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Title: Who Was She? - From "The Atlantic Monthly" for September, 1874
Author: Taylor, Bayard, 1825-1878
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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WHO WAS SHE?

By Bayard Taylor

From "The Atlantic Monthly" for September, 1874


Come, now, there may as well be an end of this! Every time I meet your
eyes squarely, I detect the question just slipping out of them. If
you had spoken it, or even boldly looked it; if you had shown in your
motions the least sign of a fussy or fidgety concern on my account; if
this were not the evening of my birthday, and you the only friend who
remembered it; if confession were not good for the soul, though harder
than sin to some people, of whom I am one--well, if all reasons were not
at this instant converged into a focus, and burning me rather violently,
in that region where the seat of emotion is supposed to lie, I should
keep my trouble to myself.

Yes, I have fifty times had it on my mind to tell you the whole story.
But who can be certain that his best friend will not smile--or, what
is worse, cherish a kind of charitable pity ever afterward--when
the external forms of a very serious kind of passion seem trivial,
fantastic, foolish? And the worst of all is that the heroic part which I
imagined I was playing proves to have been almost the reverse. The
only comfort which I can find in my humiliation is that I am capable of
feeling it. There isn't a bit of a paradox in this, as you will see;
but I only mention it, now, to prepare you for, maybe, a little morbid
sensitiveness of my moral nerves.

The documents are all in this portfolio under my elbow. I had just read
them again completely through when you were announced. You may examine
them as you like afterward: for the present, fill your glass, take
another Cabana, and keep silent until my "ghastly tale" has reached its
most lamentable conclusion.

The beginning of it was at Wampsocket Springs, three years ago last
summer. I suppose most unmarried men who have reached, or passed, the
age of thirty--and I was then thirty-three--experience a milder return
of their adolescent warmth, a kind of fainter second spring, since
the first has not fulfilled its promise. Of course, I wasn't clearly
conscious of this at the time: who is? But I had had my youthful passion
and my tragic disappointment, as you know: I had looked far enough into
what Thackeray used to call the cryptic mysteries to save me from the
Scylla of dissipation, and yet preserved enough of natural nature to
keep me out of the Pharisaic Charybdis. My devotion to my legal studies
had already brought me a mild distinction; the paternal legacy was a
good nest-egg for the incubation of wealth--in short, I was a fair,
respectable "party," desirable to the humbler mammas, and not to be
despised by the haughty exclusives.

The fashionable hotel at the Springs holds three hundred, and it was
packed. I had meant to lounge there for a fortnight and then finish my
holidays at Long Branch; but eighty, at least, out of the three hundred
were young and moved lightly in muslin. With my years and experience
I felt so safe that to walk, talk, or dance with them became simply a
luxury, such as I had never--at least so freely--possessed before. My
name and standing, known to some families, were agreeably exaggerated to
the others, and I enjoyed that supreme satisfaction which a man always
feels when he discovers, or imagines, that he is popular in society.
There is a kind of premonitory apology implied in my saying this, I am
aware. You must remember that I am culprit, and culprit's counsel, at
the same time.

You have never been at Wampsocket? Well, the hills sweep around in
a crescent, on the northern side, and four or five radiating glens,
descending from them, unite just above the village. The central one,
leading to a waterfall (called "Minne-hehe" by the irreverent young
people, because there is so little of it), is the fashionable drive
and promenade; but the second ravine on the left, steep, crooked, and
cumbered with bowlders which have tumbled from somewhere and lodged in
the most extraordinary groupings, became my favorite walk of a morning.
There was a footpath in it, well-trodden at first, but gradually fading
out as it became more like a ladder than a path, and I soon discovered
that no other city feet than mine were likely to scale a certain rough
slope which seemed the end of the ravine. With the aid of the tough
laurel-stems I climbed to the top, passed through a cleft as narrow as a
doorway, and presently found myself in a little upper dell, as wild and
sweet and strange as one of the pictures that haunts us on the brink of
sleep.

There was a pond--no, rather a bowl--of water in the centre; hardly
twenty yards across, yet the sky in it was so pure and far down that
the circle of rocks and summer foliage inclosing it seemed like a little
planetary ring, floating off alone through space. I can't explain the
charm of the spot, nor the selfishness which instantly suggested that
I should keep the discovery to myself. Ten years earlier I should have
looked around for some fair spirit to be my "minister," but now--

One forenoon--I think it was the third or fourth time I had visited the
place--I was startled to find the dent of a heel in the earth, half-way
up the slope. There had been rain during the night and the earth was
still moist and soft. It was the mark of a woman's boot, only to be
distinguished from that of a walking-stick by its semicircular form. A
little higher, I found the outline of a foot, not so small as to awake
an ecstasy, but with a suggestion of lightness, elasticity, and grace.
If hands were thrust through holes in a board-fence, and nothing of the
attached bodies seen, I can easily imagine that some would attract and
others repel us: with footprints the impression is weaker, of course,
but we cannot escape it. I am not sure whether I wanted to find the
unknown wearer of the boot within my precious personal solitude: I was
afraid I should see her, while passing through the rocky crevice, and
yet was disappointed when I found no one.

But on the fiat, warm rock overhanging the tarn--my special throne--lay
some withering wild-flowers and a book! I looked up and down, right and
left: there was not the slightest sign of another human life than mine.
Then I lay down for a quarter of an hour, and listened: there were only
the noises of bird and squirrel, as before. At last, I took up the book,
the fiat breadth of which suggested only sketches. There were, indeed,
some tolerable studies of rocks and trees on the first pages; a few
not very striking caricatures, which seemed to have been commenced as
portraits, but recalled no faces I knew; then a number of fragmentary
notes, written in pencil. I found no name, from first to last; only,
under the sketches, a monogram so complicated and laborious that the
initials could hardly be discovered unless one already knew them.

The writing was a woman's, but it had surely taken its character from
certain features of her own: it was clear, firm, individual. It
had nothing of that air of general debility which usually marks the
manuscript of young ladies, yet its firmness was far removed from the
stiff, conventional slope which all Englishwomen seem to acquire in
youth and retain through life, I don't see how any man in my situation
could have helped reading a few lines--if only for the sake of restoring
lost property. But I was drawn on and on, and finished by reading all:
thence, since no further harm could be done, I reread, pondering over
certain passages until they stayed with me. Here they are, as I set them
down, that evening, on the back of a legal blank:

     "It makes a great deal of difference whether we wear social
     forms as bracelets or handcuffs."

     "Can we not still be wholly our independent selves, even
     while doing, in the main, as others do? I know two who are
     so; but they are married."

     "The men who admire these bold, dashing young girls treat
     them like weaker copies of themselves. And yet they boast of
     what they call 'experience'!"

     "I wonder if any one felt the exquisite beauty of the noon
     as I did to-day? A faint appreciation of sunsets and storms
     is taught us in youth, and kept alive by novels and
     flirtations; but the broad, imperial splendor of this
     summer noon!--and myself standing alone in it--yes, utterly
     alone!" "The men I seek _must_ exist: where are they? How
     make an acquaintance, when one obsequiously bows himself
     away, as I advance? The fault is surely not all on my side."

There was much more, intimate enough to inspire me with a keen interest
in the writer, yet not sufficiently so to make my perusal a painful
indiscretion. I yielded to the impulse of the moment, took out my
pencil, and wrote a dozen lines on one of the blank pages. They ran
something in this wise:

     "IGNOTUS IGNOTÆ!--You have bestowed without intending it,
     and I have taken without your knowledge. Do not regret the
     accident which has enriched another. This concealed idyl of
     the hills was mine, as I supposed, but I acknowledge your
     equal right to it.  Shall we share the possession, or will
     you banish me?"

There was a frank advance, tempered by a proper caution, I fancied, in
the words I wrote. It was evident that she was unmarried, but outside
of that certainty there lay a vast range of possibilities, some of them
alarming enough. However, if any nearer acquaintance should arise out of
the incident, the next step must be taken by her. Was I one of the men
she sought? I almost imagined so--certainly hoped so.

I laid the book on the rock, as I had found it, bestowed another keen
scrutiny on the lonely landscape, and then descended the ravine. That
evening, I went early to the ladies' parlor, chatted more than usual
with the various damsels whom I knew, and watched with a new interest
those whom I knew not. My mind, involuntarily, had already created
a picture of the unknown. She might be twenty-five, I thought; a
reflective habit of mind would hardly be developed before that age. Tall
and stately, of course; distinctly proud in her bearing, and somewhat
reserved in her manners. Why she should have large dark eyes, with
long dark lashes, I could not tell; but so I seemed to see her. Quite
forgetting that I was (or had meant to be) _Ignotus_, I found myself
staring rather significantly at one or the other of the young ladies,
in whom I discovered some slight general resemblance to the imaginary
character. My fancies, I must confess, played strange pranks with me.
They had been kept in a coop so many years that now, when I suddenly
turned them loose, their rickety attempts at flight quite bewildered me.

No! there was no use in expecting a sudden discovery. I went to the glen
betimes, next morning: the book was gone and so were the faded flowers,
but some of the latter were scattered over the top of another rock, a
few yards from mine. Ha! this means that I am not to withdraw, I said
to myself: she makes room for me! But how to surprise her?--for by this
time I was fully resolved to make her acquaintance, even though she
might turn out to be forty, scraggy, and sandy-haired.

I knew no other way so likely as that of visiting the glen at all times
of the day. I even went so far as to write a line of greeting, with a
regret that our visits had not yet coincided, and laid it under a stone
on the top of _her_ rock. The note disappeared, but there was no answer
in its place. Then I suddenly remembered her fondness for the noon
hours, at which time she was "utterly alone." The hotel _table d'hôte_
was at one o'clock: her family, doubtless, dined later, in their own
rooms. Why, this gave me, at least, her place in society! The question
of age, to be sure, remained unsettled; but all else was safe.

The next day I took a late and large breakfast, and sacrificed my
dinner. Before noon the guests had all straggled back to the hotel from
glen and grove and lane, so bright and hot was the sunshine. Indeed, I
could hardly have supported the reverberation of heat from the sides
of the ravine but for a fixed belief that I should be successful. While
crossing the narrow meadow upon which it opened, I caught a glimpse
of something white among the thickets higher up. A moment later it had
vanished, and I quickened my pace, feeling the beginning of an absurd
nervous excitement in my limbs. At the next turn, there it was again!
but only for another moment. I paused, exulting, and wiped my drenched
forehead. "She cannot escape me!" I murmured between the deep draughts
of cooler air I inhaled in the shadow of a rock.

A few hundred steps more brought me to the foot of the steep ascent,
where I had counted on overtaking her. I was too late for that, but the
dry, baked soil had surely been crumbled and dislodged, here and there,
by a rapid foot. I followed, in reckless haste, snatching at the laurel
branches right and left, and paying little heed to my footing. About,
one-third of the way up I slipped, fell, caught a bush which snapped
at the root, slid, whirled over, and before I fairly knew what had
happened, I was lying doubled up at the bottom of the slope.

I rose, made two steps forward, and then sat down with a groan of pain;
my left ankle was badly sprained, in addition to various minor scratches
and bruises. There was a revulsion of feeling, of course--instant,
complete, and hideous. I fairly hated the Unknown. "Fool that I was!" I
exclaimed, in the theatrical manner, dashing the palm of my hand softly
against my brow: "lured to this by the fair traitress! But, no!--not
fair: she shows the artfulness of faded, desperate spinsterhood; she is
all compact of enamel, 'liquid bloom of youth' and hair dye!"

There was a fierce comfort in this thought, but it couldn't help me out
of the scrape. I dared not sit still, lest a sunstroke should be added,
and there was no resource but to hop or crawl down the rugged path, in
the hope of finding a forked sapling from which I could extemporize
a crutch. With endless pain and trouble I reached a thicket, and was
feebly working on a branch with my pen-knife, when the sound of a heavy
footstep surprised me.

A brown harvest-hand, in straw hat and shirtsleeves, presently appeared.
He grinned when he saw me, and the thick snub of his nose would have
seemed like a sneer at any other time.

"Are you the gentleman that got hurt?" he asked. "Is it pretty tolerable
bad?"

"Who said I was hurt?" I cried, in astonishment.

"One of your town-women from the hotel--I reckon she was. I was binding
oats, in the field over the ridge; but I haven't lost no time in comin'
here."

While I was stupidly staring at this announcement, he whipped out a big
clasp-knife, and in a few minutes fashioned me a practicable crutch.
Then, taking me by the other arm, he set me in motion toward the
village.

Grateful as I was for the man's help, he aggravated me by his ignorance.
When I asked if he knew the lady, he answered: "It's more'n likely _you_
know her better," But where did she come from? Down from the hill, he
guessed, but it might ha' been up the road. How did she look? was she
old or young? what was the color of her eyes? of her hair? There, now, I
was too much for him. When a woman kept one o' them speckled veils over
her face, turned her head away, and held her parasol between, how were
you to know her from Adam? I declare to you, I couldn't arrive at one
positive particular. Even when he affirmed that she was tall, he added,
the next instant: "Now I come to think on it, she stepped mighty quick;
so I guess she must ha' been short."

By the time we reached the hotel, I was in a state of fever; opiates
and lotions had their will of me for the rest of the day. I was glad to
escape the worry of questions, and the conventional sympathy expressed
in inflections of the voice which are meant to soothe, and only
exasperate. The next morning, as I lay upon my sofa, restful, patient,
and properly cheerful, the waiter entered with a bouquet of wild
flowers.

"Who sent them?" I asked.

"I found them outside your door, sir. Maybe there's a card; yes, here's
a bit o' paper."

I opened the twisted slip he handed me, and read: "From your dell--and
mine." I took the flowers; among them were two or three rare and
beautiful varieties which I had only found in that one spot. Fool,
again! I noiselessly kissed, while pretending to smell them, had them
placed on a stand within reach, and fell into a state of quiet and
agreeable contemplation.

Tell me, yourself, whether any male human being is ever too old for
sentiment, provided that it strikes him at the right time and in the
right way! What did that bunch of wild flowers betoken? Knowledge,
first; then, sympathy; and finally, encouragement, at least. Of course
she had seen my accident, from above; of course she had sent the harvest
laborer to aid me home. It was quite natural she should imagine some
special, romantic interest in the lonely dell, on my part, and the gift
took additional value from her conjecture.

Four days afterward, there was a hop in the large dining-room of the
hotel. Early in the morning, a fresh bouquet had been left at my door.
I was tired of my enforced idleness, eager to discover the fair unknown
(she was again fair, to my fancy!), and I determined to go down,
believing that a cane and a crimson velvet slipper on the left foot
would provoke a glance of sympathy from certain eyes, and thus enable me
to detect them.

The fact was, the sympathy was much too general and effusive. Everybody,
it seemed, came to me with kindly greetings; seats were vacated at my
approach, even fat Mrs. Huxter insisting on my taking her warm place,
at the head of the room. But Bob Leroy--you know him--as gallant a
gentleman as ever lived, put me down at the right point, and kept me
there. He only meant to divert me, yet gave me the only place where I
could quietly inspect all the younger ladies, as dance or supper brought
them near.

One of the dances was an old-fashioned cotillon, and one of the figures,
the "coquette," brought every one, in turn, before me. I received a
pleasant word or two from those whom I knew, and a long, kind, silent
glance from Miss May Danvers. Where had been my eyes? She was tall,
stately, twenty-five, had large dark eyes, and long dark lashes! Again
the changes of the dance brought her near me; I threw (or strove to
throw) unutterable meanings into my eyes, and cast them upon hers. She
seemed startled, looked suddenly away, looked back to me, and--blushed.
I knew her for what is called "a nice girl"--that is, tolerably frank,
gently feminine, and not dangerously intelligent. Was it possible that I
had overlooked so much character and intellect?

As the cotillon closed, she was again in my neighborhood, and her
partner led her in my direction. I was rising painfully from my
chair, when Bob Leroy pushed me down again, whisked another seat from
somewhere, planted it at my side, and there she was!

She knew who was her neighbor, I plainly saw; but instead of turning
toward me, she began to fan herself in a nervous way and to fidget with
the buttons of her gloves. I grew impatient.

"Miss Danvers!" I said, at last.

"Oh!" was all her answer, as she looked at me for a moment.

"Where are your thoughts?" I asked.

Then she turned, with wide, astonished eyes, coloring softly up to the
roots of her hair. My heart gave a sudden leap.

"How can you tell, if I can not?" she asked.

"May I guess?"

She made a slight inclination of the head, saying nothing. I was then
quite sure.

"The second ravine to the left of the main drive?"

This time she actually started; her color became deeper, and a leaf of
the ivory fan snapped between her fingers.

"Let there be no more a secret!" I exclaimed. "Your flowers have brought
me your messages; I knew I should find you--"

Full of certainty, I was speaking in a low, impassioned voice. She cut
me short by rising from her seat; I felt that she was both angry and
alarmed. Fisher, of Philadelphia, jostling right and left in his haste,
made his way toward her. She fairly snatched his arm, clung to it with a
warmth I had never seen expressed in a ballroom, and began to whisper
in his ear. It was not five minutes before he came to me, alone, with a
very stern face, bent down, and said:

"If you have discovered our secret, you will keep silent. You are
certainly a gentleman."

I bowed, coldly and savagely. There was a draught from the open window;
my ankle became suddenly weary and painful, and I went to bed. Can you
believe that I didn't guess, immediately, what it all meant? In a vague
way, I fancied that I had been premature in my attempt to drop our
mutual incognito, and that Fisher, a rival lover, was jealous of me.
This was rather flattering than otherwise; but when I limped down to the
ladies' parlor, the next day, no Miss Danvers was to be seen. I did not
venture to ask for her; it might seem importunate, and a woman of so
much hidden capacity was evidently not to be wooed in the ordinary way.

So another night passed by; and then, with the morning, came a letter
which made me feel, at the same instant, like a fool and a hero. It had
been dropped in the Wampsocket post-office, was legibly addressed to me
and delivered with some other letters which had arrived by the night
mail. Here it is; listen:

     "Noto Ignota!--Haste is not a gift of the gods, and you have
     been impatient, with the usual result. I was almost prepared
     for this, and thus am not wholly disappointed. In a day or
     two more you will discover your mistake, which, so far as I
     can learn, has done no particular harm. If you wish to find
     _me_, there is only one way to seek me; should I tell you
     what it is, I should run the risk of losing you--that is, I
     should preclude the manifestation of a certain quality which
     I hope to find in the man who may--or--, rather, must--be my
     friend. This sounds enigmatical, yet you have read enough of
     my nature, as written in those random notes in my sketch-
     book, to guess, at least, how much I require. Only this let
     me add: mere guessing is useless.

     "Being unknown, I can write freely. If you find me, I shall
     be justified; if not, I shall hardly need to blush, even to
     myself, over a futile experiment.

     "It is possible for me to learn enough of your life,
     henceforth, to direct my relation toward you. This may be
     the end; if so, I shall know it soon. I shall also know
     whether you continue to seek me. Trusting in your honor as a
     man, I must ask you to trust in mine, as a woman."

I _did_ discover my mistake, as the Unknown promised. There had been
a secret betrothal between Fisher and Miss Danvers, and, singularly
enough, the momentous question and answer had been given in the very
ravine leading to my upper dell! The two meant to keep the matter to
themselves; but therein, it seems, I thwarted them; there was a little
opposition on the part of their respective families, but all was
amicably settled before I left Wampsocket.

The letter made a very deep impression upon me. What was the one way
to find her? What could it be but the triumph that follows ambitious
toil--the manifestation of all my best qualities as a man? Be she old
or young, plain or beautiful, I reflected, hers is surely a nature worth
knowing, and its candid intelligence conceals no hazards for me. I
have sought her rashly, blundered, betrayed that I set her lower, in my
thoughts, than her actual self: let me now adopt the opposite course,
seek her openly no longer, go back to my tasks, and, following my own
aims vigorously and cheerfully, restore that respect which she seemed to
be on the point of losing. For, consciously or not, she had communicated
to me a doubt, implied in the very expression of her own strength and
pride. She had meant to address me as an equal, yet, despite herself,
took a stand a little above that which she accorded to me.

I came back to New York earlier than usual, worked steadily at
my profession and with increasing success, and began to accept
opportunities (which I had previously declined) of making myself
personally known to the great, impressible, fickle, tyrannical public.
One or two of my speeches in the hall of the Cooper Institute, on
various occasions--as you may perhaps remember--gave me a good headway
with the party, and were the chief cause of my nomination for the State
office which I still hold. (There, on the table, lies a resignation,
written to-day, but not yet signed. We'll talk of it afterward.) Several
months passed by, and no further letter reached me. I gave up much of
my time to society, moved familiarly in more than one province of the
kingdom here, and vastly extended my acquaintance, especially among
the women; but not one of them betrayed the mysterious something or
other--really I can't explain precisely what it was!--which I was
looking for. In fact, the more I endeavored quietly to study the sex,
the more confused I became.

At last, I was subjected to the usual onslaught from the strong-minded.
A small but formidable committee entered my office one morning and
demanded a categorical declaration of my principles. What my views on
the subject were, I knew very well; they were clear and decided; and
yet, I hesitated to declare them! It wasn't a temptation of Saint
Anthony--that is, turned the other way--and the belligerent attitude
of the dames did not alarm me in the least; but _she!_ What was _her_
position? How could I best please her? It flashed upon my mind, while
Mrs. ------ was making her formal speech that I had taken no step for
months without a vague, secret reference to _her_. So I strove to be
courteous, friendly, and agreeably noncommittal; begged for further
documents, and promised to reply by letter in a few days.

I was hardly surprised to find the well-known hand on the envelope of
a letter shortly afterward. I held it for a minute in my palm, with
an absurd hope that I might sympathetically feel its character before
breaking the seal. Then I read it with a great sense of relief.

     "I have never assumed to guide a man, except toward the full
     exercise of his powers. It is not opinion in action, but
     opinion in a state of idleness or indifference, which repels
     me. I am deeply glad that you have gained so much since you
     left the country. If, in shaping your course, you have
     thought of me, I will frankly say that, _to that extent_,
     you have drawn nearer. Am I mistaken in conjecturing that
     you wish to know my relation to the movement concerning
     which you were recently interrogated? In this, as in other
     instances which may come, I must beg you to consider me only
     as a spectator. The more my own views may seem likely to
     sway your action, the less I shall be inclined to declare
     them. If you find this cold or unwomanly, remember that it
     is not easy!"

Yes! I felt that I had certainly drawn much nearer to her. And from this
time on, her imaginary face and form became other than they were. She
was twenty-eight--three years older; a very little above the middle
height, but not tall; serene, rather than stately, in her movements;
with a calm, almost grave face, relieved by the sweetness of the
full, firm lips; and finally eyes of pure, limpid gray, such as
we fancy-belonged to the Venus of Milo. I found her thus much more
attractive than with the dark eyes and lashes--but she did not make her
appearance in the circles which I frequented.

Another year slipped away. As an official personage, my importance
increased, but I was careful not to exaggerate it to myself. Many have
wondered (perhaps you among the rest) at my success, seeing that I
possess no remarkable abilities. If I have any secret, it is simply
this--doing faithfully, with all my might, whatever I undertake.
Nine-tenths of our politicians become inflated and careless, after the
first few years, and are easily forgotten when they once lose place.

I am a little surprised now that I had so much patience with the
Unknown. I was too important, at least, to be played with; too mature
to be! subjected to a longer test; too earnest, as I had proved, to be
doubted, or thrown aside without a further explanation.

Growing tired, at last, of silent waiting, I bethought me of
advertising. A carefully written "Personal," in which _Ignotus_ informed
_Ignota_ of the necessity of his communicating with her, appeared
simultaneously in the "Tribune," "Herald," "World," and "Times." I
renewed the advertisement as the time expired without an answer, and I
think it was about the end of the third week before one came, through
the post, as before.

Ah, yes! I had forgotten. See! my advertisement is pasted on the note,
as a heading or motto for the manuscript lines. I don't know why the
printed slip should give me a particular feeling of humiliation as I
look at it, but such is the fact. What she wrote is all I need read to
you:

     "I could not, at first, be certain that this was meant for
     me. If I were to explain to you why I have not written for
     so long a time, I might give you one of the few clews which
     I insist on keeping in my own hands. In your public
     capacity, you have been ( so far as a woman may judge)
     upright, independent, wholly manly in your relations with
     other men I learn nothing of you that is not honorables
     toward women you are kind, chivalrous, no doubt, overflowing
     with the _usual_ social refinements, but--Here, again, I
     run hard upon the absolute necessity of silence. The way to
     me, if you care to traverse it, is so simple, so very simple!
     Yet, after what I have written, I can not even wave my
     hand in the direction of it, without certain self-contempt.
     When I feel free to tell you, we shall draw apart and remain
     unknown forever.

     "You desire to write? I do not prohibit it. I have
     heretofore made no arrangement for hearing from you, in
     turn, because I could not discover that any advantage would
     accrue from it. But it seems only fair, I confess, and you
     dare not think me capricious. So, three days hence, at six
     o'clock in the evening, a trusty messenger of mine will call
     at your door. If you have anything to give her for me, the
     act of giving it must be the sign of a compact on your part
     that you will allow her to leave immediately, unquestioned
     and unfollowed."

You look puzzled, I see: you don't catch the real drift of her words?
Well, that's a melancholy encouragement. Neither did I, at the time: it
was plain that I had disappointed her in some way, and my intercourse
with or manner toward women had something to do with it. In vain I ran
over as much of my later social life as I could recall. There had been
no special attention, nothing to mislead a susceptible heart; on the
other side, certainly no rudeness, no want of "chivalrous" (she used the
word!) respect and attention. What, in the name of all the gods, was the
matter?

In spite of all my efforts to grow clearer, I was obliged to write
my letter in a rather muddled state of mind. I had _so_ much to say!
sixteen folio pages, I was sure, would only suffice for an introduction
to the case; yet, when the creamy vellum lay before me and the moist pen
drew my fingers toward it, I sat stock dumb for half an hour. I wrote,
finally, in a half-desperate mood, without regard to coherency or logic.
Here's a rough draft of a part of the letter, and a single passage from
it will be enough:

     I can conceive of no simpler way to you than the knowledge
     of your name and address. I have drawn airy images of you,
     but they do not become incarnate, and I am not sure that I
     should recognize you in the brief moment of passing. Your
     nature is not of those which are instantly legible. As an
     abstract power, it has wrought in my life and it continually
     moves my heart with desires which are unsatisfactory because
     so vague and ignorant. Let me offer you, personally, my
     gratitude, my earnest friendship: you would laugh if I were
     _now_ to offer more.

Stay! here is another fragment, more reckless in tone:

     "I want to find the woman whom I can love--who can love me.
     But this is a masquerade where the features are hidden, the
     voice disguised, even the hands grotesquely gloved. Come! I
     will venture more than I ever thought was possible to me.
     You shall know my deepest nature as I myself seem to know
     it. Then, give me the commonest chance of learning yours,
     through an intercourse which shall leave both free, should
     we not feel the closing of the inevitable bond!"

After I had written that, the pages filled rapidly. When the appointed
hour arrived, a bulky epistle, in a strong linen envelope, sealed with
five wax seals, was waiting on my table. Precisely at six there was an
announcement: the door opened, and a little outside, in the shadow, I
saw an old woman, in a threadbare dress of rusty black.

"Come in!" I said.

"The letter!" answered a husky voice. She stretched out a bony hand,
without moving a step.

"It is for a lady--very important business," said I, taking up the
letter; "are you sure that there is no mistake?"

She drew her hand under the shawl, turned without a word, and moved
toward the hall door.

"Stop!" I cried: "I beg a thousand pardons! Take it--take it! You are
the right messenger!"

She clutched it, and was instantly gone.

Several days passed, and I gradually became so nervous and uneasy that
I was on the point of inserting another "Personal" in the daily papers,
when the answer arrived. It was brief and mysterious; you shall hear the
whole of it:

     "I thank you. Your letter is a sacred confidence which I
     pray you never to regret. Your nature is sound and good. You
     ask no more than is reasonable, and I have no real right to
     refuse. In the one respect which I have hinted, _I_ may have
     been unskilful or too narrowly cautious: I must have the
     certainty of this. Therefore, as a generous favor, give me
     six months more! At the end of that time I will write to you
     again. Have patience with these brief lines: another word
     might be a word too much."

You notice the change in her tone? The letter gave me the strongest
impression of a new, warm, almost anxious interest on her part. My
fancies, as first at Wampsocket, began to play all sorts of singular
pranks: sometimes she was rich and of an old family, sometimes
moderately poor and obscure, but always the same calm, reposeful face
and clear gray eyes. I ceased looking for her in society, quite sure
that I should not find her, and nursed a wild expectation of suddenly
meeting her, face to face, in the most unlikely places and
under startling circumstances. However, the end of it all was
patience--patience for six months.

There's not much more to tell; but this last letter is hard for me to
read. It came punctually, to a day. I knew it would, and at the last I
began to dread the time, as if a heavy note were falling due, and I had
no funds to meet it. My head was in a whirl when I broke the seal. The
fact in it stared at me blankly, at once, but it was a long time before
the words and sentences became intelligible.

     "The stipulated time has come, and our hidden romance is at
     an end. Had I taken this resolution a year ago, it would
     have saved me many vain hopes, and you, perhaps, a little
     uncertainty. Forgive me, first, if you can, and then hear
     the explanation!

     "You wished for a personal interview: _you have had, not
     one, but many_. We have met, in society, talked face to
     face, discussed the weather, the opera, toilettes, Queechy,
     Aurora Floyd, Long Branch, and Newport, and exchanged a
     weary amount of fashionable gossip; and you never guessed
     that I was governed by any deeper interest! I have purposely
     uttered ridiculous platitudes, and you were as smilingly
     courteous as if you enjoyed them: I have let fall remarks
     whose hollowness and selfishness could not have escaped you,
     and have waited in vain for a word of sharp, honest, manly
     reproof. Your manner to me was unexceptionable, as it was to
     all other women: but there lies the source of my
     disappointment, of--yes--of my sorrow!

     "You appreciate, I can not doubt, the qualities in woman
     which men value in one another--culture, independence of
     thought, a high and earnest apprehension of life; but you
     know not how to seek them. It is not true that a mature and
     unperverted woman is flattered by receiving only the general
     obsequiousness which most men give to the whole sex. In the
     man who contradicts and strives with her, she discovers a
     truer interest, a nobler respect. The empty-headed, spindle-
     shanked youths who dance admirably, understand something of
     billiards, much less of horses, and still less of
     navigation, soon grow inexpressibly wearisome to us; but the
     men who adopt their social courtesy, never seeking to
     arouse, uplift, instruct us, are a bitter disappointment.

     "What would have been the end, had you really found me?
     Certainly a sincere, satisfying friendship. No mysterious
     magnetic force has drawn you to me or held you near me, nor
     has my experiment inspired me with an interest which can not
     be given up without a personal pang. I am grieved, for the
     sake of all men and all women. Yet, understand me! I mean no
     slightest reproach.  I esteem and honor you for what you
     are.  Farewell!"

There! Nothing could be kinder in tone, nothing more humiliating in
substance, I was sore and offended for a few days; but I soon began to
see, and ever more and more clearly, that she was wholly right. I was
sure, also, that any further attempt to correspond with her would be
vain. It all comes of taking society just as we find it, and supposing
that conventional courtesy is the only safe ground on which men and
women can meet.

The fact is--there's no use in hiding it from myself (and I see, by your
face, that the letter cuts into your own conscience)--she is a free,
courageous, independent character, and--I am not. But who _was_ she?





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