Three Young Wives, by James Stephens

I

She was about to be a mother for the second time, and the fear which is the portion of women was upon her. In a little while she would be in the toils, and she hated and feared physical pain with a great hatred and a great fear. But there was something further which distressed her.

She was a soft, babyish creature, downy and clinging, soft-eyed and gentle, the beggar folk had received gifts at her hand, the dogs knew of her largesse. Men looked on her with approval, and women liked her. Her husband belonged to the type known as "fine men," tall, generously-proportioned, with the free and easy joviality which is so common in Ireland. He was born a boy and he would never grow out of that state. The colour of his hair or the wrinkles on his cheek would not have anything to do with his age, for time was powerless against the richness of his blood. He would still be a boy when he was dying of old age; but if protestations, kisses and homage were any criterion then the fact that he loved his wife was fixed beyond any kind of doubt.

But he did not love her.—He was as changeable as the weather of his country. Swift to love he was equally swift to forget. His passions were of primitive intensity, but they were not steadfast. He clutched with both hands at the present and was surprised and irritated by the fact that he could in nowise get away from the past: the future he did not care a rap about. Nobody does: there is, indeed, no such thing as the future, there is only the possibility of it, but the past and the present are facts not to be gotten away from. What we have done and what we are doing are things which stamp us, mould us, live with us and after us: what we will do cannot be counted on, has no part in us, has only a problematical existence, and can be interfered with, hindered, nullified or amplified by the thousand unmanageable accidents of futurity.

He had married thanking God from a full heart for His goodness, and believing implicitly that he had plucked the very Flower of Womanhood, and the Heart of the World, and, maybe, he had.—There are many Flowers of Womanhood, all equally fragrant, and the Heart of the World can beat against the breast of any man who loves a woman.

Some time previously their little boy had contracted small-pox, and his mother, nursing him, took it from him. When they recovered her beauty was gone. The extraordinary bloom which had made her cheek a shrine to worship and marvel at was destroyed for ever, while, by a curious chance, the boy was unmarked.

Now the only love which he had to give was a physical love. He did not love a woman, he loved the husk. Of the woman herself he knew nothing and cared less. He had never sought to know his wife, never tried to pierce beneath her beauty and discover where the woman lived and what she was like at home. Indeed, he knew less of his wife than his servants did, and by little and little she had seen how the matter stood. She had plucked the heart from his mystery and read him to the bones, while remaining herself intact. But she held him still, although by the most primitive and fragile of bonds, by the magnetism of her body, the shining of her eyes, the soft beauty of her cheeks; and, behold! she was undone. The disease had stamped on her face, and, in the recoil, had stamped on her husband's love.

How many nights of solitary tears she had known! she alone could count them, a heavy knowledge. How many slights, shrinkings, coldnesses she had discerned! the tale of them was hot in her brain, the index heavy on her heart.

She knew her loss on the day that her husband looked at her after her recovery when all fear of infection had passed—the stare, the flush, the angry disgust. Her eyes were cameras. She had only to close them and she could see again in dismal procession those dismal details.

And now, as she lay helpless on the bed, she watched him. She was racked with pain, and he was mumbling that it would be all right again in a little time. "A week from now," said he, "and you will have forgotten all about it."

But she, looking at him with fearful eyes, traced this sentence at the back of his brain, "I hope that she will die," and the life within her which had been sown in happiness and love, and had grown great through misery and tears was now beating at the gates of entrance. . . . She might die: so many people die in labour, and she was not strong. With a new clairvoyant gaze she saw Death standing by the bed, hooded, cloaked and sombre; his eyes were fixed on her and they were peaceful and kindly eyes. Had there been nothing else to care for she would have gone gladly to the Dark One; but there remained her little son. What heart was he to rest on when she was gone? Whose arms could open so widely as the mother's when he fled from the terrible things which haunt Babyland?—it was an arrow in her heart.

She knew well that her husband would marry again. He was of those men who are inveterate husbands—and that new woman!—Who was she? What was she like? What would be her attitude towards a motherless child? towards her little one? She would be kindly at first, little doubt of that, but afterwards, when her own children came, what would become of the child of a husband's first wife? . . .

She stared down vistas of sorrow. She was a woman, and she knew women. She saw the other little ones, strangers to her, cared for and loved, all their childish troubles the centre of maternal interest and debate, while her boy slunk through a lonely, pathetic childhood, frightened, repressed, perhaps beaten, because he was not of the brood. . . .

She saw these things as she lay looking at her husband, and she believed they would come to pass if she died.

And in the night time, when the stars were hidden behind the window curtains, by the light of a lamp that fell on toiling, anxious people, in a hospital-like atmosphere of pain and clamour she did die.

II

It was believed long ago in the ancient kingdom of Erinn that it was death to be a poet, death to love a poet, and death to mock a poet. So the Gael said, and, in that distant time, the people of the Gael were a wise people, holding the ancient knowledge, and they honoured the poet and feared him, for his fostering was among the people of the Shee, and his curse was quickened with the authority of the gods. Even lately the people feared the poets and did them reverence, although the New Ignorance (known humorously as Education) was gradually strangling the life out of Wisdom, and was setting up a different and debased standard of mental values. There was a lady once and she scorned a poet, wittingly and with malice, and it was ill for her in the sequel, for the gods saw to it.

She was very beautiful—"The finest girl in three counties, sir," said her father: but he might have been prejudiced in favour of his own, and he had been known to speak of himself as "the finest man in Ireland, and you know what that means, sir." Further, his dog was "the greatest dog that ever ratted in the universe." Whatever he owned was not only good, it was great and unique, and whatever he did not own had, in his opinion, very little to recommend it.

But his daughter was beautiful. When the male eye encountered her it was in no haste to look away. When the female eye lit on her it was, and the owner of the female eye, having sniffed as was proper, went home and tried to do up her hair or her complexion in the like manner—as was also proper. A great many people believe (and who will quarrel with their verities) that beauty is largely a matter of craft and adjustment.—Such women are beautiful with a little difficulty—they pursue loveliness, run it to earth in a shop, obtain it with a certain amount of minted metal, and reincarnate themselves from a box.—They deserve all the success which they undoubtedly obtain. There are other women who are beautiful by accident—such as, the cunning disposition of a dimple, the abilities of a certain kind of smile, the possession of a charming voice—for, indeed, an ugly woman with a beautiful voice is a beautiful woman. But some women are beautiful through the spendthrift generosity of nature, and of this last was she. Whatever of colour, line, or motion goes to the construction of beauty that she was heiress to, and she knew it only too well.

A person who has something of his own making may properly be proud of his possession, even if it is nothing more than a stamp album, but a person who has been gifted by Providence or Fairy Godmothers should not be conceited. A self-made man may be proud of his money, but his son may not. Pride in what has been given freely to you is an empty pride, and she was prouder of her beauty than a poet is of his odes—it was her undoing in the end.

She was so accustomed to the homage of men that one who failed to make instant and humble obeisance to her proved himself to be either a very vulgar person or else a miracle. Such folk were few, for the average man bends as readily to beauty as a flower sways to the wind, or the sea to the touch of the moon.

Before she was twenty years of age she had loomed in the eye of every male in her vicinity as the special female whom nature had built to his exclusive measure. When she was twenty-one she had withstood the matrimonial threats of half the male population of Ireland, and she knew how every social grade (there are not many of them) of Irish life made love, for that was the only thing they were able to do while they were near her. From the farmer with a spade in his fist to the landlord with a writ in his agent's pocket, all sang the same song, the sole difference being a matter of grammar; and, although young women have big appetites in these cases, and great recuperative powers, she was as tired of love and love-lorn swains as a young and healthy woman can be, and then, suddenly, and to her own delighted consternation, she did fall in love.

The tantalising part of the whole matter was that she was unable to formulate any good reason for falling in love with this particular male. Her powers of observation (and they were as sharp as a cat's tooth) pointed out that although he was a young man his head was beginning to push out through his hair, and she had always considered that a bald man was outside the pale of human interest. Furthermore, his trousers bagged at the knees, perhaps the most lamentable mishap that can descend on manly apparel.—They were often a little jagged at the ends. She did not understand that trousers such as these were the correct usage, they were in the tradition: he was wearing "the bearded breeches of the bard." He was a little weak on his legs, and his hands sometimes got in his own way, but she said to herself with a smile, "How different he is from other men!"

What that difference consisted in got between her and her rest, there was a crumb in her bed on the head of it.

Meanwhile, he had not told her that he loved her, and she was strangely anxious for news to that effect. Indeed, she sought confirmation of her hopes as often as maidenly modesty permitted, which was pretty frequent, for maidenly modesty has its diplomacy also; besides, has not a reigning beauty liberty to pay court?—there are plenty of other queens who have done it.

He was a poet by profession, but his livelihood depended upon his ability as a barrister. When she first saw him he was crossing a street. Suddenly, in the centre of the road, he halted, with his toes turned in, his fingers caressing his chin, and an expression of rapt and abstracted melancholy on his visage, while he sought for the missing, the transfiguring word. There was a sonnet in his eye and it impeded his vision. Meanwhile, the wheeled traffic of the street addressed language to him which was so vigorous as almost to be poetical. She had pulled him from beneath a horse's head which a frantic driver was endeavouring to pull the mouth from. The words of the driver as he sailed away were—"Go home and die, you moonstruck, gibbering, wobbling omadhaun," and she had thought that his description was apt and eloquent.

She saw him a second time, when her father took her for a visit to the Four Courts. He was addressing the Court, and, while his language was magnificent, the judge must have considered that his law was on vacation, for he lost his cause.

They met again in her own home. Her father knew him very well, and, although they seldom met, he had that strong admiration for him which a vigorous and overbearing personality sometimes extends to a shy and unworldly friend—

"A perfect frost as a lawyer," he used to say, "but as a poet, sir, Shakespeare is an ass beside him, and if any one asks you who said so, tell them that I did, sir."

He sat beside her at dinner and forgot her before the first course was removed, and, later, when he knocked a glass off the table, he looked at her as though she were responsible for the debris.

He did not make love to her, a new and remarkable omission in her experience of men, however bald, and while this was refreshing for a time it became intolerable shortly. She challenged him, as a woman can, with the flash of her eyes, the quick music of her laugh, but he was marvelling at the width of the horizon, rapt in contemplation of the distant mountains, observing how a flower poised and nodded on its stalk, following the long, swooping flight of a bird or watching how the moon tramped down on the stars. So far as she could see he was unaware that her charms were of other than average significance—

"These poets are awful fools," said she angrily.

But the task of awakening this landlocked nature was one which presented many interesting features to her. She was really jealous that he paid her no attention, and, being accustomed to the homage of every male thing over fifteen years of age, she resented his negligence, became interested in him, as every one is in the abnormal, and when a woman becomes interested in a man she is unhappy until he becomes interested in her.

There had arrived, with the express intention of asking her to marry him, another young gentleman. He had a light moustache and a fancy waistcoat, both of which looked new. He was young, rich, handsome, and sufficiently silly to make any woman wish to take charge of him, and her father had told him to "go in and win, my boy, there's no one I'd like better, sir," a very good heartener for a slightly dubious youth, even though he may consider that the lady of his choice is watching another man more intently than is pleasant.

The young gentleman gripped, with careful frenzy, at his light, new moustache, and growled as he watched the stalking. But the poet was occupied and careless, and then, suddenly, it happened. What movement, conscious or unconscious, opened his eyes one cannot say: the thing seemed to be done without any preliminaries, and he was awakened and in the toils.

They had been reading poetry together, his poetry, and he was expressing, more to himself than to her, how difficult and how delightful it was to work with entire satisfaction within the "scanty plot" of a sonnet. She was listening with bated breath, and answering with an animation more than slightly tinged with ignorance, for she was as little interested in the making of sonnets as in the making of shoes.—Nobody is interested in the making of sonnets, not even poets.

He fell silent after a space and sat gazing at the moon where it globed out on the stillness, and she also became silent. Her nerves, she told herself, were out of order. She was more used to dismissing than to being dismissed and yet she seemed beaten. There was nothing further that a girl could do. He cared no more about her than he did about whatever woman cleaned his rooms. She was not angry, but a feeling of weariness came upon her. (It is odd that one can be so in earnest when one is in jest.) Once or twice she shook her head at the moon, and as she stared, moody and quiet, it seemed that the moon had slid beyond her vision and she was looking into great caverns of space, bursting with blackness. Some horror of emptiness was reaching to roll her in pits of murk, where her screams would be battered back on her tongue soundless.

With an effort she drew her eyes into focus again and turned them, smiling bitterly, on her companion, and, lo, he was looking at her with timid eyes, amazed eyes, and they spoke, for all their timidity, louder than trumpets. She knew that look, who could mistake it? Here was flame from the authentic fire. He was silent, but his breath came and went hurriedly, and he was bending towards her, little by little he was bending, his eyes, his whole body and soul yearning.

Then she arose——

"It is getting a little cold," said she: "we had better go in."

They went indoors silently. He was walking like a man just awakened from a dream. While she!—her head was high. Where was her equal! She frowned in the face of the moon and stars. She beat her small feet upon the earth and called it slave. She had torn victory from nowhere. A man's head swung at her girdle and she owned the blood that dripped, and her heart tossed rapture and anthem, carol and paean to the air around.—She had her hour.

That night the other young gentleman whom any woman would like to take charge of asked her to be his wife, and she consented gracefully, slightly disarranging his nice, new moustache in the act of surrender.

The next day the poet left the house pleading urgent briefs as an excuse—

"You'll come to the wedding," cried her father, "or," laughing, "maybe, you'll help us with the settlements, that's more in your line," and he put an arm fondly about his daughter. She, regarding their visitor, nestled to him and laughingly said—

"It would not be like my wedding at all if you stayed away. You must write me an ode," and her eyes mocked him.

He stood, looking at her for a moment, and his eyes mocked also, for the poet knew by his gift what she had done, and he replied with careless scorn—

"I will come with pleasure, and," with an emphasis she noted, "I will dance at your wedding." So he laughed and marched away heart-whole.

Then, disengaging her arm from her father's, she smiled and walked slowly indoors, and as she walked there spread over her body a fierce coldness, and when her husband sought her afterwards that wintry breast chilled him, and he died: but the poet danced at her wedding, when her eyes were timid and pleading, and frightened.

III

She read the letter through twice, and then she stood for a few minutes looking in front of her, with her arms hanging loosely by her sides, and her foot tapping on the carpet. She was looking into the future with the thoughtful gaze of one who has cut off all communication with the past, and, with a strange feeling of detachment, she was wondering how that future would reveal itself, and whether he. . .? She crossed to the fireplace, sat down, and read the letter over again.

Her husband had gone out that evening with a friend. In his usual hit-or-miss fashion, he kissed his wife and asked her to settle his tie. He was always asking her to do something, but he never did anything for her.—It was, "Will you hand me the paper, like a good girl?" and, "I say, dear, my pipe is stuffed, you might stick a hairpin through it," or, "You might see, old lady, if there is a match anywhere." Before their marriage she had been accustomed to men who did things for her, and the change was sudden: likeable enough at first—

. . . How red the fire is to-night! They must be sending better coal than we usually get—there is not a single dark spot in it, and how the shape continually changes! Now it is a deep cave with stalactites hanging from the roof, and little swelling hillocks on the floor, and, over all, a delicate, golden glow surging and fading. The blue flame on the top that flits and flickers like a will-o'-the-wisp is gas, I suppose—I wonder how they extract it. . . . I wonder will he be sorry when he comes home, and finds. . . . Perhaps his friend will be sufficient for him then. . . . It is curious to think of oneself as a piece of animated furniture, a dumb waiter, always ready when required, and decently out of sight when not wanted—not dumb, though! He cannot say I failed to talk about it: but, of course, that is nagging and bad temper, and "making yourself ridiculous for nothing, my dear." Nothing! I warned him over and over again; but he must have company. He would be stifled unless he went among men now and again—"Male company is a physical necessity for men, my dear." I suppose women do not need any other company than that of their husbands, and they must not ask too much of that. . . . What strange, careless, hopeful creatures they are, and how they cease to value what they have got! Does the value rise again when it is gone, I wonder? . . . Out all day, and he cannot understand why I ask him to stay with me at night. "A man wants air, sweetheart." A woman does not, of course—she would not have the cheek to want anything: there is something not "nice" about a woman wanting anything. Do all men stifle in the air their wives have breathed? If I ask him "do you love me still?" he replies, "of course, do you mind if I run out for an hour or two, dear." One will ask questions, of course. . . . A kiss in the morning, another at night, and, for Heaven's sake, don't bother me in the interval: that is marriage from a man's point of view. Do they really believe that women are alive? Is matrimony always a bondage to them? Are all women's lives so lonely? Are their wishes neglected, their attempts to think laughed at, their pride stricken?—I wonder. . . . And he did love me, I know that: but if he has forgotten I must not remember it. He could not see enough of me then: and the things he said, and does not remember—I was a wonder that the world could not equal—it is laughable.—A look from me was joy, a word delight, a touch ecstasy. He would run to the ends of the earth to gratify a whim of mine, and life without me was not worth living. . . . If I would only love him! If I could only bring myself to care for him a little—he was too humble, too unworthy to imagine—and so forth, and so forth; and it was all true then. Now I am some one who waits upon him. He wants this and that, and asks me for it. He has cut his finger and shouts for me to bind it up, and I must be terribly concerned about it; somehow, he will even manage to blame me for his cut finger. He cannot sleep in the night, so I must awaken also and listen to his complaint. He is sick, and the medicine tastes nasty; I am to understand that if the medicine tastes nasty I am responsible for it—I should not have given him anything nasty: he is surprised: he trusted me not to do such a thing to him. He turns to me like a child when he has any . . . he turns to me like a child and trusts . . . he turns to me . . . like a child. . . .

The sound of a horse's hooves came to her, and she arose from her chair with frightened haste. She looked swiftly at the clock, and then stood listening in a rigid attitude, with a face that grew white and peaked, and flushed and paled again. The car came swiftly nearer and stopped a little way from the house. Then a foot crunched the gravel, and her desperate eyes went roving quickly about the room as though she were looking for a place to hide in. Next, after a little interval of silence, a pebble struck the window. She stood for a moment staring at the window and then ran to it, swung open a pane of glass, and, leaning out, she called in a high, strained voice, "I will not go." Then, closing the window again, she ran back to the fireplace, crouched down on the rug and pushed her fingers into her ears.

Her husband came home before eleven o'clock, brushed the wraith of a kiss half an inch from her lips, and asked was there anything nice for supper? The supper things were already on the table, and, after tasting a mouthful—

"Who cooked this?" said he.

She was watching him intently—

"The girl did," she replied.

"I knew it," said he angrily, "it's beastly: you might have done it yourself when you were not busy; a lot you care about what I like."

"I will do it to-morrow," she replied quietly.

"Yes do," said he, "there is no one can cook like you."

And she, still watching him intently, suddenly began to laugh—

He leaped up from the table and, after a stare of indignant astonishment, he stalked off to bed—

"You are always giggling about nothing," said he, and he banged the door.