Algernon's Wife

MY heart has been touched by the pathetic confession of Cynthia’s husband in the Contributors’ Club for September. A pang of sympathy rends me when I think of his primitive and wholesome standards of good-breeding and refinement as opposed to Cynthia’s artificial little code of social correctness. But as I cannot pour this conjessio uxoris into his private and personal ear (for the excellent reason that I do not know to whose head that ear is attached), I bring my woes to the same generous tribunal which heard his cry, hoping that my sad tale may touch a responsive chord in the breasts of other gross and earth-bound spirits like myself.

I am common, hopelessly and irretrievably common, in my tastes, habits, and associations, and I am married to a Perfectly Refined Man. It is a not unusual situation. It is one around which the novelist has often woven a pathetic story, touched here and there with real tragedy; but in fiction, you will notice, the reader is invariably expected to sympathize with the soul of shrinking sensitiveness, whereas in this fact of my husband’s spiritual mesalliance it is the wife of common clay for whom your prayers are desired.

First let me hasten to assure expectant ears pricked for a tale of domestic infelicity, that Algernon and I are very happy together, though it is quite illogical that we should be. Algernon is an artist — Oh dear! there I am forgetting again that that word always makes him wince! No, he is not an artist, he is a painter, — though I can never see why he chooses to be called by a word that instantly creates the mental image of a turpentiny man in dirty white overalls carrying a bucket of paint up a ladder. But that idea he considers a proof of my crude imagination. Algernon is of such refined gold that it would be “ wasteful and ridiculous excess ” to try to gild him with adjectives. It is for him to paint the lily, and add another hue unto the rainbow with his crazy impressionistic ideas of color, and it is for me to stand apart from the surrounding group of sensitive and soul-searching satellites, and lift my vulgar hands to Heaven, thanking God that I am not as other men are. For I glory in my shame, even as the Pharisee gloried in his superiority.

Occasionally I go forth with Algernon into The World, — that little world of arts and letters which takes itself with such portentous seriousness, — but I always feel like a cow in a china-shop, and if I move or breathe I am afraid of breaking an ideal or tarnishing an illusion. In this little world of half-lights and subdued tones, the men are all rather small and colorless, and wear soft, pointed beards. Their voices are gentle, their speech is academic, and they talk about the petty poets, painters, and essayists of their acquaintance as if they were reincarnations of Homer, Velasquez, and Sainte-Beuve. These innocent creatures speak boldly of themselves as “ we Bohemians,” but they really live in Philistia Centre, and not one of them would dare to hold an opinion unshared by all. They are intellectual communists.

The women are even more feminine than the men. They, also, never raise their voices; they seldom raise their eyes. They sit at the feet of their high-priestess, Miss Lily White, in whose chaste drawing-room they delight to cluster, and they strive to imitate her intonations, to think her higher thoughts, to share her greater hopes. And these innocuous ladies fancy that on their virginal shoulders have fallen the cloaks of the women of the French salons!

Cynthia’s husband will readily see that I am no more at home in this milieu than he would be. I always feel as Tannhauser must have felt when he was surrounded by that Purity League in Elizabeth’s Castle, and I long for the outlet to my feelings which he found in snatching up his little stringed instrument and breaking into a song so hearty and honest and elemental that his host and hostess and all their guests rushed from the room, leaving him alone with his own amazement.

Algernon grows restive under the combination of his précieuses friends and (though I say it who should n’t) of his also precious wife, and he generally perceives that it is for the greatest good of the greatest number that I should be withdrawn from these social gatherings. He sees my mouth twitching with amusement when I ought to look solemn, and my eyes filling with tears of pity for the little still-born joke that a tentative humorist has shyly produced. I hear soft murmurings of pity for Algernon rising to sympathetic lips before I am hurried from the room; but once outside the door I clutch my husband’s arm and explode with coarse laughter, — and he is so much of a gentleman that he joins in a little for fear of hurting my feelings, but he says gently, “ I think you are right, Sarah, my world is not your world, and it is better not to pretend that it is.”

Now, though I am not “refined,” I do like people, — just plain ordinary people, like those that Cynthia jeered at because their teeth and their hair grew in the common way. It has been my task to found a club, which has grown to such a stupendous size that the members have bought a house in which their meetings are held. The House of Commons is, for obvious reasons, the name of the club, and the only requirement for admission is that the members should know that they are common, and that in itself is sufficiently uncommon to limit the membership. We none of us pretend to be what we are not, or to like what we do not appreciate, or to understand things that are beyond us, and we all have a splendid time, glorying in our inferiority.

I feel that Cynthia’s husband and some of his delightful friends should join this society now that they know of its existence, and of its one and only requirement. Perhaps in time Cynthia herself may become eligible for membership if the grossness of her husband’s nature has strength enough to drag her down, which, according to Tennyson, invariably happens when one is mated to a clown. By the same token my dear Algernon’s good manners may, in course of time, be so corrupted by evil communications as to enable him to join us, and then, indeed, there will be joy over the one saint that repenteth.

The only raison d’etre of this little song of myself which I have chirped so persistently is that I may extend an invitation to all those who see themselves as others see them, to join this Society of Self-Constituted Outcasts. After this egotistical confession it is hardly necessary to mention my official position in the club, — I am the Speaker of the House of Commons.