Three Heavy Husbands, by James
He had a high nose. He looked at one over the collar, so to speak.
His regard was very assured, and his speech was that short bundle of
monosyllables which the subaltern throws at the orderly. He had never
been questioned, and, the precedent being absent, he had never
questioned himself. Why should he? We live by question and answer,
but we do not know the reply to anything until a puzzled comrade
bothers us and initiates that divine curiosity which both humbles and
He wanted all things for himself. What he owned he wished to own
completely. He would give anything away with the largest generosity,
but he would share with no one—
"Whatever is mine," said he, "must be entirely mine. If it is alive I
claim its duty to the last respiration of its breath, and if it is dead
I cannot permit a mortgage on it. Have you a claim on anything
belonging to me? then you may have it entirely, I must have all of it
He was a stockbroker, and, by the methods peculiar to that mysterious
profession, he had captured a sufficiency of money to enable him to
regard the future with calmness and his fellow-creatures with
condescension—perhaps the happiest state to which a certain humanity
So far matters were in order. There remained nothing to round his life
into the complete, harmonious circle except a wife; but as a stated
income has the choice of a large supply, he shortly discovered a lady
whose qualifications were such as would ornament any, however exalted,
position—She was sound in wind and limb. She spoke grammar with the
utmost precision, and she could play the piano with such skill that it
was difficult to explain why she played it badly.
This also was satisfactory, and if the world had been made of machinery
he would have had the fee-simple of happiness. But to both happiness
and misery there follows the inevitable second act, and beyond that,
and to infinity, action and interaction, involution and evolution,
forging change for ever. Thus he failed to take into consideration
that the lady was alive, that she had a head on her shoulders which was
native to her body, and that she could not be aggregated as chattel
property for any longer period than she agreed to.
After their marriage he discovered that she had dislikes which did not
always coincide with his, and appreciations which set his teeth on
edge. A wife in the house is a critic on the hearth—this truth was
daily and unpleasantly impressed upon him: but, of course, every man
knows that every woman is a fool, and a tolerant smile is the only
recognition we allow to their whims. God made them as they are—we
grin, and bear it.
His wife found that the gospel of her husband was this—Love me to the
exclusion of all human creatures. Believe in me even when I am in the
wrong. Women should be seen and not heard. When you want excitement
make a fuss of your husband.—But while he entirely forgot that his
wife had been bought and paid for, she did not forget it: indeed, she
could not help remembering it. A wrong had been done her not to be
obscured even by economics, the great obscurer. She had been won and
not wooed. (The very beasts have their privileges!) She had been
defrauded of how many teasing and provoking prerogatives, aloofnesses,
and surrenders, and her body, if not her mind, resented and remembered
There are times when calmness is not recognised as a virtue. Of
course, he had wooed her in a way. He took her to the opera, he gave
her jewels, he went to Church with her twice every Sunday, and once a
month he knelt beside her in more profound reverences: sometimes he
petted her, always he was polite—
But he had not told her that her eyes were the most wonderful and
inspiring orbs into which a tired man could look. He never said that
there would not be much to choose between good and evil if he lost her.
He never said that one touch of her lips would electrify a paralytic
into an acrobat. He never swore that he would commit suicide and dive
to deep perdition if she threw him over—none of these things. It is
possible that she did not wish him to say or do such extravagances, but
he had not played the game, and, knowing that something was badly
wrong, she nursed a grievance, that horrid fosterling.
He was fiercely jealous, not of his love, but of his property, and
while he was delighted to observe that other men approved of his taste,
he could not bear that his wife should admire these outsiders. This
was his attitude to her: Give me your admirations, all of them, every
note of exclamation of which you are mistress, every jot and tittle of
your thoughts must be mine, for, lacking these, I have nothing. I am
good to you. I have interposed between you and the buffets of
existence. I temper all winds to the bloom of your cheek. Do you your
part, and so we will be happy.
There was a clerk in his office, a black-haired, slim, frowning young
man, who could talk like a cascade for ten minutes and be silent for a
month: he was a very angry young man, with many hatreds and many
ambitions. His employer prized him as a reliable and capable worker,
liked his manners, and paid him thirty-five shillings per week—Outside
of these matters the young man abode no more in his remembrance than
did the flower on the heath or the bird on the tree.
It happened one day that the employer fell sick of influenza and was
confined to his bed. This clerk, by order, waited on him to see to his
correspondence; for, no matter who sneezes, work must be attended to.
The young man stayed in the house for a week, and during his sojourn
there he met the lady. She fair, young, brooding! he also young,
silent, and angry! After the first look had passed between them, there
was little more to be said. They came together as though they had been
magnetised. Love or passion, by whatever name it is called, was born
abruptly. There is a force in human relations drawing too imperatively
for denial; defying self-interest, and dragging at all anchors of duty
and religion. Is it in man only the satisfaction of self? Egotism
standing like a mountain, and demanding, "Give me yourself or I will
kill myself." And women! is their love the degradation of self, the
surrender and very abasement of lowliness? or is it also egotism set on
a pinnacle, so careless and self-assured as to be fearful of nothing?
In their eyes the third person, a shadow already, counted as less than
a shadow. He was a name with no significance, a something without a
locality. His certain and particular income per annum was a thing to
laugh at . . . there was a hot, a swift voice speaking—"I love you,"
it said, "I love you": he would batter his way into heaven, he would
tear delight from wherever delight might be—or else, and this was
harder, a trembling man pleading, "Aid me or I perish," and it is
woman's instinct not to let a man perish. "If I help you, I hurt
myself," she sighed; and, "Hurt yourself, then," sighed the man; "would
you have me perish. . .?"
So the owner by purchase smiled—
"You are mine," said he, "altogether mine, no one else has a lien upon
you. When the weather is fine I will take you for drives in the
sunshine. In the nights we will go to the opera, hearkening together
to the tenor telling his sweet romanza, and when the wintry rain beats
on the windows you will play the piano for me, and so we will be happy."
When he was quite recovered he went back to his office, and found that
one of his clerks had not arrived—this angered him; when he returned
home again in the evening, he found that his wife was not there. So
He was one of those who shy at the tête-à-tête life which, for a long
time, matrimony demands. As his wedding-day approached he grew fearful
of the prolonged conversation which would stretch from the day of
marriage, down the interminable vistas, to his death, and, more and
more, he became doubtful of his ability to cope with, or his endurance
to withstand, the extraordinary debate called marriage.
He was naturally a silent man. He did not dislike conversation if it
was kept within decent limits: indeed, he responded to it contentedly
enough, but when he had spoken or been addressed for more than an hour
he became, first, impatient, then bored, and, finally, sulky or
ill-mannered.—"With men," said he, "one can talk or be silent as one
wishes, for between them there is a community of understanding which
turns the occasional silence into a pregnant and fruitful interlude
wherein a thought may keep itself warm until it is wanted: but with a
woman!"—he could not pursue that speculation further, for his
acquaintance with the sex was limited.
In every other respect his bride was a happiness. Her good looks
soothed and pleased him. The touch of her hand gave him an
extraordinary pleasure which concealed within it a yet more
extraordinary excitement. Her voice, as a mere sound, enchanted him.
It rippled and flowed, deepened and tinkled. It cooed and sang to him
at times like the soft ringdove calling to its mate, and, at times
again, it gurgled and piped like a thrush happy in the sunlight. The
infinite variation of her tone astonished and delighted him, and if it
could have remained something as dexterous and impersonal as a wind he
would have been content to listen to it for ever—but, could he give
her pipe for pipe? Would the rich gurgle or the soft coo sound at last
as a horrid iteration, a mere clamour to which he must not only give an
obedient heed, but must even answer from a head wherein silence had so
His mind was severe, his utterance staccato, and he had no knowledge of
those conversational arts whereby nouns and verbs are amazingly
transfigured into a gracious frolic or an intellectual pleasure. To
snatch the chatter from its holder, toss and keep it playing in the air
until another snatched it from him; to pluck a theory hot from the
stating, and expand it until it was as iridescent and, perhaps, as thin
as a soap-bubble: to light up and vivify a weighty conversation until
the majestic thing sparkled and glanced like a jewel—these things he
could not do, and he knew it. Many a time he had sat, amazed as at an
exhibition of acrobatics, while around him the chatter burst and sang
and shone. He had tried to bear his part, but had never been able to
edge more than one word into that tossing cataract, and so he fell to
the habit of listening instead of speaking.
With some reservations, he enjoyed listening, but particularly he
enjoyed listening to his own thoughts as they trod slowly, but very
certainly, to foregone conclusions. Into the silent arena of his mind
no impertinent chatter could burst with a mouthful of puns or ridicule,
or a reminiscence caught on the wing and hurled apropos to the very
centre of discussion. His own means of conveying or gathering
information was that whereby one person asked a question and another
person answered it, and, if the subject proved deeper than the
assembled profundity, then one pulled out the proper volume of an
encyclopaedia, and the pearl was elicited as with a pin.
Meanwhile, his perturbation was real. There are people to whom we need
not talk—let them pass: we overlook or smile distantly at the
wretches, retaining our reputation abroad and our self-respect in its
sanctuary: but there are others with whom we may not be silent, and
into this latter category a wife enters with assured emphasis. He
foresaw endless opportunities for that familiar discussion to which he
was a stranger. There were breakfast-tables, dinner-tables,
tea-tables, and, between these, there might be introduced those
preposterous other tables which women invent for no purpose unless it
be that of making talk. His own breakfast, dinner, and tea-tables had
been solitary ones, whereat he lounged with a newspaper propped against
a lamp, or a book resting one end against the sugar-bowl and the other
against his plate.—This quietude would be ravaged from him for ever,
and that tumult nothing could exorcise or impede. Further than these,
he foresaw an interminable drawing-room, long walks together, and
other, even more confidential and particular, sequestrations.
After one has married a lady, what does one say to her? He could not
conceive any one saying anything beyond "Good-morning." Then the other
aspect arrested him, "What does a woman find to say to a man?" Perhaps
safety lay in this direction, for they were reputed notable and
tireless speakers to whom replies are not pressingly necessary. He
looked upon his sweetheart as from a distance, and tried to reconstruct
her recent conversations.—He was amazed at the little he could
remember. "I, I, I, we, we, we, this shop, that shop, Aunt Elsa, and
chocolates." She had mentioned all these things on the previous day,
but she did not seem to have said anything memorable about them, and,
so far as he could recollect, he had said nothing in reply but "Oh,
yes" and "To be sure!" Could he sustain a lifetime of small-talk on
these meagre responses? He saw in vision his most miserable
tea-table—a timid husband and a mad wife glaring down their noses at
plates. The picture leaped at him as from a cinematograph and appalled
him. . . . After a time they would not even dare to look at each
other. Hatred would crouch behind these figures, waiting for its chain
to be loosed!
So he came to the knowledge that he, so soon to be a husband, had been
specially fashioned by nature to be a bachelor. For him safety lay in
solitude: others, less rigorously planned, might safely venture into
the haphazard, gregarious state of wedlock, but he not only could not,
but must not, do so, and he meditated an appeal to his bride to release
him from the contract. Several times the meditation almost became
audible, but always, just as he toppled on the surge of speech, the
dear lady loosed a torrent of irrelevancies which swirled him from all
anchorage, and left him at the last stranded so distantly from his
thought that he did not know how to find his way back to it.
It would be too brutally direct to shatter information about silk at
one shilling the yard with a prayer for matrimonial freedom. The girl
would be shocked—he could see her—she would stare at him, and
suddenly grow red in the face and stammer; and he would be forced to
trail through a lengthy, precise explanation of this matter which was
not at all precise to himself. Furthermore, certain obscure emotions
rendered him unwilling to be sundered from this girl.—There was the
touch of her hand; more, the touch of her lips given bravely and with
ready modesty—a contact not lightly to be relinquished. He did not
believe he could ever weary of looking at her eyes: they were grey,
widely open, and of a kindness such as he could not disbelieve in; a
radiant cordiality, a soft, limpid goodwill; believing and trustful
eyes which held no guile when they looked at him: there were her
movements, her swiftness, spaciousness, her buoyant certainty: one
remembered her hair, her hands, the way she wore a frock, and a
strange, seductive something about the look of her shoe.
The thing was not possible! It is the last and darkest insult to tell
the woman who loves you that you do not wish to marry her. Her
indignant curiosity may be appeased only by the excuse that you like
some other woman better, and although she may hate the explanation she
will understand it—but no less legitimate excuse than this may pass
sunderingly between a man and a woman.
It lay, therefore, that he must amend his own hand, and, accordingly,
for the purpose of marital intercourse, he began a sad inquiry into the
nature of things. The world was so full of things: clouds and winds
and sewing machines, kings and brigands, hats and heads, flower-pots,
jam and public-houses—surely one could find a little to chat about at
any moment if one were not ambitiously particular. With inanimate
objects one could speak of shape and colour and usefulness. Animate
objects had, beside these, movements and aptitudes for eating and
drinking, playing and quarrelling. Artistic things were well or badly
executed, and were also capable of an inter-comparison which could not
but be interesting and lengthy.—These things could all be talked
about. There were positive and negative qualities attaching to
everything, and when the former was exhausted the latter could still be
profitably mined—"Order," said he, "subsists in everything, and even
conversation must be subject to laws capable of ascertainment."
He carefully, and under the terms of badinage, approached other men,
inquiring how they bore themselves in the matrimonial dispute, and what
were the subjects usually spoken of in the intimacies of family life.
But from these people he received the smallest assistance.—Some were
ribald, some jocose, some so darkly explanatory that intelligence could
not peer through the mist or could only divine that these hated their
wives. One man held that all domestic matters should be left entirely
to the wife and that talking was a domestic matter. Another said that
the words "yes, no, and why" would safeguard a man through any
labyrinth, however tortuous. Another said that he always went out when
the wife began to speak; and yet another suggested that the only
possible basis for conversation was that of perpetual opposition, where
an affirmation was always countered by a denial, and the proving of the
case exercised both time and intelligence.
As he sat in the train beside his wife the silence which he so dreaded
came upon them. Emptiness buzzed in his head. He sought diligently
for something to speak about—the characteristics of objects! There
were objects and to spare, but he could not say—"that window is
square, it is made of glass," or, "the roof of this carriage is flat,
it is made of wood."
Suddenly his wife buried her face in her muff, and her shoulders were
convulsed. . . .
Love and contrition possessed him on the instant. He eased his husky
throat, and the dreaded, interminable conversation began—
"What are you crying for, my dear?" said he.
Her voice, smothered by the fur, replied—
"I am not crying, darling," said she, "I am only laughing."
He got stiffly up from his seat before the fire—
"Be hanged," said he, "if I wait any longer for her. If she doesn't
please to come in before this hour let her stop out." He stared into
the fire for a few moments—"Let her go to Jericho," said he, and he
tramped up to bed.
They had been married just six months, after, as he put it, the hardest
courtship a man ever undertook. She was more like a piece of
quicksilver than a girl. She was as uncertain as a spring wind, as
flighty as a ball of thistledown—"Doesn't know her own mind for ten
minutes together," he groaned. "Hasn't any mind at all," he'd think an
hour later. While, on the following day, it might be—"That woman is
too deep, she is dodging all round me, she is sticking her finger in my
eye. She treats me as if I wasn't there at one moment, and diddles me
as if I was Tom Fool the next—I'll get out of it."
He had got out of it three or four times—halted her against a wall,
and, with a furious forefinger, wagged all her misdeeds in her face;
then, rating her up, down and round, he had prepared to march away
complacent and refreshed like Justice taking leave of a sinner, only to
find that if the jade wept he could not go away—
"Dash it all," said he, "you can't leave a girl squatting down against
a wall, with her head in her lap and she crying. Hang it," said he,
"you feel as if there was water round your legs and you'll splash if
So he leavened justice with mercy, and, having dried her tears with his
lips, he found himself in the same position as before, with a mad
suspicion tattering through his brain that maybe he had been "diddled"
But he married her, and to do that was a job also. She shied at
matrimony. She shied at everything that looked plain or straight. She
was like a young dog out for a walk: when she met a side-street she
bolted down it and was instantly surrounded by adventure and misery,
returning, like the recovered pup, thick with the mud of those
excursions. There was a lust in her blood for side-streets, laneways
"Marriage!" said she, and she was woebegone—"Marriage will be for
"So will heaven," he retorted comfortingly.
"So will—the other place," said she, with a giggle, and crushed him
under the feeling that she envisaged him as the devil of that
particular Hades, instead of as an unfortunate sinner plucked up by the
heels and soused into the stew-pan by his wife.
He addressed himself—
"When we are married," said he, "I'll keep a hand on you, my lady, that
you won't be able to wriggle away from. If you are slippery, and faith
you are, why I'm tough, and so you'll find it." "Get rid of your kinks
before you marry," said he. "I've no use for a wife with one eye on
me, and it a dubious one, and the other one squinting into a parlour
two streets off. You've got to settle down and quit tricks. A wife
has no one else to deceive but her husband, that's all she can want
tricks for, and there's not going to be any in my house. It's all
right for a pretty girl to be a bit larky——"
"Am I really pretty?" said she, deeply interested and leaning forward
with her hands clasping her knees—"Do you really and truly think I am
pretty? I met a man one time, he had a brown moustache and blue eyes,
outside a tailor's shop in Georges Street, with a public-house on one
side, and he said he thought I was very pretty: he told me what his
name was, but I forget it: maybe, you know him: he wears a tweed suit
with a stripe and a soft hat—Let me see, no, his name began with a
"His name was Thief," he roared, "and that was his profession too.
Don't let me catch you talking with a strange man, or you'll get hurt,
and his brown eyes will be mixed up with his blue moustache."
So married they were, six months now, and the wits were nearly worried
out of him in trying to keep pace with his wife's vagaries. Matrimony
had not cured her love for side-streets, short cuts and chance
acquaintances, and she was gradually making her husband travel at a
similar tangent. When they started to go to church he would find, to
his amazement, that they were in the Museum. If they journeyed with a
Museum for an objective they were certain to pull up in the Botanic
Gardens. A call on a friend usually turned into a visit to a theatre
or a walk by the Dodder—
"Heart-scalded I am," said he, "with her hopping and trotting. She
travels sideways like a crab, so she does. She has a squint in her
walk. Her boots have a bias outwards. I'm getting bow-legged, so I
am, slewing round corners after her. I'll have to put my foot down,"
And now it was all finished. Here was twelve o'clock at night and an
absent wife—a detestable combination. Twelve o'clock at night outside
a house is an immoral hour, inside a house it is non-moral, but
respectable. There is nothing in the street at that time but dubiety.
Who would be a husband listening through the tolling of midnight for a
muffled footfall?—And he had told her not to go: had given an order,
formulated his imperative and inflexible will—
"Never mind! I'll stand by it," said he, "this is the last straw. One
break and then freedom. Surgery is better than tinkering. Cut the
knot and let who will try to join it then. One pang, and afterwards
ease, fresh air, and freedom: fresh air! gulps of it, with the head
back and an easy mind. I'm not the man to be fooled for ever—surgery!
His wife had wished to see a friend that night and requested her
husband to go with her—he refused—
"You're always trapsin about," said he.
He heaved an angry forehead at her, puckered an eye, toned a long No
that wagged vibration behind it like an undocked tail.
She persisted, whereupon he loosed his thunder—
"You're not to step outside the house this night, ma'am," said he; and
to her angry "I will go," he barked, "If you do go, don't come back
here. I'll have a dutiful wife or I'll have none—stay in or stay out.
I'm tired humouring your whimsies, let you humour mine now——"
Then a flame gathered on her face, it grew hot in her voice, flashed to
a point in her eyes—
"I'm going out to-night," said she loudly; "are you coming with me?"
"I'm not," said he.
"Then," she snapped, "I'll go by myself."
"Wherever you go to-night you can stay," he roared. "Don't come back
to this house."
"I'm not mad enough to want to," she replied. "I wish I'd never seen
your old house. I wish I'd never seen yourself. You are just as dull
as your house is, and nearly as flat. It's a stupid, uninteresting,
slow house, so it is, and you are a stupid, dissatisfied grump of a
man, so you are. I'd sooner live in a cave with a hairy bear, so I
would——" and out she ran.
Two minutes later he had heard the door bang, and then silence.
That was five hours ago, and during all these long hours he had sat
staring sourly into the fire, seeing goodness knows what burnt-up
visions therein, waiting to hear a footfall, and an entreating voice at
the key-hole; apologies and tears perhaps, and promises of amendment.
Now it was after twelve o'clock, darkness everywhere and silence. Time
and again a policeman's tramp or the hasty, light footfall of adventure
went by. So he stood up at last sour and vindictive—
"She would have her fling. She wouldn't give in. She doesn't care a
tinker's curse what I say. . . . Let her go to Jericho," said he, and
he tramped up to bed.
In his bedroom he did not trouble to get a light. He undressed in a
bitterly savage mood and rolled into bed, only to jump out again in
sudden terror, for there was some one in it. It was his wife. He lay
down with a hazy, half-mad mind. Had he wronged her? Was she more
amenable than he had fancied? She had not gone out at all—or, had she
gone out, sneaked in again by the back door and crept noiselessly to
bed. . . .?
He fell asleep at last on the tattered fringe of a debate—Had he
wronged her? or had she diddled him again?