Friends: A Duet
Doña Sol. Je vous suivrai!
So torn was Nordhall by the irresolutions and contradictions of his feeling that after he had left Mrs. Strong, and had got alone into the red library that day, he wrote her a note, which he mailed without giving himself time for that repentance sure to overtake the prudent man who commits an impulse to paper. In this letter he said : —
MY DEAR FRIEND, — I cannot say I do not respect your decision, for I do ; nor that I do not revere you for it, for I do. But alas ! to increase reverence for what we love is not to ease or lessen love. I love you : this is my extenuation. If you would, you could love me : this is my argument.
The more I think of it, away from you and from the influence of your firm purpose, the more I am led to ask whether there is not another side to the lofty code by which you desire to regulate your life. Life is long and lonely, and you are young and alone. I do not say this to influence your judgment through your feeling, but rather your feeling through your judgment. Indeed, honestly, I cannot own that I say it with any profound hope of influencing you at all. Life is hard and exacting, and it has already exacted a good deal of you. If a happiness, real, however imperfect, and trustworthy, however insufficient, is possible to you, is it not good sense to accept it ?
I’m a plain fellow, without romantic ideas of conduct, and sometimes the plain sense of a thing comes uppermost to me, not with the pressure of a mood, but with the force of nature.
And yet I want to do right. I don’t want to profane a sacrament (I’m not too plain to believe in sacraments), for the sake of mere human happiness. Above all things, I want you to do right. I know that I am writing a contradictory, useless sort of note. But what I am trying to get at is whether the good sense of a matter is no guide to the right of a matter.
Will you tell me how it strikes you?
I am, in denial or delight, your faithful friend, CHARLES NORDHALL.
To that letter he received in a few days this brief reply : —
DEAR FRIEND, — It seems to me that the goodness of a thing is the good sense of it.
If I thought I cared for you in the way to make what you ask right, I suppose it would be the most sensible thing to do. Even then, I am not sure that the happiness you think of would come, or could come, to you and me. Does it matter so much whether one is happy ? If only one is true, I think that is best.
And yet I would rather you did not think me very happy, in causing you so deep a pain. Ever sincerely your friend, RELIANCE STRONG.
P. S. I do not think we had better write or talk of these matters any more.
He took her at her word, with this, and urged her no more.
They sought, with such imperfect success as was possible, to return to their former relations. Nordhall was manly and brave about that. He had distinctly made up his mind that he would not deprive her of a friend because he could not win her for a wife. As long as he could bear it, she should not miss anything he could be or give to her. Women and men lived gladder, fuller, nobler lives for each other’s mutual support. It ought to be possible to render that support, even staggering under a burden such as his shoulders were doomed to bear. Perhaps none but he who loved and could not win was capable of that devotion sifted of self, that high help and calm comfort, which only a wise and controlled masculine friendship can wrap about a woman’s life.
As for himself, he chose the crumbs fallen from that dear, denying life, sweeter to him and richer than the feast of a goddess with her god.
This was his way of being true.
The supreme opportunity comes to each of us once. It may be in the surrender of a joy, in the renunciation of a love, in the acceptance of a daily burden almost too petty to rank among the heroisms, in the resistance of an obscure temptation striking to the roots of character, in the endurance of infliction whose subtlest blow aims at the very brain and marrow of enduring will, perhaps in the laying down of life itself, — but it comes once only.
The angel with averted face broods over us for that moment, and passes on. It remains with ourselves to dream of that unseen countenance, whether as the spectre or the seraph of our lives.
The patient pursuance of a high ideal is the crucial test of nature ; desperately to miss it may be the final discipline of character.
Do you tell me this is a hard saying? He that hath ears to hear what passes on “ the other side of silence,” let him hear.
Reliance Strong’s was no analytic mind, and she did not reflect upon ideals ; she only served them. She was a gentle woman, whose instinct knew love from loneliness, and whose conscience wished to separate right and wrong.
After the conclusive scene between herself and Nordhall, she took up her life again, with perplexity in her brave brown eyes. She did not grow strong, or, if so, very slowly; and her spirits suffered with her suffering nerve. She was not able to carry on her benevolent work, and this gave her idle and depressed hours.
She was sorry and puzzled that Nordhall still retained such a grasp upon her daily thoughts. She did not wish to forget him, but she would have preferred to make an effort to remember him. She had to learn how inexorable is the twining of any two human lives ; and that the dismembership of ties far lighter than the sincere and harmonious ones which had subsisted so long between herself and her friend is a process which can no more be hastened than the healing of a torn tendril, and no more be reasoned with than the quiver of the star-fish wrenched from the rock.
In this case, naturally, matters were not helped by the rock. Rock-like, Nordhall stayed by her. There was granite in his love. There was crystal in his unselfishness. She despised herself for leaning against a support she had arbitrarily refused. She did not know which to pity more, herself or him. His fidelity and devotion made a species of slavery in her life, against which it seemed dishonorable to rebel. The inevitable awkwardness and consciousness of their present position towards each other overwhelmed her, now with a shallow sense of nervous irritation, now with a deep tide, half emotion, half reflection, like a dull despair.
This friendship, which had ruled her for so many years, could not abdicate without anarchy. It was not as if it had been a light experience, flexibly yielded to ; a gust of feeling, born of rare circumstances, or of morbid solitude, ill health, or any of the conditions which create easy emotions in unobservant natures without fixed ideals. Reliance had been a cheerful, active woman, and, up to this time, a well one. Soul and body drew healthy breath. She knew not where to look for a substitute for a feeling which had been so happy, so natural, so calm, so free from remorse or reproach, but which, after this, could never become anything in which a woman of self-possession and sense could take womanly refuge. He might protest as he would, he might serve her unselfishly and heroically as he could. She knew that their golden age was over. She knew that they could never take comfort in each other any more. She battled with this knowledge. She withdrew into those experiences of which no woman’s lip can speak. She sat like Penelope in her bower, and raveled by night the web she wove by day.
There was something terrible to her in the urgency of Nordhall’s image. All other problems seemed to fold their hands and wait till this one thing was settled. All other people seemed, for the time, to slip out of her life. Only she and he were in the world. Like the hero and heroine of the drama, like the victor and the rival of a race, they saw the supernumeraries melt from the unreal stage, the racers grow specks in the distant dust.
Winter relented, and the reluctant New England spring looked in over the bare syringa bushes and red-brown horse-chestnut buds.
Reliance grew better, and worse again. She sent for Dr. Bishop, who was uncommonly busy, and returned word that he would come the first day he could. When he called, at last, he was absorbed in two deadly cases of diphtheria and a remarkable and interesting piece of surgery,— something about a boy who was cut open and lived without brains. Reliance listened impatiently to this cheerful story. It did not seem to her at all surprising that people could live without brains. Apparently life could go on without other vital conditions. She passionately objected to these men to whom a cut skull was more real than a cut soul. Only the stolid assurance that he could not possibly understand her, prevented her from telling Dr. Bishop what she thought of him ; he would call her hysterical for her pains, being none the wiser, and herself the weaker, for the spasm of revolt.
She listened, therefore, in absolute silence, when he told her that he could find nothing the matter with her, advised a little Peruvian bark and a trip to Washington, — and went back to his dreadful boy.
It did not help matters much that the physician sent her a scientifically short note that evening, in which he said : —
DEAR MRS. Strong,—I was sorry to seem unsympathetic to-day, but I was driven to death. Had I been able to command “ all the time there is,” like the Indian, what could I have done for you ? You have no physical ailment. I am not a physician of the soul. I see nothing for you but to work out your own cure. Truly yours,
E. F. BISHOP.
This humiliated without helping her. She tore the note, denounced science, and went and sat, uncomprehended, with Myrtle. She would have sat with Janet, just then, for sheer human companionship. Myrtle, too, was going to desert her. She had to return to her brother’s by and by, where a sick (if undesirable) sister-in-law and a very new baby created duties “nearer,” as the phrase goes, than these in the young widow’s lonely and now less cheerful home.
It occurred bitterly to Reliance that she had no claim on anybody anywhere in a world full of shared sorrows and united joys.
She resolutely gathered her heart together, and crept out among her poor people. But for these most intense forms of human sympathy and exertion, a frame of iron should inclose a soul of sunshine.
Mr. Griggs came to her house, one day, and respectfully, but urgently, said,
“It ain’t my business to look after you, but I’m free to say somebody had ought to. I don’t speak for nobody but myself ; but it seems to me you ’re sick. You ’re tired all the time, and you’ve got a cough, and you can’t do for us folks at the mission like you used. I don’t wish to be bold nor for’ard, but I know you took care and trouble on my account, — I can’t help knowin’. Now I don’t want you to take no more till you ’re different to what you are now. Mrs. Strong, if you ’ll go away somewhere, — among folks that ain’t poor and don’t drink, — and try to get better, I ’ll tell you what I ’ll do. I ’ll reform myself without you! I ’ll reform my-
self and every live man I can get hold on, from Cranby’s to the sea ! I will, so help me God ! ” cried the “ redeemed man,” drawing himself up. “ I’ve got it in me to do a sight of that sort of thing I’ve never put my shoulder to, yet. Mebbe I’ve depended too much on you — on a lady — on a lady’s help,” said Mr. Griggs, gently ; “ and she’s nothing but a woman, after all! And I’m a strong, well man ! I’d ought to take care of myself, and help her along, too. Mrs. Strong, if you ’ll be so good as to trust me, I 'll look after the meetins and the fellows while you ’re gone. And we ’ll pray for you every meetin’,” added Mr. Griggs, conclusively. The tears were in his eyes. His rough hand shook. Reliance was greatly touched. She was in that unreasonable but highly sensitive mood when we are most ready to give a pledge to the person that has the least right to ask it. She told Mr. Griggs that if he would feel any better about it she would go away ; she would travel somewhere, and get well enough to come back to anybody that needed her.
“ And I’m glad you said you would pray for me; I shall like to think of that. I need help, too, Mr. Griggs,” she said, in her wistful voice, “ as much as the poor men. We all need one another in this hard world.”
Hers was at this time that inharmonious relation of soul and body when to take a resolution is to take the first step in recovery. She thrived upon her promise to Mr. Griggs, impulsively given, but honorably kept, and laid her plans with a great access of courage for what we used to call a change of scene, but now designate as a difference of environment.
As soon as Myrtle went she would close the house, give Janet a vacation, take Amy Rollinstall, and travel for an indefinite time. She would begin by going South, — to Washington, Charleston, Atlanta, possibly. If she found herself happy, they would run over to Switzerland and spend the summer. In the autumn she would come home, start a hospital for poor girls, and save every drunkard in Salem !
She drew up this practical and hopeful programme without consulting Nordhall. When her plans were fully laid, she sent for him, one yielding April day, — when light was soft, and thought obedient, and feeling gentle, — to tell him what she was going to do, and to bespeak his Godspeed. She was not without some fear how her purpose would strike him.
It was one of the days we sometimes have as May approaches, with a heartthrob of midsummer in the veins of spring. It would have been oppressively warm, but for the afternoon seabreeze. There had been thunder in the night and a heavy morning shower. The tender grass was vivid and wet. The bulbs in the garden were sprouting like jets of green fire from the moist, brown garden loam. Jacobs had been at work half the afternoon over Madam Strong’s hollyhocks, which seemed to him to be growing old. The tall brown one was feeble. Jacobs thought it would die. He nursed it tenderly. He fancied the flowers missed their old mistress. The rose and the gold and the silver-white would blossom in the summer; but they, too, he thought, showed signs of age. They were experienced hollyhocks. Jacobs treated them with respect, and Kaiser smelt anxiously of every one. Janet came out with blue ribbons on, and was a long time dusting the front steps. She and Jacobs chatted across the budding garden in merry, but deferent voices.
Mrs. Strong and Miss Snow watched them from the garden paths.
“ They make the idyl,” said Myrtle, a little wistfully. The weather had won upon the caprices of the two ladies, and they had ventured into summer dresses. Myrtle looked like a bluebell in her thin stuffs. Reliance wore white that day, and Myrtle had teased her into laying aside the hot black ribbons. The yellowish laces melted against her throat.
“ There’s going to be another shower ! ” cried Myrtle, suddenly. “ Come down to the beach and see it gather. We will get back in time.”
Reliance, after a moment’s hesitation, assented, and bade Janet bring them wraps. She expected Nordhall, now, every moment, but did not like to refuse Myrtle for such a reason. They got themselves into their things, and ran down over the marshes with Kaiser, as if they had all three been girls — or dogs — together. The shower was coming. Reliance looked back over her shoulder at the garden, where Janet and Jacobs stirred in the sun. The burning green started out against the black loam, but on the trees that overhung the house a cloud of green mist settled. Jacobs was singing, now, that favorite song of his, — the “ petunia song.”
“ Hear him ! ” cried Myrtle.
Myrtle echoed the refrain in her cultivated soprano. The wind caught it, and carried it back.
There was no sun before them. Seaward, the sky gloomed. The beach was a dull white; the heart of the waves malachite, opaque, and forbidding. The gulls’ wings turned from white to pearl, to ash, to iron, to black, to pearl again ; one, like a silver boat, drifted against a lamp-black cloud. The waves suddenly grew black, with edges of white fire.
“ We cannot dare any more,” said Reliance breathlessly. “ We must turn here.”
They stood for a minute, wind-beaten and excited, poised on the crest of the cliff, still a quarter of a mile from the water’s edge.
“ I wonder what was the use of coming,” commented Myrtle, philosophically, as they set their faces homewards.
“ We’ve seen it,” said Reliance.
“ And lost it,” said Myrtle.
Reliance shook her head. The sea was there. It was not necessary to sweep and beat against the gale to point it out. Whether one fought, or whether one fled, wave of black and crest of fire flashed and thundered on the white, deserted beach.
The two women retreated before the shower, and came running lightly, fair and flushed, merrily back into the now darkening garden. Janet had gone in to shut windows. Jacobs was covering some tender bulbs. The half-clothed trees tossed wildly. All the scene had grown dull and strange. Kaiser went into the house first, and came bounding out to tell Mrs. Strong that she had company. She said, —
“ Yes, yes, Kaiser. I know.”
Nordhall appeared when he heard their voices, and the four sat on the piazza in the unseasonable and unreasonable sultriness, and watched the advance of the storm.
When the lightning struck, Myrtle slipped away. She had theories about putting your bedstead into four tumblers when showers came in April. But it was not necessary to explain all one’s scientific views.
Reliance did not want to move. She was still excited. She watched for the flash, and the thunder gave her electric strength.
A dart of terrible and tender color, crimson fire, pierced the zenith, and the unreal light played long and luridly over her.
“ Come in ! ” said Nordhall, imperiously. “I can’t have you expose yourself like this.” She obeyed him reluctantly, and they went into the darkened parlor. She would not sit down, but moved from window to window, looking fantastic in her strange costume, — her thick woolen cape and cambric dress.
“ I believe you ’ve got the storm in you ! ” muttered Nordhall.
“ Then it will pass by,” she said in a low voice. They did not speak to each other again till the shower was over, but sat silent and separate in the unnatural light and dark. Nordhall watched the strange colors play over her, — blue and scarlet and ghostly white. Her cape had slipped off, and every caprice of the lightning was taken up by her white dress. Kaiser crept close to her, a little frightened by the thunder, which was terrific. She stroked his head with that absent-minded tenderness which some women expend on anything that seeks their protection. The dog kissed her wrist profusely.
“ I can’t stand it! ” cried Nordhall suddenly, between the lessening peals of thunder. “ I wish you would n’t let that dog touch you so ! ”
He had the masculine aversion to seeing women spoil their pets ; in this case it seemed a cruel waste of feeling. He was irrationally annoyed and rasped. He was jealous of Kaiser.
“I — did not notice,” said Reliance gently. “ Was Kaiser making himself disagreeable ? I was thinking of the thunder. There — Kaiser — good fellow — kisses enough, Kaiser ! Go and lie down. Go ! ”
She took the dog’s head between her slender hands. Her dismissal to the animal was an endearment a man might have died for.
“ Such tenderness ! ” breathed Nordhall half audibly. He thought how her capacity for tenderness gave splendor and power to this gentle woman. If to love, as has been said, is a talent, Reliance Strong had genius.
The storm was over; dying with low cries and sobs, like a superabundant life that had fought hard for itself. The gloom had lifted from the room and from the sky. The scattering drops flashed with an elfin evanescence upon the glass, the grass, the trees. In the distance, where the black heart of the wave had grown green again, and the white fires of the still excited foam burned on the purified, bright beach, the breakers could be heard.
“It is over!” she said, with a sigh. She came and sat down beside him. All her restlessness and some of her strength had passed on with the lightning. She began to talk with him at once, in a business-like manner, explaining to him why she had sent for him, and what her plans were, and why she wished to carry them into effect; that she was not gaining strength fast enough, that it was silly to be ill, that this seemed to be the only thing she could reasonably do, and that she thought he would like to know (he had always been so kind) about her life, and what she meant to do with it.
He listened to her in silence, leaning his head against the high-backed chair. He looked very tired. She saw this ; it made her voice falter once or twice. In the natural, safe sunlight he seemed a different man to her from what he had in the darkness and the storm. She would have been glad to creep up to him and touch his arm, and say, —
“ Oh, I am sorry ! ”
But she had grown too sadly wise. She sat upon the sofa, and folded her hands, and told her tale, and waited distantly to hear what he would say. When she had finished, he nodded once or twice, and said only, —
“ Very well.”
“ You approve of my plans ? You think I am acting wisely ? ” she asked timidly.
“ Oh, very ; with extreme wisdom. It is the thing for you to do. I did not look for it, it is true. I did not think you would have to go.”
“ It is not that I have to go ! ” Startled, she flashed at him.
“ No, oh no, I understand. It amounts to the same thing. We won’t dispute about it. I thought I might have to surrender. But I never meant to. And I never have, I thank God for it! I have stayed by you, Mrs. Strong, — and I would have. I have been able to remain and be your faithful friend.”
He spoke these simple words with a sad and proud sincerity which went to her heart. Her eyes filled. They looked miserably at one another.
“ Since it is so,” said Nordhall, “ and you are the one to go — I think — it may be better for me — to feel a little freer than I have. It would cost me some pain to hang around here these last few weeks before you start, and I don’t see that I could help you any. If I could, it would be another thing.”
“ You always help me,” she quivered, “ but I don’t want you to stay. I don’t want you to make sacrifices . . . for me. . . . I don’t deserve them.”
“You deserve more than I can give,” he replied, gravely. “ But I have — taxed my courage somewhat. I think I had better get away at once. You would n’t want me to stay and make blunders, and lose my wits, and bother you. I think, myself, we had better part, for a time at least, — and immediately. The strain ” —
“ Has it been so great a strain ? ” she asked pitifully. “You are so silent and unselfish—I am so selfish. . . . I do not think.”
“ It has been pretty hard at times,” said Nordhall, patiently.
“ Really, then,” said Reliance, after some thought, “ you would like to go where you would not have me to think about, — away from me ? This is what you mean ? ”
“ For my own sake, — yes.”
“ I never asked you to stay by me for my sake! ”
“ No. It was my privilege.”
“ And so at last you weary of your privileges ? I don’t blame you.”
“ I do not weary of them. You cannot understand — I won’t go — now — if you wish me not to.”
“ I wish you to please yourself. I think you had better go,” said Reliance, with a touch of dignity.
“ It is child’s play for us to be talking like this,” answered Nordhall, after an awkward silence.
He turned and looked at her with his fine, faithful eyes. He had not seen her for five years without the tragic colors of her widowhood about her. She seemed to shrink a little from her own white dress, as if she knew how lovely she could be in it. Her hands were folded in her lap, the right above the left. Her eyelashes trembled upon her cheek.
The breaking sunlight found her, and brought out suddenly the hidden colors of her hair. It was like an unexpected joy calling forth the concealed capacities of youth. Nordhall could not help smiling when he saw it.
She stirred uneasily, moved back, and put out her hand.
“ You can’t do it! ” he said.
“ Do what ? ”
“ You can’t push the sun away.”
“ I only do not mean to be blinded ! ” said Reliance, with some feeling.
“ It’s of no use,” returned Nordhall, sighing. “ We cannot get on like this. I think I ’ll go home now. If I can serve you in any way about your plans, you know you have only to command me. You know you have only to speak, — now, or at any time. If I cannot — why, good-by ! ”
He rose, with a sharp motion, and she looked up; and she saw that he was going, and that he meant it, and that it was all over.
“ Oh, wait a minute ! ” she cried, like a child to a surgeon. He obeyed her instantly, and sat down on the sofa beside her.
“It has all been too bad, too bad ! ” she mourned. “ It has been all a mistake. I wonder if it is always so, — if everybody that tries to be friends behaves like this ! If it’s got to fail, — if a man and woman cannot be all we tried to be; if people who are like other people could, — I mean people like you and me (I don’t mean those great persons we talked about at Bethlehem), — I should feel happier, better, if I knew they could.”
“ I shouldn’t,” said Nordhall, in reply to this rather incoherent appeal; “it would n’t help us any.”
“ It was such a noble thought,” urged Reliance, lifting her head. “ I felt as if it made all the world grander. I feel as if so much nobleness had gone out of life.”
“ The thing has been done,” he said doggedly, “if that’s any comfort to you, by what you call ‘ people like other people.’ I don’t think there can be much doubt of that. Some men are stronger than I. All women are not as lovely as you. I don’t see that our failure affects the theory. Theorize all you like about it. There was something fine about it, I admit.”
He looked at her with wistfulness. What a woman she was ! Wailing over a dead ideal, concerned about the nobility of the race, while he —
His sensitive face changed. Over his soul an April gale came sweeping. He must fight it or flee from it.
“ Let me go ! ” he cried, with savage suddenness ; as if she had held him.
She turned her troubled face towards him, all the hurt woman in it, wrapped in a dignity like a trampled lily. She, too, rose, and with a gesture of fine selfpossession waved him away.
He went. Across the room, he turned and looked back at her.
“ If I do,” he cried, “ it is forever ! I have endured too much. If I come back, I make my own conditions.”
She gave him only that fine gesture for his answer. Even then he revered it, and her because of it.
But he said : —
“ Very well, then. If you let me go you must live without me.”
“ Will you say good-by — before ” — Her penetrating, sweet voice rang through the room and faltered.
He returned, and held out his shaking hand. She put hers into it without one word, and without a word they parted.
He went. He went like the spirit of the pursued and lost. He pulled his hat over his eyes, and groped down the garden walk, past the hollyhocks, under the horse-chestnuts and the elms, to the syringa bushes, where the faint, sickly smells of the unripe buds yielded themselves to the evening air. It seemed to him to have grown very dark. Indeed, the twilight had come on. He stopped in the syringa arbor to gather life.
Kaiser came to him while he stood there, and whined. He looked at the setter stupidly. Kaiser, it was evident, had something to say. Nordhall remembered that he had not made his adieus to the dog.
“ Good-by, Kaiser,” he said thickly.
But Kaiser did not accept this apology. The dog turned and walked a little way up the garden path, looked over his shoulder at Nordhall, came back, and walked up the path again.
It occurred to Nordhall then that Kaiser desired him to return to the house.
He pushed the dog away from him and strode out of the gate, letting it slam as he passed through.
At this moment the consciousness of an unusual sound struck upon his excited senses. He stopped. It was like a woman’s voice.
He thought he could distinguish words. " Charley Nordhall ! Charley Nordhall ! ” He took a wild step back into the April night. The young moon was just climbing up from the sea, but only served as yet to emphasize the darkness.
Was that an outline, white as a wraith, real as a woman, mistily moving among the budding trees? Did it retreat? He advanced. Did it hasten ? He pursued. Did it wave him back with that rare dignity ? Too late now ! Too late to stay a man by the turn of a soft wrist! Too late for repentance, were you wraith or woman ! Too late, too late, for fear, or memory, or thought!
He strode on like fate, and burst into the half lighted room. The door was open into the hall. She stood within it, startled, panting, in her white dress. Had she never left the spot ? Her vision, was it, that had beckoned ? Oh, they had followed visions long enough. She at least was here, and she was real.
“ Did you send Kaiser to call me ? ” But she answered him not a word.
“Did you send Kaiser to call me back ? I will be answered ! ”
“ Oh, I did, I did ! ”
She bowed her broken face. Both her hands received and shielded it. It was too dark for him to have seen its expression of entreaty, wild as an eternal regret.
“ And did you speak my name ? Was it you who called ? ”
“ Oh, don’t ask me ! It was bad enough to send Kaiser. It was ” —
It was heaven on earth, at least, to him. If to her it was earth after heaven, what cared he ?
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.