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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Plain Man And His Wife - 4. In Her Place
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The Plain Man And His Wife - 4. In Her Place Post by :granola Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1770

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The Plain Man And His Wife - 4. In Her Place

I

The plain man is not always mature and successful, as I have hitherto regarded him. He may be unsuccessful in a worldly sense; but from my present point of view I do not much care whether he is unsuccessful in that sense. I know that plain men are seldom failures; their very plainness saves them from the alarming picturesqueness of the abject failure. On the other hand, I care greatly whether the plain man is mature or immature, old or young. I should prefer to catch him young. But he is difficult to catch young. The fact is that, just as he is seldom a failure, so he is seldom young. He becomes plain only with years. In youth, even in the thirties, he has fanciful capricious qualities which prevent him from being classed with the average sagacious plain man. He slowly loses these inconvenient qualities, and develops into part of the backbone of the nation. And then it is too late to tell him that he is not perfect, simply because he has forgotten to cultivate the master quality of all qualities--namely, imagination. For imagination must be cultivated early, and it is just the quality that these admirable plain men lack.

By imagination I mean the power to conceive oneself in a situation which one is not actually in; for instance, in another person's place. It is among the sardonic humours of destiny that imagination, while positively dangerous in an ill-balanced mind and of the highest value in a well-balanced mind, is to be found rather in the former than in the latter. And anyhow, the quality is rare in Anglo-Saxon races, which are indeed both afraid and ashamed of it.

And yet could the plain, the well-balanced Anglo-Saxon male acquire it, what a grand world we should live in! The most important thing in the world would be transformed. The most important thing in the world is, ultimately, married life, and the chief practical use of the quality of imagination is to ameliorate married life. But who in England or America (or elsewhere) thinks of it in that connection? The plain man considers that imagination is all very well for poets and novelists. Blockhead! Yes, despite my high esteem for him, I will apply to him the Johnsonian term of abuse. Blockhead! Imagination is super-eminently for himself, and was beyond doubt invented by Providence in order that the plain man might chiefly exercise it in the plain, drudging dailiness of married life. The day cometh, if tardily, when he will do so.

 

II

These reflections have surged up in my brain as I contemplate the recent case of my acquaintance, Mr. Omicron, and they are preliminary to a study of that interesting case. Scarce a week ago Omicron was sitting in the Omicron drawing-room alone with Mrs. Omicron. It was an average Omicron evening. Omicron is aged thirty-two. He is neither successful nor unsuccessful, and no human perspicacity can say whether twenty years hence he will be successful or unsuccessful. But anybody can see that he is already on the way to be a plain, well-balanced man. Somewhat earlier than usual he is losing the fanciful capricious qualities and settling down into the stiff backbone of the nation.

Conversation was not abundant.

Said Mrs. Omicron suddenly, with an ingratiating accent:

"What about that ring that I was to have?"

There was a pause, in which every muscle of the man's body, and especially the facial muscles, and every secret fibre of his soul, perceptibly stiffened. And then Omicron answered, curtly, rebuttingly, reprovingly, snappishly, finishingly:

"I don't know."

And took up his newspaper, whose fragile crackling wall defended him from attack every bit as well as a screen of twelve-inch armour-plating.

The subject was dropped.

It had endured about ten seconds. But those ten seconds marked an epoch in Omicron's career as a husband--and he knew it not. He knew it not, but the whole of his conjugal future had hung evenly in the balance during those ten seconds, and then slid slightly but definitely--to the wrong side.

Of course, there was more in the affair than appeared on the surface. At dinner the otherwise excellent leg of mutton had proved on cutting to be most noticeably underdone. Now, it is a monstrous shame that first-class mutton should be wasted through inefficient cookery; with third-class mutton the crime might have been deemed less awful. Moreover, four days previously another excellent dish had been rendered unfit for masculine consumption by precisely the same inefficiency or gross negligence, or whatever one likes to call it. Nor was that all. The coffee had been thin, feeble, uninteresting. The feminine excuse for this last diabolic iniquity had been that the kitchen at the last moment had discovered itself to be short of coffee. An entirely commonplace episode! Yes, but it is out of commonplace episodes that martyrs are made, and Omicron had been made a martyr. He, if none else, was fully aware that evening that he was a martyr. And the woman had selected just that evening to raise the question of rings, gauds, futile ornamentations! He had said little. But he had stood for the universal husband, and in Mrs. Omicron he saw the universal wife.

 

III

His reflections ran somewhat thus:

"Surely a simple matter to keep enough coffee in the house! A schoolgirl could do it! And yet they let themselves run short of coffee! I ask for nothing out of the way. I make no inordinate demands on the household. But I do like good coffee. And I can't have it! Strange! As for that mutton--one would think there was no clock in the kitchen. One would think that nobody had ever cooked a leg of mutton before. How many legs of mutton have they cooked between them in their lives? Scores; hundreds; I dare say thousands. And yet it hasn't yet dawned on them that a leg of mutton of a certain weight requires a certain time for cooking, and that if it is put down late one of two things must occur--either it will be undercooked or the dinner will be late! Simple enough! Logical enough! Four women in the house (three servants and the wicked, negligent Mrs. Omicron), and yet they must needs waste a leg of mutton through nothing but gross carelessness! It isn't as if it hadn't happened before! It isn't as if I hadn't pointed it out! But women are amateurs. All women are alike. All housekeeping is amateurish. She (Mrs. Omicron, the criminal) has nothing in this world to do but run the house--and see how she runs it! No order! No method! Has she ever studied housekeeping scientifically? Not she! Does she care? Not she! If she had any real sense of responsibility, if she had the slightest glimmering of her own short-comings, she wouldn't have started on the ring question. But there you are! She only thinks of spending, and titivating herself. I wish she had to do a little earning. She'd find out a thing or two then. She'd find out that life isn't all moonstones and motor-cars. Ring, indeed! It's the lack of tact that annoys me. I am an ill-used man. All husbands are ill-used men. The whole system wants altering. However, I must keep my end up. And I will keep my end up. Ring, indeed! No tact!"

He fostered a secret fury. And he enjoyed fostering it. There was exaggeration in these thoughts, which, he would admit next day, were possibly too sweeping in their scope. But he would maintain the essential truth of them. He was not really and effectively furious against Mrs. Omicron; he did not, as a fact, class her with forgers and drunken chauffeurs; indeed, the fellow loved her in his fashion. But he did pass a mature judgment against her. He did wrap up his grudge in cotton-wool and put it in a drawer and examine it with perverse pleasure now and then. He did increase that secretion of poison which weakens the social health of nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand married lives--however delightful they may be. He did render more permanent a noxious habit of mind. He did appreciably and doubly and finally impair the conjugal happiness--for it must not be forgotten that in creating a grievance for himself he also gave his wife a grievance. He did, in fine, contribute to the general mass of misunderstanding between sex and sex.

If he is reading this, as he assuredly is, Mr. Omicron will up and exclaim:

"My wife a grievance! Absurd! The facts are incontrovertible. What grievance can she have?"

The grievance that Mr. Omicron, becoming every day more and more the plain man, is not exercising imagination in the very field where it is most needed.

What is a home, Mr. Omicron? You reply that a home is a home. You have always had a home. You were born in one. With luck you will die in one. And you have never regarded a home as anything but a home. Your leading idea has ever been that a home is emphatically not an office nor a manufactory. But suppose you were to unscale your eyes--that is to say, use your imagination--try to see that a home, in addition to being a home, is an office and manufactory for the supply of light, warmth, cleanliness, ease, and food to a given number of people? Suppose you were to allow it to occur to you that a home emphatically is an organization similar to an office and manufactory--and an extremely complicated and delicate one, with many diverse departments, functioning under extremely difficult conditions? For thus it in truth is. Could you once accomplish this feat of imaginative faculty, you would never again say, with that disdainful accent of yours: "Mrs. Omicron has nothing in the world to do but run the house." For really it would be just as clever for her to say: "Mr. Omicron has nothing in the world to do but run the office."

I admit heartily that Mrs. Omicron is not perfect. She ought to be, of course; but she, alas! falls short of the ideal. Yet in some details she can and does show the way to that archangel, her husband. When her office and manufactory goes wrong, you, Mr. Omicron, are righteously indignant and superior. You majestically wonder that with four women in the house, etc., etc. But when you come home and complain that things are askew in your masculine establishment, and that a period of economy must set in, does she say to you with scorn: "Don't dare to mention coffee to-night. I really wonder that with fourteen (or a hundred and forty) grown men in your establishment you cannot produce an ample and regular income?" No; she makes the best of it. She is sympathetic. And you, Mr. Omicron, would be excessively startled and wounded if she were not sympathetic. Put your imagination to work and you will see how interesting are these comparisons.

 

IV

She is an amateur at her business, you say. Well, perhaps she is. But who brought her up to be an amateur? Are you not content to carry on the ancient tradition? As you meditate, and you often do meditate, upon that infant daughter of yours now sleeping in her cot, do you dream of giving her a scientific education in housekeeping, or do you dream of endowing her with the charms that music and foreign languages and physical grace can offer? Do you in your mind's eye see her cannily choosing beef at the butcher's, or shining for your pleasure in the drawing-room?

And then Mrs. Omicron is, perhaps, not so much of an amateur as you assume. People learn by practice. Is there any reason in human nature why a complex machine such as a house may be worked with fewer breakdowns than an office or manufactory? Harness your imagination once more and transfer to your house the multitudinous minor catastrophes that happen in your office. Be sincere, and admit that the efficiency of the average office is naught but a pretty legend. A mistake or negligence or forgetfulness in an office is remedied and forgotten. Mrs. Omicron--my dear Mr. Omicron--never hears of it. Not so with Mrs. Omicron's office, as your aroused imagination will tell you. Mrs. Omicron's parlourmaid's duster fails to make contact with one small portion of the hall-table. Mr. Omicron walks in, and his godlike glance drops instantly on the dusty place, and Mr. Omicron ejaculates sardonically: "H'm! Four women in the house, and they can't even keep the hall-table respectable!"

Mr. Omicron forgets a letter at the bottom of his unanswered-letter basket, and a week later an excited cable arrives from overseas, and that cable demands another cable. No real harm has been done. Ten dollars spent on cables have cured the ill. Mrs. Omicron, preoccupied with a rash on the back of the neck of Miss Omicron before-mentioned, actually comes back from town without having ordered the mutton. In the afternoon she realizes her horrid sin and rushes to the telephone. The butcher reassures her. He swears the desired leg shall arrive. But do you see that boy dallying at the street corner with his mate? He carries the leg of mutton, and he carries also, though he knows it not nor cares, the reputation and happiness of Mrs. Omicron. He is late. As you yourself remarked, Mr. Omicron, if a leg of mutton is put down late to roast, one of two things must occur--either it will be under-cooked or the dinner will be late.

Now, if housekeeping was as simple as office-keeping, Mrs. Omicron would smile in tranquillity at the _contretemps_, and say to herself: "Never mind, I shall pay the late-posting fee--that will give me an extra forty minutes." _You say that, Mr. Omicron, about your letters, when you happen to have taken three hours for lunch and your dictation of correspondence is thereby postponed. Only there is no late-posting fee in Mrs. Omicron's world. If Mrs. Omicron flung four cents at you when you came home, and informed you that dinner would be forty minutes late and that she was paying the fee, what, Mr. Omicron, would be your state of mind?

And your imagination, now very alert, will carry you even farther than this, Mr. Omicron, and disclose to you still more fearful difficulties which Mrs. Omicron has to face in the management of her office or manufactory. Her staff is uneducated, less educated even than yours. And her staff is universally characterized by certain peculiarities of mentality. For example, her staff will never, never, never, come and say to her: "Please, ma'am, there is only enough coffee left for two days." No! Her staff will placidly wait forty-eight hours, and then come at 7 p.m. and say: "Please, ma'am, there isn't enough coffee----" And worse! You, Mr. Omicron, can say roundly to a clerk: "Look here, if this occurs again I shall fling you into the street." You are aware, and he is aware, that a hundred clerks are waiting to take his place. On the other hand, a hundred mistresses are waiting to take the place of Mrs. Omicron with regard to her cook. Mrs. Omicron has to do as best she can. She has to speak softly and to temper discipline, because the supply of domestic servants is unequal to the demand. And there is still worse. The worst of all, the supreme disadvantage under which Mrs. Omicron suffers, is that most of her errors, lapses, crimes, directly affect a man in the stomach, and the man is a hungry man.

Mr. Omicron, your imagination, now feverishly active, will thus demonstrate to you that your wife's earthly lot is not the velvet couch that you had unimaginatively assumed it to be, and that, indeed, you would not change places with her for a hundred thousand a year. Your attitude towards her human limitations will be modified, and the general mass of misunderstanding between sex and sex will tend to diminish.

(And if even yet your attitude is not modified, let your imagination dwell for a few instants on the extraordinary number of bad and expensive hotels with which you are acquainted--managed, not by amateurish women, but by professional men. And on the obstinate mismanagement of the commissariat of your own club--of which you are continually complaining to members of the house-committee.)

 

V

I pass to another aspect of Mr. Omicron's private reflections consequent upon Mrs. Omicron's dreadful failure of tact in asking him about the ring after the mutton had proved to be underdone and the coffee to be inadequate. "She only thinks of spending," reflected Mr. Omicron, resentfully. A more or less true reflection, no doubt, but there would have been a different colour to it if Mr. Omicron had exercised the greatest of his faculties. Suppose you were to unscale your eyes, Mr. Omicron--that is to say, use your imagination--and try to see that so far as finance is concerned your wife's chief and proper occupation in life is to spend. Conceive what you would say if she announced one morning: "Henry, I am sick of spending. I am going out into the world to earn." Can you not hear yourself employing a classic phrase about "the woman's sphere"? In brief, there would occur an altercation and a shindy.

Your imagination, once set in motion, will show you that your conjugal existence is divided into two great departments--the getting and the spending departments. Wordsworth chanted that in getting and spending we lay waste our powers. We could not lay waste our powers in a more satisfying manner. The two departments, mutually indispensable, balance each other. You organized them. You made yourself the head of one and your wife the head of the other. You might, of course, have organized them otherwise. It was open to you in the Hottentot style to decree that your wife should do the earning while you did the spending. But for some mysterious reason this arrangement did not appeal to you, and you accordingly go forth daily to the office and return therefrom with money. The theory of your daily excursion is firmly based in the inherent nature of things. The theory is the fundamental cosmic one that money is made in order that money may be spent--either at once or later. Even the miser conforms to this theory, for he only saves in obedience to the argument that the need of spending in the future may be more imperious than is the need of spending at the moment.

The whole of your own personal activity is a mere preliminary to the activity of Mrs. Omicron. Without hers, yours would be absurd, ridiculous, futile, supremely silly. By spending she completes and justifies your labour; she crowns your life by spending. You married her so that she might spend. You wanted some one to spend, and it was understood that she should fill the situation. She was brought up to spend, and you knew that she was brought up to spend. Spending is her vocation. And yet you turn round on her and complain, "She only thinks of spending."

"Yes," you say, "but there is such a thing as moderation." There is; I admit it. The word "extravagance" is no idle word in the English language. It describes a quality which exists. Let it be an axiom that Mrs. Omicron is human. Just as the tendency to get may grow on you, until you become a rapacious and stingy money-grubber, so the tendency to spend may grow on her. One has known instances. A check-action must be occasionally employed. Agreed! But, Mr. Omicron, you should choose a time and a tone for employing it other than you chose on this evening that I have described. A man who mixes up jewelled rings with undertone mutton and feeble coffee is a clumsy man.

Exercise your imagination to put yourself in the place of Mrs. Omicron, and you will perceive that she is constantly in the highly delicate difficulty of having to ask for money, or at any rate of having to suggest or insinuate that money should be given to her. It is her right and even her duty to ask for money, but the foolish, illogical creature--like most women, even those with generous and polite husbands--regards the process as a little humiliating for herself. You, Mr. Omicron, have perhaps never asked for money. But your imagination will probably be able to make you feel how it feels to ask for money. A woman whose business in life it is to spend money which she does not and cannot earn may sometimes have to face a refusal when she asks for money. But there is one thing from which she ought to be absolutely and eternally safe--and that is a snub.

 

VI

And finally, in his reflections as an ill-used man tied for life to a woman who knows not tact, Mr. Omicron asserted further that Mrs. Omicron only thought of spending and titivating herself. To assert that she only thought of spending did not satisfy his spleen; he must add "titivating herself." He would admit, of course, that she did as a fact sometimes think of other matters, but still he would uphold the gravamen of his charge. And yet--excellent Omicron!--you have but to look the truth in the face--as a plain common-sense man will--and to use your imagination, in order to perceive that there really is no gravamen in the charge.

Why did you insist on marrying Mrs. Omicron? She had the reputation of being a good housekeeper (as girls go); she was a serious girl, kind-hearted, of irreproachable family, having agreeable financial expectations, clever, well-educated, good-tempered, pretty. But the truth is that you married her for none of these attributes. You married her because you were attracted to her; and what attracted you was a mysterious, never-to-be-defined quality about her--an effluence, an emanation, a lurking radiance, an entirely enigmatic charm. In the end "charm" is the one word that even roughly indicates that element in her personality which caused you to lose your head about her. A similar phenomenon is to be observed in all marriages of inclination. A similar phenomenon is at the bottom of most social movements. Why, the Men's League for Women's Suffrage itself certainly came into being through the strange workings of that same phenomenon! You married Mrs. Omicron doubtless because she was "suitable," but her "suitability," for you, consisted in the way she breathed, the way she crossed a room, a transient gesture, a vibration in her voice, a blush, a glance, the curve of an arm--nothing, nothing--and yet everything!

You may condescend towards this quality of hers, Mr. Omicron--you may try to dismiss it as "feminine charm," and have done with it. But you cannot have done with it. And the fact will ever remain that you are incapable of supplying it yourself, with all your talents and your divine common sense. You are an extremely wise and good man, but you cannot ravish the senses of a roomful of people by merely walking downstairs, by merely throwing a shawl over your shoulders, by a curious depression in the corner of one cheek. This gift of grace is not yours. Wise as you are, you will be still wiser if you do not treat it disdainfully. It is among the supreme things in the world. It has made a mighty lot of history, and not improbably will make some more--even yours.

You were not the only person aware of the formidable power (for formidable it was) which she possessed over you. She, too, was aware of it, and is still. She knows that when she exists in a particular way, she will produce in your existence a sensation which, though fleeting, you prefer to all other sensations--a sensation unique. And this quality by which she disturbs and enchants you is her main resource in the adventure of life. Shall she not cherish this quality, adorn it, intensify it? On the contrary, you well know that you would be very upset and amazed if Mrs. Omicron were to show signs of neglecting this quality of hers which yearns for rings. And, if you have ever entered a necktie-shop and been dazzled by the spectacle of a fine necktie into "hanging expense"--if you have been through this wondrous experience, your imagination, duly prodded, will enable you to put yourself into Mrs. Omicron's place when she mentions the subject of rings. "Titivating herself?" Good heavens, she is helping the very earth to revolve! And you smote the defenceless creature with a lethal word--because the butcher's boy dallied at a street-corner!

You insinuate that one frail hand may carry too many rings. You reproduce your favourite word "moderation." Mr. Omicron, I take you. I agree as to the danger. But if Mrs. Omicron is human, let us also bear in mind the profound truth that not one of us is more human than another.


(THE END)
Arnold Bennett's fiction book: Plain Man and His Wife

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