Three Young Wives, by James Stephens
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
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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.
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
. . . 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