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MISS VINCENT WRITES A LETTER.
Euthymia noticed that her friend had been very much preoccupied for two or three days. She found her more than once busy at her desk, with a manuscript before her, which she turned over and placed inside the desk, as Euthymia entered.
This desire of concealment was not what either of the friends expected to see in the other. It showed that some project was under way, which, at least in its present stage, the Machiavellian young lady did not wish to disclose. It had cost her a good deal of thought and care, apparently, for her waste-basket was full of scraps of paper, which looked as if they were the remains of a manuscript like that at which she was at work. "Copying and recopying, probably," thought Euthymia, but she was willing to wait to learn what Lurida was busy about, though she had a suspicion that it was something in which she might feel called upon to interest herself.
"Do you know what I think?" said Euthymia to the doctor, meeting him as he left his door. "I believe Lurida is writing to this man, and I don't like the thought of her doing such a thing. Of course she is not like other girls in many respects, but other people will judge her by the common rules of life."
"I am glad that you spoke of it," answered the doctor; "she would write to him just as quickly as to any woman of his age. Besides, under the cover of her office, she has got into the way of writing to anybody. I think she has already written to Mr. Kirkwood, asking him to contribute a paper for the Society. She can find a pretext easily enough if she has made up her mind to write. In fact, I doubt if she would trouble herself for any pretext at all if she decided to write. Watch her well. Don't let any letter go without seeing it, if you can help it."
Young women are much given to writing letters to persons whom they only know indirectly, for the most part through their books, and especially to romancers and poets. Nothing can be more innocent and simple-hearted than most of these letters. They are the spontaneous outflow of young hearts easily excited to gratitude for the pleasure which some story or poem has given them, and recognizing their own thoughts, their own feelings, in those expressed by the author, as if on purpose for them to read. Undoubtedly they give great relief to solitary young persons, who must have some ideal reflection of themselves, and know not where to look since Protestantism has taken away the crucifix and the Madonna. The recipient of these letters sometimes wonders, after reading through one of them, how it is that his young correspondent has managed to fill so much space with her simple message of admiration or of sympathy.
Lurida did not belong to this particular class of correspondents, but she could not resist the law of her sex, whose thoughts naturally surround themselves with superabundant drapery of language, as their persons float in a wide superfluity of woven tissues. Was she indeed writing to this unknown gentleman? Euthymia questioned her point-blank.
"Are you going to open a correspondence with Mr. Maurice Kirkwood, Lurida? You seem to be so busy writing, I can think of nothing else. Or are you going to write a novel, or a paper for the Society,--do tell me what you are so much taken up with."
"I will tell you, Euthymia, if you will promise not to find fault with me for carrying out my plan as I have made up my mind to do. You may read this letter before I seal it, and if you find anything in it you don't like you can suggest any change that you think will improve it. I hope you will see that it explains itself. I don't believe that you will find anything to frighten you in it."
This is the letter, as submitted to Miss Tower by her friend. The bold handwriting made it look like a man's letter, and gave it consequently a less dangerous expression than that which belongs to the tinted and often fragrant sheet with its delicate thready characters, which slant across the page like an April shower with a south wind chasing it.
ARROWHEAD VILLAGE, August--, 18--.
MY DEAR SIR,--You will doubtless be surprised at the sight of a letter like this from one whom you only know as the Secretary of the Pansophian Society. There is a very common feeling that it is unbecoming in one of my sex to address one of your own with whom she is unacquainted, unless she has some special claim upon his attention. I am by no means disposed to concede to the vulgar prejudice on this point. If one human being has anything to communicate to another,--anything which deserves being communicated,--I see no occasion for bringing in the question of sex. I do not think the homo sum of Terence can be claimed for the male sex as its private property on general any more than on grammatical grounds,
I have sometimes thought of devoting myself to the noble art of healing. If I did so, it would be with the fixed purpose of giving my whole powers to the service of humanity. And if I should carry out that idea, should I refuse my care and skill to a suffering fellow-mortal because that mortal happened to be a brother, and not a sister? My whole nature protests against such one-sided humanity! No! I am blind to all distinctions when my eyes are opened to any form of suffering, to any spectacle of want.
You may ask me why I address you, whom I know little or nothing of, and to whom such an advance may seem presumptuous and intrusive. It is because I was deeply impressed by the paper which I attributed to you,--that on Ocean, River, and Lake, which was read at one of our meetings. I say that I was deeply impressed, but I do not mean this as a compliment to that paper. I am not bandying compliments now, but thinking of better things than praises or phrases. I was interested in the paper, partly because I recognized some of the feelings expressed in it as my own,--partly because there was an undertone of sadness in all the voices of nature as you echoed them which made me sad to hear, and which I could not help longing to cheer and enliven. I said to myself, I should like to hold communion with the writer of that paper. I have had my lonely hours and days, as he has had. I have had some of his experiences in my intercourse with nature. And oh! if I could draw him into those better human relations which await us all, if we come with the right dispositions, I should blush if I stopped to inquire whether I violated any conventional rule or not.
You will understand me, I feel sure. You believe, do you not? in the insignificance of the barrier which divides the sisterhood from the brotherhood of mankind. You believe, do you not? that they should be educated side by side, that they should share the same pursuits, due regard being had to the fitness of the particular individual for hard or light work, as it must always be, whether we are dealing with the "stronger" or the "weaker" sex. I mark these words because, notwithstanding their common use, they involve so much that is not true. Stronger! Yes, to lift a barrel of flour, or a barrel of cider,--though there have been women who could do that, and though when John Wesley was mobbed in Staffordshire a woman knocked down three or four men, one after another, until she was at last overpowered and nearly murdered. Talk about the weaker sex! Go and see Miss Euthymia Tower at the gymnasium! But no matter about which sex has the strongest muscles. Which has most to suffer, and which has most endurance and vitality? We go through many ordeals which you are spared, but we outlast you in mind and body. I have been led away into one of my accustomed trains of thought, but not so far away from it as you might at first suppose.
My brother! Are you not ready to recognize in me a friend, an equal, a sister, who can speak to you as if she had been reared under the same roof? And is not the sky that covers us one roof, which makes us all one family? You are lonely, you must be longing for some human fellowship. Take me into your confidence. What is there that you can tell me to which I cannot respond with sympathy? What saddest note in your spiritual dirges which will not find its chord in mine?
I long to know what influence has cast its shadow over your existence. I myself have known what it is to carry a brain that never rests in a body that is always tired. I have defied its infirmities, and forced it to do my bidding. You have no such hindrance, if we may judge by your aspect and habits. You deal with horses like a Homeric hero. No wild Indian could handle his bark canoe more dexterously or more vigorously than we have seen you handling yours. There must be some reason for your seclusion which curiosity has not reached, and into which it is not the province of curiosity to inquire. But in the irresistible desire which I have to bring you into kindly relations with those around you, I must run the risk of giving offence that I may know in what direction to look for those restorative influences which the sympathy of a friend and sister can offer to a brother in need of some kindly impulse to change the course of a life which is not, which cannot be, in accordance with his true nature.
I have thought that there may be something in the conditions with which you are here surrounded which is repugnant to your feelings,--something which can be avoided only by keeping yourself apart from the people whose acquaintance you would naturally have formed. There can hardly be anything in the place itself, or you would not have voluntarily sought it as a residence, even for a single season there might be individuals here whom you would not care to meet, there must be such, but you cannot have a personal aversion to everybody. I have heard of cases in which certain sights and sounds, which have no particular significance for most persons, produced feelings of distress or aversion that made, them unbearable to the subjects of the constitutional dislike. It has occurred to me that possibly you might have some such natural aversion to the sounds of the street, or such as are heard in most houses, especially where a piano is kept, as it is in fact in almost all of those in the village. Or it might be, I imagined, that some color in the dresses of women or the furniture of our rooms affected you unpleasantly. I know that instances of such antipathy have been recorded, and they would account for the seclusion of those who are subject to it.
If there is any removable condition which interferes with your free entrance into and enjoyment of the social life around you, tell me, I beg of you, tell me what it is, and it shall be eliminated. Think it not strange, O my brother, that I thus venture to introduce myself into the hidden chambers of your life. I will never suffer myself to be frightened from the carrying out of any thought which promises to be of use to a fellow-mortal by a fear lest it should be considered "unfeminine." I can bear to be considered unfeminine, but I cannot endure to think of myself as inhuman. Can I help you, my brother'?
Believe me your most sincere well-wisher,
Euthymia had carried off this letter and read it by herself. As she finished it, her feelings found expression in an old phrase of her grandmother's, which came up of itself, as such survivals of early days are apt to do, on great occasions.
"Well, I never!"
Then she loosened some button or string that was too tight, and went to the window for a breath of outdoor air. Then she began at the beginning and read the whole letter all over again.
What should she do about it? She could not let this young girl send a letter like that to a stranger of whose character little was known except by inference,--to a young man, who would consider it a most extraordinary advance on the part of the sender. She would have liked to tear it into a thousand pieces, but she had no right to treat it in that way. Lurida meant to send it the next morning, and in the mean time Euthymia had the night to think over what she should do about it.
There is nothing like the pillow for an oracle. There is no voice like that which breaks the silence--of the stagnant hours of the night with its sudden suggestions and luminous counsels. When Euthymia awoke in the morning, her course of action was as clear before her as if it bad been dictated by her guardian angel. She went straight over to the home of Lurida, who was just dressed for breakfast.
She was naturally a little surprised at this early visit. She was struck with the excited look of Euthymia, being herself quite calm, and contemplating her project with entire complacency.
Euthymia began, in tones that expressed deep anxiety.
"I have read your letter, my dear, and admired its spirit and force. It is a fine letter, and does you great credit as an expression of the truest human feeling. But it must not be sent to Mr. Kirkwood. If you were sixty years old, perhaps if you were fifty, it might be admissible to send it. But if you were forty, I should question its propriety; if you were thirty, I should veto it, and you are but a little more than twenty. How do you know that this stranger will not show your letter to anybody or everybody? How do you know that he will not send it to one of the gossiping journals like the 'Household Inquisitor'? But supposing he keeps it to himself, which is more than you have a right to expect, what opinion is he likely to form of a young lady who invades his privacy with such freedom? Ten to one he will think curiosity is at the bottom of it,--and,--come, don't be angry at me for suggesting it,--may there not be a little of that same motive mingled with the others? No, don't interrupt me quite yet; you do want to know whether your hypothesis is correct. You are full of the best and kindest feelings in the world, but your desire for knowledge is the ferment under them just now, perhaps more than you know."
Lurida's pale cheeks flushed and whitened more than once while her friend was speaking. She loved her too sincerely and respected her intelligence too much to take offence at her advice, but she could not give up her humane and sisterly intentions merely from the fear of some awkward consequences to herself. She had persuaded herself that she was playing the part of a Protestant sister of charity, and that the fact of her not wearing the costume of these ministering angels made no difference in her relations to those who needed her aid.
"I cannot see your objections in the light in which they appear to you," she said gravely. "It seems to me that I give up everything when I hesitate to help a fellow-creature because I am a woman. I am not afraid to send this letter and take all the consequences."
"Will you go with me to the doctor's, and let him read it in our presence? And will you agree to abide by his opinion, if it coincides with mine?"
Lurida winced a little at this proposal. "I don't quite like," she said, "showing this letter to--to" she hesitated, but it had to come out--"to a man, that is, to another man than the one for whom it was intended."
The neuter gender business had got a pretty damaging side-hit.
"Well, never mind about letting him read the letter. Will you go over to his house with me at noon, when he comes back after his morning visits, and have a talk over the whole matter with him? You know I have sometimes had to say must to you, Lurida, and now I say you must go to the doctor's with me and carry that letter."
There was no resisting the potent monosyllable as the sweet but firm voice delivered it. At noon the two maidens rang at the doctor's door. The servant said he had been at the house after his morning visits, but found a hasty summons to Mr. Kirkwood, who had been taken suddenly ill and wished to see him at once. Was the illness dangerous? The servant-maid did n't know, but thought it was pretty bad, for Mr. Paul came in as white as a sheet, and talked all sorts of languages which she couldn't understand, and took on as if he thought Mr. Kirkwood was going to die right off.
And so the hazardous question about sending the letter was disposed of, at least for the present.
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