The art of taking a wife
But in marriage the slight discordis a wound in the heart of twobeings, who had joined hands for ahappy life; and there is always acicatrix left, which, like the woundsof veterans, acts as a barometer tothe least change of temperature, ofmoisture, or of an atmosphere chargedwith electricity. The restless handseeks to stop the sharp irritation,and lacerates the cicatrix, changingit to a chronic sore, which is alwayspainful, but never healed.
Oh, men! oh, women, study counterpoint,the harmony and melody[Pg 60]of the heart, body, and soul, day andnight, if you wish to gather theblessed and perfumed rose of marriedhappiness, in the garden of life.
Beyond the ideal perfection ofnumber represented by the beautifulfigure of two flowering and fragrantyoung lives, you may have all thesepossible combinations, which, with acrescendo of perils and accidents, renderthe accordance of hearts andbodies always more difficult:
Two beings equally mature in age.
Two old people.
A mature or old man and a youngwoman.
A young man and a middle-agedor old woman.
We see all these combinations passdaily beyond our eyes, paired accordingto one or the other of these arithmeticalformulæ—formulæ in whichnumbers weigh and govern humanhappiness with so tremendous aninfluence.
Let us study them one by one.
Man adult—woman adult:
This is one of the most favorablecombinations, the freest from dangerand painful discovery. If it be truethat for this combination there israrer access to the Olympus of ardentlove, it is also true that shipwreckand cataclysm are rarer also. Thenavigation is nearly always on a[Pg 62]tranquil lake, in a safe boat, underthe guidance of that best of helmsmen,good sense.
The majority of such cases consistsof old attachments interrupted byunsurmountable obstacles, favouredagain by some fortunate circumstance.The two who had lovedand hoped for each other in theiryouth, find themselves free andtheir own masters, and all at once,at a single glance, have called upfrom the depths a bright panoramaof fond visions, which for sometime seemed to have disappeared inthat abyss which buries and consumesall.
Do you remember, dear?
Yes, indeed I do! I seem to seeyou still at your window on that[Pg 63]Sunday, when, after looking at meso long, you threw me a kiss acrossthe street, when I believed I washidden by the convolvulus on mybalcony.
Ah, yes, yes; that kiss was thebeginning of a long idyl which Iseem to see rising from the mistsof the past as though by enchantment————
And from remembrance to remembrancea living and speaking worldappears before those two once more,but more beautiful and more rose-colouredin semblance than it was inreality; enlarged by fancy, the firstof artists, gilded by distant reminiscence,which is ever optimist.
The old couple have some wrinkleson their faces and some threads of[Pg 64]silver in their hair, but they seeeach other as they were twentyyears ago; and if desires are indolent,and the clasp of the hands doesnot set the heart beating; if at nightardent dreams no longer disturb thepeace of the passions, an odour ofloving friendship surrounds them andbinds them closer to each other dayby day, and grows hourly more likelove and less like friendship. Theyhave so many remembrances in common.They have twenty years oflife to recount to each other, andrelating the sad and joyful eventsthey alternately recount their recollectionsas though they had in realitylived together all the while, so thatmine becomes thine and then ours,and without declaration or trepidation[Pg 65]the happy day arrives when, withoutany necessity of finishing thephrase or dotting the i, the tworight hands find themselves claspedtogether, the lips join between asigh that questions and one thatanswers:
Really you wish————?
And why not?
And the why not becomes because Ido on the morrow, and the man andwoman become husband and wife;and almost without agitation, withoutaccident, they reach in safetythe port of sure and tranquil happiness.
I recall two such marriages withemotion, those of Stuart Mill andHillebrandt.
To these serene and tranquil unions[Pg 66]children are not necessary, but ifthey come they brighten and blessthe house, bringing with them anosegay of flowers and an odour ofspring which makes those two happymortals young once more.
Two old people.
Add some ten years to the arithmeticalcombination just studied andyou will have a lower temperature,but still less danger to the happinessof the two beings who, defyingridicule and prejudice, wish to consecratean old friendship upon thealtar of matrimony.
I do not say altar as a matter ofphraseology, nor to do homage tothe religious ceremony of marriage,[Pg 67]but because I am deeply convincedthat if there be nothing beyond theunion of bodies or association ofcapital marriage is a sacrilege. Thetroth of two should always beplighted on an altar, whether itbe that of Christ or of some ideal,of Moses or Mahomet, of poetry orreligion.
Old people only marry once, eitherto win legitimacy for an old contrabandlove, or to give a legal statusto the children. They are marriagesof reparation, corrections of proof-sheetsset aside for many years andforgotten. They merit our approbationand belong to those good actionsof which Christ speaks, which, ifdone at the last hour, make death lesshard and allow us to die at peace[Pg 68]and at rest with the faith, whichilluminates our souls and preparesus to start in the train that bearsus to eternal silence, or to thegolden gates of the Christian paradise.
In the marriage of two old peoplewho love each other, love is no intoxicatingflower, but a friendshipslightly gilded by sexual sympathy,which endures longer than the reproductivefunction even as it precedes it.
A middle-aged man and a youngwoman: If theory, hygiene, logicalconcords, and compacts proclaim thetruth—which has all the force of adogma—that an old man ought not tomarry a young woman, daily practice[Pg 69]shows us that all these combinationsare possible:
40 ♀ + 20 ♂
50 ♀ + 18 ♂
60 ♀ + 30 ♂
60 ♀ + 15 ♂
70 ♀ + 30 ♂
70 ♀ + 20 ♂
80 ♀ + 40 ♂
80 ♀ + 30 ♂
80 ♀ + 15 or 18 ♂
All formulæ, cold and precise as thenumbers that make them up, but fullof a terrible crescendo of precipicesand cataclysms! They arouse before usthe phantom of a perfect pandemonium,and show us the horrors of ahell more dreadful than that of Dante.
How many tears, how much blood,bathe the path which divides those[Pg 70]figures! What deep and hidden hatred,how much revenge premeditated duringthe night and put into practice in theclear light of day; how many deceptionsplanned with the cruelty of art;what repentance, crimes, intrigues, bitternessof soul; how many torturesand struggles are written between thosesilent and lifeless figures? Yet, still,you will find the rarest, most complete,and perfect happiness lying close tothis hell, like an oasis in the midst of adesert.
For example, there are marriages ofwhich the formula is 60 + 30, and even50 + 18, that are real Edens of delight,where neither the most lovely andfragrant flowers of spring-time, nor thesweet tendernesses of voluptuousness,illimitable prospects, painless sighs,[Pg 71]conversation without words, nor allindescribable delights, are wanting;and where you have also the charmthat belongs to difficulty, and all thefascination which surrounds thingssacred.
But why among these mute anddead numbers do we find the extremesof human misery and blessedness?Why do we see the most noble sacrificesand meannesses, the most ignoblebaseness and the highestideality, bound together, with a cruelirony, by a malignant fate; why dowe see angels and demons dancingtogether as though enchanted bysome fantastic waltz?
For a very simple reason.
Because the happiness of marriagebetween an old man and a young[Pg 72]woman is nothing but an unstableand difficult balance granted to few.But to those who are capable offeeling it, it brings the sublime giddinessof the great heights. Everyonewalks, but few take the leapto death. All climb the hills; exceedinglyfew have stood on the top ofMont Blanc. But those who do notbreak their necks, nor fall into thecrevasses, experience, as they mountthe highest and most difficult summitof the Alps, strong and fascinatingemotions which make them proud andglad. All problems of life, whethergreat or small or indifferent, alwayshave this dilemma hidden within them:
To dare or not to dare.
The Rubicon is either an historicalfact, a myth, or a romance.
I leave it to historians to decide;but every practical problem of happinesshas its rubicon, at which thewhole world pauses.
Some turn back.
Some leap over it.
The most of them remain still onthe bank all their lives, looking atthe other side and scratching theirheads. After forty years of agebachelors or widows stand beforethe rubicon of marriage andsay:
Shall I go over or not?
The larger number wait so long todecide that the forty years becomefifty and then sixty. The limbsbecome weaker and the river growswider by the inundations and floodsof so many autumns, and thus the[Pg 74]problem is resolved by want of resolution.
Others instead, after a short andearnest meditation, exclaim:
No, I will not leap it.
And both do well, because althoughthe calculation of probabilities israrely applicable to moral problems,yet it proves that the combinationof an old man and a young womanis a very frail one; at the least shockit is separated, as with fulminant mercury,chloride of azote, and all theinfinite array of explosives; thencomes a detonation, a disaster, moreoften a putrid and fetid dissolution.
Some do not scratch their heads,but decide resolutely on the greatstep and leap.
A difficult and perilous leap in[Pg 75]which but few reach the other sideunscathed. The majority of theseintrepid individuals fall into the middleof the stream, which carries themaway in its turbid and rough waters;others plunge directly into the mud upto the body and are fixed there, withoutbeing able to get out, a ridiculeto others, a desperation to themselves.
In that garden of Gethsemane,where all men drink of the cup ofdoubt, in that garden of perplexitywhich we ought to leave with a yesor no and turn to the right or left,knowing that one path leads to happiness,the other to desperation, withoutknowing, however, which of the[Pg 76]two ways leads whither; in thatgarden, I say, my little book oughtto serve as a guide to resolve oneof the most difficult problems ofmarriage.
And I, who have arrogated tomyself this right of counsel, will tellwith a loud voice those who docare for my advice, my fundamentaland organic precept on which all theother minor points must rest.
Marriage between an old man anda young woman may lead to happiness,if inspired on both sides bylove.
Less surely will it lead to thesame end if the love that leads themto the altar is all on one side.
It nearly always leads to unhappinessand ruin if the man is induced[Pg 77]by sensuality, or the woman by thedesire of riches or by ambition.
And as this third case is the mostcommon, I will explain at once whythose terrible arithmetical combinationsare so fruitful in domesticmisery, adultery, and let us saycrime, including those which thecode does not regard.
At this point I see a maliciousreader smiling, and hear him say thatI ought to be classed among thosemadmen and deceivers who thinkthey have solved the problem ofsquaring the circle or of perpetualmotion.
You tell me a marriage betweenan old man and a young woman may[Pg 78]be happy, provided there be love onboth sides. But this is an impudentjoke. You may assure me with equalseriousness that I can catch a sparrowif I put salt upon its tail. How,when, and where can a young woman,fragrant of spring, who seeks witheyes, mouth, nostrils, with all senses,the pollen which will fructify her andmake her a mother; how can shedesire or love a man who is alreadyon the decline of life and can offerhis companion nothing but lasciviousnessframed by rheumatism, catarrh,dyspepsia, and cough?
No, malicious reader, I do notjoke; neither have I endeavoured tosolve insoluble problems. I sincerelybelieve a young