Was it Right?–Was it Wrong?
A woman sat at her desk in the corner of a room; behind her a fire burnt brightly.
Presently a servant came in and gave her a card.
"Say I am busy and can see no one now. I have to finish this article by two o'clock."
The servant came back. The caller said she would only keep her a moment: it was necessary she should see her.
The woman rose from her desk. "Tell the boy to wait. Ask the lady to come in."
A young woman in a silk dress, with a cloak reaching to her feet, entered. She was tall and slight, with fair hair.
"I knew you would not mind. I wished to see you so!"
The woman offered her a seat by the fire. "May I loosen your cloak?–the room is warm."
"I wanted so to come and see you. You are the only person in the world who could help me! I know you are so large, and generous, and kind to other women!" She sat down. Tears stood in her large blue eyes: she was pulling off her little gloves unconsciously.
"You know Mr.–" (she mentioned the name of a well-known writer): "I know you meet him often in your work. I want you to do something for me!"
The woman on the hearth-rug looked down at her.
"I couldn't tell my father or my mother, or any one else; but I can tell you, though I know so little of you. You know, last summer he came and stayed with us a month. I saw a great deal of him. I don't know if he liked me; I know he liked my singing, and we rode together–I liked him more than any man I have ever seen. Oh, you know it isn't true that a woman can only like a man when he likes her; and I thought, perhaps, he liked me a little. Since we have been in town we have asked, but he has never come to see us. Perhaps people have been saying something to him about me. You know him, you are always meeting him, couldn't you say or do anything for me?" She looked up with her lips white and drawn. "I feel sometimes as if I were going mad! Oh, it is so terrible to be a woman!" The woman looked down at her. "Now I hear he likes another woman. I don't know who she is, but they say she is so clever, and writes. Oh, it is so terrible, I can't bear it."
The woman leaned her elbow against the mantelpiece, and her face against her hand. She looked down into the fire. Then she turned and looked at the younger woman. "Yes," she said, "it is a very terrible thing to be a woman." She was silent. She said with some difficulty: "Are you sure you love him? Are you sure it is not only the feeling a young girl has for an older man who is celebrated, and of whom every one is talking?"
"I have been nearly mad. I haven't slept for weeks!" She knit her little hands together, till the jewelled rings almost cut into the fingers. "He is everything to me; there is nothing else in the world. You, who are so great, and strong, and clever, and who care only for your work, and for men as your friends, you cannot understand what it is when one person is everything to you, when there is nothing else in the world!"
"And what do you want me to do?"
"Oh, I don't know!" She looked up. "A woman knows what she can do. Don't tell him that I love him." She looked up again. "Just say something to him. Oh, it's so terrible to be a woman; I can't do anything. You won't tell him exactly that I love him? That's the thing that makes a man hate a woman, if you tell it him plainly."
"If I speak to him I must speak openly. He is my friend. I cannot fence with him. I have never fenced with him in my own affairs." She moved as though she were going away from the fireplace, then she turned and said: "Have you thought of what love is between a man and a woman when it means marriage? That long, long life together, day after day, stripped of all romance and distance, living face to face: seeing each other as a man sees his own soul? Do you realize that the end of marriage is to make the man and woman stronger than they were; and that if you cannot, when you are an old man and woman and sit by the fire, say, 'Life has been a braver and a freer thing for us, because we passed it hand in hand, than if we had passed through it alone,' it has failed? Do you care for him enough to live for him, not tomorrow, but when he is an old, faded man, and you an old, faded woman? Can you forgive him his sins and his weaknesses, when they hurt you most? If he were to lie a querulous invalid for twenty years, would you be able to fold him in your arms all that time, and comfort him, as a mother comforts her little child?" The woman drew her breath heavily.
"Oh, I love him absolutely! I would be glad to die, if only I could once know that he loved me better than anything in the world!"
The woman stood looking down at her. "Have you never thought of that other woman; whether she could not perhaps make his life as perfect as you?" she asked, slowly.
"Oh, no woman ever could be to him what I would be. I would live for him. He belongs to me." She bent herself forward, not crying, but her shoulders moving. "It is such a terrible thing to be a woman, to be able to do nothing and say nothing!"
The woman put her hand on her shoulder; the younger woman looked up into her face; then the elder turned away and stood looking into the fire. There was such quiet, you could hear the clock tick above the writing- table.
The woman said: "There is one thing I can do for you. I do not know if it will be of any use–I will do it." She turned away.
"Oh, you are so great and good, so beautiful, so different from other women, who are always thinking only of themselves! Thank you so much. I know I can trust you. I couldn't have told my mother, or any one but you."
"Now you must go; I have my work to finish."
The younger woman put her arms round her. "Oh, you are so good and beautiful!"
The silk dress and the fur cloak rustled out of the room.
The woman who was left alone walked up and down, at last faster and faster, till the drops stood on her forehead. After a time she went up to the table; there was written illegibly in a man's hand on a fragment of manuscript paper: "Can I come to see you this afternoon?" Near it was a closed and addressed envelope. She opened it. In it were written the words: "Yes, please, come."
She tore it across and wrote the words: "No, I shall not be at liberty."
She closed them in an envelope and addressed them. Then she rolled up the manuscript on the table and rang the bell. She gave it to the servant. "Tell the boy to give this to his master, and say the article ends rather abruptly; they must state it is to be continued; I will finish it tomorrow. As he passes No. 20 let him leave this note there."
The servant went out. She walked up and down with her hands folded above her head.
Two months after, the older woman stood before the fire. The door opened suddenly, and the younger woman came in.
"I had to come–I couldn't wait. You have heard, he was married this morning? Oh, do you think it is true? Do help me!" She put out her hands.
"Sit down. Yes, it is quite true."
"Oh, it is so terrible, and I didn't know anything! Did you ever say anything to him?" She caught the woman's hands.
"I never saw him again after the day you were here,–so I could not speak to him,–but I did what I could." She stood looking passively into the fire.
"And they say she is quite a child, only eighteen. They say he only saw her three times before he proposed to her. Do you think it is true?"
"Yes, it is quite true."
"He can't love her. They say he's only marrying her for her rank and her money."
The woman turned quickly.
"What right have you to say that? No one but I know him. What need has he of any one's rank or wealth? He is greater than them all! Older women may have failed him; he has needed to turn to her beautiful, fresh, young life to compensate him. She is a woman whom any man might have loved, so young and beautiful; her family are famed for their intellect. If he trains her, she may make him a better wife than any other woman would have done."
"Oh, but I can't bear it–I can't bear it!" The younger woman sat down in the chair. "She will be his wife, and have his children."
"Yes." The elder woman moved quickly. "One wants to have the child, and lay its head on one's breast and feed it." She moved quickly. "It would not matter if another woman bore it, if one had it to take care of." She moved restlessly.
"Oh, no, I couldn't bear it to be hers. When I think of her I feel as if I were dying; all my fingers turn cold; I feel dead. Oh, you were only his friend; you don't know!"
The older spoke softly and quickly, "Don't you feel a little gentle to her when you think she's going to be his wife and the mother of his child? I would like to put my arms round her and touch her once, if she would let me. She is so beautiful, they say."
"Oh, I could never bear to see her; it would kill me. And they are so happy together today! He is loving her so!"
"Don't you want him to be happy?" The older woman looked down at her. "Have you never loved him, at all?"
The younger woman's face was covered with her hands. "Oh, it's so terrible, so dark! and I shall go on living year after year, always in this awful pain! Oh, if I could only die!"
The older woman stood looking into the fire; then slowly and measuredly she said, "There are times, in life, when everything seems dark, when the brain reels, and we cannot see that there is anything but death. But, if we wait long enough, after long, long years, calm comes. It may be we cannot say it was well; but we are contented, we accept the past. The struggle is ended. That day may come for you, perhaps sooner than you think." She spoke slowly and with difficulty.
"No, it can never come for me. If once I have loved a thing, I love it for ever. I can never forget."
"Love is not the only end in life. There are other things to live for."
"Oh, yes, for you! To me love is everything!"
"Now, you must go, dear."
The younger woman stood up. "It has been such a comfort to talk to you. I think I should have killed myself if I had not come. You help me so. I shall always be grateful to you."
The older woman took her hand.
"I want to ask something of you."
"What is it?"
"I cannot quite explain to you. You will not understand. But there are times when something more terrible can come into a life than it should lose what it loves. If you have had a dream of what life ought to be, and you try to make it real, and you fail; and something you have killed out in your heart for long years wakes up and cries, 'Let each man play his own game, and care nothing for the hand of his fellow! Each man for himself. So the game must be played!' and you doubt all you have lived for, and the ground seems washing out under your feet–." She paused. "Such a time has come to me now. If you would promise me that if ever another woman comes to seek your help, you will give it to her, and try to love her for my sake, I think it will help me. I think I should be able to keep my faith."
"Oh, I will do anything you ask me to. You are so good and great."
"Oh, good and great!–if you knew! Now go, dear."
"I have not kept you from your work, have I?"
"No; I have not been working lately. Good-by, dear."
The younger woman went; and the elder knelt down by the chair, and wailed like a little child when you have struck it and it does not dare to cry loud.
A year after; it was early spring again.
The woman sat at her desk writing; behind her the fire burnt brightly. She was writing a leading article on the causes which in differing peoples lead to the adoption of Free Trade or Protectionist principles.
The woman wrote on quickly. After a while the servant entered and laid a pile of letters on the table. "Tell the boy I shall have done in fifteen minutes." She wrote on. Then she caught sight of the writing on one of the letters. She put down her pen, and opened it. It ran so:–
"Dear Friend,–I am writing to you, because I know you will rejoice to hear of my great happiness. Do you remember how you told me that day by the fire to wait, and after long, long years I should see that all was for the best? That time has come sooner than we hoped. Last week in Rome I was married to the best, noblest, most large-hearted of men. We are now in Florence together. You don't know how beautiful all life is to me. I know now that the old passion was only a girl's foolish dream. My husband is the first man I have ever truly loved. He loves me and understands me as no other man ever could. I am thankful that my dream was broken; God had better things in store for me. I don't hate that woman any more; I love every one! How are you, dear? We shall come and see you as soon as we arrive in England. I always think of you so happy in your great work and helping other people. I don't think now it is terrible to be a woman; it is lovely.
"I hope you are enjoying this beautiful spring weather.
"Yours, always full of gratitude and love,
The woman read the letter: then she stood up and walked towards the fire. She did not re-read it, but stood with it open in her hand, looking down into the blaze. Her lips were drawn in at the corners. Presently she tore the letter up slowly, and watched the bits floating down one by one into the grate. Then she went back to her desk, and began to write, with her mouth still drawn in at the corners. After a while she laid her arm on the paper and her head on her arm, and seemed to go to sleep there.
Presently the servant knocked; the boy was waiting. "Tell him to wait ten minutes more." She took up her pen–"The Policy of the Australian Colonies in favour of Protection is easily understood–" she waited–"when one considers the fact–the fact–;" then she finished the article.
Cape Town, South Africa, 1892.