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An Imperative Duty

By William Dean Howells, 1891


    In the street where Rhoda found herself the gas was already palely burning in the shops, and the moony glare of an electric globe was invading the flush of the sunset, whose after-glow still filled the summer air in the western perspective. She did not know where she was going, but she went that way, down the slope of the slightly curving thoroughfare. She had the letter which she meant to post in her hand, but she passed the boxes on the lamp-posts without putting it in. She no longer knew what else she meant to do, in any sort, or what she desired; but out of the turmoil of horror, which she whirled round and round in, some purpose that seemed at first exterior to herself began to evolve. The street was one where she would hardly have met ladies of the sort she had always supposed herself of; gentility fled it long ago, and the houses that had once been middle-class houses had fallen in the social scale to the grade of mechanics' lodgings, and the shops, which had never been fashionable, were adapted strictly to the needs of a neighborhood of poor and humble people. They were largely provision stores, full of fruit, especially watermelons; there were some groceries, and some pharmacies of that professional neatness which pharmacies are of  [83] everywhere. The, roadway was at this hour pretty well deserted by the express wagons and butcher carts that bang through it in the earlier day; and the horse-cars coming and going on its incline and its final westward level, were in the unrestricted enjoyment of the company's monopoly of the best part of its space.

    At the first corner Rhoda had to find her way through groups of intense-faced suburbans who were waiting for their respective cars, and who heaped themselves on board as these arrived, and hurried to find places, more from force of habit than from necessity, for the pressure of the evening travel was already over. When she had passed these groups she began to meet the proper life of the street--the women who had come out to cheapen the next day's provisions at the markets, the men, in the brief leisure that their day's work had left them before bedtime, lounging at the lattice doors of the drinking-shops, or standing listlessly about on the curb-stones smoking. Numbers of young fellows, of the sort whose leisure is day-long, exchanged the comfort of a mutual support with the house walls, and stared at her as she hurried by; and then she began to encounter in greater and greater number the colored people who descended to this popular promenade from the up-hill streets opening upon it. They politely made way for her, and at the first meeting that new agony of interest in them possessed her.

    This was intensified by the deference they paid her as a young white lady, and the instant sense that she [84] had no right to it in that quality.  She could have borne better to have them rude and even insolent; there was something in the way they turned their black eyes in their large disks of white upon her, like dogs, with a mute animal appeal in them, that seemed to claim her one of them, and to creep nearer and nearer and possess her in that late-found solidarity of race. She never know before how hideous they were, with their flat wide-nostriled noses, their out-rolled thick lips, their mobile, bulging eyes set near together, their retreating chins and foreheads, and their smooth, shining skin; they seemed burlesques of humanity, worse than apes, because they were more like. But the men were not half so bad as the women, from the shrill-piped young girls, with their grotesque attempts at fashion, to the old grandmothers, wrinkled or obese, who came down the sloping sidewalks in their bare heads, out of the courts and alleys where they lived, to get the evening air. Impish black children swarmed on these uphill sidewalks and played their games, with shrill cries racing back and forth, catching and escaping one another.

    There colored folk were of all tints and types, from the comedy of the pure black to the closest tragical approach to white. She saw one girl, walking with a cloud of sable companions, who was as white as herself, and she wondered if she were of the same dilution of negro blood; she was laughing and chattering with the rest, and seemed to feel no difference, but to be pleased and flattered with the court paid her by the inky dandy who sauntered beside her. [85]

    "She has always known it; she has never felt it! " she thought bitterly. "It is nothing; it is natural to her; I might have been like her."

    She began to calculate how many generations would carry her back, or that girl back, in hue, to the blackest of those loathsome old women. She knew what an octoroon was, and she thought, "I am like her, and my mother was darker, and my grandmother darker, and my great-grander like a mulatto, and then it was a horrible old negress, a savage stolen from Africa, where she bad been a cannibal."

    A vision of palm-tree roofs and grass huts, as she had seen them in pictures, with skulls grinning from the eaves, floated before her eyes; then a desert with a long coffle of captives passing by, and one black, naked woman, fallen out from weakness, kneeling, with manacled hands, and her head pulled back, and the Arab slaver's knife at her throat. She walked in a nightmare of these sights; all the horror of the wrong by which she came to be, poured itself round and over her.

    She emerged from it at moments with a refusal to accept the loss of her former self, like that of the mutilated man who looks where his arm was, and cannot believe it gone. Like him, she had the full sense of what was lost, the unbroken consciousness of what was lopped away. At these moments all her pride reasserted itself'; she wished to punish her aunt for what she had made her suffer, to make her pay pang for pang. Then the tide of reality overwhelmed her [86] again, and she grovelled in self-loathing and despair. From that she rose in a frenzy of longing to rid herself of this shame that was not hers; to tear out the stain; to spill it with the last drop of her blood upon the ground. By flamy impulses she thrilled towards the mastery of her misery through its open acknowledgment. She seemed to see herself and hear herself stopping some of these revolting creatures, the dreadfulest of them, and saying, "I am black, too. Take me home with you, and let me live with you, and be like you every way." She thought, "Perhaps I have relations among them. Yes, it must be. I will send to the hotel for my things, and I will live here in some dirty little back court, and try to find them out."

    The emotions, densely pressing upon each other, the dramatizations that took place as simultaneously and insuccessively as the events of a dream, gave her a new measure of time; she compassed the experience of years in the seconds these sensations outnumbered.
All the while she seemed to be walking swiftly, flying forward; but the ground was uneven: it rose before her, and then suddenly fell. She felt her heart beat in the middle of her throat. Her head felt light, like the blowball of a dandelion. She wished to laugh. There seemed two selves of her, one that lived before that awful knowledge, and one that had lived as long since, and again a third that knew and pitied them both. She wondered at the same time if this were what people meant by saying one's brain was turned; [87] and she recalled the longing with which her aunt said, "If I were only crazy! "  But she knew that her own exaltation was not madness, and she did not wish for escape that way. "There must be some other," she said to herself; "if I can find the courage for it, I can find the way. It's like a ghost: if I keep going towards it, it won't hurt me; I mustn't be afraid of it. Now, let me see! What ought I to do? Yes, that is the key: Duty." Then her thought flew passionately off. "If she had done her duty all this might have been helped. But it was her cowardice that made her murder me. Yes, she has killed me!"

    The tears gushed into her eyes, and all the bitterness of her trial returned upon her, with a pressure of lead on her brain.

    In the double consciousness of trouble she was as fully aware of everything about her as she was of the world of misery within her; and she knew that this had so far shown itself without that some of the passers were noticing her. She stopped, fearful of their notice, at the corner of the street she had come to, and turned about to confront an old colored woman, yellow like saffron, with the mild, sad face we often see in mulattoes of that type, and something peculiarly pitiful in the straight underlip of her appealing mouth, and the cast of her gentle eyes. The expression might have been merely physical, or it might have been an hereditary look, and no part of her own personality, but Rhoda felt safe in it.

    "What street is this?" she asked, thinking sud-[88]denly, "She is the color of my grandmother; that is the way she looked; " but though she thought this she did not realize it, and she kept an imperious attitude towards the old woman.

    "Charles Street, lady."

    "Oh, yes; Charles. Where are all the people going?"

    "The colored folks, lady?"


    "Well, lady, they's a kyind of an evenin' meetin' at ouah choach to-night. Some of 'em's goin' there, I reckon; some of 'em's just out fo' a walk."

    "Will you let me go with you? " Rhoda asked.

    "Why, certainly, lady," said the old woman. She glanced up at Rhoda's face as the girl turned to accompany her. "But I'm a-goin' to choach."

    "Yes, yes. That's what I mean. I want to go to your church with you. Are you from the South--Louisiana? She would be the color," she thought. "It might be my mother's own mother."

    "No, lady: from Voginny. I was bawn a slave; and I lived there till after the wa'. Then I come Nawth."

    "Oh," said Rhoda, disappointedly, for she had nerved herself to find this old woman, her grandmother.

    They walked on in silence for a while; then the old woman said, "I thought you wasn't very well, when I noticed you at the cawnah."

    "I--I am well," Rhoda answered, feeling the tears [89] start to her eyes again at the note of motherly kindness in the old woman's voice. "But I am in trouble; I am in trouble."

    "Then you're gwine to the right place, lady," said the old woman, and she repeated solemnly these words of hope and promise which so many fainting hearts have stayed themselves upon: "'Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest unto your souls.' Them's the words, lady; the Lawd's own words. Glory be to God; glory be to God!" she added in a whisper.

    "Yes, yes," said Rhoda, impatiently. "They are good words. But they are not for me. He can't make my burden light; He can't give me rest. If it were sin, He could; but it isn't sin; it's something worse than sin; more hopeless. If I were only a sinner, the vilest, the wickedest, how glad I should be!" Her heart uttered itself to this simple nature as freely as a child to its mother.

    "Why, sholy, lady," said the old woman, with a little shrinking from her as if she had blasphemed, "sholy you's a sinnah?"

    "No, I am not! " said the girl, with nervous sharpness. "If I were a sinner, my sins could be forgiven me, and I could go free of my burden. But nothing can ever lift it from me."

    "The Lawd can do anything, the Bible says. He kin make the dead come to life. He done it oncet, too."

    The girl turned abruptly on her. "Can He change your skin? Can He make black white?" [90]

    The old woman seemed daunted; she faltered. "I don't know as he ever tried, lady; the Bible don't tell." She added, more hopefully, "But I reckon He could do it if He wanted to."

    "Then why doesn't He do it?" demanded the girl. "What does He leave you black for, when He could make you white?"

    "I reckon He don't think it's worth while, if He can make me willing to be black so easy. Somebody's got to be black, and it might as well be me," said the old woman, with a meek sigh.

    "No, no one need be black!" said Rhoda, with a vehemence that this submissive sigh awakened in her. "If He cared for us, no, one would be!"

    "Sh!" said the old woman, gently.

    They had reached the church porch, and Rhoda found herself in the tide of black worshippers who were drifting in. The faces of some were supernaturally solemn, and these rolled their large-whited eyes rebukingly on the young girls showing all their teeth in the smiles that gashed them from ear to ear, and carrying on subdued flirtations with the polite young fellows escorting them. It was no doubt the best colored society, and it was bearing itself with propriety and self-respect in the court of the temple. If their natural gayety and lightness of heart moved their youth to the betrayal of their pleasure in each other in the presence of their Maker, He was perhaps propitiated by the gloom of their elders.

    "Tain't a regular evenin' meetin'," Rhoda's com-[91]panion explained to her. It's a kind o' lecture."  She exchanged some stately courtesies of greeting with the old men and women as they pushed into the church; they called her sister, and they looked with at least as little surprise and offence at the beautiful young white lady with her as white Christians would have shown a colored girl come to worship with them. "De preacher's one o' the Southern students; I ain't hud him speak; but I reckon the Lawd's sent him, anyway."

    Rhoda had no motive in being where she was except to confront herself as fully and closely with the trouble in her soul as she could. She thought, so far as such willing may be called thinking, that she could strengthen herself for what she had henceforth to bear, if she could concentrate and intensify the fact to her outward perception; she wished densely to surround herself with the blackness from which she had sprung, and to reconcile herself to it, by realizing and owning it with every sense.

    She did not know what the speaker was talking about at first, but phrases and words now and then caught in her consciousness. He was entirely black, and he was dressed in black from head to foot, so that he stood behind the pulpit light like a thick, soft shadow cast upon the wall by an electric. His absolute sable was relieved only by the white points of his shirt-collar, and the glare of his spectacles, which, when the light struck them, heightened the goblin effect of his presence. He had no discernible features, and [92] when he turned his profile in addressing those who sat at the sides, it was only a wavering blur against the wall. His voice was rich and tender, with those caressing notes in it which are the peculiar gift of his race.

    The lecture opened with prayer and singing, and the lecturer took part in the singing; then he began to speak, and Rhoda's mind to wander, with her eyes, to the congregation. The prevailing blackness gave back the light here and there in the glint of a bald head, or from a patch of white wool, or the cast of a rolling eye. Inside of the bonnets of the elder women, and under the gay hats of the young girls, it was mostly lost in a characterless dark; but nearer by, Rhoda distinguished faces, sad, repulsive visages of a frog-like ugliness added to the repulsive black in all its shades, from the unalloyed brilliancy of the pure negro type to the pallid yellow of the quadroon, and these mixed bloods were more odious to her than the others, because she felt herself more akin to them; but they were all abhorrent. Some of the elder people made fervent responses to thoughts and sentiments in the lecture as if it had been a sermon. "That is so!" they said.  "Bless the Lord, that's the truth!" and, "Glory to God!" One old woman, who sat in the same line of pews with Rhoda, opened her mouth like a catfish, to emit these pious ejaculations.

    The night was warm, and as the church filled, the musky exhalations of their bodies thickened the air, [93] and made the girl faint; it seemed to her that she began to taste the odor; and these poor people, whom their Creator has made so hideous by the standards of all his other creatures, roused a cruel loathing in her, which expressed itself in a frantic refusal of their claim upon her. In her heart she cast them off with vindictive hate. "Yes," she thought, "I should have whipped them, too. They are animals; they are only fit to be slaves." But when she shut her eyes, and heard their wild, soft voices, her other senses were holden, and she was rapt by the music from her frenzy of abhorrence. In one of these suspenses, while she sat listening to the sound of the lecturer's voice, which now and then struck a plangent note, like some rich, melancholy bell, a meaning began to steal out of it to her whirling thoughts.

    "Yes, my friends," it went on saying, "you got to commence doing a person good if you expect to love them as Jesus loved us when he died for us. And oh, if our white brethren could only understand--and they're gettin' to understand it--that if they would help us a little more, they needn't hate us so much, what a great thing," the lecturer lamely concluded--"what a great thing it  would be all round!"

    "Amen! Love's the thing," said the voice of the old woman with the catfish mouth; and Rhoda, who did not see her, did   not shudder. Her response inspired the lecturer to go on. "I believe it's the one way out of all the trouble in this world. You can't [94] fight your way out, and you can't steal your way out, and you can't lie your way out. But you can love your way out. And how can you love your way out? By helpin' somebody else! Yes, that's it. Somebody that needs your help. And now if there's any one here that's in trouble, and wants to get out of trouble, all he's got to do is to help somebody else out. Remember that when the collection is taken up durin' the singin' of the hymn. Our college needs help, and every person that helps our college helps himself. Let us pray!"

    The application was apt enough, and Rhoda did not feel anything grotesque in it. She put into the plate which the old woman passed to her from the collector all the money she had in her purse, notes and silver, and two or three gold pieces that had remained over to her from her European travel. Her companion saw them, and interrupted herself in her singing to say, "The Lawd'll bless it to you; He'll help them that helps them that can't help themselves."

    "Yes, that is the clew," the girl said to herself. "That is the way out; the only way. I can endure them if I can love them, and I shall love them if I try to help them. This money will help them."

    But she did not venture to look around at the objects; of her beneficence; she was afraid that the sight of their faces would harden her heart against them in spite of her giving, and she kept her eyes shut, listening to their pathetic voices. She stood forgetful after the lecturer had pronounced the benediction--[96] he was a divinity student and he could not forego it--and her companion had to touch her arm. Then she started with a shiver, as if from a hypnotic trance.

    Once out on the street she was afraid, and begged the old woman to go back to her hotel with her.

    "Why, sholy, lady," she consented.

    But Rhoda did not hear. Her mind had begun suddenly to fasten itself upon a single thought, a sole purpose, and "Yes," she pondered, "that is the first thing of all; to forgive her; to tell her that I forgive her, and that I understand and pity her. But how--how shall I begin? I shall have to do her some good to begin with, and how can I do that when I hate her so?  I do hate her; I do hate her! It is her fault!"

    As she hurried along, almost running, and heedless, of the old woman at her side, trying to keep up with her, it seemed to her that if her aunt had told her long ago, when a child, what she was, she would somehow not have been it now. It was not with love, not with pardon, but with frantic hate and accusal in her heart, that she burst into the room, and rushed to Mrs. Meredith's sofa, where she lay still. "Aunt Caroline, wake up! Can you sleep when you see me going perfectly crazy? It is no time for sleeping! Wake! The moony pallor of an electric light suspended over the street shone in through the naked window [96] and fell upon Mrs. Meredith's face. It was white, and as the girl started back her foot struck the empty bottle from which the woman had drained the sleeping medicine, and let lie where she had let it fall upon the floor. Rhoda caught it up, and flew with it to the light.

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