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When Dick Met Nita
By Norvell W. Page
Virginia "NANEK" Combs was a small town girl who reached out into the world by writing to various science fiction magazines, and monthly to The Spider. Her letters and poems were reprinted in the "Web" letters column, and she was immortalized as the Jinnie Combs character in Volunteer Corpse Brigade (November 1941). Norvell Page wrote to Combs personally more than once, and in the following May 16, 1942 letter (retyped from Xenophile No.40, July 1978) he relates a version of how Richard Wentworth and Nita Van Sloan first met.
I'm going to take you into the realm of fantasy that is clear and provable fact. If I use this means of talking to you, it is because, very definitely, I want to drive home to you certain essential truths of which you are worthy precisely because you are you.
I'm going to tell you a story. It concerns a certain meeting between the man we call Richard Wentworh and the woman we call Nita van Sloan.
Nita van Sloan had met a man named Richard Wentworth. It was on shipboard in happier days, when Nita was returning from Paris where she had been studying art, as it is called. Nita van Sloan knew she had a special talent, but it was not genius. It was not even a very great talent. It would do to amuse herself with and, so she told herself, to fill the void, the abyss, between her ideals and what life about her seemed to be. She was alone, without warm friends. She was depressed.
And so, on Shipboard, she saw a man who had a gift of laughter in his eyes, and a strange self-strength that held him firmly at all times so that men waited on what he had to say, and that women would have followed him about except that, in him, they recognized a quality which stayed them. It was not aloofness, but there was a sternness in the man, a consecration in which, in the intuitive way that women have, they sensed they had no part.
Nita van Sloan was aware of the a difference in herself, but there was also a resistless urge. She smiled at it and chided herself. She was not a child, not even a school-girl. She tried to discount the appeal, and then, it happened almost accidentally. Her scarf whipped in the wind on deck, and it blinded her... and a hand touched her arm, and a voice spoke to her.
"If it's intentional, don't let me stop you," the voice said, "but you're heading straight for suicide."
Nita looked then at the stop toward which, blindly, she was going, and it was a chain barrier beyond which was the sea. And she looked at the man who had stopped her and it was Richard Wentworth. And his words had been a shock to her.
"You wouldn't try to dissuade me from suicide?" she asked.
Wentworth's brows were tilted whit a hint of mockery, but his eyes were very grave. "Every man is master of his own soul, and hence of his body," he said. "And your eyes are wide open and awake. So it would be a considered action. I'm not sure, under those circumstances, that I would have a right to meddle in another's business."
Nita said, "I think you can help me."
Wentworth shook his head. "Only you can help yourself," he said, "but it may be that someone else could help you find the way."
She felt in him an impersonal warmth that yet was aloofness. Here was no prop on which she could lean, but a willingness to recognize her own strength.
That was the beginning and, in the days that followed, there were times when Nita thought that she hated Richard Wentworth. She was not a weak person, but she was distressed and a little weary. And the words of Richard Wentworth were a goad. Sometimes, he seemed almost to taunt her, though she could feel the warmth of his feeling behind his words. Sometimes the things he said were a torment, but there was always in her heart the certainty of his belief in her, and his knowledge ... or call it faith ... that she could and would conquer.
What had happened to Nita was this: She had reached the age of twenty-six without ever having found a man whom she chould love and respect, and for her one was impossible without the other. She had filled her years with work and with the persuit of the talents she possessed. She was alone, an orphan with some means; and also she was without close friends. Chiefly, she told herself, because her ideals of conduct and intelligence lifted her above them. She believed this in no conceited way, but because her life had worked out in that pattern.
And so, at a time when life was just beginning, Nita found that everything she had known was inadequate to her. She had nothing to do which could utilize the full strength and resources of her nature. What there was to do did not seem worth the doing. And so, thinking this out, she had been confronted with ... nothingness. It was not that she had even thought of suicide. But that trend of her footsteps toward extinction in her blindness on the upper deck had frightened her.
So now, she threw her problems almost vengefully at Wentworth's head with an abandon and an openness which she would not have believed possible.
"Life is empty," she told him, fiercely. "It's an ugly thing a best. My ethics won't permit me to live it as most people do."
"You mean," Wentworth said, quietly, "that other people won't live up to your ideals."
"You make me sound like a prig!"
Wentworth shrugged and offered her a cigarette.
She attacked furiously, "My ideals are a decent way of living. They're pretty good. I like the things of the mind; my crowd does nothing but dance and drink ... and, well, make love."
Wentworth lighted her cigarette.
"If you don't do those things," Nita went on, "you're on the outside looking in! There must be some place in the world for decent people!"
"Generalities," Wentworth said, "tend to be confusing. Get down to cases. In fact, to you."
Nita felt like a child suddenly, but there was no condescencion in Wentworth's manner. He invited her to laugh at her waywardness. She did.
"I do sound a little like the heroine of a confession story," she said ruefully. "All right, I'll get down to cases. I'm not weak. I have my own concept of how life should be lived and I try to live it that way. It is true that I have expected others to conform with my ways. Is that unreasonable?"
Wentworth's voice was dry. "Would you expect an Australian aborigine to make an efficient president of the United States?"
Nita was shocked into silence for a moment. "That sounds, from you, suspiciously like a compliment!" she gasped.
"Self-contempt," Wentworth's words were very quiet now. "Is second only to self-pity among the greater sins. Self-analysis is a dangersous thing. You need so much charity. And any person who is advanced enough to think about himself at all is apt to be over-stern in his judgment of himself."
He laughed. "How about a cocktail before dinner?"
It was always like that. He would not solve her problems for her, and she frequently left him in a rage. But always, she came back. It was as if she could not help it. She was a little rueful. "It's because he lets me talk about myself," she told herself. She was a little abject whe she went to him that day.
"I feel that I should apologize," she began.
"Then go somewhere else and do it," he said shortly. "Do only what you know within yourself to be good. If you have done that, there is no need even for explanation, much less for apology."
Anger leaped up into her, "I try to observe social amenities ..."
"Don't believe in them, Wentworth's voice was tert, but there was laughter in his eyes. "Be true to your highest self. There is sufficient noblesse oblige in that."
"Yesterday," Nita pointed out, "you said ideals didn't matter."
"Right! No person's ideals are worth a tinker's damn to anyone except himself." He looked out over the water. It was flat and washed with sunset colors. The oil-haze from the stack was a touch of earthy brown against heaven. "Your artist's eye sees many values and colors out there. Mine, perhaps, sees only a few. Do I enjoy the scene less than you because I see with a different pair of eyes? Even if your vision is more true, does that matter to me ... unless you can make me see it, too?"
Nita wished afterward that she had kept a record of the things that Richard Wentworth had said to her on that crossing. For her, there was neither ship nor sea nor others on the ship, there was only this sense of struggle within herself and the frustration of what, Nita after realized, had been a quest for sympathy. Some few of them she remembered so starkly that they were engraved, it seemed to her, on her heart.
He said to her, "If you don't honor youself, who will honor you?" And, a few moments later, "There is conceit in ruling others, but none in mastering yourself." And, "There is no arrogance so great as self-righteousness."
Nita clashed with him violently, "You are being self-righteous in judging me!"
Wentworth laughed. "I am speaking only truism. It is you who judge yourself, not I." He was serious, then. "My dear," he said, "I would be presumptuous to try to teach you. No man can teach another. But one who has been along that same trail would be less than a man if he failed to mark certain signposts and certain places where there is water to drink so that another, traveling that same road, may know where another struggled and what he has learned. But, as no man can travel a road for another, so no man can teach another. You must work out your own salvation."
Nita started to interrupt, but Wentworth continued. "When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come. Forget who speaks to you. It is not I who speaks, but many others who have traveled the road. I am a channel."
"Humility?" Nita jeered.
"No, strength. And the recognition of the One Source."
Nita stared at him incredulously. It sounded like religion, and like most of her age and time and stratum, she was a stranger to it. The mere mention of religion could stiffen her back and close her mind like a slammed door. In this obviously world-traveled man, it was as incongruous as scurvy.
It was she, this time, who turned away and it was two days before she sought Wentworth out again ... and he did not trouble her. He had merely waited with what she found an irritiating certainty that she would return. But his greeting was as warm, and as impersonal, as at their first meeting. And there was no hint of ridicule.
"I had to come back," she said, and it was humbly said.
"You would find the answers without me," he said quietly. "The same truths are within yourself, if you will let them manifest."
He established her comfortably in a chair beside him, and for once he did not wait for her to begin. Perhaps it was because they would dock the next day and, as is the way with shipboard friends, however warm, never meet again.
"I am going to ask you to listen to me," he said, "and not interrupt. I am going to urge you, something I rarely do, to receive my words without opposition and then, when you have leisure, to turn them over and reject whatever you wish. But, just as in reading a book, if you quarrel with it al the way through, you learn nothing, so it is with words."
Nita laughed, "I'll try."
"I am going to analyze you, as you seem to me," Wentworth said. "I'm not talking about the outward physical you, but the self that is within that. The soul-you, if you like, or the spiritual you. And presently, I'm going to say a few words about religion.
"You're a strong person. You have a sense of a mission to perform and you are seeking for that mission. You are at odds with those about you, because you are at odds with yourself. You speak of 'ideals' as if they were apart from life, when they are life itself. This is representative of the conflict within you. When you have resolved that conflict, you will be well on the way toward full adjustment toward yourself and life. And you will have found your mission."
Nita said, "I'm still trying. I'm quarreling with what you find, but I'm trying."
Wentworth smiled faintly, almost absently. "It is plain to me that religion is anathema to you. It is one of the things that you put behind you when you left adolescence. You have created your own religion and it is yourself. No, don't interrupt. You have built ideals into a religion and you yourself are the center of those ideals. That is good, but it is not enough. You see, you don't yet know who YOU are!
"I am going to talk to you, in the words of one far wiser than myself," Wentworth said, and even his voice seemed to take on a richer tone. "My dear, each person wise enough to see that the general behavior of mankind is different from that which his inner self demands has to resolve that conflict. Out of that disparity have come all the religions of the world and all the great philosophy. But so many people, attaining to this wisdom, spend their lives in trying to bring into the world about them the truth that they themselves feel. Never realizing that there is a differnt facet of truth for each and every one of us, and different degrees of truth.
"I can see protest rising, for you say to yourself that if no one ever strove for world-betterment, the world would stand still. This is not my meaning. There are two kinds of striving. There is the school of the 'ivory tower,' and there is the school of service. And into which he retires for strength and wisdom and guidance. Each in the heart of each of us. Without it, we are empty; until we find it, we are out of joint with the times. When we have found it, life opens up.
"This is religion, the knowledge that there is One, greater than ourselves, of whom we nevertheless are a part. And that this One, call him God, or the All-powerful; call him Brahma or Allah, or Jehovah, is ceaselessly working through all of us to perfect each of us, and through us, all man-kind. This is what is called mysticism, and there are mystics in every religion throughout the world.
"If you are then, a part of God, if God is within you ... and you know that He is if for a moment you will seek within yourself ... then how can any man harm us, or disturb us, or even make us unhapy? The Father is the strong and sure support of each of us. If we will listen to his voice which some call Conscience, and some call simply the Light-within, we will find our mission in this life. The finding of that mission will resolve all our conflicts and all our doubts. It will remove that sense of separation between the outer self and the inner self, or between you and the world, which is so typical of soul-struggle, and soul-seeking. Then ... you go on from there.
"There is only one necessity in the human being, in man, or woman-God, and that is a recognition of the source of all that we are, and humility before that One Source -- not before self, or before man -- for out of humility and seeking comes wisdom, and out of that wisdom comes peace. Attain that peace-within, and nothing can touch, nothing can harm you, because through it you recognize your one-ness with all the universe, all animals and things, all men and women, in whatever degree of development along the road.
"The Bible is a forgotten book to so many of us. Read in St. John and the letters of St. Paul the teaching of the mysticism that is the mainspring of life. They found their missions."
Nita sat very still when Wentworth had finished. She shivered faintly, and then smiled, hesitantly, at Wentworth.
"Almost, when you were talking, I could hear an echoing voice within myself," she said.
Wentworth smiled and made no answer. He made a slow business of taking out his cigarette case and he smiled again when he considered the lighter in his hand.
"That sense of separation between the inner and outer self," Nita rushed on, "between yourself and the world ... while you were talking, I could almost feel that difference disappearing. The feeling is gone now, but ..."
"All progress is three steps forward and two back," Wentworth said, slowly, "and this is good because thus all ground is three-times covered and triply learned."
Nita drew in a slow, long breath. "A part of everything," she said, almost dreamily, "and one with everything and everyone. Part of God ..." She shivered. "No, I could never again feel contempt, even for my physical self, because that, too ..."
"That, too," Wentworth agreed. "Perfection is the perfect union of the mortal and the spiritual." He laughed. "And all human happiness is a part of the plan. How about a cocktail?"
Nita laughed and accepted a cigarette. "I don't know how to thank you."
"Don't," Wentworth's voice was sharp. "I told you I am only a channel. Don't confuse me with the Source."
It stopped words on Nita's lips, and it gave here a new respect and a new and sudden attitude toward this man beside her, this man who could laugh and jest with everyone about him, and who could teach like a very oracle ... and who carried about him such a sense of dedication to high purpose. He might seem apart from the world, but he was utterly and completely of it.
Nita said, half-laughing, half-serious, "May I like you? And may I admire your ... adjustment?"
"Don't envy my adjustment," he grinned at her. "Have one yourself." He snapped flame to her cigarette with his lighter, and his lean, strong hand was steady and sure as his eyes, as his voice. He was speaking to her but he was looking at the lighter. "I have found my mission," he said quietly.