It was said that Joseph Noble was an especially attentive correspondent. And in being said, was believed and acted upon by those who knew him, so that in time this sentiment had been accorded a respect uncommon outside the realm of received truth. Even so, it was a point of some contention as to whether this belief or truth, resulted in Noble receiving more good than ill will, attentiveness not being prominent among the seven princely virtues; but in any case Noble's habits in relation to his many acquaintances were far too firmly entrenched to brook any change.
The foregoing being the case, it was apropos that the letter which Noble had before him concerned itself expressly with the issue of the nature of friendship. It began as follows:
It is with some trepidation that I set pen to paper with the intent of disagreeing profoundly with your views on friendship as they were propounded Wednesday last. Although I agree with your premise that friends qua friends enrich our lives, I do not believe that our lives can only be valued to the extent we are at the service of our friends. In fact it appears to me, if I may make so bold, that our obligations to our friends extend only to that service which we could ourselves comfortably accept. It would seem self-evident that friendship without a mutuality of obligation cannot long endure, and creates in place of friendship a kind of moral indenture.
Each of us is aware of that not uncommon instance where friendship goes unrequited. Where friendship is reciprocated with disinterest, if not indeed with something approaching disdain; we do not call this friendship. Instead, we pity the would be friend, and rebuke the hard hearted object of friendship. We do this not only because we despise injustice, but because we care so deeply about the propriety of friendship. When we are honest, we know that we are soldiers holding aloft into battle, not the banner of friendship, but the banner of consideration, for in truth friendship is only the most perfect legion of that greater army.
I am confident that you will consider my arguments as only the most uncertain questioning which has arisen exclusively within the universe of your own thoughts.
As always I remain your devoted student and friend,
If any of Noble's many acquaintances had chanced to see Noble's reaction to this letter, and this was impossible as security stood second only to solicitude in the pantheon of Noble's favored virtues, he would have been astounded to see a look of mawkish good humor rise up in Noble's face. Betraying no untoward haste, Noble readied his writing pad and ink pen, and proceeded to write.
How can I describe the emotions which your most recent letter have brought perforce to the surface of an old bitter heart? Nothing but the rigor of your arguments at the service of a moral view which I find so insidious, could leave me as shaken as I am at the writing of this faint reply.
Let me begin with a corrective, surely you cannot dispute the fact that we say of the capitalist that he is the friend of industry, or that the maxim teaches us that no greater boon exists than friendship, although we seldom seek to acquire it. But does industry display friendship for the capitalist? And do we seek to acquire friendship in the hopes of gaining a "mutuality of obligation"? Not at all. And why is this the case? Because friendship is not commerce. And when we bestow friendship we act not as barkers but as angels. No more than grace can friendship be earned. Each is freely given, and in the giving shows not consideration but love. But who are those who give such friendship without the expectation of reward? They are our neighbors, our workmates, and the population of that most sacred temple, our "set." In short they are those persons who through a communality of feelings we can comfortably say "they are us." Surely this is the ground of friendship.
But in some measure I digress. If I understand your letter correctly, your principal point relates not so much to friendship as to the bounds of friendship. To this issue I would only add one slight thought: I've never met a man I didn't like.
As always, I remain your friend,
An observer of Noble would see very little now. Darkness had won over the once light guarded study. And of objects, one could only say with assurance: a man, a desk and a fire.
"Merrier and merrier."
No further response came from the very fat man who stood between Noble and the mantel festooned with Christmas decorations. Noble pressed himself against his neighbor and whispered in his ear.
"Here we are in the midst of this party and we have no idea who our friends are, what they want of us, what we should do for them."
Drunk, Noble's neighbor appeared not to have heard this remark. He began awkwardly pressing his lips together in the semblance of a kiss and pointed uncertainly towards the far corner of the room.
"I love you. You."
Noble grasped his neighbor's arm and began with renewed urgency, "Dan, my Dan, we don't need them, we have each other. Think of the shallowness of their ideas, and compare them to the pureness of ours. All they offer is day to day happiness. Happiness! It even sounds obscene. Sacrifice yourself to..."
"... nothing." Dan finished with a bleary look of concern.
"Exactly nothing." Finished Noble breathlessly.
Dan lifted his drink to his lips and drank down the remaining off-colored liquid.
After a little moment Dan began to speak. "Listen. Let's leave. Without talking, without thinking. Simply turn around and walk away from all of them. From everything."
Noble frowned murderously at the floor, and then raised his head. "If we were to leave there would have to be somewhere to go. And if there were somewhere to go it would be here."
Dan seemed on the point of speaking again, but stopped with a look of physical distress. He grimaced.
Broken glass and a woman's brightly colored scarf, made together a pretty pattern on the kitchen floor. Noble hoisted uncertainly two ice trays over the heads of the couple engaged in opening the refrigerator door.
"Is there anything to go with the ice."
The voice rang out over the din flowing forth from the adjoining room. Noble made no effort to confront his questioner.
Noble felt well muscled arms gather him up in an embrace.
Noble sang to himself tunelessly. "There is no heart which beats, but beats for Benjamin."
"I sometimes dream of prayer being like this." Benjamin punctuated his comment with a pinch on Noble's forearm.
Noble smiled and pointed at the ceiling with the now dispossessed ice tray. He felt himself suddenly consumed by an inexplicable sense of well being. "Don't you imagine that friendship is most perfect, when it is least 'friendly'?"
"No." This last response was accompanied with the release of Noble's arms.
Noble turned to see Benjamin retreating awkwardly in the direction of the dining room and disappear. But before Noble could follow a woman lurched uncertainly into his arms.
Noble marveled at how the unfocused smile of conviviality which shown up to him clashed with the piteousness of the sentiment. Tenderly, he leaned the woman against the nearest counter, and made his own way in the direction of the dining room.
Across the din and tumult of the too well pleased party-goers, Noble could just make out Benjamin entering the darkened foyer. Although he knew that this way led out and away from the party itself, he followed without reservation.
When Noble entered the foyer, Benjamin's figure was only the largest shadow in a symphony of shadows, each with its own Gothic charm. Without a face, without a sound, Benjamin pressed close and spoke.
"Listen to me." Benjamin's voice was alive with a strange urgency, and Noble found himself catching his breath.
"I know something about friendship."
Noble smiled to himself knowingly, and prepared a witty rejoinder. But God would not let him speak.
"I know that someone has told me about friendship and that it was written down."
"What was written?" This was not Noble's sentiment, it was God speaking.
"Your friends love you."
Silently they stood together, and the noise from the party was like the rhythmic sound of their own hearts.
For a long time Noble stood silent waiting for God to speak further. But in the end God had nothing further to say, so Noble spoke for himself.
"I love each of you."
Someone lit a cigarette, and Noble could make out Benjamin's radiant face and the tears which lingered where he had made to wipe them away.
Another long silent moment passed between them. At last Benjamin looked up with a strangely rueful expression.
"For the first time I understand how little your love means."
"Seldom do we show our friends either the deference, or the care they deserve."
Although only Reuben had accompanied Noble into the small garden connected to the latter's home, he remained uncertain that this remark was directed solely to him.
Noble continued his musing, "In my own life I have watched my friends drown in a sea of hopes. Hopes which I myself have buoyed up with good spirits and with love. And in the end I have found these friends no more than the expired shells of broken men, no different then if I had drowned them myself."
"You once told me that friendship could grow anywhere, if there existed men who shared a community of feelings. And yet you now describe friends who demand so much, that they threaten the end of friendship itself. Can friendship survive the friend?"
Noble looked suspiciously at Reuben as though he doubted the plausibility of his being the source of these sentiments.
"But certainly as 'good friends' they have earned an ease of manner in the governing of our friendship. Don't we owe them a sympathetic turn for their cares, even where sympathy itself tears at the fabric of friendship?"
Noble felt himself awash in a great hopefulness, and yet he was checked by doubt.
"What you say can lead only to an end for friendship, to the spiritual death of our friends."
"You're wrong. We have two choices. We may humor our friends, and so allow them the freedom to misunderstand our friendship as comfort; or we may disabuse our friends of the notion of friendship, and in so doing free them to misunderstand our friendship as truth."
The joy which Noble felt could express itself only in tears, and these fell freely on the grassy sod.
"What are these friends?"
Reuben turned slightly, and for the first time during their talk looked unabashedly at Noble.
"They are a joke. They are to make us laugh."
Noble could think of nothing to say. Instead, his mind turned to two parallel thoughts which had miraculously collided in the space of his own soul: he was alone and everything he had been told was true.
About the author: Adrian Smith is a haberdasher of Romanian extraction who raises parakeets for a hobby. He has been married three times but is currently unattached. You can write to him in care of the editors.
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