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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Plain Man And His Wife - 3. The Risks Of Life
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The Plain Man And His Wife - 3. The Risks Of Life Post by :herasinc Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :3462

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The Plain Man And His Wife - 3. The Risks Of Life

I

By one of those coincidences for which destiny is sometimes responsible, the two very opposite plain men whom I am going to write about were most happily named Mr. Alpha and Mr. Omega; for, owing to a difference of temperament, they stood far apart, at the extreme ends of the scale.

In youth, of course, the differences between them was not fully apparent; such differences seldom are fully apparent in youth. It first made itself felt in a dramatic way, on the evening when Mr. Alpha wanted to go to the theatre and Mr. Omega didn't. At this period they were both young and both married, and the two couples shared a flat together. Also, they were both getting on very well in their careers, by which is meant that they both had spare cash to rattle in the pockets of their admirably-creased trousers.

"Come to the theatre with us to-night, Omega?" said Mr. Alpha.

"I don't think we will," said Mr. Omega.

"But we particularly want you to," insisted Mr. Alpha.

"Well, it can't be done," said Mr. Omega.

"Got another engagement?"

"No."

"Then why won't you come? You don't mean to tell me you're hard up?"

"Yes, I do," said Mr. Omega.

"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself. What have you been doing with your money lately?"

"I've taken out a biggish life assurance policy, and the premiums will be a strain. I paid the first yesterday. I'm bled white."

"Holy Moses!" exclaimed Mr. Alpha, shrugging his shoulders.

The flat was shortly afterwards to let. The exclamation "Holy Moses!" may be in itself quite harmless, and innocuous to friendship, if it is pronounced in the right, friendly tone. Unfortunately Mr. Alpha used it with a sarcastic inflection, implying that he regarded Mr. Omega as a prig, a fussy old person, a miser, a spoilsport, and, indeed, something less than a man.

"You can only live your life once," said Mr. Alpha.

And they curved gradually apart. This was in 1893.

 

II

Nearly twenty years later--that is to say, not long since--I had a glimpse of Mr. Alpha at a Saturday lunch. Do not imagine that Mr. Alpha's Saturday lunch took place in a miserable garret, amid every circumstance of failure and shame. Success in life has very little to do with prudence. It has a great deal to do with courage, initiative, and individual force, and also it is not unconnected with sheer luck.

Mr. Alpha had succeeded in life, and the lunch at which I assisted took place in a remarkably spacious and comfortable house surrounded by gardens, greenhouses, garages, stables, and all the minions necessary to the upkeep thereof. Mr. Alpha was a jolly, a kind-hearted, an immensely clever, and a prolific man. I call him prolific because he had five children. There he was, with his wife and the five children; and they were all enjoying the lunch and themselves to an extraordinary degree. It was a delight to be with them.

It is necessarily a delight to be with people who are intelligent, sympathetic and lively, and who have ample money to satisfy their desires. Somehow you can hear the gold chinking, and the sound is good to the human ear. Even the youngest girl had money in her nice new purse, to do with it as she liked. For Mr. Alpha never stinted. He was generous by instinct, and he wanted everybody to be happy. In fact, he had turned out quite an unusual father. At the same time he fell short of being an absolute angel of acquiescence and compliance. For instance, his youngest child, a girl, broached the subject of music at that very lunch. She was fourteen, and had shown some of her father's cleverness at a school musical examination. She was rather uplifted about her music.

"Can't I take it up seriously, dad?" she said, with the extreme gravity of her years.

"Of course," said he. "The better you play, the more we shall all be pleased. Don't you think we deserve some reward for all we've suffered under your piano-practising?"

She blushed.

"But I mean seriously," she insisted.

"Well, my pet," said he, "you don't reckon you could be a star pianist, do you? Fifteen hundred dollars a concert, and so on?" And, as she was sitting next to him, he affectionately pinched her delicious ear.

"No," she admitted. "But I could teach. I should like to teach."

"Teach!" He repeated the word in a changed tone. "Teach! What in Heaven's name should you want to teach for? I don't quite see a daughter of mine teaching."

No more was said on the subject.

The young woman and I are on rather confidential terms.

"It is a shame, isn't it?" she said to me afterwards, with feeling.

"Nothing to be done?" I inquired.

"Nothing," said she. "I knew there wasn't before I started. The dad would never hear of me earning my own living."

The two elder girls--twins--had no leaning towards music, and no leaning towards anything save family affection and social engagements. They had a grand time, and the grander the time they had the keener was the delight of Mr. Alpha in their paradisaical existence. Truly he was a pearl among fathers. The children themselves admitted it, and children can judge. The second son wished to be a painter. Many a father would have said, "I shall stand none of this nonsense about painting. The business is there, and into the business you'll go." But not Mr. Alpha. What Mr. Alpha said to his second son amounted to this: "I shall be charmed for a son of mine to be a painter. Go ahead. Don't worry. Don't hurry. I will give you an ample allowance to keep you afloat through the years of struggle. You shall not be like other beginners. You shall have nothing to think of but your profession. You shall be in a position to wait. Instead of you running after the dealers, you shall comfortably bide your time until the dealers run after you."

This young man of eighteen was precocious and extravagant.

"I say, mater," he said, over the cheese, "can you lend me fifty dollars?"

Mr. Alpha broke in sharply:

"What are you worrying your mother about money for? You know I won't have it. And I won't have you getting into debt either."

"Well, dad, will you buy a picture from me?"

"Do me a good sketch of your mother, and I'll give you fifty dollars for it."

"Cash in advance?"

"Yes--on your promise. But understand, no debts."

The eldest son, fitly enough, was in the business. Not, however, too much in the business. He put in time at the office regularly. He was going to be a partner, and the business would ultimately descend to him. But the business wrinkled not his brow. Mr. Alpha was quite ready to assume every responsibility and care. He had brains and energy enough, and something considerable over. Enough over, indeed, to run the house and grounds. Mrs. Alpha could always sleep soundly at night secure in the thought that her husband would smooth away every difficulty for her. He could do all things so much more efficiently than she could, were it tackling a cook or a tradesman, or deciding about the pattern of flowers in a garden-bed.

At the finish of the luncheon the painter, who had been meditative, suddenly raised his glass.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced, with solemnity, "I beg to move that father be and hereby is a brick."

"Carried nem. con.," said the eldest son.

"Loud cheers!" said the more pert of the twins.

And Mr. Alpha was enchanted with his home and his home-life.

 

III

That luncheon was the latest and the most profound of a long series of impressions which had been influencing my mental attitude towards the excellent, the successful, the entirely agreeable Mr. Alpha. I walked home, a distance of some three miles, and then I walked another three miles or so on the worn carpet of my study, and at last the cup of my feelings began to run over, and I sat down and wrote a letter to my friend Alpha. The letter was thus couched:

"My Dear Alpha,

"I have long wanted to tell you something, and now I have decided to give vent to my desire. There are two ways of telling you. I might take the circuitous route by roundabout and gentle phrases, through hints and delicately undulating suggestions, and beneath the soft shadow of flattering cajoleries. Or I might dash straight ahead. The latter is the best, perhaps.

"You are a scoundrel, my dear Alpha. I say it in the friendliest and most brutal manner. And you are not merely a scoundrel--you are the most dangerous sort of scoundrel--the smiling, benevolent scoundrel.

"You know quite well that your house, with all that therein is, stands on the edge of a precipice, and that at any moment a landslip might topple it over into everlasting ruin. And yet you behave as though your house was planted in the midst of a vast and secure plain, sheltered from every imaginable havoc. I speak metaphorically, of course. It is not a material precipice that your house stands on the edge of; it is a metaphorical precipice. But the perils symbolized by that precipice are real enough.

"It is, for example, a real chauffeur whose real wrist may by a single false movement transform you from the incomparable Alpha into an item in the books of the registrar of deaths. It is a real microbe who may at this very instant be industriously planning your swift destruction. And it is another real microbe who may have already made up his or her mind that you shall finish your days helpless and incapable on the flat of your back.

"Suppose you to be dead--what would happen? You would leave debts, for, although you are solvent, you are only solvent because you have the knack of always putting your hand on money, and death would automatically make you insolvent. You are one of those brave, jolly fellows who live up to their income. It is true that, in deference to fashion, you are now insured, but for a trifling and inadequate sum which would not yield the hundredth part of your present income. It is true that there is your business. But your business would be naught without you. You are your business. Remove yourself from it, and the residue is negligible. Your son, left alone with it, would wreck it in a year through simple ignorance and clumsiness; for you have kept him in his inexperience like a maiden in her maidenhood. You say that you desired to spare him. Nothing of the kind. You were merely jealous, of your authority, and your indispensability. You desired fervently that all and everybody should depend on yourself....

"Conceive that three years have passed and that you are in fact dead. You are buried; you are lying away over there in the cold dark. The funeral is done. The friends are gone. But your family is just as alive as ever. Disaster has not killed it, nor even diminished its vitality. It wants just as much to eat and drink as it did before sorrow passed over it. Look through the sod. Do you see that child there playing with a razor? It is your eldest son at grips with your business. Do you see that other youngster striving against a wolf with a lead pencil for weapon? It is your second son. Well, they are males, these two, and must manfully expect what they get. But do you see these four creatures with their hands cut off, thrust out into the infested desert? They are your wife and your daughters. You cut their hands off. You did it so kindly and persuasively. And that chiefly is why you are a scoundrel. ...

"You educated all these women in a false and abominable doctrine. You made them believe, and you forced them to act up to the belief, that money was a magic thing, and that they had a magic power over it. All they had to do was to press a certain button, or to employ a certain pretty tone, and money would flow forth like water from the rock of Moses. And so far as they were concerned money actually did behave in this convenient fashion.

"But all the time you were deceiving them by a conjuring-trick, just as priests of strange cults deceive their votaries.... And further, you taught them that money had but one use--to be spent. You may--though by a fluke--have left a quantity of money to your widow, but her sole skill is to spend it. She has heard that there is such a thing as investing money. She tries to invest it. But, bless you, you never said a word to her about that, and the money vanishes now as magically as it once magically appeared in her lap.

"Yes, you compelled all these four women to live so that money and luxury and servants and idleness were absolutely essential to them if their existence was to be tolerable. And what is worse, you compelled them to live so that, deprived of magic money, they were incapable of existing at all, tolerably or intolerably. Either they must expire in misery--after their splendid career with you!--or they must earn existence by smiles and acquiescences and caresses. (For you cut their hands off.) They must beg for their food and raiment. There are different ways of begging.

"But you protest that you did it out of kindness, and because you wanted them to have a real good time. My good Alpha, it is absurd for a man to argue that he cut off a woman's hands out of kindness. Human beings are so incredulous, so apt to think evil, that such arguments somehow fail to carry conviction. I am fairly credulous myself, but even I decline to accept the plea. And I say that if your conduct was meant kindly, it is a pity that you weren't born cruel. Cruelty would have been better. Was it out of kindness that you refused to allow your youngest to acquire the skill to earn her own living? Was it out of kindness that you thwarted her instinct and filled her soul with regret that may be eternal? It was not. I have already indicated, in speaking of your son, one of the real reasons. Another was that you took pride in having these purely ornamental and loving creatures about you, and you would not suffer them to have an interest stronger than their interest in you, or a function other than the function of completing your career and illustrating your success in the world. If the girl was to play the piano, she was to play it in order to perfect your home and minister to your pleasure and your vanity, and for naught else. You got what you wanted, and you infamously shut your eyes to the risks.

"I hear you expostulate that you didn't shut your eyes to the risks, and that there will always be risks, and that it is impossible to provide fully against all of them.

"Which is true, or half true, and the truth or half-truth of the statement only renders your case the blacker, O Alpha! Risks are an inevitable part of life. They are part of the fine savour and burden of life, and without the sense of them life is flat and tasteless. And yet you feigned to your women that risk was eliminated from the magic world in which you had put them. You deliberately deprived them of the most valuable factor in existence--genuine responsibility. You made them ridiculous in the esteem of all persons with a just perception of values. You slowly bled them of their self-respect. Had you been less egotistic, they might have been happier, even during your lifetime. Your wife would have been happier had she been permitted or compelled to feel the weight of the estate and to share understandingly the anxieties of your wonderful business. Your girls would have been happier had they been cast forcibly out of the magic world into the real world for a few hours every day during a few years in order to learn its geography, and its customs, and the terms on which food and raiment and respect can be obtained in it, and the ability to obtain them. And so would you have been happier, fool! You sent your girls on the grand tour, but you didn't send them into the real world.

"Alpha, the man who cuts off another man's hands is a ruffian. The man who cuts off a woman's hands is a scoundrel. There is no excuse for him--none whatever. And the kinder he is the worse he is. I repeat that you are the worst sort of scoundrel. Your family mourns you, and every member of it says what an angel of a father you were. But you were a scoundrel all the same. And at heart every member of the family knows it and admits it. Which is rather distressing. And there are thousands just like you, Alpha. Yes, even in England there are tens of thousands just like you....

"But you aren't dead yet. I was only asking you to conceive that you were.

"Believe me, my dear Alpha,

"Yours affectionately."

A long and violent epistle perhaps. You inquire in what spirit Alpha received it. The truth is, he never did receive it.

 

IV

You naturally assume that before the letter could reach him Alpha had been mortally struck down by apoplexy, double pneumonia, bullet, automobile, or some such enemy of joy, and that all the dreadful things which I had foreseen might happen did in fact happen, thus proving once more what a very wise friend I was, and filling me with justifiable pride in my grief. But it was not so. Alpha was not struck down, nor did his agreeable house topple over the metaphorical precipice. According to poetical justice he ought to have been struck down, just to serve him right, and as a warning to others--only he was not. Not merely the wicked, but the improvident and the negligent, often flourish like the green bay tree, and they keep on flourishing, and setting wisdom and righteousness at defiance in the most successful manner. Which, indeed, makes the life of a philosopher and sagacious adviser extremely difficult and ungrateful.

Alpha never received my letter because I never sent it. There are letters which one writes, not to send, but to ease one's mind. This letter was one of them. It would not have been proper to dispatch such a letter. Moreover, in the duties of friendship, as distinguished from the pleasures of friendship, speech is better, bolder, surer than writing. When two friends within hailing distance of each other get to exchanging epistles in order to settle a serious difference of opinion, the peril to their friendship is indeed grave; and the peril is intensified when one of them has adopted a superior moral attitude--as I had. The letters grow longer and longer, ruder and ruder, and the probability of the friendship surviving grows ever rapidly less and less. It is--usually, though not always--a mean act to write what you have not the pluck to say.

So I just kept the letter as a specimen of what I could do--if I chose--in the high role of candid friend.

I said to myself that I would take the first favourable occasion to hint to Mr. Alpha how profoundly, etc., etc.

The occasion arrived sooner than I had feared. Alpha had an illness. It was not alarming, and yet it was sufficiently formidable. It began with colitis, and ended with appendicitis and an operation. Soon after Alpha had risen from his bed and was cheerfully but somewhat feebly about again I met him at a club. He was sitting in an arm-chair in one of the huge bay-windows of the club, and gazing with bright interest upon the varied spectacle of the street. The occasion was almost ideal. I took the other arm-chair in the semicircle of the window. I saw at once by his careless demeanour that his illness had taught him nothing, and I determined with all my notorious tact and persuasiveness to point a moral for him.

And just as I was clearing my throat to begin he exclaimed, with a jerk of the elbow and a benevolently satiric smile:

"See that girl?"

A plainly-dressed young woman carrying a violin-case crossed the street in front of our window.

"I see her," said I. "What about her?"

"That's Omega's second daughter."

"Oh, Omega," I murmured. "Haven't seen him for ages. What's he doing with himself? Do you ever meet him nowadays?"

Said Mr. Alpha:

"I happened to dine with him--it was chiefly on business--a couple of days before I fell ill. Remarkably strange cove, Omega--remarkably strange."

"Why? How? And what's the matter with the cove's second daughter, anyway?"

"Well," said Alpha, "it's all of a piece--him and his second daughter and the rest of the family. Funny case. It ought to interest you. Omega's got a mania."

"What mania?"

"Not too easy to describe. Call it the precaution mania."

"The precaution mania? What's that?"

"I'll tell you."

And he told me.

 

V

"Odd thing," said Alpha, "that I should have been at Omega's just as I was sickening for appendicitis. He's great on appendicitis, is Omega."

"Has he had it?"

"Not he! He's never had anything. But he informed me that before he went to Mexico last year he took the precaution of having his appendix removed, lest he might have acute appendicitis in some wild part of the country where there might be no doctor just handy for an operation. He's like that, you know. I believe if he had his way there wouldn't be an appendix left in the entire family. He's inoculated against everything. They're all inoculated against everything. And he keeps an elaborate medicine-chest in his house, together with elaborate typewritten instructions which he forced his doctor to give him--in case anything awful should happen suddenly. Omega has only to read those instructions, and he could stitch a horrible wound, tie up a severed artery, or make an injection of morphia or salt water. He has a thermometer in every room and one in each bath. Also burglar-alarms at all doors and windows, and fire extinguishers on every floor. But that's nothing. You should hear about his insurance. Of course, he's insured his life and the lives of the whole family of them. He's insured against railway accidents and all other accidents, and against illness. The fidelity of all his clerks is insured. He's insured against burglary, naturally. Against fire, too. And against loss of rent through fire. His plate-glass is insured. His bunch of keys is insured. He's insured against employers' liability. He's insured against war. He's insured against loss of business profits. The interest on his mortgage securities is insured. His wretched little automobile is insured. I do believe he was once insured against the eventuality of twins."

"He must feel safe," I said.

"Not the least bit in the world," replied Alpha. "Life is a perfect burden to him. That wouldn't matter so much if he didn't make it a perfect burden to all his family as well. They've all got to be prepared against the worst happening. If he fell down dead his wife would know just what to do. She knows all the details of his financial position exactly. She has to; he sees to that. He keeps her up to date in them every day. And she has to show him detailed accounts of the house as though it was a business undertaking, because he's so afraid of her being left helpless and incapable. She just has to understand that 'life is real, life is earnest,' and death more so.

"Then the children. They're all insured, of course. Each of the girls has to take charge of the house in turn. And they must all earn their own living--in case papa fell down dead. Take that second daughter. She hates music, but she has a certain mechanical facility with the fiddle, and so she must turn it into coin, in order to be on the safe side. Her instincts are for fine clothes, idleness, and responsibility. She'd take the risks cheerfully enough if he'd let her. But he won't. So she's miserable. I think they all are more or less."

"But still," I put in, "to feel the burden of life is not a bad thing for people's characters."

"Perhaps not," said Alpha. "But to be crushed under a cartload of bricks isn't likely to do one much good, is it? Why, Omega's a wealthy man, and d'you know, he must live on about a third of his income. The argument is, as usual, that he's liable to fall down dead--and insurance companies are only human--and anyhow, old age must be amply provided for. And then all his securities might fall simultaneously. And lastly, as he says, you never know what may happen. Ugh!"

"Has anything happened up to now?"

"Oh, yes. An appalling disaster. His drawing-room hearthrug caught fire six years ago and was utterly ruined. He got eleven dollars out of the insurance company for that, and was ecstatically delighted about it for three weeks. Nothing worse ever will happen to Omega. His business is one of the safest in the country. His constitution is that of a crocodile or a parrot. And he's as cute as they make 'em."

"And I suppose you don't envy him?"

"I don't," said Alpha.

"Well," I ventured, "let me offer you a piece of advice. Never travel in the same train with Mr. Omega."

"Never travel in the same train with him? Why not?"

"Because if there were a railway accident, and you were both killed on the spot, the world might draw comparisons between the effect on your family and the effect on his, and your family wouldn't like it."

We remained silent for a space, and the silence was dramatic. Nervously, I looked out of the window.

At length Alpha said:

"I suppose there is such a thing as the happy medium."

"Good-bye, Alpha." I rose abruptly. "Sorry, but I've got to go at once."

And I judiciously departed.

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