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Another Wife by Sherwood Anderson

 

He thought himself compelled to say something special to her--knowing her--loving her--wanting her. What he thought was that perhaps she wanted him too, or she wouldn't have spent so much time with him. He wasn't exactly modest.

After all, he was modest enough. He was quite sure several men must have loved her and thought it not unlikely she had experimented with at least a few of them. It was all imagined. Seeing her about had started his mind--his thoughts--racing. "Modern women, of her class, used to luxuries, sensitive, are not going to miss anything, even though they don't take the final plunge into matrimony as I did when I was younger," he thought. The notion of sin had, for him, more or less been taken out of that sort of thing. "What you try to do, if you are a modern woman with any class to you, is to try to use your head," he thought.

He was forty-seven and she ten years younger. His wife had been dead two years.

For the last month she had been in the habit of coming down from her mother's country house to his cabin two or three evenings a week. She might have invited him up the hill to the house--would have invited him oftener--but that she preferred having him, his society, in his own cabin. The family, her family, had simply left the whole matter to her, let her manage it. She lived in her mother's country house, with the mother and two younger sisters--both unmarried. They were delightful people to be with. It was the first summer he had been up in that country and he had met them after he took the cabin. He ate at a hotel nearly a half mile away. Dinner was served early. By getting right back he could be sure of being at home if she decided to stroll down his way.

Being with her, at her mother's house with the others, was fun, of course, but some one was always dropping in. He thought the sisters liked to tease her and him by arranging things that would tie them down.

It was all pure fancy, just a notion. Why should they be concerned about him?

What a whirlpool of notions were stirred up in him that Summer by the woman! He thought about her all the time, having really nothing else to do. Well, he had come to the country to rest. His one son was at a Summer school.

"It's like this--here I am, practically alone. What am I letting myself in for? If she, if any of the women of that family, were of the marrying sort, she would have made a marriage with a much more likely man long ago." Her younger sisters were so considerate in their attitude toward her. There was something tender, respectful, teasing, too, about the way they acted when he and she were together.

Little thoughts kept running through his head. He had come to the country because something inside him had let down. It might have been his forty-seven years. A man like himself, who had begun life as a poor boy, worked himself up in his profession, who had become a physician of some note--well, a man dreams his dreams, he wants a lot.

At forty-seven he is likely, at any moment, to run into a slump.

You won't get half, a third of what you wanted, in your work, in life. What's the use going on? These older men who keep on striving like young men, what about them? They are a little childlike, immature, really.

A great man might go on like that, to the bitter end, to the brink of the grave, but who, having any sense, any head, wants to be a great man? What is called a great man may be just an illusion in people's minds. Who wants to be an illusion?

Thoughts like that, driving him out of the city--to rest. God knows it would have been a mistake if she hadn't been there. Before he met her and before she got into the unwomanly habit of coming to see him in his own cabin during the long Summer evenings, the country, the quiet of the country, was dreadful.

"It may be she only comes down here to me because she is bored. A woman like that, who has known many men, brilliant men, who has been loved by men of note. Still, why does she come? I'm not so gay. It's sure she doesn't think me witty or brilliant."

 

She was thirty-seven, a bit inclined to extremes in dress, plump, to say the least. Life didn't seem to have quieted her much.

When she came down to his cabin, at the edge of the stream facing the country road, she dropped onto a couch by the door and lit a cigarette. She had lovely ankles. Really, they were beautiful ankles.

The door was open and he sat by a chair near a table. He burned an oil-lamp. The cabin door was left open. Country people went past.

"The trouble with all this silly business about resting is that a man thinks too much. A physician in practice--people coming in, other people's troubles--hasn't time."

Women had come to him a good deal--married and unmarried women. One woman--she was married--wrote him a long letter after he had been treating her for three years. She had gone with her husband to California. "Now that I am away from you, will not see you again, I tell you frankly I love you."

What an idea!

"You have been patient with me for these three years, have let me talk to you. I have told you all the intimate things of my life. You have been always a little aloof and wise."

What nonsense! How could he have stopped the woman's talking intimately? There was more of that sort of thing in the letter. The doctor did not feel he had been specially wise with the woman patient. He had really been afraid of her. What she had thought was aloofness was really fright.

Still, he had kept the letter--for a time. He destroyed it finally because he did not want it to fall accidentally into his wife's hands.

A man likes to feel he has been of some account to some one.

The doctor, say, in the cabin, the new woman near him. She was smoking a cigarette. It was Saturday evening. People--men, women and children--were going along the country road toward a mountain town. Presently the country women and children would be coming back without the men. On Saturday evenings nearly all the mountain-men got drunk.

You come from the city and, because the hills are green, the water in mountain streams clear, you think the people of the hills must be at the bottom clear and sweet.

Now the country people in the road were turning to stare into the cabin at the woman and the doctor. On a previous Saturday evening, after midnight, the doctor had been awakened by a noisy drunken conversation carried on in the road. It had made him tremble with wrath. He had wanted to rush out into the road and fight the drunken country men, but a man of forty-seven . . . The men in the road were sturdy young fellows.

One of the men was telling the others in a loud voice that the woman now on the couch near the doctor--that she was really a loose city woman. He had used a very distasteful word and had sworn to the others that, before the Summer was over, he intended having her himself.

It was just crude drunken talk. The fellow had laughed when he said it, and the others had laughed. It was a drunken man trying to be funny.

 

If the woman with the doctor had known--if he told her? She would only have smiled.

How many thoughts about her in the doctor's head! He felt sure she had never cared much what others thought. They had been sitting like that, she smoking her after-dinner cigarette, he thinking, but a few minutes. In her presence, thoughts came quickly, dancing through his head. He wasn't used to such a multitude of thoughts. When he was in town--in practice--there were plenty of things to think of other than women, being in love with some woman.

With his wife it had never been like that. She had never excited him, except at first physically. After that he had just accepted her. "There are many women. She is my woman. She is rather nice, does her share of the job"--that sort of an attitude.

When she had died it had left a gaping hole in his life.

"That may be what is the matter with me."

 

"This other woman is a different sort surely. The way she dresses; her ease with people. Such people, having money always, from the first, a secure position in life--they just go along, quite sure of themselves, never afraid."

His early poverty had, the doctor thought, taught him a good many things he was glad to know. It had taught him other things not so good to know. Both he and his wife had always been a little afraid of people--of what people might think--of his standing in his profession. He had married a woman who also came from a poor family. She was a nurse before she married him. The woman now in the room with him got up from the couch and threw the end of her cigarette into the fireplace. "Let's walk," she said.

When they got out into the road and had turned away from the town and her mother's house, standing on a hill between his cabin and town, another person on the road behind might have thought him the distinguished one. She was a bit too plump--not tall enough--while he had a tall, rather slender figure and walked with a free, easy carriage. He carried his hat in his hand. His thick graying hairs added to his air of distinction.

The road grew more uneven and they walked close to each other. She was trying to tell him something. There had been something he had determined to tell her--on this very evening. What was it?

Something of what the woman in California had tried to tell him in that foolish letter--not doing very well at it--something to the effect that she--this new woman--met while he was off guard, resting--was aloof from himself--unattainable--but that he found himself in love with her.

If she found, by any odd chance, that she wanted him, then he would try to tell her.

After all, it was foolish. More thoughts in the doctor's head. "I can't be very ardent. This being in the country--resting--away from my practice--is all foolishness. My practice is in the hands of another man. There are cases a new man can't understand.

"My wife who died--she didn't expect much. She had been a nurse, was brought up in a poor family, had always had to work, while this new woman . . ."

There had been some kind of nonsense the doctor had thought he might try to put into words. Then he would get back to town, back to his work. "I'd much better light out now, saying nothing."

 

She was telling him something about herself. It was about a man she had known and loved, perhaps.

Where had he got the notion she had had several lovers? He had merely thought--well, that sort of woman--always plenty of money--being always with clever people.

When she was younger she had thought for a time she would be a painter, had studied in New York and Paris.

She was telling him about an Englishman--a novelist.

The devil--how had she known his thoughts?

She was scolding him. What had he said?

She was talking about such people as himself, simple, straight, good people, she called them, people who go ahead in life, doing their work, not asking much.

She, then, had illusions as he had.

"Such people as you get such ideas in your heads--silly notions."

Now she was talking about herself again.

"I tried to be a painter. I had such ideas about the so-called big men in the arts. You, being a doctor, without a great reputation--I have no doubt you have all sorts of ideas about so-called great doctors, great surgeons."

Now she was telling what happened to her. There had been an English novelist she had met in Paris. He had an established reputation. When he seemed attracted to her she had been much excited.

The novelist had written a love story and she had read it. It had just a certain tone. She had always thought that above everything in life she wanted a love affair in just that tone. She had tried it with the writer of the story and it had turned out nothing of the sort.

It was growing dark in the road. Laurels and elders grew on a hillside. In the half-darkness he could see faintly the little hurt shrug of her shoulders.

Had all the lovers he had imagined for her, the brilliant, witty men of the great world, been like that? He felt suddenly as he had felt when the drunken country men talked in the road. He wanted to hit someone with his fist, in particular he wanted to hit a novelist--preferably an English novelist--or a painter or musician.

He had never known any such people. There weren't any about. He smiled at himself, thinking: "When that country man talked I sat still and let him." His practice had been with well-to-do merchants, lawyers, manufacturers, their wives and families.

Now his body was trembling. They had come to a small bridge over a stream, and suddenly, without premeditation, he put his arm about her.

There had been something he had planned to tell her. What was it? It was something about himself. "I am no longer young. What I could have to offer you would not be much. I cannot offer it to such a one as yourself, to one who has known great people, been loved by witty, brilliant men."

There had no doubt been something of the sort he had foolishly thought of saying. Now she was in his arms in the darkness on the bridge. The air was heavy with Summer perfumes. She was a little heavy--a real armful. Evidently she liked having him hold her thus. He had thought, really, she might like him but have at the same time a kind of contempt for him.

Now he had kissed her. She liked that too. She moved closer and returned the kiss. He leaned over the bridge. It was a good thing there was a support of some sort. She was sturdily built. His first wife, after thirty, had been fairly plump, but this new woman weighed more.

 

And now they were again walking in the road. It was the most amazing thing. There was something quite taken for granted. It was that he wanted her to marry him.

Did he? They walked along the road toward his cabin and there was in him the half-foolish, half-joyful mood a boy feels walking in the darkness the first time, alone with a girl.

A quick rush of memories, evenings as a boy and as a young man remembered.

Does a man ever get too old for that? A man like himself, a physician, should know more about things. He was smiling at himself in the darkness--feeling foolish, feeling frightened, glad. Nothing definite had been said.

It was better at the cabin. How nice it had been of her to have no foolish, conventional fears about coming to see him! She was a nice person. Sitting alone with her in the darkness of the cabin he realized that they were at any rate both mature--grown up enough to know what they were doing.

Did they?

When they had returned to the cabin it was quite dark and he lighted an oil-lamp. It all got very definite very rapidly. She had another cigarette and sat as before, looking at him. Her eyes were gray. They were gray, wise eyes.

She was realizing perfectly his discomfiture. The eyes were smiling--being old eyes. The eyes were saying: "A man is a man and a woman is a woman. You can never tell how or when it will happen. You are a man and, although you think yourself a practical, unimaginative man, you are a good deal of a boy. There is a way in which any woman is older than any man and that is the reason I know."

Never mind what her eyes were saying. The doctor was plainly fussed. There had been a kind of speech he had intended making. It may have been he had known, from the first, that he was caught.

"O Lord, I won't get it in now."

He tried, haltingly, to say something about the life of a physician's wife. That he had assumed she might marry him, without asking her directly, seemed a bit rash. He was assuming it without intending anything of the sort. Everything was muddled.

The life of a physician's wife--a man like himself--in general practice--wasn't such a pleasant one. When he had started out as a physician he had really thought, some time, he might get into a great position, be some kind of a specialist.

But now--

Her eyes kept on smiling. If he was muddled she evidently wasn't. "There is something definite and solid about some women. They seem to know just what they want," he thought.

She wanted him.

What she said wasn't much. "Don't be so foolish. I've waited a long time for just you."

That was all. It was final, absolute--terribly disconcerting too. He went and kissed her, awkwardly. Now she had the air that had from the first disconcerted him, the air of worldliness. It might not be anything but her way of smoking a cigarette--an undoubtedly good, although rather bold, taste in clothes.

His other wife never seemed to think about clothes. She hadn't the knack.

 

Well, he had managed again to get her out of his cabin. It might be she had managed. His first wife had been a nurse before he married her. It might be that women who have been nurses should not marry physicians. They have too much respect for physicians, are taught to have too much respect. This one, he was quite sure, would never have too much respect.

 

It was all, when the doctor let it sink in, rather nice. He had taken the great leap and seemed suddenly to feel solid ground under his feet. How easy it had been!

They were walking along the road toward her mother's house. It was dark and he could not see her eyes.

He was thinking--

"Four women in her family. A new woman to be the mother of my son." Her mother was old and quiet and had sharp gray eyes. One of the younger sisters was a bit boyish. The other one--she was the handsome one of the family--sang Negro songs.

They had plenty of money. When it came to that his own income was quite adequate.

It would be nice, being a kind of older brother to the sisters, a son to her mother. O Lord!

They got to the gate before her mother's house and she let him kiss her again. Her lips were warm, her breath fragrant. He stood, still embarrassed, while she went up a path to the door. There was a light on the porch.

There was no doubt she was plump, solidly built. What absurd notions he had had!

Well, it was time to go on back to his cabin. He felt foolishly young, silly, afraid, glad.

"O Lord--I've got me a wife, another wife, a new one," he said to himself as he went along the road in the darkness. How glad and foolish and frightened he still felt! Would he get over it after a time?

 
 
 

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