Who Was She? by Bayard Taylor
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 afterwards—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, afterwards: for the present, fill your glass, take
another Cabaña, 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
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 "Minnehehe" 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 haunt us on the brink of
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 dint 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 boardfence, 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 flat, 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 flat 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 re-read, 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
"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 IGNOTAE!--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
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 sun-stroke 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 penknife, 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
"Who said I was hurt?" I cried in astonishment.
"One of your town-women fro them hotel—I reckon she was. I was binding
oats, in the field over the ridge; but I haven't lost no time in comin'
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
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
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
"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
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 cannot?" she asked.
"May I guess?"
She made a slight inclination of the head, saying nothing. I was then
"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 ball-room, 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 draft 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
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 these
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 afterwards.)
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
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 non-committal; 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 afterwards. 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,
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
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
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
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
"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
honorable: toward women you are kind, chivalrous,
no doubt, overflowing with the
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 cannot 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
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
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
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,
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
"You wished for a personal interview:
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 cannot 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 cannot
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
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?