THE FRIENDS WE NEVER SEE.
AMONG the commonplaces of sentiment to which most of us give occasional utterance, one to which a more than common pathos and sincerity belong, is the lament that in the busy or frivolous bustle of life, we so seldom see the friends we value most. All sorts of people express this regret in all sorts of different accents, and with all sorts of different ex- planations of the fact that lies behind it. Perhaps we hear it oftenest from the lady of fashion who likes to remind the acquaintances she meets, at least every other day, that there are people she never meets who are far more dear and precious to her than any of the butterfly friends with whom she appears to be on terms of such happy and altogether satisfy- ing intimacy. 'Dear me, yes,' one hears her saying, 'London society is of course very delightful. There is nothing more delightful. One hears everything and sees everything and meets everybody,—everybody except, of course, the half-dozen people who are the only people one really cares for. Why is it, I wonder, that the people everybody cares for most are not to be met in society ? '
Why, indeed ? The question is a very large one, admitting of many answers. Though, as a matter of fact, the cynical reply that of course the people worth caring for do not care for society, and the sceptical retort which denies that the lady of fashion really wants to meet anybody in society who is not always there—are the only replies that are ever given. And they, like most cynical and sceptical views, leave the root and the heart of the matter untouched.
It is as little true, as it is little courteous, to say to the lady who buzzes from party to party lamenting that she does not meet everywhere the great, the good, and the wise with whom she thinks she would like to exchange ideas You are a hypocrite, and you know yourself for one. You go into society for what society can give you: and what society gives you is all that you want. You are a butterfly among butter- flies, and you meet in society exactly the people you want to meet,—the people of your own kind, the people who admire you, and whom you admire. The other people, whom you profess to care for, are to be found in their own place, and if you went less into society you might have time to go to see them. But you prefer the society of the butterflies, and you seek it because you prefer it ; and your lament for "the friends you never see" is only one social affectation among many.'
Alas ! for life and society, the truth of the matter is no more reached by the sceptical retort than by the superficial complaint. Though there are many butterflies in society, society does not consist exclusively of butterflies. The good, the pious, the useful, and sincere contribute their contingent to its gatherings ; and the lament for "the friends we never see" is heard quite as often from them as from the frivolous and the insincere. Indeed it is heard quite as often from those who never go into society at all, and—such is the irony of life—these hermits generally believe that the reason why they do not see their best friends is that something— generally duty—hinders them from going into society. To. them the butterfly lady who flutters from party to party, enjoying herself exceedingly among her acquaintances, and regretting that she never sees her friends—is enviable just because they imagine her in continual enjoyment of the opportunity their own exile from society seems to deny them, of frequent intercourse with the friends they care for most, or would care for most if they had but the chance of improving acquaintance into friendship.
The question of "the friends we never see" goes really- much deeper than any mere society question. Almost all of us who are capable of the constancy and intelligence in affection that go to the making and keeping of friends worth having, realise soon after we have left our first youth behind, that the friends whose influence we know to be the best upon our lives, and whose present sympathy and support we believe to be most necessary to us, are the last people with whom the drift of circumstances makes it possible for us to live. Either our friends go abroad and we stay at home ; or we go abroad and they stay at home ; or they advance to success, high place, social distinction and importance, while we remain obscure and undistinguished. Sometimes, in the- case of women, it is marriage and domestic duties that seem, to come in the way of friendship. Sometimes it is simply professional work, the necessary devotion of time to bread- winning labour; sometimes it is philanthropic and charitable labours that withdraw people from social intercourse.
The causes are many, and they affect all sorts and con- ditions of people pretty equally. The busy are withdrawn by their business ; and the idle, who alone are free to go to several parties every afternoon and evening of their lives, are debarred from meeting their particular friends at those parties, by the fact that their friends are not able to be there.. For, after all, frivolous people are not necessarily insinc-re when they pine for the society of those who are not frivolous. The company of the grave and solid is as necessary to the- happiness of the social trifler as is the substantial trunk of the forest tree to the creeping plant that clings to it. And, when at last the triflers weary of uninterrupted trifling, and "take up" serious pursuits, attending lectures or joining philanthropic societies, though they begin work with a "set," they shortly find that the lightness of their dispositions and the frivolity of their motives will not bring them any exemption from the law by which men and women are all, more or less obviously, condemned to live their lives alone.. Very soon their set disperses, and they are left alone with their good work or their study—the only choice given them being whether they will return to society where their chosen friends are not to be met, or stick to the new pursuits from which the chosen friends have drifted away. And after all, what is the principle at the bottom of this law of circum- stance, or is there really any principle involved in it ?
We think there is, and a very simple and obvious one. It is perfectly true that society is the last place where one can count on meeting the people one cares most about ; though it is not true that nobody worth caring much about goes into society. The people worth caring about, and the people somebody cares most about, are of course the same people, though cynical chagrin is very fond of suggesting that they are not. And they are invariably the people who have a great deal to do that really must be done, and a circle of people depending upon them for all sorts of vital services ; and the due rendering of these services and the discharge of these duties, though it does not necessarily involve a renunciation of what is -commonly called society, does inevitably limit the number of possible appearances to be made in it, and put quite out of question those delightful little arrangements made behind the scenes for meeting here and there and everywhere, which are the delight of idlers who have nothing to do but to idle, and who can therefore time their appearances at any or every- body's party so as to coincide with the appearances of their particular " chums." The busy person, the useful person, the person really necessary to society, is for ever debarred from the delights of these little plots and conspiracies. Such people go to their parties when they can, considering only how to finish that bit of work and keep that business appoint- tn-ent before or after it. They arrive probably just as the idle acquaintance, who was "dying to have a chat with them," is obliged to run away to catch up the thread of half-a-dozen other little chats that have been prearranged with other professional idlers. They leave it as the friend they would have liked to meet is coming in, and all they get out of their party is what they got out of their business appointment,—the satisfaction which comes from "sense of duty done." More than anybody else present, they have done what formal invitations ask us all to do, conferred the ' honour of their company" on their hostess, but they have Zone nothing more. It is the idlers, the triflers, the -frivolous crew, so easily dismissed by the uncomplimentary phrase, "people nobody cares to talk to," who contribute the gaiety, the laughter, the life, the colour and the movement, -which make up the general bien-etre of the scene, from which the important person "everybody wants to talk to" tears himself reluctantly away, thinking harsh thoughts, if not using hard words, about the dignified drudgery that obliges him to exile himself from the pleasantness of society.
But by whatever cause it is that we are cut off from inter- .course with the friends our fancy chooses, the lament for them is a sincere one with most of us, and the regret behind it a very real regret. Cynical worldlings may suggest that it is just because we see so little of these special friends, that we
are able to go on admiring them and desiring their presence. Reason may urge that business and duty, the making of money, the winning of fame, the task of keeping up a credit- able acquaintance, are the legitimate occupations of life ; which bring a man, if not peace at the last, at least a balance at his banker's, and a respectable reputation among
ids felows. Religion may whisper that it is not chance that
,ffisposes of the circumstances of our lives, and puts our friends near to us or sends them far away. The natural desire for the friend who is congenial, is stronger than the voice of
cyn:cism, reason, or religion; and it persists, if not to the end of life, to the day when the spontaneous impulses of character are played out, and the things have happened which turn a man's look backward rather than forward for the rest of his time on earth. Only when we are well on in middle age, and, of the friends we have most wished to live with, a good few have passed beyond the bourne from which there is no return- ing, do we take to our hearts what of truth was in the counsels -of our monitors.
The real reason why we cannot accept the dreary truism— which nevertheless is a very true truth—that as long as we are living our own lives to the full, and doing our own work to the best of our ability, we really get as much good, and almost as much pleasure, out of the thought of our absent friends, as we could out of their presence—is an unacknowledged fear that the "friend we never see" may have changed, and be no more the friend we want to see. Sometimes, alas, the unacknowledged fear is a just one. But more often the friend we miss and want is, by the very fact of being capable of inspiring the sense of " miss " and "want," a person who does not change. So that when chance brings us together again, we see in a flash that he is the same, and gather, in a lump, enough of the true gold of friendship to make up for loss of the small change that might, under other circumstances, have passed between us in the interval. For the friend who is the same to us after long years of separation is not only the same, but, in the expressive slang phrase, "more so."
Again, there is the case when we hear suddenly that the friend we have always counted on seeing again by-and-by, is dead. In the first moment the blow is hard to bear—we are indeed amazed that it should fall so hard. For why should we suffer a sense of loss and maiming, simply because we
read in the paper that So-and-so is dead, when we had lived so long without seeing him or even corresponding with him P In the very paradox lies the consolation. Obviously we should not grieve if this sudden news of far-off death robbed us only of a regret and an unsatisfied longing. What we grieve for is the thought and the influence that was always with us, and which seems for the moment taken away by the violence of the catastrophe. But only seems, as we very quickly realise. For in such cases Death takes nothing from us except the shadow of possible change, now grown impos- sible for evermore. And the friends we never see become ours fully and for ever in the moment, and not till the moment, when Death takes away the doubt, however unrecog- nised, that absence may estrange and time change them into the friends we would rather not see.