Friends: A Duet
CHARLES NORDHALL went back to Salem, and took the business train as usual every morning for Boston, and took it again as usual every night for home, and occupied himself with the real-estate business. This being a diversion which came to an end with daylight, he dreaded his evenings and nights. He paced his room (his housekeeper heard him) with habitual restlessness ; he became sleepless, and therefore despondent; his case began to seem to him a complicated one.
At first, he busied himself in thinking how he should manage to return her veil. The sight of it sent the blood tingling with brave shame to his fingers’ ends. It was as if one looked him in the eye, and said, “ You are a dishonorable man ! ”
He could not remember when in all his clean and gentle life he had betrayed a trust before. The slightness of this offense was small comfort to an offender capable of perceiving its subtlety. At times he thought that if he had speculated with her money he should feel less remorse, and perhaps be no more blameworthy. He dreaded her return, when he must give back that insulted piece of gauze, and invent some decent reason to satisfy her suspicious or hurt surprise.
The more he thought of it, however, the more foolish—nay, impossible — it seemed to give it back now, at all. What could he tell her ? That he had ceased to value her keepsake ? What could he tell her? That he had kissed it in the Bethlehem hotel ?
He took the thing and hid it away in a little old ivory box he had, that was his mother’s; he put the box into a desk that stood in one of the great rooms of his empty house ; he locked the desk, he locked the room, he put the keys away.
Now, the sensitive fellow breathed freer, and began with more calm, if no less pain, to investigate the position in which he found himself.
He loved her. The holy truth was out at last. He loved her. No mood or phase of feeling retracted, or disguised, or modified this terrible and blessed secret. For it was a secret yet, thank God!—his, and his only. He was glad he had found himself out in time. Sometimes he felt like going down on his knees, as he used to when he was a little boy, and thanking God in outright genuine fashion that he had never yet “ made love ” to her. No ; he had made friendship ; that was all. Aside from that matter of the veil, he had no cause to reproach himself yet (so he thought at times) with, willful disloyalty to the confidence which she had reposed in him when she had accepted his constant interest in her life, his incessant contributions to her comfort, his deferent, distant tenderness, his help, his strength, his blind and bountiful idealization.
And yet he loved her. There was no return from this accepted consciousness. It was irrevocable in its way, like birth or death, the marriage tie itself, or any of the elemental facts of life. He could not “ unlove,” if he would. He was almost terrified to perceive, after he had thought of it a little while, that he would not if he could. . . . He had never loved a woman before. All the purity of boyhood and all the loneliness of maturity fed this feeling which was now the master of him. If he had known affection and touched fancy, he had never experienced a passion. At once it seemed to him the necessary condition of existence. He welcomed this cruel rapture. Better to love her, oh, best, a thousand times, though he put the deserts between them, or called on the mountains to cover him from the lightning of her rebuking eyes !
At times he was elated over her in his secret thought. She would not know it. She could not help it. It was as if the fact of his love gave him a power of possession. No other man could love her as he did, understand her as he did. What other, then, could come so near ?
And then he would remember that another had come nearer than he — though he had all eternity to approach her in — could ever hope or dream to be.
And after this he would sit and say to himself, “ And John Strong trusted me. I have failed him. I am a disloyal friend.”
Nordhall was not, at this crisis in his history, a profoundly religious man ; but, as distinguished from what,for want of a better term, we vaguely call in our day “ unbelievers,” he believed. At least he entertained no more serious doubts than the most of us as to whether what we know as death is in reality birth into another life.
Perhaps no man can be as constantly as he had been, for years now, in the immediate atmosphere of a trustful woman’s faith without unconsciously inhaling it. Her unswerving assurance that her husband was alive had not been without its influence upon their friend.
The most important effect of the discovery that he had just made within himself was therefore a profound moral shock. It was as if he loved another man’s wife.
More than this, had he not deceived himself and her, if not that dead man ? Had he not burned false fires upon the altar of a pure and unsuspecting friendship ?
Sometimes this seemed to him the worst of it. He had not, only ruined a happiness more exquisite than he deserved, and disturbed a relation which might have illuminated his whole life and hers, but he had done so under what was a kind of disguise that in his most excited moments he called a dishonor, and in his calmer ones a misfortune. He alternately blamed and pitied himself. He passionately regarded that tide of feeling which had tossed him adrift and awreck, now as if he had been an intelligent and unguarded pilot, now as if he were a weed upon the foam of the wave.
In fact, before she had returned to Salem, and long before he had made up his mind what course to pursue in future, the stout fellow was worn sick (he had never been really strong since that blow) with his throes of heart and conscience. He suffered all that a sensitive man could suffer in such a position, and what none but a sensitive man can understand. If you think him a foolish fellow, given to superstitions, obtuse to his own main chance, and morbidly considerate of inconceivable claims, which a healthy good sense, like your own, would dissipate like ghosts at a séance, — este procul profani ! His history is not written for such as you.
Yet this delicate and honorable soul was not without its hearty human essence. Far more keenly than a more imaginative man, who had yet been spun of the same moral texture, Nordhall was awake to the practical sense of his position. He had none of the high fine ardors and illusions of the poetic temperament to sustain him on a ground against which his vigorous and cheerful nature rebelled with all its might. He only wished, with his whole heart, to do what was absolutely right; not right in the make-shift sense which so many of our hard-pressed decisions put into the stem word, but right as right could be, — right in effect, and in motive too; right not in quantity alone, but right in quality. He really wanted to do, not so much what was happiest for himself, as what was best for his two friends, the living and the dead.
Yet if it were possible to eliminate from one’s estimate of character such a moral fact as this, we should say that Charles Nordhall was no exceptional nature. He was abundantly and blessedly like other people.
Indeed, he had always thought himself, except, perhaps, in a little fastidiousness of taste about women, like other men, — a conviction which in itself cannot be overestimated as a power of guidance through moral emergencies.
Now, too, he loved a woman, like other men. And now, — God knew ! — it might be that like other men —
Oh, no; oh, no, no! His soul cried out within him when it came to that. He could have throttled the instinct, as if it had been a flesh-and-blood antagonist, met in the dark, which suggested to him that he might ever win that other happiness, more blessed, more bitter, more blind, than friendship ; that he might teach her trustful eyes to turn to him, in time, that other look. He had seen it once, — one day when her husband came home unexpectedly in Boston. No man could forget who had ever seen it. Hers was not the “counterfeit ” tenderness of what have been called the “pipe-clay” natures. . . . She, too, was a woman like other women ; not great, nor wise, nor uncommon, except in this capacity of love. She was made of “rose-red day.” She was dipped and saturated through and through in that divine and eternally fast color, long before she was moulded into this or that form, or fitness to this or that niche of life. She was a woman whose love would last a man. If any created tenderness could outlive one world and serve to supply another, Nordhall believed that tenderness was hers. Making the allowance for the lover’s emphasis, he was not, perhaps, far wrong.
And now she was coming home again, what should he do ? Already the November elegy was in the winds of evening. The November frosts broke in the crisp morning, beneath his restless foot. There would be freezing flowers in the garden when she came home, — in three days, in two, in one, to-morrow. What should he do ?
He spent that last night in an agitation which he determined should never shake him again. “ I’m man enough for that yet, I hope,” he said. He walked the floor almost all night. Between two and three, he went down into his library to have it out. It was warmer there, and he felt stronger, less deserted, than in the empty second story. The coals were still bright in the grate. He sat by them shivering and bowed, like an old man. He suddenly realized that he had not been very well of late.
The strong fellow looked at his hands and muscular arms with a pathetic scorn.
“ And she so frail,” he said aloud, He held the hand up to the light. It was growing thin.
There must be an end to that.
Should he go away, — to China, Paris, Patagonia? Coward!
Should he stay and tell her what had happened? Put spaces and silences and bars and guards and miseries between them ? Leave her to mourn and suffer, and break her gentle heart with pity ? Leave her to miss him, now that he had taught her to lean on him ? Compel her to battle alone, whom he had comraded so bravely and so long, — yes, and so honorably, thank God ! The more he thought of it, the more he came to take the icy comfort of this, — that he had been an honorable comrade. He had not meant to turn aside to this treachery. Because he had been cruel enough to love her, must she, therefore, he denied friend, friendliness, all ?
God forbid !
Oh, what then ? Should he try his chances, like a man ? After all, there are quick, and there are dead. It was not John Strong who was the live human creature, with life before him, with its famine on him.. .. Suppose he tried, only tried, like any other man, to win her?
He looked about the room. Delirious visions of her possessed it. His eye roved from one piece to another of the old crimson leather - covered furniture. He could see her standing there against all that color. She sank into the deepelbowed chair. She waited for him, a beautiful phantasm. It seemed to him that if he crossed the room he could touch it. It seemed to him that if he once did that it would all be settled, and he should go out to-morrow, like any other man, and woo his own.
His own? You who had her three years living and five dead, — John Strong! Come from the grave and answer ! Can a live man claim his own ?
He sank down again, shivering, by the little blaze ; he threw on wood ; he crouched, and somehow began to get warmer. He would think it all out. He knew now what he meant to do. He would have it quite clear, soon.
He stirred the blaze, and began to chafe his own hands as if he were restoring a person in a faint.
He perceived then that his first duty was to go up-stairs and get some sleep. He started at once with a firm step.
“ If there’s any manhood left in me, I put it to the proof! ” he said aloud. “ I will not tell her ! And she shall not lose her friend.”
Do not forsake me at my end.”
TRANSLATION OF DIES IRÆ,
Despite the Bethlehem doughnuts, Madam Strong did not regain her health. It might have been owing to the stone china, but Franconia failed.
While the Indian summer burned the heart out of October, while the haze wrapped the hills in violet, and the leaves fell slowly in scented heaps beneath feeble feet, and the noons kindled gentle fires for invalids creeping out, the State of New Hampshire justified Dr. Bishop’s kind opinions, and made it clearer than ever why the best people in Salem employed him.
From the day, from the hour, that advancing November whistled down the mountains (it was the 26th of the month, at three in the afternoon, with the change of the wind from the south), the old lady shivered to the heart, said she was homesick, and must go. They would telegraph the doctor, lest he should think her disobedient.
The next night the breakers cried in their ears, the fog beat into their lungs, the familiar easterly rain blinded their eyes, Kaiser leaped rapturously upon them, and they were at home.
The doctor came to the house in the course of the evening, with that leisurely interest in an old patient which answers all the purpose of anxiety, and costs far less expenditure of sympathy ; in a certain class of cases the physician’s main capital. He stayed some time, chatting gayly of indifferent matters. Madam Strong felt a little hurt that he did not count her pulse, but would have died sooner than mention the omission. She was not certain if the doctor realized how tired she was. He talked a good deal with Reliance.
“ You have thrived on Bethlehem,” he said, carelessly. Reliance felt her cheeks blaze. Yet it was evident that Dr. Bishop had forgotten his impertinence of that other evening. She knew that it was childish in her to remember it. He looked over her, through her, with his calm, scientific gaze, but not at her, as he did before. She was thankful for this. It did not occur to her that the first duty of science is to know when to observe. So she too forgot about that little brush between herself and the doctor, as was fortunate, even though her mother did not call him often, and especially so if she did. When he came down-stairs, his manner changed ; he said, —
“ Your mother has taken cold. You need not tell her that I am coming in the morning.”
“ Do you mean ” — began Reliance. She turned pale and faint.
“ I mean nothing to-night. Follow my directions. Get up where it is warm, and to bed yourself. I will be here at quarter of nine.”
Reliance had all the inexperience of illness which youth and health ought to involve, and her mind awakened slowly to the facts. But long before the doctor came she understood that she shared the house with danger. She had gone to bed herself a little while, between midnight and dawn. But at four Janet called her. She held the sufferer in her arms, upon the great, square Strong pillows. She felt dazed and stunned; not as yet conscious of acute anxiety or distress. Her most distinct thought was a profound gratitude that they were not at Mrs. Brandy’s, in that cold corridor, and had not to put medicine into tumblers half an inch thick, with stone-china preserve plates on top to hold the spoon. She had not imagination enough to conceive of the consequences, if her mother had been forced to call that village doctor.
Dr. Bishop testified his anxiety by his punctuality, and, after all, Reliance found that strange form of relief which we gain by setting one misery as foil to another, in exchanging her indistinct alarm for a distinct terror.
“ Your mother has pneumonia. If the typhoidal type sets in, she will not, at her age, recover. I do not, however, expect this.”
Reliance listened to the doctor very quietly. She was so calm that he regarded her twice, — once with the professional, once with the personal gaze. They were standing in the front hall, at the foot of the stairs. Reliance had her hand on the banister. The doctor was buttoning his heavy coat, bringing his eyebrows together in his intent way.
The bell rang while they stood talking, and Janet admitted Nordhall. He had just heard. He came at once, as was natural, to offer his services and sympathy. The two men regarded each other as the physician, bowing, passed out. Nordhall’s whole face was a warrior, and put up a shield.
Reliance stayed down a few minutes and talked with her friend. She was comforted to see him. She looked lovelier (as few woman do) for being tired, and her white wool wrapper heightened her pallor. He blamed himself for thinking of these things at such a time. She told him how kind Dr. Bishop was, and that she hoped everything from such skill and patience. She spoke courageously. She was determined not to yield to her fears. And Dr. Bishop was so much " strength ” (she had already caught this phrase from his patients) at such a time.
“ Dr. Bishop is a widower,” said Nordhall brusquely. He had not meant to say it. He had not meant to let the barbaric, elemental instinct flash out like this. How could he know he should be capable of a feeling so debasing, on an occasion so calculated to bring out the noblest of a man ?
Nothing of the kind had ever happened to him before. The worst surprises of our natures overtake us not at our weakest, but at our most thoughtless moments.
When he came in and saw them there, it was as if a mighty hand had taken hold of his heart. It had never occurred to him, in all these years, that any other man could approach her in any way. Now, this fellow who played with life and death, could relieve or create her sufferings, could kill or cure the poor old lady, — stood with her in a world apart. For that instant Nordhall could have hated him and it. He could not conceive that she could be any less of a vision and a despair to another man than she was to himself. So the words leaped.
“ And I,” she gently said, “am a widow.” She gave him a little calm smile. She might have turned him out of the house, he felt; he was almost ashamed to look her in the eye. She lifted her hands with that gesture which always set him beside himself.
“ We won’t talk of such things. The doctor never thinks of them. And I — am pretty tired — and glad, very glad, to see you. But I ought to go. You will come soon again? I thank you — we all thank you for this. It is a comfort to see you.”
This was all she had time to say; it was more than enough. Nordhall went away abased, intoxicated, and triumphant.
But Madam Strong grew very ill. And the intense existence which the presence of serious illness creates in the well seized upon every occupant of the calm old house. Even Kaiser had the air of living upon his nerves. Reliance herself was especially confused with a sense of dual life. All this watching and wearying, this loving and longing and praying for the mother of her husband, struck and bared nerves over which the tissues had toughened. When Nordhall called with his ready sympathy, she came out from a world of memories to meet him. She had to adjust her thoughts to him. Yet she went back to her task, her prayer, her watch, nay, to her memory, the stronger for that sympathy.
At the outset of her illness Mrs. Winthrop L. Strong made her will and had a private conversation with her daughter-in-law, in which she discussed many family matters of interest to them both. This was quietly and fearlessly done. Madam Strong did not expect to die, but she knew Dr. Bishop’s opinion of pneumonia at sixty-five. None of the Strongs had ever committed the impropriety of leaving the world without a proper disposition of their affairs. It was due to the family that Reliance should be in doubt about nothing. This done, she calmly settled her face, looking now more than ever like frail old porcelain, upon the dignified pillows that death itself would not dare to rumple, and put herself in her doctor’s hands.
“ And the Lord’s,” sobbed Reliance, one day, kissing her.
“ Oh, yes, and the Lord’s, of course,” said the old lady, with pious carelessness. The Lord was so evidently a secondary consideration in the case, that it seemed unnecessary to mention him to Dr. Bishop’s patients.
There was something fine, after all, poor old soul, in this stately yet abandoned dependence. Madam Strong had always held pronounced views touching the humility of ignorance, especially in the laity, whether ecclesiastical or scientific. Down at the bottom of her placid soul was one spark of fire. She thought it rather grand to know where and whom to trust. All her life she had obeyed reverence and reverenced obedience. This is a habit of mind which makes it easier to have pneumonia at sixty-five. One sends for the clergyman. One sum mons the family physician. With the rest one has nothing to do.
“ Dr. Bishop speaks hopefully, mother, dear,” Reliance would say. And then would come the earnest, unvarying whis per, —
“ The doctor knows.”
“ He has taken me through very severe diseases,” she said one day, most peacefully. “ I ’ve never died yet. We trust the bridge that carries us over. I do not expect to die, my dear, in Dr. Bishop’s hands.”
There grew to be something inexpressibly touching, in the very front of death, in this unquestioning hope ; and that little weakness about the doctor, which Reliance used to smile at, now went to her heart. Nay, now the weakness had become strength.
Such, Dr. Bishop said, were the patients a physician could save if he could any. Their chance was doubled. If she fretted or rebelled, she would have no chance. And such were the patients it — to lose — took the life out of a man —
The doctor’s fine eyes filled. He held the old lady’s hand in both his own, as if she had been his child. She had been his patient a good many years.
“ I’m sorry to suffer so much, doctor,” said Madam Strong apologetically. “ Don’t mind ! I’m sure that last medicine will give relief. I shall be — better ” —
She repeated this phrase at intervals, when too weak for connected sentences. “ I shall be — better — The doctor knows.” It was impossible, however, for her to talk much. Reliance, as she sat alone with her, especially when it was her turn to watch at night, bent over her sometimes with confused longings to say words for which she never found a safe or fitting time. If her mother died, in spite of Dr. Bishop (and the Lord), she would go to heaven. John was in heaven. It was to be expected, it would be natural (if heaven were a natural place at all), that he would meet his mother immediately. . . . Was there anything in the law or the gospel, in good sense or good Christianity, to prevent her from sending a message to John ?
Reliance thought she would do so, by and by.
But by and by her mother rallied, and seemed so much improved that they sent for the doctor in glad haste to witness the important change. This was on the fifteenth day of her illness.
Dr. Bishop came in, filling the room with his alert but quiet presence. His old patient was propped upon the pillows ; behind her, the faithful young arms whose every curve and touch were daughterly. Reliance, as the physician entered, glanced keenly up, and looked away.
“ You see, doctor,” — Madam Strong turned her triumphant smile upon him, — “ you see how much better! I told you I could not die in your hands.”
To emphasize her words she placed her shadowy hand on his, as if it had been a weight which he must carry ; and softly adding, “ I shall get well, now. You need not be anxious about me any longer, doctor ! I knew you knew ”— fell asleep, and woke no more where human trust in human weakness can be wounded or disturbed. She died believing in her doctor. Is it impossible that she may (in a state where capacity for faith is the first condition of existence) the more easily, therefore, believe in her Lord ?
It was the daughter who had to turn comforter that night. The physician was quite broken down. Reliance got him down-stairs, and had a fire lighted, and made him sit by it. She assured him they were satisfied with everything. She begged him to consider how faithful he had been, and kind. She reminded him how fond of him her mother was, would be, “ will always be,” she faltered. She leaned over him assuringly. His sensitiveness to that last scene deeply moved her.
“ If there’s anything in it,” cried the man of science, rebelliously pacing the long, splendid, sorrowful rooms, — “ in all this they profess about what comes after (God knows! it’s no more senseless than some other things we believe), — if there’s any truth in it, I say, how do you think she ’ll feel to wake up dead and find I had n’t saved her, after all that trust ? . . . I never had just such a case. True. It was her time to die. She had lived her life. She was ripe. But to be trusted like that, and for her to die telling you so! It’s fortunate a man does n’t have such scenes to go through every day. It would tear him to pieces. You must excuse me. I have been up for four successive nights. I am less strong than usual, and I did not expect so sudden a turn to this case. I pray you to pardon me for forgetting myself, and you, like this.”
At this moment Reliance felt, rather than saw, that Nordhall was beside them. He had entered unannounced. There was nothing for him to say. There was nothing for any of them to say. The physician lingered only to take Reliance miserably by the hand, and passed out. He scarcely noticed the other man, whose impressions of himself no more entered his imagination at such a moment than the fluctuations of a case of influenza, or the food that he had ordered for his last baby. His was an experience beside which the vagaries of Platonic friendship would have seemed in deed and truth of less importance than the nature of arrowroot or the strength of mustard plaster. He might have said that his life was too real for phantasms. Yet with that reservation which his nature and his profession left for interests not directly bearing upon scientific truth, he appreciated Mrs. Strong. When he had no anxious cases in hand he even admired her. But that dead old patient up-stairs touched pulses in his soul finer than any woman’s soft young finger-tip could count. He went alone to his temperament. He turned in that solemn hour to his unshared experience. Nordhall and Reliance, who were not scientific, turned to each other.
They turned to each other, like children, with the scathing honesty of grief. One look of hers was all he needed; that other man vanished from his world, too, as if he had been a breath upon a frosty window wiped out by a warm hand. He, he, could befriend her. She needed him. He comforted her. He leaned above her, and silently thanked God for so much as this. He was glad she could give up and cry now, poor girl, all she would, and that she did not seem to mind it that he was there.
When she lifted her face, wet, warm, and sweet, to try and speak to him, she said, “ If it is all true, what we believe, she has seen him ! ”
He really did not understand her at the moment, and he said so. She glanced up towards the room. Already it seemed days that death had been in the house.
It was not without a touch of fear that Reliance answered: —
“ Why, mother has seen John ! ” It comforted her to have some one to say it to.
We are always surprised at the last, even by expected death, as we are surprised by the lightning-flash for which we have been holding our breath.
The brief illness which had reunited John Strong’s mother to her son left his wife, more than might have been, stunned and alone. She was not conscious till it was all over how she had been bound to her past by the daily presence and insistence of ties which gave cohesion to memory and adhesion to duty. Now it seemed almost as if she had been widowed again. There was nothing left of her husband in the world, — nothing but this old home of his (hers now), through which thought traveled like the haunted, and feeling like a prisoner.
Reliance had a healthy way of bearing trouble, and it was with no morbid luxuriousness of grief that her instinct sought solitude. She was surprised when Nordhall came in, one day, and asked her whom she should have to spend the winter with her.
“ Why, Janet and Jacobs, and Kaiser, of course.”
“ No one else ? ”
“ I do not want anybody else. They take excellent care of me.”
“ I had thought,” suggested he, hesitatingly, “ that it would he pleasanter if some lady friend ” —
“ Well?” for he paused. “ No; it would not be pleasanter. I said so.”
“ Better, then,” he added firmly. “ I think, if I were you, I would send for somebody. I do not like to have you here alone.”
“ You speak urgently,” she said, after some thought. She knitted her brows.
“ I at least speak honestly.”
“ Thank you. I know you do. There is no one but Myrtle. Myrtle might come. I suppose her brother’s wife could spare her. I have a cousin Jane somewhere. But I don’t like my cousin Jane. I’ve been separated from what relatives I have, marrying so young; I have n’t many. There is no one very near. I was such a little girl when my father and mother died ! But I loved my auntie who took care of me. It was the year we were married that she died.” Her thoughts had strayed ; her eyes had the liquid look that precedes or prevents tears. “ There is no one I should quite like to call upon to come and live with me. One does not realize these things till one is truly quite alone. But why should I have some one this winter, more than all winters ? ”
“ It may be that you will want some one every winter,” he answered slowly.
“ Do you mean that you think it is n’t suitable for me to live here alone ? ” asked Reliance, with a flash of feeling, —“ a widow of my years, with her servants. You grow incredibly conventional, Mr. Nordhall ! ”
“ I did not say it was unsuitable.”
“ It might be, for all I should ever have thought of it! ” said she nervously.
Now really, at the bottom of Nordhall’s mind or heart lay a thought or feeling which he shrank from expressing. He could not have denied that he might consider it preferable for her to be less alone since he frequented the house as much as he did, and would. He could not say this to her. But he could think for her. He could not bear that she should not be sensitive to any little conventionality which was truly deserving of respect, nor, on the other hand, could he bear to have her forced to dwell upon such matters. Perhaps he had never before practically realized the indefiniteness of their position as regarded each other. As he went home that afternoon and thought it over, it seemed to him to be without adjustment to the rest of the world ; it missed likenesses and visible precedents, and puzzled him. He perceived with clear sadness why it had not puzzled her. His self - acknowledged feeling was a scorching illuminator to him. His love gave him new senses, with which he grasped unentered conditions. She had no such senses, because she had no such love. The simplicity of her feeling was beautiful, but terrible, to him.
If her simplicity after this conversation was less direct than he supposed, she gave no sign.
She wandered about the house alone that evening, oppressed to suffocation with the solitude of her life. A Platonic friend cannot stay too late, nor be on hand at the exact crisis of one’s need. He cannot even come too often.
She sought her mother’s room, where the last unfinished baby-sock lay on the light-stand, where the old lady had left it the day she tried in vain to knit, after her illness was begun. The workbasket in half-mourning stood upon the bureau. Those volumes of Scott they carried to Bethlehem were in the yet unpacked trunks. The Heart of MidLothian lay by itself upon the lower shelf of the bookcase, awaiting the annual December reading. It would be December, now, in a very little while. Reliance felt her heart yearn over every weakness or oddity, each household habit or whim, belonging to the gentle life whose close seemed to have left her, somehow, as unprotected as a child. She cried that evening like a child. She looked backwards with dull longing. She looked forwards with dull fear. What world was this she was about to enter? John was not of it, nor John’s kin. She seemed to have made a false beginning to a foreign life. She sat down before she went to bed, and wrote inviting Myrtle Snowe to spend the winter.
Janet came in about nine o’clock, and said : “ Mrs. Strong, dear ? ”
There was nobody but Janet to say Good-night to. Oh yes, and Kaiser.
Nordhall sat in the library with the red leather furniture. The housekeeper came in for orders, and went away. He had no dog, and his cigar could not say Good-night. He threw it aside with a faint disgust. He never quite liked to smoke when he was thinking of her.
He blamed himself for having disturbed her with his suggestion that afternoon, as he would have blamed himself if he had not. He was conscious of a new, an urgent, responsibility for her, omnipresent as Deity, and almost as solemn to the lover’s thought. It was because his was the lover’s thought. The nature of his feeling could no more help altering the nature of his relation to her than December or June could help altering the golden lilies in her garden.
And yet, so far as her consciousness or interests were concerned, this indefinite change was now an advantage. Nordhall knew that he had grown graver, calmer. He did not lose poise in her presence. The self-control which his self-knowledge now required of him extended itself to the minutest act. In the quaint old sacred phrase, he was “ exercised thereby.” He was like the athlete who is a better racer for being able to stand on his head.
“ I should like to know if she is lonely,” thought Nordhall, looking around the library. But he had been there two evenings this week. He must resolutely refrain from an over - mitigation of her solitude. Such was one of the penalties of their anomalous position. He was not her brother. He was not her lover. Society had no code for an absorbed friend.
The winter set in quietly. The flowers froze in the garden, the breakers cried from the shore, the colors chilled upon the sky. But within the house the hearts of great fires opened like yellow blossoms, and restless thoughts, as if they had been summer birds, took shelter by them. Myrtle came, and Reliance welcomed her; and the two ladies pursued, each in her own fashion, the broken-winged ideal of a home. Myrtle was ailing a little; this was partly the effect of too much society, and partly too much sister-in-law ; she was glad to be quiet, to have her own way, practice when she felt like it without disturbing babies, and read a good novel of an evening. She fitted with as little jar as was possible to the habits of Mrs. Strong’s family. Reliance herself returned with more or less spasmodic success to the philanthropic labors which her mother’s illness and death had interrupted. The continuity of her work was interfered with somewhat by business cares consequent upon the settlement of the estate, in which Nordhall’s assistance was freely offered and necessarily accepted. This threw them a good deal together, more than Nordhall had intended should be the case. Sometimes she would look up and say, “ Am I a burden to you ? ”
Then, taking but a moment to subdue the mad motion of his heart, he would tell her gently, No ; she knew better. And then she would look at him gratefully, and think how gentle he was this winter, how controlled and calm, how free from that old impulsive way of his, — liable to break out one never knew when, into gusts of feeling one never understood. Reliance was aware of a change of climate in him. He was more equable. He commanded strength. He had repose. She thought this a tribute to her affliction, and thanked him in her heart. It seemed as if no need of hers arose which this kind friend did not know how to meet. All her bruised youth, shorn of its joy and ruined of its natural atmosphere, leaned upon him.
There is no plot to this story. It is the tale of a not unusual life, and usual life is not plotted against by its Director. Planned we find it, in an always careful, often mysterious, and sometimes intricate sense of the word. Yet there are not apt to be elements of surprise in the histories of women like Reliance Strong more abrupt than those which lie compressed within their own natures, and in the natures which they chemically attract or repel.
There is no plot, I say, to this history, but it was perhaps a part of its plan that before that uneventful winter was over, Mr. Griggs should be found one night in the streets of Salem as drunk as a “ reformed man ” could well be.
This took place on an arctic February day, and it was not till the decline of one of the bitterest evenings of the season that Mrs. Strong was made acquainted with the fact. It was Janet’s “ evening out,” and by means of the united protection of Jacobs and that pretty blue veil which crossed behind, she had managed to get over the marshes and home to see her mother and the eleven little Griggses who fed and shared the sisterly sentiment in Janet’s heart. Poor little Janet! It is not perhaps so small a bereavement to lose an “evening out ” that we need scorn her for the consciousness of weak disappointment that lurked within her sense of grave affliction. For it is true that there were wondrous minstrels in Salem that night, of whom Jacobs, having seen the world, had complimentary opinions, which doubtless would insure any performers a house : and one calls to see one’s mother on the way purely as a piece of supererogatory virtue which it was incredible that Providence should punish. It seemed hard to Janet for a moment that her father could not have chosen any other night in the year to get drunk on. But she turned her back on Satan (with whom she bade Jacobs keep his appointment), and loyally returned to her mistress with one of her father’s “ reformed ” friends and the serious news.
Mr. Griggs had been drugged. He had been guilty of the grave imprudence of taking a cup of tea from another man’s hand. The day was cold ; the tea was hot; Mr. Griggs shivered, trusted, and was betrayed. He was now making wildly from groggery to groggery along the streets of Salem, as insane as any man in Bedlam, and as innocent as any out of it. This was the testimony of the honest fellow whom Janet brought with her (he had the affecting name of Babbs), and it was testimony which Mrs. Strong felt no inclination to doubt. Such deeds come too frequently within the knowledge of those who interest themselves in this especial phase of humanitarian effort, to excite surprise. One learns to observe them with something of the acceptance given to the stab of the bayonet or the groan of the dying by the spectator at a battle.
“ We’ve sent a committee to watch him,” said Mr. Babbs. “ We’ve been on his tracks ever since he left the house. It was one of that lot up at Cranby’s did it. He did it on a bet, and that’s the holy truth and right of the case, ma’am, and there’s none of us can’t manage him, not his wife nor none ; and if he ain’t got home he ’ll drink himself dead before to-morrow noon. There ’s that danger when they’ve sworn off so long, and break sudden. And one of the men said, says he, ‘ I wish the Lady knew it; she’d manage him,’ says he; ‘ I wish the Lady knew.’ ”
The Lady had never been called upon in an emergency like this before ; though she was acquainted with women who had, and to whom the inside of drinking-hells was as familiar and as sacred ground as the locked rooms where they went to say their prayers in their own homes, with their children’s voices in their ears. She hesitated an instant, then scorned herself for her hesitation ; went up and told Myrtle that some of her poor people were in trouble, ordered the carriage, took Mr. Babbs and Janet and Kaiser into it, and got quietly away as soon as she could. She a little expected Nordhall that evening, and she neither chose to argue the case against him, nor to be seen in company among those men. Her instinct shrank from that. She would go with such protectors as were natural to the extremity, do her duty as God aided her, and get home again as safe and as soon as he permitted.
She managed as wisely as she could. Janet had filled the carriage with half the wraps in the house, and they made such haste as the case admitted of. But it soon became necessary to leave the carriage.
“ I would n’t resk kerridge-folks about these parts,” said Mr. Babbs. “ There might be — followin’. I’d ask your driver to wait here.”
Thus it fell out that they walked the length of the dreadful street in the wind. Reliance was scarcely conscious of a chill, and the whole thing did not take fifteen minutes. She kept her hand on Kaiser’s head, but was not frightened. She was intensely excited by the sickening scenes through which she passed, by the responsibility of her errand, and by the deadly cold itself. Mr. Babbs walked a little in advance of them ; the two women followed him in perfect silence ; he glancing in at sights from which he shielded them, passing from saloon - door to saloon - door, with that trained scent for his man which the recovered drunkard possesses, and which may be either a specimen of profound detective’s work or of superb Christian enthusiasm. In this good fellow’s case it was a little of both.
“ There ! ” he said at last, below his breath. And the Lady, like a private at Balaklava, followed him in. Kaiser moved a pace or two, and preceded her.
Poor Griggs stood in the middle of the place, a maniac and melancholy sight. There were other men, but Reliance forgot the men. She stepped in like a spirit; she was as pale, and seemed to shine. It was all done in a minute. It seemed to her afterwards a very simple thing to do ; not at all heroic, nor dangerous, nor dreadful. She only put her ungloved hand upon his arm, and said in her distinct, “ pure womanly ” voice, —
“ Your daughter and I are here. We will take you home. Shall we come now ? I think I would, if I were you,” she added clearly (for the crazed creature hesitated), in the dead silence which had fallen upon the men and upon all the place.
He obeyed her. She thought he would. It was all over; they got him to the carriage, and so home to his wife and babies. There he fell into delirium tremens.
Only the Lady could control him at first ; so, as was natural, having sent word home to Myrtle, and a messenger for Dr. Bishop, who was out of town, she stayed.
At five in the morning, with the thermometer below zero, without food, without sleep, she got out into the deathly cold again, and so home and to bed.
She did not leave it for many weeks. Dr. Bishop did not diagnose the case with his usual decision ; though Myrtle, with that readiness of scientific conviction characteristic of the laity, pronounced it neuralgia of the heart. There seemed to be a mysterious surrender of life’s forces, — a surrender to sheer excitement, cold, and care.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.