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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


  OLNEY expected, without being able to say why exactly, a second visit from the man who was not only his former rival. Perhaps it was because he believed he knew why Miss Aldgate had refused to see him that he rather thought the young man would come to ask him. But he did not come, and in the mean time Olney began to perceive that it would have been preposterous for him to have come. Till he learned by inquiry of the clerk at the Vendome that Bloomingdale had left there with his mother and sisters, he did not feel that the minister was out of the story, and that it remained for him alone to read it to the end. He took it for granted that Rhoda treated the man who had certainly a claim upon her kindness in that brusque, not to say brutal manner, out of mere hysterical weakness. She had made up her mind to refuse him, and as she felt she might not have strength to endure the sight of the pain she must inflict, she had determined not to witness it. Whether she had loved him too well to afflict him with her secret, or not well enough to trust him with it, was what remained a question with Olney, and he turned from one point of it to the other with the wish to answer it in a sense different from both. What he wished to believe was [129] that she did not love the poor young fellow at all, but this seemed to be too good to be true, and he could not believe it with the constancy of his desire. Nevertheless he had a fitful hold upon it, and it was this faith, wavering and elusive as it was, that encouraged him to think Miss Aldgate would not refuse to see him, and that he might at any rate go down at once to Mrs. Atherton's, and ask about her if not for her.

    When he had reasoned to this conclusion, which he reached with electrical rapidity as soon as he knew that Bloomingdale was gone, he acted upon it. Mrs. Atherton received him with a cheerfulness that ignored, at least in Miss Aldgate's presence, the fact that lay hidden in their thoughts if not in hers. Olney was not obliged to ask about her or for her; she came down with.Mrs. Atherton, as if it were entirely natural she should do so; and the pathetic confidingness of her reception of him as an old friend, brightened almost into the gayety that was her first and principal charm for him. If it had appeared at once this gayety would have troubled him; he would have doubted it for that levity of nature, of race, for which Mrs. Meredith had seen it; but it came out slowly like sunshine through mist, and flattered him with the hope that he had evoked it upon her tragic mask. At the same time he was puzzled, if not shocked, that she seemed forgetful of the woman, so recently gone forever, who had been in all effects a mother to her, and who had sacrificed and borne more than most mothers for her her sake. He was himself too inexperienced, as yet, to [130]  know that we grieve for the dead only by fits, by impulses; that the soul from time to time flings off with all its force, the crushing burden, which then sinks slowly back and bows it in sorrow to the earth again; that if ever grief is constant, it is madness, it is death.

    Mrs. Atherton could have told him of moments when the girl was prostrated by her bereavement, and realized to their whole meaning the desolation and despair which it had left her to. But she could not have told him of the stony weight of unforgiveness at the child's heart; of her unreasoning resentment of the dead woman's revelation, as if she had created the fact that she had felt so sorely bound to impart. The tragic circumstances of her death had not won her pardon for this: the girl felt through all that her aunt had somehow made it so; and for her, ignorant of it all her life till that avowal, she had indeed made it so. Whether a wiser and kinder conscience might not have found it possible to keep the secret, in which there was no guilt or responsibility for the girl, and trust the Judge of all the earth for the end, is a question which the casuist of Mrs. Meredith's school could not deal with. Duty with her could mean but one thing, and she had done her duty. Certainly she was not to be condemned for it; but neither was the affection which she had so sorely wounded to blame if it had conceived for her memory the bitter drop of hate which poisoned all Rhoda's thoughts of her. What the girl had constantly said to herself from the first was what she still said:  that having kept this secret [131] from her all her life, it was too late for her aunt to speak when she did speak at last. Another not involved in the consequences of her act might not have taken this view of it; but this was the view taken of it by the girl who felt herself its victim, and who helplessly resented it, in spite of all that had happened since.

    Whether she was in any degree excusable, or whether she was wholly in the wrong in this feeling, must remain for each to decide, and to each must be left the question of how far the Puritan civilization has carried the cult of the personal conscience into mere dutiolatry.    The daughter of an elder faith would have simplified the affair, and perhaps shirked the responsibility proper to her, by going first with her secret to her confessor, and then being ruled by him. Mrs. Meredith had indeed made a confessor of her physician, after the frequent manner of our shrill-nerved women, but even if Olney could have felt that he had the right to counsel her on the moral side, it is doubtful if she could have found the strength to submit to him.

    Olney's interest in her was mainly confined to the episodes of the last few days, and vivid as these had been, it could not hold him long in censure of Miss Aldgate's behavior; he began to yield to the charm of her presence, and in a little while hazily to wonder what his reserves about her were. She was in the black that seems to grow upon women in the time of mourning, and it singularly became her. It is the [132] color for the South, and for Southern beauty, like the inky shadow cast by the effulgence of tropical skies, it is the counterpart of the glister and flash of hair and eyes which no other hue could set off so well. The girl's splendor dazzled him from the sable cloud of her attire, and in Mrs. Atherton's blond presence, which also bad its sumptuousness--she was large and handsome, and had as yet lost no grace of her girlhood--he felt the tameness of the Northern type. It was the elder world, the beauty of antiquity, which appealed to him in the lustre and sparkle of this girl; and the remote taint of her servile and savage origin gave her a kind of fascination which refuses to let itself be put in words: it was like the grace of a limp, the occult, indefinable lovableness of a deformity, but transcending these by its allurement in infinite degree, and going for the reason of its effect deep into the mysterious places of being where the spirit and the animal meet and part in us. When Olney followed some turn of her head, some movement of her person, a wave of the profoundest passion surged up in his heart, and he knew that he loved her with all his life, which he could make his death if it were a question of that. The mood was of his emotional nature alone; it sought and could have won no justification from his moral sense, which indeed it simply submerged and blotted out for the time.

    There was no reason why he should not stay now as long as he liked, or why he should not come again as often as Mrs. Atherton could find pretexts for asking [133] him. Between them they treated the matter very frankly. He took her advice upon the taste and upon the wisdom of urging his suit at so strange a time; and she decided that in the anomalous situation to which Miss Aldgate was left, her absolute friendlessness and helplessness, there were more reasons for his wooing than against it. They took Mrs. Atherton's husband into their confidence, and availed themselves of the daylight of a legal mind upon their problem. He greatly assisted to clear up the coarser difficulties by communicating as Miss Aldgate's lawyer with her aunt's connections in St. Louis. Mrs. Meredith had left to her niece the remnant of the property she had inherited from her husband, and his family willingly, almost eagerly, accepted the conditions of the will. They waived any right to question it in any sort, and they made no inquiries about Miss Aldgate, or her purposes or wishes.

    Olney agreed with the Athertons that their behavior was very singular, but he kept his own conjectures as to the grounds of it. They were, in fact, hardly conjectures any more; they were convictions. He felt sure that they knew the secret which Mrs. Meredith believed her husband had kept from all the world; but this did not concern him so deeply as the belief that had constantly grown upon him since their first meeting in Mrs. Atherton's presence, that Rhoda knew it too. He had no reason for his belief; it was quite without palpable proofs; it was mere intuition; and yet he was more and more sure of the fact. [134]

    His assurance of it strengthened with his belief that the girl loved him, and had perhaps had her fancy for him from the moment they saw each other in Florence. The evidences that a woman gives of her love before it is asked are always easily resolvable into something else; and in both these things Olney's beliefs were of the same quality, and they were of the same measure. But the one conviction began to taint and poison the other. The man's sweetest and fondest hope became a pang to him, because it involved the fear that the girl might have decided to accept his love and yet keep her secret. In any case he desired her love; as before himself he did not blame her for withholding her secret till she found what seemed to her the best time for imparting it; but for her own sake he could have wished that she would heroically choose the worst. This tacit demand upon her was made from his knowledge of how safe it would be for her to tell him everything, and it left out of the account the fact that till he asked her to be his wife he had no claim upon her, that he could have no terms from her till he owned himself won.   Love is a war in which there can be no preliminaries for grace; the surrender must be unconditional, before these can even be mentioned.

    There were times, of course, when Olney could not believe that the girl knew what at other times she seemed to withhold from him; but at all times the conjecture had to be kept to himself. If she knew, she practised a perfect art in concealing her knowledge which made him fear for the future; and if she [135] did not know, then she showed an indifference to her aunt's memory which seemed not less than unnatural. He conceived the truth concerning her when he said to himself that Rhoda must hold Mrs. Meredith responsible for the fact if she had imparted it; and that time alone could clear away her confusion of mind and enable her to be just to the means which she confounded with the cause of her suffering. But he could not have followed her into those fastnesses of the more intensely personalized feminine consciousness where the girl relentlessly punished her aunt in thought, not for doing her duty, but for doing it too late, when she could remain through life only the unreconciled victim of her origin, instead of revealing it early enough to enable her to accept it and annul it by conforming herself to it.

    As this was what Rhoda had never ceased to believe would have been possible, her heart remained sore with resentment in the midst of the love which she could riot help letting Olney divine. Circumstance had drawn their lives into a sudden intimacy which neither would or could withdraw from; they drifted on toward the only possible conclusion together. For the most part the sense of their love preoccupied them. She turned from her desperate retrospect and blindly strove to keep herself in the present, and to shun the future as she tried to escape the past; he made sure of nothing to build on except the fact that at least she did not know that Mrs. Meredith had confided her secret to him. With this certain, he could take all [136] chances. He could trust time to soften her heart toward the dead, and he could forgive the concealment toward himself which she used.
One thing that he could not understand was her apparent willingness to remain just where and as she was indefinitely; he did not realize that it was apparent only, and as a man he did not account for her patience--if it were patience--as an effect of the abeyance in which the whole training of women teaches them to keep themselves. The moral of their education from the moment they can be instructed in anything is passivity, and to take any positive course must be a negation almost of their being; it must cost an effort unimaginable to a man.

    The summer weeks faded away into September, when one morning Olney came to see Rhoda, and found her sitting on a bench to the seaward of a group of birches. The trees had already dropped a few yellow leaves on the lawn, which looked like flowers strewn in the still vividly green grass. It was one of those pale mornings when a silvery mist blots the edge of the sea and lets the sails melt into it. She was looking wistfully out at them, across Mrs. Atherton's wall, which struggled so conscientiously to look wild and unkempt, with its nasturtiums clambering over it; but she did not affect to be startled when Olney's steps made themselves heard on the gravel-walk coming toward her.

    She flushed with the same joy that thrilled in his heart, and waited for him to come near enough to [137] take her hand before she asked, " Oh, didn't you see Mrs. Atherton?"

    "She sent me word that you were here, as if that were what I wanted," he answered, smiling over the hand he held.

    "Well, I can tell you myself, then," she said, sitting down again.

    "Yes; or not, as you like," he returned.

    "No, it is isn't whether I like or not. I am going

    "Yes," he said quietly. "Where?"

    "To--to New Orleans. To look up my mother's family." She lifted her eyes anxiously to his face, and then helplessly let her glance fall. "I have been talking it over with Mrs. Atherton, and she thinks too that I ought to try to find them."

    Olney's heart gave a leap. He knew that she was hovering on the verge of a confession, which she longed to make for his sake, and that he ought not to suffer her till he had made his own confession. He had the joy of realizing her truth, and he rested nervelessly in that a moment, before he could say lightly, " I don't see why you should do that."

    "Don't you think--think--that it's my duty?" she pleaded.

    "Not in the least! From the experience I've had with the St. Louis branch of your family I don't think it's your duty to look any of them up. Why do you think it is your duty? Have they tried to find you?"

    "They are very poor and humble people--the humblest," she faltered piteously. "They--" [138]

    Her breath went in silence, and he cried, "Rhoda! Don't go away! Stay! Stay with me. Or, if you must go somewhere, go back with me to Florence, where the happiness of my life began when I first knew you were in the world. I love you! I ask you to be my wife!"

    She let her hand seem to sink deeper in his hold, which had somehow not released it yet; she almost pushed it in for an instant, and then she pulled it away violently. "Never!" She sprang to her feet and gasped hoarsely out, "I am a negress!"

    Something in her tragedy affected Olney comically; perhaps the belief that she had often rehearsed these words as answer to his demand. He smiled. "Well, not a very black one. Besides, what of it, if I love you?"

    "What of it?" she echoed. "But don't you know? You mustn't!"

    The simpleness of the words made him laugh outright; these she had not rehearsed. She had dramatized his instant renunciation of her when he knew the fatal truth.

    "Why not? I love you, whether I must or not!"

    As tragedy the whole affair had fallen to ruin. It could be reconstructed, if at all, only upon an octave much below the operatic pitch. It must be treated in no lurid twilight gloom, but in plain, simple, matter-of-fact noonday.

    "I can't let you," she began, in a vain effort to catch up some fragments of her meditated melodrama [139] about her. "You don't understand.  My grandmother was a slave."

    "The more shame to the man that called himself her master! " said Olney. " But I do know--I understand everything--I know everything!" He had not meant to say this. He had always imagined keeping his knowledge from her till they were married, and then in some favored moment confessing that her aunt had told him, and making her forgive her for having told him. But now, in his eagerness to spare her the story which he saw she had it on her conscience to tell him in full, the truth had escaped him.

    "You know it!" she exclaimed, with a fierce recoil. "How do you know it?"

    "Your aunt told me," he answered, hardily. He must now make the best of the worst.

    "Then she was false to me with her last breath! Oh, I will never forgive her!"

    "Oh, yes you will, my dear," said Olney, with the quiet which he felt to be his only hope with her. "She had to tell met to advise with me, before she told you. I wish she had never told you, but if she had not told me, she would have defrauded me of the sweetest thing in life."

    "The privilege of stooping to such a creature as I?" she demanded, bitterly.

    He took her hand and kissed it, and kept it in his. "No: the right of saying that you are all the dearer to me for being just what you are, and that I'm prouder of you for it. And now, don't say that you will not [140] forgive that poor soul,  who suffered years for every hour that you have suffered from that cause. She felt herself sacredly bound to tell you."

    "It was too late then," said the girl, with starting tears. " She killed me. I can't forgive her."

    "Well, what can that matter to her? She can forgive you; and that's the great thing."

    "What do you mean?" she asked, weakly trying to get her hand away.

    "How came she to tell you that she hadn't told me?"

    "I--I made her," faltered the girl. " I asked her if she had. I was frantic."

    "Yes. You had no right to do that. Of course she had to deny it, and you made her take a new lie on her conscience when she had just escaped from one that she had carried for you all your life." Olney gave her back her hand. "Whatever you do with me, for your own sake put away all thoughts of hardness towards that poor woman."

    There was a long silence. Then the girl broke into sudden tears. "I do; I will! I see it now! It was cruel, cruel! But I couldn't see it then; I couldn't see anything but myself ; the world was filled with me--blotted out with me! Ah, can she ever forgive me? If I could only have one word with her, to say that there never was any real hardness in me toward her, and I didn't know what I was doing! Do you think I made her kill herself? Tell me if you do! I can bear it--I deserve to bear it!" [141]

    "She never meant to kill herself," said Olney, sincerely. "I feel sure of that. But she's gone, and you are here; the question's of you, not of her; and I only asked you to be just to yourself. I did' nt mean to tell you now that I knew your secret from her, but I'm not sorry I told you, if it's helped you to substitute a regret for a resentment."

    "It's done that for all my life long."

    "Ah, I didn't mean it to go so far as that!" said Olney, smiling.

    "No matter! It's what I must bear. It's a just punishment." She rose suddenly, and put out her hand to him. "Good-by."

    "What for?"  he asked. "I'm not going."

    "But I am. I'm going away to find my mother's people, if I can--to help them and acknowledge them. I tried to talk with Mrs. Atherton about it, the other day, but I couldn't rightly, for I couldn't let her understand fully. But it's true--and be serious about it, and don't laugh at me! Oughtn't I to go down there and help them; try to educate them, and elevate them; give my life to them? Isn't it base and cowardly to desert them, and live happily apart from them, when--"

    "When you might live so miserably with them?" Olney asked. " Ah, that's the kind of question that I suspect your poor aunt used to torment herself with! But if you wish me to be really serious with you about it, I will say, Yes, you would have some such duty toward them, perhaps, if you had voluntarily chosen [142] your part with them--if you had ever consented to be of their kind. Then it would be base and cowardly to desert them; it would be a treason of the vilest sort. But you never did that, or anything like it, and there is no more specific obligation upon you to give your life to their elevation than there is upon me. Besides, I doubt if that sort of specific devotion would do much good. The way to elevate them is to elevate us, to begin with. It will be an easy matter to deal with those simple-hearted folks after we've got into the right way ourselves. No, if you must give your life to the improvement of any particular race, give it to mine. Begin with me. You won't find me unreasonable. All that I shall ask of you are the fifteen-sixteenths or so of you that belong to my race by heredity; and I will cheerfully consent to your giving our colored connections their one-sixteenth."

    Olney broke off, and laughed at his joke, and she joined him helplessly. " Oh! don't laugh at me!"

    "Laugh at you? I feel a great deal more like crying. If you go down there to elevate the blacks, what is to become of me? I don't really object to your going, but I want to go with you."

    "What do you mean?" she entreated, piteously.

    "What I said just now. I love you, and I ask you to be my wife."

    "I said I couldn't. You know why."

    "But you didn't mean it, or you'd have given me some reason."

    "Some reason?" [143]

    "Yes. What you said was only an excuse. I can't accept it. Rhoda," he added, seriously, " I'm afraid you don't understand! Can't you understand that what you told me--what I knew already--didn't make the slightest difference to me, and couldn't to any man who was any sort of a man! Or yes, it does make a difference! But such a kind of difference that if I could have you other than you are by wishing I wouldn't--for my own selfish sake at least, I wouldn't wish it for the world. Can't you understand that?"

    "No, I can't understand that. It seems to me that it must make you loathe me. Oh!" she shuddered. "You don't know how hideous they are--a whole churchful, as I saw them that night. And I'm like them!"

    Olney's heart ached for her, but he could not help his laugh. "Well, you don't look it. Oh, you poor child! Why do you torment yourself ?"

    "I can't help it. It's burnt into me. It's branded me one of them. I am one. No, I can't escape. And the best way is to go and live among them and own it. Then perhaps I can learn to bear it, and not hate them so. But I do hate them. I do, I do! I can't help it and I don't blame you for hating me!"

    "I don't happen to hate even you," said Olney, going back to his lightness. "My trouble's another kind. Perhaps I should hate you, and hate them, if I'd come of a race of slave-holders, as you have. But my people never injured those poor creatures, and so [144] I don't hate them, or their infinitesimal part in you."

    He found himself, whenever it came to the worst with her in this crisis, taking a tone of levity which was so little of his own volition that it seemed rather to take him. He was physician enough to flatter his patient for her good, and instinctively he treated Rhoda as if she were his patient. It did flatter her to have that side of her ancestry dwelt upon, and to be treated as the daughter of slave-holders; she who would not reconcile herself to her servile origin, listened with a kind of fascination to his tender mockery, in which she felt herself swayed by the deep under-current of his faithful love.

    "Come, come!" he went on, and at his touch she dropped weakly back into her seat again, and let him take her hand and hold it. "I know how this fact has seized upon you and blotted everything else out of the world. But life's made up of a great deal else; and you are but one little part injured to many parts injurer. You belong incomparably more to the oppressors than to the oppressed, and what I'm afraid of is that you'll keep me in hopeless slavery as long as I live. Who would ever imagine that you were as black as you say ? Who would think--"

    "Ah, you've confessed it! You would be ashamed of me, if people knew! That is it!"

    "If you'll answer me as I wish, I'll go up with you to the house and tell Mrs. Atherton. I've rather a fancy for seeing how she would take it. But I can't [145] unless you'll let me share in the disgrace with you. Will you?"

    "Never!  It shall never be known! For your sake! I can bear it; but you shall not. Promise me that you'll never tell a living soul!" She caught him nervously, by the arm, and clung to him. It was her sign of surrender.

    He accepted it, and said: " Very well, I promise it. But only on one condition: that you believe I'm not afraid to tell it. Otherwise my self-respect will oblige me to go round shouting it to everybody. Do you promise?"

    "Yes, I promise: [sic]" and now she yielded to the gayety of his mood, and a succession of flashing smiles lit up her face, in which her doom was transmuted to the happiest fortune. She kept smiling, with her bands linked through his arm and her form drawn close to him; while their talk flowed fantastically away from all her awful questions.. Their love performed the effect of common-sense for them, and in its purple light they saw the every-day duties of life plain before them. They spoke frankly of the incidents of the past few days, and he told her now of his interview with the Bloomingdale family, and how he felt that be had hardened Mrs. Bloomingdale's heart against her by his unsympathetic behavior in denying them an interview with Rhoda herself.

    This made her laugh, but she said,  with a shudder:  "I couldn't have borne to look at them. From the  first moment after my aunt told me, I felt that I must [146] prevent their ever seeing me again. I wrote to him, and I carried the letter out with me to post it, and make sure it went; and then somehow I forgot to post it."

    "Ah," said Olney, " I suppose that's the reason why he came to see me, and to ask where he could find you."

    "Yes," answered Rhoda, placidly.

    "There is only one thing in the whole affair that really troubles me," said Olney, " and that's the very short shrift you gave that poor fellow."

    "Why, when I had written to him I would not see him again, I supposed he was persisting, and it was only the other day that I found the letter, which I'd forgotten to post. It was in the pocket of the dress I wore that night to the church."

    "And you don't think his persisting--his caring so much for you--gave him the right to see you?"

    "Not the least."

    "Ah, a man never understands a woman's position on that question."

    "Why, of course, if I had cared for him--"

    "I don't know but I've a little case of conscience here myself. I had awful qualms when that poor fellow was talking with me. I perceived that he was as magnanimous as I was on the subject of heredity, and that, I thought, ought to count in his favor. Will you let it?"


    "Why not?' [147]

    " Because I don't care for him."

    "How simple it is! Well, he's off my conscience, at any rate."

    She began to grieve a little."But if you are sorry--"


    "If you think you will ever regret--if you're not sure that you'll never be troubled by--by--that, then we had better--"

    "My dear child," said Olney, " I'm going to leave all the trouble of that to you. I assure you that from this on I shall never think of it. I am going to provide for your future, and let you look after your past."

    She dropped her head with a sob upon his shoulder, and as he gathered her in his arms he felt as if he had literally rescued her from her own thoughts of herself.

    He was young and strong, and he believed that he would always be able to make her trust him against them, because now in the fulness of their happiness he prevailed.

    There are few men who, when the struggle of life is mainly over, do not wonder at the risks they took in the days of their youth and strength; and it could not be pretended that Olney found more than the common share of happiness in the lot he chose; but then it could be said honestly enough that he did not consider either life or love valuable for the happiness they could yield. They were enough in themselves. He was not a seeker after happiness, and when he [148]  saw that even his love failed at times to make life happy for his wife, he pitied her, and he did not blame her. He knew that in her hours of despondency there was that war between her temperament and her character which is the fruitful cause of misery in the world, where all strains are now so crossed and intertangled that there is no definite and unbroken direction any more in any of us. In her, the infusion was only a little greater than in most others, and if Olney ever had any regret it was that the sunny-natured antetypes of her mother's race had not endowed her with more of the heaven-born cheerfulness with which it meets contumely and injustice. His struggle was with that hypochondria of the soul into which the Puritanism of her father's race had sickened in her, and which so often seems to satisfy its crazy claim upon conscience by enforcing some aimless act of self-sacrifice. The silence in which they lived concerning her origin weighed upon her sometimes with the sense of a guilty deceit, and it was her remorse for this that he had to reason her out of. The question whether it ought not to be told to each of their acquaintance who became a friend had always to be solved anew, especially if the acquaintance was an American; but as yet their secret remains their own. They are settled at Rome, after a brief experiment of a narrower field of practice at Florence; and the most fanciful of Olney's compatriot patients does not dream that his wife ought to suffer shame from her. She is thought to look so very Italian that you [149] would really take her for an Italian, and he represents to her that it would not be the ancestral color, which is much the same in other races, but the ancestral condition which their American friends would despise if they knew of it; that this is a quality of the despite in which hard work is held all the world over, and has always followed the children of the man who earns his bread with his hands, especially if he earns other people's bread too. [150]

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