Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

A Spirit of Mirth, an electronic edition

by Peggy Webling [Webling, Peggy]

date: 1913
source publisher: Methuen & Co., Ltd.
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER XXXI
LIGHT AND SHADOW ON THE WALL

THERE are times when the world of action, work, and pleasure seems to stand still.

All a man's interest and hope become centred in himself, but even then it is a vague interest and a faint hope. One is, at such a period, both a supreme egoist and fitfully indifferent to his own fate.

He wants to live, for life has never seemed so dear, but lying as he does in the shadow of death his spirit is as courageous as his body is weak.

All his emotions are contradictory. New thoughts of transcendent loveliness pass through his mind, but the merest trifles agitate and trouble him. He is haunted by grotesque dreams. For an hour he is patiently brave, but the next he is wretchedly despondent. He realises his own danger, but not clearly. The days and weeks are merged together. Sometimes the sunshine gleams into his quiet room through drawn blinds, and sometimes there is the soft light of shaded lamps. This is the only difference he knows between day and night.

Walter Race, towards the end of October, drifted into a languid world such as this. His strength was drained by rheumatic fever quickly following the nervous breakdown caused by his financial disaster.

He hung between life and death, and his wife, the shadow of Euphrosyne, watched his struggle with a soul which never doubted the issue. She knew that he would live. In the darkest hour she was not afraid | | 289 She felt as if his faint heart were fluttering in her own breast and the spirit within her—strong, undaunted—kept it beating.

Walter, forgetful of everybody else, never lost consciousness of her presence. When the danger was over he thought, in his foolish weakness, that she had literally kept her hand on his forehead, cool and soft, through all the uncounted hours of his delirium.

He pondered over this, watching the light and shadow on the wall of the room.

All time had resolved itself into these shifting lights and shadows on the wall. His eyes perpetually rested there. The plain green paper was singularly restful, and there was a small vase of flowers on a wooden bracket which Phosie tended every day. He was never tired of looking at the blossoms and leaves.

Walter knew that he was not lying in his bedroom in Temple Street, for they had moved into furnished lodgings in Belton Terrace, the first floor of the house where Little Gus still lived, shortly before his illness.

It seemed a long, long time ago. He had a hazy recollection of miserable days. There had been a violent quarrel with Carl Stratton, harassing interviews with men to whom he owed money, lengthy disputes with an officious stranger who was taking an inventory of the contents of the house—gradually all these things returned to his mind, but he was still too feeble to ask questions.

Nothing surprised him. Nothing affected him.

When Phosie was in the room he tried to talk to her, when she was absent he watched the lights and shadows on the wall—listening, yearning for her return.

Jane was greatly puzzled at first by the change in her life. She no longer had a nurse. Her home had dwindled down into three rooms. It was an amazing thing to see her mother cook the dinner on a gas-stove in a little, chilly scullery at the end of a passage.

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She soon discovered that Belton Terrace was a very interesting place.

There had been no hawkers in Temple Street, and musicians of all kinds had been strictly prohibited. It was also an advantage to live in the same house as Little Gus, who was ready to play "Beggar my neighbour" or "Old Maid"—Jane was preternaturally sharp at learning cards—immediately after breakfast or till the very last minute before bedtime.

She frequently crept into her father's room and stood beside him, her little, thoughtful face so wonderfully like the face on the pillow.

"Are you gettin' better, daddy?" was her usual question.

"Yes, darling, I am getting better," he would answer, perhaps putting out a hand to touch a wave of dark hair as she leaned forward, peering curiously into his hollow eyes.

Sometimes she would carry the cat of the house into the room, or one of her toys, to entertain him, but she generally preferred the society of her mother.

"Daddy looks so thin, an' so long, an' so miser'ble in bed," she explained to Phosie.

Little Gus was another of Walter's regular visitors, shuffling in and out of the room in an old pair of slippers, meaning well, but generally the bearer of depressing scraps of information out of the newspapers regarding fires, railway accidents, or deaths from starvation. The patient listened in silence to Gus's disjointed sentences, grateful for his kind intention, but more grateful still when the door closed behind him.

Walter was really glad to see Hewett Addison, whose shadow fell one day across the green wall. Hewett was the bearer of a basket of flowers and a huge bunch of hothouse grapes, with a letter, from Miss Sapio.

"Flo is in Paris," he explained. "I believe she is buying clothes for her wedding."

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"Is Miss Sapio going to be married?" asked Walter, with a glance of surprise at Phosie.

"Oh, yes," said Hewett Addison in his quiet way. "I believe she will be very happy, though 'marriages is always risky,' as the girl observed who united herself to a soldier after walking out with him once."

"I am so glad! I congratulate you with all my heart!" said Phosie, putting out her hand to Hewett.

"What! Are you the fortunate man?" asked Walter in his feeble voice,

"Yes, so I am told," said Hewett. "You must come to our wedding, my dear Race. You must get well on purpose. We intended to be married three weeks ago, but Miss Sapio got a splendid offer for a short tour. If you knew as much about the theatrical profession as I do you would not be at all surprised at her postponing it on that account. Every actress seems to be able to get a husband, but it's a much more difficult business to get an engagement."

"Not if an actress has a kind and good friend who happens to be a great man," said Phosie, looking at Addison with an expression of gratitude that her husband did not then understand.

"Perhaps you're right, but I don't agree with you," answered Hewett, ignoring her meaning.

To be thanked for anything he had done was one of the few things in the world which made him irritable.

When his brother John appeared upon the scene, the day following Addison's visit, Walter Race was both agitated and pleased.

He knew that John and Edmund were very angry, righteously angry. The members of the family had escaped many dangers, but they had never before approached the perils of bankruptcy. Even their black sheep, Frank, was not guilty of a crime like that. The fox-hunting brother, Leo, shared their indignation, but he was too good-natured to vent it on Walter's wife.

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John and Edmund, on the contrary, were inclined to blame Phosie for every imprudent action of their brother's life, not only after, but before, he married her.

It was in this spirit that Mr John Race paid his first visit to Belton Terrace, accompanied by Edmund. They were totally unprepared for the reception Phosie gave them. It was so affectionate, so frank, but so independent that the two brothers found themselves in the position of valued friends of whom nothing was asked but the sympathy they had—not—come to offer.

The small rooms, so sparely but prettily furnished; the appearance of the child; the care expended on the simple meal to which they were invited; the evidence of careful, orderly nursing of the invalid; everything they saw added to their surprise, pleasure and discomfiture.

John, being thick-skinned, accepted the situation much more easily than Edmund. The eight years of the family's studied neglect of Walter's wife was not a pleasant reflection, but under all his pomposity and pride there was the English passion for justice in Mr John Race, and he honestly confessed to himself he had not been just to Euphrosyne.

He told her so bluntly in a strident voice, standing with his back to the fire in the little sitting-room, while Edmund, with the same feeling accentuated, could find no words to express it.

Phosie, who would have met the coolest rebuff with the courage of a high spirit, was deeply touched by his kindness.

"It isn't your money that I wanted," she said—"I have told you my plans—but you don't know how I've longed to make friends."

"Perfectly natural!" exclaimed John Race. "Not another word, my dear girl, not another word. I cannot overlook Walter's injudicious conduct—"

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"In marrying me?" interrupted Phosie, smiling.

"Not at all!" said John, laughing as if her question were a capital joke. "I mean his injudicious conduct in allowing this Hatton—Batton—Stratton man to manage his affairs. But Walter was always unbusinesslike and stubborn. I only know one man more unbusinesslike and stubborn than my brother Walter, and that's my brother Leo."

"Leo has written us a very kind letter," said Phosie. "Of course he is angry with Walter too, but he offers to help him all the same."

To her surprise both Mr John Race and the Reverend Edmund took this ill.

"It is rather late in the day for Leo to set us an example of fraternal affection," said the clergyman, drily.

"Confound his impertinence!" exclaimed the J.P. "I am the head of the family and quite capable of taking care of the family's interest and honour without Leo's interference."

"We must look into Walter's affairs," continued Edmund.

"Perhaps it will be possible to save something from the wreck," said John.

"What induced Frank to run off to Canada when his brother was in trouble?" said Edmund.

"I flatter myself we can do very well without Frank," observed the irascible John.

Phosie, glancing from one to the other, here interposed with great earnestness.

"I appreciate your goodness," she said. "But my friend, Mr Boyton, has kindly offered to advise and help us. He is a very clever lawyer, and I trust him implicitly."

"But surely your husband's relatives are the proper people to help and advise?" said the Reverend Edmund.

"Then give me your affection," said Phosie, eagerly. | | 294 "Come to see Walter and don't be hard on him. You are really so fond of one another, you brothers! If any trouble comes you are equally loyal and true. I believe you would die for each other. Why can't you live together in peace?"

She stopped abruptly, blushing at her own boldness, but Edmund only smiled indulgently at the little outburst, and John broke into a hearty laugh.

"I like you, Phosie!" he cried. "You've got the courage of your convictions. Of course we're loyal and true to each other, and of course we fight among ourselves. Both qualities make for strength."

"You must see more of Alicia," said Edmund. "She entertains the same views as yourself about family peace. She and her own people have quarrelled over it bitterly many and many a time."

"I should like you to know my wife and the girls," added Mr John Race, graciously, "and I don't think you have seen much of Mrs Leo, have you?"

"I have only met her once," said Phosie.

"Oh, we must put an end to all these little differences," said John, in a tone which implied that Phosie was as much to blame as anybody else. "You are all of you sisters, you know—sisters-in-law—I intend to bring you together. Leave it to me, my dear girl. You can safely leave everything to me."

Mr John Race was as good as his word.

Walter, sitting in his easy chair, was surprised to receive visits, not only from Mrs Edmund, who had always made a point of treating Phosie with patronising kindness, but from Mrs John and Mrs Leo. It was an even greater surprise to observe their treatment of his wife. At first it was merely courteous, then it grew cordial, and then it became affectionate.

In the earlier years of their marriage he would have laughed at Phosie's conquest, but there was a new gravity in Walter Race.

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He had suffered, and an undeveloped strength of character was born of his suffering. In the introspection afforded by his long convalescence he could see the growth, the struggling towards acknowledgment, of a new reverence in his life.

He had experienced this feeling before, but only in flashes of passing emotion. It was a reverence of which he never spoke, for the hour had not come, but day by day it shone in his heart with a more steady, unchanging light.

Euphrosyne, at about this time, was frequently absent from his room. He made no complaint—how different from the Walter of other days!—but it greatly troubled him. He missed her in the evenings most of all, but, strange as it may appear, the true reason for her absence never entered his mind. When he asked Gus where she had gone, the ready answer served its turn.

"She's gone to see Mrs Edmund Race, because she thought the walk would do her good," said Gus, as if he were repeating a lesson.

Walter was satisfied, and when, night after night, she chose the same hour for the same walk, he grew accustomed to the idea.

"If she only knew how I live for her return," he thought, but no hint of his loneliness passed his lips.

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