The Tale of the Old Wife

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Portrait busts of Roman Caesars at the Southampton Arts Center. Photo: JH.

From the beginning, it was by conventional accounts, an unusual marriage. A marriage by proxy. Not uncommon among aristocrats of Europe, or royalty.

It was never a romantic affair. It was a union fashioned by the old standards of dynasty and religion. She was from a very wealthy and cultured family, and so was he. She was never a great beauty, although often said to be of a great mind, and she had the great special charm of a wise, powerful and rich woman.

He too had his share of charm and culture, but he was also a good looking man. A man who enjoyed the passions and dramas of life, a man who could find amusement in the little intrigues. Intellectually, he was no competition: she was smarter. A good time was what he liked; a good time and beautiful, fashionable women. And thus were his pursuits, which became lifelong, as would befit a man of his stature.

As the years ripened the union, which produced heirs and heiresses — as it was intended — the couple became very popular in society, together and individually. They lived in grand style in the European sense, where the chateaux are really chateaux.

He also, like so many of his confreres, kept mistresses — one at a time — but over long periods of time. These women, like his wife, were forces in their own right, with strong, powerful personalities. Their presence in the family structure was never a well kept secret.

It was also public knowledge that the wife knew the identities of her husband’s mistresses, as did many of their friends and even members of the press (who never revealed the information in print). It was also known that keeping with the ancient form of their social strata, the wife did not know the women personally.

Her apparent indifference to her husband’s well-known mistresses was always regarded as another facet of the wife’s sophistication. It seemed that she accepted it and went on with her life as if it made no difference, despite the fact that she socialized with many individuals who also socialized with the mistresses.

Her way of handling the matter was credulous. Like her husband, she was a child of the haute monde of La Belle Epoque, and she grew up in a more sophisticated world where her own parents had created a very unusual household. Her mother and her father were two members of a domestic triangle. The third was a very handsome younger man whom her besotted father had brought home to worship, and whom her mother later married after the father died. This too was known publicly, although never spoken of or written about until long after their deaths.

Thus it had always been assumed that this woman, who obviously enjoyed a close and enduring relationship with her husband, didn’t care about his mistresses. It was assumed that she was far above all that; women of her stature had always lived with such circumstances. They were as common as … some of the women who were the mistresses.

With her social and cultural activities, she had made a prominent, productive and intensely interesting life for herself, her husband and her family. This affirmed the notion that she was unperturbed by the arrangement of her marriage.

And so it seemed throughout the woman’s long life and in the days following her death not long ago. And so it might have been, except for one small matter that became a not very small matter in her husband’s extra-marital politics. A matter having to do with the whims of Mother Nature.

A child. There was a mistress of long standing who had a child. And the child’s presence and paternity was known by many of the man’s friends, family and associates for a very long time. And the child was bright and clever and beautiful, like her devoted mother. And strongheaded and a bit of a naif, like her charming and devoted father.

It was said that the wife knew about the child also. If she hadn’t known early on, she would later know because of the child. For by the time she was approaching womanhood, this child, as it is with so many children in modern life who are fathered by men their mothers are not married to, decided to take her father’s name. This decision, because it is a well-known name in the world, drew predictable attention both in society and in the press.

How the public revelation affected the wife was known to very few. However, it was when this happened that the wife privately decided to do something that would seem very uncharacteristic of her esteemed behavior. The time had come. For what she wasn’t certain, for she decided to meet the child. She also decided to meet the child (now a young woman) all the while concealing from her, who she was.

How she was able to arrange this unbeknownst to all the other principals is not known. But there came a time, a day, at a restaurant where the young woman often went to lunch. And on this particular day, it so happened that when the young woman was lunching there, seated at the table next to her on the banquette was … The Wife.

She was now, as it would happen, living the final years of her life, and never a beauty, never fashionably stylish, she was now adorned with the inconspicuousness of age, as it looks to very young eyes.

So when the two met, as they did so “accidentally,” the young girl on the banquette saw only the kind face of a great lady. And so the charming young gazelle, the doe, could not have perceived or imagined in her wildest thoughts the guile awaiting her.

The two women side by side became engaged in conversation, in which the older woman inquired after the younger, flattering her with her “interest.” And where did she live? And where had she studied, and who was her father?

The young woman told her.

“Oh, a great name!” the old woman appeared impressed on hearing. An important man, the old woman, pretending continued. And who, she asked, was her mother?

The young woman explained that she was brought up with her mother’s name but had recently decided to take the name of her father whom she knew and adored.

The old woman listened attentively then asked the young woman if her mother and father would ever marry.

“Oh, no.” Her father, she explained to the old woman, was still married to his wife.

“And do you still see your father?” The old woman asked.

“Every week he comes to lunch with me and my mother,” was the reply.

The old woman continued: “then he must love you and your mother very much.”

“Oh, he does, he does.”

“And it must be very difficult for your mother that you can’t always be together.”

“Oh, it is, it is.”

“He must love you very much,” she reiterated.

“Oh, he does, he does.”

Then the next time the mother, father, daughter lunched together, the old woman suggested that she ask her father a question. “You must ask him something which your mother must have always wanted to ask but never could for many many reasons. You must ask him: “‘If you love Mother so much, why won’t you marry her?’”

And so the time came for the young woman, remembering the advice of the kind old woman she met in the restaurant. One day the young woman was lunching at home with her mother and her father, both of whom she adored, and both of whom adored her. And during the luncheon and the pleasure of the company, the young woman asked her father: “Father, if you love Mother as you say, why don’t you marry her?”

“Why don’t you marry Mother?”

Whereupon the father, suddenly speechless, looked startled and then disturbed in his environment. He slowly backed his chair from the table, slowly rose from his chair, then slowly backed himself away from the table, still without a word. And then he turned and left. Never to return or to speak to his daughter and his mistress for the rest of his wife’s life.

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