The Inability to Interfere
THE INABILITY TO INTERFERE
MARY HEATON VORSE
TO myself I could be articulate enough about it. Indeed, I held long conversations about it, mainly in the darkness of the night, with my bolder self, who advised me so cleverly and who told me all the tactful things and all the forceful things that I ought on occasion to say. Then there came, with that other self, a conversation which settled things. It went something in this way:
"You have let things go far enough."
"Yes," I admitted guiltily, "I know it."
"It's time you took a stand."
"I know it," I again admitted forlornly.
"Why don't you do it then?" sternly asked the bolder self. He could afford to be bold, it wasn't he who had the talking to do. "Why don't you explain to Felicia the way you feel about it and how it looks and ail about it——"
This time it was myself who grew bold. I said:
"You great ass! Do you think I'm going to let you make me make Felicia cry?"
"Better have her cry," grumbled the other self, "than let her expose herself unthinking to—well, all sorts of things." (One would have thought to hear him that Monty Saunders was the measles.)
We were silent a while, and in my imagination I saw again the distressing spectacle of Felicia weeping. I suppose there is no man who has been married a year who has not made his Felicia cry.
You cannot explain how the terrible thing came about. It may be you had a moment of surface impatience. Generally it's something less definite than that—a bit of chaff at an untimely moment, an indiscreet question put forth to a spirit of the friendliest curiosity.
"Why," for instance you may have said, "isn't dinner ready?"
You didn't mind its not being ready in the least, but, not being used to having dinners of your own, you were amused and interested to know the cause of its lateness. And there before your eyes the unbelievable has happened, Felicia is in tears, and it is your fault.
You are like a landsman who has pulled an innocent-looking plug out of the bottom of a boat and sees it fill and founder before his eyes; you feel like a man who lights a match and lo! his house is in flames; with such horror and bewilderment does the sight of a weeping Felicia fill you. Guilt and bewilderment struggle with one another, as her mouth quivers pitifully and her eyes fill with slow tears. She turns away to battle with them, and, instead of holding your tongue, you choose from among all the silly, inadequate things there are in the world to say, "What's the matter, dear?"
"I—I—left—a book in—my room," answers Felicia, and she pushes past you and goes out of the door, and, though you don't know it at the time, she is as bewildered as you are.
You walk up and down the floor two or three times, you open the door and shut it, finally you can't stand it any longer, you must find out how Felicia does. You go up to your room, and there on the bed is what is left oi the gallant, saucy Felicia you know. It is a crumpled little heap, and you can see only a knot of disordered hair and shaking shoulders, and as if this wasn't bad enough, there is added the sound of muffled sobs. You go up to her and put a beseeching hand on her shoulder.
"Felicia," you implore. Then from the depths of the pillow come the broken words:
"Go—away—go—away—and—leave—me—alone." Nor is the tone all anguish, anger finds its place there as well, and this bewilders you still more. You could not know, of course, that Felicia is angry at you for having seen her cry.
"I can't go away and leave you like this," you say.
The shoulders shake still harder, the sobs are louder, for sympathy is hard to bear in such moments of humiliation—but this too you find out later.
You walk across the room, helplessly, hopelessly. You murmur forth apologies, though you don't know for what you are apologizing, and words of endearment and of sympathy, though you can't tell what it is you are sympathetic about. You would do anything, abase yourself to any degree, to stop the noise of sobbing which is slowly sapping your manhood.
You stand looking down on poor Felicia—what is the matter with her? What has happened?
"I don't believe you can be well, my darling," you are fool enough to say. Inside you your other self is grumbling:
"Well, I'm hanged if I understand women!"
If only she would stop; she must have been crying ten minutes, and you have aged years. If only you understood why, how much easier it would be! The only thing you do understand is that whatever you say and whatever you do, or whether it's sympathy or silence, it's wrong.
There is a knock on the door.
"Dinner is served," says a voice, and you (feeling like a quitter, but you can't stand the sight of her any longer) say:
"Felicia, I'm going down. I don't seem to be doing you any good——"
Felicia raises her head.
"You're not!" says she spitefully. They're the first words she has spoken since she pleaded with you in agonized tones to "let her be."
Then, as you sit down to the mockery of oysters and soup, anger rises in you. What creatures women are! Hasn't a man a right to ask why dinner isn't ready in his own house without the sky falling? You look at your watch; more than half an hour late. Well, why wasn't it ready? Why? When a man comes home tired from the office, he has a right to expect his dinner to be ready. Yes, by Jove! and a right to ask "Why?" and a right, too, to expect a cheerful, pleasant wife! What struck Felicia, anyway? and in spite of your anger, pity sweeps over you for poor little Felicia crying upstairs, and you rise and go to the door, angry and distressed, while your inner self tells you pity is unmanly. You feel abused and bruised; how scenes take it out of one, you think resentfully, and just here you pause, for there are footsteps on the stairs. It can't be Felicia, you think. But it is Felicia, who comes into the room, beautifully dressed. Why, she must have got up and dressed, tears and all, the instant you left the room! She comes in gallantly, carrying the powder on her nose with effrontery, denying her eyes, which still show the ravages of tears, by the gay smile on her lips; and as dinner progresses, excellent, and with Felicia all as natural and gay as possible, you wonder more than ever what the devil it was all about anyway. But at night, as you ponder it over again, you get a certain blurred vision of what it meant. You are too young in marriage to put it into words, but you have an intuition that marriage, after all, is a very new country for Felicia, full of a thousand details you know nothing about, whose A, B, C she must learn slowly and painfully—and all alone, there is no one to help her. You can't. She's got to grope her way about by herself in this unfamiliar land. All you can do is to be very, very considerate and very, very careful not to make her cry.
But hang it all, if she's going to cry every time you ask if dinner is ready, how are you going to help making her? And all at once the vision of how careful you have got to be makes you feel bowed down with care. You will never, you are sure, speak another natural word in her presence. Who would have believed she would cry so easily? How awful to consider you made her! Then you hear Felicia give a little breath of a sigh, like a child which has sobbed itself to sleep.
"Felicia," you say impulsively, "I was a brute."
"I was a goose," she protests, "an awful little goose," and deep down in your heart you agree with her, though you declare again it was your fault, and you have an uneasy feeling that she is at one with you about your being a brute, and you fall asleep at last thinking that things never again can have the same glamour between you two, that somehow Felicia's tears have cried away the bloom of marriage. But in the morning you wake up and wonder what it was you thought had happened, for nothing has—things haven't changed. You merely resolve that you will try to understand, mere man that you are, the finer creature the Lord has trusted you with. But oh, why can't women be reasonable?
This scene flitted through my mind as the silence fell between my two selves; the other, one of me brooded over my inertia in the matter in hand. At last he broke the silence and my awful vision of Felicia in tears with:
"A man ought, you know, to look after his young wife. He shouldn't let her make herself conspicuous with men, especially with a silly young ass. It isn't being jealous," he concluded virtuously.
"Oh, no, we're not jealous," I agreed eagerly.
"You must speak to her."
"Why?" he demanded. And then it came out. Why? It had been staring me in the face all along. I had known why, but I had shirked, as long as I could, putting my confession of weakness into words. If I had never seen Felicia cry it would have been different. I might have talked to her as man to man, but now:
"I can't, because it's impossible for me to interfere with Felicia."
i told him. There it was. It was constitutionally impossible for me to interfere, in words anyway. It was like a sense lacking, but there where my Felicia-preventing faculties should have been there was a blank.
"Do you mean you would let her do anything?"
"Anything," I assented.
"Let her drift from you and not reach out your hand for her?"
"I couldn't raise my hand," I confessed sadly. There it was. I couldn't do the disagreeable task known as "bringing her to her senses." If Felicia couldn't fed that I didn't like what she did, i couldn't, for the life of me, or even the life of Felicia, open my mouth. And I believe there are a great many men like me in the world, and more women, too. A certain kind of pain makes us dumb. A certain pride freezes back the words that would come. The men of us have perhaps seen our Felicias cry. And there's no use saying afterwards. Why didn't you tell me? What, after all, is the use of words, when it's written all over you in the very set of your coat that you're hurt?
So now it was all settled. There was no use in my lying awake at night any longer while my other self tickled his vanity by making up admonitory conversations with Felicia, that went this way:
"Felicia," I was to say tenderly yet seriously, "I have something I want to talk over with you."
Felicia would be impressed by my manner, and even a little frightened, and she would murmur:
"Yes?" expectantly, meekly.
"Felicia," I was to continue, "I do not want you to think I am blaming you. I am blaming myself for letting things go so far, for not explaining things to you before; you are young, you do not understand the world."
"That is true," Felicia would reply with adorable meekness, as she lifted questioning eyes to mine. Then I was to sit down beside her and taking both her hands in mine:
"Dear," I was to continue, "when a young girl has received as much attention as you have, it is natural for her to imagine that after she is married men can go on courting her as they did before. But this is not true. A man's devotion, especially the devotion of an insolent, useless pup of a young ass like Saunders" (it slipped out in spite of ourselves, and we put the blue pencil through it, supplying "a fellow like Saunders") "has a very different meaning when given to a young girl than to a young married woman. You do not dream this, I know. I have every confidence in you, dear, and I am speaking now purely to save you from an unpleasant scene as well as to stop malicious tongues."
At this Felicia would keep silent, contemplating the abyss pointed out to her. Indeed, my words have so impressed her that my heart smites me, but better she should learn from me than in some other way.
"May a married woman have no friends then?" she cries at last.
"All she likes of friends," I am to say with a touch of severity. "But she should take care not to make herself conspicuous with any one man. For you know, Felicia, you have been making yourself conspicuous. At the Jarvis week-end party you talked to no one else; last night you sat an hour in a secluded corner with him. You walk with him, and he sends you violets. I have no feeling about Saunders, of course. I merely see these things as the world sees them. Only I know how innocent you are, that you are accepting these attentions as simply as you would have before you were married, but, O Felicia, the world does not know that! Already they are putting you down as a married flirt; already they are wondering what I am about to let things go on so, and as for Saunders, his attentions to you are an insult."
"You should have told me before," Felicia murmurs. "You should have told me!"
Just then the maid would of course bring a card. Felicia would glance at it, her brows arch themselves with displeasure.
"Tell Mr. Saunders I am not at home," she would say haughtily.
You see, according to that other self, it was all as easy as rolling off a log. The trouble with him is that he has no practical knowledge of the world; but at the moment of telling, he would put the glamour of his ideas over me. It seemed too seductively easy, and it was hard for me to point out to him that, excellent and satisfactory as this conversation was, it had the fatal defect of not being the way Felicia and I talked. This didn't impress him at all; he merely invented another conversation which didn't put Felicia in nearly as pleasing a light, but gave me scope for firmness and dignity. I appeared really very well in the face of her perverseness. Proud of myself, I was to end by saying, without anger, but with decision:
"And, Felicia, if you can find no way of stopping this objectionable young man's attentions, I can!"
Now all these pleasant plays of fancy were ended forever by my acknowledging my weakness.
Felicia is fond of saying, "Men differ, but all husbands are alike." I think she believes this to be an epigram. But O, Felicia, all husbands are not alike; there are those who can take care of their wives, and those who can't,—those who can say the word in time, and those who must sit back weakly silent, morosely sucking their paws while their wives burn their fingers. Well, after all, I thought, perhaps it was better so. There would be negative benefits. This way, at least, I shouldn't make Felicia cry. I wouldn't say anything I should be sorry for afterwards, if I said nothing. I had only to sit pusillanimously quiet until Saunders was guilty of some impertinence, then there would be no more Saunders. I ground my teeth and thanked God I was not jealous.
But I was soon undeceived if I thought that things were going along as they had been. First there came a little, tiny, malformed, wordless doubt, which I strangled as it was born; then a suspicion I wouldn't see. I closed my eyes. In my loyalty I lied even to myself, but my bolder self in his inexorable fashion made me look at it at last.
"Felicia," he asserted, "is keeping something from you. Felicia is unhappy about something."
It was true, I couldn't deny it, I had ever so many proofs:
(1) I had caught Felicia watching me with melancholy, speculative eyes. When I asked her what was the matter, she replied "Nothing."
(2) She had bursts of feverish unnatural gaiety.
(3) She didn't look well.
(4) Several times she started to tell me something, but decided not to.
(5) She had moments of unwonted affection for me, I thought, as if she were trying to make up to me for something.
Then came, more serious and more conclusive than anything else:
(6) I waked up in the night and was sure I heard Felicia crying softly and cautiously. As I moved, the sobs stopped and Felicia feigned a deep sleep.
So for a week a secret walked between us. We put out our hands toward each other, and its invisible presence kept them from meeting. We felt the constraint as of a third person always with us, and that third person was the Secret. We asked mute, unintelligible questions of each other.
A less subtle mind than my own would have put it crudely that things were strained and uncomfortable at home.
Meantime, if the Secret sneaked around us, silent, malignant, invisible, Monty Saunders, for this was his horrid name, was obvious in every way. It seemed to me that his loud laugh rang perpetually through my house, that Felicia was always coming in or going out with him, that wherever we went he was already waiting for us, and that all the time he was engaged in eating up our happiness, Felicia's and mine, as fast as ever he could.
I believe now that his ubiquitousness was partly due to my excited imagination.
This, as I have said, was the situation for one week after I had acknowledged my Constitutional Inability to Interfere—and on the eighth evening Felicia and I were to go to a large studio dance. I dressed with all the groans common, I believe, to the male animal out of temper. I interspersed my dressing with such remarks as:
"Felicia, I wish you would have them change the laundry man, this waistcoat's beastly."
I spoiled three ties in tying, I was sceptical of my clothes having been pressed, while Felicia proceeded unerringly, even with a certain pleasure, through the intricacies of her own toilet, looking more disturbingly lovely every minute.
Finally she remarked contemplatively:
"How do you suppose you ever got dressed in time for anything before you were married?" which was insulting, for I had only asked where two things were.
She put her head back through the door to say to me with an impertinent grin:
"Your hat, you know, is in its box on the shelf where it always is," and she looked so pretty that an unreasonable desire arose in me to kill Monty Saunders, and I thought how terrible it must be to feel jealous, if one could feel as I did when one was only sore and sorry.
I mention this episode only to throw in greater relief what happened later that evening.
For later that evening a gay little person in fluffy green clothes danced inside the circles of our lives, and before she passed out she had cleared up the mist which encompassed us, unloosed my tongue, and softened Felicia's heart, and all without being so much as aware of our existence.
Felicia and Lydia Massingbyrd and Cecilia Bennett and I were all sitting together on a commodious window-seat watching the dancers. It was significant of the uncomfortable state of our affairs that Felicia and I only recovered our gaiety and our naturalness toward each other when we had some one to serve as buffer between us; I was talking and laughing with the best, while deep down within me my other self gloomed, fairly smacking his lips over his dismalness, "How little do Felicia and Lydia dream of the trouble gnawing our vitals," when out of the midst of our chaff and gossip popped a word that hit me square in the solar plexus.
"Look," said Lydia, "how well the little woman in green dances. She has danced all the evening with the same man." And my little fairy godmother in fluffy green flew past us as gay and young and happy a little person as I had seen in a month of Sundays. She was so buoyant and pretty that she did one good to see, and my foolish inner self had made a romance about her and the good-looking young fellow, her partner of a whole evening, before little Cecilia Bennett had time to say primly:
"That is Mrs. So-and-So."
"And that is not, I take it, Mr. So-and-So?" Lydia remarked.
"Mr. So-and-So is the big, red-haired man talking with the woman in white lace," replied Cecilia, while disapproval fairly oozed from her.
"So there you are, and every one is satisfied," Lydia brushed it aside lightly.
"That is how we look to outsiders!" croaked my other self.
Then little Cecilia Bennett piped up virtuously, "Even if I didn't love my wife any longer, I should look after her! Until I was engaged, I was never allowed to dance a whole evening with one man "
And as we laughed, she went on with some warmth:
"I don't care, I think a man ought to take care of his wife; don't you, Felicia?"
"And a little child shall lead us," sententiously remarked my inner self. But Felicia only said flippantly:
"If I acted badly, I should expect to be beaten."
"Well," said Cecilia, also flippantly, following with disapproving eyes the little person in green, who danced happily by us (it is Cecilia's first season, and such spectacles make her cynical), "Bobby will never beat you, Felicia, however much you need it. Bobby's too kind. He would not even have beaten Lydia!"
"Wouldn't you beat me, no matter what I did?" Felicia appealed to me. Then for one second my heart stopped and then raced on again, for the fantastic explanation of her question that came to me was that this was one of the things she had been trying to ask me; that perhaps she had wanted me to beat her and storm and take on, and that I had failed her.
"No, Felicia," I replied sadly, "I shall never beat you." I thought she looked disappointed. I wondered if I had really found a light in the darkness that had surrounded us.
Meantime the little lady and her companion had sat down, and in that crowded place they were talking as eagerly and unconsciously as if they had been all alone in the Garden of Eden.
"I hate an ostrich," remarked Lydia.
"Her husband doesn't see her, anyway," said Felicia lightly; but there was an edge of bitterness in her voice; and again I wondered if through all our meaningless talk Felicia was signalling to me in a cipher code of her own invention.
"Perhaps he does see just the same, perhaps he cares, and can't find the words to tell her in," I ventured.
"She may," Felicia speculated, "be keeping on and on, just waiting for the word from him. She may not be able to stop all by herself—she may have no way of stopping herself." The corners of her mouth drooped. I felt she had told me all—everything that had saddened her, all the things she had tried to say and couldn't. For few of us can stop all of ourselves, there must be some warning voice to cry "halt" to each of us, and I had been leaving it to Monty Saunders' first impertinence. Now I had to tell her I was unable to do any thing else.
"He may have tried and tried to tell her and found that he couldn't. He may have found he was constitutionally unable to interfere," I told her.
"It seems so easy to me," Felicia murmured, "to say 'I'm jealous'—just two little words like that——"
And the dull other fellow inside me had kept me awake nights inventing long-winded lectures for me, when all I needed to say was two little words. But a groan burst from him, and he made me say it.
"But, O Felicia," my unwilling lips repeated, "those two words are the hardest words in the whole language." For by the light of Felicia's words I had found him out, the hypocrite. He had been jealous all along.
Felicia looked at me with curiosity.
"I suppose they would be hard words to say if one really felt them," she said comprehendingly.
"But I'm not jealous!" I longed to shout, but before we could say anything further, Monty Saunders and a girl danced past us.
"So you brought it off?" said Lydia, looking after the receding pair.
"How did you know?" Felicia demanded.
"He told her," explained little Cecilia Bennett, "when Lydia asked him how you could stand him around so much, he told her you were helping him out with Mildred—telling him what to do and keeping his courage up. He told me, too," pursued Cecilia, with the importance one naturally feels when one is in the thick of the battle of life. "He says it's awful to see a proposal before you, and the only way really is to stumble on it before you know you've made up your mind."
"Poor boy," remarked Lydia. "I should find Mildred formidable myself. Six feet and muscle!"
"Poor boy!" Felicia exclaimed resentfully. "Poor tattle-tale, going around telling everybody when he made me promise not to tell a soul. That's the last time I keep a secret."
That is all the others heard Felicia say, but to me her words meant golden music, and they told me a hundred different things; they healed my wounds, they dispelled the clouds from my soul; but, above all the tumult of my heart, I shouted down to that stupid inner fellow words of self-congratulation, of how well, how wisely, temperately, I had acted throughout, and I thanked Heaven that I was constitutionally unable to make a fool of myself, whatever evil counsellors lodged in the house I call my "self." But, Felicia, a word from you would have put forty hours more of sound sleep between me and old age! And what business, after all, had Felicia "helping out" that silly boy? A married woman has her home and her husband to think about—besides Felicia is too pretty—and that I was right is abundantly shown by the first thing Felicia said to me in the carriage.
"The idiot," she confessed, "told me before he went off to propose to Mildred that he didn't care whether she accepted him or not!" And I only held Felicia's hand very tight.
"I didn't think," Felicia went on in a wan little voice, "that you cared."
There was something she wanted me to answer very much, and not being quite sure what it was, I still kept silence—not wanting to say the wrong thing.
"I'm not proud anyway," she went on bravely. "Couldn't you say them just once—the words that are so hard to say?"
"Oh, I was, Felicia," I cried, "awfully jealous!" And I knew, now that it was all over, that I had never spoken a truer word. Felicia breathed a long sigh.
"I hoped you were," she said.
"Couldn't you see?" I asked.
"Not until you told me," she answered, always in her meek little voice, as meek and submissive as ever it was in the conversations I invented. "I hoped you might be, but you never said anything."
"There you are,." said my other self, as smug and satisfied as if he had done nothing but advise that all along, "there are some things you have to tell women in words to make them happy—it won't do to act them."
And for once I believe he was right.