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A short story by Rupert Hughes

And This Is Marriage

Title:     And This Is Marriage
Author: Rupert Hughes [More Titles by Hughes]

His soul floated upward from the lowermost depths of oblivion, slowly, as a water-plant, broken beneath, drifts to the surface. And then he was awake and unutterably afraid.

His soul opened, as it were, its eyes in terror and his fleshly eyelids went ajar. There was nothing to frighten him except his own thoughts, but they seemed to have waited all ready loaded with despair for the instant of his waking.

The room was black about him. The world was black. He had left the window open, but he could not see outdoors. Only his memory told him where the window was. Never a star pinked the heavens to distinguish it. He could not tell casement from sky, nor window from wall, nor wall from ceiling or floor. He was as one hung in primeval chaos before light had been decreed.

He could not see his own pillow. He knew of it only because he felt it where it was hot under his hot cheek. He could not see the hand he raised to push the hair from his wet brow. He knew that he had a hand and a brow only from their contact, from the sense of himself in them, from the throb of his pulse at the surface of himself.

He felt almost completely disembodied, poised in space, in infinite gloom, alone with complete loneliness. As the old phrase puts it, he was all by himself.

The only sound in his universe, besides the heavy surf of his own blood beating in his ears, was the faint, slow breathing of his wife, asleep in the same bed, yet separated from him by a sword of hostility that kept their souls as far apart as planets are.

He laughed in bitter silence to think how false she was to the devoted love she had promised him, how harsh her last words had been and how strange from the lips that used to murmur every devotion, every love-word, every trust.

He wanted to whirl on her, shake her out of the cowardly refuge of sleep, and resume the wrangle that had ended in exhaustion.

He wanted to gag her so that she would hear him out for once and not break into every phrase. He wanted to tell her for her own good in one clear, cold, logical, unbroken harangue how atrocious she was, how futile, fiendish, heartless. But he knew that she would not listen to him. Even if he gagged her mouth her mind would still dodge and buffet him. How ancient was the experience that warned a man against argument with a woman! And that wise old saw, "Let sleeping dogs lie," referred even better to wives. He would not let her know that he was awake--awake, perhaps, for hours of misery.

This had happened often of late. It had been a hard week, day after day of bitter toil wearing him down in body and fraying his every nerve.

His business was in a bad way, and he alone could save it, and he could save it only by ingenuity and inspiration. But the inspiration, he was sure, would not come to him till he could rest throughout.

Sleep was his hope, his passion, food, drink, medicine. He was heavily pledged at the bank. He could borrow no more. The president had threatened him if he did not pay what was overdue. Bigger businesses than his were being left to crash. A financial earthquake was rocking every tower in the world.

Though he needed cash vitally to further his business, there was a sharper and sharper demand upon him from creditors desperately harried by their own desperate creditors. He must find with his brain some new source of cash. He must fight the world. But how could he fight without rest? Even pugilists rested between rounds.

He had not slept a whole night for a week. To-night he had gone to bed sternly resolved on a while of annihilation. Anything for the brief sweet death with the morning of resurrection.

And then she had quarreled with him. And now he was awake, and he felt that he would not sleep.

He wondered what the hour was. He was tempted to rise and make a light and look at his watch, but he felt that the effort and the blow of the glare on his eyes might confirm his insomnia. He lay and wondered, consumed with curiosity as to the hour--as if that knowledge could be of value.

By and by, out of the stillness and the widespread black came the slumbrous tone of a far-off town clock. Three times it rumored in the air as if distance moaned faintly thrice.

Three o'clock! He had had but two hours' sleep, and would have no more! And he needed ten! To-morrow morning--this morning!--he must join battle for his very existence.

He lay supine, trying not to clench a muscle, seeking to force his surrender to inanition; but he could not get sleep though he implored his soul for it, prayed God for it.

At length he ceased to try to compel slumber. He lay musing. It is a strange thing to lie musing in the dark. His soul seemed to tug and waver outside his body as he had seen an elephant chained by one leg in a circus tent lean far away from its shackles, and sway and put its trunk forth gropingly. His soul seemed to be under his forehead, pushing at it as against a door. He felt that if he had a larger, freer forehead he would have more soul and more room for his mind to work.

Then the great fear came over him again. In these wakeful moods he suffered ecstasies of fright.

He was appalled with life. He felt helpless, bodyless, doomed.

On his office wall hung a calendar with a colored picture showing fishermen in a little boat in a fog looking up to see a great Atlantic liner just about to run them down. So the universe loomed over him now, rushed down to crush him. The other people of the world were asleep in their places; his creditors, his rivals were resting, gaining strength to overwhelm him on the morrow, and he must face them unrefreshed.

He dreamed forward through crisis after crisis, through bankruptcy, disgrace, and mortal illness. He thought of his family, the children asleep in their beds under the roof that he must uphold like an Atlas. Poor little demanding, demanding things! What would become of them when their father broke down and was turned out of his factory and out of his home? How they would hamper him, cling to him, cry out to him not to let them starve, not to let them go cold or barefoot, not to turn them adrift.

Yet they did not understand him. They loved their mother infinitely more. She watched over them, played with them, cuddled and kissed them, while he had to leave the house before they were up, and came home at night too fagged to play their games or endure their noise. And if they were to be punished, she used him as a threat, and saved them up for him to torment and denounce.

They loved her and were afraid of him. Yet what had she done for them? She had conceived them, borne them, nourished them for a year at most. Thereafter their food, their shelter, their clothes, their education, their whole prosperity must come from their father. Yet the very necessities of the struggle for their welfare kept him from giving them the time that would win their favor. They complained because he did not buy them more. They were discontented with what they had, and covetous of what the neighbors' children had, even where it was less than their own.

He busied himself awhile at figuring out how much, all told, his children's upbringing had cost him. The total was astounding. If he had half of that sum now he would not be fretting about his pay-roll or his notes. He would triumph over every obstacle. Next he made estimate of what the children would cost him in the future. As they grew their expenses grew with them. He could not hope for the old comfort of sons, when they made a man strong, for nowadays grown sons must be started in business at huge cost with doubtful results and no intention of repaying the investment. And daughters have to be dressed up like holiday packages, expensive gifts that must be sent prepaid and may be returned, collect.

He could see nothing but vanity back of him and a welter of cost ahead. He could see no hope of ever catching up, of ever resting. His only rest would come when he died.

If he did not sleep soon he would assuredly die or go mad. Perhaps he was going mad already. He had fought too long, too hard. He would begin to babble and giggle soon and be led away to twiddle his fingers and talk with phantoms. He saw himself as he had seen other witless, slavering spectacles that had once been human, and a nausea of fear crushed big sweat out of his wincing skin.

Better to die than to play the living burlesque of himself. Better to die than to face the shame of failure, the shame of reproach and ridicule; the epitaph of his business a few lines in the small type of "Business Troubles." Better to kill himself than risk the danger of going mad and killing perhaps his own children and his wife. He knew a man once, a faithful, devoted, gentle struggler with the world, whom a sudden insanity had led to the butchery of his wife and three little boys. They found him tittering among his mangled dead, and calling them pet names, telling the shattered red things that he had wrought God's will upon them.

What if this should come to him! Better to end all the danger of that by removing himself from the reach of mania or shame. It would be the final proof of his love for his flock. And they would not think bitterly of him. All things are forgiven the dead. They would miss him and remember the best of him.

They would appreciate what they had cost him, too, when they no longer had him to draw on. He felt very sorry for himself. Grown man as he was, he was driven back into infancy by his terrors, and like a pouting, supperless boy, he wanted to die to spite the rest of the family and win their apologies even if he should not hear them.

He wondered if, after all, his wife would not be happier to be rid of him. No, she would regret him for one thing at least, that he left her without means.

Well, she deserved to be penniless. Why should she expect a man to kill himself for her sake and leave her a wealthy widow to buy some other man? Let her practise then some of the economies he had vainly begged of her before. If she had been worthy of his posthumous protection she would not have treated him so outrageously at a time of such stress as this.

She knew he was dog-tired, yet she allowed him to be angered, and she knew just what themes were sure to provoke his wrath. So she had harped on these till she had rendered him to a frenzy.

They had stood about or paced the floor or dropped in chairs and fought as they flung off their clothes piecemeal. She had combed and brushed her hair viciously as she raged, weeping the unbeautiful tears of wrath. But he had not had that comfort of tears; his tears ran down the inside of his soul and burned. She goaded him out of his ordinary self-control--knew just how to do it and reveled in it.

No doubt he had said things to her that a gentleman does not say to a lady, that hardly any man would say to any woman. He was startled to remember what he had said to her. He abhorred the thought of such things coming from his lips--and to the mother of his children. But the blame for these atrocities was also hers. She had driven him frantic; she would have driven a less-dignified man to violence, to blows, perhaps. And she had had the effrontery to blame him for driving her frantic when it was she that drove him.

Finally they had stormed themselves out, squandered their vocabularies of abuse, and taken resort to silence in a pretended dignity. That is, she had done this. He had relapsed into silence because he realized how impervious to truth or justice she was. Facts she would not deal in. Logic she abhorred. Reasoning infuriated her.

And then in grim, mutual contempt they had crept into bed and lain as far apart as they could. He would have gone into another room, but she would have thought he was afraid to hear more of her. Or she would have come knocking at the door and lured him back only to renew the war at some appeal of his to that sense of justice he was forever hoping to find in her soul.

He was aligned now along the very edge of the mattress. It was childish of her to behave so spitefully, but what could he do except repay her in kind? She would not have understood any other behavior. She had turned her back on him, too, and stretched herself as thin as she could as close to the edge as she could lie without falling out.

What a vixen she was! And at this time of all when she should have been gentle, soothing. Even if she had thought him wrong and misinterpreted his natural vehemence as virulence, she should have been patient. What was a wife for but to be a helpmeet? She knew how easily his temper was assuaged, she knew the very words. Why had she avoided them?

And she was to blame for so many of his problems. Her bills and her children's bills were increasing. She took so much of his time. She needed so much entertaining, so much waiting on, so much listening to. Neither she nor the children produced. They simply spent. In a crisis they never gave help, but exacted it.

In business, as in a shipwreck, strong and useful men must step back and sacrifice themselves that the women and children might be saved--for other men to take care of. And what frauds these women were! All allurement and gentleness till they had entrapped their victims, then fiends of exaction, without sympathy for the big work of men, without interest in the world's problems, alert to ridiculous suspicions, reckless with accusations, incapable of equity, and impatient of everything important.

Marriage was a trap, masking its steel jaws and its chain under flowers. What changelings brides were! A man never led away from the altar the woman he led thither. Before marriage, so interested in a man's serious talk and the business of his life! After marriage, unwilling to listen to any news of import, sworn enemies of achievement, putting an ingrowing sentiment above all other nobilities of the race.

And his wife was of all women the most womanish. She had lost what early graces she had. In the earlier days they had never quarreled. That is, of course, they had quarreled, but differently. They had left each other several times, but how rapturously they had returned. And then she had craved his forgiveness and granted hers without asking. She had always forgiven him for what he had not done, said, or thought, or for the things he had done and said most justly. But there had been a charm about her, a sweet foolishness that was irresistible.

In the dark now he smiled to think how dear and fascinating she had been then. Oh, she had loved him then, had loved the very faults she had imagined in him. Perhaps after he was dead she would remember him with her earlier tenderness. She would blame herself for making him the irascible, hot-tempered brute he had been--perhaps--at times.

And now he had slain and buried himself, and his woe could burrow no farther down. His soul was at the bottom of the pit. There was no other way to go but upward, and that, of course, was impossible.

As he wallowed in the lugubrious comfort of his own post-mortem revenge he wished that he had left unsaid some of the things he had said. Quelled by the vision of his wife weeping over him and repenting her cruelties, they began to seem less cruel. She was absolved by remorse.

He heard her sobbing over his coffin and heard her recall her ferocious words with shame. His white, set face seemed to try to console her. He heard what he was trying to tell her in all the gentle understanding of the tomb:

"I said worse things, honey. I don't know how I could have used such words to you, my sweetheart. A longshoreman wouldn't have called a fishwife what I called you, you blessed child. But it was my love that tormented me. If a man had quarreled with me, we'd have had a knock-down and drag-out and nothing more thought of it. If any woman but you had denounced me as you did I'd have shrugged my shoulders and not cared a--at all.

"It was because I loved you, honey, that your least frown hurt me so. But I didn't really mean what I said. It wasn't true. You're the best, the faithfulest, the prettiest, dearest woman in all the world, and you were a precious wife to me--so much more beautiful, more tender, more devoted than the wives of the other men I knew. I will pray God to bring you to me in the place I'm going to. I could not live without you anywhere."

This was what he was trying to tell her, and could not utter a word of it. He seemed to be lying in his coffin, staring up at her through sealed eyelids. He could not purse his cold lips to kiss her warm mouth. He could not lift an icy hand to bless her brow. They would come soon to lay the last board over his face and screw down the lid. She would scream and fight, but they would drag her away. And he could not answer her wild cries. He could not go to her rescue. He would be lifted in the box from the trestles and carried out on the shoulders of other men, and slid into the waiting hearse; and the horses would trot away with him, leaving her to penury, with her children and his at the mercy of the merciless world, while he was lowered into a ditch and hidden under shovelfuls of dirt, to lie there motionless, useless, hideously idle forever.

This vision of himself dead was so vivid that his heart jumped in his breast and raced like a propeller out of water. The very pain and the terror were joyful, for they meant that he still lived.

Whatever other disasters overhung him, he was at least not dead. Better a beggar slinking along the dingiest street than the wealthiest Rothschild under the stateliest tomb. Better the sneers and pity of the world in whispers about his path than all the empty praise of the most resounding obituary.

The main thing was to be alive. Before that great good fortune all misfortunes were minor, unimportant details. And, after all, he was not so pitiable. His name was still respected. His factory was still running. Whatever his liabilities, he still had some assets, not least of them health and experience and courage.

But where had his courage been hiding that it left him whimpering alone? Was he a little girl afraid of the dark, or was he a man?

There were still men who would lend him money or time. What if he was in trouble? Were not the merchant princes of the earth sweating blood? There had been a rich men's panic before the poor were reached. Now everybody was involved.

After all, what if he failed? Who had not failed? What if he fell bankrupt?--that was only a tumble down-stairs. Could he not pick himself up and climb again? Some of the biggest industries in the world had passed through temporary strain. The sun himself went into eclipse.

If his factory had to close, it could be opened again some day. Or even if he could not recover, how many better men than he had failed? To be crushed by the luck of things was no crime. There was a glory of defeat as well as of victory.

The one great gleaming truth was that he was still alive, still in the ring. He was not dead yet. He was not going to die. He was going to get up and win.

There was no shame in the misfortunes he had had. There was no disgrace in the fears he had bowed to. All the nations and all the men in them were in a night of fear. But already there was a change of feeling. The darker the hour, the nearer the dawn. The worse things were, the sooner they must mend.

People had been too prosperous; the world had played the spendthrift and gambled too high. But economy would restore the balance for the toilers. What had been lost would soon be regained.

Fate could not down America yet. And he was an American. What was it "Jim" Hill had said to the scare-mongers: "The man who sells the United States short is a damned fool." And the man who sells himself short is a damneder fool.

* * * * *

Thus he struggled through the bad weather of his soul. The clouds that had gathered and roared and shuttled with lightnings had emptied their wrath, and the earth still rolled. The mystery of terror was subtly altered to a mystery of surety.

Lying in the dark, motionless, he had wrought out the miracle of meditation. Within the senate chamber of his mind he had debated and pondered and voted confidence in himself and in life.

His eyes, still open, still battling for light, had found none yet. The universe was still black. He could not distinguish sky from window, nor casement from ceiling. Yet the gloom was no longer terrible. The universe was still a great ship rushing on, but he was no longer a midget in a little cockleshell about to be crushed. He was a passenger on the ship. The night was benevolent, majestic, sonorous with music. The sea was glorious and the voyage forward.

And now that his heart was full of good news, he had a wild desire to rush home with it to her who was his home. How often he had left her in the morning after a wrangle, and hurried back to her at night bearing glad tidings, the quarrel forgotten beyond the need of any treaty. And she would be there among their children, beaming welcome from her big eyes.

And she was always so glad when he was glad. She took so much blame on herself; though how was she to blame for herself? Yet she took no credit to herself for being all the sweet things she was. She was the flowers and the harvest, and the cool, amorous evening after the hard day was done. And he was the peevish, whining, swearing imbecile that chose a woman for wife because she was a rose and then clenched her thorns and complained because she was not a turnip.

He felt a longing to tell her how false his croakings had been in that old dead time so long ago as last night. But she was asleep. And she needed sleep. She had been greatly troubled by his troubles. She had been anxious for him and the children. She had so many things to worry over that never troubled him. She had wept and been angry because she could not make him understand. Her very wrath was a way of crying: "I love you! You hurt me!"

He must let her sleep. Her beauty and her graces needed sleep. It was his blessed privilege to guard her slumbers, his pride to house her well and to see that she slept in fabrics suited to the delicate fabric of her exquisite body.

But if only she might chance to be awake that he might tell her how sorry he was that he had been weak and wicked enough to torment her with his baseless fears and his unreasonable ire. At least he must touch her with tenderness. Even though she slept, he must give her the benediction of one light caress.

He put his hand out cautiously toward her. He laid his fingers gently on her cheek. How beautiful it was even in the dark! But it was wet! with tears! Suddenly her little invisible fingers closed upon his hand like grape tendrils.

But this did not prove her awake. So habited they were to each other that even in their sleep their bodies gave or answered such endearments.

He waited till his loneliness for her was unendurable, then he breathed, softly:

"Are you asleep, honey?"

For answer she whirled into his bosom and clenched him in her arms and wept--in whispers lest the children hear. He petted her tenderly and kissed her hair and her eyelids and murmured:

"Did I wake you, honey?"

"No, no!" she sobbed. "I've been awake for hours."

"But you didn't move!"

"I was afraid to waken you. You need your rest so much. I've been thinking how hard you work, how good you are. I'm so ashamed of myself for--"

"But it was all my fault, honey."

"Oh no, no, my dear, my dear!"

He let her have the last word; for an enormous contentedness filled his heart. He drew the covers about her shoulder and held her close and breathed deep of the companionship of the soul he had chosen. He breathed so deeply that his head drooped over hers, his cheek upon her hair. The night seemed to bend above them and mother them and say to them, "Hush! hush! and sleep!"

There are many raptures in the world, and countless beautiful moments, and not the least of them is this solemn marriage in sleep of the man and woman whose days are filled with cares, and under whose roof at night children and servants slumber aloof secure.

While these two troubled spirits found repose and renewal, locked each in the other's arms, the blackness was gradually withdrawn from the air. In the sky there came a pallor that grew to a twilight and became a radiance and a splendor. And night was day. It would soon be time for the father to rise and go forth to his work, and for the mother to rise to the offices of the home.

[The end]
Rupert Hughes's short story: And This Is Marriage