Worse Than Married

Worse Than Married  (1914) 
by Henry Wise Miller and Alice Duer Miller

Extracted from Scribner's magazine, 1914, pp. 475-484. Accompanying illustrations by E. P. Ottendorff omitted.


By Henry and Alice Duer Miller

MISS WILBUR sat up and wrung the water out of her hair. Most of us have looked about a dinner-table and wondered which of the party would make the pleasantest companion on a desert island; Juliana had done it often enough, but now the comic touch was lacking. Far out, hung on some unknown reef, the prow of the vessel stuck up black and tall, almost as if she were still pursuing a triumphant course landward, though a list to starboard betrayed her desperate condition, and a second glance showed that the waves were breaking over her stern. The heavy swell was all that was left of the storm. The sun had just risen in a cloudless sky, above a dark-blue sea. It was perhaps that bright horizontal ray which had waked Miss Wilbur. It had not disturbed her rescuer, who, more provident, had hidden his face in his arm.

It seems hardly possible for a young lady to be dragged from her berth in the dead of night, hauled to the deck and literally dumped into a small boat, to be tossed out of the boat and dragged to shore—all by a man whose face and name were equally unknown. But the more she looked at the back of that damp head, and the line of those shoulders, the less familiar did they appear. This was hardly surprising, for since she and her maid had taken the steamer at Trinidad, she had made so little effort at rapprochement with her fellow passengers that she could hardly call any of them to mind—a great German from a banking house in Caracas; a sunburnt native botanist bound for the Smithsonian; a little Englishman from the Argentine; these were the only three figures she could remember. Who was this man? A sailor? A commercial traveller? Of what standing and what nationality?

She coughed presently: "I wish you'd wake up," she said, "and let me thank you for saving my life."

The first result of this remark was that the man grunted and buried his nose deeper in the sand. Then he rolled over, stood up, and comprehensively hitching up what remained of his trousers, he looked carefully round the horizon, then at the wall of palm-trees behind them, and last of all at Miss Wilbur, without the smallest change of expression.

"Did I save you?" he asked.

"Yes, don't you remember? You caught me up in the dark——"

"I had a notion it was Mrs. Morale's son." Again his eyes sought the horizon, and he turned to move away, but she arrested him with a question.

"Do you think we shall be rescued?" she said.

He stopped, eyed her, and again turned away. His silence annoyed her. "Why don't you answer my question?"

"Because I thought it just about worthy of some one who wakes up a tired man to thank him for saving her life. Do I think we'll be rescued? That depends on whether we are in the track of vessels; and I know neither the track of vessels nor where we are. It depends on whether any of the other boats lived through the night. But I'll tell you one thing. It looks to me as if they needn't trouble to come at all, if they don't come soon. I'm going to hunt up breakfast."

He disappeared into the forest of palms, leaving her alone. She would have liked to call him back and ask him what he thought of the probabilities of snakes on the island. Tact, however, that civilized substitute for terror, restrained her. She thought him very peculiar. "I wonder if he's a little crazy," she thought. "I wonder if something hit him on the head."

He was gone a long time, and when he returned carried a bunch of bananas and three cocoanuts. He stopped short on seeing her. "Do you mean to say," he cried, "that you haven't been drying your clothes? What do you suppose I stayed away so long for? But no matter. Have your breakfast first."

She refrained from expressing, at once, a profound distaste for cocoanuts, but when he cut one and handed it to her, the smell overcame her resolutions. "Oh! " she said, drawing back, "I can't bear them."

"You will order something else on the menu?"

The tone was not agreeable, and Miss Wilbur eyed the speaker. No wonder she was at a loss, for hitherto her measure of men had been the people they knew, the clothes they wore, and, more especially, their friendliness to herself. In the present case, none of these were much help, and she decided to resort to the simpler means of the direct question. Besides, it had always been Juliana's custom to converse during her meals and, peculiar though this one appeared, she saw no reason for making it an exception.

"Doesn't it seem strange," she began, "that I don't even know your name?"

"Nathaniel or Spens?"

"Oh! Spens, of course," she answered, quite as if they had met in a ballroom. "And don't you think," she went on, "that it would be nice if we knew a little more about each other than just our names?"

"A little more?" he exclaimed. "My idea was we were getting near the too much point."

"But I meant our past selves, our everyday selves—our real selves."

"So did I. I hope we sha'n't get any realler. This is real enough to suit me." He continued under his breath to ring the changes on this idea to his own intense satisfaction.

Miss Wilbur gave up and began again. "I think it would be interesting to tell each other a little of our lives—who we are, and where we came from. For instance—I'm willing to begin—I am a New Yorker. My mother died when I was sixteen, and I have been at the head of my father's house ever since—he has retired from business. We are quite free, and we travel a great deal. I came down here on a yacht. You may ask why I left it—well, a little difficulty arose—a situation. The owner, one of my best and oldest friends—" She paused. As she talked, questions had floated through her mind. "Does he take in the sort of person I am at home? Does he realize how his toil is lightened by the contrast of my presence in the benighted spot? Does he know what a privilege it is to be cast away with me?" He was saying to himself: "If only I can get home before the first, I'll increase that quarterly dividend."

She took up her narrative. "The owner, as I say, was one of my best and oldest friends; and yet, you know——"

"And yet you quarrelled like one o'clock."

"Oh, no," said Miss Wilbur. "We did not quarrel. It would have been better if we had."

"Just sulked, you mean?"

This was more than she could bear. "He wanted to marry me," she said firmly.

"Not really!" he exclaimed, and then, studying her more carefully, he added: "But of course—very naturally. I am sure to some types of men you would be excessively desirable."

This was the nearest approach to a compliment that she had had since the ship struck, and she gulped at it eagerly.

"Desirable is not quite the word," she answered. "But perhaps I should rather have you think of me as desirable than not at all," and she smiled fascinatingly.

"Great Cæsar's ghost!" he exclaimed. "Did I say I was thinking of you? But there, I mean—I mean—" But it was unnecessary to complete the sentence, for Miss Wilbur rose, with what dignity a tattered dressing-gown allowed, and moved away. He followed her and explained with the utmost civility where there was another beach, how she should spread out her clothes to the sun, and added gravely, holding up one finger: "And remember to keep in the shade yourself."

"Oh, the sun never affects me," said Juliana.

This answer plainly tried him, but with some self-control he merely repeated his injunction in exactly the same words.

Miss Wilbur's costume was not elaborate. It comprised, all told, a night-gown, a pink quilted dressing-gown, a pair of men's sneakers, and a bit of Cartier jewelry about her throat. She wished that dressing-gown had been more becoming. Just before she sailed she had sent her maid out to buy something warm, and the pink atrocity had been the result. She had thought it did not matter then, but, now that she might have to spend the rest of her life in it, she wished she had taken the trouble to choose it herself.

Even if she had been completely alone on this Caribbean island, she was too much a child of civilization to remove all her clothes at once. The process took time. As she sat under the trees and waited, she considered her position.

Feelings of dislike for, and dependence upon, her rescuer grew together in her mind. She did not say, even to herself, that she was afraid of him, very much in the same way in which she had once been afraid of her schoolmistress—afraid of his criticism and his contempt, but she expressed the same idea by saying "he was not very nice to her." That he "was rather rude"! She thought how differently any of the men she had left on the yacht at Trinidad would have behaved—Alfred, for instance. It would have been rather fun to have been cast away with Alfred. He would have been tender and solicitous. Poor Alfred! She began to think it had been an absurd scruple that had made her leave the party. It had seemed as if she could not cruise another day on the yacht of a man she had refused so decidedly to marry. After such a scene, too! Miss Wilbur frowned and shook her head at the recollection. As a matter of fact, she liked scenes.

She had so far used the freedom of her life in eliminating from her consciousness those who did not contribute to her self-esteem. Sometimes she created admiration where it had not existed. Sometimes, when this seemed impossible, she simply withdrew. The latter method was obviously out of the question on this little dot of an island.

But the other? One of the unquestioned facts in Miss Wilbur's life was her own extreme charm; and this thought brought another to her mind. The picture of the traditional male—the beast of prey! In spite of the American girl's strange mingling of inexperience and sophistication, she is not entirely without the instinct of self-preservation. She remembered his long Yankee jaw with relief.

When she returned she found he had erected four poles with cross-beams and was attempting to thatch it with banana-leaves, to the accompaniment of a low sibilant whistle.

"What's that?" she asked. He completed the phrase diminuendo before answering.

"This," he said, "is where you are going to sleep, and, if it doesn't fall in on you in the night, I'll build another for myself to-morrow. Look out where you step. I'm drying two vestas on that rock. If they light, we'll have a fire, and perhaps some day something to eat. Suppose you go and find some wood?"

She hesitated. "Do you think there are snakes on this island?" she hazarded; and oh, with what enthusiasm such a suggestion of femininity would have been received on the yacht!

"Think not," said her companion; "but I'd look out for scorpions and centipeds and things like that, you know."

The suggestion did not increase her enthusiasm for her task. She hung about a few minutes longer, and then collected a few twigs along the beach, raising them carefully between her thumb and forefinger. They did not make an imposing pile, as she felt when her rescuer came to inspect it, looking first at it and then at her, with his hands in his pockets.

"I hope you won't overdo?" he said.

Juliana colored. "Did you expect me to carry great logs?" she asked. "Women can't do that sort of thing."

He moved away without answering, and presently had collected enough wood for many fires.

"I'd like to see you lay a fire," he said.

She threw some of the small sticks together, then the larger ones, as she had seen the housemaid do at home. Then, embarrassed at his silent observation, she drew back.

"Of course I can't do it, if you watch me," she exclaimed.

"You can't do it anyhow, because you don't know the principle. The first thing a fire needs is air. It's done like this." He tore down and re-created her structure.

If Miss Wilbur had followed her impulse, she would have kicked it down as he finished, but she managed a fine aloofness instead. He did not appear to notice her chin in the air.

"Yes," he observed, as he rose from his knees, "it's a handy thing to know—how to lay a fire, and, as you say, one is naturally grateful to the fellow who teaches one. I'm going to look for food. Keep a lookout for ships."

He had hardly gone when he came bounding back again, waving two small fish by the tails. "Got 'em," he shouted. "Dug out some ponds this morning, but never thought it would work, but here they are. Now we'll light the fire."

His excitement was contagious. She sprang up, held the skirt of her dressing-gown to shield the match, blew the flame, almost blew it out. Finally, with the help of both matches the fire was lit.

"I'm so hungry," she said. "Do you think they'll taste good?"

He did not answer. She could not but be impressed by the deftness with which he split and boned the fish, and the invention he displayed in evolving cooking utensils out of shells and sticks.

"You know," he said suddenly, "this fire must never go out. This will be your job. Sort of vestal-virgin idea."

The charge made her nervous. The responsibility was serious. During one of his absences she began to think the flame was dying down. She put in a stick. It blazed too quickly. A crash followed and one of the fish disappeared into the fire.

After a time she managed to drag it out, black and sandy. She dreaded his return. How could she make clear to him that it had not been her fault? She decided on a comic manner. Holding it up by the tail, she smiled at him. "Doesn't that look delicious?" she asked gayly.

His brow darkened. "All right, if you like them that way," he returned.

"Don't you think the other is large enough for two?"

His answer was to remove the other from the fire and to eat it himself.

Miss Wilbur watched him to the end, and then she could contain herself no longer. She had been extremely hungry.

"Upon my word," she said, "I've known a good many selfish men, but I never before saw one who would not have taken the bread out of his mouth to give to a hungry woman."

Her rescuer looked at her unshaken. "You don't think that was just?" he inquired.

"I am not talking of justice, but of chivalry," replied Miss Wilbur passionately. "Of consideration for the weak. You are physically stronger than I——"

"And I intend to remain so."

"At my expense?"

"If you fell ill, I should be sorry. If I fell ill, you would die." He turned away sharply, but half-way up to the beach thought better of it and returned.

"See here," he said, "I'm an irritable man and a tired man. This whole thing isn't going to be easy for either of us. And what do we find, the first crack out of the box? That you are not only incompetent, but that you want to be social and pleasant over it. Great Scott! what folly! Well, if it's any satisfaction to you, I know I'm not behaving well either. But you don't seem aware of even that much, or of anything, indeed"—he smiled faintly—"except your own good looks."

He left her to meditate.

Battle, murder, and sudden death are not as great a shock to some people as their own failure to please. Miss Wilbur, being incapable of looking within for the cause of this phenomenon, looked at her companion. Evidently he was a peculiar, nervous sort of creature, and, after all, had he been so successful? He hardly came up to the desert-island standard, set by the father of the Swiss Family Robinson. She reviewed him with a critical eye. He was a nice-looking young man of the clean-shaven type. He lacked the great air, she told herself, which was not surprising, since eighteen months before there had been nothing whatever to distinguish him from any of the other shrewd young men produced in such numbers by the State of Connecticut. But chance had waved her wand, and it had fallen to his lot to head a congenial band of patriots who, controlling a group of trolleys, had parted with them at a barefaced price to the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railway. Since this coup he had rather rested on his laurels, spending most of his time with a classmate in New York, where he had acquired a tailor and had succeeded in getting himself elected to the directorate of The General Fruit Company—an organization which, as every Italian vender knows, deals in such miscellaneous commodities as bananas, hides, coffee, rubber, sugar, copper-mines, and narrow-gauge railroads along the Caribbean shores, with an argosy for transportation to Spokane, New Orleans, Baltimore, Boston, Bristol, or Bordeaux.

For some reason his mastery of the desert island was not complete. His race's traditional handiness seemed to be slightly in abeyance; perhaps because luck was against him, perhaps on account of a too pervasive feminine presence. But for whatever reason, things did not improve. Nothing came ashore from the wreck—not even when, after a small gale, it turned over and disappeared. The banana shelter leaked in the rain, and as Miss Wilbur sat steaming in the sunshine which immediately succeeded she felt inclined to attribute all her discomforts to Spens. He seemed to have no faculty whatever for evolving things out of nothing, which, she had always understood, was the great occupation of desert-island life. Their food continued to be bananas and cocoanuts, varied by an occasional fish; and, instead of being apologetic for such meagre fare, he seemed to think she ought to be grateful.

Now Miss Wilbur would have been grateful, if he had not roused her antagonism by his continual adverse criticism of herself. She wished to show him that she could be critical, too; and so she sniffed at his fish, and took no interest in his roofing arrangements, and treated him, in short, exactly as the providing male should not be treated. Man cannot stoop to ask for praise, but he can eternally sulk if he does not get it. The domestic atmosphere of the island was anything but cordial.

After all, she used to say to herself, why should she labor under any profound sense of obligation? Even when he appeared to be considering her comfort she saw an ulterior motive. He came, for instance, one day, civilly enough, and pointed out a little row of white stones marking off a portion of the island.

"The beach beyond this line is ceded to you," he observed gravely. "No fooling. I'm in earnest. Of course I understand that you like to be alone sometimes. Here you'll never be disturbed. When I annoy you past bearing, you can come here." For a moment she was touched by his kindness, the next he had added: "And would you mind allowing me a similar privilege on the other side of the island?"

His tone was a trifle more nipping than he intended, but no suavity could have concealed his meaning. His plan had been designed not to please her, but to protect himself. No one before had ever plotted to relieve himself of Miss Wilbur's company. Subterfuges had always had an opposite intention. She had been clamored for and quarrelled over. She withdrew immediately to the indicated asylum.

"I'm not accustomed to such people," she said to herself. "He makes me feel different—horrid. 1 can't be myself." It was not the first time she had talked to herself, and she wondered if her mind were beginning to give way under the strain of the situation. "I'd like to box his ears until they rang. Until they rang!" she repeated, and felt like a criminal. Who would have supposed she had such instincts!

For the tenth time that day she caught together the sleeve of the detested dressing-gown. How shocked Alfred and her father would be to think a man lived who could treat her so! but the thought of their horror soothed her less as it became more and more unlikely that they would ever know anything about it.

She stayed behind her stones until he called her to luncheon. They ate in silence. Toward the end she said gently:

"Would you mind not whistling quite so loud?"

"Certainly not, if the sound annoys you."

"Oh, it isn't the sound so much, only"—and she smiled angelically—"it always seems to me a little flat."

She had a great success. Spens colored.

"Well," he said, "I don't pretend to be a musician, but it has always been agreed that I had an excellent ear."

"In Green Springs, Connecticut?"

He did not answer, but moved gloomily away. Two or three times she heard him start an air and cut it short. A smile flickered across her face. So sweet to her was it to be the aggressor that she did not return behind the white stones, but remained, like a cat at a rat-hole, waiting beside the fire, to which Spens would have to return eventually.

She had resolved that it must be kindly yet firmly made clear to him that he was not behaving like a gentleman, and if, as seemed possible, he did not understand all that that word implied, she felt quite competent to explain it to him.

Perhaps the idea that his conduct was not quite up even to his own standards had already occurred to him, for when he returned he carried a peace-offering.

He stood before her, holding something toward her. "I notice," he said, "that you go about in the sun bareheaded. You oughtn't to do that, and so I have made you this," and she saw that the green mass in his hands was leaves carefully fashioned into the shape of a hat.

It may perhaps be forgiven to Miss Wilbur that her heart sank. Nevertheless, she took the offering, expressing her gratitude with a little too much volubility. "I must put it on at once," she said. Green had never become her, but she placed it firmly on her head.

Spens studied it critically. "It fits you exactly," he observed with pleasure. "You see I could only guess at the size. Isn't it fortunate that I guessed so exactly right!"

She saw that he was immensely gratified and, trying to enter into the spirit of the thing, she said:

"What a pity I can't see the effect!"

"You can." He drew his watch from his pocket, and opened the back of the case. "It doesn't keep time any longer," he said, "but it can still serve as a looking-glass," and he held it up.

Now any one who has ever looked at himself in the back of a watch-case knows that it does not make a becoming mirror; it enlarges the tip of the nose, and decreases the size of the eyes. Juliana had not so far had any vision of herself. Now, for the first time, in this unfavorable reflection, she took in her flattened hair, her tattered dressing-gown, and, above all, the flapping, intoxicated head-gear which she had just received. She snatched it from her head with a gesture quicker than thought.

"I believe you enjoy making me ridiculous," she said passionately.

"Nothing could be more ridiculous than to say that," he answered. "I wanted to save your health, but if you prefer sunstroke to an unbecoming hat—not that I thought it unbecoming——"

"It was hideous."

"I can only say that I don't think so."

Miss Wilbur slowly crushed the offending object and dropped it into the fire. Ridiculous or not, there would never be any question about that again.

"Of course," she observed after a pause, "I don't expect you to understand how I feel about this—how I feel about anything—how any lady feels about anything."

"Is it particularly ladylike not to wish to wear an unbecoming hat?"

This of course was war, and Miss Wilbur took it up with spirit. "Unhappily, it is ladylike," she answered, "to have been so sheltered from hardships that when rudeness and stupidity are added——"

"Come, come," said Spens, "we each feel we have too good a case to spoil by losing our tempers. Sit down, and let us discuss it calmly. You first. I promise not to interrupt. You object to my being rude and stupid. So far so good, but develop your idea."

The tone steadied Juliana. "I don't complain of the hardships," she began. "I don't speak of the lack of shelter and food. These are not your fault, although," she could not resist adding, "some people might have managed a little better, I fancy. What I complain of is your total lack of appreciation of what this situation means to me. I haven't knocked about the world like a man. I've never been away from home without my maid. I've never before been without everything that love and money could get me, and instead of pitying me for this you do everything in your power to make it harder. Instead of being considerate you are not even civil. No one could think you civil—no one that I know, at least. You do everything you can to make me feel that my presence, instead of being a help and a pleasure, is an unmitigated bother."

There was a pause. "Well," said Spens, "since we are being so candid, have you been a help? Have you even done your own share? Certainly not. I don't speak of the things you can't help—your burning of the fish——"

"The fish! I don't see how you have the effrontery to mention the fish."

"Nor of your upsetting our first supply of rain-water. Constitutional clumsiness is something no one can help, I suppose. But it does irritate me that you seem to find it all so confoundedly fascinating in you. You seemed to think it was cunning to burn the fish, and playful to upset the water. In other words, though I don't mind carrying a dead weight, I'm hanged if I'll regard it as a beauteous burden."

Miss Wilbur rose to her feet. "The trouble with you is," she said, "that you haven't the faintest idea how a gentleman behaves."

"Well, I'm learning all right how a lady behaves," he retorted.

After this it was impossible to give any consistent account of their conversation. They both spoke at once, phrases such as these emerging from the confusion: "—you talk about ladies and gentlemen." "Thank Heaven, I know something of men and women"; "—civilized life and the people I know"; "—never been tested before." "Do you think you've survived the test so well?"

The last sentence was Miss Wilbur's, and under cover of it she retreated to her own domains. Spens, left in possession of the field, presently withdrew to the other side of the island.

Here for two or three days he had had a secret from Juliana. He had invented, constructed, and was in process of perfecting himself in a game with shells and cocoanuts which bore a family resemblance to both quoits and hop-scotch. He turned to it now to soothe and distract him. It was a delightful game, and exactly suited his purpose, requiring as it did skill, concentration, and agility. He had just accomplished a particularly difficult feat which left him in the attitude of the Flying Mercury, when his eye fell upon a smutch of smoke on the horizon, beneath which the funnel of a vessel was already apparent.

Spens's methods of showing joy were all his own. He threw the tattered remnants of his cap in the air, and when it came down he jumped on it again and again.

His next impulse was to run and call Juliana, but he did not follow it. Instead he piled wood on the fire until it was a veritable column of flame, and then with folded arms he took his stand on the beach.

Within a few minutes he became convinced that the vessel, a steamer of moderate size, had sighted his signal. They were going to be rescued. Very soon he and Juliana would be sailing back to civilization. He would be fitted out by the ship's officers, and Juliana would be very self-conscious about appearing in the stewardess's clothes. They would figure in the papers—a rising young capitalist, and a society girl. Her father would be on the pier. There would be explanations. He himself would be a child in their hands. A vision of engraved cards, a faint smell of orange-blossoms, floated through his mind. His resolve was taken. He sprang up, ran through the palms, and penetrated without knocking to where Miss Wilbur was sitting, with her back against a tree. She glanced up at him with the utmost detestation.

"I thought that here, at least—" she began, but he paid no attention.

"Juliana," he exclaimed in his excitement, "there is a vessel on the other side of the island. She'll be here in twenty minutes, and you are going home in her. Now, don't make any mistake. You are going home. I stay here. No, don't say anything. I've thought it over, and this is the only way. We can't both go home. Think of landing, think of the papers, think of introducing me to that distinguished bunch—the people you know. No, no, you've been here all alone, and you're an extraordinarily clever, capable girl, and have managed to make yourself wonderfully comfortable, considering. No, don't protest. I'm not taking any risk. Here's a vessel at the end of ten days. Another may be here to-morrow. Anyhow, be sure it's what I prefer. A cocoanut and liberty. Good-by. Better be getting down to the beach to wave."

Miss Wilbur hesitated. "At least," she said, "let me know when you do get home."

"I'll telephone from Green Springs. Now run along," and taking her by the shoulders, he turned her toward the path.

She had, however, scarcely reached the beach, and seen the vessel now looming large and near, when she heard a hoarse whisper: "I've forgotten my tobacco." A face and arm gleamed out from the bush. He snatched the pouch, and this time was finally gone.

The keel of the ship's boat grated on the sand, and a flustered young officer sprang out. Juliana was inclined to make a moment of it, but it was getting dark, and the captain, what with carrying the mails and being well out of his course, was cross enough as it was.

"One of you men go up there and stamp out that fire," he said. "No use in bringing any one else in here."

An expression of terror crossed Miss Wilbur's face, and a cry burst from her: "Oh, he'll be so angry." The officer caught only the terror, and, setting it down to natural hysteria, pushed off without more ado.

Night fell, and the stars came out with the startling rapidity of the tropics. There was no wind, but puffs of salt air lifted the fronds of the palms.

Suddenly over the water was borne the sharp jangle of an engine-room bell, and the beat of a vessel's propellers.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1955, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.