Three Heavy Husbands, by James Stephens

I

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 uplifts us.

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 or none."

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 can attain.

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 it.

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 things go.

II

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 peacefully brooded?

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."

III

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 you move."

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" again.

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 and corners.

"Marriage!" said she, and she was woebegone—"Marriage will be for ever."

"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 T——"

"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," said he.

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! 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.

She entreated.

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?