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The Tyrant's Apology

By

George Gissing


WHAT the deuce do you mean? What right have you to meddle in my private affairs? It 's confounded impertinence——

How can that give you a right? For all I know, a dozen other men were in love with her. You had your chance, I suppose, and made what you could of it. That's an old story. It happens that I married her, and if any man has the astounding impudence to——

Hang it all, Jameson! I 've been put out; you 're the second to-day—though the other was a woman, so she oughtn't to count. My temper 's rather the worse for wear; I 've gone through a good deal since you left England, old man. Of course you meant no harm; now you 'll go about and say I 've turned fire-eater. People are talking? Let them talk, and be hanged to them! On the whole, I had rather they did; one or two may reflect, and profit by my example. I don't care to use big words, but some men, if they had the pluck to take such a step, would boast of starting a social reformation, and that kind of thing. It 'll have to come; I should have thought you were just the fellow to understand and approve——

Well, if you put it in that way, I 've no objection to explain. I won't be dictated to, that's all. I 'm master in my own house, and if people come talking about "brutal behaviour," and taking my wife's part against me, I shall cut up tolerably rough. I 'm well aware that Jenny wants people to pity her; who ever knew the woman that didn't? You won't like what I 've got to say, but I can't help that; I didn't begin on the subject. I 'm a man talking about his wife—that 's to say, I see facts as facts, and not through a mist of sentiment. You still think of women as angels, do you? It 's an amiable weakness; I never was given to it myself. I 've played the fool about women, especially about Jenny; but something in my character has always pulled me up before I went plunging down a steep place, like—you know.

Come now; in the old days, when we wasted so much time over at Norwood, did you really think Jenny the kind of girl that a sensible fellow with a small income would wish to marry? You can't have done so. Don't boggle over it; just say you were in love with her, and let that mean what it may. The honest truth is that to me she seemed about the last girl to make a good wife; but I, too, was in love with her—devilish hard hit, as I think you know. Just when I ought to have been tagging at my profession, I wallowed in idleness—all on account of Jenny. We see the result now: I 'm one of the slow-coaches; I can't make a large income, and perhaps I never shall. No: I don't blame her for that. Wait a bit, and watch the course of things.

I wonder a steady-going fellow like you could stand her ways. You remember her once calling out, "Oh, I have no character to lose"? It was perfectly true; we grinned and joked; but if we had grinned and gone away we should have acted more wisely. She did her best to lose her character in the eyes of all rational people. She was having her fling, and she went just as far as was possible. I make all allowances for her: a silly mother, a rascal of a father, the flattery of a contemptible set of men and girls; but it doesn't alter the fact. Her cigarette-smoking, her night rambling, her talk about forbidden things—pah! She wished to be thought a fast girl, and it 's rather wonderful, when one comes to think of it, that the limits of the possible weren't passed. She imagined herself a light of fashion over yonder. How on earth she got together such a menagerie of friends I never understood. To this day I have a suspicion that some of the men one met there on Sunday were shopwalkers; yet we know that some were not. The house might have been a decent house enough, of its kind; Jenny made it—well, no, vulgarity wasn't exactly the note, after all. Her mother knew how to behave herself, and her scamp of a father could talk like a gentleman. One didn't feel exactly ashamed of being seen there. The fact is, society has got to be such a queer jumble nowadays. How is one to draw lines?

She was a handsome girl, a fine girl, and there's no gainsaying it. No one could find vulgarity in her face—or in her ways either, when she wasn't acting up to her ideas of fashionable freedom. She might have grown up a very creditable specimen of womanhood, with sensible parents and good schooling. As it is, her husband has to turn educator—well, wait a bit.

But for her father's smash, she wouldn't have dreamt of marrying me. Not for a moment! She might have married you, if you hadn't thrown up the game just too soon. She knew I had no money; I was honest enough to let that be understood from the first. She didn't particularly like me—I wasn't her style of man; of course, I could always see that. Very well, keep your own opinion; I say what I know. If I 'm to tell this story at all, I must out with the blunt facts, never mind how they sound. Jenny married me because there seemed no hope of marrying anyone else of equally good social position. She was fastidious; she knew a gentleman from a gent, and only tolerated the sham when he helped to fill a room and applaud her comic songs.

I knew all about the smash before it came out; and I knew the old man had cut and run before his family did. I would have done a good deal to save Jenny from that; believe me or not, as you like. I had a bad lump in the throat when I thought of her, and I was as far as possible from calculating upon the change in her situation. The truth is, I went to the other extreme, and said to myself that it would be impossible now to marry her, even if she would have me. My prospects had to be considered; I was feeling a bit anxious about things, and saw the necessity of keeping in with a certain class of people. No, I put Jenny out of my mind—or tried to. And I felt glad, old fellow, that you were far enough away, for I knew what you would have done. Sorry you didn't get the news till it was too late to do anything? I won't allow myself a coarse retort. Never mind; the past is past; and you, at all events, still have a future.

I, too? Heaven only knows. But I feel better this last week or two. I go to the office with an easier mind, that 's certain.

You don't want to hear how we came to be married, and I 've no wish to tell you. Don't suppose I imply anything against Jenny. She was miserable, and no doubt I ought to have left her alone till she had got over the worst of it. An accident—it's always the same. My common-sense failed me at the critical moment.

It came out afterwards that things were not so black as they looked—for her, I mean. She talked about going for a lady's-maid, or a scullery-maid, or I don't know what. Heaven help the people who engaged her in such capacities! But she had relatives in the country who were able and willing to help her; that 's to say, she might have lived with them till some rational arrangement could be made. Her mother, as I daresay you know, behaved very badly; she was frightened out of her wits, I suppose, and showed the primitive selfish instinct without disguise. Jenny—one of the things to her credit—never made claim to a share in what her mother had to live upon. Well, we won't talk about it. It was a squalid affair, and there 's no outliving the memory. That 's one reason why I hope never to have children; the ancestral history would be an awkward topic.

At first it really looked as if Jenny had profited by disaster—though, by the way, did you ever know anyone who did? I told her plainly that I had a very small income, and little hope of its increasing for some time to come; she professed herself quite content. Then I put it to her: Wouldn't it be wise to establish ourselves in a very modest way, to spend just as little as possible on the house and furniture, and so on? Of course it would! She was willing to live in the merest cottage, with a deal table to eat upon, Windsor chairs, felt carpets. No one would ever come to see us—at all events, she hoped not. Her desire was to hide away, and to work hard from morning to night with the scrubbing-brush. No, I don't exaggerate. I can make allowance, of course, for her state of mind. But, putting aside burlesque, the fact was that she consented to begin housekeeping in a very simple way. We were to have one servant, to make no show, to refuse invitations if any were offered, and to wait patiently for an improvement in our circumstances.

Yes, I knew it was a risk; even then just a glimmer of reason remained to me. I even suspected that I was acting not quite honourably. I was rushing the marriage; Jenny ought to have had time to recover herself and look round. And I didn't forget this afterwards, I assure you I didn't. It made me a deuced sight more patient than most men would have been. For all that, a girl of three-and-twenty isn't a child, and a married woman has no more claim to indulgence if she behaves with idiotic selfishness than a married man. That 's one of my points. There 's a common idea that the wives of poor men are long-suffering angels, while their husbands have a comparatively easy time of it. Damned nonsense! As a rule, it 's the other way about.

Well, I hadn't the courage to take as cheap a house as I ought to have done. After all, I secretly hoped that a year or two would make a good deal of difference in my position. The rent in the meantime wouldn't matter much, provided other expenses were kept down. I was determined not to get into debt for furniture. We bought just the bare necessaries, at a trifling cost. Of course, Jenny had the choosing, and she managed sensibly enough—in fact, I had to insist on a few comforts she wished to dispense with.

I 'm glad to see you smile. Just as well to keep that side in view. There 's more comedy than tragedy in the whole affair, if only you see the truth of it. Thanks to me, you know. If I had been a different sort of man——

For a month or two things went on pretty smoothly. Jenny wasn't contented; I knew it, but then I had expected it, and it seemed to me that the only thing I could do was to work like a nigger. From eight to six, and from nine to twelve—it 's about as much as a man can get into the day, don't you think?

Jenny's hands didn't show much sign of domestic toil. Of course, the servant wasn't worth much; of course, the house got dirty and disorderly; of course, the cooking was abominable. All that goes without saying. I put up with it—seemed not to notice it. I 'm not the kind of fellow that 's always thinking about his comfort. Certainly I object to the waste of good food—potatoes like soap and meat like leather; but it 's what every man who can't afford a cook has to be content with. I kept Jenny supplied with books from Mudie's, and I took care she should have decent things to go out in. She hadn't much of my society; that couldn't be helped. A woman must find resources in herself.

One evening when I came home to dinner—or tea, rather, for I pretended to have midday dinner in town—Jenny was prostrate. The sight of her alarmed me; I thought she was seriously ill. For a long time I could get nothing out of her but incoherent mutterings. No doubt she had been crying all day, and couldn't even pump up another tear. When I got over my alarm, I took the rational course and talked like a plain, blunt man. We came near to quarrelling, and I wasn't sorry for it; something of that kind was needed to clear the air. She had been paying visits to some of her old friends, and the sight of their houses, their talk of amusements, and so on, had been too much for her.

"I made a mistake," she said. "I didn't know what I was doing."

I grinned and bore it.

"You're expecting too much of me," came next.

This tried my temper pretty severely. I began to reason with her—why don't you laugh? The reasoning lasted till two o'clock in the morning, and the outcome of it was that I got her a piano. With a piano she thought she might soothe her loneliness and keep away disagreeable thoughts. I might have suggested that a little study of the science and art of cookery would be just as efficacious and a good deal more appropriate; but I allowed myself only the gentlest hints at that kind of thing. I know as well as you do that the girl's life was a miserable change to her, and that it's hard for one of her breeding to learn anything womanly—to be of any use in the world—to see things reasonably, and act with courage. I grant all that, but I maintain that I was patient and forbearing. Life was before us, and had to be faced. Short of agreeing to part—which neither of us desired—there was nothing to be done but make the best of things as we found them. Jenny made the worst of them—as women so often do. Before long, I let her know my view of the matter; there was another all-night sitting and a vigorous debate. The piano, of course, hadn't answered its purpose.

"If I could only have someone to come and see me," said Jenny.

"Why not? Let people come."

"How can I? There isn't a chair for anyone to sit down on. How can I show people such a house as this?"

What should I have answered? I got into a rage, stamped about the place, and called on the gods to witness feminine imbecility. For a week we hardly spoke to each other. Then Jenny came to me when I was at work one night—

"To-morrow I 'm going away."

"Indeed!"

"I can't bear this life; it will drive me mad. You are the most unfeeling man I ever knew. I shall go and find some way of earning a living."

"My best wishes!"

She left the room and I worked on—or tried to work—for an hour. When I went upstairs Jenny was lying on the bed-room floor, her arms stretched out——

All right, I won't go into details, but you must have the whole story. Next day was Sunday; we spent it in talking quietly, and the upshot of it was that in the course of the following week our house received a new supply of furniture; in fact, it was very decently furnished from top to bottom. Moreover, the incompetent "general" disappeared, and two young women, with flaring testimonials and large appetites, took her place. We had been married not quite three months.

I knew I was acting absurdly. I take much of the blame for what followed upon myself. There should have been a middle course—medio tutissimus ibis. But is it my fault that women are congenitally incapable of anything but extremes?

Then, the fact was I had begun to be rather more hopeful about my prospects. Tremendous work was telling: a little money began to come in; it seemed not impossible that a year might double my income, in which case the house wouldn't be difficult to support. And Jenny had altered so marvellously. I went about saying to myself that I had an admirable wife—all reason, all sweetness. She was in wonderful health and spirits. She sang, she laughed, she adorned the table, and made me feel proud when I walked with her along the streets.

A rule was laid down: no dinner-parties! We couldn't do it properly, so wouldn't try to do it at all. People might come at the approved hour, and tea would be offered them; there we drew the line. This lasted for a month, then Jenny, in a very sweet way, asked me whether she might have a girl friend to lunch. Only Miss Parker, who played and sang so beautifully. Why not? So Miss Parker came. A week later—should I mind if Miss Parker and her sister come to spend the evening? Of course not; glad to see them. But—but would there be any harm in having a sort of very simple little dinner, at seven o'clock?

"Jenny! Remember."

"Yes. You 're quite right. Better not. I 'll tell them to come at eight, and they can have something for supper."

Do you know that I have a good deal of generosity in my composition? You may doubt it, but it 's there. When Jenny made that answer I was uncomfortable. I suffered discomfort for a day and a half, then I could stand it no longer.

"Look here, Jenny," I said, "I don't see why you shouldn't have those girls to dinner."

She flashed a delightful look at me.

"No, no. I 've given up the thought. Of course, it wouldn't have been like a real dinner; only a sort of high tea. But we won't talk of it."

The girls came. There was clear soup, turbots, a bit of veal, and sweets. There was wine. There was subsequent coffee in the drawing-room. A mere high tea.

You see, that 's how it began. Why I didn't set my foot down I can't easily explain. Chiefly, perhaps, because I felt ashamed of perpetual wrangling, especially when Jenny seemed to be trying her best to keep on good terms with me—trying in every way but the essential, another trick of the long-suffering angels. Of course, I had yielded too much to stand out in smaller matters. And the truth was I found life a good deal pleasanter than before. I had decent meals and comfortable chairs. Jenny showed a bright face when I came home, and was recovering a good deal of her old liveliness in conversation. For all that, I had shown a fatal weakness, and it wasn't long before I began to curse my folly.

I dare say people have told you what sort of a life we led for the next two years. My income steadily improved, and expenses steadily kept pace with it. We lived like everyone else: had a swarm of acquaintances; gave dinners now and then; went to places of amusement because we were ashamed not to be seen there; dressed extravagantly; did everything that public opinion demands. Jenny had beaten me: she led me along like a pet dog with a collar round its neck. Yet there was one sense in which I had gained the upper hand of Jenny. She never fell back into the vagaries she was so proud of before her marriage. No more "fast" doings; no cigarettes, no doubtful talk, no disreputable company. I had told her what I thought of that kind of thing, and she was careful to please me. She had a new ambition—to be the leader of a highly respectable set. Respectable she was, with a vengeance. It often amazed me when I thought of the hideous dullness of the life she led. To me, her solitude of the first three months would have seemed infinitely preferable. Oh! the gaping fools we gathered about us! I have sat listening to their talk until my jaw dropped and my eyes grew fixed in an idiot stare. Happily, I had an excuse for keeping away from home as much as I liked. And yet, as time went on, that life exercised a strange influence on me. It was as though I had been hypnotised by the atmosphere of stupidity. I found myself beginning to talk like the men who came to us. I dropped the habit of reading. I grew really anxious about the cut of my waistcoat and the growth of my moustache. By Jove, I can tell you I fell pretty low.

If I had had any relatives in London it would have been different. I had no friends of my own, either; at all events, no friends who were of any use socially. At home, I was Jenny's husband—nothing more; and a tolerably contemptible figure I must have cut.

I had an attack of influenza, and it left me in very low spirits. Just at that time, too, money difficulties began to trouble me; there was nothing for it but to borrow, and this necessity gave me a dig in the ribs—woke me up a little. Jenny and I had a conversation. I told her she must cut down expenses; to live as we were doing was simply insane. Why, I hadn't even insured my life. Bad enough to spend all one had, but now we were beginning to incur debts. I told Jenny that she must keep within a certain stipulated sum for the month's expenditure. She promised, but exceeded the limit. I got furious, and we began once more to quarrel. Impossible to alter our way of living, but by dint of swearing I kept the budget at my own figure—the last penny I could afford. Domestic peace was at an end, though. Jenny regarded me as an insolent rebel, I suppose. It was my place to supply her with what she wanted, and to say nothing. If outlay increased—well, my duty was to make more money.

She began to pester me about having the furniture renewed. Our house was getting old-fashioned; people noticed it. Well, I said, they must notice; if the carpet fell into holes I had no money for a new one. Jenny tried the old dodge: shut herself up and moped; sat crying when I came home to dinner. I lost my temper, and there was the devil to pay. It gave me peace for a week or two.

The results of that influenza hung about me, and I didn't feel at all like myself. I couldn't do my work; things went wrong at the office; I began to foresee more trouble about money. Instead of going home at the usual time, I got into a habit of slinking about the streets, tormenting myself with fears and calculations. I once knew a man who went off his head in just this way, and it's easy enough to understand.

Things were ripe for a change, and Jenny took the best way to bring it off. One evening she said to me, in a careless sort of way:

"I 've ordered that new drawing-room suite."

I was struck dumb, and stared at her. She stared back, ready for fight. When I got my breath, I said quietly—

"Then you 'll countermand the order."

It was a sharp engagement that followed. I was in a queer state, and didn't quite trust myself. In a few minutes I had somehow got out into the back garden, and stood there trembling. It was a splendid night—two months ago—full moon, and a brilliant sky, without a cloud. I shall always believe in inspiration. As sure as I 'm a living man, at that moment something spoke in me, and bade me act in a certain way—what 's more, gave me the courage and the strength to do it. All of a sudden, I was as calm as the night. I felt my muscles rather tense, and a chill down the back; then it was just as if I had sauntered out to smoke a cigar. Even the last symptoms of my illness seemed to have come to an end; I was clearer-headed than for months.

I went in again. Jenny was sitting where I had left her.

"Just listen to me," I said. "I never understood till this moment what a consummate ass I have made of myself. Here am I, with such and such an income, on which I can count with certainty. This income is much more than enough for all the necessities of our life; there needn't be one moment's anxiety about money. Yet I 've got into such a cursed coil that it has seemed to me now and then lately as if I should do best to cut my throat. What 's the explanation of it?"

She was puzzled at my tone, and couldn't see what I was driving at.

"What sort of a life do I lead? Every penny I can earn by my hardest work goes to keep up certain appearances—that is to say, to imitate people for whom I don't care a damn. What pleasures have I? None, because I can't afford them. The social circle to which I belong won't allow me to spend a farthing on myself. I don't insure my life, though it's my duty to do so, because the premium goes in keeping up appearances. I never buy a book. I never take a journey to please myself. I never subscribe to a charity I never lend or give to anyone. I 'm the basest slave, and the most contemptible hypocrite that treads the earth!"

I spoke as never before, and Jenny couldn't choose but listen.

"What sort of people are they who impose this slavery on me? Wretched curs living a life like my own, slaves each of the other, secretly miserable because they spend beyond their means, and aping a social rank altogether above them. Out of regard for their opinion, I condemn myself to a squalid hell of toil and sham pleasure. Does this strike you as reasonable?"

"You 're talking nonsense," said Jenny. "We have to live in a certain way——"

I interrupted her.

"We have. A way that I 'll explain to you. From this day forth I spend half my income on the necessaries of life, and not one penny more. The other half shall afford us a few rational satisfactions, with a considerable margin to lay aside. We leave this house and go into one of which the rent is not more than thirty pounds—a fair proportion. This furniture will be sold, and things of a very different kind procured instead—plain and serviceable. I won't have one object under my roof that is there merely for show. You shall have a girl to help you—a young girl, whom you 'll have to teach and train yourself. If I work to support the house, you shall work to keep it in order. You shall wear plain dresses and eat simple food; in short, we are going to live as you consented to when you married me. If you don't agree to this we part. I give you the choice."

. . . . Well, there it is. That 's the long and short of it. You have been told that Jenny has suffered brutal usage at my hands; judge for yourself.

She said at first that she would leave me, and asked in a business-like way what her allowance was to be. I told her. She tried to renew the quarrel; I wouldn't take part in it.

I saw my way, and meant to pursue it. Before long I believe other men will go and do likewise. It needs pluck, but the end is worth a struggle. I have recovered self-respect, and I am master in my own house. It may take years of steady ruling before Jenny gives up all hope of a return to the fashionable life. At present she is trying sentimental hypocrisy; but it's no use.

Her rights as an individual? Humbug! She is not an individual; it 's the rarest thing to meet a women who is.

If the life becomes intolerable to her? The door is always open, and an allowance at her disposal.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.