The Street of the Love of Friends
IN the midst of New York, behind a high fence and tall houses, a stone’s throw from Union Square, and within sound of the chimes of “Grace,” is the forgotten fragment of an old Knickerbocker farm. Its little green field can be pleasantly seen from the street; the orchard and garden are concealed behind the fine old mansion which the little green field adjoins. Here is a vine-hung trellis, a lattice summer house, a pump, and a dovecot. A community of hens and chickens stray about under the trees. The place gives somewhat the impression of having fallen into an enchanted sleep, as long ago perhaps as when Peter Stuyvesant’s pear-tree was in blossom; and in the mean time an entire city has grown up about it.
All old travelers have their favorite hotels. There are no older travelers than the birds. Some people passing through New York prefer the larger hotels; others, smaller ones; others, again, little out-ofthe-way places, dear on account of old association. Some birds, in their spring and autumn journeying, prefer Central Park, and some, city squares and churchyards, and some, the forgotten fragment of the old Knickerbocker farm with its garden, hidden away behind the high fence and the tall houses.
A Baltimore oriole and a scarlet tanager had been reported in the garden. It was the 9th of May. The air was full of fragrance, and every green leaf shining in the sun. Early on the following day there came to the window of a building at the farther end a woman with clear blue eyes, through which one could see the soul of a little child, although the years of her life numbered somewhat more than half a century. On an easel behind her stood a half-finished water color of violets. The walls of the room were covered with studies and paintings of this same flower.
The window was a high one. Below it rose the top of a cherry-tree. The woman took up a pair of opera glasses, peered into the branches, and discovered a little brown bird.
Presently it began to sing.
When the song ended, the woman sat down at her desk and wrote, “May 10. I have just heard a hermit thrush singing in the cherry-tree under my window.”
She longed to go and tell what had happened. There were people enough about her, for the building was a world by itself, to penetrate which, a stranger would have found a map and a guidebook useful. All kinds of human beings lived there and did all kinds of things. At that moment, however, they were every one of them asleep in bed, and not likely to enjoy disturbance, not even on account, of such a marvelous piece of intelligence as that a hermit thrush had been heard singing within a stone’s throw of Union Square, and within sound of the chimes of Grace.
Nor did the woman desire to disturb them. She would have been quite content could she have talked the matter over with her next-door neighbor, he too having a window looking down into the cherry-tree.
Her next-door neighbor had not even heard the thrush. He seldom heard anything before eight in the morning. He was obliged to sleep late on account of sitting up late.
His four walls also were covered with pictures, only in this case they were not of flowers, unless indeed the faces of fair women may count as such, the room being a veritable pastel cabinet, filled with portraits, many of them copies of famous originals in European galleries. There was Madame de Pompadour in her flowered satin gown; the Princess de Lamballe in her rose-wreathed hat; Marie Antoinette at the age of seventeen; her sweet - faced sister - in - law, Elisabeth; Queen Victoria as a child; and a whole company of Botticelli maidens with their graceful limbs and delicate features.
The room was the studio of a portrait painter, given over, during the absence of its owner, to Mr. Benjamin Page, journalist. He had not yet seen the woman in the next room. Knowingly, he was unacquainted with her name or occupation. Unknowingly, he had them written down and carefully put away in an envelope marked “V.”
At a water-color exhibition, somewhat earlier in the spring, he had happened to find himself standing side by side with two elderly people, in front of a landscape out of which one could make no particular meaning unless one regarded it from exactly the right position.
He heard the old lady say, “Well, I don’t think much of that!”
“Of course you don’t,” said the man, “you are too near.”
“I prefer to be near; I am thinking of buying. I want a picture that will bear inspection. Our rooms are too small to be always looking at things from a distance. Here’s another queer thing, a girl without a mouth.”
“She’ll be all right if you stand far enough away. That’s the modern style of painting. It’s supposed to grow on you. I believe you have to live with it a year or so first.”
“Altogether too long at our time of life,” said the old lady; “now, here’s something that looks well near to and far off both, and you have n’t got to wait a year to decide whether it’s good or not. I should like it for our wedding anniversary.” They had come to a study of violets.
“You shall have it, my dear, and some real ones to keep it company. We might go out along the Bronx and gather them ourselves.”
“One has to be young and limber to get down to violets,” said the old lady. “Do you remember the apple-tree that was in bloom that day, and the dandelions, and the little brook in the woods ? ” — They passed on out of hearing.
Later, reading an account of the exhibition. Benjamin Page noticed a laudatory mention of the study of violets and of the artist who had painted them. She was spoken of as the “Violet Woman,” her work being confined for the most part to this particular flower. He cut out the article and put it, with some notes of his own, in an envelope marked “V.”In his profession it was well to have a full storehouse.
It was on the morning when the hermit thrush had sung in the cherry-tree, and the day after the Baltimore oriole and the scarlet tanager had been reported in the garden. Benjamin Page came in from breakfast, and sat down before his desk with a number of bird books spread open before him. He was about to write something on the subject of birds in town, He wished it to sound as if it recorded a personal experience at an early hour in the Park. He spoke of the restful quiet, of the sweetness of the air, of the soft green of the foliage. He mentioned the cuckoo, the red-winged blackbird, the ruby-throated humming-bird, the whiteeyed vireo, the golden-winged warbler, the kingbird, and the bobolink. Then he appeared to wander into a still more secluded spot, and there to espy a hermit thrush and to hear it sing. He was not sure that the hermit thrush sang in city parks, but thought it might be possible. So he went boldly on, and was describing the song and its effect on the ear of the listener, when a prolonged ringing of the bell brought him to his feet, and out into the hall.
It was no longer the place to which he was accustomed, but one of dense obscurity, of confused murmurs, of dread, of flying shapes.
A strange sensation swept over him. Had the Day of Judgment suddenly fallen upon the world, and no one prepared, least of all himself!
He too seemed to become a flying shape, mingling with the others. He began to descend a stairway. A woman’s voice exclaimed, “I am afraid!” He held out his hand. It came in contact with another hand; and the two beings, thus thrown together, groped their way downward.
Somewhere on the lower floor men were fighting a fire. Darkness, terror, choking smoke. Impossibility of standing still, impossibility of turning back, and yet into what were they going!
The stairs ended. Not many steps away in the blackness there must be another flight leading to the street. To which side should they turn to find it! And if they did not find it —
The smoke grew thinner, the air easier to breathe, they were descending again. Below was an open door and the sunlight. They reached the street, and went into an adjoining building. When the danger was over and they were allowed to return, Benjamin Page had made an interesting discovery. The woman was the painter of violets described in the envelope marked “V.” She was likewise his next-door neighbor.
In the old garden the guelder roses bloomed into summer snowdrifts. One evening, at the end of an oppressively warm day, Benjamin Page and the Violet Woman went out together, going westward through the quiet of Greenwich village until they came to a wooden building which covered the greater part of a long pier.
In the open space beyond, countless numbers of babies were taking their breath of fresh air under the stars: babies frolicking on the ground, babies asleep in the arms of young papas and mammas. On the water, ferryboats with glowing lights flitted to and fro. Over across, on the Jersey shore, other lights were shining. Close under the end of the pier two men, idly rowing about, were chatting in Italian. Prom the upper part of the building came the sound of music.
“I was in the country at this time last year,” said the Violet Woman, as they sat down near the edge of the pier. “I remember walking through the woods to an open spot completely covered with little white flowers. Our coming out among these children reminds me of it. They are the little white flowers of the people.”
“I was in Venice a year ago,” said the man.
“Tell me about it. I don’t mean about the Bridge of Sighs or the Doge’s Palace, but about what we should see, if we went on some little ramble as we have done tonight.”
He told her of Venetian bridges and balconies, of grass-grown campos, of silent walls, of low-ceiled shops with their old books and prints, of the ringing of the Ave Maria, of the doves of St. Mark’s, of the church of the Madonna of the Garden, of the grave of Tintoretto. He described the narrow Venetian byways.
“Some of them have such delightful names,” he said. “There was one, not far from the Rialto, called Amor degli Amici — ' The Street of the Love of Friends.’ For want of other explanation. I used to fancy it had to do with the love of Antonio and Bassanio.”
“What was it like?”
“Oh, like all Venetian streets. They are not really streets, you know, only narrow passages. It had high houses on either side, and here and there a garden looking over a wall. At first it seemed to lead nowhere; but it led, as they all do. by a twist and a turn, into hidden loveliness.”
“And where else should a street lead with a name like that ?” said the woman. “How pleasant it sounds! It suggests another Street of the Love of Friends, — only your Venetian street comes to an end, whereas the other runs through life, and is unending.”
“Then you believe in things unending! That is nice and old-fashioned of you. Do you know you remind me of Mary Howitt. Perhaps it’s partly because you are so fond of flowers.”
“What should you know of Mary Howitt ? Have you been writing about her lately ? ”
“ No, but I could easily. When we were children, we had a nurse who was always teaching us Mary Howitt’s verses. She managed to get some of them so firmly into our heads that I doubt the possibility of ever being able to get them out, even should it be desirable. They are quite a bother at times. This afternoon, for instance, I was trying to collect a few ideas concerning the creation of the world, the scientific creation, not the Biblical one, and in spite of myself — no doubt it was the heat — I kept thinking of such lines as these: —
Enough for great and small,
The oak-tree and the cedar-tree,
And not a flower at all.”
The woman laughed. “Who would have thought of your brain being thus furnished! ”
“You would n’t have believed it, would you ? I can say the Songs for the Little Ones at Home from beginning to end. Did you ever see it ? It must be long since out of print. I know ours was a very old copy.”
“I learned to read from it,” the woman answered. “Do you remember a picture of a Hindoo mother throwing her baby to the crocodiles?”
“Yes, wasn’t it awful! It went with some verses beginning, ‘O say, can you tell the best use of a penny ? ’ written doubtless to influence the young in the direction of sending money to the heathen.”
“You seem to be a sort of heathen yourself, that is, if you meant what your tone implied, when you accused me of being ‘nice and old-fashioned.’”
“Did it sound that way ? I meant it to sound as if I were very much pleased with you. I like to have you believe in things unending; I should like to myself; but I don’t, — not in the way you do. I must have a proof positive, some kind of a reliable sign.”
“Oh, what use would that be! You would n’t pay any attention to it, even if it were given. Things of possible significance are constantly occurring, only no one thinks of attaching any especial importance to them, — or else dares not. This is not an age when one believes that there are things higher than human reason.”
“This is an age when one has acquired a little learning,” said the young man, “and that is never particularly friendly to simple faith. Faith is out of fashion, but it’s coming in again. One feels the tide of modern thought slowly turning back to it. People are growing tired of theories.”
“The word fashion applied to faith,” said the woman, “reminds me of an experience I had the other day. I wanted some rose geranium leaves, and was told quite seriously at the florist’s that they were not using them any more.”
The Violet Woman had been painting a pot of violets. She called Benjamin Page into her studio, as she often did at the day’s end, to show her work, and ask for criticism.
It seemed to the young man that she was looking thin and worn.
“I believe you are in need of a holiday,” he said; “it’s such a pity to have missed the pleasant things of the summer!”
But the woman assured him that the pleasant things of the summer had come to her in abundance. She spoke of the trees of the old garden, always fresh and green and softening the unrest of city sounds; she spoke of the country flowers, continually appearing at her door, sometimes brought by friends who had an errand in town, sometimes carefully packed and sent from a distance. That very morning, even, a box had arrived containing a miniature fir-tree, a wreath of partridge-berry vine, and little branches of pine, with the brown cones still clinging to them.
“Women are so nice to women,” said the young man, looking approvingly about the fragrant room. “It does n’t often occur to men to send men flowers. I for instance do not remember having flowers brought me by either man or woman. Keep that in your mind, please, when my birthday comes; only that is rather far away, — Easter would be nearer.”
“And Christmas nearer still,” returned the woman.
“True, but I was thinking of a pot of violets, similar to the one in your painting. Violets belong to spring; I don’t care for things out of season.”
“Very well,” said the woman. “I will impress it on the part of my mind which never forgets. A pot of violets is to be sent to Mr. Page early on Easter morning.”
“It won’t be any use to send them early. There will be no one up to answer the bell; and if they were put before my door, they might be stolen before I was ready to open it. On no account before eight.”
At this moment a dull thud sounded against the window, and a little brown bird which had met with some injury, and come to the end of his strength, fell helpless on the window-sill.
“It’s a hermit thrush,” said the woman, as they took him in; “perhaps the very one that sang last spring in the cherry-tree.”
A cage was provided and hung above the table, where the woman sat all day painting violets, — violets for Christmas and St. Valentine’s and Easter; violets, Neapolitan, Russian, and English; violets that look out of the grass in sunny orchards under blossoming apple-trees, the kind that the elderly couple of the water-color exhibition had gathered along the Bronx in their own springtime.
The little brown bird seemed in no wise disconcerted by the change in its winter plans, but bore its imprisonment in a high-minded way. As time went on, and it recovered its strength, it began to grow round and plump, and to make sweet little sounds low down in its throat by way of vocal exercise. Perhaps it realized that the confinement was simply a temporary affair and that the Violet Woman, who was evidently a person to be trusted, had given promise that it should be set free on the 10th of May.
An ideal existence, this of the little brown bird and the woman; a delightful comradeship. Pleasant books on the table, visits of friends, social cups of tea, and always violets, — yet something was the matter. People who came occasionally used to go away saying how frail the woman looked, how much more like a vision or a shadow than the last time they saw her. People who knew her better and came oftener, not iced the change less, because of her eyes being so full of light, her mind of cheerful plans, her heart of affectionate interest.
One morning in April, Mrs. Peters, a motherly person who had charge of the young man’s room, expressed her desire to obtain full possession of the same for a number of consecutive hours, that she might give things what is called in housewifely parlance “a thorough cleaning.”
Benjamin Page accordingly went out on the morning in question, and did not return until late in the afternoon. When he entered the room his first impression was that his friend the portrait painter had sent home from Paris a life-sized figure of a peasant woman leaning over a balcony, which during the day had been unpacked and hung. A second glance however told him that what he saw was Mrs. Peters herself, outside, on the balcony of the fire escape, and that he had mistaken the woodwork of the window for the frame of the picture.
Spread on the table was Mrs. Peters’s luncheon, as if she had been called away at the very moment of sitting down before it.
Then he comprehended. The window had a spring fastening. The woman must have stepped out and unintentionally closed it behind her. He opened the window. Mrs. Peters climbed back into the room. She was large and heavy. There was a tradition in her family that she had once broken an iron sink by falling against it. She explained that she had gone out to shake a rug, closing the window without thinking, and there she was a prisoner, with no immediate prospect of freedom, the fire escape being one of the straight up and down kind, which she should never trust herself to descend, unless the flames were right upon her. So she had said, “Mrs. Peters, remember when you are at home, you live in a middle basement, with never a chance for a look at the sky from one year’s end to another, nor to breathe the fresh air, and now you’ve got both, though not in a time or place where you would desire them; and it’s no use feeling faint from having eaten no breakfast, on account of getting up with the headache; and it’s no use either worrying for fear the thing you’re standing on isn’t going to bear the strain; or because of the big washing waiting at home. Just you put your trust in Providence and enjoy the scenery.”
“With that,” continued Mrs. Peters, “I endeavored to entertain myself watching the doves and the hens, and then my mind wandered on to the subject of flowers, as was natural, having a garden spread out below me, and I fell to thinking about the poor dear lady next door who is such a beautiful hand at painting violets. When I think of her, I always think of my eldest sister, who had exactly the same affliction, always growing weaker every day, and nothing to do except to continue to grow worse, and sure to die at the end. It’s terrible what some people are called on to bear! And I said to myself, ‘What am I, Mrs. Peters, that I should be favored with such health and strength and go about looking as if cut out to live forever, and able to stand on this high place without feeling dizzy, breathing in the fresh air by the hour?’ ”
While talking, Mrs, Peters had made her floor-cloth, scrubbing-brush, and the untouched luncheon into a well-regulated package, and with the remark that she had spent all the time she could afford on diversion, took her departure.
To bear an incurable ill —
The thought of it haunted the young man as he sat at work late into the night. In his dreams he was still thinking of it and asking what there might be in life to lessen life’s pain, to make the unendurable endurable. Then, as if in answer, he heard a song filling the room, and the words of the song were these, the love of friends,” “the love of friends,” “the love of friends.”
He pulled his watch from under his pillow. It was four o’clock. He looked about him in the dim light. Yes, they were all there, — the pictured ladies on the wall, the Botticelli maidens, Madame de Pompadour, Madame Elisabeth, the Princess de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette at seventeen, and Queen Victoria as a child. That was rather strange. It made it appear as if he were awake, yet how could he be with this song in the room, so clear, so sweet, so sure, — “the love of friends,” “the love of friends.”
It must be one of those curious dreams in which one seemed to be awake.
It was not wholly a dream, as he discovered that evening when he went to his neighbor’s studio. The window was open to the western sky, the brown bird singing. The woman sat by the window, the light from without falling upon the gentleness of her face.
“I once wrote something about a hermit thrush,” said the young man, after they had listened for a time in wonder and silence. “I had never heard one then; that was probably the reason I had so little difficulty in describing the song.”
He related his experience of the early morning. “Just before going to sleep,” he said, “I had been consulting my Italian notebooks, and had chanced upon my list of the little byways, among them the Street of the Love of Friends. You remember my telling you about it that evening on Recreation Pier, and the way in which you applied the name to that imaginary street, which runs through life and knows no ending.”
“I was in the midst of a dream about you when I awoke,” the young man went on; “doubtless my Venetian notebooks were in part the cause of it. Still there was another reason. I had you much in my mind last night. Mrs. Peters told me something yesterday. She had been speaking of her sister.”
The woman turned toward him. “Thank you for caring,” she said; “but it really is n’t so very bad, not half so bad as it sounds.”
When Benjamin Page went again to hear the thrush sing, a water color, which he had not seen before, hung beside the cage. It was of a New England farmhouse, with sloping roof and shaded by drooping elms, — a house that seemed to grow out of the ground like a wayside flower.
“My birthplace,” the woman explained. “I found it when looking oversome things.”
She was sitting with a little old hymnbook open in her lap.
“And did you find this too?” he said, taking up the book. “You must be careful; it is hard work looking over things.”
He read a verse aloud here and there, making occasional comment. “They are all so hopeful about dying; everybody seems to be quite anticipating it.”
“I am not,” said the woman slowly. “I think of it with nameless dread. When I was a little girl, I heard a sermon on Easter Sunday which I thought would always keep me from being afraid. Easter came late that year. There were violets in bloom in our garden. I was sure there must have been violets in bloom in that other garden, where the angel said to the women, ‘Be not afraid.' In the sermon we were told that these words were for all time, for all men, for all emergencies; that never, never again could there be reason for fear in the world; that the way was safe, because Some One had gone before. When I grew older, and read for myself the story of Easter Day, I found that the women were spoken of as ‘trembling and afraid’even after the assurance of the angel. That was so natural. It made the story seem so true. I should have been afraid. I am afraid now.”
He took her hand, and held it, as if he were leading her.
“This is like the beginning of our friendship,” she said. “Don’t you remember ? It was dark, — it was hard to breathe. I was alone. Some one took my hand; and after a little we came out — into — the light.”
She became silent.
The young man thought she was resting and listening, for the thrush had begun to sing. Presently he noticed that her eyes were closed and that the hymnbook lay on the floor.
Friends came with their kindly services. Benjamin Page went back to his desk and waited. The bird sang on. Once only did the woman return to consciousness. She asked for Benjamin Page.
As he entered the room, she said, speaking in the old accustomed tone, “It would be better to let the thrush go on the evening of the 9th; you are quite sure to sleep late, and birds like to be off in good season.”
Thereupon she herself seemed to sleep. After a while, those who watched her saw the lines of pain and of years melt into a look of peace and of youth.
After another while a bunch of violets was placed in her folded hands.
On Easter morning, Benjamin Page astonished himself by waking early, astonished himself still more by rising at once and dressing, as if he were a person for whom “Rise with the Lark, and with the Lark to bed ” had been a lifelong and favorite motto.
A delicious fragrance arose from the garden. It had rained during the night, and everything was yielding forth its sweetness after the shower. He thought it might have been the fragrance that awakened him.
Going out for a stroll, he met a boy coming up the stairs with a pot of violets.
“Do you know where that is ?” asked the boy, holding out a card.
Benjamin Page read the number of his own room. “It appears to be for me,” he said doubtfully; “there must be some mistake.”
“I guess you’ll find it’s all right,” said the boy, and ran down the stairs.
Benjamin Page carried the violets up to his room and placed them on his window-sill, They were probably intended for the Violet Woman and came from some friend, who was not quite sure about her address, and had not yet heard of her death. Later in the day he remembered, with a sudden thrill, how a promise had been made and recorded in the part of the mind which never forgets, to send him a pot of violets early on Easter morning.
On Monday he visited, but with no enlightening results, a number of florists’ establishments, where the Violet Woman had been in the habit of ordering flowers. He also told the story to one or two people of child-like minds.
“Why should n’t she have kept her promise!” they said. “What was there to prove the contrary!”
“It. was a beautiful thing to happen,” Benjamin Page returned. “Of course there must be some perfectly simple explanation.”
Deep in his heart, however, he found himself pondering much and wondering concerning the possibilities of the street called the “Love of Friends,” which runs through life, — and knows no ending.