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Chapter 22

XXII

It is long since I wrote you, and you have had reason enough to be impatient of my silence. I submit to the reproaches of your letter, with a due sense of my blame; whether I am altogether to blame, you shall say after you have read this.

I cannot yet decide whether I have lost a great happiness, the greatest that could come to any man, or escaped the worst misfortune that could befall me. But, such as it is, I will try to set the fact honestly down.

I do not know whether you had any conjecture, from my repeated mention of a lady whose character greatly interested me, that I was in the way of feeling any other interest in her than my letters expressed. I am no longer young, though at thirty-five an Altrurian is by no means so old as an American at the same age. The romantic ideals of the American women which I had formed from the American novels had been dissipated; if I had any sentiment towards them, as a type, it was one of distrust, which my very sense of the charm in their inconsequence, their beauty, their brilliancy, served rather to intensify. I thought myself doubly defended by that difference between their civilization and ours which forbade reasonable hope of happiness in any sentiment for them tenderer than that of the student of strange effects in human nature. But we have not yet, my dear Cyril, reasoned the passions, even in Altruria.

After I last wrote you, a series of accidents, or what appeared so, threw me more and more constantly into the society of Mrs. Strange. We began to laugh at the fatality with which we met everywhere—at teas, at lunches, at dinners, at evening receptions, and even at balls, where I have been a great deal, because, with all my thirty-five years, I have not yet outlived that fondness for dancing which has so often amused you in me. Wherever my acquaintance widened among cultivated people, they had no inspiration but to ask us to meet each other, as if there were really no other woman in New York who could be expected to understand me. "You must come to lunch (or tea, or dinner, whichever it might be), and we will have her. She will be so much interested to meet you."

But perhaps we should have needed none of these accidents to bring us together. I, at least, can look back and see that, when none of them happened, I sought occasions for seeing her, and made excuses of our common interest in this matter and in that to go to her. As for her, I can only say that I seldom failed to find her at home, whether I called upon her nominal day or not, and more than once the man who let me in said he had been charged by Mrs. Strange to say that, if I called, she was to be back very soon; or else he made free to suggest that, though Mrs. Strange was not at home, Mrs. Gray was; and then I found it easy to stay until Mrs. Strange returned. The good old lady had an insatiable curiosity about Altruria, and, though I do not think she ever quite believed in our reality, she at least always treated me kindly, as if I were the victim of an illusion that was thoroughly benign.

I think she had some notion that your letters, which I used often to take with me and read to Mrs. Strange and herself, were inventions of mine; and the fact that they bore only an English postmark confirmed her in this notion, though I explained that in our present passive attitude towards the world outside we had as yet no postal relations with other countries, and, as all our communication at home was by electricity, that we had no letter-post of our own. The very fact that she belonged to a purer and better age in America disqualified her to conceive of Altruria; her daughter, who had lived into a full recognition of the terrible anarchy in which the conditions have ultimated here, could far more vitally imagine us, and to her, I believe, we were at once a living reality. Her perception, her sympathy, her intelligence, became more and more to me, and I escaped to them oftener and oftener, from a world where an Altrurian must be so painfully at odds. In all companies here I am aware that I have been regarded either as a good joke or a bad joke, according to the humor of the listener, and it was grateful to be taken seriously.

From the first I was sensible of a charm in her, different from that I felt in other American women, and impossible in our Altrurian women. She had a deep and almost tragical seriousness, masked with a most winning gayety, a light irony, a fine scorn that was rather for herself than for others. She had thought herself out of all sympathy with her environment; she knew its falsehood, its vacuity, its hopelessness; but she necessarily remained in it and of it. She was as much at odds in it as I was, without my poor privilege of criticism and protest, for, as she said, she could not set herself up as a censor of things that she must keep on doing as other people did. She could have renounced the world, as there are ways and means of doing here; but she had no vocation to the religious life, and she could not feign it without a sense of sacrilege. In fact, this generous and magnanimous and gifted woman was without that faith, that trust in God which comes to us from living His law, and which I wonder any American can keep. She denied nothing; but she had lost the strength to affirm anything. She no longer tried to do good from her heart, though she kept on doing charity in what she said was a mere mechanical impulse from the belief of other days, but always with the ironical doubt that she was doing harm. Women are nothing by halves, as men can be, and she was in a despair which no man can realize, for we have always some if or and which a woman of the like mood casts from her in wild rejection. Where she could not clearly see her way to a true life, it was the same to her as an impenetrable darkness.

You will have inferred something of all this from what I have written of her before, and from words of hers that I have reported to you. Do you think it so wonderful, then, that in the joy I felt at the hope, the solace, which my story of our life seemed to give her, she should become more and more precious to me? It was not wonderful, either, I think, that she should identify me with that hope, that solace, and should suffer herself to lean upon me, in a reliance infinitely sweet and endearing. But what a fantastic dream it now appears!

William Dean Howells