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“His Wife” by Alice Duer Miller

Published: March 21, 2017

A suffragist and poet foremost, Alice Duer Miller experienced success as an author of prose as well. Her collection of verse Are Women People? called attention to women’s suffrage in 1915. Miller published several stories and serials with the Post including “His Wife,” a short story about a prominent politician whose wife grasps the opportunity to make a first impression with his cohorts in a satirical way. “His Wife” offers characters that subvert feminine roles and behaviors at the turn of the century. 

“The great question is,” said Mrs. Delany, setting down her coffee cup: “Must I ask his wife?”

Cries of “No!” “Certainly not!” “Why should you?” rose from various parts of the room, but her husband was at length heard saying above the tumult: “You really must ask her sometime, Rose, and why isn’t this an excellent occasion?”

“Oh, Gilbert, you’re absolutely wrong,” cried Mrs. Fraile, making a bound from her corner to the very center of the hearthrug.

“Margarita never encourages wives, does she?” said a voice.

Margarita was not distracted by this interruption. Putting the last speaker aside with a mild “As if I ever minded the creatures,” she went on, addressing Gilbert Delany:

“No, Gilbert, no. If Rose asks his wife once there’s no reason why she shouldn’t ask her always; whereas if she never asks her the woman may think it’s our strange custom. Don’t you see?”

“And is she so out of the question?” someone languidly inquired. “Will she be dreadful in the White House or wherever it is they are politically headed for?”

“That’s what no one knows,” Rose Delany answered. “No one has seen her, so far as we know. That’s what’s so unnerving. She never seems to go anywhere with him. So there must be something, don’t you think?”

“Doesn’t he ever speak of her?” Jerry Spelacy asked.

“Never,” said Mrs. Fraile; and other feminine voices echoed “Never.”

There was a long pause while everyone meditated deeply, and at last Mrs. Delany spoke.

“I shall ask her,” she said sternly. “And if she’s too awful he won’t let her accept. He is so intelligent. He could be trusted.”

“He mayn’t be able to prevent her,” said Mrs. Fraile. “I mean if you write to her — “

“Ah, but I’d telephone to him first. Do you think I have no foresight, Margarita?” Rose Delany wailed. “He will be able to manage. Though if she does accept — and I always believe in being prepared for anything — what shall we do? Who, I mean, shall we toll off to take her in to dinner and be kind to her?”

Another pause followed. Then a suggestion came:

“Isn’t Jerry supposed to have rather a knack with other people’s wives?”

“Not when you want him to,” Mrs. Delany replied.

“How about Gilbert?”

“Gilbert is philanthropic but not at all kind,” said his wife. “You couldn’t depend on him. But how about John Fraile? Don’t you think, Margarita, that your husband would do it for us?”

“Not for me,” said Margarita.

“Well,” Mrs. Delany murmured helpfully, “we could tell him it was a great political opportunity for him. That would appeal to him. After all, the man is going to be governor, and he might take a fancy to John and do something for him.”

John’s wife smiled rather grimly, but she only said: “He might.”

In the meantime Mrs. Delany had seated herself at her desk and had begun resolutely to write a note. The sight maddened Mrs. Fraile.

“I’m unalterably opposed,” she protested. “Martin Gorham was perfectly contented as things were. He never made any difficulties about dining with us in the past, and I see no point at all in dragging in his wife.”

It was a risk in which she more than anyone else was concerned. For the first time in ten years she was not bored, and this new interest in life she saw threatened by Rose Delany’s obstinate determination to encourage the candidate’s wife.

Margarita Fraile was a type not uncommon, at least on this side of the Atlantic. She was a woman of brains and beauty, leading a life of conventional fashion, and underneath eaten up, consumed by energy and ambition. With abilities amply sufficient to enable her to excel on her own account she was a willing victim to the belief inculcated in her since her earliest days that a woman can only be truly successful by inspiring the success of some man. The obvious ambitions — position and money — she had attained early by the then not too easy process of marrying John Fraile, who at that time — young, good-looking, athletic — had been not a little competed for. But John Fraile at twenty-seven, handsome and promising, was a very different thing from John Fraile at forty, stout and inclined to spend all his time at the club.

Besides, Margarita herself had progressed. She wanted a wider field and more serious achievements. She had taken a good deal of trouble with a secretary of state with the idea that diplomacy was her future, but in this even as a mouthpiece Fraile had failed her, for he declined to leave New York for an even temporary appointment in Bogota. After that she had discovered Leo Grayling, and the first recognition of his poetry was undoubtedly the result of her wise and careful arrangements. But he had almost immediately fallen in love with her in an intractable way, and had absolutely refused to discuss meters and publishers with her until she had promised to go and live with him in Guadalupe. Love did not solve Mrs. Fraile’s problems; hers was not a hungry heart. She would have yielded to nothing short of a conquering general. She wanted only a vicarious career, and men who wanted to cut short their careers on her account were worse than useless to her.

Then on a fortunate day she had met Martin Gorham. With a political future just in that stage at which it might be helped by a few accidental meetings in the right kind of drawing-room, clever enough to appreciate her, and too cool-headed to fall in love with her, he seemed to her the solution of every difficulty. He came two or three times to tea with her, and then suddenly it became a regular habit. He spoke freely of his prospects, of all the inner twists and turns; and his confidence was never misplaced. Not only did she keep his secrets but she had the art to hide and the wit to advise. She looked ahead and saw herself someday the power behind a national administration.

The only uncertainty in the situation was Gorham’s wife. She knew he had one, but she could find no one who had ever seen her. From Gorham himself she could get no clew. He never spoke of her at all. Generally she would have considered this a bad sign. In her experience she had usually found that a man began to talk of his wife — recounting her sound valuable qualities just in proportion as his conscience began to trouble him. She did not want to think that Gorham’s conscience did not trouble him at all. On the other hand, there was just the chance that he did not speak of his wife because she was a negligible quantity.

It was toward the solution of this problem that Rose Delany was hurrying her with such reckless speed.

“Margarita,” said Rose, laying down her pen and turning seriously to the speaker,

“It’s like this: Men — some men at least — are terribly weak about their wives. I mean they would rather leave them at home in a good temper than in a bad one. My asking her might make it easier, pleasanter for him; and one does want things to be pleasant.”

“It’s a risk,” said Margarita.

“Not really,” returned Rose. “The Gorhams live out of town. This letter will get to her tomorrow before noon. During the morning I shall telephone to him at his office, and he will have three or four hours before he goes home to make up his mind what to do. Don’t be stupid, Margarita. Of course if she doesn’t do him credit he won’t let her come.”

But Margarita only repeated: “It’s a risk, a hideous risk.”

II

The next afternoon when Martin Gorham came home — it was a warm November day — he found his wife lying flat on her back on the grass looking up at the cloudless sky of the late afternoon. He came and stood with his hands in his pockets and looked at her; she rewarded attention, and seemed accustomed to it. She was a Southerner. At length he grinned.

“I would be willing to wager a small amount,” he said, “that this is the way you have spent your entire afternoon.”

“And some of the morning,” she replied.

Woman“The gardener sent for me about noon, to look at something or other — you know how gardeners are — and it never seemed worthwhile to go in again.”

“I may as well tell you at once,” he returned, “that I do want you to accept the Delanys’ invitation.”

She rolled her lovely head on its chintz cushion.

“The Delanys?” she said. “Who are they? Oh, yes, I remember. But I haven’t had any invitation.”

“She said she wrote.”

Mrs. Gorham flapped her hand toward a pile of unopened letters.

“Oh, yes,” she murmured. “The morning mail. But I haven’t opened it yet.”

“Helena Gorham,” said her husband, “you are a very lazy girl.”

“I don’t see why it isn’t a very good thing to be,” she observed.

“In a way it is,” he answered, sitting down cross-legged on the grass beside her, “but there are occasions when one must rouse oneself.”

“I can rouse myself when necessary,” said she, yawning.

“Well, this is an occasion.”

“Why do you want me to dine with these people, Martin?”

“In the first place because they are influential. They are, as I understand it, more than fashionable. They have flung themselves through fashion and come out on the other side, greedy to be in touch with real life, eager for a new field. They would like to have their fingers in politics — some of the men actually have. They might be able to help me; they could certainly harm me.”

Helena nodded.

“All excellent reasons why you should go.”

“Please come, Helena.”

“Oh, life is very hard on a poor woman,” cried Mrs. Gorham, clasping her long arms under her head. “Most men want their wives to stay in the home, but you are always driving me out.”

“Trying to drive you out, Helena. But there’s another reason for your going.” He stopped abruptly.

Mrs. Gorham sat up and looked at him and looked at him.

“Martin,” she said, “do you mean to say you need to be rescued again?”

“No, no,” answered the future governor eagerly; “it’s nothing of that kind. But these people — how shall I describe them? They are like a band of cheerful pirates. I should like to have your advice, your wisdom — ”

“You would like,” said Helena, “to let it be generally known that there is an able-bodied woman prepared to look after you. But couldn’t you just explain that, without my having to appear personally?”

He shook his head. “I never dare mention your name,” he said. “Sometimes it rises to my lips, Helena, but I bite it off. I don’t dare talk of you as if you were young, attractive and tolerably dear to me or people would make your life a burden, wanting to come to see you and ask you to dinner. One woman — a Mrs. Fraile — did ask me point-blank what you were like, and I said very distinctly, ‘I won’t tell you.’”

“Ha, ha!” said Helena.

“I said that, but I must own, Helena, that I gave the idea that I wouldn’t tell because you were too dreadful. It was in my tone — it sounded loyal and sad. Most of the people who know I have a wife are, I believe, under the impression that you are mentally deficient or physically unpresentable — perhaps both.”

“Fortunately neither impression would be hard to dispel,” said Mrs. Gorham, rising to her feet. “Very well, then, I will go. I will dine with these friends of yours; but it’s not to be regarded as a precedent, Martin, remember that. And — oh dear!” she murmured as she walked away with two cushions clasped in her arms, “things were very different in Alabama.”

He watched her across the lawn, and as she was about to disappear into the house it occurred to him to call out: “You’re no helpmate, you know.”

She did not turn, but wagging her head replied: “Wait and see.”

III

Martin, who thought his wife always good-looking, expected her to do something notable on the occasion of the Delanys’ dinner. He found himself looking forward with pleasure to the effect she would produce. But on the evening in question she was already in the cab when he came down the steps of the little hotel where they were staying; and so he did not see her until she was actually entering the Delanys’ drawing-room.

Something notable had certainly been done. He looked twice to be sure it was she. She had made herself look, as he put it, not only a sight but just what her hostess had most fearfully anticipated.

She had drawn back her hair so tightly that her head looked like an egg, and from a small knot at the top a purple feather waved. From some unimaginable source she had obtained a maroon-colored silk dress made very full and so short as to show completely a pair of flat patent-leather ties turned up at the toes. Her gloves were spotless, it is true, but so much too large for her that little spirals of suède projected beyond her fingertips. She wore innumerable silver bangles, three strings of colored beads, and she carried a very dirty white feather fan.

If Martin had been inclined to anger — and he really had nothing but a passing thought that she might have told him what she was up to — he would soon have lost the feeling in admiration of her performance. A first-rate comic actress had been lost in Helena.

Before dinner she was reserved — merely pursing her lips and rolling her eyes; but at table she began to unbend, and Martin soon found it was impossible for him to listen to what his neighbors were saying, so eagerly was he catching the fragments that reached him from across the table. Both Mrs. Fraile and Mrs. Delany — he sat between them — were as kind and polite as possible. He saw, indeed, that this pity for him was as sincere as any emotion they had ever shown. He had a hysterical desire to ask Mrs. Fraile what she thought of his wife, now she had seen her.

But he knew he would never be able to get through the sentence, particularly as at that very instant he heard Helena saying: “Onions? Oh, no; Mr. Gorham and I never eat onions. We think them so unrefined; and I may be peculiar, but I hate anything unrefined!”

There was, however, one spectator present on whom Helena had not reckoned, and that was Thomas Baxter. Baxter was the member of the party committee who had opposed or who at least was cold to Martin’s nomination. Mrs. Delany had asked him in the hope of doing the candidate a good turn. Now Baxter had once met Helena, though she did not remember it. He had sat behind her a whole evening in a box at a political meeting; and he remembered her as one of the most charming people he had ever known.

Arriving at dinner early he had soon been made aware of Mrs. Delany’s attitude of mind toward her unknown guest. But he had told her nothing, promising himself the more amusement when Mrs. Gorham appeared in all her beauty. At first he had not believed it was the same woman; but as he watched her the real facts began to dawn on him, and by the time the men came out from the smoking room he was thoroughly in the mood.

Helena by this time had passed beyond all bounds. During the earlier part of the evening her performance though realistic had been restrained, but now as she saw the moment of departure approaching she gave herself a larger scope. Firmly seizing the reins of conversation from the hands of her hostess she talked without allowing anyone else to insert a word.

When the men came in she was launched on a description, room by room and article by article, of what she persisted in referring to as “our cute little house.” Whether she had ever seen such a place as she described Martin, listening to her, could not decide; but as he heard her speak of sweet embossed mustard-colored papers, plush dadoes and crayon portraits he felt that if it was in truth a work of the imagination the creative as well as the histrionic genius had been granted to his wife.

Her narrative was heightened, too, by its terrible effect on her hearers, whose white faces actually quivered with exhaustion and irritation — not decreased as Helena stopped now and then to patronize Mrs. Delany’s own priceless porcelain and pictures.

Baxter found himself standing with Gorham near the door.

“Your wife — ” he began, but could get no further.

With a common motion both men stole into the hall and shut the door tightly behind them. There, covering their faces with their hands, they shook with laughter.

After a few minutes Gorham regained sufficient composure to say: “My wife — ”

But he, too, was not able to go on. They had become hysterical like schoolgirls.

Once when the door opened something about a “cunning little gasolier” floated out to them; so that finally they sat down on the stairs and gave up.

Because a man’s wife has a turn for light comedy is not a good reason for nominating him for governor, but as the two men sat there it became quite evident that any real opposition between them was quite impossible. A stronger power than their own had made them friends.

It is improbable that Helena felt any alarm at this absence. Forgetting her former acquaintance with Baxter she supposed he and her husband were talking politics. She had just decided to add a snuffle to her manner of speech, and it was going off very well.

Suddenly the door opened and the two men entering arm in arm announced in unison: “Mrs. Delany, we have come to denounce one of your guests.”

Mrs. Delany turned very calmly. “Dear me,” she said, “what do you mean?”

At this point Helena rose and saying hastily that she had had a very pleasant evening moved to the door, but they blocked her.

“This is the masquerader,” said Martin.

“Isn’t she really your wife?” someone asked.

“Yes, and no,” he replied.

“Let me explain,” said Baxter. “This lady is Mrs. Martin Gorham, but not in her real aspect. She is a travesty, a deliberate hoax. She is really lovely and charming, but she has chosen for her own wicked purposes to appear as she now does. She has been, in fact, ‘putting up a game on us.’”

It is not surprising that Mrs. Delany, as the truth reached her, was angry.

“Oh, I see,” she returned quietly. “I’m afraid I haven’t much taste for practical jokes, especially when they spoil an evening which was hospitably intended. Good night, Mrs. Gorham.”

Helena under her lashes glanced in her husband’s direction, but saw at once she could expect no help from him. She put up her hands and loosened her hair to its natural softness, and then she said in the most melting tone that Alabama ever produced: “Will no one undertake my defense?”

Yes,” said Jerry Spelacy, uncoiling himself from a sofa, “I will, for I think you are being badly treated. I was here, Mrs. Gorham, when the idea of asking you to dinner was first canvassed, and I can assure you that the invitation — ”

“Jerry, will you be silent!” said Rose Delany.

“No,” he answered, shaking his head, “not while my client’s interests demand that I should speak. Or, rather, I will ask you this question, Rose: Was your invitation to Mrs. Gorham offered with that simple hospitality that you have just assumed or was it in the blackest, most definite hope that she would refuse and leave Mr. Gorham free to — ”

“Jerry!” wailed his hostess.

“You see,” he went on, “your terror convicts you. No, no, you’re not the openhearted innocent that you would like to appear, Rose. You two ladies may part as friends or as enemies; but at least your guilt is equal. So far as wickedness goes there’s not a pin to choose between you.”

Helena with a courage rare in those who are completely in the wrong made a motion toward her hostess.

“I’m really sorry if I spoiled the party,” she said. “Only I enjoyed it immensely.”

“And I,” cried Martin and Baxter.

“And I,” said Jerry.

Before anyone had time to grow angry again Baxter had made everyone promise to dine with him the next night.

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