Our Unsuitable Marriage


THERE is no primrose path to success. The triteness of this remark does not invalidate its truth, and it holds even truer of marriage than of other undertakings. If you are going to succeed in your married life, you must quite literally put your heart and soul into it; you must give it study and attention; you must make the same sacrifices for it that you make as a matter of course for any important work upon which you are engaged. If you undertake marriage at all, you should undertake it seriously — not sadly, but soberly and in good earnest.

That both S. and I share and even put into practice the above-described sentiment accounts for the fact that an apparently foolhardy marriage has so far proved a success. It may be that disaster will eventually overtake our matrimonial venture; but inasmuch as we have weathered three difficult years, we consider our chances of lasting happiness to be good.

There was only one reason why S. and I should have married each other, and every reason why we should have fled fast and far in opposite directions to avoid such a contingency. By inheritance and upbringing, in temperament, religion, and experience, we differ from each other as completely as a bird does from a fish. We do not even belong to the same period in history, for S. is late sixteenth century, and I am early twentieth. My family is of the kind that is generally described as being ‘good.’ My mother was born and bred near the classic shades of an Eastern university. My father is a fine old conservative, with a long legal ancestry behind him. We never had much money, but we always had books — and the decencies of life if not all the comforts. I grew up in a highly intellectual atmosphere, went to college, read constantly, kept up with the topics of the day, voted in a Presidential election the year I was twenty-one — in short I typified the latest human product of civilization, a modern woman. In all my multifarious activities I did not forget that the proper study of even the new woman is man. Eventually I was engaged to a young author admirably suited to me — or so everyone said. He was complex, highly developed, supercivilized, doing adequate justice to all the shibboleths of that not very remote period — the pre-war days. His one primitive emotion, jealousy, suddenly came to the surface, displayed in such fashion that our engagement ended, leaving me with a hearty distaste for ‘suitable’ men.

Post-war restlessness rendered me out of harmony with the pleasant but somewhat monotonous life of the suburb where we lived. After six months of swimming, tennis, motoring, bridge-playing, and so forth, I developed an overwhelming dislike for the inanity and conventionality of my life. It and I were both useless and hedged in by ‘they say’ and ‘one does.’ The ‘Pentecost of Calamity ‘ had passed, leaving the world distinctly untransfigured. Disillusionment was complete.

In this frame of mind I procured a difficult piece of social-service work — a post-war activity among a group of Service men, chiefly West Virginia and Kentucky mountaineers who had been transplanted from their native hills. It was my lot to have charge of a small community-house for these men. Somewhat inadequately assisted by books and magazines (useless for the most part), a wheezy and antique Victrola, and games, in my single person I was supposed to furnish attractions enough to wean these boys away from the various sinks of iniquity which seemed to abound in the village. This was the first time I had ever come in contact with the Southern mountaineer, and I found him intensely interesting. Illiterate, crude, and reckless though he might be, he was undoubtedly genuine.

While I was new and the men were shy, everything went very smoothly; but before long a change crept into the atmosphere. I had allowed cards in the clubhouse, but of course gambling was forbidden. I suspected that money was illegitimately changing owners, but several evenings passed before I was able to catch the boys red-handed. When the gambling was quelled, a fad for wearing more or less concealed revolvers to the clubhouse took its place. Realizing that some influence less orderly than mine was dominating the boys, I began looking about to see who my rival was, and discovered S., who had hitherto remained modestly in the background. Vivid memories of our first encounter crowd upon me. The edict against carrying revolvers had gone forth, but I personally had said nothing to any of the boys. I was waiting for their leader. Leaving word that I wanted to see S. as soon as he came in, I retired to my office. Presently came a tap at the door.

‘The boys told me ye sent fer me.’

I looked up and for the first time really saw S. Somewhat above medium height, slender, lithe, with a plume of fair hair tossed back from a broad forehead, a head noticeably well-shaped, with ears small and close, a quicktempered nose, a boyish mouth set in most unboyishly bitter lines—all these sufficiently individual characteristics faded into insignificance compared to his eyes: brown, I thought at first, but a closer look showed me that they were dark blue, very big, far apart, and direct, with amazingly large pupils. At least, that is how they looked that night. Never in the course of a wide experience have I seen eyes like S.’s. Sometimes they are the color of a sunny sea, sometimes the hard, shiny gray of a granite tombstone, sometimes the slit green of a hunting cat’s, sometimes hazel, and sometimes even black, for his pupils expand and contract according to the light much more than do the average. But the first time I saw his eyes they were as I have described them, and in them was a look of quiet amusement which was the last thing I expected to see. It came to me with a little shock that of all the men by whom I was surrounded, S. was the only one who encountered me on equal terms. The others accepted me, without question or understanding, as one in an official position, but S. looked beyond the official position and saw only the person. Instinctively I stood up and faced him, and as I did so I noticed the outline of a revolver under his blouse.

‘S.,’ I asked quietly, ‘why do you carry a gun when it’s against orders?’

‘Why do ye think I do?’ he countered.

I pointed to the gun-butt.

‘Do you suppose I can’t tell a revolver when I see one sticking out?’

He looked a very little disconcerted and I followed up my advantage by asking him if I was going to have to call in a military policeman to help me keep order. The upshot of the conversation was that S. persuaded me to keep his 45-automatic for him, alleging that it was sure to be stolen if he left it in his quarters.

Theoretically the victory was on my side, but the fact that S.’s concession to my wiles was somewhat ironical made it impossible for me lightly to dismiss him from my attention. There was some quality that set him apart from his fellows. After some study I made out this difference to be twofold. First was a deep-rooted unhappiness, more vital by far than my petty discontent. This unhappiness resulted in a recklessness which I had never seen equaled, or even faintly imagined.

Before I knew S. I had not realized how even twentieth-century deeds are generally restricted by ideas and opinions, rules and regulations, which are not the doer’s own but which come to him from various outside sources. No outside pronouncement hampered S.’s freedom of action. Law was literally nothing to him. Conventions were not even a name. No penalty of man could increase his suffering. Consequently he lived entirely by his own code — a code which, though it might lack some articles that we consider important, was nevertheless worthy of respect because it was entirely his own, wrought out of his own inner consciousness and tested by his own experience. This quality of recklessness made him leader among the men and it soon became evident that I must have him on my side if my work was to succeed. To win him over was not difficult: an appeal to fair play, the first article in his code, was sufficient, and from then on clubhouse manners and morals were unexceptionable.


S. never relapsed into the background. Subsequently he was my chief mainstay in my somewhat anomalous position. We became friends and at last he took me into his full confidence. In picturesque dialect he told me of his mother’s early death, of his stormy upbringing, and of the feud that was his father’s sole legacy to his four sons. Finally he even confided to me that before he entered the army he had been the leader of a somewhat notorious gang of moonshiners.

‘I reckon moonshinin’ was in my blood,’ he told me. ‘Grandpappy and pappy had allus done it, so it just come natural to me. After pappy died I got a bunch of boys tergither, an’ we went to making whisky with pap’s and Uncle Steven Smith’s still. I never seed a better place for a still than the one we picked, fer there was two ways of gittin’ out and only one of gittin’ in, ‘less you packed a rope ladder with hooks. Hit was a cave in under a cliff and had a spring right handy to the still. By usin’ a rope ladder, — an’ we allus had two-three in the cave, — we could go down over the cliff inter a big tree and then climb down the tree. But we used the trail up the holler except when the officers was after us. Day an’ night we guarded this trail. We used a red bandanna fer a danger signal daytimes. Nights the signal was two shots fired close tergither. We had passwords, too, which we changed each month. When we was in a crowd like at a fair er an applepeelin’, we’d use these words to warn each other of danger. Most gen’ally the words was some little silly old saying that everybody but us tuck fer nonsense. The last one we had was, “Oh, no, you never!”

‘I was in a church-house oncet when, just as they started to take the collection, my first cousin stuck his head in the door and shouted, “Oh, no, you never!” I did n’t wait to explain nor fer no hat to be passed, but I clumb through the nearest window jest as a deputy sheriff come in the door with a warrant fer me in one hand and a gun in the other. The meetin’ was considerable upsot, but nobody was hurt except the winder, fer the deputy put a bullet-hole through hit firin’ at me. He never was no great of a shot and he come nigher hittin’ Aunt Mary Nichols than he did me.’

Excitement was the air they breathed. ' I was gettin’ from eight to twelve dollars a quart when I jined up, fer I made good stuff, but ‘t were n’t the money we keered about — it was the excitement. Lord, how I did love layin’ along a branch watchin’ the revenoo men tryin’ to trail me! Why I’ve been so clost to them when they was argyin’ about which way I’d gone that I could a dropped a bullet plumb on Joker Dingus’s old, high-crowned hat; but the leaves was so thick that, even if they had looked up, they was n’t likely to have seed me.’

Thus S. in his happier moments — eyes blue and alive with laughter — gleefully recalled various escapades. But there was another side to the shield. There were occasional days when S. barely spoke at all, when his boyish mouth was set in bitter lines, and his eyes were hard and cold and dangerous. When he was in these moods, the boys dared not speak to him, and I have seen a sudden hush fall over a cheerful ‘kidding’ group if S. happened to turn those cold, hard eyes that way.

Believing that his bitterness was a shield for heartfelt misery I determined to try to break through his reserve, and accordingly the next time S. came in gloomy and morose, I sought him out — on these occasions he invariably shunned me — and asked him to come with me to the office. For a moment I thought he was going to refuse, but presently he followed me listlessly.

‘S.,’ I said as he stood before me with his head bent and one hand restlessly tapping my desk, ‘ Can’t you tell a friend what makes you so unhappy?’

There was an instant’s pause and then he raised his eyes to mine. I could hardly repress an audible gasp. For a moment the inscrutable curtain which hides the spirit was withdrawn, and I saw a soul in pain so indescribable that my conventional consolation was struck to silence.

‘Unhappy?’ he said bitterly. ‘What have I got to make me happy? All my life since I was two year old I’ve had ter fight fer everythin’ I got. Fer three years I’ve been hunted like a dog. I’ve never knowed what it was to lay down in peace. I’ve allus slept in my clothes with my gun in my hand. My life has depended on my bein’ quicker than Government’s hired gunmen or the coal companies’ deputies. My life! What good is life ter me? I’ve prayed it might be ended. I’ve stood up when bullets was a-flyin’ and a-rattlin’ and begged them ter hit me. I’ve worked in the mines pullin’ pillars when all the other miners was out and the roof was crackin’ and bucklin’ till the foremen sont in ter have me fotched out, and nothin’ never happened. What does life hold fer me? I cain’t even read them magazines ye’ve got there. I’m ashamed to talk to ye, fer ever’ time I speak I show my ignorance. I’ve never had a home, ner never will — ner life like other people. God! — only there ain’t none! When I think of what I’ve gone through and what I am, I wonder that I keep on living.’

With that he was gone — out of the office, and out of the house, leaving me overwhelmed by a vicarious sorrow deeper than any I had ever before experienced.

Eventually I realized that this terrible unhappiness, almost despair, was merely the longing of a powerful personality for a more extended and loftier sphere of activity. His extraordinarily keen mind had absolutely nothing on which to feed. As he had said, he could neither read nor write, and his ignorance of the most common facts of history, science, and politics was amazing. Except for his lack of education and the possession of a sense of humor, S. at this period uncommonly resembled the Byronic hero of a bygone generation. Byronic heroes have always more or less fascinated women, and the twentieth century could not save me from the fatal spell. His recklessness fascinated me, entirely weary of convention. His haunting unhappiness won my pity; the crude, untamed force of his personality compelled my admiration.

The next few months were indescribably strange ones. S. and I were both hundreds of miles away from our settings. That nobody noticed any unusual increase of interest in each other shows that we must have gone through the motions of our daily routine adequately; but for all the part other people played in our real lives, we might have been on a desert island, or even dead. We did not exactly meet in the immemorial clash of the sexes, but more as two disembodied personalities. Opposed as our temperaments are, we are both blessed or cursed with strong wills, and life at that time was a series of semiconscious contests, not so much to dominate the other as to resist the other’s domination over ourselves.


Though our subconscious antagonism was mutual and similar, the emotions behind it were different. Before I had even seen S., my dissimilarity to the other women of his experience had caused him to fall passionately in love with me. But love, the last emotion he wished to undergo, did not cause him to lose his head. For some weeks he struggled against his feelings, and then, finding that he could not overcome them, he decided to win my affections. Before I was at all aware of his existence, he had made a careful study both of me and of the possibilities afforded by the situation, and laid his plans accordingly. The change of atmosphere in the clubhouse was part of a carefully arranged scheme to attract my attention. Everything worked out exactly as he intended, except that my influence over him grew stronger as my interest in him increased. He had expected, in waking my interest, to establish his domination, but he had underrated the power of my personality even as I underrated his. For when I first became aware of his feeling for me, I determined to make it the lever to lift him from his unhappy circumstances. Not once did it occur to me that this inexperienced mountain boy could threaten my hard-won peace of mind. Had S. been other than he was, or had exterior events taken ever so slightly different a course, I might have escaped unscathed. As it was, I did what I still think any woman would have done who ‘had a heart and in that heart courage to make love known.’

Even the mutual acknowledgment of our feelings did not at first lessen the antagonism. Our temperaments were so utterly different that we strove almost passionately to keep our own identities from losing their individuality. But as our knowledge of each other grew, we learned that our fundamental principles were the same, and from that time on the tension grew less. In spite of the easing-up of the psychological strain, however, the situation was serious. Here we were, products of two utterly contrasted environments, total strangers in each other’s worlds, yet loving each other with a deep and genuine emotion. Feeling unable to live apart, we yet were unable to live together and stay in our respective orbits. S., realizing fully that I could never be happy in his sphere, agreed to enter mine.

Now this business of changing one’s world is no trivial affair. It involves considerably more than mere book-learning, important though that is. Not only ways of speech, but ways of thought, had to be changed; for his manner of thought as well as of speech belonged to the spacious times of great Elizabeth.

There was a brief probation during which we tested S.’s ability to re-date himself. When we were both convinced that he could, we were married — very quietly, because the translation was not complete, and S., realizing the situation as keenly as I, declined to put me in a position in which I might be forced to feel apologetic on his behalf. So it happens that very few know of our marriage, and we have been able to work out our destiny.


For four years we have dwelt in a new world — neither S.’s nor mine, but sufficiently foreign to us both: a world peopled only by ourselves and by vague shadows that affect our lives without impinging on our consciousness. So much of our time and strength has gone into earning our living and making our marriage a success, that we have had nothing left for outsiders. Fortunately, most of our conflicts ended when our engagement graduated into marriage. I imagine that most engaged couples quarrel occasionally, but I think few encounter so wholeheartedly as did we. The result of our well-foughten fields was that we entered on our married life with a clear comprehension of each other’s limits in temper and temperament. An additional factor for peace was a sort of ‘contract’ that we framed before we were married. This contract detailed what each expected of the other, and though it has been often invoked, it has never yet been violated.

The first year of marriage, which many people find so trying, was to us sufficiently difficult but even more interesting. Our antagonism was ended, our interests, aims, and hopes were identical. There was to be a year or two of work for both of us and study for S., and then, hand-in-hand, we would return to my world and live happily ever afterwards. There was nothing impossible about this programme, but Something certainly does dispose of what man proposes. The transition from the silence and freedom of S.’s hills to the roar and confinement of New York would have been quite trying enough without the translation from a spacious, simpler, and more leisurely age to the crowded, complex, jazzing present. S.’s spirit was willing, his mind was adequate, but his flesh was weak. Shortly after our marriage a heavy cold settled on his lungs and grew worse instead of better. As I still held a position, his illness was not the complete bouleversement it would otherwise have been, but it contracted our scale of living painfully. That was my first experience of what it meant to be really poor.

By day I held down my job as best I could, considering that my mind was chiefly on the little hall bedroom where my invalid lay. There was nobody to look after him, for we could not afford a nurse, and S.’s painful dread of the hospital and strangers caused the doctor to believe that the ward would harm more than it helped. All day long I was never free from the fear of what I might find when I reached home.

When half-past five released me from my desk, I would hold my breath until I reached the narrow, semirespectable house where our tiny living-quarters were. With my heart in my mouth I would run up the three flights of stairs and down the dark hallway that led to our room. Often with my hand on the door-knob I have paused listening, until a rustle or a cough showed me that life was still in the room. For S. was as sick as that. Once sure that he was still alive, I would open the door to find him eagerly watching for me.

I never failed to feel a fresh pang at seeing him so changed. His eyes, always large, were enormous in his thin face. His lithe strength was changed to pathetic weakness. His hasty temper was transformed into surprising patience. Only in spirit did the S. of New York resemble the S. of Kentucky. His courage was undaunted, his smile as gay as ever, and his eyes were always blue. All day long, as he lay in his narrow, none-too-soft bed, surrounded by the most dreary liver-colored walls I ever saw, in imagination he had been roaming in a new and wonderful world; and as soon as each of us had learned how the day had gone with the other, his speech was all of other days, and of men to whom he was infinitely more akin, albeit they had long been dead, than to the men who thronged the pavements or hurled themselves into the crowded subways of New York. During my absence he had wandered with the Disinherited Knight or battled in the lists with the unknown hero whose mere presence struck terror to the unknightly heart of Prince John.

When supper, which was ready for me except when S. was at his worst, had been eaten, the real day for both of us began. For a few hours we could forget my desk and S.’s temperature, the smell of onions from the room down the hall, and the clang of the elevated two or three houses away. Together we wandered through a land and time into which S. fitted perfectly, the England of Cœur-de-Lion. Till he knew me, his sole acquaintance with literature had been Jesse James’s Blackest Crime, read to him by his sister-in-law. Ivanhoe was his first introduction to the books of my world. His vivid imagination rendered the story and the characters in the novel infinitely more real to him than the scenes and people of New York. Night after night, propped up in bed, gazing at me with eyes feverishly bright, he hung breathlessly on my lips as the tale unfolded. How deeply he sympathized with Ivanhoe when he lay stricken during the siege of Torquilstone! Later, when he began to gain strength and the doctor permitted him to read to himself, I selected St. Ives for his first attempt. I have never seen anyone so oblivious to what was going on around him as was S. when reading. Part of my world S. dislikes or considers futile, but its books he wholeheartedly assimilates.

This illness kept us from making the most of New York’s opportunities. In the eighteen months we were there, we were never able to go to the theatres. As S. has never seen a play, I was particularly anxious to see how he reacted to some of the great dramas; but that experience is still in store for us. Motion-pictures as a whole do not appeal to him.

I must admit that I entered upon his education with fear and trembling. I preferred, on the whole, to have him remain an untutored savage rather than to have him develop a liking for all the wrong things. I need not have been afraid, however. His instincts are correct if not catholic, and second-rate things do not attract him. This ensures a permanent and increasing congeniality of intellectual interest which is an important factor in a happy marriage.

To my surprise, as soon as S. assumed the responsibilities of a member of society, he developed a decided tendency toward conventionality. So strongly did he revert to the ideas and traditions of his people, that a conflict threatened to ensue. S. desired to confine my activities to my home, but the ‘contract’ and his illness overbore him, and by degrees he has abandoned the prejudices of the mountains and adopted — I fancy with some mental reservations — the ways of more up-to-date communities. He has almost completely left his old world behind, but he has not yet altogether found his bearings in this new one.

Whether our marriage will withstand all the tests of time we, of course, cannot yet tell. It has come off triumphant from one great test — poverty. Babies, strikes, and S.’s ill-health have made our very existence a struggle, especially during the last year. The coal strike caught us before the first baby was paid for. Somehow we survived the strike; but only a few weeks after S. went back in the mines, he was ordered out forever. His lungs are solid with coal-dust — a fate which late or soon overtakes every miner of coal. Since that time his health has steadily declined and our fortunes with it. But no one could wish for a better companion in poverty than S. Except when too keen a realization of how completely I am at present barred from my own world sweeps over him, he is unfailingly light-hearted, making a game out of our wolf-dodging; and indeed I do not know of any game so keenly exciting as this same sport of baffling the wolf. Everyone would do well to try the game, for what it teaches can be learned in no other way. If it had not been for the discipline of this last most difficult year, trivial misunderstandings might have come between us. Poverty drives selfish love out of the window, and doubtless neither of us would ever have realized the depth and unselfishness of the other’s feeling if poverty had not revealed them to us.

I have marveled how a man with S.’s wild background could in so short a time develop such a keen comprehension of what the minor discomforts of our circumstances mean to me. Most men with his upbringing would accept these unpleasantnesses as a matter of course. Perhaps a concrete instance will make clearer what I mean. Chief among the household duties that I loathe is the washing, which, however, I am willing to perform as part of my share of the burden. Sick or well, S. has always insisted on doing it for me and making a good job of it. No matter whether he was getting up at four in the morning to work in the mines, or whether his head was racked with pain (the aftermath of a sun-stroke early this summer), washing clothes for the babies has been as regular a duty as brushing his teeth. When one considers that often the water has had to be carried up one or two flights of stairs, or painfully hauled up hand over hand from a deep well, one realizes that keeping two babies clean is no light matter. Cooking, scrubbing, even mending — chores that most mountain men and perchance some city men would consider either too menial or too unimportant— he has performed voluntarily and capably. He is as skillful with the babies as a trained nurse could be — feeds them, bathes them, puts them to sleep. When I reflect that I might never otherwise have known his infinite possibilities for tenderness and self-forgetfulness, I am not sorry for the bitter struggle through which we are passing.

Poverty our marriage can endure triumphantly, but another test even greater may be in store for it. If some modern miracle should enable us to go home, — back to my world, — what then? S. is of opinion that this return will prove the real test. Civilization with him will never be of the soul. Underneath a sufficiently modern surface burn all his old passions, ‘nowise cool for being curbed.’ First of these is a jealousy that once or twice nearly ended our engagement. It is not so vulgar as jealousy of men, but it is more dangerous. It is a jealousy of anything and everything that attracts my interest. Dwelling for three years in a world strange to us both, we have literally been all in all to each other. What will happen when we enter a world foreign to S. but familiar and dear to me, we can only surmise. There is a mountain song beloved of S. that he quotes whenever this subject is under discussion.

I wish I had me a golden box
To put my true love in.
I’d take her out and kiss her twice
And put her back again.

Inasmuch as S. realizes his weakness and faces it fairly, and inasmuch as he has overcome disabilities which seemed infinitely greater, I believe that we shall come off triumphantly from this test, too. Study and natural adaptability have equipped S. to encounter my world on equal terms; and surely the past three years of toil, privation, and sacrifice, cheerfully and ungrudgingly borne, have forged a link between us which cannot be broken by the less soul-searching routine of comfortable life.

There is not one of my friends, married or unmarried, who is not comfortably ensconced in that pleasant world I once knew; there is not one of my married friends who has not made a more ‘suitable’ match than I have. There is not one whom I envy.

  1. The following story is true in every particular. — THE EDITOR.