The Invalid Wife
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1852
"My poor head! It seems as if it would burst!" murmured Mrs. Bain, as she arose from a stooping position, and clasped her temples with both hands. She was engaged in dressing a restless, fretful child, some two or three years old. Two children had been washed and dressed, and this was the last to be made ready for breakfast.
As Mrs. Bain stood, with pale face, closed eyes, and tightly compressed lips, still clasping her throbbing temples, the bell announcing the morning meal was rung. The sound caused her to startle, and she said, in a low and fretful voice —
"There's the breakfast bell; and Charley isn't ready yet; nor have I combed my hair. How my head does ache! I am almost blind with the pain."
Then she resumed her work of dressing Charley, who struggled, cried, and resisted, until she was done.
Mr. Bain was already up and dressed. He was seated in the parlor, enjoying his morning paper, when the breakfast bell rang. The moment he heard the sound, he threw down his newspaper, and, leaving the parlor, ascended to the dining-room. His two oldest children were there, ready to take their places at the table.
"Where's your mother?" he inquired of one of them.
"She's dressing Charley," was answered.
"Never ready in time," said Mr. Bain, to himself, impatiently. He spoke in an undertone.
For a few moments he stood with his hands on the back of his chair. Then he walked twice the length of the dining-room; and then he went to the door and called —
"Jane! Jane! Breakfast is on the table!"
"I'll be there in a minute," was replied by Mrs. Bain.
"Oh, yes! I know something about your minutes." Mr. Bain said this to himself. "This never being in time annoys me terribly. I'm always ready. I'm always up to time. But there's no regard to time in this house."
Mrs. Bain was still struggling with her cross and troublesome child, when the voice of her impatient husband reached her. The sound caused a throb of intenser pain to pass through her aching head.
"Jane, make haste! Breakfast is all getting cold, and I'm in a hurry to go away to business," was called once more.
"Do have a little patience. I'll be there in a moment," replied Mrs. Bain.
"A moment! This is always the way."
And Mr. Bain once more paced backwards and forwards.
Meantime the wife hurriedly completed her own dressing, and then repaired to the dining-room. She was just five minutes too late.
One glance at her pale, suffering face should have changed to sympathy and pity, the ill-humor of her thoughtless, impatient husband. But it was not so. The moment she appeared, he said —
"This is too bad, Jane! I've told you, over and over, that I don't like to wait after the bell rings. My mother was always promptly at her place, and I'd like my wife to imitate so good an example."
Perhaps nothing could have hurt Mrs. Bain more than such a cruel reference of her husband to his mother, coupled with so unfeeling a declaration of his will concerning her — as if she were to be the mere creature of his will.
A sharp reply was on the tongue of Mrs. Bain; but she kept it back. The pain in her head subsided all at once; but a weight and oppression in her bosom followed that was almost suffocating.
Mr. Bain drank his coffee, and ate his steak and toast with a pretty fair relish; for he had a good appetite and a good digestion — and was in a state of robust health. But Mrs. Bain ate nothing. How could she eat? And yet, it is but the truth to say, that her husband, who noticed the fact, attributed her abstinence from food more to temper than lack of appetite. He was aware that he had spoken too freely, and attributed the consequent change in his wife's manner to anger rather than a wounded spirit.
"Do you need anything?" asked Mr. Bain, on rising from the table and turning to leave the room. He spoke with more kindness than previously.
"No," was the wife's brief answer, made without lifting her eyes to her husband's face.
"In the sulks!"
Mr. Bain did not say this aloud, but such was his thought, as he turned away and left the house. He did not feel altogether comfortable, of course. No man feels comfortable while there is a cloud upon the brow of his wife, whether it is occasioned by peevishness, ill-temper, bodily or mental suffering. No, Mr. Bain did not feel altogether comfortable, nor satisfied with himself, as he walked along to his store; for there came across his mind a dim recollection of having heard the baby fretting and crying during the night; and also of having seen the form of his wife moving to and fro in the chamber, while he lay snugly reposing in bed.
But these were unpleasant images, and Mr. Bain thrust them from his mind.
While Mr. Bain took his morning walk to his store, his lungs freely and pleasurably expanding in the pure, invigorating air — his wife, to whose throbbing temples the anguish had returned, and whose relaxed muscles had scarcely enough tension to support the weight of her slender frame, slowly and painfully began the work of getting her two oldest children ready for school. This done, the baby had to be washed and dressed. It screamed during the whole operation, and when, at last, it fell asleep upon her bosom, she was so completely exhausted, that she had to lie down. Tears wet her pillow as she lay with her babe upon her arm. He, to whom alone she had a right to look for sympathy, for support, and for strength in her many trials — did not appear to sympathize with her in the least. If she looked sober from the pressure of pain, fatigue, or domestic trials — he became impatient, and sometimes said, with cruel thoughtlessness, that he was tired of clouds and rain, and would give the world for a wife who could smile now and then. If, amid her many household cares and duties, she happened to neglect some little matter that affected his comfort, he failed not to express his annoyance, and not always in carefully chosen words. No wonder that her woman's heart melted — no wonder that hot tears were on her cheeks.
Mr. Bain had, as we have said, an excellent appetite; and he took especial pleasure in its gratification. He liked his dinner particularly, and his dinners were always good dinners. He went to market himself. On his way to his store he passed through the market, and his butcher sent home what he purchased.
"The marketing has come home," said the cook to Mrs. Bain, about ten o'clock, arousing her from a brief slumber into which she had fallen — a slumber that exhausted nature demanded, and which would have done far more than medicine for the restoration of something like a healthy tone to her system.
"Very well. I will come down in a little while," returned Mrs. Bain, raising herself on her elbow, and see about dinner. "What has Mr. Bain sent home?"
"A calf's head."
"A calf's head."
"Very well. I will be down to see about it." Mrs. Bain repressed any further remark.
Sick and exhausted as she felt, she must spend at least two hours in the kitchen in making soup and dressing the calf's head for her husband's dinner. Nothing of this could be trusted to the cook, for to trust any part of its preparation to her was to have it spoiled.
With a sigh, Mrs. Bain arose from the bed. At first she staggered across the room like one intoxicated, and the pain, which had subsided during her brief slumber, returned again with added violence. But, as sick as she felt, she went down to the kitchen and passed full two hours there in the preparation of delicacies for her husband's dinner. And what was her reward?
"This is the worst calf's head soup you ever made! What have you done to it?" said Mr. Bain, pushing the plate of soup from before him, with an expression of disgust on his face.
There were tears in the eyes of the suffering wife, and she lifted them to her husband's countenance. Steadily she looked at him for a few moments; then her lips quivered, and the tears fell over her cheeks. Hastily rising, she left the dining room.
"It is rather hard that I can't speak without having a scene," muttered Mr. Bain, as he tried his soup once more. It did not suit his taste at all; so he pushed it from him, and made his dinner of something else.
As his wife had been pleased to go off upstairs in a huff, just at a word, Mr. Bain did not feel inclined to humor her. So, after finishing his dinner, he took his hat and left the house, without so much as seeking to offer a soothing word.
Does the reader wonder that, when Mr. Bain returned in the evening, he found his wife so seriously ill as to make it necessary to send for their family physician? No, the reader will not wonder at this.
But Mr. Bain felt a little surprised. He had not anticipated anything of the kind.
Mrs. Bain was not only ill, but delirious. Her feeble frame, exhausted by maternal duties, and ever-beginning, never-ending household cares, had yielded under the accumulation of burdens too heavy to bear.
For a while after Mr. Bain's return, his wife talked much, but incoherently; then she became quiet. But her fever remained high, and inflammation tended strongly towards the brain. He was sitting by the bedside about ten o'clock, alone with her, when she began to talk in her wandering way again; but her words were distinct and coherent.
"I tried to do it right," said she, sadly; "but my head ached so that I did not know what I was doing. Ah me! I never please him now in anything. I wish I could always look pleasant — cheerful. But I can't. Well! well! it won't last forever. I never feel well — never — never — never! And I'm so faint and weak in the morning! But he has no patience with me. He doesn't know what it is to feel sick. Ah me!"
And her voice sighed itself away into silence.
With what a rebuking force did these words fall upon the ears of Mr. Bain! He saw himself in a new light. He was the domestic tyrant — and not the kind and thoughtful husband.
A few days, and Mrs. Bain was moving about her house and among her children once more, pale as a shadow, and with lines of pain upon her forehead. How differently was she now treated by her husband! With what considerate tenderness he regarded her! But, alas! he saw his error too late! The gentle, loving creature, who had come to his side ten years before, was not much longer to remain with him. A few brief summers came and went — and then her frail body was laid amid the clods of the valley.
Alas! how many, like Mrs. Bain, have thus passed away, who, if truly loved and cared for, would have been the light of now darkened hearths, and the blessing and joy of now motherless children and bereaved husbands!