Nowadays women retain their youth much longer than formerly. The altered conditions under which they live have ordained that it should be so. But an old man is just as feeble as old men were wont to be, and, as a rule, an old man becomes so dependent upon a young wife that the latter is more like a nurse than anything else.
Of course, under the circumstances no true woman would have it otherwise, but my contention is that such circumstances should never arise.
There are some women who, after fifteen or twenty years of married life, accept the conditions under which they find themselves as inevitable. They take it as a matter of course that their husband should suffer from gout or rheumatism or any other accompaniment of age. They also accept it as natural sequence of events that it should be their duty to sink their own individuality, to forgo their own interests in alleviating his sufferings and making his old age happier. And they are right. The situation is of their own making; they must carry out the contract to the end. They do not always even recognise the fact that they have voluntarily relinquished part of their birthright.
There are other women who fight against the disparity of years, which must necessarily become more apparent every day, and who still struggle to live their own lives in their own way, who clamour for the joys and privileges which under other conditions would have been theirs as a matter of course, chafing daily and hourly against the chains which bind their keen, strong lives to feeble age, and failing to recognise that the fetters against which they struggle have been riveted by themselves alone.
" Better be an old man's darling than a young man's slave." But never, never were words more misleading, for the old man is much more likely to prove a tyrant than the young one, or, if he is not a tyrant, he will very probably become a gaoler.
It is almost natural that an old man should be suspicious of a young wife, because at the bottom of his heart he will know with what an insistent voice youth calls to youth. He will realise that her nature requires social gaiety he cannot supply, and the probabilities are that in every young man who approaches her he will see a possible usurper of her affections.
I have seen this happen when the disparity of years has been no greater than ten or fifteen.
Of course, there are exceptional cases where no regrets have ever been felt on either side. I know of one where the couple have been married twenty-two years. The husband is eighty and the wife forty-six, the youngest child a boy of fourteen. It must be a sad reflection for the father that the probabilities are very strongly against his living to see his son grow up, but in every other respect the marriage has been a very happy one. But the man was a wonderful man, and the woman an exceptional woman.
A Young Husband's Elderly Wife
It is far worse when the cases are reversed. I know of one where a woman of forty-three married a boy just one-and-twenty. She was a charming woman, who had refused many a good match. How it was that she succumbed to the immature charms of a lad of that age she alone could tell, but she appeared to be as deeply in love with him as he was with her. They say that very often between forty and fifty some women renew the susceptibilities of their youth. If so, it may account for their many foolish actions at this period. But ten years hence, what will be the position of the last-named couple ? She will be an elderly woman, and he a young man in the full vigour of his manhood.
One hardly knows for which to be most sorry, the tragedy of the woman fighting desperately to retain the remnants of her youth, trying vainly to obliterate the enormous disparity between herself and her husband, or of the man trying to be old before his time, giving up the pleasures in which his wife cannot share, ceasing to shave so that a beard may make him look older than his years.
These are the cases where the man and woman both endeavour to do their best to rectify their initial mistake, which sometimes even to themselves they will not acknowledge. But there are far worse ones in which no endeavour is made, and the younger partner of the ill-assorted couple goes his or her way, irrespective of the desires of husband or wife. Of course, it is blameworthy, and there is no real excuse to offer. It must lead to trouble and disunion, and perhaps despair. But youth is virile and strong, and sometimes when yoked to age it waxes cruel.
Yet I question which is the greater cruelty - the youth which is neglectful of old age, or the age which selfishly possesses itself of youth. "Crabbed age and youth cannot live together," and it is a selfish thing to take a young life in its springtime and bind it to one already in the sere and yellow of the leaf.
But though the above remarks are not in favour of May and December marriages, there is a good deal that may be said in favour of - may we call them ? - June and September alliances, and there are many cases in which these unions are not only permissible, but distinctly desirable. A woman of thirty will make a fitting partner for a man of fifty-five or so. Both have passed their first youth, but are not too old to feel a lasting affection, which, though it may not have the passionate ardour of early youth, may have its foundation securely built on comradeship.
An intelligent woman of thirty or thereabouts will make a far better companion for a man of middle age than will a young girl in her early twenties. They may not be able to look forward to a great many years together, but perhaps this unspoken feeling will make the years they have more precious.
Often a man of middle age is left a widower with a family of young children, in which case it is almost imperative that he marries again, if only for the sake of the children ; but even when there are no boys and girls to be considered, the average man who has been once married cannot do without a woman to share his life.
It is a great mistake to consider that it is a slight upon a man's first wife should he marry a second time ; neither does the second wife take the place of her predecessor. The man probably marries for very different reasons from those which impelled him in his youth, but there is no reason why the love of a man or woman who has reached maturity should not be steady, strong, and loyal, though it may lack the ardour of twenty-one.
Most men and women are happier married than single, and, though it is not good for the extremes of life to meet, yet a difference of fifteen or twenty years need be no bar to happiness. Between thirty and fifty the disparity docs not seem impossible, but between twenty and fifty there lies so deep a gulf that it were foolhardy to attempt the making of a bridge.