Scarcely had the old man gone when a general conversation began.
“There’s a little Old Testament father for you,” said the clerk.
“He is a Domostroy,”* said the lady. “What savage ideas about a woman and marriage!”
* The Domostroy is a matrimonial code of the days of Ivan the Terrible.
“Yes, gentlemen,” said the lawyer, “we are still a long way from the European ideas upon marriage. First, the rights of woman, then free marriage, then divorce, as a question not yet solved.” . . .
“The main thing, and the thing which such people as he do not understand,” rejoined the lady, “is that only love consecrates marriage, and that the real marriage is that which is consecrated by love.”
The clerk listened and smiled, with the air of one accustomed to store in his memory all intelligent conversation that he hears, in order to make use of it afterwards.
“But what is this love that consecrates marriage?” said, suddenly, the voice of the nervous and taciturn gentleman, who, unnoticed by us, had approached.
He was standing with his hand on the seat, and evidently agitated. His face was red, a vein in his forehead was swollen, and the muscles of his cheeks quivered.
“What is this love that consecrates marriage?” he repeated.
“What love?” said the lady. “The ordinary love of husband and wife.”
“And how, then, can ordinary love consecrate marriage?” continued the nervous gentleman, still excited, and with a displeased air. He seemed to wish to say something disagreeable to the lady. She felt it, and began to grow agitated.
“How? Why, very simply,” said she.
The nervous gentleman seized the word as it left her lips.
“No, not simply.”
“Madam says,” interceded the lawyer indicating his companion, “that marriage should be first the result of an attachment, of a love, if you will, and that, when love exists, and in that case only, marriage represents something sacred. But every marriage which is not based on a natural attachment, on love, has in it nothing that is morally obligatory. Is not that the idea that you intended to convey?” he asked the lady.
The lady, with a nod of her head, expressed her approval of this translation of her thoughts.
“Then,” resumed the lawyer, continuing his remarks.
But the nervous gentleman, evidently scarcely able to contain himself, without allowing the lawyer to finish, asked:
“Yes, sir. But what are we to understand by this love that alone consecrates marriage?”
“Everybody knows what love is,” said the lady.
“But I don’t know, and I should like to know how you define it.”
“How? It is very simple,” said the lady.
And she seemed thoughtful, and then said:
“Love . . . love . . . is a preference for one man or one woman to the exclusion of all others . . . .”
“A preference for how long? . . . For a month, two days, or half an hour?” said the nervous gentleman, with special irritation.
“No, permit me, you evidently are not talking of the same thing.”
“Yes, I am talking absolutely of the same thing. Of the preference for one man or one woman to the exclusion of all others. But I ask: a preference for how long?”
“For how long? For a long time, for a life-time sometimes.”
“But that happens only in novels. In life, never. In life this preference for one to the exclusion of all others lasts in rare cases several years, oftener several months, or even weeks, days, hours . . . .”
“Oh, sir. Oh, no, no, permit me,” said all three of us at the same time.
The clerk himself uttered a monosyllable of disapproval.
“Yes, I know,” he said, shouting louder than all of us; “you are talking of what is believed to exist, and I am talking of what is. Every man feels what you call love toward each pretty woman he sees, and very little toward his wife. That is the origin of the proverb — and it is a true one — ‘Another’s wife is a white swan, and ours is bitter wormwood.”’
“Ah, but what you say is terrible! There certainly exists among human beings this feeling which is called love, and which lasts, not for months and years, but for life.”
“No, that does not exist. Even if it should be admitted that Menelaus had preferred Helen all his life, Helen would have preferred Paris; and so it has been, is, and will be eternally. And it cannot be otherwise, just as it cannot happen that, in a load of chick-peas, two peas marked with a special sign should fall side by side. Further, this is not only an improbability, but it is certain that a feeling of satiety will come to Helen or to Menelaus. The whole difference is that to one it comes sooner, to the other later. It is only in stupid novels that it is written that ‘they loved each other all their lives.’ And none but children can believe it. To talk of loving a man or woman for life is like saying that a candle can burn forever.”
“But you are talking of physical love. Do you not admit a love based upon a conformity of ideals, on a spiritual affinity?”
“Why not? But in that case it is not necessary to procreate together (excuse my brutality). The point is that this conformity of ideals is not met among old people, but among young and pretty persons,” said he, and he began to laugh disagreeably.
“Yes, I affirm that love, real love, does not consecrate marriage, as we are in the habit of believing, but that, on the contrary, it ruins it.”
“Permit me,” said the lawyer. “The facts contradict your words. We see that marriage exists, that all humanity — at least the larger portion — lives conjugally, and that many husbands and wives honestly end a long life together.”
The nervous gentleman smiled ill-naturedly.
“And what then? You say that marriage is based upon love, and when I give voice to a doubt as to the existence of any other love than sensual love, you prove to me the existence of love by marriage. But in our day marriage is only a violence and falsehood.”
“No, pardon me,” said the lawyer. “I say only that marriages have existed and do exist.”
“But how and why do they exist? They have existed, and they do exist, for people who have seen, and do see, in marriage something sacramental, a sacrament that is binding before God. For such people marriages exist, but to us they are only hypocrisy and violence. We feel it, and, to clear ourselves, we preach free love; but, really, to preach free love is only a call backward to the promiscuity of the sexes (excuse me, he said to the lady), the haphazard sin of certain raskolniks. The old foundation is shattered; we must build a new one, but we must not preach debauchery.”
He grew so warm that all became silent, looking at him in astonishment.
“And yet the transition state is terrible. People feel that haphazard sin is inadmissible. It is necessary in some way or other to regulate the sexual relations; but there exists no other foundation than the old one, in which nobody longer believes? People marry in the old fashion, without believing in what they do, and the result is falsehood, violence. When it is falsehood alone, it is easily endured. The husband and wife simply deceive the world by professing to live monogamically. If they really are polygamous and polyandrous, it is bad, but acceptable. But when, as often happens, the husband and the wife have taken upon themselves the obligation to live together all their lives (they themselves do not know why), and from the second month have already a desire to separate, but continue to live together just the same, then comes that infernal existence in which they resort to drink, in which they fire revolvers, in which they assassinate each other, in which they poison each other.”
All were silent, but we felt ill at ease.
“Yes, these critical episodes happen in marital life. For instance, there is the Posdnicheff affair,” said the lawyer, wishing to stop the conversation on this embarrassing and too exciting ground. “Have you read how he killed his wife through jealousy?”
The lady said that she had not read it. The nervous gentleman said nothing, and changed color.
“I see that you have divined who I am,” said he, suddenly, after a pause.
“No, I have not had that pleasure.”
“It is no great pleasure. I am Posdnicheff.”
New silence. He blushed, then turned pale again.
“What matters it, however?” said he. “Excuse me, I do not wish to embarrass you.”
And he resumed his old seat.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00