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Arlo Bates - A Wheel Of Fire (1885)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The author planned and began this story, and then laid it aside as too painful. Upon his repeating the plot to Mr. Howells, however, he was encouraged to finish it. The comedy scenes between Elsie and Dr. Wilson were introduced largely to enliven the story and by contrast to heighten the pathos of the loneliness of Damaris. We present here the author's own synopsis.

DAMARIS WAINWRIGHT was in perfect harmony with her surroundings, as she sat in the library of her colonial mansion, discussing matters of importance with her lawyer, Sherlock Lincoln.

The room, like every other apartment in the old Wainwright house, had scarcely changed in appearance since colonial days. The Wainwrights had lived in the .mansion, father and son, for more than two centuries; and, as blood in America goes, not even that of the most gallant Virginian, or the stateliest Knickerbocker of them all, was more purely blue than that which faintly flushed the cheek of Mistress Damaris, as she sat there in her deep mourning, the light of the fire within, and of the fading day without, illuminating her slender figure.

The interview with her lawyer had been brought about by the recent death of her mother, and Damaris, having been made executrix of her estate, had sent for Mr. Hamilton, her legal adviser, to arrange matters with him. A sudden attack of illness had made it impossible for Mr. Hamilton to accede to her request, so in his place he had sent Sherlock Lincoln, his junior partner, who never had met Miss Wainwright. He was impressed by her air of deep melancholy, and did not understand her vehement assertion that she never would marry. After taking leave of her, however, he was followed to the door by Hannah Stearns, the aged housekeeper, whose startling revelations filled him with horror and pity.

She told him that the taint of insanity was in the family; that Damaris's mother had been insane during the last ten years of her life, and that her only brother, who was also demented, was incarcerated in a private asylum. Lincoln left the house deeply impressed by the charm and sadness of Miss Wainwright, and by the tragedy which enfolded her.

Staying with Damaris was her cousin and lifelong friend, Elsie Dimmont, but in spite of their close relationship the two were not really in sympathy. Elsie was gay and frivolous, while her cousin, who felt the blighting shadow of madness hanging over her, was unable to throw off her continual melancholy.

Her first knowledge of the family doom had come to Damaris in her nineteenth year, when her brother was stricken with this terrible malady upon the night of his graduation from Harvard College. John Wainwright had been an athlete and a social leader, and was exceedingly popular with his classmates. His dreadful doom came upon him like a thunderbolt, and to Damaris the shock was one never to be forgotten. Up to this time she had been a happy, careless girl, unconscious of impending evil, but from the moment she hastened to her mother with the terrible tidings she was a changed being.

Damaris never forgot the calmness with which her mother received the dreadful news, and her remark, "Has it come, then?" was a revelation, the shock of which changed her whole life. With a thrill of deadly pain she realized that she, no less than her brother, might be born to this heritage of woe, and that the time allotted before the curse should fall was but a respite granted by the fates. Henceforth a perpetual fear preyed upon Damaris's life, carrying away all joy and rending her heart with hopeless anguish.

On the evening following her interview with Lincoln, Damaris sat with Elsie, watching the dying embers of the wood-fire on the hearth and trying to throw off the usual cloud of sadness. A wild November storm was raging, which added to the gloom of the old house, and both girls were under the spell of the many sad memories connected with it, though they tried to overcome these impressions.

Suddenly the silence was broken by a startling peal of the door-bell, and from their seats by the fire Damaris and Elsie could hear the suppressed murmur of conversation, of which the words were not audible.

Damaris started to her feet, and with the words, "It is about John, Elsie," hurried to the hall door.

Her premonition proved only too true, as she was met with the tidings that her brother had escaped from the asylum and was presumably trying to make his way to his home.

This painful news was brought by Dr. Chauncey Wilson, a young physician who had been one of those in charge of Wainwright's case at the hospital, and who was at once received into the household pending John's expected arrival.

Some hours later the invalid was discovered by Damaris's faithful dog, Wallace, lying in the snow within a few feet of his own door. The exposure and exertion were followed by a severe illness, during which he was tended by Dr. Wilson and the loyal old housekeeper, Hannah Stearns.

During the trying days of sickness, Damaris found her only solace in the companionship of Sherlock Lincoln, and for him she conceived a deep and violent attachment, such as she never had felt for anyone before.

John Wainwright's illness ended suddenly and tragically. His nurse was obliged to leave him for a time, and in the interval Elsie was stationed to keep watch just outside his chamber door. After what appeared to her to be a suspiciously long silence, she cautiously looked in to assure herself that all was well. Then she found that her cousin had managed with stealthy silence to hang himself. An immediate and careful examination proved that life was already extinct. Thus had one more calamity, never to be effaced or forgotten, come darkly into the history of the old house. Elsie's fright and horror were indescribable when she saw what had happened, but even in her frenzy she was able to hide the truth from Damaris, and pretended, when questioned, that she had slipped and turned her ankle.

Hannah Stearns, a pillar of strength on all occasions, took charge of affairs at this crisis, and she and Dr. Wilson settled matters and kept secret all details.

The bereaved sister bore her loss with stoical resignation, and looked upon her brother's death as a release from a life of misery and suffering.

After the funeral Damaris presented Lincoln with a valuable intaglio ring, which had belonged to her brother and which she requested him to wear for his sake and hers. Lincoln was much embarrassed and touched by this unexpected gift, and responded in a confused manner that he was ready to serve her in every way, and, as far as it was possible, would be glad to fill her brother's place. Damaris thanked him for his kindness, and he left her with the realization that he was growing to care deeply for her.

While Damaris had been finding solace in the companion-ship of Lincoln, Elsie had been passing away the time in a flirtation with Dr. Wilson; although this young man was not to the "manner born," and had risen from the ranks through his own exertions, he had a strength of character which made up for his lack of polish and social training.

Elsie, who had always associated with the men who be-longed to her own exclusive circle, found in Dr. Wilson a type entirely new to her and played with him accordingly.

One day when seeking for diversion, Elsie amused herself by showing Dr. Wilson some of the heirlooms and curios that the old house contained, and chief among these was an exquisite chalice of rare old German glass whose associations made its value priceless.

It had been used as a betrothal cup for many generations in the family and had been originally presented to a remote ancestor by a German prince.

After displaying the treasure, Elsie endeavored to restore it to its place, but in doing so, to her horror, snapped the delicate stem from the bowl.

She was filled with consternation and was undecided whether to confess the accident to Damaris or to conceal it; finally she settled on the latter plan, satisfying her conscience with the thought that her cousin had so many things to worry her it would be wicked to add one more to the number.

After John Wainwright's death, it was decided that Damaris must have a change of scene, and so she and Elsie returned to the city, for a visit at Elsie's home.

The Dimmonts' residence was in a fashionable part of Boston, and the family was well known in the social doings of the city. But Damaris found it impossible to forget her grief in spite of her cheerful surroundings, and the efforts of her relatives to divert her from her sad memories were unavailing.

One evening, soon after her arrival, while sitting in the library of her uncle's home with her friend Sherlock Lincoln, her despondency was so great that he endeavored to rouse her from it.

"Come," he said, with brusk decisiveness, "this will not do at all. I don't pretend to know what your philosophy of life is, but at least there is no doubt that you have had so much hard fortune that you refuse to expect anything else. I don't wonder at it. I've no especial right to lecture you like a school-girl, but I cannot bear to see you turning away from the sun, and from all the joy there is in the world. Life isn't on the average either sad or painful. Sorrow isn't our normal condition. That your life has been so bitter thus far is so much evidence that better things are to come. Don't give your-self up to grief, Miss Wainwright; it isn't wise and it isn't brave."

Damaris lifted a face strongly marked, not with indignation, but with pain, as she answered:

"But what can life do for me? I am only wearing out the brief respite before my hereditary doom falls on me."

"You are wrong," he cried, in tones of the most absolute conviction. "I tell you, you are no more under doom than I am. I know it, and you are wilfully throwing away the possibilities of life by believing it."

"Oh, no," she interrupted, painfully, "no, no; not wilfully." "Yes," he repeated, "wilfully. It is wrong to yourself and it is wrong to others."

She grew so deathly white that not even the gay lamp-shade could conceal her pallor. He feared she would faint, but she drew herself up with a quick, shuddering breath, and he started from his seat and walked to the fire.

Lincoln then explained to Damaris that he spoke with the authority of Dr. Wilson and another eminent doctor, who agreed that insanity was not hereditary, and reiterated that it was necessary that she rid her mind of dreadful thoughts at once.

Damaris was greatly shaken by Lincoln's words, which brought with them conviction; but her morbid brooding of years on this subject had worked upon her mind so that she was beyond the point of dispassionate reasoning.

She lifted to Lincoln a face over which the tears streamed in a bitter flood.

"You mean to be kind," she moaned, "but oh, you are so cruel!"

"I am cruel to be kind," he returned, never shrinking, al-though his own eyes were wet. "I cannot let you be the victim of this horrible nightmare. You must believe me."

She leaned back in her chair as if utterly exhausted, with an aspect of wo pitiful to see.

"I will go now," Lincoln said, with a world of tenderness and pity in his voice. "But you must believe what I say. Good-by."

And where he left her, half fainting in her chair, Elsie, on her return from the theater, found her.

Soon after this interview, Damaris returned to her home, and very shortly she received a visit from Sherlock Lincoln, during which he declared his love for her and finally persuaded her to confess her affection for him. After he had overcome her many scruples regarding their engagement, and had at last won her consent, he said:

"Dearest, you shall never regret this. I have said to my-self that I must win you for my wife from the first day I ever saw you. I could not have given you up."

Damaris bent over his hand as he spoke and kissed it; then she flushed rosy red, and to cover her confusion she rose quickly and opened the narrow door of the quaint china-closet beside the chimney.

"There has never been a betrothal in our family," she said, taking down the morocco case in which was kept the old Wainwright glass, "or at least none for a century, that has not been pledged in this glass. Though betrothals," she added, "have long been unheard of here."

She placed the case upon the small old-fashioned table which held the lamp, and with her hand upon the lid, turned toward him a face so full of archness that he hardly recognized it.

"It is so strange that I can hardly believe it real," she laughed. "I never believed the old glass would be filled for me. I am not sure even now that fate will not interpose in some unexpected way."

He bent forward and kissed her bright face, which, mingled with its joy, had a tremulousness that suggested tears.

"I think we can afford to defy fate now," he answered. "If love isn't stronger, then one can have faith in nothing."

Her look of response was eloquent. She unfastened the clasp and opened the case. Glittering in its velvet bed lay the antique glass, reflecting the lamplight in many tinted rays; but when Damaris lifted it, only the bowl came, the standard lying separated in its place. A sudden pallor quenched the joy of her face, as a black flood may cover golden sands. All women are superstitious when love is concerned, and the coincidence was in itself too painful to be lightly regarded. Damaris turned to her lover a face full of terror.

"Fate has prevented!" she said.

Sherlock Lincoln was a man of too resolute a fiber and of too absolute self-control to lose his presence of mind in this emergency.

"Nonsense," he returned, taking the glass. "When fate attempts a thing she does it more thoroughly. We can drink out of this perfectly well. And if you are set on an omen," he added, smiling at his whim, "you may regard this as a symbol that our life is detached from the past and from all you have feared from it."

After the betrothal Damaris went back to the city for an-other visit with the Dimmonts, and she and Elsie, who had become engaged to Dr. Wilson, found their love-affairs most absorbing.

Arrangements were hastened for the marriage of Damaris and Lincoln, as he was desirous to have as little delay as possible, and was impatient for the time to come when he could shield his betrothed from the sorrows that had encompassed her so long.

The wedding-day arrived and was sunny and bright, as all bridal days should be. Damaris, dressed in her bridal robes by Hannah and Elsie, was very beautiful, though pale as a statue, and awaited her lover, who was to have a few moments with her before the ceremony.

Suddenly it seemed to Damaris as if a hand of ice clutched her heart. Since the question of her right to marry had been the problem which had tortured her, the ceremony itself had come illogically but naturally to seem the awful crisis, and she was possessed by a vague feeling that, if she could so far evade the vigilance of malevolent fate as to go through the actual rite, she might yet escape. She felt as if she could not bear the delay of an instant, so strongly was she oppressed with a horrible sense that her doom was approaching with swift feet, and that if she were not Lincoln's wife before the horror could reach her, she must fall a victim to its fury. The moments she waited seemed to her endless. She heard Hannah moving in the next room, unwilling to go down-stairs before her mistress, and it was with difficulty that Damaris restrained herself from calling out to bid her inquire why the bridegroom did not come.

Then she smiled with a painful sense of her folly, and endeavored to be reasonable. She knew it had in reality been but a moment since Elsie left her, and she tried to give her whole attention to the details of her toilet. She looked into the mirror to see whether the lace at her throat was graceful in its folds, and suddenly, without warning, a horrible fancy came to her that it would be a wild joy to clutch such a soft white neck with fierce fingers and crush out all the life! She seemed impelled to reach out to catch and strangle that image in the glass, and at the same time she felt, in a strange double consciousness, as if someone behind her chair were preparing to seize her. Then with a thrill of agony she realized what she was thinking, and she cast around her a beseeching glance, vainly seeking help.

Yet surely that girl in the mirror was another creature than herself. Damaris extended her hand toward the figure with a mocking gesture, and laughed a little, in an absent-minded, absorbed fashion, when the white-robed stranger did the same. She dropped her hands into her lap, and, watching with a glance of horrible cunning from beneath her drooping lids the white, smooth neck of that other girl, she began with furtive haste to pull off her gloves. She would assure herself whether the fair throat were as soft as it appeared; and with motions catlike and swift, she cast the gloves to the floor and rose to steal upon the stranger.

Then it occurred to her that this must be some guest at her own wedding, and the hereditary instinct of hospitality asserted itself: She sank back into a chair, with hands falling passive in her lap. She felt confused and dizzy. Something seemed to be unutterably wrong, and she knew not what it was. Why should this stranger be here, and why did she regard her so closely? She struggled with her wandering thoughts, striving to understand how it chanced that she was not alone.

Watching intently, she saw with a shock of surprise and pity that this hapless girl in the mirror was twisting het fingers in the well-remembered gesture which her mother had shown in the coming on of madness. Damaris was seized with a great compassion of grief for the fair young creature whom such an awful doom had overtaken. The fate of this stranger had been swifter, Damaris reflected, than the feet of her bridegroom! Her bridegroom! The word touched the very core of her half-dazed intelligence. Like the swift thrust of a white-hot sword, with rending, searing agony, the truth came home to her. She knew the image of herself !

The unspeakable anguish of ages of pain was concentrated into that moment, It was like the horror of one who hangs a measureless instant upon the dizzy brink of an abyss down which he knows himself dashing, That fatal gesture which she knew so well smote the hapless bride with a terror too great for words. All power failed her; she could not breathe; an intolerable pressure crushed her bosom. Great drops of suffering beaded her forehead, and she gasped with an absolute sense of suffocation as if an ocean wave had suddenly rolled over her.

She heard her dog at the door, and with a mad impulse to flee she sprang to her feet just as Lincoln knocked.

The sound seemed to come from some far distance, and was muffled and half lost amid the confused murmur which filled her ears like the beat of rushing waters.

Then once more for an instant her failing reason struggled to consciousness, as a drowning swimmer writhes a last time to the surface and gasps, only to yield his breath in futile bubbles that mark the spot where he sank. With a supreme effort, her vanquished will for a moment reasserted itself; she knew her lover was at the door, and she knew also that the feet of doom had been swifter than those of the bridegroom. She even asked herself in agonized frenzy whether she might not have been saved had Sherlock reached her a moment sooner. And as she thought she sprang forward and opened the door.

"I am mad!" she shrieked, in a voice which pierced to every corner of the old mansion.

The housekeeper came running from the inner chamber, while Wallace shrank whining at his mistress's feet. Lincoln, white as death, caught Damaris in his arms, as if he would snatch her from the jaws of death itself if need be. She struggled in his embrace, a wild glare in her eyes replacing the flickering light of intelligence.

Then Hannah Stearns took her from her bridegroom, drew her into the chamber, and closed the door.

After a few days of suffering, Damaris died and was laid at rest in the quiet country churchyard.

Lincoln, heart-broken and crushed by the sad ending of his hopes, left the scenes which held for him such memories, and went abroad, where he wandered long in an effort to forget.



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