Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: THE WIFE'S OBEDIENCE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5
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Chapter V.: THE WIFE'S OBEDIENCE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 5 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 5.
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THE WIFE'S OBEDIENCE.
Irksome, beyond all powers of description, was Hester's life from this day forward. It would have been perfectly intolerable but for one circumstance; viz., that not only she loved him for whom she went through daily acts of guilt, and hourly emotions of terror, but that she hoped that he loved her. Watchful and suspicious as she had been made, it appeared to her that Edgar was really touched by the toils and sufferings she underwent for his sake; that with his confidence his affection revived, and that it was really once more a pleasure to him to meet her, and a pain to part from her. This consequence of her participation in his deeds, whether real or imaginary, was little enough of a compensation for the miseries they caused her; but it just sufficed to prevent her sinking,—to sustain her, as she said to herself, till, by some means or other, there should be an end of the long, weary fever fit of her present way of life. The constant presence of one thought, be it what it may, is enough to make a hell of the mind which it haunts. No artificial torture,—not even the perpetual water-drop,—can cause an equal amount of misery;— of misery which there are few to describe, as most who have felt it in an extraordinary degree are soon numbered in the class of those who can no more give an account of any thing. But many have felt something of this misery; something of the tension of brain which irresistibly impresses the idea of suicide; something of the irritability of nerve which drives the sufferer through air and water, into alternate crowds and solitude, in the vain hope of relief; something of the visions of waking darkness, prolonged from the fancies of the day, and instantly renewed with exaggeration, if sleep comes in ‘answer to the victim's prayer. Probably none have so little horror of madness as those who have been brought acquainted with the misery of a besetting thought: for they are probably the only persons who have prayed for madness,—prayed for it, as the easiest transition from their own, without its suffering. whether the apparent unconsciousness of madness is in fact exemption from this suffering, there are no means of knowing; since those who have experienced both states are for ever disqualified for making a comparison of them; but, judging from observation, there are few kinds of the moodiest madness which can compare in anguish with the state of one who is engrossed by a single thought, harassed by a single protracted emotion. The punishment of Sisyphus could be little to it; unless indeed he was condemned to think of nothing but of his stone. He had action to relieve his thought; and varied action, since he had to follow his stone down hill, as well as to push it up. If any part of his punishment reached the acme of suffering, it must have been the unin-termitting idea of the toilsome uselessness of his employment. If he was permitted a respite from this consciousness, his torment must have been less severe than that of the wife of a forger who is condemned to pass a certain number of bad notes every day. The very undertaking implies such a degree of attachment as must keep alive the most harassing fear; and what a responsibility to be connected with such a fear ! It was almost too much for Hester. If any idea but that of forged notes did find its way into her mind, it was of madness. She told her husband every day that she was becoming stupid, that she was growing nervous, that she was losing her memory, that she could not trust her understanding. She warned him that she became slower and slower in reckoning bills and counting change, and that she should soon be unfit to go to shops at all. She dreamed every night that Edgar was arrested through some mistake of hers, and had some alarming story for him every evening, in which he saw or pretended to see nothing at all.
More of Edgar's security was pretended than Hester was aware of. He saw that her state was such as to render it necessary that every thing should go smoothly at home if she was to do any good service abroad. She muttered in her sleep about arrest; she turned pale at every footstep overhead; and if such a sound occurred at dinner-time, did the worst tiling of all,—stole a glance at Philip, to see if he observed it. She even started at the sight of any crumpled piece of thin paper that might be lying about. The symptom which he least liked, however, was the daily growing reluctance to set about what was now her chief daily business. He was anxious that she should go out early to make her purchases, that she might come home and” be at peace “(as he called it) for the rest of the day: but she put off her excursions, sometimes till the afternoon, sometimes till the evening, while she suffered as much during the intervening hours as if her notes were being at that moment handled and glanced at by a shopman. At last, he had recourse to the plan of settling for her at breakfast time where she should go, and how far he could walk with her; and this bribe was more effectual than any entreaty whatever.
Hester would sit waiting breakfast, appearing to read the newspaper, but really watching for the opening of the door, and speculating on what kind of mood her husband's might be expected to be, he having been up and hard at work all night at his detestable employment. On these occasions, however, he made his appearance more fresh and smart even than usual, to avoid suspicion. Having given his wife a lively good morning, and looked up at the sky through his glass, and compared his handsome watch with the no less expensive one he had bought for Hester, he would, with an air of nonchalance, present her with the disgusting roll of notes, which she hastened to put out of sight. Edgar would then sit down to his well-furnished breakfast-table, as if he had the best title in the world to its luxuries, while his wife felt them all to be incumbrances, and was driving away the thought of where she should stow all the further ornaments with which she must go on to fill the house.
“Well, my love,” said Edgar, “what is your district to-day?”
“What a very bright morning it is !” was the reply. “This is just the light for finishing my drawing. If I do not go out till the afternoon, I can carry it home; and it is promised this week.”
“To-morrow will do for that, my dear; and I have to go into Gracechurch-street after breakfast, and you may as well make that your destination for to-day.”
“I have been there so very much lately.”
“Have you? Then it is better avoided. What say you to Cheapside?”
“I have twice had a note refused in that neighbourhood, and I never dare go there again.”
“You are right. It is surely a long time since you went to the Soho Bazaar.”
Hester gasped as she replied that that place was so close, there was no room to breathe,— scarcely any possibility of getting away quickly.
“This is a very fine day for the Park. You would enjoy a turn there after shopping in Ree gent-street.”
“What else can I buy?” asked Hester, listlessly looking round her. “I have no more room for furniture, and I am tired of getting new things for myself.”
“Besides, my dear, you could not wear them. It would not do to make any sudden difference in your appearance out of doors. Indoors it does not signify, as there is nobody to observe you but our own people. Indoors I can have the pleasure of seeing my pretty Hester look as she should do,—graceful and polished as the highest ladies of the land.”
“I wonder it gives you pleasure to see me dressed,” Hester was going to say; but Edgar proceeded with an explanation that one of her difficulties would soon be removed. She might very goon enlarge the range of her purchases, as Carter had been long enough a traveller for the paper-manufactory in Yorkshire, and was about to open a warehouse near, where Edgar and his friends might deposit and dispose of any purchased articles they might not want for themselves. Hester was glad to hear this. She would send thither immediately the portfolios of prints, which she had no pleasure in looking at, —the rows of handsomely bound books which she could not bring herself to open.
Well, was she ready? her husband wanted to know. He must go, and would set her on her way westwards, if she would put on her bonnet. She did so,—the same bonnet she had worn for some time, that there might be nothing for the neighbours to remark upon. While on their way, Hester observed that she did hope the shops would not be empty to-day. She lost all her presence of mind when she was the only customer, and there were shop-people standing about to watch her.
“You are always fancying that people are watching you,” said Edgar. “They are thinking of no such thing, depend upon it. You have only to take care that you do not put it into their heads. You should do as I do——What has that impudent fellow been following us for, these five minutes? Did you happen to see where he came from?”
“No,” whispered the trembling Hester, “but take no notice.” And she walked on with an appearance of more self-command than her husband expected of her. He grew more and more fidgety every moment, and presently crossed the street, his apprehended follower trudging on as before, and evidently bestowing no thought on those at whose heels he had accidentally been walking for a minute or two.
“He is not thinking of us,” observed Edgar. “That is well.”
An idea crossed Hester, which brightened her face surprisingly. “I have just remembered,” said she, “I really want something You say you like rosewood door-handles for the drawing-room better than brass, and it is time we were having the one or the other, and here are some of rosewood in this window. We can get rid of a note here. Come in and help me to choose a pair.”
Edgar was, however, in a prodigious hurry. He was off in a moment. His wife looked after him from the threshold with an unutterable pang. There was no contempt in it. She struggled yet against the belief of his total selfishness. She trusted, she expected to hear at dinner that he really could not spare any more time to her this morning. The next thought was that it really did not signify, as her business in the shop went off easily enough. She had never seen a note more ignorantly handled, more carelessly thrust into the till.
The same impunity attended her everywhere this day. She could have stood firmly by the counters if the seats had all been occupied, and she was not obliged to clasp her hands together in her lap lest their trembling should be observed. In only one instance did any particular attention seem to be paid to a note. One shopman handed it to another, who hastily pronounced by a knowing nod that it was very good; so that Hester received abundance of thanks with her change, and was bowed out of the shop like any one of the enviable purchasers who left it innocent.
It was no new idea to Hester to wish that she might meet with some accident,—something that would prevent her going out for several days, or weeks, or—for ever. She had often asked whether she might not give assistance upstairs, instead of passing notes: but Edgar always put her off with speeches about staining her pretty fingers with printing ink, or hurting them with the rollers: and sometimes he gave hints that there were people at work there with whom it would be no pleasure to her to associate. She was too honest to think of making herself ill for the sake of evading her task; but she could not be sorry this day when a sudden rain came on while she was in the Park, and wetted her to the skin. She had great hopes of catching a severe cold, and was certainly guilty of not doing her utmost to prevent it, either by keeping herself in exercise during the rain, or using proper precautions when she reached home.
When her husband recurred to their morning's conversation, reminding her that her task would become comparatively easy during the great London season, when the shops would be crowded with customers; when the dreary thought arose how many weeks and months must pass before even this alleviation could be hoped for, it was a pleasure to feel so ill that one week at least would be subtracted from the long series,— seven mornings when she would not have to stimulate her courage up to the point of enterprise, seven nights when she might close her eyes without dreading the waking.
Edgar was vexed almost beyond his patience when he found his wife really ill the next morning. He tried at first to persuade her that air would do her good, and that the amusement of shopping was far better than moping at home. When this would not do, the next thing was to desire her to have the attendance of a physician immediately, as expense was no object, and her health was of inexpressible importance to him. Hester begged to decline the physician, not choosing to fee him with bad notes, and loathing the idea of following up her occupation within her own doors, during her escape from its exercise without. She trembled too at the idea of admitting any stranger into the house. Her husband thought it would be an advantage, provided every thing; suspicious was kept out of sight. The matter was compromised by the apothecary being sent for,—a simple young man who was much affected by Mr. Morrison's extreme anxiety for his wife's recovery, and thereby induced to order her out of doors full three days sooner than he would have done in an ordinary case.
“A lovely day, as you say,” observed Edgar. “Mild and sunny, and just fit for an invalid. Would not you recommend Mrs. Morrison to recreate a little in the open air? Consider how long it is she saw any faces but ours.”
“I do not want to see any new faces,” said Hester. “I cannot bear them yet. All I want is to be alone.”
“Aye, aye; a little of the ennui and melancholy of illness, you see, Mr. Cotton.”
Mr. Cotton agreed that a little gentle change would be salutary to the nerves, though, as a distressing languor of the frame, and slight frequency of the pulse remained, it would be well not to urge exertion too far.
“I am sure” said Hester, “that if I went out to-day, I should fall before I could get back from the end of the street.”
“But you could not fall if you had a strong arm to hold you up; and I do not mean that you should go alone; of course I would go with you, or Philip.”
Hester gave him a look which reminded him of her determination not to implicate her brother in any of her shopping expeditions.
“I am going to have a friend to dine with me,” observed Edgar, to Mr. Cotton;” and it would be just the thing for her to saunter to the fruiterer's in the next street, and send in a little dessert, refreshing herself with a bunch of grapes there, you know. I should see a little bloom on her cheeks again when she came home, and then I should begin to think she was going to be herself again. Upon my soul, I don't know how to bear my life while she is shut up in this way.”
“I am glad of it,” thought Hester; “for now you know something of what my life is when I am not shut up. I suppose you have had enough of shopping.”
The apothecary was delighted with the little plan suggested by conjugal solicitude. He immediately prescribed a bunch of grapes, to be eaten at the fruiterer's, and Hester dared not refuse acquiescence. As she expected, her husband went no farther than the door with her; and the boy was presently in waiting to take care of her home.
Just before dinner, Edgar entered, and sat down by his wife, to explain to her, with a smile, that though he had spoken of a friend coming to dinner, there were really two, and that one of them was to be her visiter. Could she guess who it was? Poor Hester named one Haleham friend after another, till her vexed husband stopped her with the news that it was nobody whom she had yet visited, he believed, but one whom she would think it an honour to entertain. There was no occasion in the world for ceremony, however; and this was the reason why he had not told her till now——”
“Well, but who is it?” asked Hester, impatiently.
“Bless me! Hester, how pettish you have grown since you have been ill. One won't be able to speak to you soon. It is Mrs. Cavendish that is coming; but you know you must call her Mrs. Carter. I am glad I have found a friend for you at last, my love. It has been quite an uneasiness to me that you have been moped as you have been of late,—that you have depended so entirely on me——”
“Yes, Edgar, I have depended entirely on you.”
“There now, do not grow so nervous the moment one mentions a thing! Never mind about dressing, or about entertaining these people. They know you have been ill, and Mrs. Carter comes to entertain you.”
Mrs. Carter came accordingly, with an air of condescending kindness, praised everything she saw, vowed the house and furniture delightful, and protested that the little party at dinner was just the friendly, intellectual sort of thing she enjoyed above all things, when she could in conscience bring herself to desert her little tribe. She hoped Hester liked London; though she could not be expected to do so to an equal degree with anxious mothers who felt what a deprivation it was to their dear little creatures to be shut up in the narrow circle of a country-town. For her part, she and Mr. Carter often said what a happiness it was,—(though it was a trial at the time,) that they were obliged to leave Haleham when they did. If the Carter estate had happened to fail in to them then, it would (although certainly saving them from some painful circumstances) have been au injury to the children, by keeping them out of the way of the advantages which London alone can afford,
“How long had Mr. Cavendish changed his name?” Hester asked.
“O, my dear, these three years. His dear, pood, old great-uncle had lasted wonderfully; but he died at length just three years ago; after all, just in time to make us more comfortable than I assure yon we were after the misfortunes that were brought upon us by the stoppage of that unfortunate D—— bank. Aye, you wonder, I dare say, at our coming to live in such a neighbourhood as this, after all, but—-—”
“I know,” said Hester, “Mr. Carter is about to open a warehouse.”
“Your lord and master is as communicative and confidential as mine, I see,”' observed Mrs. Cavendish. “Well, I think we are well off in our husbands, as I tell my dear little tribe about mine on all occasions. And you should have seen how fond they grew of Mr. Morrison, the first day he came among them, and smiled upon them all, so sweetly ! I assure you they have asked many times since when he would come again. And you must come too. I promised my little folks that you would. When your poor dear head is better, you must come and spend a long day with me. It is the nicest thing in the world, our living so near, our husbands being connected as they are. If any little panic rises at any time, here we are to comfort one another. And I assure you I am dreadfully nervous, ever since that unfortunate affair at Haleham. Do you know, I absolutely forget about my husband having let his whiskers grow; and I have screamed three times this week when he has come in between light and dark, taking him for some stranger. I have a horror of strangers now; ever since——”
She could not help perceiving Hester's countenance of misery while she was saying this; so she interrupted herself.
“There now ! I have been barbarous enough to make your head ache with my nonsense. Now positively I will hold my tongue; but it is such a luxury to get an hour with an intimate friend, away from my little tribe !”
Edgar disappeared with his guests, at the end of an evening which Hester thought never would come to a close. On his return, some hours after, he found her, not asleep, nor even in bed, but leaning over the arm of the sofa, from which hung the locket farmer Williams had given her on the day preceding her marriage,—and weeping bitterly. She tried to speak first, but could not for sobs.
“Why, my poor little woman,” said Edgar, after a glance round which quieted his fear that intruders had been there—“my poor little woman ! we have quite tired you out to-day; but you should have gone to bed; you should——”
“I could not go,” said Hester. “I would not till I had spoken to you, Edgar. I have something that I must say to you.”
“Well, well, love; in the morning. It is very late now; and, look ye, the last candle is just burnt out. What could make you wait for me, child, when you know the people overhead were on the watch to let me in? I must make haste and help them. It is a busy night.”
“O, no, no. You must stay and hear me,” cried Hester, struggling for speech. “I must say it now. Indeed I must.”
“Aye; you are going to say what a much better husband that son of Williams's would have made. I know what that locket means, very well. If he had been alive, I should tell you that you ought to have known your own mind when you married me. Since he's dead, there is no more to be said, except that I do wish you would chirp up a little, and not let everybody see that there is something the matter. Do you know, I will not answer for the consequences?”
“Nor I, I am sure,” murmured Hester. “I had better go, Edgar; and that is what I was going to say. I have been joining in your plots all this time for your sake. I could not have borne it so long for anybody else. I could go on still, I think, it' it was with you alone; but I never promised to have anything to do with— with—-—”
“With Mrs. Cavendish, from whom you thought it an honour to have a nod at Haleham?”
“She was a respectable person then; or, at least, I supposed she was. And now she comes pretending to be so intimate, and talking about the whole connexion, as if she took for granted that I saw no more harm in it than she does. Edgar, this is too much.”
“She is too wise a woman to suit you, you little goose. She sees clearly what I thought I made you understand ages ago;—that we are doing the greatest service to the country by sending out money when it is so much wanted. How often have I told you this, I wonder ?”
Very often indeed, Hester allowed: but she did not yet look convinced.
“Well, what is it you wish to do?” inquired Edgar. “Would you have me go and tell Mrs. Carter that you decline the honour of her acquaintance?”
“I had rather you would let me go home.”
“And tell farmer Williams all about the arrangements of our second floor, the first time he takes you on his knee, and whispers to you about the locket. No, madam, it is rather too late for that.”
“I wish you would not call me ‘madam.’ I cannot bear it. I am sure I have done all you bade me for a long time, and never——and never——”
“Very true, my little wife. It is too bad to treat you like other wives, when you behave so differently from many that I see. I want you too much, and value you too much by far to part with you; and since you do not like Mrs. Carter, I am sorry that I brought her; but I thought it would be a pleasant surprise to you, that was all. Now, give me a kiss, and don't be angry with yourself for being weak-spirited after your illness, and you will sleep it all off, depend upon it.”
Hester felt that there was but one sleep that would cure her sorrows; but she did not say exactly this. She threw her arm round Edgar's neck, wailing forth rather than speaking her complaint, that she could not go on with her detestable employment of passing notes. She begged, she implored that this dreadful responsibility might be taken from her, or she would not answer for what she might do. She might throw herself into the river, some day; or go in a fit of desperation to the police, to give information.
Edgar coolly dared her to do the one or the other; and then, protesting that he loved her very much, and wished to be a kind husband, gave her notice that the continuance of his ten derness and confidence depended wholly on her doing her duty, as he laid it down for her. Hester was weak,—as she had been a thousand times before. She now deprecated as the crowning evil of all, the withdrawal of her husband's confidence. She promised every thing, under the influence of this threat; allowed herself to be carried to her room; watched for the kiss which she now dreaded would not be given; returned it eagerly; and, as she let her throbbing head sink helplessly on her pillow, found something like comfort in remembering that all must come to an end some time or other.