bad days. He says, poor man, that he went out and got you flowers."
Angela yielded slowly, still without melting from her icy remoteness. "They were tuberoses," she responded, in a voice which was in itself effectual comment.
"Tuberoses!" exclaimed Laura aghast, "when you can't even stand the scent of lilies. No wonder, poor dear, that your head aches."
"Mary put them outside on the window sill," said Angela, in a kind of resigned despair, "but their awful perfume seemed to penetrate the glass, so she took them down into the coal cellar."
"And a very good place for them, too," was Laura's feeling rejoinder; "but you mustn't blame him," she charitably concluded, "for he couldn't have chosen any other flower if he had had the whole Garden of Eden to select from. It isn't really his fault after all—it's a part of fatality like his flute."
"He played for me until my head almost split," remarked Angela wearily, "and then he apologised for stopping because his breath was short."
A startled tremor shook through her as a step was heard on the staircase. "Who is it, Laura?"
Laura went quickly to the door and, after pausing a moment outside, returned with a short, flushed, and richly gowned little woman who was known to the world as Mrs. Robert Bleeker.
More than twenty years ago, as the youngest of the pretty Wilde sisters, she had, in the romantic fervour of her youth and in spite of the opposition of her parents, made a love match with a handsome, impecunious young dabbler in "stocks." "Sophy is a creature of sentiment," her friends had urged in extenuation of a marriage which was not then considered in a brilliant light, but to the surprise of everybody, after the single venture by which she had proved the mettle of her dreams, she had sunk back into a prosperous and comfortable mediocrity. She had made her flight—like the queen bee she had soared once into the farthest, bluest reaches of her heaven, and henceforth she was quite content to relapse into the utter commonplaces of the hive. Her yellow hair grew sparse and flat and streaked with gray, her pink-rose face became over plump and mottled across the nose, and her mind turned soon as flat and unelastic as her body; but she was perfectly satisfied with the portion she had had from life, for, having weighed all things, she had come to regard the conventions as of most enduring worth.
Now she rustled in with an emphatic announcement of stiff brocade, and enveloped the spectral Angela in an embrace of comfortable arms and bosom. Her unwieldy figure reminded Laura of a broad, low wall that has been freshly papered in a large flowered pattern. On her hands and bosom a number of fine emeralds flashed, for events had shown in the end that the impecunious young lover was not fated to dabble in stocks in vain.
"Oh Angela, my poor dear, how are you?" she enquired.
Angela released herself with a shrinking gesture and, turning away, sat down at the foot of the long couch. "I am the same—always the same," she answered in her cold, reserved voice.
"You took your fresh air to-day, I hope?"
"I went down in the yard as usual. Laura," she looked desperately around, "is that Rosa who has just come in?" As she paused a knock came at the door, and Laura opened it to admit Mrs. Payne—the eldest, the richest and the most eccentric of the sisters.
From a long and varied association with men and manners Mrs. Payne had gathered a certain halo of experience, as of one who had ripened from mere acquaintance into a degree of positive intimacy with the world. She had seen it up and down from all sides, had turned it critically about for her half-humorous, half-sentimental inspection, and the frank cynicism which now flavoured her candid criticism of life only added the spice of personality to her original distinction of adventure. As the wife of an Ambassador to France in the time of the gay Eugenie, and again as one of the diplomatic circle in Cairo and in Constantinople, she had stored her mind with precious anecdotes much as a squirrel stores a hollow in his tree with nuts. Life had taught her that the one infallible method for impressing your generation is to impress it by a difference, and, beginning as a variation from type, she had ended by commanding attention as a preserved specimen of an extinct species. Long, wiry, animated, and habitually perturbed, she moved in a continual flutter of speech—a creature to be reckoned with from the little, flat, round curls upon her temples, which looked as if each separate hair was held in place by a particular wire, to the sweep of her black velvet train, which surged at an exaggerated length behind her feet. Her face was like an old and tattered comic mask which, though it has been flung aside as no longer provocative of pleasant mirth, still carries upon its cheeks and eyebrows the smears of the rouge pot and the pencil.
"My dear Angela," she now asked in her excited tones, "have you really been walking about again? I lay awake all night fearing that you had over-taxed your strength yesterday. Mrs. Francis Barnes—you never knew her of course, but she was a distant cousin of Horace's—died quite suddenly, without an instant's warning, after having walked rapidly twice up and down the room. Since then I have always looked upon movement as a very dangerous thing."
"Well, I could hardly die suddenly under any circumstances," returned Angela, indifferently. "You've been watching by my death-bed for forty years."
"Oh, dear sister," pleaded Mrs. Bleeker, whose heart, was as soft as her bosom.
"It does sound as if you thought we really wanted your things," commented Mrs. Payne, opening and shutting her painted fan. "Of course—if you were to die we should be too heart-broken to care what you left—but, since we are on the subject, I've always meant to ask you to leave me the shawl of old rose-point which belonged to mother."
"Rosa, how can you?" remonstrated Mrs. Bleeker, "I am sure I hope Angela will outlive me many years, but if she doesn't I want everything she has to go to Laura."
"Well, I'm sure I don't see how Laura could very well wear a rose-point shawl," persisted Mrs. Payne. "I wouldn't have started the subject for anything on earth, Angela, but, since you've spoken of it, I only mention what is in my mind. And now don't say a word, Sophy, for we'll go back to other matters. In poor Angela's mental state any little excitement may bring on a relapse."
"A relapse of what?" bluntly enquired honest Mrs. Bleeker.
Mrs. Payne turned upon her a glance of indignant calm.
"Why a relapse of—of her trouble," she responded. "You show a strange lack of consideration for her condition, but for my part I am perfectly assured that it needs only some violent shock, such as may result from a severe fall or the unexpected sight of a man, to produce a serious crisis."
Mrs. Bleeker shook her head with the stubborn common sense which was the reactionary result of her romantic escapade.
"A fall might hurt anybody," she rejoined, "but I'm sure I don't see why the mere sight of a man should. I've looked at one every day for thirty years and fattened on it, too."
"That," replied Mrs. Payne, who still delighted to prick at the old scandal with a delicate dissecting knife, "is because you have only encountered the sex in domestic shackles. As for me, I haven't the least doubt in the world that the sudden shock of beholding a man after forty years would be her death blow."
"But she has seen Percival," insisted Mrs. Bleeker; and feeling that her illustration did not wholly prove her point added, weakly, "at least he wears breeches."
"I would not see him if I could help myself," broke in Angela, with sudden energy. "I never—never—never wish to see a man again in this world or the next."
Mrs. Payne glanced sternly at Mrs. Bleeker and followed it with an emphatic head shake, which said as plainly as words, "So there's your argument."
"All the same, I don't believe Robert would shock her," remarked Mrs. Bleeker.
"Never—never—never," repeated Angela in a frozen agony, and, rising, she walked restlessly up and down again until a servant appeared to inform the visiting sisters that dinner and Miss Wilde awaited them below.
APOLOGISES FOR AN OLD-FASHIONED ATMOSPHERE
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 everyone 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.
USHERS IN THE MODERN SPIRIT
"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.
IN WHICH A YOUNG MAN DREAMS DREAMS
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."