by Wilkie Collins
THE postman's knocks at my door have been latterly more frequent than usual; and out of the increased number of letters left for me, it has happened that an unusually large proportion have contained wedding-cards. Just as there seem to be certain days when all the beautiful women in London take to going out together, certain days when all the people we know appear to be conspiring to meet us at every turn in one afternoon's walk--so there seem to be times and seasons when all our friends are inexplicably bent on getting married together. Capricious in everything, the law of chances is especially whimsical, according to my experience, in its influence over the solemnization of matrimony. Six months ago, there was no need for me to leave a single complimentary card anywhere, for weeks and weeks together. Just at the present time, I find myself in danger of wearing out my card-case by incessant use. My friends are marrying recklessly in all sorts of opposite directions, and are making the bells a greater nuisance than usual in every parish of London.
These curious circumstances have set me thinking on the subject of marriage, and have recalled to my mind certain reflections in connection with that important change in life, which I first made when I was not quite such an incurably settled old bachelor as I am at the present moment.
It occurred to me, at that past time, and it occurs to me still, that while great stress is laid in ordinary books and ordinary talk on the personal interest which a man has himself, and on the family interest which his near relations have also, in his marrying an affectionate and sensible woman, sufficient importance has not been attached to the interest of another sort, which the tried and worthy friends of his bachelor days ought to feel, and, for the most part, do feel, in his getting a good wife. It really and truly depends upon her, in more cases than I should like to enumerate, whether her husband's friendships are to be continued, after his marriage, in all their integrity, or are only to be maintained as a mere social form. It is hardly necessary for me to repeat--but I will do so, in order to avoid the slightest chance of misconstruction--that I am here speaking only of the worthiest, the truest, the longest-tried friends of a man's bachelor days. Toward these every sensible married woman feels, as I believe, that she owes a duty for her husband's sake. But, unfortunately, there are such female phenomena in the world as fond wives and devoted mothers, who are anything rather than sensible women the moment they are required to step out of the sphere of their conjugal and maternal instincts. Women of this sort have an unreasonable jealousy of their husbands in small things; and on the misuse of their influence to serve the interests of that jealousy, lies but too often the responsibility of severing such friendships as no man can hope to form for the second time in the course of his life. By the severing of friendships, I do not mean the breaking off of all intercourse, but the fatal changing of the terms on which a man lives with his friend--the casting of the first slight shadow which alters the look of the whole prospect. It is astonishing by what a multitude of slight threads the firm continuity of brotherly regard is maintained. Many a woman has snapped asunder all the finer ligaments which once connected her husband and his friend; and has thought it enough if she left the two still attached by the coarser ties which are at the common disposal of all the world. Many a woman --delicate, affectionate, and kind within her own narrow limits--has committed that heavy social offense, and has never felt afterward a single pang of pity or remorse.
These bold words will be unpopular enough, I am afraid, with certain readers; but I am an old bachelor, and I must have license to speak the unwelcome truth. I respect and admire a good husband and father, but I cannot shake off the equally sincere reverence that I feel for a good friend; and I must be allowed to tell some married ladies--what Society ought to tell them a little oftener--that there are other affections in this world which are noble and honorable besides those of conjugal and parental origin. It may be an assertion of a very shocking and unexpected kind, but I must nevertheless be excused for saying that some of the best wives and mothers in the land have given the heartache to some of the best friends. While they have been behaving like patterns of conjugal propriety, they have been estranging men who would once have gone to the world's end to serve each other. I, as a single man, can say nothing of the dreadful wrench--not the less dreadful because it is inevitable--when a father and mother lose a daughter, in order that a lover may gain a wife. But I can speak feelingly of the shock of losing a dear friend, in order that a bride may gain a devoted husband. Nothing shall ever persuade me (possibly because I am not married) that there is not a flaw of some sort in the love for a wife which is made complete, in some people's eyes, by forced contributions from the love which belongs to a friend. I know that a man and woman who make a happy marriage have gained the summit of earthly felicity; but do they never reach that enviable eminence without having trampled underfoot something venerable, or something tender, by the way?
Bear with me, indignant wives, if I recall the long-past time when one of the handsomest women I ever saw took my dearest friend away from me, and destroyed, in one short day, the whole pleasant edifice that we two had been building up together since we were boys at school.
I shall never be as fond of any human being again as I was of that one friend; and, until the beautiful woman came between us, I believe there was nothing in this world that he would not have sacrificed and have done for me. Even while he was courting, I kept my hold on him. Against opposition on the part of his bride and her family, he stipulated that I should be his best man on the wedding-day. The beautiful woman grudged me my one small corner in his heart, even at that time; but he was true to me--he persisted--and I was the first to shake hands with him when he was a married man. I had no suspicion then that I was to lose him from that moment. I only discovered the truth when I went to pay my first visit to the bride and bridegroom at their abode in the country. I found a beautiful house, exquisitely kept from top to bottom; I found a hearty welcome; I found a good dinner and an airy bedroom; I found a pattern husband and a pattern wife; the one thing I did not find was my old friend. Something stood up in his clothes, shook hands with me, pressed wine on me, called me by my Christian name, and inquired what I was doing in my profession. It was certainly something that had a trick of looking like my former comrade and brother; something that nobody in my situation could have complained of with the smallest reason; something with all the brightness of the old metal about it, but without the sterling old ring; something, in short, which made me instinctively take my chamber-candle-stick early on the first night of my arrival, and say good-night while the beautiful woman and pattern wife was present to keep her eye on me.
Can I ever forget the language of that eye on that occasion!--the volumes it spoke in one glance of cruel triumph! "No more sacred secrets between you two," it said, brightly. "When you trust him now, you must trust me. You may sacrifice yourself for your love of him over and over again still, but he shall make no sacrifices now for you, until he has first found out how they affect my convenience and my pleasure. Your place in his heart now is where I choose it to be. I have stormed the citadel, and I will bring children by-and-by to keep the ramparts; and you, the faithful old soldier of former years--you have got your discharge, and may sit and sun yourself as well as you can at the outer gates. You have been his truest friend, but he has another now, and need trouble you no longer, except in the capacity of witness of his happiness. This, you will observe, is in the order of nature, and in the recognized fitness of things; and he hopes you will see it--and so do I. And he trusts you will sleep well under his (and my) new roof--and so do I. And he wishes you good-night--and so do I!"
Many, many years have passed since I first learned these hard truths; but I can never forget the pang that it cost me to get them by heart at a moment's notice. My old friend lives still--that is to say, I have an intimate acquaintance who asks me to all his dinners, and who made me godfather to one of his children; but the brother of my love, who died to me on the day when I paid him the marriage visit, has never come back to life since that time. On the altar at which we two once sacrificed, the ashes lie cold. A model husband and father has risen from them, and that result is, I suppose, the only one that any third person has a right to expect. It may be so; but, to this day, I cannot help thinking that the beautiful woman would have done better if she could have made a fond husband, without at the same time marring a good friend.
Readers will, I am afraid, not be wanting who will be inclined to tell me that the lady to whom I have been referring only asserted the fair privilege that was hers by right of marriage, and that my sense of injury springs from the touchy selfishness of an old bachelor. Without attempting to defend myself, I may at least be allowed to inquire into the lady's motive for using her privilege--or, in plainer terms, for altering the relations in which my friend and I had stood toward one another since boyhood.
Her idea I presume to have been that, if I preserved my old footing with her husband, I should be taking away some part of his affection that belonged to her. According to my idea of it, she was taking away something which had belonged to me, and which no effort on her part could afterward convert to her own use. It is hard to make some women understand that a husband's heart--let him be ever so devoted and affectionate--has vacant places in it which they can never hope to fill. It is a house in which they and their children, naturally and properly, occupy all the largest apartments and supply all the prettiest furniture; but there are spare rooms which they cannot enter, which are reserved all through the lease of life for inevitable guests of some sort from the world outside. It is better to let in the old friend than some of the substituted visitors, who are sure, sooner or later, to enter where there are rooms ready for them, by means of pass-keys obtained without the permission of the permanent tenants. Am I wrong in making such assertions as these? I should be willing enough to think it probable--being only a bachelor--if my views were based on mere theory. But my opinions, such as they are, have been formed with the help of proofs and facts. I have met with bright examples of wives who have strengthened their husbands' friendships as they never could have been strengthened except under the influence of a woman's care, employed in the truest, the tenderest, the most delicate way. I have seen men rescued from the bad habits of half a lifetime by the luck of keeping faithful friends who were the husbands of sensible wives. It is a very trite and true remark that the deadliest enmities between men have been occasioned by women. It is not less certain--though it is a far less widely-accepted truth--that some (I wish I could say many) of the strongest friendships have been knit most closely by women's helping hands.
The real fact seems to be, that the general idea of the scope and purpose of the Institution of Marriage is a miserably narrow one. The same senseless prejudice which leads some people, when driven to extremes, to the practical confession (though it may not be made in plain words), that they would rather see murder committed under their own eyes than approve of any project for obtaining a law of divorce which shall be equal in its operation on husbands and wives of all ranks who cannot live together, is answerable also for the mischievous error in principle of narrowing the practice of the social virtues, in married people, to themselves and their children. A man loves his wife--which is, in other words, loving himself--and loves his offspring, which is equivalent to saying that he has the natural instincts of humanity; and, when he has gone thus far, he has asserted himself as a model of all the virtues of life, in the estimation of some people. In my estimation, he has only begun with the best virtues, and has others yet to practice before he can approach to the standard of a socially complete man. Can there be a lower idea of Marriage than the idea which makes it, in fact, an institution for the development of selfishness on a large and respectable scale? If I am not justified in using the word selfishness, tell me what character a good husband presents (viewed plainly as a man) when he goes out into the world, leaving all his sympathies in his wife's boudoir, and all his affections upstairs in the nursery, and giving to his friends such shreds and patches of formal recognition, in place of true love and regard, as consist in asking them to an occasional dinner-party, and granting them the privilege of presenting his children with silver mugs? He is a model of a husband, the ladies will say. I dare not contradict them; but I should like to know whether he is also a model of a friend?
No. Bachelor as I am, I have a higher idea of Marriage than this. The social advantages which it is fitted to produce ought to extend beyond one man and one woman, to the circle of society amid which they move. The light of its beauty must not be shut up within the four walls which inclose the parents and the family, but must flow out into the world, and shine upon the childless and the solitary, because it has warmth enough and to spare, and because it may make them, even in their way, happy too. I began these few lines by asking sympathy and attention for the interest which a man's true friends have, when he marries, in his choosing a wife who will let them be friends still, who will even help them to mingling in closer brotherhood, if help they need. I lay down the pen, suggesting to some ladies--affectionately suggesting, if they will let me use the word, after some of the bold things I have said--that it is in their power to deprive the bachelor of the sole claim he has left to social recognition and pre-eminence, by making married men what many of them are, and what more might be--the best and truest friends that are to be found in the world.