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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


   Miss Aldgate came in late in the afternoon. She came in softly, and then, finding her aunt awake, she let herself fall into an easy-chair with the air of utter exhaustion that girls like to put on, after getting home from a social pleasure, and sighed out a long "0-o-o-h, dear!

    Her aunt let her sit silent and stare awhile at the carpet just beyond the toe of her pretty boot before she suggested, "Well?"

    "Oh, nothing! Only it got to be rather tiresome, toward the last."

    "Why did you stay so long?"

    "I couldn't get away; they wouldn't let me go. They kept proposing this and  that, and then they wanted to arrange something for to-morrow. But I wouldn't."

    "They are rather persistent," said Mrs. Meredith. "Yes, they are persistent. But they are very kind--they are very good-natured. I wish--I wish I liked them better!"

    "Don't you like them?"

    "Oh, I like them, yes, in a kind of way. They're a very familyish sort of a family; they're so muck bound up in one another. Of course they can do a [57] great many nice things: Miss Bloomingdale is really wonderful with her music; and Josie sketches very nicely; and Roberta sings beautifully,--there's no denying it; but they don't talk very much, and they're all so tall and handsome and blond; and they sit round with their hands arranged in their laps, and keep waiting for me to say things, and then their mother starts, them up and makes them do something. The worst is she keeps dragging in Mr. Bloomingdale all the time. There isn't anything that doesn't suggest him--what he thinks, what he says, where he's been and what he did there; just how far he's got on his way home by this time; how he's never seasick, but he doesn't like rough weather. I began to dread the introduction of a new subject: it was so sure to bring round to him. Don't you think they're of rather an old-fashioned taste?"

    "I never liked this family very much," said Mrs. Meredith. "They seemed very estimable people, but not--"

    "Our  kind? No, decidedly. Did Dr. Olney stay long?"

    "No. Why do you ask? " Mrs. Meredith returned, with a startled look.

    "Oh, nothing. You seemed to be quite chummy with him, and not to want me round a great deal when I came in." Miss Aldgate had discovered the toe of her boot just beyond her skirt, apparently with some surprise, and she leaned forward to touch it with the point of her parasol, as if to make sure of it. "Is he [58] coming again this evening? " she asked, leaning back in her chair, and twisting her parasol by its handle.

    "Not unless I send for him. I have his sleeping medicine."

    "Yes. And I know how to drop it. Did he think it strange my being away from you so much when you needed a doctor?"

    "He knew I didn't need any doctor. Why do you ask such a question as that?"

    "I don't know. I thought it might have struck him. But I thought I had better try and see if I could get used to them or not. They're pretty formal people--conventional. I mean in the way of dress and that kind of thing. They're formal in their ideals, don't you know. They would want to do just what they thought other people were doing; they would be dreadfully troubled if there was anything about them that was not just like everybody else. Do you think Mr. Bloomingdale would be so?"

    "I never--liked his family very much," Mrs. Meredith repeated. "What little I saw of them," she added, as if conscientiously.

    "Oh, that doesn't count, Aunt Caroline!" said the girl, with a laugh. "You never liked the families of any of the Americans that you thought fancied me. But the question is not whether we like his family, but whether he's like them."

    "You can't separate him from his family, Rhoda. You must remember that. Each of us is bound by a thousand mysterious ties to our kindred, our ancestors; we can't get away from them--" [59]

    "Oh, what stuff, aunty! " Miss Aldgate was still greatly amused. "I should like to know how I'm bound to my mother's family, that I never saw one of; or to her father or grandfather?"

    "How?" Mrs. Meredith gasped.

    "Yes. Or how much they were bound to me, if they never tried to find me out or make themselves known by any sort of sign? I'm bound to you because we've always been together, and I was bound to Uncle Meredith because he was good to me. But there isn't anything mysterious about it. And Mr. Bloomingdale is bound to his family in the same way. He's fond of them because he's been nice to them and they've been nice to him. I wonder," she mused, while Mrs. Meredith felt herself slowly recoil from the point which she had been suddenly caught up to, "whether I really care for him or not? There were very nice things about him; and no, he was not tiresome and formal-minded like them. I wish I had been a little in love with some one, and then I could tell. But I've never had anything but decided dislikings, though I didn't dislike him decidedly. No, I rather liked him. That is, I thought he was good. Yes, I respected his goodness. It's about the only thing in this world you can respect. But now, I remember, he seemed very young, and all the younger because he thought it was his duty as a minister to seem old. Did you care very much for his sermon?"

    Rhoda came to the end of her thinking aloud with a question that she had to repeat before her aunt asked, drearily in answer, "What sermon?"

    "Why, we only heard him once! The one he preached in Florence. I didn't have a full sense of his youth till I heard that. Isn't it strange that there are ever young ministers? I suppose people think they can make up in inspiration what they lack in experience. But that day when I looked round at those men and women, some of them gray-haired, and most of them middle-aged, and all of them knowing so much more about life, and its trials and temptations, and troubles and sorrows, than poor Mr. Bloomingdale--I oughtn't to call him poor--and heard him going on about the birds and the flowers, I wondered how they could bear it. Of course it was all right; I know that. But if the preacher shouldn't  happen to be inspired, wouldn't it be awful? How old do you suppose Dr. Olney is?"

    "I don't know."

    "He seems rather bald. Do you think he is forty?"

    "Dear me, no, child! He isn't thirty yet, I dare say. Some men are bald much earlier than others. It's a matter of--heredity."

    "Heredity! Everything's heredity with you, Aunt Caroline!" the girl laughed. "I'll bet he's worn it off by thinking too much in one particular spot. "You know that they say now they can tell just what place in the brain a person thinks this or that; and just where the will-power comes from when you wink your eye, or wiggle your little finger. I wonder if Dr. Olney knows all those things? Have you tried him on your favorite heredity yet?" [61]

    "What do you mean, Rhoda?"

    "I know you have!" the girl exulted. "Well, he is the kind of man I should always want to have for my doctor if I had to have one; though I don't think he's done you a great deal of good yet, Aunt Caroline: you look wretched, and I shall feel like scolding Dr. Olney when he comes again. But what I mean is, he has such noble ideas: don't you think he has?"

    "Yes--yes. About what?"

    "Why, about the negroes, you know." Mrs. Meredith winced at the word. "I never happened to see it in that light before. I thought when we had set them free, we had done everything. But I can see now we haven't. We do perfectly banish them, as far as we can; and we don't associate with them half as much as we do with the animals. I got to talking with the Bloomingdales this afternoon, and I had to take the negroes' part. Don't you think that was funny for a Southern girl?" Mrs. Meredith looked at her with a ghastly face, and moved her lips in answer, without making any sound. "They said that the negroes were an inferior race, and they never could associate with the whites because they never could be intellectually equal with them. I told them about that black English lawyer from Sierra Leone that talked so well at the table d'hôte in Venice--better than anybody else--but they wouldn't give way. They were very narrow-minded; or the mother was; the rest didn't say anything; only made exclamations. Mrs. Bloomingdale said Dr. Olney must be a [62]  very strange physician, to have those ideas. I hope Mr. Bloomingdale isn't like her. You would say he was a good deal younger than Dr. Olney, wouldn't you?"

    "Yes--not so very. But why--"

    Rhoda broke out into a laugh of humorous perplexity. "Why, if he were only a little older, or a good deal older, he could advise me whether to marry him or not?" The laughter faded suddenly from her eyes, and she fell back dejectedly against her chair, and remained looking at her aunt, as if trying to read in her face the silent working of her thought. "Well?" she demanded, finally.

    Mrs. Meredith dropped her eyes. "Why need you marry any one?"

    "What a funny question! " the girl answered, with the sparkle of a returning smile. "So as to have somebody to take care of me in my old age!" The young like to speak of age so, with a mocking incredulity; they feel that, however it may have fared with all the race hitherto, they never can be old, and they like to make a joke of the mere notion. "You'll be getting old yourself some day, Aunt Caroline, and then what shall I do? Don't you think that a woman ought to got married?

    "Yes--yes. Not always--not necessarily. Certainly not to have some one to take care of her."

    "Of course not! That would be a very base motive. I suppose I really meant, have somebody for me to take care of. I think that is what keeps [63] one from being lonesome more than anything else. I do feel so alone sometimes. It seems to me there are very few girls so perfectly isolated. Why, just think! With the exception of you, I don't believe I've got a single relation in the world." Rhoda seemed interested rather than distressed by the fact. "Now there are the Bloomingdales," she went on; "it seems as if they had connections everywhere. That is something like a family. If I married Mr. Bloomingdale, I could always have somebody to take care of as long as I lived. To be sure, they would be Bloomingdales," she added, dreamily.

    "Rhoda!" said her aunt, "I cannot let you speak so. If you are in earnest about Mr. Bloomingdale--"

    "I am. But not about his family--or not so much so."

    "You cannot take him without taking his family; that is always the first thing to be thought of in marriage, and young people think of it the last. The family on each side counts almost as much as the couple themselves in a marriage."

    "Mine wouldn't," the girl interpolated. "There's so very little of it!"

    If Mrs. Meredith was trying to bring the talk to this point, she now seemed to find herself too suddenly confronted with it, and she shrank back a little. "I don't mean that family is the first thing."

    "You just said it was, aunty!"

    "The first thing," Mrs. Meredith continued, ignoring the teasing little speech, "is to make sure of yourself, to be satisfied that you love him." [64]

    "It's so much easier," the girl sighed in mock-seriousness, "to be satisfied that I don't love them."

    "But that won't do, Rhoda," said Mrs. Meredith, and I can't let you treat the matter in this trivial spirit. It is a most important matter--far more important than you can realize."

    "I can't realize anything about it--that's the trouble."

    "You can realize whether you wish to accept him or not."

    "No; that's just what I can't do."

    "You've had time enough."

    "I've had nearly a week. But I want all the time there is; it wouldn't be any too much. I must see him again--after seeing so much of his family."

    "Rhoda!" her aunt called sternly to her from the sofa.

    But Rhoda did not respond with any sort of intimidation. She was looking down into the street from the window where she sat, and she suddenly bowed. "It was Dr. Olney," she explained. "He was just coming into the hotel, and he looked up. I wonder how he knew it was our window? He seems twice as young with his hat on. I wish he'd wear his hat in the room. But of course he can't."

    Everything that had happened since Rhoda came in made it more difficult for Mrs. Meredith to discharge the duty that she thought she had nerved herself up to. She had promised herself that if Rhoda had decided to accept Mr. Bloomingdale, she would speak, [65] and tell her everything; but she was not certain yet that the girl had decided, though from the way in which she played with the question, and her freedom from all anxiety about it, she felt pretty sure that she had. She wished, vaguely, perversely, weakly, that she had not, for then the ordeal for them both could be postponed indefinitely again. She sympathized with the girl in her trials through the young minister's family, who were so repugnant to her in their eagerness for her, and she burned with a prophetic indignation in imagining how such people would cast her off when they knew what she really was. The young man himself seemed kind and good, and if it were a question of him alone, she believed she could trust him; but these others! that mother, those sisters! She recoiled from the duty of humiliating the poor girl before them, so helplessly, innocently, ignorantly guilty of her own origin. The child's gayety and lightness, her elfish whimsicality and thoughtless superficiality, as well as those gleams and glimpses of a deeper nature which a word or action gave from time to time, smote the elder woman's heart with a nameless pain and a tender compassion. By all her circumstance Rhoda had a right to be the somewhat spoiled and teasing pretty thing that she was; and all that sovereign young-ladyishness which sat so becomingly upon her was proper to the station a beautiful young girl holds in a world where she has had only to choose and to command. But Mrs. Meredith shuddered to think with what contempt, open or masquerad-[66] ing as pity, all this would be denied to her. Doubtless she exaggerated; the world slowly changes; it condones many things to those who are well placed in it; and it might not have fared so ill with the child as the woman thought; but Mrs. Meredith bad brooded so long upon her destiny that she could see it only in the gloomiest colors. She was darkling  in its deepest shadow when she heard Rhoda saying, as if at the end of some speech that she had not caught, "But he doesn't seem to have any more family than I have."

    "Who? " Mrs. Meredith asked.

    "Dr. Olney."

    "You don't know anything about his family."

    "Well, I don't know anything about my own," Rhoda answered, lightly. She added, soberly, after a moment: "Don't you think it's rather strange that my mother's family never cared to look us up in any way? Even if they were opposed to her marrying papa, one would think they might have forgiven it by this time. The family ties are so strong, among the French."

    Mrs. Meredith dropped her eyes, and murmured, "It may be different with the Creoles."

    "No, I don't believe it is. I've heard it's more so. Did papa never see any of mamma's family but her father? It seems so strange that she should have been as much alone as I am. I know I have you, Aunt Caroline. Well, I don't know what to think about Mr. Bloomingdale. I'm always summing up his virtues; he's very good, and he's good-looking, [67] and he's good-natured. He's rich, though I don't let that count. He parts his hair too much on one side, but that doesn't matter, I could make him part it in the middle, and it's a very pretty shade of brown. His eyes are good, and his mouth wouldn't be weak if he wore his beard full. I think he has very good ideas, and I'm sure he would be devoted all his days. It isn't so easy to sum a person up, though, is it? I wish I knew whether I cared for him. I don't believe I've ever been in love with anybody yet. Of course, I've had my fancies. I do respect Mr. Bloomingdale, and when I think how very anxious he was to have me care for him, I don't know but I could if I really tried. But ought one to have to try? That's the question. Oughtn't the love to go of itself, without being pushed or pulled? I wish I knew! Aunt Caroline, do you believe in 'learning to love' your husband after marriage? That's what happens in some of the stories; but it seems very ridiculous. I wish it was my duty to marry him--or not to; then I could decide. I believe I'm turning out quite a slave of duty. I must have I caught it from you, Aunt Caroline. Now I can imagine myself sacrificing anything to duty. If Mr. Bloomingdale were to step ashore from the next steamer, and drive to the hotel without stopping to take breath, and get himself shown up here, and say, 'I've just dropped in, Miss Aldgate, to offer you the opportunity of uniting your life with mine in a high and holy purpose--say working among the poor on the east side in New York, or going down to edu- [68] cate the black race in the South!--I believe I should seize the opportunity without a murmur. Perhaps he may. Do you think he will?"

    Rhoda ended her monologue with a gay look at her aunt, who was silent at the end, as she had been throughout, turning the trouble before them over and over in her mind. As happens when we are preoccupied with one thing, all other things seem to tend toward it and bear upon it; half a dozen mere accidents of the girl's spoken reverie touched the sore place in Mrs. Meredith's soul and fretted it to an anguish that she asked herself how she could bear. It all accused and judged and condemned her, because she had kept putting by the duty she had to discharge, and making it contingent upon that decision of the girl's which she was still far from ascertaining. In her recoil from this duty she had believed that if it need not be done at this time, it somehow need never be done; or she had tried to believe this. If Rhoda rejected this young man, she might keep her safe forever from the fact which she felt must wreck the life of the light-hearted, high-spirited girl. That was the refuge which Mrs. Meredith had taken from the task which so strongly beset her; but when she had formulated the case to herself, the absurdity, the impossibility of her position appeared to her. If Rhoda cared nothing for Mr. Bloomingdale, the day would come when she would care everything for some one else; and that day could not be postponed, nor the duty of that day. It would be crueler to leave her unarmed [69] against the truth until the moment when her heart was set upon a love, and then strike her down with it. Mrs. Meredith now saw this; she saw that the doubt in which she was resting was the very moment of action for her; and that the occasion was divinely appointed for dealing more mercifully with the child than any other that could have offered. She had often imagined herself telling Rhoda what she had to tell, and with the romantic coloring from the novels she had read, she had painted herself in the heroic discharge of her duty at the instant when the girl was radiant in the possession of an accepted love, and had helped her to renounce, to suffer, and to triumph. She had always been very strong in these dramatized encounters, and had borne herself with a stony power throughout, against which the bruised and bleeding girl had rested her broken spirit; but now she cowered before her. She longed to fail upon her knees at her feet, and first implore her forgiveness for what she was going to do, and not speak till she had been forgiven; but habit is strong, really stronger than emotion of any sort, and so Mrs. Meredith remained lying on her sofa, and merely put up her fan to shut out the sight of the child, as she said, "And if it were your duty to give up Mr. Bloomingdale, could you do it?"

    "Oh, instantly Aunt Caroline! " answered Rhoda, with a gay burlesque of fortitude. "I would not hesitate a single week. But why do you ask such an awful question?"

    "Is it a very awful question? " Mrs. Meredith palpitated. [70]

    "Well, rather! One may wish to give a person up, but not as a duty."

    Mrs. Meredith understood this well enough, but it was her perfect intelligence concerning the whole situation that seemed to disable her. She made out to say,  "Then you have decided not to give him up yet?"

    "I've decided--I've decided--let me think!-- not to decide till I see him again! What do you
mean by if it were my duty to give him up?"

    "It would be your duty," Mrs. Meredith faltered, "to give him up, unless you were sure you loved him."

    "Oh, yes; certainly. That."

    "You wouldn't wish him, after you've seen so much of his family, not to know everything about yours, if you decided to accept him?"

    "Why, you're all there is, Aunt Caroline! You're the end of the story. I should hope he understood that. What else is there?"

    "Nothing--nothing-- There is very little. But we ought to tell Mr. Bloomingdale all we know--of your mother's family."

    "Why, certainly. I expected to do that. There was nothing disgraceful about them, I imagine, except their behavior toward mamma."


    "You speak as if there were. What are you keeping back, Aunt Caroline?" Rhoda sat upright, and faced her aunt with a sort of sudden fierceness  which [71] she sometimes showed when she was roused to self-assertion. This was seldom, in the succession of her amiable moods, but when it happened, Mrs. Meredith saw in it the outbreak of the ancestral savagery, and shuddered at it as a self-betrayal rather than a self-assertion; but perhaps self-assertion is this with all of us. "What are you hinting at? If there was anything dishonorable--"

    Mrs. Meredith found herself launched at last. She could not go back now; she could not stop. She had only the choice, in going on, of telling the truth, or setting sail to shipwreck under some new lie. For this, both will and invention failed her; she was too weak mentally, if she was not too strong morally, for this. She went on, with a kind of mechanical force.

    "If there were something dishonorable that was not, their fault, that was their wrong, their sorrow, their burden--what should you think of your father's marrying your mother, with a full knowledge of it?"

    "I should think he did nobly and bravely to marry her. But that's nothing. What was the disgrace? What had they done, that they had to suffer innocently? You needn't be afraid of telling me everything. I don't care what Mr. Bloomingdale or any one thinks; I shall be proud of them for it; I shall be glad!" Mrs. Meredith saw with terror that the girl's fancy had kindled with some romantic conjecture. "Who was my grandfather?"

    "I know very little about him, Rhoda," said Mrs. Meredith, seeking to rest in this neutral truth. "Your [72] father never told me much, except that he was a Creole, and--and rich; and--and--respected, as those things went there, among his people--"

    "Was he some old slaver, like those in Mr. Cable's book? I shouldn't care for that! But that would have been his fault, and it wouldn't have been any great disgrace; and you said--And my grand- mother--who was she?"

    "She was--not his wife."

    "Oh! " said the girl, with a quick breath, as if she had been struck over the heart. "That was how the dishonor--" She stopped, with an absent stare fixed upon her aunt, who waited in silence for her to realize this evil which was still so far short of the worst. Where she sat she could not see the blush of shame that gradually stained the girl's face to her throat and forehead. "Who was she?"

    Mrs. Meredith tried to think how the words would sound as she said them, and simultaneously she said them, "She was his slave."

    The girl was silent and motionless. With her head defined against the open window, her face showed quite black toward her aunt, as if the fact of her mother's race had remanded her to its primordial hue in touching her consciousness. Mrs. Meredith had risen, and sat with one hand grasping the wrap that still covered her feet, as if ready to cast it loose, and fly her victim's presence, if it became intolerable. But she found herself too weak to stand up, and she waited, throbbing and quaking, for Rhoda to speak. [73]

    The girl gave a little, low, faltering laugh, an inarticulate note of such pathetic fear and pitiful entreaty that it went through the woman's heart. "Aunt Caroline, are you crazy?"

    "Crazy?" The word gave her an instant of strange respite. Was she really mad, and had she long dreamed this thing in the cloudy deliriums of a sick brain ? The fact of her hopeless sanity repossesses her from this tricksy conjecture. [" missing in original] If I were only crazy!"

    "And you mean to say-- to tell me --that--that --I am--black?"

    "Oh, no, poor child! You are as white as I am--as any one. No one would ever think--"

    "But I have that blood in me? It is the same thing!" An awful silence followed again, and then the girl said: "And you let me grow up thinking I was white, like other girls, when you knew--You let we pass myself off on myself and every one else, for what I wasn't! Oh, Aunt Caroline, what are you telling me this ghastly thing for? It isn't true! You couldn't have let me live on all these years thinking I was a white person, when--You would have told me from the very beginning, as soon as I could begin to understand anything. You wouldn't have told me all those things about my mother's family, and their being great people, and disowning her, and all that! If this is true you wouldn't have let me believe that, you and Uncle Meredith?"

    "We let you believe it, but you made it up yourself ; we never told you anything." [74]

    "But you couldn't have thought that was being honest, and so you couldn't have done it--you couldn't. And so it isn't any of it true that you've just told me. But why did you tell me such a thing? I don't believe you have told me it. Why, I must be dreaming. It's as if --as if --you were to come to a perfectly well person, and tell them that they were going to die in half an hour. Don't you see? How can you tell me such a thing ? Don't you understand that it tears my whole life up, and flings it out on the ground? But you know it isn't true. Oh, my, I think my head will burst! Why don't you speak to me, and tell me why you said such a thing? Is it because you don't want me to marry Mr. Bloomingdale? Well, I won't marry him. Now will you say it?"

    "Rhoda!" her aunt began, "whether you married Mr. Bloomingdale or not, the time had come-- "

    "No! The time had gone. It had come as soon as I could speak or understand the first word. Then would have been the time for you to tell me such a thing if it were true, so that I might have grown up knowing it, and trying to bear it. But it isn't true, and you're just saying it for some other reason. What has happened to you, Aunt Caroline? I am going to send for Dr. Olney; you're not well. It's something in that medicine of his, I know it is. Let me look at you!" She ran suddenly toward Mrs. Meredith, who recoiled, crouching back into the corner of her sofa. The girl broke into a hysterical laugh. "Do you think I will hurt you? Oh, Aunt Caroline, take it [75] back, take it back! See, I'll get on my knees to you!" She threw herself down before the sofa where Mrs. Meredith crouched. "Oh, you couldn't have been so wicked as to live such a lie as that!"

    "It was a lie, the basest, the vilest," said Mrs. Meredith, with a sort of hopeless gasp. "But I never saw the time when I must tell you the truth--and so I couldn't."

    "Oh, no, no! Don't take yourself from me!" The girl dropped her head on the woman's knee, and broke into a wild sobbing. "I don't know what you're doing this for. It can't be true--it can't be real. Shall I never wake from it, and have you back ? You were all I had in the world, and now, if you were not what I thought you, so true and good, I haven't even you any more. Oh, oh, oh! "

    "Oh, it was all wrong," said Mrs. Meredith, in a tearless misery, a dry pang of the heart for which her words were no relief. "There hasn't been a day or an hour when I haven't felt it; and I have always prayed for light to see my duty, and strength to do it. God knows that if I could bear this for you, how gladly I would do it. I have borne it all these years, and the guilt of the concealment besides; that is something, though it is nothing to what you are suffering. I know that--I know that!"

    The girl sobbed on and on, and the woman repeated the same things over and over, a babble of words in which there was no comfort, no help, but which sufficed to tide them both over from the past which had [76] dropped into chaos behind them to a new present in which they must try to gain a footing once more.

    The girl suddenly ceased to bemoan herself, and lifted her head, to look into her aunt's face. "And my mother," she said, ignoring the piteous sympathy she saw, "was she my father's slave, too?"

    "She was your father's wife. Slavery was past then, and he was too good a man for anything else, though he knew his marriage would ruin him, as it did."

    "At least there is some one I can honor, then; I can't honor him," said the girl, with an unpitying hardness in her tone. She rose to her feet,. and turned toward the door of her own room.

    "Is there--is there anything else that I can tell that you wish to know?" her aunt entreated.
"Oh, child! If you could only understand--"

    "I do understand," said the girl.

    Mrs. Meredith, in her millionfold prefigurations of this moment, had often suffered from the necessity of insinuating to the ignorance of girlhood all the sad details of the social tragedy of which she was the victim. But she perceived that this at least was to be spared her, that the girl had somehow instantly realized the whole affair in these aspects. In middle life we often forget, amidst the accumulations of experience, how early the main bases of it were laid in our consciousness. We suppose, when we are experienced, that knowledge comes solely from experience; but knowledge, or if not knowledge, then truth, comes largely [77] from perception, from instinct, from divination, from the intelligence of our mere potentialities. A man can be anything along the vast range from angel to devil; without living either the good thing or the bad thing in which his fancy dramatizes him, he can perceive it. His intelligence may want accuracy, though after-experience often startlingly verifies it; but it does not want truth. The materials of knowledge accumulate from innumerable unremembered sources. All at once, some vital interest precipitates the latent electricity of the cloudy mass in a flash that illumines the world with a shadowless brilliancy and shows everything in its very form and meaning. Then the witness perceives that somehow from the beginning of conscious being he had understood all this before, and every influence and circumstance had tended to the significance revealed.

    The proud, pure girl who had been told that her mother was slave-born and sin-born, had lived as carefully sheltered from the guilt and shame that are in the world as tender love and pitying fear could keep her; but so much of the sad fact of evil had somehow reached her that she stood in a sudden glare of the reality.  She understood, and she felt all scathed within by the intelligence, by whatever the cruelest foe could have told her with the most unsparing fulness, whatever the fondest  friend could have wished her not to know. The swiftness of these mental processes no words can suggest; we can portray life, not living. [78]

    "'I am going to my room, now," she said to her aunt, "and whatever happens, don't follow me, don't call me. If you are dying, don't speak to me.  I have a right to be alone."

    She crossed to the door of her chamber opening from the little parlor, and closed it behind    her, and her aunt fell back again on her sofa. She was too weak to follow her if she had wished, and she was too wise to wish it, She lay there revolving the whole misery in her mind, turning it over and over ten thousand times. She said to herself that it was worse, far worse, than she had ever pictured it; but in fact it was better, for her. She pretended otherwise, but for her there was the relief in the situation of a lie owned, a truth spoken, and with whatever heart-wrung drops she told the throes of the anguish beyond that door, for herself she was glad. It was monstrous to be glad, she knew that; but she knew that she was glad.

    After awhile she began to be afraid of the absolute silence that continued in Rhoda's room, and then she did what men would say a man would not have done; she crept to the door and peeped and listened. She could not hear anything, but she saw Rhoda sitting by the table writing. She went back to her sofa, and lay there more patiently now; but as the time passed she began to be hungry; with shame that did not suffer her to ring and ask for anything to eat, she began to feel the weak and self-pitiful craving of an invalid for food.

    The time passed till the travelling-clock on the [79] mantel showed her that it was half-past seven. Then Rhoda's door was flung open, and the girl stood before her with her hat on, and dressed to go out. She had a letter in her hand, and she said, with a mechanical hardness, "I have written to him, and I am going out with the letter. When I come back--"

    "You can send your letter out," pleaded her aunt; she knew what the girl had written too well to ask. "It's almost dark; it's too late for you to be out on the streets alone."

    "Oh, what could happen to me?" demanded Rhoda, scornfully. "Or if some one insulted a colored girl, what of it? When I come back I will pack for you, and in the morning we will start for New Orleans, and try to find out my mother's family."

    Her aunt said nothing to this, but she set herself earnestly to plead with the girl not to go out. "It will be dark, Rhoda, and you don't know the streets. Indeed you mustn't go out. You haven't had any dinner--For my sake--"

    "For your sake!" said Rhoda. She went on, as if that were answer enough, "I have written to him that all is over between us--it was, even before this: I could never have married him--and that when he arrives we shall be gone, and he must never try to see me again. I've told you all that you could ask, Aunt Caroline, and now there is one thing I want you to answer me. Is there any one else who knows this?"

    "No, indeed, child!" answered Mrs. Meredith instantly, and she thought for the instant that she was [80] telling the truth. "Not another living soul. No one ever knew but your uncle--"

    "Be careful, Aunt Caroline," said the girl, coming up to her sofa, and looking gloomily down upon her. "You had better always tell me the truth, now. Have you told no one else?"

    "No one."

    "Not Dr. Olney?"

    It was too late, now that Mrs. Meredith perceived her error. She could not draw back from it, and say that she had forgotten; Rhoda would never believe that. She could only say, "No, not Dr. Olney."

    "Tell me the truth, if you expect ever to see me again, in this world or the next. Is it the truth? Swear it!"

    "It is the truth," said the poor woman, feeling this now and astonishing lie triply riveted upon her soul; and she sank down upon the pillow from which she had partly lifted herself, and lay there as if crushed under the burden suddenly rolled back upon her.

    "Then I forgive you," said the girl, stooping down to kiss her.

    The woman pushed her feebly away. "Oh, I don't want your forgiveness, now," she whimpered, and she began to cry.

    Rhoda made no answer, but turned and went out of the room.

    Mrs. Meredith lay exhausted. She was no longer hungry, but she was weak for want of food. After a while she slid from the sofa, and then on her hands [81] and knees she crept to the table where the bottle that held Dr. Olney's sleeping medicine stood. She drank it all off. She felt the need of escaping from herself; she did not believe it would kill her; but she must escape at any risk. So men die who mean to take their lives; but it is not certain that death even is an escape from ourselves. [82]

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