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TWO WOMEN OR ONE? ***




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TWO WOMEN OR ONE?

From The Mss. Of Dr. Leonard Benary

By Henry Harland

New York

1890

_DEDICATION_

TO - - - - - - - - , ESQUIRE.



“I’ll link my waggon to a star;”

I’ll dedicate this tale to you:

Wit, poet, scholar, that you are,

And skilful story-teller too,

And theologue, and critic true,

And main-stay of the - - - -Review.

I’ll link my waggon to a star,

Does not the Yankee sage advise it?

And yet I dare not name your name,

Lest the wide lustre of its fame

Eclipse my humble candle-flame:

But you’ll surmise it.

January 1890.





TWO WOMEN OR ONE?




CHAPTER I. - THE FIRST NIGHT.

|My name is Leonard Benary - rather a foreign-sounding name, though I am
a pure-blooded Englishman. I reside at No. 63, Riverview Road, in the
American city of Adironda, though I was born in Devonshire. And I am a
physician and surgeon, though retired from active practice. My age can
be computed when I say that I came into the world on the 21st day of
July, in the year 1818.

I must at the outset crave the reader’s indulgence for two things.
First, my style. I am not a literary man; and my style will therefore
be ungraceful. Secondly, my provincialisms. I have lived in Adironda
for very nearly half a century, and I have therefore fallen into divers
local peculiarities of speech. But I have a singular, and I believe an
interesting and significant, story to tell, and I think it had better be
ill told than not told at all.

It begins with the night of Friday, June 13th, 1884.

Towards twelve o’clock on that night I was walking in an easterly
direction along the south side of Washington Street, between Myrtle
Avenue and Riverview Road, on my way home from a concert which I had
attended at the Academy of Music. Moving in the same direction, on the
same side of the street, and leading me by something like a hundred
feet, I could make out the figure of a woman. Except for us two, the
neighbourhood appeared to be deserted.

Anything about my fellow pedestrian, beyond her sex, which was
proclaimed by the outline of her gown as she passed under a
street-lamp - whether she was young or old, white or black, a lady or
a beggar - I was unable, owing to the darkness of the night, and to the
distance that separated us, to distinguish. Indeed, I should most likely
have paid no attention whatever to her, for I was busy with my own
thoughts, had I not happened to notice that when she readied the corner
of Riverview Road, instead of turning into that thoroughfare, she
proceeded to the terrace at the foot of Washington Street, and
immediately disappeared down the stone staircase which leads thence to
the water’s edge.

This action at once struck me as odd, and put an end to my
pre-occupation.

What could a solitary woman want at the brink of the Yellow Snake River
at twelve o’clock midnight?

Her errand could scarcely be a benign one; and the conjecture that
suicide might possibly be its object, instantly, of course, arose in my
mind.

My duty under the circumstances, anyhow, seemed plain - to keep an eye
upon her, and hold myself in readiness to interfere, if needful.

After a moment’s deliberation, I, too, descended the stone stairs.




CHAPTER II. - AT THE RIVER SIDE.

|Yet to keep an eye upon her was more easily said than done. At the
bottom of the terrace it was impenetrably dark. Not a star shone from
the clouded sky. The points of light along the opposite shore - and here
and there, upon the bosom of the stream, the red or green lantern of a
vessel - punctured the darkness without relieving it. Strain my eyesight
as I might, I could see nothing beyond the length of my arm.

But the lapping of the waves upon the strand, and about the piles of the
little T-shaped landing-stage that extends into the river at this
point, was distinctly audible, and served to guide me. Towards the
landing-stage I cautiously advanced; and when I felt the planking of it
beneath my feet, I halted. The whereabouts of the woman I had no
means of determining. “However,” thought I, “if her business be
self-destruction, she has not yet transacted it, for I have heard
no splash.”

Ah! Suddenly a flare of heat-lightning on the eastern horizon
illuminated the land and the water. It was very brief, but it lasted
long enough for me to take my bearings, and to discern the object of my
quest.

She was standing, a mass of shadow, at the very verge of the little
wharf, distant not more than three yards in front of me. A moment later
I had silently gained her side, stretched out my hand, and laid firm
hold upon her by the arm.

In great and entirely natural terror, she started back: as luck would
have it, not in the direction of the water, for else she had certainly
tumbled in, perhaps dragging me with her. And though she uttered no
articulate sound, she caught her breath in a sharp spasmodic gasp, and I
could feel her tremble violently under my touch.

I sought to reassure her.

“Do not be alarmed,” I said, speaking as gently as I could; “I mean you
no manner of evil. I saw you come down here from the street above; and
it struck me as hardly a safe place for a person of your sex to visit
alone at such an hour.”

She made no answer. A prolonged shudder swept over her, and she drew a
deep long sigh.

“You have no reason to fear me,” I continued. “I have only come to you
for the purpose of protecting you, of being of service to you, if I can.
Look - ah! no; it’s too dark for you to see me. But I am a white-haired
old man, the last person in the world you need be afraid of. You would
not tremble and draw away like that, if you could know how far I am from
wishing you anything but good.”

She spoke. “Then release my arm.”

Her tone was haughty and indignant. She enunciated each syllable
with frigid preciseness. From the correctness of her accent and the
cultivated quality of her voice, I learned that I had to do with a woman
of education and refinement.

“Then release my arm.”

“No,” I said, “I dare not release your arm.”

“Dare not!” echoed she, in the same indignant tone, to which now was
added an inflection of perplexity. Sightless as the darkness rendered
me, I could have wagered that she raised her eyebrows and curled her
lip.

“I dare not,” I repeated.

“Possibly you will be good enough to explain what it is you fear.”

“Frankly, I fear that you mean to do yourself a mischief. I dare not let
go my hold upon you, lest you might take advantage of your liberty to
throw yourself into the water.”

“Well, and if I should?”

“That would be a very foolish thing to do.”

“But what concern is it of yours? What right have you to molest me? My
life is my own, is it not, to dispose of as I please?”

“That is a very difficult and subtle question, involving the first
principles of theology and ethics. I do not think we can profitably
enter into a discussion of it just now, and here. But this much I will
promise you,” said I, “I shall not let go my hold upon your arm until I
am persuaded that you have renounced your suicidal purpose.”

She gave a _tchk_ of exasperation. Then, after a momentary silence -

“You are insolent and intrusive, sir. You presume upon the fact that I
am a woman and alone, to take a shameful and unmanly advantage of me.”

“I am sorry if such is your opinion of me,” I returned. “I do only what
I must.”

“You tell me you are an old man. I am not old, and I am strong. I warn
you now to let me go. I assure you, you are unwise to trifle with me. I
am a very desperate woman, and shall not mind consequences. If you try
me beyond endurance - if we should come to a struggle - - ”

“Ah! but we will not,” I hastily interposed. “You will not improve your
superior strength against one who is moved by no other feeling than
goodwill toward you. And besides,” I added, “though it is true that I am
close upon sixty-six years of age, my muscles have still some iron in
them. I fancy I should be able to hold my own.”

This, I must acknowledge, was sheer braggadocio. I weigh but nine
stone, measure but five feet four in my boots, and am anything rather
than an athlete.

“You are a meddler, sir. Good or bad, your motives do not interest
me. Let me go. My patience is exhausted. I will brook no further
interference. Release my arm. Your conduct is an outrage.”

She spoke in genuine anger, stamping her foot, and tugging to escape my
grasp.

“What I do, madam, be it outrageous or otherwise, I am in common
humanity bound to do. I should be virtually your murderer if I did less.
It is my bounden duty to restrain you, to do what I may to help you.”

“Help me, sir? You are in no position to help me. I have not asked your
help. There is no help for me. You are meddlesome and officious. I will
not dispute with you further. _Let me go!_”

She spoke the last three words with threatening emphasis. I could hear
her teeth come together with a decisive click after them. Again she
tugged to break loose from me.

“You require of me the impossible,” was my reply. “It is impossible for
me to let you go. I implore you to control your anger, and to listen to
me for one moment. You are labouring under great excitement, you are not
accountable, you are not yourself. How can I let you go? I should never
know another instant of peace if I stood by and suffered you to do
yourself the injury that you contemplate. I should be a brute, a craven,
a criminal, if I did that. I should be answerable for your death. As a
human being, I am compelled to restrain you if I can. You must see that
it is impossible for me to let you go.”

“Well, have you finished?” she demanded, as I paused.

“Not quite,” I answered, “for now I must ask you to let me take you to
your home. Tomorrow morning you will feel differently, you will see all
things by a different light. You will thank me then for what you now
call an outrage. Think of your friends, your family. No matter what
anguish you may be suffering, no matter to what desperate straits your
affairs may be arrived, you have no right to attempt your life. Besides,
you say you are young. Therefore you have the future before you; you
have hope. I am older than you, and wiser. Be advised and guided by me.
Come, let me take you to your home.”

“Home!” she repeated bitterly. “Home, friends, family! Ha-ha-ha!” She
laughed; but her laughter was dry and sardonic, horrid to hear. “What
you say would be cruel, sir, if it were not so highly humorous. You
speak and act in ignorance. You are very far from comprehending the
situation. I have no home. I have no family, no friends, and, worst of
all, no money. There is not a roof in this city - no, nor in the whole
world, for that matter - under which I can seek a welcome; not a friend,
acquaintance, relation, not a human being, in short, to miss me, or even
to enquire after me, if I disappear. Except, indeed, enemies; except
those who would wish to find me for my further hurt: of them there are
plenty. Now will you let me go? I am in extreme misery, sir. There is no
help for me, no hope. My life is a wreck, a horror. I can’t bear it,
I can’t endure it any longer. Let me go. If you understood the
circumstances, you would not detain me. If you knew what I am, what I
have done, and what I should have to look forward to if I lived; if you
knew what it is to reach that pass where life means nothing for you but
fire in the heart: you would not refuse to let me go. You could condemn
me to no agony, sir, worse than to have to live. To live is to remember;
and so long as I remember I shall be in torment. Even to sleep brings me
no relief, for when I sleep I dream. Oh, for mercy’s sake, let me go!
Go yourself. Go away, and leave me here. You will not repent it. You may
always recall it as an act of kindness. I believe you mean to be kind.
Be really kind, and do not interfere with me longer.”

She had begun to speak with a recklessness and a savage irony that were
shocking and repulsive; but in the end she spoke with a pathos and a
passion that were irresistible. I was stirred to the bottom of my heart.

“I wish, dear lady,” I said, “I wish you could know how deeply and
sincerely I feel for you, how genuine and earnest my desire is to help
you. Pray, pray give me at least a chance to do so. Look; I live in one
of those houses, above there, on the terrace - where you see the lights.
Come with me to my house. You say you have no roof under which you can
seek a welcome: I will promise you a welcome there. You say you
are friendless: let me be your friend. Come with me to my house. I
believe - nay, I am sure - I shall be able in some way to help you.
Anyhow, give me a chance to try. I am an old man, a physician. Come with
me, and let us talk together. Between us we shall discover some better
solution of your difficulties than the drastic one that you are looking
to. But I will make a bargain with you. Come with me to my house, and
remain there for one hour. If, at the expiration of that hour, I shall
not have persuaded you to think better of your present purpose - if then
you are still of your present mind - I will promise to let you depart
unattended, without further hindrance, to go wherever and to do
whatever you see fit. No harm can come to you from accompanying me to
my house - no harm by any hazard, but possibly much good. Try it. Try me.
Trust me. Come. Within an hour, if you still wish it, you may go your
way alone. I give you my word of honour. Will you come?”

“You leave me no free choice, sir. It will be my only means of
deliverance from you. I run a great risk, a great peril, greater than
you can think, in doing so. But it is agreed that at the end of one hour
I shall be my own mistress again? After that - hands off?”

“At the end of one hour you may go or stay, according to your own
pleasure.”

“Very well; I am ready.”




CHAPTER III. - WHENCE SHE CAME.

|I led her into my back drawing-room - which apartment I use as a library
and study - and turned up the drop-light on my writing-table.

Then I looked at her, and she looked at me.

She had said that she was young. I was not surprised to see that she
was beautiful as well. I do not know that I can explain just what had
prepared me for this discovery. Perhaps, in part, her voice, which
was exquisitely sweet and melodious. Perhaps simply the tragical and
romantic circumstances under which I had found her. However that may be,
beautiful she indubitably was.

She wore no bonnet. Her hair, dark brown, curling, and abundant, was cut
short like a boy’s.

Her skin was fine in texture, and deathly pale. Her eyes, large, dark,
liquid, were emotional and intelligent. Her mouth was generous in size,
sensitive in form, and in colour perfect. But over her whole countenance
was written legibly the signature of hard and fierce despair.

From throat to foot she was wrapped in a black waterproof cloak.

“Be seated,” I began. “Put yourself at ease in mind and body. And first
of all, let me offer you a glass of wine.”

“You may spare yourself that trouble, sir,” she replied. “I have no
appetite for wine.”

“But it will do you good. A single glass?”

“I will not drink a single drop.”

“Well, then, a composing draught. You are my patient for the time being,
remember. You must let me prescribe for you. You are in a state of
excessive nervous excitement, bordering upon hysteria. Drink this.”

“I assure you, sir, my disorder is not of the body,” she said wearily.
“No medicine can relieve it.”

“Nevertheless, I will beg of you to give this a trial. It is but a
thimbleful. It can’t hurt you, even if it should fail to benefit you.”

“For aught I know it may contain a drug.”

“It certainly does contain a drug. I should not offer you _aqua pura_.”

“You juggle words, sir. I mean a poison.”

“Come; that is good. Do you think I would have been at such pains to
dissuade you from suicide, immediately thereafter to seek to poison
you?”

“I don’t mean a deadly poison. You could do me no greater kindness than
to offer me a deadly poison. I mean - it may contain some opiate, some
narcotic, to deprive me of power over myself, so that I shall be unable
to leave your house when the time is up.”

“Madam, look at me. Have I the appearance of a man who would attempt to
get the better of you by an underhand trick like that?”

“No, you do not look deceitful,” she answered, after a moment’s scrutiny
of my face.

“Then trust me enough to drink this.”

Without further protest she took the glass I proffered, and emptied it.

“Now, if you are willing, we may talk,” said I.

“What is there to talk about? I, at any rate, have nothing to say. But
I am at your mercy for the term of one hour. You, of course, may talk as
much as you desire. But at the end of one hour - - Please look at your
watch. What o’clock is it now?”

“It is twenty minutes after midnight.”

“Thank you. Five minutes have already passed. At a quarter after one I
shall be free to leave.” Therewith she let her head fall back upon the
cushion of the easy-chair in which she was seated, and closed her eyes.

“Yes,” said I, “you will then be free to leave, if you still wish it.
But I doubt if you will.”

“Your doubt is groundless, sir. However, if it pleases you to cherish
it, you may do so till the hour is finished.”

“No, I cannot think my doubt is groundless. I told you I believed I
should be able to show you a better way out of your troubles than the
desperate one that you were purposing to take; and now I will make good
my promise.”

“Being more fully acquainted with my own affairs than you are, I assure
you that your promise is one which cannot by any possibility be made
good.”

“Time will prove or disprove the truth of that assertion. To begin with,
may I ask you a question or two?”

“You may ask me twenty questions. I do not pledge myself to answer
them.”

“Well, will you answer this one? Am I right in having understood you to
say, when we were below there, on the wharf, that you have no friends
or kindred whose feelings you are bound to consider in determining your
conduct, and no worldly ties or associations which you are bound to
respect?”

“Yes, you are right in that.”

“I am right in having understood you to say that; but is what you said
true?”

“Which would imply that you suspect me of having lied,” she returned,
with an unlovely smile. “Well, I don’t blame you. I am a skilful and
habitual liar, and I daresay it shows in my face. But in that case I
broke my rule, and told the truth.”

“My dear madam, I intended no such imputation. But you were agitated and
excited; and sometimes under the stress of our excitement we unwittingly
exaggerate.”

“Well, I did not exaggerate. What I told you was literally true.”

“And the rest that you said? That also you re-affirm? That you are
penniless, homeless, wretchedly unhappy, and weary of life? It seems
brutal for me to state it thus; but I must understand clearly, for a
purpose which you will presently see.”

“You need not apologise, sir. This is no occasion for mincing matters.
Yes, I am penniless, homeless, wretchedly unhappy, and weary of life.
But I am worse than that. I am bad. I am utterly base and degraded. Look
at me,” she added, fixing her eyes boldly, even defiantly, upon mine.
“Examine me. I am a rare specimen. Very probably you have never seen my
like before, and never will again. I am an example of - ” she paused
and laughed; and there was something in her laughter that made me
shudder - “of total depravity,” she concluded. Then suddenly her manner
changed, and she became very grave. “Would you entertain a leper in your
house, sir? Yet I have been told that I am a moral leper. I have been
told that the corruption-spot upon me reaches in to the core. And I
think my informant put it very moderately. If you suspected the crimes
I have been guilty of, the worse crimes that I have meditated, and
only failed to commit because of material obstacles that I could not
overcome, you would not harbour me in your house for a single minute.
You would feel that my presence was a contamination: that I polluted
the chair I sit in, the floor under my feet. The glass I just drank
from - you would shatter it into bits, that no innocent man or woman
might ever put lips to it again. There! can’t you see now that I am
beyond help, beyond hope? What have I to live for? I am an incumbrance
upon the face of the earth, and hateful to myself into the bargain.
Why keep me here an hour? Let us rescind our compromise.* Let me go at
once.”

* It is possible that here and elsewhere Dr. Benary, in
reporting conversations from memory, puts into the mouths of
his interlocutors words and phrases from his own vocabulary,
at the same time, without doubt, giving the substance and
the spirit of their remarks correctly. “Let us rescind our
compromise,” at any rate, falling from the lips of a woman,
has, to say the least, an unrealistic sound. - -Editor.

She rose, and stood restive, as if expecting a dismissal.

“No, no; you must stay out your hour, at all events,” I insisted. “Sit
down again. I am sure you are not so black as you paint yourself; and in
any case, guilt confessed and repented of is more than half atoned for.”

“That is not so, to begin with,” she retorted; “that is the shallowest,
hollowest sort of cant. It may pass with people who know guilt only by
hearsay, but is ridiculous to those who, like myself, have a knowledge
of the subject at first hand.

“Guilt, crime, is atoned for only when it is undone, and all its
consequences are obliterated. And now, speaking from my first-hand
knowledge of the subject, I will tell you two things - first, all the
confession and repentance in the world cannot undo a crime once done,
nor obliterate its consequences; secondly, nothing can. You are a
physician; I take it, therefore, you are familiar with the first
principles of science: with what they call, I think, the Law of the
Persistence of Force, the Law of the Conservation of Energy. If you
understand that law, you will not dispute this simple application of it:
a crime once done can never be undone; its consequences are ineradicable
and eternal. Well and good. It is a puerility, in the face of the Law of
the Persistence of Force, to talk of atonement. Atonement could come
to pass only by means of a miracle - a suspension of Nature, and the
interposition of a Supernatural Power. And that is where the Christians,
with their dogma of vicarious atonement, are more rational than all
the Rationalists from _a to zed_. So much for atonement. And now, as to
repentance - who said that I repented? Repentance! Remorse! I will
give you another piece of information, also speaking from firsthand
knowledge. Repentance and Remorse are unmeaning sounds. There are no
realities, no _things_, to correspond with them. I do not repent. No
man or woman, from the beginning of time, has ever yet repented, in your
sense of the word. We regret the losses that our crimes entail upon
us: yes. We suffer because our crimes find us out, because retribution
overtakes us: yes. But repent? We do not repent. Most of us pretend to.
But I will be frank; I will not pretend.

“I suffer because the punishment which, by my crimes, I have brought down
upon myself, is greater than I can bear; I suffer, too, because the last
purpose I had left to live for, which was also a criminal purpose, has
been defeated. But I do not repent. I will not pretend to repent.”

“Be all which as it may, I will repeat what I said before: I do not
believe that you are so black as you paint yourself. You, young,
beautiful, intelligent - no, no. But even if you were ten times blacker,
it would make no difference to me. For, look you, since you have
introduced a question of science, and favoured me with a scientific
generalisation, I will pursue the question a little further, and cap
your generalisation with another: namely, good, bad, or indifferent,


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