The Candid Friend
THE CANDID FRIEND
By Alice Duer Miller
Illustrations by F. Graham Cootes
SIMMONS never went into the writing-room of the club; the association was too painful. But to-night, with the courage born of an approaching crisis, he came and stood a moment in the doorway, and looked at the corner writing-table. There, two years ago, with the help of that spotless blotting-paper, with those clean gray pens, looking out over these same housetops from the windows of this quiet upper room, he had committed one of those blunders which are as unexpected, as illogical, and as irretrievable as death.
He had written two letters:
"My dear Mark: You are quite wrong in thinking me such a narrow-minded bachelor that I cannot see that for some men with the right sort of woman, marriage is the best sort of life. I hope it may be so for you.
And then, drawing a larger sheet to him, he had written:
"Dear Wickes: If a fellow wrote to tell you that he was the victim of a slow disease, now in its incipient stages, which would eventually blind him and deafen him, and keep him confined to one small, ill-furnished room, no one would expect you to write him a letter of congratulation. Yet this is what I have just had to do. The best friend I have in the world is going to be married, and, ye gods! to such a woman! If I saw her now for the first time I should probably think her a perfect mate, and envy my friend his future; for she is young, beautiful, virtuous, rich, well-born. But unhappily she happens to be my cousin. I have watched her grow up, and I know that those clear blue eyes of hers see only one thing, and that is on which side the lovely Gertrude's bread is buttered; that her ears hear nothing but what it pleases her to hear. I know one might as well try to roll water into a ball as to influence her sweet docility to do anything it does not want to do. She can be generous, but she cannot admit an obligation. She can be kind, but the world must hear of it. I have known her sit up all night to nurse a sick servant; and a few days after, because the woman was not sufficiently grateful, give her a reference that would keep her out of work for the rest of her life. My friend will prosper. He will soon begin to find himself knowing the people it will be of advantage to him to know, and, even more important, strange impalpable obstacles will intervene between him and those of us who are of no use. Perhaps you will say that this woman must at least have brains. You will be wrong. This is something more effective and dangerous than brains; it is egotism. No mind could conceive such subtle plans as the egotist instinctively and almost unconsciously carries out. No intelligent villain would dare to stoop as low as the successful self-deceiver. There never was such a protection against having anything brought home to you as to be perfectly self-deprecatory in speech, and perfectly self-righteous at heart.
"Within a few years one of two things will happen. Either my friend will learn to understand her and loathe her in his good, honest soul; or else he will adopt her point of view and speak her language. He will justify her, as men do who marry liars, by saying that we must not expect so high a standard of honor from women as we do from men. He will say, as men do who have deliberately chosen fools, that the last thing in the world he desires in a wife is intellectual companionship; and he will tell me that woman is an ideal being living in a mist on a mountain-top, as all men do who dare not subject the women they love to the simplest tests of reality. Some men, of course, can live in a cloud too, but I don't think this one can. With an unusually considerate and affectionate nature, he combines an excessively keen and relentless judgment. He never went in much for the analysis of character, but I used to notice, even when we were at college, that in a critical moment he understood men more wisely and more precisely than we, who thought we were more psychological.
"Oh, Wickes, only the blind can say it makes no difference whom a man marries. Does it make no difference in the first place whom he chooses? And after that, the question is merely whether he repudiates his debts or ruins himself in paying them."I never was glad before that you had settled ten thousand miles away, but it is almost like writing to the dead. Good-night,
Having written without pausing, he first hesitated whether to send the letter at all, and then, in contempt of all hesitation, he gathered them both up, folded, directed, and posted them, and realized an hour afterward that he had interchanged the envelopes. He was in the smoking-room when his memory gave him back the picture of his mistake, and a minute later he heard Mark's voice at his elbow, saying pleasantly:
"I thought I might find you here."
Simmons managed to look up, and to say with the deliberateness of a man roused from profound thought: "And how do you happen to be off duty at five o'clock in the afternoon?"
The other laughed. "So you have read my letter. Well, it is characteristic of you to see matrimony even in prospect as a new form of bondage; and yet, as a matter of fact, I am more my own man than I ever was before."
Simmons did not answer at once. For the first time in his life he had felt that he would rather see any one in the world than his friend. The next instant he realized that this accidental interview was in truth a priceless boon. He was speaking to Mark perhaps for the last time; it was like a death-bed parting to him, rendered all the more solemn by Mark's complete unconsciousness. He felt the restless desire, which most of us experience only after death has cut us off, to tell his friend how dear he was to him. It was a tone, however, which he knew he could not take, and he talked resolutely on other topics, succeeding so well that Mark lingered on and on, obviously enjoying himself. When at length he rose, Simmons rose too.
"Mark," he said, "I have just written you a letter."
The other looked up. "Nothing very unusual in that, is there?"
"Yes," answered Simmons, "for I sent it to a fellow in Manila, whereas I have just posted to your address a letter I did not intend for you."
"Well," said Mark, "I'll send it back."
"That was my first idea when you came in here, to ask you to return it unread—to impress on your mind that I did not want you to read it. But as I sat here I understood that such a promise, such a situation between you and me, would be as much of a barrier as anything could be. Now I have a different solution. I want you to promise me to read it, but not to read it for two years. Let us say two years from to-night. This is the eleventh of February, isn't it? We shall meet here—I don't mean we sha'n't meet in the mean time just as usual—but two years from to-night we shall meet to discuss my letter, or else not at all."
Mark looked at him gravely. "This is all very mysterious to me," he said, "but of course, I will do anything you want, and as for this letter, I'll put it in the fire just as soon as I get it if you prefer."
"On the contrary," said Simmons, "I prefer, on the whole, that you should read it—two years from to-night. Put it away, and enter a note in your engagement-book to that effect."
Mark took out his pocket-book obediently, but as he put it back, he could not suppress a smile. "Of course, I know what it is," he said. "A philippic against matrimony. Don't you think you take your pen a trifle seriously?"
"You can tell me in two years."
Yet after he was alone, Simmons had asked himself whether in taking such great risks as he was taking he would not have done better to ask for a five-year reprieve. In five years Mark would either have become so entirely the creature of Gertrude as to be thoroughly implacable; or else he would have found her cut. Two years was a short time for love to change into knowledge, or for a man to lay down his individuality. Yet the idea of his own suffering had warned him to make the period as short as possible.
As a matter of fact he had not found the time so very painful. He had continued to see Mark, if not as often, at least in just about the same way, though rarely at Mark's own house. Simmons could never be sure whether this were by Mark's own wish, or because Gertrude, with the wonderful protective instinct of the egotist, recognized him as a hostile force. She was always cordial to him, and even in public made play with the men's friendship.
"It is a dreadful thing," she had once observed to a group of people standing about after dinner, "it is a dreadful thing to marry your cousin's best friend—you feel they know so much when they talk you over."
"My dear Gertrude," Simmons had answered, "I don't suppose Mark and I ever talked you over in our lives."
"No," said Mark; "for, strange as it may seem, a man does not discuss his wife."
Simmons's heart sank. There it was, Mark and Gertrude were not two individuals; they were now that mysterious entity, man and wife. One did not certainly criticise one's wife; one did not stand up for her; one simply did not discuss her.
And it was this standard of matrimonial honor which Simmons, an irretrievable bachelor, saw he had left out of his calculation when he had insisted on his solution of the incident. He had been right enough in thinking that Mark could forgive him for criticising the woman he loved if he had come to see the justice of the criticism, or even possibly if he had not. But there was another element: the conventional demands of the situation. On a desert island their friendship might have gone on unbroken, but in the midst of a civilization in which matrimony was still an institution Mark could not go on in intimacy with the man who had written that letter.
And whenever Simmons saw Gertrude—saw her light-blue eyes, clear as little crystal bubbles, when he noted how feminine was her charm, how appealing every curve of her soft, slim figure, he saw that she was completely armed against any attack.
Again, sometimes when she got more than usually on his nerves, when her high motives for small deeds were more than usually emphasized, or when her ability to squeeze a topic dry of the last drop of flatten- to her own personality was more than usually conspicuous, Simmons would think with a sort of fierce joy of that unopened letter.
Throughout those two years he had watched Mark with the anxious, unobtrusive attention one gives to an invalid, to see which way the crisis will turn; and, to do Simmons justice, he was not sure which way he wanted the crisis to turn. To have seen Gertrude in anything like the colors in which Simmons saw her would have been to a man like Mark the complete wreck of his happiness. On the other hand, how could he go on being blind and retain his own integrity of judgment? For Mark had the wisdom that comes not so much from intellect as from perception. He had had the courage ever since he was a boy to take without the alleviations of self-deception whatever suffering his own actions had brought him. Simmons had spoken of the egotist's instinct for self-protection. Mark was entirely without this instinct. His reward was the singular clearness of his vision.
For two years Simmons had watched his friend and had seen little to lead him to either hypothesis. Of one thing only he was sure: whatever Gertrude might have accomplished in other ways, she had not lessened the friendship between the two men. Once, when a shooting-trip they had arranged was abandoned at the last moment, on account of a mysterious illness of Gertrude's from which she recovered as soon as all the arrangements had been unmade, Simmons had suspected that Mark had had a flash of comprehension.
He himself had felt uncertain about Gertrude from the beginning. She had been far too enthusiastic when the plan was first suggested, and had uttered one terribly alarming sentence about Mark's feeling perfectly free to come and go just as he had before he was married. So when Simmons stopped at the house in the afternoon before they were to start, he was not surprised to find Mark unstrapping his guns. He was looking very serious.
"I've been trying to telephone you, Lewis," he said. "I can't go. Gertrude's ill."
"Not dangerously, I hope."
"No, I don't think so. She has some trouble with her ear which seems to be frightfully painful. I did not see the doctor myself, but she tells me he says that it is very unlikely that any operation will be necessary. She urges me to go."
"I see," said Simmons, and dropped the time-tables slowly into the fire. He yielded instantly because he knew Gertrude. Her methods were rarely active. She was not often forced to oppose the march of events, for things she disapproved of seldom came anywhere near happening. If she had been driven to anything so overt as an earache, she was in a formidable mood. But he wondered a little at Mark's unquestioning obedience. It might, of course, be affection, but then again it might be mere weariness of the spirit—a realization as acute as his own that one opposed Gertrude only when prepared to fight to the death.
While they were speaking Gertrude herself came in, looking like an angel.
"I hope you are telling him that he must go," she said brightly, "for I shall be quite well to-morrow. I have made up my mind to that; it is all arranged. And if, after all, there should have to be a little operation, those kind doctor men will take just as good care of me as if Mark were at home, and I do so want him to go away and enjoy himself for a little while."
If Mark had been a mere acquaintance, Simmons would have studied his expression during this speech with a good deal of interest; but, as it was, mere decency made him turn his eyes away, and after a pause he observed:
"Well, I'll telegraph and give up our places. And I hope you will be better to-morrow, Gertrude."
She protested that she would be entirely well, or at least out of intense pain; and, indeed, the next day when he came to ask after her, he found her recovered. It was then too late to take advantage of the holiday.
"I shall never forgive you, Lewis," she said, "for not having made Mark go. Now he has missed his trip for nothing. I told you I should be well to-day."
If that letter had not been hanging over his head, Simmons would, perhaps, have suggested that to gain a knowledge of so peculiar a constitution as Gertrude's it was well worth losing a shooting-trip; but as it was, he was discreetly silent, and it was Mark who answered:
"It wasn't a question for Lewis to decide. It was impossible for me to go from the moment you told me you were suffering." And to Simmons's overstrained ear even this speech suggested a complete understanding.
When they were alone he allowed himself to throw out one feeler. "I wish," he said, "that by some telepathic suggestion I could have cured Gertrude twelve hours earlier."
"Yes," said Mark, "but I don't think this was a case where telepathy would have worked." Simmons glanced at him quickly, but his face said nothing more than his words.
Several times in the course of the next few days Simmons heard Gertrude tell how Mark had given up his trip just because she had a little bit of a pain in her ear. There was but little variety in the replies she received. Would any one go who had the privilege of staying? Each time the point of view seemed to strike Gertrude with a new surprise. Each time Mark, playing his part in the background, smiled his sweet, vague smile, which to the casual always seemed to say whatever it was called on to say; but to Simmons, who had observed it for fifteen years, it seemed to conceal, as it had always concealed even better than language, the depths of Mark's thoughts.
Not once in the course of these two years had the eleventh of February been mentioned, yet on that night Simmons went to the club with the most perfect confidence that Mark would keep his appointment.
Nine, ten, eleven struck, however, and his confidence waned. The strain of uncertainty changed to the depression of despair. After all, Mark's failing to come would be the most complete of answers, and perhaps the least painful. Simmons saw how characteristic it was of his friend's nature to spare him a personal explanation.
At a quarter to twelve he rose to go, three hours of waiting making the hour seem later than it was, and on the stairs met Mark. He was resplendent in evening dress and whistling softly to himself.
"I've just seen the most perfect performance of 'Tristan,'" was his greeting.
Simmons, with his heart in his mouth, stood on the stairs and discussed music, until he reached the limit of his self-control. He interrupted a long sentence ruthlessly.
"You did not remember that you had an appointment here with me? " Mark looked at him inquiringly, and he pursued: "You have not read my letter?"
"A letter? When did you write to me?"
"Two years ago."
Mark's face lit up. "Of course, my dear fellow, I am so sorry. I meant to tell you before. The other day I was destroying a lot of old papers, and somehow or other this portentous letter of yours got burnt with the rest. Was it very important?"
"Was it burnt unread?" asked Simmons.
Mark had been looking at the floor, and after this question continued to do so for a second. Then looking his friend in the eye, he answered:
And Simmons recognized in that straight, bold, steady glance the look of a man who is lying.