Friends: A Duet


“If it could be — Oh, all in vain!
The restless trouble of my soul
Sets, like the great tide to the moon,
Toward your control.”

RELIANCE herself did not talk, nor ask what was the matter. She knew that she was rather sick, but the indifference of her condition was on her young frame. It seemed equally easy to live or to die. Myrtle hung over her without one rebuke. Nobody mentioned Mr. Griggs or the temperance work. Nobody scolded her. And nobody knew that she had found out from Janet that he was doing well, and that it was all worth while. She yielded herself to the novelty of disease, and was ill with all her might for a while.

There were always flowers in the room during this illness; unobtrusive flowers, not too heavily-scented, — mignonnette, small rosebuds, pansies, — quiet things that did not assert themselves to invalid perceptions ; only ivy leaves sometimes, and ferns often. No message came with these softly-appealing thoughts, and she did not ask whose they were.

As she grew better she found reasons for deferring a meeting with Nordhall. She could not have told why. An instinct or a presentiment possessed her. She feared him. She did not go down till days after she was able. She was not strong enough to understand how cruel she was.

But one day, finding herself out of excuses for playing the invalid any longer, she unexpectedly came down-stairs, and stayed all the afternoon. She had her first tea in the little library (which was warmest), where the ebony desk was, and the one window. Myrtle and Janet had brightened up the dull place. Cushions and color were in it, the open fire and the tea-tray on a crimson cloth, and Reliance lay on the old sofa, and looked about peacefully. After all, it was pleasant to he alive. She drank her tea, and felt of her own warm hand.

She was lying there all alone, for Myrtle had gone to her own supper, as Reliance preferred, — alone, and very quiet and forgetful of all the world, — when he (for he would be deferred no longer) came in. He had his hat in his hand, and flowers. He laid them both down for they shook. He came and stood by the sofa. Neither could speak. She had not looked at him. She was afraid, and she knew she was afraid.

“ But I saved my man! ” she cried suddenly, lifting her eyes, as men bare the neck to the axe.

“ You saved one man, — yes. You have almost killed another.”

She felt, as she lay looking up at him, that this was simply true. The whole man looked shrunken and old ; his cheek as thin, almost, as hers.

He stood leaning over her. It seemed to be enough for him to look at her. She covered her face with both her hands ; not passionately, but with a deprecating motion, as if she appealed to him to spare her.

He did spare her, moved as he was. He stirred, walked about the room, found a vase for his flowers, occupied himself, and gave her time. Then he came back and sat down close beside her sofa, and without speaking lifted one of her hands, and laid it gently down again, with that air of relinquishing what was precious which he could not control when he touched her, because he did not know that he had it.

“ It was a good while,” he said at last, “ not to be able to see you, — not to know ” —

“ Ah, but you know now ! ” she faltered.

“ Yes, I know now” repeated Nordhall, with an emphasis which escaped her.

“ And Dr. Bishop says ” —

Dr. Bishop ” — began Nordhall, but choked his own words back.

“ Have you been jealous of the poor doctor again ? ” she cried, breaking into an unexpected little laugh. This laugh changed the aspect of the scene, somewhat, for these two nervous, overwrought people. When she saw him smile, Reliance drew her breath, and began to be less afraid of him. With the perverseness of her sex, however, she struck out once more for her balance.

“We had some lovely talks, while I was getting better. You can’t think how I enjoyed them.”

“ What did you talk about ? ”

He would not groan and he could not smile.

“ Oh, protoplasm, and homœopathy, and — let me see ! — bilious affections ! All sorts of delightful things.”

“Well, I can’t help it,” said Nordhall, in a patient way. “ I can’t help anything,” he added, with the inanity or insanity of feeling too long a prisoner, now a beating rebel at his lips. “May I just sit and look at you ? ” he continued, after a gentle pause. “ That is all I ’ll ask.”

Now Reliance felt more afraid of his gentleness than she did of anything else. He might be jealous, he might be angry, he might be cross, or cold, or whatever he chose ; she would rather he did not speak like this. Once again her eyes said, Spare me !

But this time he did not spare.

That little library was mercilessly bright. All the color, all the flame and flash and fever of it, deepened slowly in the habitually grave place, like conscious and cruel desires in a mind unused to them. Each coal in the grate became a watchful eye. The walls looked on, aware. It was as if the whole room were a lover. Reliance could have leaped from it.

“ It’s of no use,” said Nordhall, suddenly overcome by the groan which he could not command. “ I know I might have the grace to be still a little longer, — and you so feeble yet. But I can’t do it. I can’t stand it; I can’t bear any more. It is of no use pretending any longer, Reliance Strong. It is not friendship, and I won’t lie about it another living day. It is not friendship, and I know it. It is not friendship, and you shall know it, too ! ”

“ But if I know it is ? If I say it is ? ”

All her beauty seemed to yearn over him, while it defied him. She pitied him, she was fond of him, she needed him (and oh, yes, she feared him !) ; but she warned, she would protect, she would save him.

“Don’t go on ! Don’t say any more to-night! Wait and think ” —

“ I have done enough of that,” said Nordhall, in a dull way. “ I have loved you — I have known that I did — ever since we were in Bethlehem. I did not mean to tell you. I kept it to myself all winter. But when you got so sick,” — the tempest of his feeling rose upon him now, — “ and I could n’t get to you ; it was not proper for me to go up, though you died there, — you at the head of the stairs and I at the foot — Good God ! there are no rights of any sort to this sham we’ve called friendship, — no rights, no place, no name, no power ! I trample on it, I disown the thing ! I will have none of its lies and traps ! I am not content to be your friend ! You are a woman and I am a man, and I love you! ”

The tempest of his passion was upon them ; Reliance bowed her head before it, — lower now beneath his silence than beneath his cry.

“ O my darling ! ” he said softly, “ I am sorry for you.”

The noble fellow had forgotten at that moment that he suffered; to witness her pain was his self-annihilation.

When she had come in some measure to herself, she said in a tone where pity and reproach went struggling, —

“ You have forgotten John ! ”

“Forgotten John? Your husband has been dead a long while, Mrs. Strong.

I’ve served for this hour with almost a seven years’ silence. Don’t be more cruel than you can help. Forgotten John ! ”

“ Oh, I did n’t mean forgotten ! ” she wailed incoherently. And then, for she was weak and sore bestead, and did not know what to do or what to say, but only what to think, and only to think that they were both miserable, she buried her face in the pillows, and cried as if her heart would break.

He made no effort to check or comfort her. He was too conscious of needing strength to be able to expend any. He leaned back in his chair and watched her in a wretched way. All he could think was that he had ruined their happiness, and that he could not have helped it, and should do it again, and was glad he had. A dull delight in having the truth out possessed him.

“ You ’ll hurt yourself, crying,” he said at last, stolidly, “ and it will be my fault. Everything will be my fault,” he added, for she had not answered him.

“ Oh, no ! Oh, no, no, no ! ” Reliance came up from her tears like a flower from a storm, and was a woman again, and took the man into her management. “ Oh, don’t blame yourself so! — I can’t bear that. Don’t talk about your fault.”

“ Whose fault shall I talk about ? Tell me! ”

“ Mine — a little.”

“ I do not understand you.”

“ Oh, because I might—I ought — Dear Mr. Nordhall, I think perhaps I ought to have known ! I did n’t ! ” she added, in a quick, ringing, honest voice. “ I know you did n’t. You could n’t.” “ I never had any other friend, — not a friend like you, I mean ; one I leaned on, and who helped me and was a comfort. I never had any other, except my husband,” she said simply. “ I did not know about such things. I thought a man and woman could be — could have— Oh, it is all over ! ” she cried, with sudden piteousness. “ I thought a friendship like ours was one of the noblest things I ever heard of. I thought you one of the noblest men ! ”

Nordhall’s whole soul quivered under this appeal, as the Alpine climber may quiver on the narrow ledge of ice to which one false step has hurled him. Height is above him, —cold, cruel, white, and lost. Depth is below him, — the glacier’s. He cannot climb. He will not fall. He clings to an icicle, which imperceptibly melts.

“ And now you will think me one of the — no, not one of the worst! ” he cried, with grand eyes. “ You can never think I have not tried to spare you, tried to be what you needed, to be true in God’s sight and yours—and your husband’s. And I ’m glad I told you what I have to-night, even though it makes you miserable (poor girl, poor girl !), and I would give my life to make you happy. At least it was honest to tell you. I never played a part about any matter before this winter. It has worn me out. The whole world might know every thought I have had about you, and yet I have felt guilty. I am glad it’s over, — though it has spoiled everything, as you say.”

They looked at one another compassionately. Each seemed to be appealing to the other for help neither knew how to give, or to withhold.

“ Now the mischief is done,” he said, “ I want it done thoroughly. We will have no more concealment, nor halfthoughts, or after-thoughts, and doubts about this matter. Understand me, Mrs. Strong. I have not lightly yielded to — a light emotion. I have made it the purpose of my life for all these years to be loyal to my dead friend, and, if possible, to make his poor wife happy,— have I not ? Answer me, dear ! Have I, or have I not ? ”

“ Oh, you have ! ”

“ In this purpose I have failed at last. I am not a dead man, unfortunately. I am alive, and I love you.”

“ Poor fellow ! ” she said, as if she had been speaking not to him, but about him.

“ I want you to understand,” he went on, with gathering patience, “ I want you to know, that I have fought against it till there’s no more fight left in me. I am beaten. I never meant to love you in that way. I love you in just that way.” “ Oh, hush ! hush ! ”

“ No,” he said, firmly and gently, “ I shall not hush. The time is past for that. You must hear me out.”

“I cannot,” she moaned ; “ I cannot hear you now.”

“ Why not now ? When will there be a better time ? ”

“ Oh, there need never be any time. I don’t want to hear it at all. It is bad enough to understand it. It is bad enough to know that we can never be happy again. It is all spoiled. There is no way ” —

“ Yes,” he interrupted hoarsely, — there is a way ” —

She raised her left hand with a gesture full of dignity, pathos, and entreaty. He respected it, like the gentleman he was.

“ I have tired you,” he said. “Forgive me, and let me go.”

If she had anything to say, she had not said it. If she had need of him, the room was empty. The fire was falling. The great glow on the walls had sunk. The listening room turned a cold eye upon her. She felt unprotected and exposed. She felt as if the whole world were searching her heart to its lowest deep.

Well, it might; the whole round, wise world might know — and welcome to it! — everything there was to know. She had not coquetted with this good man ; nor, what was quite as definite and important a moral fact, had she consciously coquetted with her own soul.

Myrtle came, and Janet, and Kaiser, who was suspicious and jealous to the last degree ; and they fanned the dying fire, which fluttered and throbbed into flame. To Reliance, lying there, with her weak body and wild brain, this revival of color and warmth was incredibly strengthening. In her excitement, the fitful, moody room seemed to blossom about her like one of those June lilies that her husband used to love.

“ Shall I play to you ? ” asked Myrtle, whose good nature always outweighed her perspicacity. Reliance hesitated, turning her feverish cheek towards this other woman, helplessly.

“ I will sing,” said Myrtle; " that will be better. You need diversion and rest.”

Myrtle had one alto song. It was written for her by a German musicmaster she once had, and carefully adapted to her voice. (It was one of the undesirable traits of her sister-in-law that she never recovered from the conviction that there had been tender passages between Myrtle and that musicmaster.) Myrtle lowered the gas, and in the half-lit room, to a low, irregular melody, began : —

“We sail a sea without a shore,
I on the one side, thou on the other.
(Oh, for a breath of the pine and clover!)
What if the tempest crouch and roar?
Heart unto heart like a wave goes over.
For we love with a love that is more and more.
Child and mother,
Brother and brother,
Wife and lover,
Love as they may,
Love as they will,
We are not as they.
For the sea has no shore,
No shore, no shore,
(Oh, for a breath of the pine and the clover!)
And the breaker is never still.
Hands may not clasp, when the soul is a rover;
Only heart unto heart goes over.”


“ Sir, fare you well;
Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.”


It is not easy to say which of these two people felt more keenly, now, the form of bondage to which their acquaintance had reduced them.

The woman, perceiving their mutual subjection as clearly as the man, without the man’s consciousness of either its danger or its delight, was more perplexed, and, in her way, no less pained.

It seemed to Reliance that the sun stood still in mid-heaven of her little world. Nothing could happen after this. The worst was. All laws and precedents of action had failed her. A man who would not remain her friend, and must not become her lover, had no place in a woman’s life. Yet he had taught and wrought upon that life till it clung to his own with a tenacity terribly like tenderness, and a dependence less dreadful only than that of love.

A selfish anger with him, for what he inflicted upon her, alternated sharply with her womanly pity for what she must inflict on him. At times, she thought she would write and bid him stay away from her forever. It seemed as if she could never look upon his face again.

For a few days she kept her room, and lost strength.

Nordhall had not called again.

On the fourth day, she began to think that he had perhaps accepted the finality of her treatment of himself, and simply forestalled any necessity upon her part for dispensing with his acquaintance. She remembered that he had undeniably the right to do this. She remembered that a man would sometimes stand upon his rights.

She got up that afternoon, dressed, and tried to go out; but drove only half a mile or so, said she was chilled through, came home, and crept to the library fire. After breathing warmth a little, she asked for her visitors’ book, and pored over her list of poor people for a time. Mr. Griggs called while she was thus occupied. She received him for a few minutes, but it made her very faint to talk. She had to let the poor man go. She comforted herself by sending Myrtle to the Mission with him, with a view to discovering the exact merits of the last disagreement in the temperance society, which threatened to rend that warlike organization to its foundation ; and then, when Myrtle was gone, she lay still and wondered when she would be quite strong, and able to be of use to anybody again. She tried not to mind it. She would not have thought it could be so hard to live an unshared life. She would not have thought it had meant so much to her, all these years, that there was any one person more than any other to whom all that she did was of supreme importance because she did it, and every care, or wish, or thought of hers a matter of strong interest because it was her own. She would not have thought it could have required so much courage to begin all over again, quite alone, a lonely life at best, and now spoiled with a feeling that had no name, nor place, nor right in the world ; spent by a dependence cruel in proportion as it was falsely calculated, weakened by leaning against a support weaker than herself.

“ Why do you cry ? ”

She drew one great breath, but did not uncover her face. She was lying crushed down among the pillows, almost as he had left her that last time. It was as if she and her mood had not advanced or altered all these days. But the man had undergone a change. His first accent vibrated with it.

“ Tell me, Reliance, what do you cry for ? There, — I will sit down and wait till you can speak.”

“You need not wait, sir; I am not crying ! ”

“No? Well, never mind. I hoped you were. I should cry in your place.”

“ Cry, then, if you want to 1 ” said she petulantly. “ I got through with that the other evening.”

She sat up against the crimson pillows, brilliant in her white shawls. There was splendid color on her cheeks. At first he could only sit and look at her. Then he remembered that he had not come there to admire her beauty, nor to dry her tears, relieve her solitude, endure her sweet caprices, submit to her velvet tyrannies. No more of that, now. Nordhall, too, had spent these four days in reflection more compelling than emotion, and emotion clearer than reflection. His next step was as distinct to him as his next breath. All his moral atmosphere (he would have said) had cleared. He knew now, or he thought he knew, or he wished to think he knew, what it was right for him to do. Oh, she was a woman ! Let her be as velvet as she would,—keep him back by the giant strength of gentleness. His love was iron. He was a man. Silken thread and metal fibre should have it out.

He drew a chair beside her, selecting the one he wanted with deliberate calm, and they resumed for a few moments almost the identical positions of that other evening. Reliance, however, sat up with more strength against the pillows, and after a short time slipped her feet from the lounge to the floor.

“ You had better lie still,” he said, with some authority. “ You are still weak. Very well, then. If you won’t, I will bring a cricket or something. I want you to be comfortable, for I am going to talk with you.”

“ I am quite comfortable, thank you,” she said, stiffly. He paid no attention to this little gust, but brought the cricket, and she put her feet upon it, and he sat down again.

“ I have been thinking,” he began, as if they were resuming a conversation but a moment since interrupted by a slight accident, — “I have been thinking what we had better do.”

“ I don’t see that there is anything to do,” replied Reliance, drearily.

“ On the contrary, something must be done. This cannot go on — as it is.”

Her heart gave one bound ; then seemed to sink, and sink, and sink, as if it were a life leaping from a precipice.

“ You see that, do you ? ”

“ Why, of course I see ” —

“ Excuse me ; you do not see it. A woman is so blind at such a time, — you are, I mean. I don’t know about other women. Confess you are a little glad I don’t! Yes, you are, poor girl! After all, you do care for me a little.”

“ I care more than a little,” said Reliance, with quickening breath ; “ you know I care — have always cared—a great deal. . . . You are cruel to me ! ” she blazed, unexpectedly.

Perhaps she would not have said it if she had seen the expression that overswept his responsive face. Perhaps she would not have said it if she had not expected to be contradicted. He did not contradict her. He passed the outbreak by, as if it were the passion of a child; only gave a slight motion of the hand, as if he put something from him. The whole man now strode steadily to his purpose.

“What I want to say is this: We have tried Platonic friendship a long while, and must admit that we have made a failure of it. It means different things to both of us, but it means something to each. You will grant as much as this ? ”

She nodded, with melancholy eyes.

“ It does n’t work,” went on the man simply, “ and I want the right to see if something else cannot be made to. That is what I have come to say.”

“ I do not understand you, Mr. Nordhall.”

“ I think you do. Excuse me. But I will be plainer. We are neither of us very happy. Let us be patient with each other. Listen to me a minute, while I explain it all a little more clearly. There is this difference between us: you are sad because you want friendship; I am mad because I want you.”

She did not cry out, nor protest, as he perhaps had expected. He leaned back in his chair, brought his lips together grimly, and watched her. It was a good while before she spoke, and then it was without indignation or excitement, in an inexpressibly sad and patient tone.

“ It seems as if it must be, somehow, my fault that I can have come to this; that I can sit here and listen while you say such things. It is so dreadful!

“ I can’t see why,” said Nordhall.

“ No, you can’t; you are a man. Oh, I wish I had died before it came to this ! ” she added, desolately.

“ You can’t die,” he said, with imperious brusqueness. “ You ’ve got to live. It is natural to live.”

“ It is not natural to be so miserable! ”

“ Then give me the right to try and make you happy.”

“ A woman can give that right but once.” She had risen now, and spoke in a rich, resonant voice.

He had to look up to her as he pleaded with her: —

“ Some women do, — think how many! Why, Reliance, it is no sin to be happy, a second time. Listen to me ! I’m not as selfish as I seem. I know it would be better for you. I know I could make you happy ! ”

Her lip quivered like a rose - leaf blown by the wind ; but her splendid eyes shone down without one shade They blinded him, they were so clear.

“ I tried to be loyal to John ! ” he cried. He felt compelled to defend himself, as if before an invisible and awful tribunal.

“ We will not talk about my husband, if you please.” She lifted her head and turned from him, swaying slightly in the bright, warm air, as if she leaned against unseen support. “ That is all over now. You did the best you could;

I do not blame you. But I can never talk about him any more, with you”

He would have been of a far less delicate texture than he was, had he not experienced a slight shock of regret at this, and something akin to shame. His ardent face fell.

“I was comforted by your help and strength,” proceeded Reliance, in that low, firm voice of hers, which he was familiar with when she had the mastery of their mutual mood. “ I was grateful for your friendship all this while. Why should I not say it ? I wanted you, —

I want you for my friend.”

“ And I want you for my wife,” he said doggedly. “ Why should I not say that? ”

With this, he sprang to his feet, and stood facing her poised height in a manly rage. She grew pale a little, but did not flinch. Only a breath of the sheltered, fire-lit air separated them. Twilight was stealing on. Out in the garden, the shadows on the snow had turned to a fixed and resolute blue. Nordhall stretched out his hands. He stood there like a cry of outraged and omnipotent nature, and she like an inexorable moral law. She shook her head.

“ And yet,” he cried, “ you love me! ”

“ I am fond of you. That is not love.”

“ I will be content with your fondness ! ”

You content with my— Now you are wandering. Now you are not sane. If I could wrong myself, Charles Nordhall, I would not so wrong you, in the sight of God ! ”

“ God knows I should be a blessed man to be so wronged.”

“ It would be a wicked thing ! ”

“ I am ready to bear the blame of such a wickedness.”

“ But you can’t be right for me. Oh, don’t let us talk so any longer ! Don’t torment me ! Don’t make it any harder . . . than it must be ” . . .

She hid her face in both her hands upon the high top of the carved chair. Nordhall stood so near that he fancied he could hear the agitated beating of her heart. The imperfect light had lessened. Only a breath of darkness now stood sentinel between them. His arms leaned towards her yielding attitude, as the wave leans to the shore, the fire to the sun, the river to the sea. That which was natural seemed that which was right. God made it. What was a frail creature like this, that she should set a nature against a nature, create a right above a right ?

“Oh, come ! ” he pleaded; “ it is natural to be happy.”

In the dividing dark, she raised her head.

“ It is natural to be true ! ” she cried.

“ Charles Nordhall, it is natural for a woman to be true. I beg you to leave me to myself. I ask you to respect what you cannot understand. I have only this one thing to guide me, . . . that I loved my husband. I do not love you like that. I am lonely ; but loneliness is not love. I want to do the right and noble thing; it is not right to marry when one does not altogether love. That is not a good and beautiful marriage. I don’t know about you men, but we are not like that. We should be sorry; there would be always something beyond, something lost. It seems to me as if I should do a wrong to all the world. I want to do ... I am trying to be . . . the best and truest, right thing. It must be possible to find the right, — not to be mistaken. You should not hinder me. That is not noble in you.”

His outstretched, empty arms fell back. Across that inch or two of dividing dark he could no more have touched her now than across the great gulf fixed. It seemed to him that if he did, he should touch a dead man’s hand. She had awful protection.

He had to do something, for they heard Myrtle ringing at the great front door. He had to speak, and so he said, hoarsely and hurriedly, without extending his hand, —

“ I ’ll do the best I can. I won’t desert you because of this, if I can manage it. But don’t exact too much of me.”

“ I have no right to exact anything,” she interrupted, humbly.

“ Don’t expect too much of me, then. I ’ll see what I can do. But you ’re on a level I can’t reach.”

“ I hope ” — began the woman, with a little womanly wistfulness. She hoped he would reverence that level, and her for being there. She would have felt stronger to know that he did. But that was

not a thing to be said. She checked herself.

He did not finish her sentence for her, nor answer it. It was true that he solemnly revered her for the high, fine quality of her denial. It was true that he knew her to be a nobler woman than if she had “ mistaken loneliness for love.” It was true that he the more passionately worshiped her for the loyalty of soul which separated her from himself. But it was not in man nature to tell her so. If his idol had stepped from its pedestal, it would have crept into his arms.

He felt that her reply was final, and that it was for her, at least, the best solution of their difficulties. Just then, he could not have urged one small, selfish pang against a decision with which the strongest in himself took sides, despite the treason of his weakest. He bowed his head before it.

He wished he had been braver. He wished he had never told her. He was like one to whom the secret of select heroism has whispered itself, and then recoiled, leaving him with a sense of having betrayed a tender and terrible confidence.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.