Friends: A Duet
VOL. XL VII. — FEBR UA R F, 1SS1. — No. COLXXX.
A magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.
“ A friend to give peace to the affections and support the judgment.”
“ GOING to Europe ? ”
Reliance said this with a crescendo accent of surprise. She lived in a circle of people with whom going to Europe was no more a noteworthy matter than going to Boston. Everybody went abroad, at unexpected crises and for inconceivable reasons ; that was a matter of course; and they all came home again quite as soon as one looked for them, constantly exposing one to keen social dangers in respect to forgetting which neighbor spent what season in Naples, and therefore omitting to call.
But when Charles Nordhall said that he was going to Paris in December, Mrs. Strong found herself unprepared for the event.
There are a few of the maturer relations of life upon which no warning can teach us not to impose with the serenity of a child upon parental loyalty. (When I say “ us ” I mean the mass of us. I am not speaking of the exceptional, either in nature or experience.) One of these relations is that between a man and woman, each free and both without thought of love or marriage.
It had never occurred to Reliance Strong that Charley Nordhall could go to Europe, — now. Had she questioned herself why this was, she would have been unable to give a distinct reply. Life at best was a mist to the poor girl. She crawled a little way in it, inch by inch, like a person lost in a fog upon a cliff-side. John was dead. She had thought at first that she herself should die. This, it seemed, one could not do.
Nordhall understood this. He was kind. Not that the sound of a sympathetic voice beside the parlor fire, or the look of grave eyes regarding her movements in the garden, created an object in life ; they did not even make life tolerable, but only grief more endurable.
Reliance was not ungrateful. Nordhall spared her much business concern, and brought some definite contribution to her comfort. With something of the self-assumption of the invalid or the mourner, she thought this, on the whole, rather natural. That a man should not stay at home from abroad for the purpose of calling once or twice a week on a woman who irrevocably loved and inconsolably mourned another man, never occurred to her. There was something simple and sincere in this selfishness, after all. She had not the vain or diseased imagination which would have viewed the position in that slant light. Her thoughts were direct as midday. That she did irrevocably love and inconsolably mourn was a fact assured as gravitation. Charley Nordhall would not offer to the widow of his friend the insult of intermixing a sentiment with his regard.
Copyright, 1881, by HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & Co.
And yet, it seemed, he could go away and leave her.
It did occur to Reliance, after some thought, that the one fact accounted for the other. Hence, she added with more gravity and less agitation, —
“ Yes, of course. Why should you not ? ”
Nordhall went. He went in December, as he had purposed. The snow was whirling about the house when he came to say good-by. She shook hands with him cheerfully, lifting her sweet face, He wondered if she would miss him ; but neither spoke of missing or of loss. They chatted quietly. Nordhall had business advice for her, to which she listened with submissive attention. He spoke of his return in April, of his engagements in Paris, of a trip he planned through Italy. Then he asked for Kaiser, and why he was not there to say good-by. He could not talk of herself. He knew not how to assume either that she would suffer from his absence, or, on the other hand, that she was quite indifferent to it. The last supposition seemed a brutal one ; but the first he dared not offer. He felt impatiently the undefined nature of their relation. To be the comforter of your dead friend’s widow seemed to him, rather bitterly just then, the most thankless position in the world. He wished, honestly enough, that John were there to do his own consoling. Nothing in his heart would have been reluctant towards such a miracle, He was conscious of no wish other than to see her happy.
They made a matter-of-fact enough parting of it, and neither was aware of embarrassment till the final moment came. Then Reliance held out her hand, and looked at him earnestly with her honest eyes, and said, —
“ I hope you will have the best voyage that ever was! I hope you will be well and happy all the time ! ”
She could not easily have said less. But Nordhall could not have borne more. He looked at her, standing so lonely there in the long drawing-room ; he did not speak. No woman could have forgotten such a look. Reliance felt herself enveloped in it, as she went dreamily up-stairs to tell her mother that Mr. Nordhall’s carriage stood at the door. She did not come down again. Madam Strong made her stately adieux in the hall below. Their voices came up. Reliance stood at the hall window and looked out into the storm. She thought,
“ How John would miss him! He used to,— every time.”
By and by, when the sound of his carriage wheels had died into the white silence, she turned wearily from the window. She did not think : “ I shall miss him, too.” But she felt that the house was quiet; that the street was dull; that winter was cheerless; that life was long ; that John was dead. Then she. went down-stairs and sat with her mother-in-law, who was rounding the blue toes of the twenty-first pair of baby socks whose creation Reliance had watched that autumn. They talked of the weather, of Mr. Nordhall, of the Cunard Line, of the church bazar, of the Heart of Mid-Lothian. Madam Strong read the Heart of Mid-Lothian once a year; in December, always. She considered Scott a great writer; she was apt to say so about the second week in December.
On this afternoon she talked longer than usual. Reliance assented as usual ; perhaps more languidly. Madam Strong, in her dignified way, which was at once above a suspicious and below a compelling scrutiny, watched Reliance that day. Nature had not gifted Mrs. Winthrop L. Strong with that perfume of character which we call imagination ; but of experience of life, which is the next thing to it in practical effect and often mistaken for it, she had her share. She was an old woman, and she had seen the world. She laid down her baby socks, and said, —
“ We shall miss Mr. Nordhall, my dear.”
“ Yes ; oh, yes,” assented Reliance, vaguely.
“ You have seen a good deal of him ; he has been very kind to you,” proceeded John Strong’s mother, counting blue stitches on those consecrated wooden needles, which lent such an air of sanctity to the lightest occasion honored by them.
“ He has always been kind,” replied John Strong’s widow earnestly. “ John used to depend upon him long ago, when there was anything to be done for me and he could n’t do it himself. Charley Nordhall is a loyal friend.”
“Has it never struck you,” — began the elder lady ; but paused, oppressed by an unusual embarrassment.
“ What’m ? ” Reliance looked at her with clear, sweet, sad eyes.
“ Has it never struck you that — Mr. Nordhall would be happier if he were to marry ? ” proceeded the mother-inlaw. Now' this was not what she had meant to say, at all. She felt a certain well - bred sense of guilt at her slight subterfuge. Madam Strong was not accustomed to allow herself flights of conversation (or of anything else) in which she could not easily see her way back to her nest of silence and blue single zephyr. She seemed to herself, for a moment, like the plotting elderly woman in the lower class of fiction, which she never permitted herself to read, and of which she was sure Scott would not have approved. A faint color tinged her face, refined and expressionless as old white china. But Reliance answered, —
“ Yes’m. I used to think of it very often ; I have hoped he would; but lately I have been so absorbed in my own troubles, I don’t know that it had occurred to me, mother, whether Mr. Nordhall was married or not. I don’t know whether he would be happiest so. I had not thought. Men are the best judges for themselves about such matters.”
She spoke with a gravity and directness which were not to be mistaken. This young creature, standing there in her black dress, with her eyes dreaming on the fire, belonged to those women for the classification of whom the fine old Bible phrase might have been purposely inspired : she was “ a widow indeed.”
Madam Strong perceived this, one hardly knows how. She had known young women who, though abundantly tempted, never encouraged a second conjugal affection. Her thoughts occupied themselves with such well-finished sentences. It was natural that John Strong’s wife should be one of these women. Madam Strong set up the stitches for her twenty-second pair, with industrious content.
But Reliance put on her things, and went out to walk in the brave snowstorm. She said she must look up Kaiser, and he would go with her. They would walk towards the shore.
And so the afternoon came to an end. Reliance had a relief that it was over. Without feeling any undue sentimentalism in such matters, she hated partings and leave-takings ; they jarred on nerves already worn sensitive by real grief. And Charley Nordhall had been very kind.
“ He’s gone, Kaiser,” she said, with a slight sadness. Kaiser whined, and leaped upon her, barking. She had drawn off her fur glove to pat him, and the dog kissed her hand. She felt grateful for this mark of affection. It was a lonely storm. She felt like saying, “ Thank you, Kaiser.”
When they came to the shore, she paced up and down. Kaiser followed her with grave regularity. The beach was slippery and glittered ; it was a cold, ashen color, and the rocks had the look of iron. But the sea was a curdled, cruel blue. As she stood looking between the foaming lips of the nearest breaker, thence off into the tumult of the snow that brought the horizon so solemnly near to the eye, she suddenly thought that this was the sea which in a few hours would dash between herself and her husband’s friend. It seemed just then very wide, wider than if the curtain of the snow-flakes had been less close and dense. No distance appears so deep as that which is hidden from sight.
Reliance spent a busy winter; this, the third since her bereavement, was perhaps the busiest of her life. One need not be saying much, to be sure, in saying that, for the lives of women like this young creature are not often burdened with care. Mrs. Strong, however, did occupy herself in earnest. Nordhall occasionally wrote to ask “how her parishioners got on,” but she gave him no very detailed answers. She did not write often. Indeed, she found, or she gave herself, little time for desultory correspondence. She had plunged heavily into the Poor Relief work of the town. Even in Salem it is possible to care for the suffering with enthusiasm, individuality, and independence. Reliance was not capable of working without. The discovery that a young lady as ignorant as herself of the woes of her fellow-men (and up to this point as indifferent to them) could make a sober man out of a drunkard, or a selfrespecting citizen of a beggar, or a virtuous woman of a castaway, awed her ; and was, at the outset, almost more of a pain than a pleasure. ’When she found what a light sacrifice arouses the large loyalty of the poor, and what a profuse expenditure of feeling they return for a little outlay, she became at first puzzled, then humbled, then grateful, hopeful, comforted. She trod the shores of a new world. She began to know the dangers and the delights of personal ministry to those who need. That subtlest, and I say without hesitation strongest, of human passions, service to humanity, always ready to seek a nature made pliable and fertile by sorrow, attacked hers. She trembled before it, for she did not understand it nor herself. She only knew that now she could bear to live.
Reliance, in short, gave herself up to the people who seemed to need her the most, and the inevitable consequence followed : her need of them became the predominant fact in her life.
She yielded herself to these grave delights, — an evening school her highest dissipation, a temperance society her wildest pleasure, a mission prayer-meeting her keenest comfort; and “ times followed one another,” and one day she looked, and the syringa leaves were budding, and Madam Strong was sending the nankin sun-bonnet out to be pressed over, and the snow had melted from the flower-beds, and Kaiser was daily very muddy when he kissed her, and Jacobs was digging about the roots of things, and Janet was singing in the back yard with bare, bright head, and spring had come.
She remembered that with the spring would come Charles Nordhall. One does not forget such things because there are drunkards or poor women in the world.
She thought of this event with less excitement than she expended on the movements of Janet’s father, or of a little shoe-shop girl she cared about, who had fallen into gay company. The heart holds one passion at a time ; it may be love, ambition, friendship, revenge, or benevolence ; but among passions, as among people, one must govern.
Reliance noticed, indeed, that April had passed, and Nordhall had not come; that May was going, but still he stayed; that it was June, and yet he lingered. She thought of this with quiet interest. Had business detained him ? Was he, perhaps, not well ? Or he traveled for pleasure. And what was she to do about that Iowa mortgage where the interest had failed?
One day, she sat alone with Kaiser on the grape-vine settle under the lightning-pierced tree. It was but a short half hour after an early tea. She had a book in her hand, but was not reading. Her face and figure indicated expectancy. She looked vivid and eager in the slant light. She wore a fine, white camel’s-hair shawl; one end of it was brought up across her hair and fastened there, in the pretty fashion by which women protect the head and shoulders with a single garment, on summer evenings. The dog leaned with chin and forepaws familiarly across her foot. She was looking in the direction of the gate.
It clicked while she sat there, and the bushes thrilled and swayed. A man fastened the latch, and stood a moment in the arbor before he advanced.
She put down her book and came towards him, holding out her hand. But when they met, she stopped short. Kaiser had bounded out.
“ Charley Nordhall! Mr. Nordhall! I thought”—
“ You thought I was somebody else. That is plain enough.” He stood eagerly looking down.
“ Why — I — thought you were a drunkard! ”
“ A man might wish he had been. There, there, Kaiser ! There! Yes, good fellow. It is Mr. Janet, then ? ”
“ Oh, yes. Don’t make fun of him, poor man! He broke his pledge last week,— the first time,” she added earnestly. “It must happen once in a while. But of course it was a great disappointment. I have to look after him for a little while very carefully. I asked him to call and see me this evening. Janet thought he would come. You see they have to be held up, — held up from day to day. Somebody must care enough to do it! ”
She spoke with intense, almost feverish earnestness.
“ Somebody must care enough — for most of us — to hold us up, each in our different ways,” said Nordhall, gravely. “ It ought to make us all patient with one another.”
They were walking together towards the house, as if he too had been calling every few days, like the drunkards, — as if he too had never put the seas between himself and her sweet compassion and daily thought. He drew her aside to the seat she had left, and picked up the book that had fallen to the grass.
“ Mother will be glad ” — began Reliance, coming to herself, and flushing slightly.
“ I will see your mother presently. Let me stay here a minute. What have you been reading ? ” He looked at the pamphlet; then laid it down without remark. It was Octavia Hill’s Report of Coöperative Visitation among the London Poor.
“ You did not come home when we expected,” began Reliance again. Her heart smote her, — she had been so anxious about her drunkard. She was afraid she had not met Nordhall just as she should. She had given him the wrong man’s welcome, and had been too confused to set it right.
“ No ; I was detained,” said Nordhall. “ At least,” he added frankly, “ I detained myself. I wanted to travel. I ’ve taken a run through Switzerland. I needed it. I should have written you, perhaps, but I had no reason to suppose you would care especially when I came. I left all the orders at the Bradburne Bank about everything— that I thought you could need before I returned.”
This hurt her, and only her vivid cheeks, half the color of anger, half of shame, made answer to him.
He did not or would not see, and persistently drummed away at the same note, with what may be called the madness or the inspiration of his sex.
“ I have been gone two months longer than I expected to. I confess I was selfish enough to hope you would have cared.”
“ You could stay away two unnecessary months, it seems ! ” flashed Reliance. She had forgotten about Mr. Janet just then. Was there a touch of pique in her voice ? An expression which only another man could have read correctly crossed Charles Nordhall’s face. He looked down at her. She looked young and human, like any other beautiful woman. She seemed very near. He remembered how near she had looked, shut in towards him by the lace curtain, on that day in Boston. But that was long, oh, long ago. Impetuous words of joy at seeing her after their separation sprang to his lips. A masculine sense of power and defiance overtook him. Why should not a man make a woman glad to see him ?
“ You missed me ! ” he began. “ You missed me ” — At this moment the gate clicked once more and the syringa bushes trembled shyly. A tall, stooped, weak figure shuffled up the garden walk. A man with gaunt eyes and fine face written heavily with lines of shame stood hesitating there. Nordhall rose. The two men looked at the lady.
“There is your drunkard,” said Nordhall below his breath0 He wondered if she would leave him, on this first evening, for that castaway.
“I am sorry,” said Reliance, “but he needs me. Go to mother. I will come as soon as I can.”
She drew her white drapery about her, and stepping hastily across the now darkening lawn held out her hand to Mr. Janet.
She looked to Nordhall, left alone, less woman now than ghost. The distance between them seemed, in the uncertain twilight, to be greater than it was.
“ He takes us all as if we were his blood relations.”(His poor neighbors of Walter Scott’s friendships.)
Something touched and startled him as he stood there, thinking bitterly how he had looked forward to this evening and what had come of it. The touch came from the dog. Kaiser lifted and thrust his nose affectionately into Nordhall’s hand. Then Nordhall discovered that he had shut his hand rather hard, and that the dog was prying his fingers apart, licking them with that profound obtuseness to the fact that his methods of caress may not be as agreeable as he personally considers them which is peculiar to his race; though I am not sure but a similar misapprehension is shared by most lower natures as regards their expressions of attachment to a higher.
“ Kisses enough ! ” repeated Nordhall, idly. He had caught the phrase, somehow, from her. She used to discourage Kaiser’s advances in that way, once in a while. The idle words struck him oddly as he said them aloud, for he felt grateful to Kaiser for staying there with him. There were not so many people in the world to kiss him when he came home from Europe that he need criticise a dog’s welcome. Nordhall had no sisters, and his parents were dead. He had some cousins in Boston, — he was going to see them tomorrow; but they shook hands with him.
Reliance had walked on towards the house with poor Mr. Janet. Nordhall and Kaiser went in, after a little while, to find Madam Strong. They passed Reliance and her drunkard, sitting on the piazza in the light from the parlor windows. The lady looked up, and smiled abstractedly. She was talking earnestly. Tears were in her eyes. The man was saying : —
“ I promise you before God ! But I promised you before. I never thought I’d break a promise to a lady ” —
Madam Strong sat within, not far from the open windows, in the soft, June air. Her blue knitting-work lay across Peveril of the Peak upon the table. Her hands were folded. She was sleeping the peaceful sleep of age which never knew a feverish, perplexed, or rebellious youth. What subtle moral problems had ever tortured her ? . . .
She woke with her fragile smile, expressing no surprise at the young man’s presence ; she was too old to be surprised. She only said, —
“ Ah, Mr. Nordhall! ” And they fell to talking of the weather and the Cunard Line, the Tyrol and the Roman fever, the doctor, the minister, the Rollinstalls, homœopathy, and the church bazar, as if he had never been away at all. But the young man was in no mood for the generous art of conversing with an old lady, and after waiting some time in vain for Reliance to come in, he bade her mother-in-law good-night, and somewhat suddenly left the house. As he did so, he met Reliance. She was coming up the piazza steps, down which she had gone to say her last earnest word to the man. Nordhall knew how she did such things, — intense in her humanity as in her love or grief. Despite his vexation, he felt a thrill of pride in her singleheartedness. “You thorough woman ! ” he said to himself as he looked at her.
The thorough woman put up both hands to him. Her face was flushed with a beautiful pity. The struggle for the conquest of a soul — the finest fever that the heart knows — still lingered in her eyes. Nordhall could see instantly how this fever had gained upon her since he went away.
“ I have treated you badly,” she said, like a penitent child, “ but how could I help it ? Come back, please.”
He yielded, and they sat down together on the piazza. The perfumed darkness was around them ; and the broken lights from the parlor windows served only to reveal their outlines to one another. Her white shawl had fallen, and she held it across her arms ; it dropped over her lap to the floor. She wore white now, too, at her throat and wrists.
“ I think he can be saved,” began Reliance again, eagerly, “ but it requires constant watching. I undertook it, Mr. Nordhall. How could I bear it if I failed in my part of this hard work? How should I feel if such a poor fellow slipped back into the mud because I got impatient or tired of it all ? It is easy to get impatient. It is not easy to save a soul ! ” She spoke in a low, awed voice.
Nordhall made no reply. He sat and looked at her. Suddenly he broke out, —
“ There are different kinds of souls in the world ! This is an Irishman’s ! ”
“ You mistake,” said, Reliance in a matter-of-fact voice. “ Janet is an English girl. Mother won’t have Irish servants. Mr. Griggs was a coachman in London once.”
“ X equaling the value of a coachman’s soul,” began Nordhall passionately, — “a gentleman’s, for instance, — an old friend’s ” — He stopped and said, “ Forgive me, Mrs. Strong!”
Reliance made no answer. He hurried on: —
“ I took a brutal way of expressing a natural pang. I had been away a good while. A lonely man like me has not so many welcomes to look forward to that he can bear the loss of one very graciously. I beg your pardon. I am glad you are saving drunkards. It is womanly, Christian work. You are doing it like a woman and a Christian. But it has changed you.” He stopped abruptly.
“ Changed me ? ”
“ You have taken philanthropy as a passion,” proceeded Nordhall, still laboring under unusual excitement. “ Or, you are a woman, — yes, it has taken you. A woman does not live without emotion. You have found it in saving castaways. You needed excitement. You have it in compelling the better natures of abandoned people. You lacked occupation. Charity provides you with one. You perished for love ” —
Reliance raised her beautiful head. He could see the haughty motion. It seemed to spur him headlong on.
“ You perished for love, I say ! We all do, in our measures. You had received — and given — more than one woman’s share. When you were left without it, — when your trouble came, — you needed a substitute for happiness. Be patient with me! We all do, in different forms. Some of us find it in study, or in trade, some in pleasure, some in sin. I have known people who could take it out in horseback-riding or household-art decoration, in a cigar or an embroidered stork. You have found it in benevolence.”
“ You are severe,” interrupted Reliance gently. “ And yet — I have tried — I meant to be unselfish.” Her head had fallen, her lip trembled.
“ You starved for love,” persisted he. “ And you have it — there.” He pointed down the dark road, where the drunkard’s departing steps had ceased to echo. “ You have it here,” waving his hand towards the hall, where, across the great lighted space left by the open door, the figure of Janet passed, flitting and anxious. “ You have it everywhere you go. You treat poor people as if they were human — and you too. That is the highest bid that can be made for their affection. They give it. You are overwhelmed with it. You needed love. You have found it in its most alluring and its most illusive form. You have too much of it! ”
Reliance sat perfectly still. Had she opposed any resistance to this torrent of words, it is uncertain how long it might have gone on.
“ You have too much, — it will spoil you ! It intoxicates you ; you are living on it as that fellow lives on his dram ! ” Sud lenly his manner changed. “ And yet your motives are so pure, you are so unselfish, that you do not resent all this! And I am a brute ! ” He got up, and restlessly paced the piazza. “ Reliance, — Mrs. Strong — be patient with me. I am all out of sorts to-night. I have been rude.”
“ I ’m only afraid you may be right,” she answered, gently still. “ And yet
— if it were — if I did need love, and if my poor people gave it—I never thought of it so. But should I be so very much to blame? Must I stop working because I love them ? ”
“ God forbid ! ” said Nordhall quickly. “ Only save a corner for some of us poor devils who are not drunkards or outcasts. We mean well. We do as well as we can to deserve your interest.”
She had risen, drawing her white shawl up, and stood regarding him perplexedly. That old fancy of his about her came upon him, seeing her so absorbed and sweet and calm, — white against the dark.
“ Wraith or woman ? ” he said, half aloud.
“ What did you say ? ”
“ I said I hoped you had a heart left for your friends.”
“ I hope so,” said Reliance, earnestly. “ And for you, — for John’s friend
— Mr. Nordhall, I was glad to see you come home. Did you not know ? ”
“ Yes, I am John’s friend,” said Charley Nordhall more quickly, after a long pause. “ Let us come in to the house. The air is damp for you.”
He walked home that night with restless, reckless steps. He was thoroughly ill at ease. He knew he had been rough with her, the gentlest woman that ever breathed! He knew that he could not expect her to understand him. What was more immediately to the purpose, he perceived that he did not understand himself. He did not know, till he saw her, how he had looked forward to coming back to her. He had been a conscientious traveler, with an occupied mind. His dead friend’s wife had found her place in it, of course. Had he purposely prolonged his journey, the better to define that place and keep her in it ? Had he, not without design, increased the distance between them, the better to observe its effect on herself when they should meet ? And now — was he jealous of her interest in her house-maid’s drunken father ? . . . Poor girl !
Despite his masculine reluctance to see a woman whom he idealized brought into contact with all the unnamed perils to which earnest work among the ignorant and erring must expose a lady, he was perfectly conscious that she moved on a plane to which he had never aspired, and that her preoccupations were as much nobler as her nature was finer than his own. He acknowledged this fact to himself with stern severity. He acknowledged, too, that any movement of soul which he should make towards that level would spring not so much from a wish to approach it, as to approach her. After some moments’ hard walking and clear thinking, he acknowledged that his ill-nature sprung from an unwillingness to lose the position of comforter-in-chief to this attractive mourner.
At this point his thoughts came to a dead-lock. Love? He shrank. Alone there in the dark road, this knightly gentleman recoiled from himself, because he had admitted so much as the word to his throbbing thoughts. With love and marriage those thoughts had nothing to do. He had been a busy man. The full years had left him no time for empty dreams. He had never wished nor expected to marry. Even if he had, this woman was his friend’s wife. He thanked Heaven that he was not born a scoundrel, to love another man’s wife. True, John was what we call dead. Who knew what that meant? Nordhall
lifted his face to the sky. All the stars were out.
He looked up solemnly, in one of those pauses of soul which come seldom to hurried lives. What was it to be dead ? Old Bible words came to him, brokenly and confused, as he walked along with stumbling feet and skyward gaze : “ To live again ? ”
That was her way of thinking. She was a devout and trustful woman, — Heaven help her ! Where would she have been were she not ? She believed that John was a live man.
He expressed this to himself in just these words; drew his breath; passed his hand over his forehead with the wearied and appealing motion into which reserved people fall only when they are unobserved.
He stretched his hands a little, both of them, towards the sky. He knew he was alone. The street was still. Far in the distance the lights of the town pulsated passionately ; each meant a human home. Behind him the unseen sea broke steadily and strong. He stopped, and spoke aloud : —
“ John ! John, old fellow ! ”
He took off his hat and held it a moment. Then he bowed his bared head.
“ It. seems as if — if ever a man would make himself known to another, it might be at some such time and place too—as this. Perhaps he would. Perhaps he can’t . . . John! . . . Are you alive ? ”
He hesitated, standing still uncovered.
“ John Strong ! You trust me, don't you ? ”
A busy man, not often given to forays of imagination, is the more subject to them when they attack him; and Nordhall was so possessed by his exalted mood that he was bewildered and startled on suddenly perceiving that he was not alone upon the dark road.
A man stood in the middle of it, perfectly silent, directly in the path.
Nordhall’s hand instinctively sought the revolver which he sometimes carried on these lonely walks ; but he found that he had left it at home. That aristocratic town had her full share of social extremes, and the Salem rough has acquired a more than local reputation.
As Nordhall tried to pass, with such fearless indifference as the case required, the fellow laid a heavy hand upon his arm.
“ Stand off ! ” cried Nordhall, with a mighty shove. The man staggered and fell back. He made no effort to resume hostilities, but stood still. He carried a little dark-lantern with him, which now turned upon his figure. Nordhall recognized him at once. It was Mr. Janet.
“ How did you suppose I was going to know you? ” cried the gentleman, by way of apology. “ Come, now ! What is it ? I’m in a hurry, and no man likes being caught upon a dark road in this way. You might have got arrested for a highwayman. Have you been drinking — so soon ? ”
Nordhall’s natural irritation was slow in subsiding, and he poured the words out in his quick-blooded fashion.
“No!” thundered the “reformed man,” drawing himself up. “ I ain’t so low as that,— fresh from a sight of ” —
“ Never mind ! ” cried Nordhall. He could not bring himself to bear hearing her name uttered in this way.
“ You ’re not the man I took you for,” said the other sullenly, moving away.
This aroused Nordhall’s curiosity, and that subdued his temper. He followed Mr. Janet, — spoke more gently.
“ What do you mean by that ? Perhaps we don’t either of us know what kind of man the other is. Do me the justice to remember that you came upon me like a robber.”
“ I ’m no robber,” said the man, “ and no rascal. I’m a reformed man.”
“ Why don’t you stay reformed, then?” asked Nordhall bluntly.
“ That ’s what I was trying to do, when you come up. I thought mebbe you’d help me. I took you for a different sort of man, — seein’ you in her company. I took it for granted a feller she took to would be like herself, — God bless her ! It seems I was mistaken, sir.”
“Try me and see,” said Nordhall, mildly accepting the rebuke. “ Tell me what you thought I could do for you.”
Mr. Janet hesitated, standing for some moments twirling his dark-lantern round and round between his fingers. The revolving light flashing and fading on his rough face had a sad effect, like the struggles and failures of purpose which beset a shipwrecked life. His forehead was carved with the deep furrows which usually belong to men battling with the alcoholic passion.
“ Sir,” he said at last, in a changed voice, “ do you see that light yonder ahead of us, — just to the corner where Cranby’s Cut strikes down to the Ma’shes ? I can’t get by that light. No, you don’t understand, I see ; you ain’t used to us. She’d understand. She’d ha’ come with me herself ef it was fit for a lady. I can’t get by alone. That’s Granby’s Hell.”
“ Cranby’s — Hell ? ”
“ Cranby’s grogg’ry, sir. It’s where I’ve ben used to get my liquor. I’m owin’him. I darsen’t go by. They’ll coax me in. I’ve got the money to pay, and he knows it. He won’t let me by. And I darsen’t go in, — I darsen’t go in! Sir, I’ve set here half an hour, on this rock, looking at that there light. I thought mebbe you’d let me— seein’ you was a friend of hers — let me walk by with you, sir. That was all. But it don’t matter. I won’t trouble you, sir.”
He turned drearily, swinging his lantern, from sheer nervousness, in a ghastly way, setting his face towards Cranby’s Hell.
“ I will go with you,” said Nordhall.
“ Come into Cranby’s and pay your debt. I ’ll stand by you till you ’re out again. Will that do ? ”
“ Then I ’ll be clear of him! ” said Mr. Janet joyously. “ Yes, sir, thank you. That will do.”
The two men walked on together in silence. Neither knew how to address the other, under these circumstances. Suddenly Mr. Janet drew his breath hard and shook from head to foot. They had not quite reached the door of the groggery, but Nordhall perceived that the fumes from it struck their faces. He felt a surprised sympathy with the effect of this fact upon his companion, but he did not comment upon it. They passed in, still in silence, and Mr. Janet paid his bill. Nordhall stood beside him.
The shop was full. The entrance or reception room in which they stood was fitted up as a little — a very little — grocery; adjoining it was a second smaller apartment, in and out of which a few men skulked on mysterious errands ; a third and still smaller room opened beyond, dimly lighted, and with an ugly look.
Nordhall was conscious that his presence in this place attracted attention, and occupied himself with a desire to hasten the business which brought him there.
A few idle words passed between Mr. Janet and the proprietor, who made no effort to detain him. They turned, and were about to leave, when out of the third and inner room a man advanced towards them. His face and figure, even, seemed to smoulder, as he staggered up. The whole creature looked lurid. He was evidently far gone with the insensate rage which forms a stage of intoxication in certain lower natures, and which seizes the first convenient object on which to vent itself, as fire seizes fuel.
“ Griggs ! ” he cried. “ You goin’ ter leave us ? By Blank ! yon shan’t! We want your blanked company!”
“You cannot have it to-night,” said Nordhall, in his quiet, cultivated voice. “ Come, Mr. Griggs.” He put his white hand upon the other’s shoulder.
At the instant, through the flare and fumes of the sickening place, he was aware that riot arose; that a raving figure leaped at him; that others leaped at it ; that there were cries and a blow. Then he fell, crashing, and knew no more.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.