Timothy Shay Arthur, 1854
"You look sober, Laura. What has thrown a veil over your happy face?" said Mrs. Cleaveland to her niece, one morning, on finding her alone and with a very thoughtful countenance.
"Do I really look sober?" and Laura smiled as she spoke.
"You did just now. But the sunshine has already dispelled the transient cloud. I am glad that a storm was not forecasted."
"I felt sober, aunt," Laura said, after a few moments — her face again becoming serious.
"So I supposed, from your looks."
"And I feel sober still."
"I am really discouraged, aunt."
The maiden's cheek deepened its hue, but she did not reply.
"You and Harry have not fallen out, like a pair of foolish lovers, I hope."
"Oh, no!" was the quick and emphatic answer.
"Then what has troubled the quiet waters of your spirit? About what are you discouraged?"
"I will tell you," the maiden replied. "It was only about a week after my engagement with Harry, that I called upon Alice Stacy, and found her quite unhappy. She had not been married over a few months. I asked what troubled her, and she said, 'I feel as miserable as I can be.' 'But what makes you miserable, Alice?' I inquired. 'Because William and I have quarreled — that's the reason,' she said, with some levity, tossing her head and compressing her lips, with a kind of defiance. I was shocked — so much so, that I could not speak. 'The fact is,' she resumed, before I could reply, 'all men are despotic and unreasonable. They think women are inferior to them, and their wives as a higher order of slaves. But I am not one to be put under any man's feet! William has tried that trick with me, and failed. Of course, to be foiled by a woman is no very pleasant thing for one of your lords of creation. A tempest in a teapot was the consequence. But I did not yield the point in dispute; and, what is more, have no idea of doing so! He will have to find out, sooner or later, that I am his equal in every way; and the quicker he can be made conscious of this — the better for us both. Don't you think so?'
I made no answer. I was too much surprised and shocked.
'All men,' she continued, 'have to be taught this. There never was a husband who did not, at first, attempt to lord it over his wife. And there never was a woman, whose condition as a wife was at all above that of a passive slave — who did not find it necessary to oppose her husband at first, with unflinching perseverance.'
"To all this, and a great deal more, I could say nothing. It choked me up. Since then, I have met her frequently, at home and elsewhere, but she has never looked happy. Several times she has said to me, in company, when I have taken a seat beside her, and remarked that she seemed dull, 'Yes, I am dull; but Mr. Stacy, there, you see, enjoys himself. Men always enjoy themselves in company — apart from their wives, of course.'
I would sometimes oppose to this, a sentiment palliative of her husband; as, that, in company, a man very naturally wished to add his mite to the general joyousness, or something of a like nature. But it only irritated her, and drew forth remarks that shocked my feelings. Up to this day, they do not appear to be on any better terms.
Then, there is Frances Glenn — married only three months, and as fond of carping at her husband for his despotic, domineering spirit, as is Mrs. Stacy. I could name two or three others, who have been married, some a shorter and some a longer period, who do not seem to be united by any closer bonds.
"It is the condition of these young friends, aunt, that causes me to feel serious. I am to be married in a few weeks. Can it be possible that my union with Henry Armor will be no happier, no more perfect than theirs? This I cannot believe. And yet, the relation that Alice and Frances hold to their husbands, troubles me whenever I think of it. Henry, as far as I have been able to understand him, has strong points in his character. From a right course of action — or, from a course of action that he thinks right — no consideration, I am sure, would turn him. I, too, have mental characteristics somewhat similar. There is, likewise, about me, a leaven of stubbornness. I tremble when the thought of opposition between us, upon any subject, crosses my mind. I would rather die — so I feel about it — than ever have a misunderstanding with my husband."
Laura ceased, and her aunt, who was, she now perceived, much agitated, arose and left the room without speaking. The reason of this, to Laura was altogether unaccountable. Her aunt Cleaveland, always so mild, so calm — to be thus strongly disturbed! What could it mean? What could there be in her maidenly fears to excite the feelings of one so good, and wise, and gentle?
An hour afterwards, and while she yet sat, sober and perplexed in mind, in the same place where Mrs. Cleaveland had left her, a servant came in and said that her aunt wished to see her in her own room. Laura attended her immediately. She found her calm and self-possessed, but paler than usual. "Sit down beside me, dear," Mrs. Cleaveland said, smiling faintly, as her niece came in.
"What you said this morning, Laura," she began, after a few moments, "recalled my own early years so vividly, that I could not keep down emotions I had deemed long since, powerless. The cause of those emotions it is now, I clearly see, my duty to reveal — that is, to you. For years I have carefully avoided permitting my mind to go back to the past, in vain musings over scenes that bring no pleasant thoughts, no glad feelings. I have, rather, looked into the future with a steady hope, a calm reliance. But, for your sake, I will draw aside the veil. May the relation I am now about to give you have the effect I desire! Then shall I not suffer in vain.
How vividly, at this moment, do I remember the joyful feelings that pervaded my bosom, when, like you, a maiden, I looked forward to my wedding-day. Mr. Cleaveland was a man, in many respects, like Henry Armor. Proud, firm, yet gentle and amiable when not opposed — a man with whom I might have been supremely happy — a man whose faults I might have corrected — not by open opposition to them — not by seeming to notice them — but by leading him to see them himself. But this course I did not pursue. I was proud; I was self-willed; I was unyielding! Elements like these can never come into opposition without a victory on either side, being as disastrous as the defeats.
We were married. Oh, how sweet was the promise of my wedding-day! Of my husband I was very fond. Handsome, educated, and with talents of a high order — there was everything about him to make the heart of a young wife proud. Tenderly we loved each other. Like days in paradise, passed the first few months of our wedded life. Our thoughts and wishes were one. After that, gradually a change appeared to come over my husband. He deferred less readily to my wishes. His own will was more frequently opposed to mine — and his contentions for victory longer and longer continued. This surprised and pained me. But it did not occur to me, that my tenaciousness of opinion might seem as strange to him as did his to me. It did not occur to me, that there would be a propriety in my deferring to him — at least so far as to give up opposition. I never for a moment reflected that a proud, firm-spirited man, might be driven off from an opposing wife — rather than drawn closer and united in tenderer bonds. I only perceived my rights as an equal assailed. And, from that point of view, saw his conduct as dogmatic and overbearing, whenever he resolutely set himself against me, as was far too frequently the case.
"One day — we had then been married about six months — he said to me, a little seriously, yet smiling as he spoke, 'Jane, did not I see you on the street, this morning?' 'You did,' I replied. 'And with Mrs. Corbin?' 'Yes.' My answer to this last question was not given in a very pleasant tone. The reason was this. Mrs. Corbin, a recent acquaintance, was no favorite with my husband; and he had more than once mildly suggested that she was not, in his view, a fit associate for me. This rather touched my pride. It occurred to me, that I ought to be the best judge of my female associates, and that for my husband to make any objections was an assumption on his part, that, as a wife, I was called upon to resist. I did not, on previous occasions, say anything very decided, contenting myself with deflecting his objections laughingly. This time, however, I was in a less forbearing mood.
'I wish you would not make that woman your friend' he said, after I had admitted that he was right in his observation. 'And why not?' I asked, looking at him quite steadily. 'For reasons before given, Jane,' he replied, mildly, but firmly. 'There are reports in circulation concerning her character, that I fear are . . . '
'They are false!' I interrupted him. 'I know they are false!' I spoke with a sudden excitement. My voice trembled, my cheek burned, and I was conscious that my eye shot forth no mild light.
'They are true — I know they are true!' Mr. Cleaveland said, sternly, but apparently unruffled.
'I don't believe it,' I retorted. 'I know her far better. She is a slandered woman.'
"'Jane,' my husband now said, his voice slightly trembling, 'you are my wife. As such, your reputation is as dear to me as the apple of my eye. Suspicion has been cast upon Mrs. Corbin, and that suspicion I have good reason for believing well-founded. If you associate with her — if you are seen upon the street with her, your fair fame will receive a taint. This I cannot permit.'
"There was, to my mind, a threat contained in the last sentence — a threat of authoritative intervention. At this my pride took fire.
"'Cannot permit!' I said, drawing myself up. 'What do you mean, Mr. Cleveland?'
"The brow of my husband instantly flushed. He was silent for a moment or two. Then he said, with forced calmness, yet in a resolute, meaning tone —
"'Jane, I do not wish you to keep company with Mrs. Corbin.'
"'I WILL!' was my indignant reply.
"His face grew deadly pale. For a moment his whole frame trembled as if some fearful struggle were going on within. Then he quietly arose, and, without looking at me, left the room. Oh! how deeply did I regret uttering those unhappy words the instant they were spoken! But repentance came too late. For about the space of ten minutes — pride struggled with affection and duty. At the end of that time, the latter triumphed, and I hastened after my husband to ask his forgiveness for what I said. But he was not in the parlors. He was not in the house! I asked a servant if she had seen him, and was told that he had gone out.
"Anxiously passed the hours until nightfall. The sad twilight, as it gathered dimly around, threw a deeper gloom over my heart. My husband usually came home before dark. Now he was away beyond his accustomed hour. Instead of returning gladly to meet his young wife, he was staying away, because that young wife had thrown off the attractions of love — and presented to him harsh and repulsive features. How anxiously I longed to hear the sound of his footsteps — to see his face — to hear his voice! The moment of his entrance, I resolved should be the moment of my humble confession of wrong — of my faithful promise never again to set up my will determinedly in opposition to his judgment. But minute after minute passed after nightfall — hours followed minutes — and these rolled on until the whole night wore away, and he came not back to me.
As the gray light of morning stole into my chamber, a terrible fear took hold of me, that made my heart grow still in my bosom — the fear that he would never return — that I had driven him off from me. Alas! this fear was too near the truth. The whole of that day passed, and the next and the next, without any tidings. No one had seen him since he left me. An anxious excitement spread among all his friends. The only account I could give of him, was, that he had parted from me in good health, and in a sane mind.
"A week rolled by, and still no word came. I was nearly deranged. What I suffered, no tongue can tell, no heart conceive. I have often wondered that I did not become insane, but from this sad condition I was saved. Through all, my reason, though often trembling, did not once forsake me. It was on the tenth day from that upon which we had jarred so heavily, as to be driven widely asunder, that a letter came to me, post-marked New York, and endorsed 'In haste.' My hands trembled so that I could with difficulty break the seal. The contents were to the effect that my husband had been lying for several days at one of the hotels there, very ill, but now past the crisis of his disease, and thought by the physician to be out of danger. The writer urged me, from my husband, to come on immediately. In eight hours from the time I received that letter, I was in New York. Alas! it was too late; the disease had returned with double violence, and snapped the feeble thread of life. I never saw my husband's living face again!"
The self-possession of Mrs. Cleaveland, at this part of her narrative, gave way. Covering her face with her hands, she sobbed violently, while the tears came trickling through her fingers.
"My dear Laura," she resumed, after the lapse of many minutes, looking up as she spoke, with a clear eye, and a sober, but placid countenance, "it is for your sake that I have turned my gaze resolutely back. May the painful history I have given you, make a deep impression upon your heart; let it warn you of the sunken rock upon which my bark foundered. Avoid carefully, religiously avoid setting yourself in opposition to your husband; should he prove unreasonable or despotic, nothing is to be gained, and everything lost by contention. By gentleness, by forbearance, by even suffering wrong at times — you will be able to win him over to a better spirit: an opposite course will as assuredly put thorns in your pillow as you adopt it.
Look at the unhappy condition of the friends you have named; their husbands are, in their eyes, exacting, domineering tyrants. But this need not be. Let them act truly the woman's part. Let them not oppose, but yield — and they will find that their present tyrants' will become their lovers. Above all, never, under any circumstances, either jestingly or in earnest, say 'I will,' when you are opposed by him. That declaration is never made without its robbing the wife of a portion of her husband's confidence and love; its utterance has dimmed the fire upon many a smiling hearth-stone."
Laura could not reply; the relation of her aunt had deeply shocked her feelings. But the words she had uttered sank into her heart; and when her trial came — when she was tempted to set her will in opposition to her husband's, and resolutely to contend for what she deemed right — a thought of Mrs. Cleaveland's story would put a seal upon her lips. It was well. The character of Henry Armor too nearly resembled that of Mr. Cleaveland: he could illy have brooked a wife's opposition; but her tenderness, her forbearance, her devoted love — bound her to him with cords that drew closer and closer each revolving year.
She never opposed him further than to express a difference of opinion when such a difference existed, and its utterance was deemed useful; and she carefully avoided, on all occasions, the doing of anything of which he in the smallest degree disapproved. The consequence was, that her opinion was always weighed by him carefully — and often deferred to. A mutual confidence and a mutual dependence upon each other, gradually took the place of early reserves, and now they sweetly draw together — now they smoothly glide along the stream of life, blessed indeed in all their marriage relations.
Who will say that Laura did not act a wise part? Who will say that in sacrificing pride and self-will, she did not gain beyond all calculation? No one, surely. She is not her husband's slave, but his companion and equal. She has helped to reform and remodel his character, and make him less despotic, less self-willed, less disposed to be tyrannical. In her mild forbearance, he has seen a beauty more attractive than lip or cheek, or beaming eye.
Instead of looking upon his wife as below him, Henry Armor feels that she is his superior, and as such he tenderly regards and lovingly cherishes her. He never thinks of obedience from her, but rather studies to conform himself to her most lightly-spoken wish. To be thus united — what wife will not for a time sacrifice her feelings, when her young self-willed husband so far forgets himself as to become exacting! The temporary loss will turn out in the future to be a great gain!