Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Domestic Tranquility - The Wife by Washington Irving

Butterfly and Lilacs at Mrs. White's Vermont home.

[Editor's note: The following is a short story written by Washington Irving in the 1800's. It describes how one couple had a happy marriage regardless of the loss of the husband's wealth and business. The description of how his wife continues to make a happy home even in her new found poverty is inspiring.]

          THE WIFE

     by Washington Irving, 1800's

  "I HAVE often had occasion to remark the fortitude with which women
sustain the most overwhelming reverses of fortune. Those disasters
which break down the spirit of a man, and prostrate him in the dust,
seem to call forth all the energies of the softer sex, and give such
intrepidity and elevation to their character, that at times it
approaches to sublimity. Nothing can be more touching than to behold a
soft and tender female, who had been all weakness and dependence,
and alive to every trivial roughness, while treading the prosperous
paths of life, suddenly rising in mental force to be the comforter and
support of her husband under misfortune, and abiding, with unshrinking
firmness, the bitterest blasts of adversity.

  As the vine, which has long twined its graceful foliage about the
oak, and been lifted by it into sunshine, will, when the hardy plant
is rifted by the thunderbolt, cling round it with its caressing
tendrils, and bind up its shattered boughs; so is it beautifully
ordered by Providence, that woman, who is the mere dependent and
ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace
when smitten with sudden calamity; winding herself into the rugged
recesses of his nature, tenderly supporting the drooping head, and
binding up the broken heart.

  I was once congratulating a friend, who had around him a blooming
family, knit together in the strongest affection. "I can wish you no
better lot," said he, with enthusiasm, "than to have a wife and
children. If you are prosperous, there they are to share your
prosperity; if otherwise, there they are to comfort you." And, indeed,
I have observed that a married man falling into misfortune is more apt
to retrieve his situation in the world than a single one; partly
because he is more stimulated to exertion by the necessities of the
helpless and beloved beings who depend upon him for subsistence; but
chiefly because his spirits are soothed and relieved by domestic
endearments, and his self-respect kept alive by finding, that though
all abroad is darkness and humiliation, yet there is still a little
world of love at home, of which he is the monarch. Whereas a single
man is apt to run to waste and self-neglect; to fancy himself lonely
and abandoned, and his heart to fall to ruin like some deserted
mansion, for want of an inhabitant.

  These observations call to mind a little domestic story, of which
I was once a witness. My intimate friend, Leslie, had married a
beautiful and accomplished girl, who had been brought up in the
midst of fashionable life. She had, it is true, no fortune, but that
of my friend was ample; and he delighted in the anticipation of
indulging her in every elegant pursuit, and administering to those
delicate tastes and fancies that spread a kind of witchery about the
sex.- "Her life," said he, "shall be like a fairy tale."

  The very difference in their characters produced an harmonious
combination: he was of a romantic and somewhat serious cast; she was
all life and gladness. I have often noticed the mute rapture with
which he would gaze upon her in company, of which her sprightly powers
made her the delight; and how, in the midst of applause, her eye would
still turn to him, as if there alone she sought favor and
acceptance. When leaning on his arm, her slender form contrasted
finely with his tall manly person. The fond confiding air with which
she looked up to him seemed to call forth a flush of triumphant
pride and cherishing tenderness, as if he doted on his lovely burden
for its very helplessness. Never did a couple set forward on the
flowery path of early and well-suited marriage with a fairer
prospect of felicity.

  It was the misfortune of my friend, however, to have embarked his
property in large speculations; and he had not been married many
months, when, by a succession of sudden disasters, it was swept from
him, and he found himself reduced almost to penury. For a time he kept
his situation to himself, and went about with a haggard countenance,
and a breaking heart. His life was but a protracted agony; and what
rendered it more insupportable was the necessity of keeping up a smile
in the presence of his wife; for he could not bring himself to
overwhelm her with the news. She saw, however, with the quick eyes
of affection, that all was not well with him. She marked his altered
looks and stifled sighs, and was not to be deceived by his sickly
and vapid attempts at cheerfulness. She tasked all her sprightly
powers and tender blandishments to win him back to happiness; but
she only drove the arrow deeper into his soul. The more he saw cause
to love her, the more torturing was the thought that he was soon to
make her wretched. A little while, thought he, and the smile will
vanish from that cheek- the song will die away from those lips- the
lustre of those eyes will be quenched with sorrow; and the happy
heart, which now beats lightly in that bosom, will be weighed down
like mine, by the cares and miseries of the world.

  At length he came to me one day, and related his whole situation
in a tone of the deepest despair. When I heard him through I inquired,
"Does your wife know all this?"- At the question he burst into an
agony of tears. "For God's sake!" cried he, "if you have any pity on
me, don't mention my wife; it is the thought of her that drives me
almost to madness!"

  "And why not?" said I. "She must know it sooner or later: you cannot
keep it long from her, and the intelligence may break upon her in a
more startling manner, than if imparted by yourself; for the accents
of those we love soften the harshest tidings. Besides, you are
depriving yourself of the comforts of her sympathy; and not merely
that, but also endangering the only bond that can keep hearts
together- an unreserved community of thought and feeling. She will
soon perceive that something is secretly preying upon your mind; and
true love will not brook reserve; it feels undervalued and outraged,
when even the sorrows of those it loves are concealed from it."

  "Oh, but, my friend! to think what a blow I am to give to all her
future prospects- how I am to strike her very soul to the earth, by
telling her that her husband is a beggar! that she is to forego all
the elegancies of life- all the pleasures of society- to shrink with
me into indigence and obscurity! To tell her that I have dragged her
down from the sphere in which she might have continued to move in
constant brightness- the light of every eye- the admiration of every
heart!- How can she bear poverty? she has been brought up in all the
refinements of opulence. How can she bear neglect? she has been the
idol of society. Oh! it will break her heart- it will break her

  I saw his grief was eloquent, and I let it have its flow; for sorrow
relieves itself by words. When his paroxysm had subsided, and he had
relapsed into moody silence, I resumed the subject gently, and urged
him to break his situation at once to his wife. He shook his head
mournfully, but positively.

  "But how are you to keep it from her? It is necessary she should
know it, that you may take the steps proper to the alteration of
your circumstances. You must change your style of living- nay,"
observing a pang to pass across his countenance, "don't let that
afflict you. I am sure you have never placed your happiness in outward
show- you have yet friends, warm friends, who will not think the worse
of you for being less splendidly lodged: and surely it does not
require a palace to be happy with Mary-"

  "I could be happy with her," cried he, convulsively, "in a hovel!- I
could go down with her into poverty and the dust!- I could- I could-
God bless her!- God bless her!" cried he, bursting into a transport of
grief and tenderness.

  "And believe me, my friend," said I, stepping up, and grasping him
warmly by the hand, "believe me she can be the same with you. Ay,
more: it will be a source of pride and triumph to her- it will call
forth all the latent energies and fervent sympathies of her nature;
for she will rejoice to prove that she loves you for yourself. There
is in every true woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies
dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up, and
beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity. No man knows what
the wife of his bosom is- no man knows what a ministering angel she
is- until he has gone with her through the fiery trials of this

  There was something in the earnestness of my manner, and the
figurative style of my language, that caught the excited imagination
of Leslie. I knew the auditor I had to deal with; and following up the
impression I had made, I finished by persuading him to go home and
unburden his sad heart to his wife.

  I must confess, notwithstanding all I had said, I felt some little
solicitude for the result. Who can calculate on the fortitude of one
whose life has been a round of pleasures? Her gay spirits might revolt
at the dark downward path of low humility suddenly pointed out
before her, and might cling to the sunny regions in which they had
hitherto revelled. Besides, ruin in fashionable life is accompanied by
so many galling mortifications, to which in other ranks it is a
stranger.- In short, I could not meet Leslie the next morning
without trepidation. He had made the disclosure.

  "And how did she bear it?"

  "Like an angel! It seemed rather to be a relief to her mind, for she
threw her arms round my neck, and asked if this was all that had
lately made me unhappy.- But, poor girl," added he, "she cannot
realize the change we must undergo. She has no idea of poverty but
in the abstract; she has only read of it in poetry, where it is allied
to love. She feels as yet no privation; she suffers no loss of
accustomed conveniences nor elegancies. When we come practically to
experience its sordid cares, its paltry wants, its petty humiliations-
then will be the real trial."

  "But," said I, "now that you have got over the severest task, that
of breaking it to her, the sooner you let the world into the secret
the better. The disclosure may be mortifying; but then it is a
single misery, and soon over: whereas you otherwise suffer it, in
anticipation, every hour in the day. It is not poverty so much as
pretence, that harasses a ruined man- the struggle between a proud
mind and an empty purse- the keeping up a hollow show that must soon
come to an end. Have the courage to appear poor and you disarm poverty
of its sharpest sting." On this point I found Leslie perfectly
prepared. He had no false pride himself, and as to his wife, she was
only anxious to conform to their altered fortunes.

  Some days afterwards he called upon me in the evening. He had
disposed of his dwelling house, and taken a small cottage in the
country, a few miles from town. He had been busied all day in
sending out furniture. The new establishment required few articles,
and those of the simplest kind. All the splendid furniture of his late
residence had been sold, excepting his wife's harp. That, he said, was
too closely associated with the idea of herself; it belonged to the
little story of their loves; for some of the sweetest moments of their
courtship were those when he had leaned over that instrument, and
listened to the melting tones of her voice. I could not but smile at
this instance of romantic gallantry in a doting husband.

  He was now going out to the cottage, where his wife had been all day
superintending its arrangement. My feelings had become strongly
interested in the progress of this family story, and, as it was a fine
evening, I offered to accompany him.

  He was wearied with the fatigues of the day, and, as he walked
out, fell into a fit of gloomy musing.

  "Poor Mary!" at length broke, with a heavy sigh, from his lips.

  "And what of her?" asked I: "has anything happened to her?"

  "What," said he, darting an impatient glance, "is it nothing to be
reduced to this paltry situation- to be caged in a miserable
cottage- to be obliged to toil almost in the menial concerns of her
wretched habitation?"

  "Has she then repined at the change?"

  "Repined! she has been nothing but sweetness and good humor. Indeed,
she seems in better spirits than I have ever known her; she has been
to me all love, and tenderness, and comfort!"

  "Admirable girl!" exclaimed I. "You call yourself poor, my friend;
you never were so rich- you never knew the boundless treasures of
excellence you possess in that woman."

  "Oh! but, my friend, if this first meeting at the cottage were over,
I think I could then be comfortable. But this is her first day of real
experience; she has been introduced into a humble dwelling- she has
been employed all day in arranging its miserable equipments- she
has, for the first time, known the fatigues of domestic employment-
she has, for the first time, looked round her on a home destitute of
every thing elegant,- almost of every thing convenient; and may now be
sitting down, exhausted and spiritless, brooding over a prospect of
future poverty."

  There was a degree of probability in this picture that I could not
gainsay, so we walked on in silence.

  After turning from the main road up a narrow lane, so thickly shaded
with forest trees as to give it a complete air of seclusion, we came
in sight of the cottage. It was humble enough in its appearance for
the most pastoral poet; and yet it had a pleasing rural look. A wild
vine had overrun one end with a profusion of foliage; a few trees
threw their branches gracefully over it; and I observed several pots
of flowers tastefully disposed about the door, and on the grass-plot
in front. A small wicket gate opened upon a footpath that wound
through some shrubbery to the door. Just as we approached, we heard
the sound of music- Leslie grasped my arm; we paused and listened.
It was Mary's voice singing, in a style of the most touching
simplicity, a little air of which her husband was peculiarly fond.

  I felt Leslie's hand tremble on my arm. He stepped forward to hear
more distinctly. His step made a noise on the gravel walk. A bright
beautiful face glanced out at the window and vanished- a light
footstep was heard and Mary came tripping forth to meet us: she was in
a pretty rural dress of white; a few wild flowers were twisted in
her fine hair; a fresh bloom was on her cheek; her whole countenance
beamed with smiles- I had never seen her look so lovely.

  "My dear George," cried she, "I am so glad you are come! I have been
watching and watching for you; and running down the lane, and
looking out for you. I've set out a table under a beautiful tree
behind the cottage; and I've been gathering some of the most delicious
strawberries, for I know you are fond of them- and we have such
excellent cream- and every thing is so sweet and still here- Oh!" said
she, putting her arm within his, and looking up brightly in his
face, "Oh, we shall be so happy!"

  Poor Leslie was overcome. He caught her to his bosom- he folded
his arms round her- he kissed her again and again- he could not speak,
but the tears gushed into his eyes; and he has often assured me,
that though the world has since gone prosperously with him, and his
life has, indeed, been a happy one, yet never has he experienced a
moment of more exquisite felicity."

                        THE END


Thank you for reading! 

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1 comment:

Kristie from Love My Little Cottage said...

I loved the story. I’ve always liked Washington Irving. I nearly shed a tear at the end. Great post!