Aribaud's Two Wives
ARIBAUD'S TWO WIVES
ILLUSTRATIONS BY WILLIAM BERGER
IN the Bois, the day before yesterday, I met Madame Aribaud. By Madame "Aribaud" I mean the wife of a very popular dramatist, and I call them "Aribaud" because it wouldn't do to mention their true name. I like meeting Madame Aribaud when I take a walk in Paris. It refreshes me—not only because she isn't preceded by a gust of scent, and doesn't daub her mouth clown red, like other Parisiennes, but because she is so cheerful. She diffuses cheerfulness. She sat beaming at her little son while he scattered crumbs for the birds, and she informed me that he was in the latest fashion, having a nurse from England to give him the real English pronunciation, though as yet he was scarcely a linguist. And the nurse said: "I tell madam we must be pietient with 'im; we can't expect 'im to talk like I do hall at once!"
Also the lady informed me that they had finished arranging their new house, and that on the morrow I must go there to déjeuner. Although they are French, the Aribauds are as hospitable a couple as you will find anywhere in the world.
So I went; and they showed me the "English nursery," and an American contrivance that she had presented to her husband for his dressing-room—"Comme ils sont pratiques, les Américains!"—and an antique or two that she had picked up for his study; and, not least, she showed us both some croquettes de pommes that looked ethereal, and—I have never tasted croquettes de pommes like Madame Aribaud's! I always declare that she is the most domesticated of pretty women, and that her husband is the most pampered of good fellows. Playgoers who know him merely by his comedies, in which married people get on so badly together up to the fourth act, might be surprised to see inside his villa.
Only when he and I were lounging in the study afterwards—my hostess was in the little garden, pretending to be a horse—I said to him, as the boy's shouts came up to us through the open window: "Isn't the child disturbing out there when you're busy?"
My friend nodded. "Sometimes," he acknowledged, "he disturbs me. What would you have? He must play, and the 'garden' is too diminutive for him to go far away in it. It makes me think of what Dumas père said when he paid a visit to his son's chalet in the suburbs: 'Open your dining-room window and give your garden some air!' Once or twice I have wondered whether I should work in a front room instead; but, to tell you the truth, I always come to the conclusion that I like the noise. A dramatist may suffer from worse drawbacks than a child's laughter, believe me!" He blew smoke thoughtfully, and added: "My first wife was childless."
Now, though I knew Maurice Aribaud very well indeed, I had never heard that this was his second marriage, and I suppose I stared.
"Yes," he said again, "my first wife was childless." And then, with many pauses, he told me a lot that I had not suspected about his life, and, though I can't pretend to remember his precise words, or the exact order in which details were forthcoming, I am going to quote him as well as I can.
"I had not two louis to knock together when I met her, and I wasn't so very young. I had been writing for the theater for years, and had begun to despair of ever seeing anything produced. To complete my misery, I had no companionship, if one excepts books—no friend who wrote, or aspired to write, no acquaintance who did not draw his screw from a billet as humdrum as my own. I was a clerk in the Magasins du Louvre, and though, of course, the other men in the office talked about plays,—in France everybody is interested in plays; in England, I hear, you are interested only in the players!—none of them was so congenial that I was tempted to announce my ambitions to him. I used to think how exciting it must be to know authors and artists, even though they were obscure and out-at-elbows. Every night, as I walked home and passed the windows of a bohemian café, I used to look at it wistfully. I envied the fiercest disappointments of the habitués inside; for they were at least professionals of sorts—they moved in a different planet from myself. Once in a blue moon I found the resolution to enter, pushing the door open timidly, like a provincial venturing into Paillard's. I suppose I had a vague hope that something might happen, something that would yield confidences, perhaps a comrade for life. But I sat in the place embarrassed, with the air of an intruder, and came out feeling even lonelier than when I went in.
"One windy, wet day I was at the mon-de-piété to redeem my watch. I had pawned it two or three weeks before because I had seen a second-hand copy of a book that I wanted very much and could not afford at the moment—I had feared that if I waited it might be gone. I will not inquire whether you have ever pawned anything in Paris yourself, but, if you have not, you may not know the formalities of the dégagement? You have pawned things only in London—ah!
"Well, after you have paid the principal and the interest, you are given a numbered ticket, and then you go into a room and take your choice among uncomfortable benches, and wait your turn. It is something like cashing a check at the head office of the Crédit Lyonnais, only at the mont-de-piété the people on the benches sit waiting for the most disparate articles. On one side of you there may be a fashionably dressed woman who rises to receive a jewel-case—and on the other some piteous creature who clutches at a bundle. The goods and chattels descend in consignments, and when a consignment has been distributed the interval before the next arrives threatens to be endless. The officials converse in undertones, and you have nothing livelier to do than to wonder how hard up your neighbor may be, and listen to the rain.
"THat day, however, I did not chafe at the delay. there was a young girl there whose face caught and held my attention almost immediately. Not only was her prettiness remarkable—her expression was astonishing. She looked happy. Yes, in the gaunt room, among the damp, dismal crowd, relieving the tedium by a heavy sigh or an occasional shuffling of their shoes, this fair-haired, neat, innocent little girl looked happy. Smiles hovered about her lips, and her eyes sparkled with contentment. I tried to conjecture the reason for her delight, what treasured possession she was about to regain. A trinket? No, something indefinable in her bearing forbade me to think it was a trinket. My imagination ranged over a dozen possible pledges without finding one to harmonize with her. Ridiculous as it sounds, I could picture nothing so appropriate for her to recover as a canary that should flutter singing from the counter to her finger. Every time another number was cried, curiosity made me hope that her turn had come. The latest load that had been delivered was almost exhausted. Only three packages remained. Another cry, and she got up at last! The package was a bulky one. I craned my neck. It was a typewriter.
"Quite five minutes more lagged by before I got my watch, and when I crossed the courtyard I had no expectation of seeing her again; but no sooner had I passed through the gate than I discovered her in trouble. She had been trying to carry the typewriter and an open umbrella, and now the umbrella had blown inside out, and she had put the typewriter on the pavement.
"In such a situation it was not difficult for me to speak.
"I picked the thing up for her. She thanked me, and made another ineffectual attempt to depart. I offered my help. She demurred. I insisted. We made for her tram together—and tram after tram was full. It had been raining for several hours, and Paris was a lake of mud. In the end I trudged beside her through the splashing streets, carrying her typewriter all the way to the step of her lodging. So began my courtship.
"She was as solitary as I. Her father's death had left her quite alone. He had been old, and very poor. Blind, too. But his work had been done up to the last, my little sweetheart guiding him to the houses—he had earned a living as a piano-tuner. In Sèvres she had an aunt, his sister-in-law; but, though the woman boasted a respectable business and was fairly well-to-do, she had come forward with nothing more substantial than advice, and the orphan had had only her typewriter to keep the wolf from the door. Her struggles in Paris with a typewriter! She had been forced to pawn it every time she lost a situation; but, every time she saved enough to recapture it, she felt prosperous again. Her own machine meant 'luxuries.' With her own machine she could afford a plant to put in her attic window, and a rosebud for her breast.
"She loved flowers, and she wore them often, tucked in her bodice. After the Magasins du Louvre closed, the clerk used to hurry off to meet the little typist on her way home. Yet she told me once that her love for them had come very late; for years the sight of all flowers had saddened her. She had been born on that melancholy boulevard that leads to the cemetery of Père Lachaise, that quarter of it where one sees exposed for sale nothing but floral tokens for the mourners—nothing to right and left but mountains of artificial wreaths and dreary chrysanthemums in stiff white paper cones. As a child she had thought that flowers were grown only for graves. I recall the courtship in all seasons, and always in the streets—when the trees were brown and the light faded while we walked, and when the trees had whitened and the lamps were shining, and when the trees grew green and we walked in sunlight. It was in the streets that we fell in love—in the streets that I asked her if she would marry me.
"We were on the Quai des Orfévres one Sunday afternoon in summer. I had meant to wait till we were in the Gardens of the Tuileries; but we had stopped to look at the river, and—I can see it all now: the barge folk's washing hanging out to bleach, and a woman knitting among the geraniums on a deck! There was a little fishing-tackle shop, I remember, called 'Au Bon Pêcheur,' and a poodle and a Persian cat were basking together on the door-step. Our hands just touched because of the people passing, and then we went on to the Tuileries, and talked. And before we seemed to have said much, night had fallen; a concert had begun, and away in the distance some one was playing a violin. 'Why,' I exclaimed, 'I've given you no dinner!' She laughed. She hadn't been hungry, either. No millionaires have ever dined more merrily at Armenonville than we, for a hundred sous, at a little table on the sidewalk!
"She said, 'When I am your wife, I shall typewrite all your plays for you, Maurice—perhaps that will bring you luck!' And by and by, when we came to the Magasins du Louvre, she pointed to the Comédie Française. 'You haven't to travel far to reach it, dearest,' she smiled; 'we'll cross the road together!'
"HOW sweet she looked in the wedding-frock that she had stitched! How proud I was of her! Our ménage was two rooms on the left bank and in the evening, in our tiny salon on the sixth floor, her devoted hands clattered away my manuscript on her machine till I kissed and held them prisoners. Didn't she work hard enough all day for strangers, poor child? 'You are jealous,'she would say gaily, 'because I write your dialogue so much faster than you!' And often I wished that I could create a scene as rapidly as she typewrote it! But we had our holiday evenings, also, when we built castles in the air, and chose the furniture for them. I had brought home from the Magasins one of the diaries that they issue annually. It contained plans of the theaters,—it always does,—and, perched on my knee, she pictured a play of mine at each of them in turn, and the house rocking with applause. And then we penciled the private box we'd have, and drove, in fancy and our automobile, to sit there grandly on the hundredth night.
"We spent many hours in selecting the presents that I would have made to her if I could. One of the things she wanted was, of course, a theater-bag—'the prettiest that you can pretend!' And I pretended a beauty for her in rose brocade—and inside I put the daintiest enameled opera-glasses that the Rue de la Paix could show, and a fan of Brussels point, and a Brussels point handkerchief, and a quaint gold bonbonnière with sugared violets in it. I remember she threw her arms round my neck as ecstatically as if the things were really there! We were, at the time, eating stale bread, with a stick of chocolate apiece, for supper."
The dramatist sat silent, his eyes grown wide. I think that for a moment he had forgotten his new, desirable house and the antiques on the mantelpiece, that he was back in a girl's arms in the room on a sixth floor. Under the window, his wife had ceased to play at horses, and was swinging their son, instead. The child's delight was boisterous. She called up to us now:
"Are we a nuisance, messieurs? Shall we go to the nursery?"
"No, no," cried Aribaud, starting, "not at all. We are doing nothing. Continue, mon ange, continue!"
"WHAT a heaven opened," he went on, turning to me "when, I had a piece taken at last! As long as I live I shall think of the morning that letter came, our reading it together, half dressed, and crying with joy—she was making the coffee for breakfast. And yet, even when the contract was signed, it sometimes seemed incredible. I used to dream that it had happened, and dream that I was dreaming—that I was to wake and find it wasn't true. And then, the eternity of delay, the postponements, one after another. And when we felt worn out with waiting, the night that we jolted to the show in an omnibus, and sat breathless in the fauteuils de balcon! I remember how she clung to me, sobbing and comforting, when we got home, and knew that the piece had failed.
"I had a short run the next autumn with 'Fin de Mois'; but my first hit, of course, was 'Les Huit Jours de Léonie.' When that was produced, the fees came tumbling in.
"HOW dazed we were at the beginning! And how important we felt to be taking a flat and going to a bureau de placement to engage a servant! We were like children playing with a doll's house! The change was marvelous, and when I received an invitation from somebody or other who had been unapproachable only a year ago, what exultance to see me go! The invitations to the author, you understand, did not always include his wife, and, unfortunately, those that ignored her were often those that it would have been unwise for me to decline. I found that rather pathetic; we had hoped together for so long, and now that success had come, she wasn't getting her fair half of the fun. An elaborate evening gown that we had hurried expectantly to order for her was not needed, after all—it was out of fashion before she wore it. Still, as I say, she exulted to see me go—at first. And later—well, when I insisted on a refusal because she had not been asked, it grieved her that I neglected opportunities for her sake; and when I consented to go without her she was, not unnaturally, dull.
"It was not very lively for her in the daytime, either. When my duties as a clerk had taken me from her, she, too, had had employment; but now, of course, her berth had been resigned, and while I wrote all day upstairs, she was alone. She was not used to leisure; all her life she had worked. We had no child to claim her time, to occupy her thoughts and yield the joys and interests of maternity. Though she endeavored to create distractions for herself, the flat we had been so proud of was rather dreary for her after its novelty faded. She sighed in it oftener than she laughed.
"The very few women that she met were actresses, who talked of nothing but their careers—their genius, their wrongs, and their press notices. What companion could she find among them, even had I wished her to seek their companionship? And the men who came to us also talked 'shop' continuously, and directed themselves chiefly to me. No doubt they would have had enough and too much to say to her had I been absent, but, as it was, they often appeared to forget that she was there. As time went on, too, the theater made more and more demands upon me—a comedy in rehearsal while another was being written, the telephone bell always ringing to call me away just when I had arranged to take a half holiday with her! And, when I left the theater, I could not dismiss the anxieties of a production from my mind, as I had dismissed the affairs of the Magasins when I left my office stool—they were mine, and I brought them home with me. She grew bored, restless. She was nervous with solitude, and chagrined at feeling herself insignificant. She told me, one day, that she wanted me to put her on the stage!
"Mon Dieu! To begin with, she had no gift for the stage—and, if she had been ever so clever, did I want to see her there? I was aghast.
"‘But, mignonne,' I said, 'what makes you think, all of a sudden, you could act? Leaving everything else aside, what reason is there to suppose you would succeed? You have had no experience; you have never even shown the slightest tendency toward it!'
"‘I want something to do,' she said.
"‘But,' I said, 'that isn't enough! And, besides, you would not like it at all. You would find it odious. You sit in a box and you see a celebrated woman bringing the house down, and to be an actress looks to you very fine. But she has been half a life-time arriving at celebrity—there is nothing fine about the journey to it. A dramatist's wife in the box is a much more dignified figure than a dramatist's wife rehearsing a trivial part and being corrected by the stage-manager.'
"‘I did not mean trivial parts,' she said disconsolately, and I realized for the first time that she had been dreaming of a début in the principal rôle! But she let the discussion drop, and I half thought I had convinced her.
"I WAS very much mistaken. A few weeks later she referred to it again, and more urgently. She seemed to imagine that her project was quite a simple matter for me to arrange, that the only obstacle in the way was my personal objection to it. 'What you say about trivial parts is perfectly true,' she acknowledged, with an air of being extremely reasonable; 'but in one of your own pieces you could easily get me Lead. Everybody wants plays from you now; you would only have to say that you wished me to be engaged. Of course I should study; I could go to a professor of diction and take lessons.'
"Well, I tried to explain the commercial aspect of the case to her! I told her that, for one thing, the managers would see my plays in Jericho before they agreed to intrust the leading part to a novice. And I told her that, supposing for an instant I did find a manager reckless enough to consent, I should be ruining my own property.
"‘Ah,' she said, 'you make up your mind in advance that I have no dramatic instinct?'
"I said: 'It is not even a question whether you have any dramatic instinct. It is enough that you haven't any renown. You have heard too much of the business by this time not to know that everybody tries to secure the most popular artists that he can. For me to put up a play with an absolutely unknown name instead of a star's would be asking for a failure.'
"‘If I were billed as "Madame Aribaud" the name would not be unknown,' she argued.
"‘Whether you were billed as "Madame Aribaud" or as anybody else,' I said, 'the point would be, how good you were in the part. The public would not pay tc see an indifferent performance because you were Madame Aribaud.'
"‘Ah, then you admit it, that is it, after all!' she cried. 'You declare beforehand that I have no ability. Why should you say such a thing? It isn't right of you!'
"I said: 'I declare beforehand that you have had no training! I declare beforehand that you could not master, in a few weeks or months, a technique that other women acquire only after years. And, on top of all that, I declare that I don't want to see you in the profession. Why do you become dissatisfied after we have got on? Why can't you be as content as you used to be when we had nothing?'
"‘The days are longer than they used to be. I want something to do!' she insisted.
"Oh, I understood! But I need hardly tell you that this fever of hers didn't make for bliss! The theater became a bone of contention between us—the position that I had dreamed of and yearned for was dividing me from my wife It got worse every year. I no longer dared to mention business in my home. We were on affectionate terms only in the hours when the theater was forgotten. One day I would hold her in my arms, and on the next some chance allusion would estrange us. If I happened to come across a little actress who was suitable to a more conspicuous part than those that she had had, my casting her for it was a domestic tragedy—I 'made opportunities for every woman but one!' I have been told that strangers who pestered me for theatrical engagements always complained that I was unsympathetic—they little guessed how I was pestered for engagements on my own hearth!
"The aunt at Sêvres also had something to say! She had managed to get on a semi-friendly footing with us when 'Les Huit Jeurs de Léonie' was running, and now she had the effrontery to take the tone of a mother-in-law with me. She 'knew I was devoted to her niece, but I was not being fair to her—I ought to realize that she had a right to a career, too!' What audacity—a woman who had given nothing but phrases when her niece was penniless! I did not wrap my answer up in silver paper, and I fancy the aunt's influence was responsible for a good deal—I think she revenged herself by offering all the encouragement possible behind my back.
"Anyhow, my wife announced to me at last that she had determined to go her own road without my help!
"It was as if she had struck me!
"She meant to seek an opening in some minor company in the provinces—in the obscurest of the théåtres ambulants, if she could do no better. Since I refused to further her ambition, she must resign herself to beginning in the humblest way, she told me quietly; she 'regretted to defy my wishes, but she was a woman, and I had been wrong to expect from her the blind obedience of a child—she could not consent to remain a nonentity any longer!' She dumfounded me. It meant actual separation; it meant the end of our life together. And she was telling me this composedly, coolly, as if our life together were the merest trifle compared with the fascination of the footlights! I cursed the footlights and the day I first wrote for them; I swear I wished myself back in the Magasins du Louvre! My excitement was so violent that I could not articulate; I stuttered and stood mute. I went from her overwhelmed, asking myself what I was to do.
"THERE is one course that never fails to remedy marital unhappiness and bring husband and wife together again—on the stage. It is when he leads her to an ottoman, and, standing a step or two behind her, proceeds with tender gravity to recite a catalogue of her defects. He contrasts them pathetically with the virtues that endeared her to him in the springtime of their union—and the wife, moved to tears, immediately and forever afterward becomes the girl that she used to be. The situation is pretty, it is popular—and it is quite untrue; for in real life one can not recreate a character by making a speech to it. However, I was a dramatist and more credulous than I am now, and I tried!
"For days I pondered what I should say. Arguments were plentiful; but the problem was, how to present them forcefully enough to show her the wildness of her plan and yet gently enough to avoid incensing her. Our future hung upon the scene, and I prayed to heaven that not a tactless word should escape me. I knew that we had reached the crisis, that a mistaken adjective, even an impatient gesture, might be fatal.
"Enfin, the opportunity came. She sat down on the couch,—the ottoman of the stage situation,—and I began to speak, with all the tenderness and gravity of the stage husband. Struggle as I would to banish the thought, I could not help being conscious of our resemblance to the hero and heroine of a thousand comedies in the last act! I say that I 'began' to speak, and that I felt constrained by a shoal of theatrical reminiscences; but our likeness to the hero and heroine was brief. She interrupted me, she defied the dramatic convention. In lieu of being moved to tears, she replied with a world of dignity that the faults were mine. She advised me, for my own sake, to try to attain a more unselfish view. With a flow of impromptu eloquence that I envied, she warned me that, though I was not intentionally unjust, I was allowing prejudice and egotism to warp my better nature. Before I knew that had happened, I stood listening to a homily. The situation that meant my last hope had come out upside down!"
ARIBAULD paused again. On the little lawn, the child had left the swing; the most devoted of wives and mothers was playing chat perché with him now. They made a pretty picture but my thoughts were with her predecessor; I was mourning the love story that had begun like an idyl, and that seemed to have had so bad an end.
The man's voice brought me back. "Yes, the infallible situation had failed!" he repeated. "What do you suppose was the sequel?"
"I suppose," I sighed, "she had her way?"
"No," said Aribaud; "she had her—baby!"
He waved a triumphant hand toward the garden.
"And, from the first promise of that God-sent gift, the glamour of the theater faded from her mind and she talked only of her home. She became another woman—I called her my 'second wife'! From that day to this we have been as happy together, as you see us now."
My exclamation was cut short by the hostess whose history I had been hearing.
"Are you men really sure we aren't laughing too much for you?" she pealed up to us again.
"Sure, sure! It is well; it is as it should be. We come to join you," shouted Aribaud. "Laugh loud, my love, laugh on!"