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An Essay on Widows

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

“It is by way of becoming an aphorism,” said I, thinking to make it one, “that in selecting his widow, a man should bring to the problem something of that caution and judgment which, usually, he manages to neglect in his selection of a wife.”

My great-aunt agreed. “Necessity,” said she flippantly, “is the mother of invention, and Caution is the father of a small family.”

But I ignored the frivolity.

“With only reasonable care,” I continued, “a man may choose an excellent wife, only to discover too late for immediate correction that she will fail signally as a widow. Take the case of Scattergood—”

“Or even your own case,” said my great-aunt.

“My dear Aunt Matilda, I shall outlive Cora by a dozen years,” I replied with some asperity. “My error was in marrying her because of her name; Cora is the perfect name for a widow. But it has been agreed that she is to die first; if necessary I shall attend to the matter privately. However,” I added, “it is not exactly of specific instances that I am speaking. I am composing an essay, and I must ask you not to interrupt until you are certain that I am becoming coherent and reasonable.”

My great-aunt indulgently smiled, and gave me a tolerant nod.

“Then you have heard my last interruption,” said she, for you are seldom coherent, and you are inherently unreasonable. By all means, let us have the essay.”

“If,” I went on, when she had subsided, “the proverbial fascination of widows may be measured, as I incline to believe, in inverse ratio to their excellence as wives, we have in our investigation discovered one point, at least, of authentic interest. The prospective husband and decedent must select, not only a wife, but a widow; that is to say, a woman with marked talents for that important role. And it is not a matter lightly to be undertaken. It is not enough merely that she shall be such a woman as will look well in black. There is the matter of the name to be considered. In that too she must look well, wearing it with ease, with grace, with some circumspection; with—as it were—an air, yet with proper humility. She must support it much as it has been accustomed to be supported, yet be careful that scandal shall not question the support. This is undeniably difficult, but the perfect widow will not fail to identify herself in such fashion with charitable works as to make of threatened publicity a stepping-stone to higher virtue and acclaim.

“By far the safest plan, many widows have believed, and certainly it is a plan that each twelvemonth becomes more popular, is to change the name early and often. With luck, a prospective widow may acquire and dismiss as many as two names a season, and in time may so confuse her identity as to be as unknown to public notice as the husband of a lady novelist or an honorary pallbearer. And then, of course, all things are possible. The earlier names and memories will be tenderly laid away upon that upper shelf whereon abide the ancient photographs, the scented letters, the faded roses, the dear indiscretions of another day. Time will color them as it will a meerschaum pipe. There is no denying the allure of this method of preserving old names and old memories. Less satisfactory, although almost equally popular, has been preservation in alcohol. But the unsightliness of this method has diminished much of its attractiveness for those who have been its chiefest advocates. They point out that the effect upon the widow herself is damaging, and injurious to her further prospects. So that preservation in alcohol is at present discouraged by prospective decedents, who realize that above all things their widows must be charming.

“It is, indeed, with this latter consideration principally in mind that one must most carefully select one’s widow. That reckless youth who, standing before his dream of fair women, with bandaged eyes and leaping pulse, blithely recites his eeny-meeny-miney-mo, and joyously clasps Mo to his bosom, may with luck achieve an adequate wife, but obviously he runs the risk of picking a far less admirable widow. As like as not he will choose a wife who will sincerely mourn his passing, and throughout the rest of her days sacrifice her appearance to her grief. Yes, one’s widow must be charming; for when one’s widow is charming, one is oneself recalled with interest. Leaving a charming widow in one’s wake—or at one’s wake—really justifies one’s own existence; establishes one’s taste, as it were, in that which pertains to art. It is like leaving behind a fine gallery of pictures, or a great library, or a resounding reputation for rakishness. ‘What a lucky devil he was!’ cry those who come after, their eyes upon the curve of the lady’s throat, their minds in another room. ‘What a charming woman I’ Yes, one’s widow must be charming. And a really charming widow is not to be plucked from every grave.

“In spite of the difficulty of selection, the situation, I believe, is becoming less tangled. Happily for all concerned, the old formula anent marrying in haste and repenting at leisure, no longer obtains as once it did. We do indeed still marry in haste, for the most part, but we repent also in haste. It is even possible, at the end of a fortnight, for a man to know that while he possesses an admirable wife, he has not wisely chosen his widow; and I believe that the time is not far distant when he may make the circumstance ground for an action in law looking toward relief. Certainly nothing more ridiculous can be imagined than a man continuing to live with a woman who, upon his death, will retire to the nunnery of old-fashioned widowhood and stretch her body upon the pallet of renunciation. Take the case of Scattergood; he married Miriam because of her apparent fitness for widowhood, and she mourns him to-day as profoundly as upon the evening of his death. No doubt he realizes his error, but the realization can only be regarded as tardy. Van Smith, upon the other hand, marrying earnestly for a wife, achieved a glorious widow, who unfortunately died before the opportunity for widowhood was offered her. Behold, in consequence, the melancholy Van Smith, bereft at a blow of both wife and widow!”

For a moment, I thought that my great-aunt was about to interrupt; but with a vague shrug she put away the temptation.

“The crying need,” i hurried on. “is for men who will think of both wife and widow; who will reject not one for the other, but either for both! Who have been the great widows of history? Those who have been also the great wives! De Maintenon! Du Barry! Lillian Russell! Anna Held!—”

“Queen Victoria!” said my great-aunt.

“De Montespan, De Medici, Mrs. Leslie Carter—”

“Bathsheba!” contributed my Great-Aunt Matilda.

“Bernhardt, Elinor Glyn, the wives of Solomon—”

“Martha Washington!” cried my great-aunt, enthusiastically.

“Cleopatra, Fritzi Scheff, Pauline Frederick, George Sand—”

“William Jennings Bryan!” shrieked my Great-Aunt Matilda.

I stopped instantly.

“My dear Aunt Matilda,” I said severely, “I can only suppose from your last remark that you are not in sympathy with my essay. In the circumstances, I can hardly proceed.”

My great-aunt sobered at once.

“Do forgive me!” she begged. “It was my sympathy that carried me away. I became interested in the catalogue. I am really very much interested in your philosophy, although what it is all about I have not the faintest notion. Certainly you have omitted Moll Pitcher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But what, if I may ask, was your conclusion to be? It seemed to me, somehow, that you were traveling in a circle.”

“Exactly!” said i, triumphantly. “In the end, I prove conclusively that there is no rule by which the inexperienced man may be guided. He wins or loses by a flip of a coin. What is one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

“The reference is hardly delicate,” smiled my great-aunt, “but you may proceed.”

“I pay tribute to the widows of the world, the Muriels, the Madelaines, the Miriams, the Coras, the merry widows and the naughty widows; and I conclude with a poignant picture of the husbands of the world standing in the great arena of Life, eyes lifted to the women whom they have worshiped, and crying aloud, ‘Ave, Muriel! Morituri te salutamus!’ That is, ‘Hail, Widows! We who are about to die, salute theel’ “

With a final gesture, I turned to my great-aunt for applause, and was horrified to see her hanging far out across the back of the ottoman, glaring fiercely at the wall pattern, her arms thrust rigidly outward.

For a moment, I thought that she had gone mad. Then I noticed that her flippant thumbs were turned cruelly down.


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