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A DEBATE ON
'Do you believe that man and woman can be truly friends?' I have had such a question put to me toward midnight, in the dusk of my quiet room, by a fellow collegian, who was laboring under the oppressive consciousness of first love-which is, you know, a kind of dyspepsia of the soul-and whose heart was yearning to pour into my bosom all its new burden of hopes and fears. This was the awkward way he took to approach the subject.
I have had such a question put to me near the close of a bachelor dinner, and have earned a passing reputation for satirical humor by bantering the unsophisticated young propounder, and putting him to the blush.
Can any one blame me because, in my own snug room, or amid the haze of cigar-smoke, the tinkle of wine-glasses, the roar of good fellowship, I felt utterly, recklessly independent of woman and her society for my enjoyments? But now I was away from the bachelor herd when this question was half whispered, by girlish lips, to me, on a warm evening, between summer-time and autumn.
It was one of those mysterious nights which seem created to promote the growth of poetry and the ruin of single men; one of those nights when the moon hangs over us cold, distant and unsympathizing, in its inexpressible glory; when the dome beneath which we stand seems loftier than usual, and more empty; when the stars quiver faintly, and are lost, in that boundless realm. The whole world seems to grope in lonely space; and a man, as he looks upward, feels himself shrinking into a state of painful insignificance, and longs for some human company in which he may regain his self-respect by comparison with his kind.
Nature has no sympathy to offer him; for all things are gathered, cozily nestling to rest, under the brooding wing of night. To and fro in the forest the katydids bandy their drowsy cadence, the grasshopper sings incessantly among the long grass, and the cricket ever and anon lifts up his comfortable chirp.
I should have turned affectionately to any human being just then, and this was the reason why the little hand which lay shining and dimpling in the moonlight on my arm gave me so keen a thrill whenever its soft weight became sensible—not at all because it was a woman's hand.
'Do you believe that man and woman can be truly friends?' she said, looking up to me, so that the moonlight filled her earnest eyes, and I could see that she meant the question to be then and there set at rest forever. Rather than to have entered on a metaphysical discussion like this, in the solitude of such a night, and in such com
pany, I would gladly have foregathered with the Sphynx, alone, somewhere in the desert-perhaps on the top of a pyramid-and had that unreasonable animal propose me riddles by the hour.
'I do not believe, I cannot believe it possible,' I answered, hastily, to her abrupt question.
A fitful wind crept through the trees, shaking their leaves stealthily, and passed away in a deep-drawn sigh. The debilitating influences of the night and its romance were gathering around me.
'I admit,' continued I, 'that with some pains the sexes may make a plausible kind of treaty, which will answer all the purposes of friendship, for the time being. The feeling will be novel and delightful on both sides, and beautiful to look upon.'
'But it will not last-will it?'
Perhaps not. And yet,' I added, touched by her gentle voice, 'I myself have had friends among your sex, who were truer and more unselfish, while they were friends, than any man could be. But they are dangerous companions, particularly in the outset of life, while we have still faith in our kind; for one can scarcely refrain from trusting them with every thought, and even inventing a little dramatic confidence for them. They know how to sympathize so exquisitely! Now, when they change-as they must, for change is the only immutable law of woman's nature- -you have a bitter enemy in possession of every secret, the confidante of every weakness; and the world at large meanwhile is convinced that you have been trifling with a young lady's affections.'
Is it we who always change?' retorted my companion; I am sure not. You will not think me vain if I say it is my experience. I shall never forget having once made the acquaintance of a gentleman, much older than myself, whom I liked and respected. I was very young, and I own that it flattered me to discover that a person of his standing seemed to find pleasure in my company. We became very intimate, and in a little while he proposed that we should enter into a solemn agreement to be friends, as the German students do. He chose books for me to read, and sent them with his notes on the text written in the margin. At first they were philosophical works; but very soon he brought me poetry, and sometimes even a novel. At last he would send me nothing but flowers. Can you believe it,' she continued, with sorrowful simplicity, that, in spite of our express agreement in the beginning, he would become a lover!'
Indeed, I believe it!' said I, shuddering silently at the fate of this unhappy gentleman, who in his declining years had fallen into the young girl's hands. How endearingly she must have beguiled him on, step by step, to be a lover; and then with what contempt she must have scouted the abject victim from her presence, because he had approached her under the mask of friendship-the very mask which she had compelled the poor old fellow in the outset to adopt!
By this time we had emerged from the long avenue of trees and passed into the broad moonlight, which poured a saintly radiance upon her fair, innocent brow, and sparkled along her hair with a liquid
gleam, wavering as it does upon rippling water. She was of small stature, but her shape was beautifully moulded; and from the slender waist upward, her form swayed with every motion, like a water lily rocking on a wave.
There was in her every attitude and gesture an unconscious appeal to the chivalric part of one's nature; and she inspired that kind of liking, that temptation to caress, which a pet animal will excite by its mere softness and prettiness.
'It would be better for us all,' she continued, in a musing tone, as though she were talking to herself and the stars. 'Yes, this whole world would be better and more pleasant to live in, if men and women were allowed to form friendships. For my own part, I sincerely believe that the intelligence of either sex can never be quite developed in its perfection without the influence of the other.'
'I have observed,' said I, 'in those gentlemen who are distinguished favorites, and much in the society of your sex, a very peculiar devel opment of mind indeed.'
Do you not know, Sir, that it is most unfair to use irony; because no retort can be made, and it is really something like a practical joke. It is a polite way, I suspect, of saying that you think me very foolish and at the same time you lay a kind of trap for me, so that I may be deceived by your grave tone, and confirm your opinion by foolishly taking you to be in earnest. Is it not so? Irony is the weapon of an assassin, if you will excuse the expression.'
'You are unquestionably in the right,' I replied, quite crest-fallen in my astonishment at finding my best sneer returned on my hands in this way. You must forgive me. I have a habit of being ironical now and then, but I mean nothing disrespectful by it: believe me.' 'I do believe you. I complain of it because it is generally so very unmeaning; but that is little harm compared with the pain it inflicts.' Her manner was singularly frank and gentle, and the spirit which she so unexpectedly betrayed left my mind in a glow of interest which hours of sentimental conversation would not have kindled. She deemed me, then, worth the pains of a sisterly correction.
'I am in earnest,' said I, 'advancing the position that an unmixed friendship between the sexes is impossible, morally and physically. You cannot make such a heaven of our earth as it might be, so long as there is marrying and giving in marriage upon it: whenever the lamb shall safely associate with the wolf, a man may court the society of your sex without precaution or apprehension.'
Or a child play about the den of the cockatrice! That, I suppose, Sir, is a better simile to express the innocence of your sex and the subtlety of mine.'
Irony is the weapon of an assassin,'' murmured I.
She did not heed my faint retort.
You are not in earnest, Mr. S.; but I will not suffer myself to be laughed out of my enthusiasm. I know how entirely you are dependent on us for the refinement of manner which is indispensable to you as gentlemen. There you are absolutely at our mercy; even you yourself will confess it-will you not?'
'But you are still more indebted to us, I believe, for that refinement of the mind which is necessary to make your abilities appear to the best advantage among men. We have it in our power, I am sure, to give the polish, which is quite as essential to the brilliant use of your intellectual strength as it is to the keenness of a sword. Where else, except in the society of what is called 'the softer sex,' can you acquire the faculty of being alive to the fainter impressions of beauty and poetry in life? Where else can you learn how graceful thought may be? Look at the moonshine near the foot of that tree: how beautifully it flickers upon the earth among the shadows of quivering leaves! So it is with the inspiration of a poet: it falls upon his soul cold and monotonous as the unbroken moonlight. We must come between him and the source of his inspiration, and then-only then, recollect-will the light play and sparkle with life, and take a thousand fantastic shapes, and become Genius. Do not think me boastful: for a moment I have forgotten that I am a
I had by no means forgotten it.
We had paused at the end of the lane, and turned toward a low fence, which bounded a wide, lonely field; she was leaning her folded arms upon the unhewn upper rail, having become lost in thought. The rough bark of the log contrasted with those round, white arms resting, warm with youth, luxuriously upon it. I wondered if, in spite of their proverbial reputation, logs were quite insensible, and was sorry for them if they were.
Would that I might convey the slightest impression of the unutterable, absorbing glory of the night! There seemed to be no to-morrow; never to have been such a thing as day-light. She and I were the only dwellers in an empty world; a moonlight island amid a dusky ocean, the air of which was ever whispering like a sea-shell. The field before us sent up an endless chorus of insect sounds; every blade of grass was a tongue, sighing all manner of drowsiness, yet so as to provoke the most intensely wakeful spirit in the listener, whose every faculty became keenly alive to the dreamy delight of that music.
I was soothed into a holy feeling, a sense of pleasant mystery and of boundless, thrilling life, such as we are subject to in childhood, but which was novel and refreshing to a confirmed bachelor who had seen the world. I was penetrated by a consciousness of the purity and sweetness which enveloped my companion like a halo. The stars flickered like torches in the open air on a still night.
There,' said I, 'is a constellation to which you should often turn. I could believe that you had been born under its influences. There, close together on their phantom steeds, ride Castor and Pollux, who approved themselves such friends on earth that they were thought worthy to be translated; and their names are written side by side in the firmament. Now-a-days, in this unclassical age, male friendship generally consists in a mutual agreement to do in company what each party would be ashamed to do alone; so as to double the