Miss Grief by Constance Fenimore Woolson
(Lippincott's Magazine, May, 1880.)
"A conceited fool" is a not uncommon expression. Now, I
know that I am not a fool, but I also know that I am
conceited. But, candidly, can it be helped if one
happens to be young, well and strong, passably
good-looking, with some money that one has inherited and
more that one has earned—in all, enough to make life
comfortable—and if upon this foundation rests also the
pleasant superstructure of a literary success? The
success is deserved, I think: certainly it was not
lightly-gained. Yet even with this I fully appreciate
its rarity. Thus, I find myself very well entertained in
life: I have all I wish in the way of society, and a
deep, though of course carefully concealed, satisfaction
in my own little fame; which fame I foster by a gentle
system of non-interference. I know that I am spoken of
as "that quiet young fellow who writes those delightful
little studies of society, you know;" and I live up to
A year ago I was in Rome, and enjoying life
particularly. I had a large number of my acquaintances
there, both American and English, and no day passed
without its invitation. Of course I understood it: it is
seldom that you find a literary man who is
good-tempered, well-dressed, sufficiently provided with
money, and amiably obedient to all the rules and
requirements of "society." "When found, make a note of
it;" and the note was generally an invitation.
One evening, upon returning to my lodgings, my man
Simpson informed me that a person had called in the
afternoon, and upon learning that I was absent had left
not a card, but her name—"Miss Grief." The title
lingered—Miss Grief! "Grief has not so far visited me
here," I said to myself, dismissing Simpson and seeking
my little balcony for a final smoke, "and she shall not
now. I shall take care to be 'not at home' to her if she
continues to call." And then I fell to thinking of
Isabel Abercrombie, in whose society I had spent that
and many evenings: they were golden thoughts.
The next day there was an excursion; it was late when I
reached my rooms, and again Simpson informed me that
Miss Grief had called.
"Is she coming continuously?" I said, half to myself.
"Yes, sir: she mentioned that she should call again."
"How does she look?"
"Well, sir, a lady, but not so prosperous as she was, I
should say," answered Simpson, discreetly.
"A maid with her, sir."
But once outside in my little high-up balcony with my
cigar, I again forgot Miss Grief and whatever she might
represent. Who would not forget in that moonlight, with
Isabel Abercrombie's face to remember?
The stranger came a third time, and I was absent; then
she let two days pass, and began again. It grew to be a
regular dialogue between Simpson and myself when I came
in at night: "Grief to-day?"
"Happy the man," I thought, "who can keep her confined
to a particular hour!"
But I should not have treated my visitor so cavalierly
if I had not felt sure that she was eccentric and
unconventional—qualities extremely tiresome in a woman
no longer young or attractive. If she were not eccentric
she would not have persisted in coming to my door day
after day in this silent way, without stating her
errand, leaving a note, or presenting her credentials in
any shape. I made up my mind that she had something to
sell—a bit of carving or some intaglio supposed to be
antique. It was known that I had a fancy for oddities. I
said to myself, "She has read or heard of my 'Old Gold'
story, or else 'The Buried God,' and she thinks me an
idealizing ignoramus upon whom she can impose. Her
sepulchral name is at least not Italian; probably she is
a sharp countrywoman of mine, turning, by means of the
present æsthetic craze, an honest penny when she can."
She had called seven times during a period of two weeks
without seeing me, when one day I happened to be at home
in the afternoon, owing to a pouring rain and a fit of
doubt concerning Miss Abercrombie. For I had constructed
a careful theory of that young lady's characteristics in
my own mind, and she had lived up to it delightfully
until the previous evening, when with one word she had
blown it to atoms and taken flight, leaving me standing,
as it were, on a desolate shore, with nothing but a
handful of mistaken inductions wherewith to console
myself. I do not know a more exasperating frame of mind,
at least for a constructor of theories. I could not
write, and so I took up a French novel (I model myself a
little on Balzac). I had been turning over its pages but
a few moments when Simpson knocked, and, entering
softly, said, with just a shadow of a smile on his
well-trained face, "Miss Grief." I briefly consigned
Miss Grief to all the Furies, and then, as he still
lingered—perhaps not knowing where they resided—I asked
where the visitor was.
"Outside, sir—in the hall. I told her I would see if you
were at home."
"She must be unpleasantly wet if she had no carriage."
"No carriage, sir: they always come on foot. I think she
is a little damp, sir."
"Well, let her in; but I don't want the maid. I may as
well see her now, I suppose, and end the affair."
I did not put down my book. My visitor should have a
hearing, but not much more: she had sacrificed her
womanly claims by her persistent attacks upon my door.
Presently Simpson ushered her in. "Miss Grief," he said,
and then went out, closing the curtain behind him.
A woman—yes, a lady—but shabby, unattractive, and more
I rose, bowed slightly, and then dropped into my chair
again, still keeping the book in my hand. "Miss Grief?"
I said interrogatively as I indicated a seat with my
"Not Grief," she answered—"Crief: my name is Crief."
She sat down, and I saw that she held a small flat box.
"Not carving, then," I thought—"probably old lace,
something that belonged to Tullia or Lucrezia Borgia."
But as she did not speak I found myself obliged to
begin: "You have been here, I think, once or twice
"Seven times; this is the eighth."
"I am often out; indeed, I may say that I am never in,"
I remarked carelessly.
"Yes; you have many friends."
"—Who will perhaps buy old lace," I mentally added. But
this time I too remained silent; why should I trouble
myself to draw her out? She had sought me; let her
advance her idea, whatever it was, now that entrance was
But Miss Grief (I preferred to call her so) did not look
as though she could advance anything; her black gown,
damp with rain, seemed to retreat fearfully to her thin
self, while her thin self retreated as far as possible
from me, from the chair, from everything. Her eyes were
cast down; an old-fashioned lace veil with a heavy
border shaded her face. She looked at the floor, and I
looked at her.
I grew a little impatient, but I made up my mind that I
would continue silent and see how long a time she would
consider necessary to give due effect to her little
pantomime. Comedy? Or was it tragedy? I suppose full
five minutes passed thus in our double silence; and that
is a long time when two persons are sitting opposite
each other alone in a small still room.
At last my visitor, without raising her eyes, said
slowly, "You are very happy, are you not, with youth,
health, friends, riches, fame?"
It was a singular beginning. Her voice was clear, low,
and very sweet as she thus enumerated my advantages one
by one in a list. I was attracted by it, but repelled by
her words, which seemed to me flattery both dull and
"Thanks," I said, "for your kindness, but I fear it is
undeserved. I seldom discuss myself even when with my
"I am your friend," replied Miss Grief. Then, after a
moment, she added slowly, "I have read every word you
I curled the edges of my book indifferently; I am not a
fop, I hope, but—others have said the same.
"What is more, I know much of it by heart," continued my
visitor. "Wait: I will show you;" and then, without
pause, she began to repeat something of mine word for
word, just as I had written it. On she went, and
I—listened. I intended interrupting her after a moment,
but I did not, because she was reciting so well, and
also because I felt a desire gaining upon me to see what
she would make of a certain conversation which I knew
was coming—a conversation between two of my characters
which was, to say the least, sphinx-like, and somewhat
incandescent as well. What won me a little, too, was the
fact that the scene she was reciting (it was hardly more
than that, though called a story) was secretly my
favorite among all the sketches from my pen which a
gracious public has received with favor. I never said
so, but it was; and I had always felt a wondering
annoyance that the aforesaid public, while kindly
praising beyond their worth other attempts of mine, had
never noticed the higher purpose of this little shaft,
aimed not at the balconies and lighted windows of
society, but straight up toward the distant stars. So
she went on, and presently reached the conversation: my
two people began to talk. She had raised her eyes now,
and was looking at me soberly as she gave the words of
the woman, quiet, gentle, cold, and the replies of the
man, bitter, hot, and scathing. Her very voice changed,
and took, though always sweetly, the different tones
required, while no point of meaning, however small, no
breath of delicate emphasis which I had meant, but which
the dull types could not give, escaped an appreciative
and full, almost overfull, recognition which startled
me. For she had understood me—understood me almost
better than I had understood myself. It seemed to me
that while I had labored to interpret, partially, a
psychological riddle, she, coming after, had
comprehended its bearings better than I had, though
confining herself strictly to my own words and emphasis.
The scene ended (and it ended rather suddenly), she
dropped her eyes, and moved her hand nervously to and
fro over the box she held; her gloves were old and
shabby, her hands small.
I was secretly much surprised by what I had heard, but
my ill-humor was deep-seated that day, and I still felt
sure, besides, that the box contained something which I
was expected to buy.
"You recite remarkably well," I said carelessly, "and I
am much flattered also by your appreciation of my
attempt. But it is not, I presume, to that alone that I
owe the pleasure of this visit?"
"Yes," she answered, still looking down, "it is, for if
you had not written that scene I should not have sought
you. Your other sketches are interiors—exquisitely
painted and delicately finished, but of small scope.
This is a sketch in a few bold, masterly lines—work
of entirely different spirit and purpose."
I was nettled by her insight. "You have bestowed so much
of your kind attention upon me that I feel your debtor,"
I said, conventionally. "It may be that there is
something I can do for you—connected, possibly, with
that little box?"
It was impertinent, but it was true; for she answered,
I smiled, but her eyes were cast down and she did not
see the smile.
"What I have to show you is a manuscript," she said
after a pause which I did not break; "it is a drama. I
thought that perhaps you would read it."
"An authoress! This is worse than old lace," I said to
myself in dismay.—Then, aloud, "My opinion would be
worth nothing, Miss Crief."
"Not in a business way, I know. But it might be—an
assistance personally." Her voice had sunk to a whisper;
outside, the rain was pouring steadily down. She was a
very depressing object to me as she sat there with her
"I hardly think I have the time at present—" I began.
She had raised her eyes and was looking at me; then,
when I paused, she rose and came suddenly toward my
chair. "Yes, you will read it," she said with her hand
on my arm—"you will read it. Look at this room; look at
yourself; look at all you have. Then look at me, and
I had risen, for she held my arm, and her damp skirt was
brushing my knees.
Her large dark eyes looked intently into mine as she
went on; "I have no shame in asking. Why should I have?
It is my last endeavor; but a calm and well-considered
one. If you refuse I shall go away, knowing that Fate
has willed it so. And I shall be content."
"She is mad," I thought. But she did not look so, and
she had spoken quietly, even gently.—"Sit down," I said,
moving away from her. I felt as if I had been
magnetized; but it was only the nearness of her eyes to
mine, and their intensity. I drew forward a chair, but
she remained standing.
"I cannot," she said in the same sweet, gentle tone,
"unless you promise."
"Very well, I promise; only sit down."
As I took her arm to lead her to the chair I perceived
that she was trembling, but her face continued unmoved.
"You do not, of course, wish me to look at your
manuscript now?" I said, temporizing; "it would be much
better to leave it. Give me your address, and I will
return it to you with my written opinion; though, I
repeat, the latter will be of no use to you. It is the
opinion of an editor or publisher that you want."
"It shall be as you please. And I will go in a moment,"
said Miss Grief, pressing her palms together, as if
trying to control the tremor that had seized her slight
She looked so pallid that I thought of offering her a
glass of wine; then I remembered that if I did it might
be a bait to bring her there again, and this I was
desirous to prevent. She rose while the thought was
passing through my mind. Her pasteboard box lay on the
chair she had first occupied; she took it, wrote an
address on the cover, laid it down, and then, bowing
with a little air of formality, drew her black shawl
round her shoulders and turned toward the door.
I followed, after touching the bell. "You will hear from
me by letter," I said.
Simpson opened the door, and I caught a glimpse of the
maid, who was waiting in the anteroom. She was an old
woman, shorter than her mistress, equally thin, and
dressed like her in rusty black. As the door opened she
turned toward it a pair of small, dim blue eyes with a
look of furtive suspense. Simpson dropped the curtain,
shutting me into the inner room; he had no intention of
allowing me to accompany my visitor further. But I had
the curiosity to go to a bay-window in an angle from
whence I could command the street-door, and presently I
saw them issue forth in the rain and walk away side by
side, the mistress, being the taller, holding the
umbrella: probably there was not much difference in rank
between persons so poor and forlorn as these.
It grew dark. I was invited out for the evening, and I
knew that if I should go I should meet Miss Abercrombie.
I said to myself that I would not go. I got out my paper
for writing, I made my preparations for a quiet evening
at home with myself; but it was of no use. It all ended
slavishly in my going. At the last allowable moment I
presented myself, and—as a punishment for my
vacillation, I suppose—I never passed a more
disagreeable evening. I drove homeward in a murky
temper; it was foggy without, and very foggy within.
What Isabel really was, now that she had broken through
my elaborately-built theories, I was not able to decide.
There was, to tell the truth, a certain young
Englishman—But that is apart from this story.
I reached home, went up to my rooms, and had a supper.
It was to console myself; I am obliged to console myself
scientifically once in a while. I was walking up and
down afterward, smoking and feeling somewhat better,
when my eye fell upon the pasteboard box. I took it up;
on the cover was written an address which showed that my
visitor must have walked a long distance in order to see
me: "A. Crief."—"A Grief," I thought; "and so she is. I
positively believe she has brought all this trouble upon
me: she has the evil eye." I took out the manuscript and
looked at it. It was in the form of a little volume, and
clearly written; on the cover was the word "Armor" in
German text, and, underneath, a pen-and-ink sketch of a
helmet, breastplate, and shield.
"Grief certainly needs armor," I said to myself, sitting
down by the table and turning over the pages. "I may as
well look over the thing now; I could not be in a worse
mood." And then I began to read.
Early the next morning Simpson took a note from me to
the given address, returning with the following reply:
"No; I prefer to come to you; at four;
These words, with their three semicolons, were written
in pencil upon a piece of coarse printing-paper, but the
handwriting was as clear and delicate as that of the
manuscript in ink.
"What sort of a place was it, Simpson?"
"Very poor, sir, but I did not go all the way up. The
elder person came down, sir, took the note, and
requested me to wait where I was."
"You had no chance, then, to make inquiries?" I said,
knowing full well that he had emptied the entire
neighborhood of any information it might possess
concerning these two lodgers.
"Well, sir, you know how these foreigners will talk,
whether one wants to hear or not. But it seems that
these two persons have been there but a few weeks; they
live alone, and are uncommonly silent and reserved. The
people round there call them something that signifies
'the Madames American, thin and dumb.'"
At four the "Madames American" arrived; it was raining
again, and they came on foot under their old umbrella.
The maid waited in the anteroom, and Miss Grief was
ushered into my bachelor's parlor. I had thought that I
should meet her with great deference; but she looked so
forlorn that my deference changed to pity. It was the
woman that impressed me then, more than the writer—the
fragile, nerveless body more than the inspired mind. For
it was inspired: I had sat up half the night over her
drama, and had felt thrilled through and through more
than once by its earnestness, passion, and power.
No one could have been more surprised than I was to find
myself thus enthusiastic. I thought I had outgrown that
sort of thing. And one would have supposed, too (I
myself should have supposed so the day before), that the
faults of the drama, which were many and prominent,
would have chilled any liking I might have felt, I being
a writer myself, and therefore critical; for writers are
as apt to make much of the "how," rather than the
"what," as painters, who, it is well known, prefer an
exquisitely rendered representation of a commonplace
theme to an imperfectly executed picture of even the
most striking subject. But in this case, on the
contrary, the scattered rays of splendor in Miss Grief's
drama had made me forget the dark spots, which were
numerous and disfiguring; or, rather, the splendor had
made me anxious to have the spots removed. And this also
was a philanthropic state very unusual with me.
Regarding unsuccessful writers, my motto had been "Væ
My visitor took a seat and folded her hands; I could
see, in spite of her quiet manner, that she was in
breathless suspense. It seemed so pitiful that she
should be trembling there before me—a woman so much
older than I was, a woman who possessed the divine spark
of genius, which I was by no means sure (in spite of my
success) had been granted to me—that I felt as if I
ought to go down on my knees before her, and entreat her
to take her proper place of supremacy at once. But
there! one does not go down on one's knees,
combustively, as it were, before a woman over fifty,
plain in feature, thin, dejected, and ill-dressed. I
contented myself with taking her hands (in their
miserable old gloves) in mine, while I said cordially,
"Miss Crief, your drama seems to me full of original
power. It has roused my enthusiasm: I sat up half the
night reading it."
The hands I held shook, but something (perhaps a shame
for having evaded the knees business) made me tighten my
hold and bestow upon her also a reassuring smile. She
looked at me for a moment, and then, suddenly and
noiselessly, tears rose and rolled down her cheeks. I
dropped her hands and retreated. I had not thought her
tearful: on the contrary, her voice and face had seemed
rigidly controlled. But now here she was bending herself
over the side of the chair with her head resting on her
arms, not sobbing aloud, but her whole frame shaken by
the strength of her emotion. I rushed for a glass of
wine; I pressed her to take it. I did not quite know
what to do, but, putting myself in her place, I decided
to praise the drama; and praise it I did. I do not know
when I have used so many adjectives. She raised her head
and began to wipe her eyes.
"Do take the wine," I said, interrupting myself in my
cataract of language.
"I dare not," she answered; then added humbly, "that is,
unless you have a biscuit here or a bit of bread."
I found some biscuit; she ate two, and then slowly drank
the wine, while I resumed my verbal Niagara. Under its
influence—and that of the wine too, perhaps—she began to
show new life. It was not that she looked radiant—she
could not—but simply that she looked warm. I now
perceived what had been the principal discomfort of her
appearance heretofore: it was that she had looked all
the time as if suffering from cold.
At last I could think of nothing more to say, and
stopped. I really admired the drama, but I thought I had
exerted myself sufficiently as an anti-hysteric, and
that adjectives enough, for the present at least, had
been administered. She had put down her empty
wine-glass, and was resting her hands on the broad
cushioned arms of her chair with, for a thin person, a
sort of expanded content.
"You must pardon my tears," she said, smiling; "it was
the revulsion of feeling. My life was at a low ebb: if
your sentence had been against me it would have been my
"Yes, the end of my life; I should have destroyed
"Then you would have been a weak as well as wicked
woman," I said in a tone of disgust. I do hate
"Oh no, you know nothing about it. I should have
destroyed only this poor worn tenement of clay. But I
can well understand how you would look upon it.
Regarding the desirableness of life the prince and the
beggar may have different opinions.—We will say no more
of it, but talk of the drama instead." As she spoke the
word "drama" a triumphant brightness came into her eyes.
I took the manuscript from a drawer and sat down beside
her. "I suppose you know that there are faults," I said,
expecting ready acquiescence.
"I was not aware that there were any," was her gentle
Here was a beginning! After all my interest in her—and,
I may say under the circumstances, my kindness—she
received me in this way! However, my belief in her
genius was too sincere to be altered by her whimsies; so
I persevered. "Let us go over it together," I said.
"Shall I read it to you, or will you read it to me?"
"I will not read it, but recite it."
"That will never do; you will recite it so well that we
shall see only the good points, and what we have to
concern ourselves with now is the bad ones."
"I will recite it," she repeated.
"Now, Miss Crief," I said bluntly, "for what purpose did
you come to me? Certainly not merely to recite: I am no
stage-manager. In plain English, was it not your idea
that I might help you in obtaining a publisher?"
"Yes, yes," she answered, looking at me apprehensively,
all her old manner returning.
I followed up my advantage, opened the little paper
volume and began. I first took the drama line by line,
and spoke of the faults of expression and structure;
then I turned back and touched upon two or three glaring
impossibilities in the plot. "Your absorbed interest in
the motive of the whole no doubt made you forget these
blemishes," I said apologetically.
But, to my surprise, I found that she did not see the
blemishes—that she appreciated nothing I had said,
comprehended nothing. Such unaccountable obtuseness
puzzled me. I began again, going over the whole with
even greater minuteness and care. I worked hard: the
perspiration stood in beads upon my forehead as I
struggled with her—what shall I call it—obstinacy? But
it was not exactly obstinacy. She simply could not see
the faults of her own work, any more than a blind man
can see the smoke that dims a patch of blue sky. When I
had finished my task the second time she still remained
as gently impassive as before. I leaned back in my chair
exhausted, and looked at her.
Even then she did not seem to comprehend (whether she
agreed with it or not) what I must be thinking. "It is
such a heaven to me that you like it!" she murmured
dreamily, breaking the silence. Then, with more
animation, "And now you will let me recite it?"
I was too weary to oppose her; she threw aside her shawl
and bonnet, and, standing in the centre of the room,
And she carried me along with her: all the strong
passages were doubly strong when spoken, and the faults,
which seemed nothing to her, were made by her
earnestness to seem nothing to me, at least for that
moment. When it was ended she stood looking at me with a
"Yes," I said, "I like it, and you see that I do. But I
like it because my taste is peculiar. To me originality
and force are everything—perhaps because I have them not
to any marked degree myself—but the world at large will
not overlook as I do your absolutely barbarous
shortcomings on account of them. Will you trust me to go
over the drama and correct it at my pleasure?" This was
a vast deal for me to offer; I was surprised at myself.
"No," she answered softly, still smiling. "There shall
not be so much as a comma altered." Then she sat down
and fell into a reverie as though she were alone.
"Have you written anything else?" I said after a while,
when I had become tired of the silence.
"Can I see it? Or is it them?"
"It is them. Yes, you can see all."
"I will call upon you for the purpose."
"No, you must not," she said, coming back to the present
nervously. "I prefer to come to you."
At this moment Simpson entered to light the room, and
busied himself rather longer than was necessary over the
task. When he finally went out I saw that my visitor's
manner had sunk into its former depression: the presence
of the servant seemed to have chilled her.
"When did you say I might come?" I repeated, ignoring
"I did not say it. It would be impossible."
"Well, then, when will you come here?" There was, I
fear, a trace of fatigue in my tone.
"At your good pleasure, sir," she answered humbly.
My chivalry was touched by this: after all, she was a
woman. "Come to-morrow," I said. "By the way, come and
dine with me then; why not?" I was curious to see what
she would reply.
"Why not, indeed? Yes, I will come. I am forty-three: I
might have been your mother."
This was not quite true, as I am over thirty: but I look
young, while she—Well, I had thought her over fifty. "I
can hardly call you 'mother,' but we might compromise
upon 'aunt,'" I said, laughing. "Aunt what?"
"My name is Aaronna," she gravely answered. "My father
was much disappointed that I was not a boy, and gave me
as nearly as possible the name he had prepared—Aaron."
"Then come and dine with me to-morrow, and bring with
you the other manuscripts, Aaronna," I said, amused at
the quaint sound of the name. On the whole, I did not
"I will come," she answered.
It was twilight and still raining, but she refused all
offers of escort or carriage, departing with her maid,
as she had come, under the brown umbrella. The next day
we had the dinner. Simpson was astonished—and more than
astonished, grieved—when I told him that he was to dine
with the maid; but he could not complain in words, since
my own guest, the mistress, was hardly more attractive.
When our preparations were complete I could not help
laughing: the two prim little tables, one in the parlor
and one in the anteroom, and Simpson disapprovingly
going back and forth between them, were irresistible.
I greeted my guest hilariously when she arrived, and,
fortunately, her manner was not quite so depressed as
usual: I could never have accorded myself with a tearful
mood. I had thought that perhaps she would make, for the
occasion, some change in her attire; I have never known
a woman who had not some scrap of finery, however small,
in reserve for that unexpected occasion of which she is
ever dreaming. But no: Miss Grief wore the same black
gown, unadorned and unaltered. I was glad that there was
no rain that day, so that the skirt did not at least
look so damp and rheumatic.
She ate quietly, almost furtively, yet with a good
appetite, and she did not refuse the wine. Then, when
the meal was over and Simpson had removed the dishes, I
asked for the new manuscripts. She gave me an old green
copybook filled with short poems, and a prose sketch by
itself; I lit a cigar and sat down at my desk to look
"Perhaps you will try a cigarette?" I suggested, more
for amusement than anything else, for there was not a
shade of Bohemianism about her; her whole appearance was
"I have not yet succeeded in learning to smoke."
"You have tried?" I said, turning round.
"Yes: Serena and I tried, but we did not succeed."
"Serena is your maid?"
"She lives with me."
I was seized with inward laughter, and began hastily to
look over her manuscripts with my back toward her, so
that she might not see it. A vision had risen before me
of those two forlorn women, alone in their room with
locked doors, patiently trying to acquire the smoker's
But my attention was soon absorbed by the papers before
me. Such a fantastic collection of words, lines, and
epithets I had never before seen, or even in dreams
imagined. In truth, they were like the work of dreams:
they were Kubla Khan, only more so. Here and
there was radiance like the flash of a diamond, but each
poem, almost each verse and line, was marred by some
fault or lack which seemed wilful perversity, like the
work of an evil sprite. It was like a case of jeweller's
wares set before you, with each ring unfinished, each
bracelet too large or too small for its purpose, each
breastpin without its fastening, each necklace purposely
broken. I turned the pages, marvelling. When about half
an hour had passed, and I was leaning back for a moment
to light another cigar, I glanced toward my visitor. She
was behind me, in an easy-chair before my small fire,
and she was—fast asleep! In the relaxation of her
unconsciousness I was struck anew by the poverty her
appearance expressed; her feet were visible, and I saw
the miserable worn old shoes which hitherto she had kept
After looking at her for a moment I returned to my task
and took up the prose story; in prose she must be more
reasonable. She was less fantastic perhaps, but hardly
more reasonable. The story was that of a profligate and
commonplace man forced by two of his friends, in order
not to break the heart of a dying girl who loves him, to
live up to a high imaginary ideal of himself which her
pure but mistaken mind has formed. He has a handsome
face and sweet voice, and repeats what they tell him.
Her long, slow decline and happy death, and his own
inward ennui and profound weariness of the rôle he has
to play, made the vivid points of the story. So far,
well enough, but here was the trouble: through the whole
narrative moved another character, a physician of tender
heart and exquisite mercy, who practised murder as a
fine art, and was regarded (by the author) as a second
Messiah! This was monstrous. I read it through twice,
and threw it down; then, fatigued, I turned round and
leaned back, waiting for her to wake. I could see her
profile against the dark hue of the easy-chair.
Presently she seemed to feel my gaze, for she stirred,
then opened her eyes. "I have been asleep," she said,
"No harm in that, Aaronna."
But she was deeply embarrassed and troubled, much more
so than the occasion required; so much so, indeed, that
I turned the conversation back upon the manuscripts as a
diversion. "I cannot stand that doctor of yours," I
said, indicating the prose story; "no one would. You
must cut him out."
Her self-possession returned as if by magic. "Certainly
not," she answered haughtily.
"Oh, if you do not care—I had labored under the
impression that you were anxious these things should
find a purchaser."
"I am, I am," she said, her manner changing to deep
humility with wonderful rapidity. With such alternations
of feeling as this sweeping over her like great waves,
no wonder she was old before her time.
"Then you must take out that doctor."
"I am willing, but do not know how," she answered,
pressing her hands together helplessly. "In my mind he
belongs to the story so closely that he cannot be
separated from it."
Here Simpson entered, bringing a note for me: it was a
line from Mrs. Abercrombie inviting me for that
evening—an unexpected gathering, and therefore likely to
be all the more agreeable. My heart bounded in spite of
me; I forgot Miss Grief and her manuscripts for the
moment as completely as though they had never existed.
But, bodily, being still in the same room with her, her
speech brought me back to the present.
"You have had good news?" she said.
"Oh no, nothing especial—merely an invitation."
"But good news also," she repeated. "And now, as for me,
I must go."
Not supposing that she would stay much later in any
case, I had that morning ordered a carriage to come for
her at about that hour. I told her this. She made no
reply beyond putting on her bonnet and shawl.
"You will hear from me soon," I said; "I shall do all I
can for you."
She had reached the door, but before opening it she
stopped, turned and extended her hand. "You are good,"
she said: "I give you thanks. Do not think me ungrateful
or envious. It is only that you are young, and I am
so—so old." Then she opened the door and passed through
the anteroom without pause, her maid accompanying her
and Simpson with gladness lighting the way. They were
gone. I dressed hastily and went out—to continue my
studies in psychology.
Time passed; I was busy, amused and perhaps a little
excited (sometimes psychology is exciting). But, though
much occupied with my own affairs, I did not altogether
neglect my self-imposed task regarding Miss Grief. I
began by sending her prose story to a friend, the editor
of a monthly magazine, with a letter making a strong
plea for its admittance. It should have a chance first
on its own merits. Then I forwarded the drama to a
publisher, also an acquaintance, a man with a taste for
phantasms and a soul above mere common popularity, as
his own coffers knew to their cost. This done, I waited
with conscience clear.
Four weeks passed. During this waiting period I heard
nothing from Miss Grief. At last one morning came a
letter from my editor. "The story has force, but I
cannot stand that doctor," he wrote. "Let her cut him
out, and I might print it." Just what I myself had said.
The package lay there on my table, travel-worn and
grimed; a returned manuscript is, I think, the most
melancholy object on earth. I decided to wait, before
writing to Aaronna, until the second letter was
received. A week later it came. "Armor" was declined.
The publisher had been "impressed" by the power
displayed in certain passages, but the "impossibilities
of the plot" rendered it "unavailable for
publication"—in fact, would "bury it in ridicule" if
brought before the public, a public "lamentably" fond of
amusement, "seeking it, undaunted, even in the cannon's
mouth." I doubt if he knew himself what he meant. But
one thing, at any rate, was clear: "Armor" was declined.
Now, I am, as I have remarked before, a little
obstinate. I was determined that Miss Grief's work
should be received. I would alter and improve it myself,
without letting her know: the end justified the means.
Surely the sieve of my own good taste, whose mesh had
been pronounced so fine and delicate, would serve for
two. I began; and utterly failed.
I set to work first upon "Armor." I amended, altered,
left out, put in, pieced, condensed, lengthened; I did
my best, and all to no avail. I could not succeed in
completing anything that satisfied me, or that
approached, in truth, Miss Grief's own work just as it
stood. I suppose I went over that manuscript twenty
times: I covered sheets of paper with my copies. But the
obstinate drama refused to be corrected; as it was it
must stand or fall.
Wearied and annoyed, I threw it aside and took up the
prose story: that would be easier. But, to my surprise,
I found that that apparently gentle "doctor" would not
out: he was so closely interwoven with every part of the
tale that to take him out was like taking out one
especial figure in a carpet: that is, impossible, unless
you unravel the whole. At last I did unravel the whole,
and then the story was no longer good, or Aaronna's: it
was weak, and mine. All this took time, for of course I
had much to do in connection with my own life and tasks.
But, though slowly and at my leisure, I really did try
my best as regarded Miss Grief, and without success. I
was forced at last to make up my mind that either my own
powers were not equal to the task, or else that her
perversities were as essential a part of her work as her
inspirations, and not to be separated from it. Once
during this period I showed two of the short poems to
Isabel, withholding of course the writer's name. "They
were written by a woman," I explained.
"Her mind must have been disordered, poor thing!" Isabel
said in her gentle way when she returned them—"at least,
judging by these. They are hopelessly mixed and vague."
Now, they were not vague so much as vast. But I knew
that I could not make Isabel comprehend it, and (so
complex a creature is man) I do not know that I wanted
her to comprehend it. These were the only ones in the
whole collection that I would have shown her, and I was
rather glad that she did not like even these. Not that
poor Aaronna's poems were evil: they were simply
unrestrained, large, vast, like the skies or the wind.
Isabel was bounded on all sides, like a violet in a
garden-bed. And I liked her so.
One afternoon, about the time when I was beginning to
see that I could not "improve" Miss Grief, I came upon
the maid. I was driving, and she had stopped on the
crossing to let the carriage pass. I recognized her at a
glance (by her general forlornness), and called to the
driver to stop: "How is Miss Grief?" I said. "I have
been intending to write to her for some time."
"And your note, when it comes," answered the old woman
on the crosswalk fiercely, "she shall not see."
"I say she shall not see it. Your patronizing face shows
that you have no good news, and you shall not rack and
stab her any more on this earth, please God,
while I have authority."
"Who has racked or stabbed her, Serena?"
"Serena, indeed! Rubbish! I'm no Serena: I'm her aunt.
And as to who has racked and stabbed her, I say you,
literary men!" She had put her old head inside my
carriage, and flung out these words at me in a shrill,
menacing tone. "But she shall die in peace in spite of
you," she continued. "Vampires! you take her ideas and
fatten on them, and leave her to starve. You know you
do—you who have had her poor manuscripts these
months and months!"
"Is she ill?" I asked in real concern, gathering that
much at least from the incoherent tirade.
"She is dying," answered the desolate old creature, her
voice softening and her dim eyes filling with tears.
"Oh, I trust not. Perhaps something can be done. Can I
help you in any way?"
"In all ways if you would," she said, breaking down and
beginning to sob weakly, with her head resting on the
sill of the carriage-window. "Oh, what have we not been
through together, we two! Piece by piece I have sold
I am good-hearted enough, but I do not like to have old
women weeping across my carriage-door. I suggested,
therefore, that she should come inside and let me take
her home. Her shabby old skirt was soon beside me, and,
following her directions, the driver turned toward one
of the most wretched quarters of the city, the abode of
poverty, crowded and unclean. Here, in a large bare
chamber up many flights of stairs, I found Miss Grief.
As I entered I was startled: I thought she was dead.
There seemed no life present until she opened her eyes,
and even then they rested upon us vaguely, as though she
did not know who we were. But as I approached a light
came into them: she recognized me, and this sudden
revivification, this return of the soul to the almost
deserted bod, was the most wonderful thing I ever saw.
"You have good news of the drama?" she whispered as I
bent over her: "tell me. I know you have good
What was I to answer? Pray, what would you have
"Yes, I have good news, Aaronna," I said. "The drama
will appear." (And who knows? Perhaps it will in some
She smiled, and her now brilliant eyes did not leave my
"He knows I'm your aunt: I told him," said the old
woman, coming to the bedside.
"Did you?" whispered Miss Grief, still gazing at me with
a smile. "Then please, dear Aunt Martha, give me
something to eat."
Aunt Martha hurried across the room, and I followed her.
"It's the first time she's asked for food in weeks," she
said in a husky tone.
She opened a cupboard-door vaguely, but I could see
nothing within. "What have you for her?" I asked with
some impatience, though in a low voice.
"Please God, nothing!" answered the poor old woman,
hiding her reply and her tears behind the broad
cupboard-door. "I was going out to get a little
something when I met you."
"Good Heavens! is it money you need? Here, take this and
send; or go yourself in the carriage waiting below."
She hurried out breathless, and I went back to the
bedside, much disturbed by what I had seen and heard.
But Miss Grief's eyes were full of life, and as I sat
down beside her she whispered earnestly, "Tell me."
And I did tell her—a romance invented for the occasion.
I venture to say that none of my published sketches
could compare with it. As for the lie involved, it will
stand among my few good deeds; I know, at the
And she was satisfied. "I have never known what it was,"
she whispered, "to be fully happy until now." She closed
her eyes, and when the lids fell I again thought that
she had passed away. But no, there was still pulsation
in her small, thin wrist. As she perceived my touch she
smiled. "Yes, I am happy," she said again, though
without audible sound.
The old aunt returned; food was prepared, and she took
some. I myself went out after wine that should be rich
and pure. She rallied a little, but I did not leave her:
her eyes dwelt upon me and compelled me to stay, or
rather my conscience compelled me. It was a damp night,
and I had a little fire made. The wine, fruit, flowers,
and candles I had ordered made the bare place for the
time being bright and fragrant. Aunt Martha dozed in her
chair from sheer fatigue—she had watched many nights—but
Miss Grief was awake, and I sat beside her.
"I make you my executor," she murmured, "as to the
drama. But my other manuscripts place, when I am gone,
under my head, and let them be buried with me. They are
not many—those you have and these. See!"
I followed her gesture, and saw under her pillows the
edges of two more copybooks like the one I had. "Do not
look at them—my poor dead children!" she said tenderly.
"Let them depart with me—unread, as I have been."
Later she whispered, "Did you wonder why I came to you?
It was the contrast. You were
young—strong—rich—praised—loved—successful: all that I
was not. I wanted to look at you—and imagine how it
would feel. You had success—but I had the greater power.
Tell me, did I not have it?"
"It is all in the past now. But I am satisfied."
After another pause she said with a faint smile, "Do you
remember when I fell asleep in your parlor? It was the
good and rich food. It was so long since I had had food
I took her hand and held it, conscience-stricken, but
now she hardly seemed to perceive my touch. "And the
smoking?" she whispered. "Do you remember how you
laughed? I saw it. But I had heard that smoking
soothed—that one was no longer tired and hungry—with a
In little whispers of this sort, separated by long rests
and pauses, the night passed. Once she asked if her aunt
was asleep, and when I answered in the affirmative she
said, "Help her to return home—to America: the drama
will pay for it. I ought never to have brought her
I promised, and she resumed her bright-eyed silence.
I think she did not speak again. Toward morning the
change came, and soon after sunrise, with her old aunt
kneeling by her side, she passed away.
All was arranged as she had wished. Her manuscripts,
covered with violets, formed her pillow. No one followed
her to the grave save her aunt and myself; I thought she
would prefer it so. Her name was not "Crief," after all,
but "Moncrief;" I saw it written out by Aunt Martha for
the coffin-plate, as follows: "Aaronna Moncrief, aged
forty-three years, two months, and eight days."
I never knew more of her history than is written here.
If there was more that I might have learned, it remained
unlearned, for I did not ask.
And the drama? I keep it here in this locked case. I
could have had it published at my own expense; but I
think that now she knows its faults herself, perhaps,
and would not like it.
I keep it; and, once in a while, I read it over—not as a
memento mori exactly, but rather as a memento of
my own good fortune, for which I should continually give
thanks. The want of one grain made all her work void,
and that one grain was given to me. She, with the
greater power, failed—I, with the less, succeeded. But
no praise is due to me for that. When I die "Armor" is
to be destroyed unread: not even Isabel is to see it.
For women will misunderstand each other; and, dear and
precious to me as my sweet wife is, I could not bear
that she or any one should cast so much as a thought of
scorn upon the memory of the writer, upon my poor dead,
"unavailable," unaccepted "Miss Grief."