The question is seldom put so baldly. Indulgent husbands yield the point in verbal gallantry. Politic wives make it a point of conscience and etiquette to speak of their husbands as owners of house and contents and lawful directors in all pertaining thereunto. At heart, the complaisant Benedict knows his will to be potent, if not supreme, in home and family. The wedded Beatrice is secretly conscious that she can wind her boastful Benedict about her taper finger, and he will not suspect.
An old, old ballad, warbled with sly smiles by our foremothers, thus sums up her view of the matter:
"Now, sisters, since we've made it plain That the case is really so, We'll even let them hold the rein, But we'll show them the way to go!"
Honest John, while his sinewy fingers feel the taut rein between them, believes himself master of the situation. He pays for house, food and servants, and often works hard for the money that secures these for his family. Upon general principles he has a right to know that the money is wisely spent and husbanded;a right to be well lodged and fed and made as comfortable when at home as his means will allow. If he sees furniture abused, food badly - hence unwholesomely - cooked, and needless waste in any department, he has an unquestionable right to direct his wife's attention to the existing state of things, and insist that it be amended. On the other hand, in giving his wife his name, he has made her the managing, as he is the financial, partner of the firm matrimonial.
She is not his hireling.
Failure to comprehend this vital truth wrecks the happiness of more married couples than incompatibility of temper, fickleness and intemperance, all put together.
A reasonably good wife earns so much more than her own living that the surplus ought to go to her credit. If not in money, in a hundred other ways. When John stoops to captious surveillance of her methods, and personal inspection of her work, he degrades her to the position of a suspected menial, and sinks his manhood into Bettyishness. "Bettyishness," according to lexicographers, is the synonym for "womanishness," and for John to be "womanish" is to be unmanly; Mary would rather have him savage, now and then.
I saw a spotless reputation discounted the other day, and many rare, amiable traits of disposition shrivel as waste paper in the fire, under a single sarcastic utterance of a society woman who had her own reasons for disliking the person under discussion.
"Yes!" she said, dubiously, to the praise an elderly matron had given an excellent son and brother. "But, then, he is such a ladylike person!"
The epithet was apt. Not one of us could deny it. Every woman present, while she laughed, would have preferred to have her husband called a brute.
John takes ugly risks when he tempts his hitherto loyal spouse to name him to her confidential self as "Bettyish," "Miss Nancy-ish" or a "Mollycoddle." They all mean the same thing. As a sloven he may be forgiven in consideration of the solid manliness back of personal carelessness. We wink at rusty shoes, and collars awry, and tousled hair, and missing sleeve-links. For the same reason we condone crossness, and even a touch of savagery. When he comes home "in a temper," he has had a trying day down town, or he is hot, or headachy, or hungry. Womanly ingenuity is set to work to soothe down the inclement mood, and womanly love glides to the front with the mantle of tenderest charity to hide the fault from others, and put it out of our own minds when it is past.
I know a man - squarely-built, robust and keen-eyed - who carries the keys of the store-room, and lends them to his wife at night and morning to give out the supplies needed for the daily meals. He registers in day-book and ledger every pound of butter and box of crackers and quart of vinegar brought into the house, with the date of purchase.
I knew another (who ceased from his labors ten years ago), who visited kitchen, pantries and store-room several times every week to see that everything was clean and orderly. He used to smell milk-pans, run a critical finger around the insidcs of kettles and pots and inquire into the destination of scraps - and all without a blush or misgiving. In each case it was, of course, impossible to keep servants who could get any other place. Wives belong to the class that can not give warning.
If either of these men would have tolerated the apparition in his counting-room or office, at stated, or irregular, periods of his wife - bent upon inspection of accounts and sales, the clerks undergoing examination, or standing as witnesses of his humiliation - then he was justified to his conscience for his policy of home rule.
Mary would go to prison for her John, and to the scaffold with him. She springs to arms in his defense if her nearest of kin dare to intimate that he is not the pink of perfection she would have them believe. His grossest eccentricities are graces so long as they are masculine.
But let him prowl into the pantry, peep into the bread-box, criticize the arrangement or derangement of china-shelves, pull open linen drawers, spy out dusty rungs of chairs, take down, sort, and hang in better order the contents of clothes-hooks and hat-racks - and he may shift for and shield himself. With lofty scorn the wife of his immaculate shirt bosom leaves him to the fate he deserves.
In which course there is some reason and a little unreason. For which of us does not draw upon John's sympathies in her domestic distresses? He must not undertake the management of Bridget, or Daphne, or Marie. These be womanish matters, in which a man should not intermeddle. It may be the most temperate of suggestions, such as, "My dear, I don't like to find fault, but if you would speak to Margaret about meddling with the papers upon my table when she dusts the library?" It is a distinct trespass upon wifely preserves. Margaret is under the protection of her mistress' wing. The interests and credit of the two are identical. But there comes a day when the league snaps in two, like scorched twine. The maid gives warning, and company is expected, and the mistress "did think she had a right to expect better things from Margaret, after all the kindness she has shown her in sickness and in health, and the excellent wages she has given her, and here, at the most inconvenient time she could have chosen, the creature is deserting her!"
Thus runs the torrent of talk into the ears of a man who left a much worse complication behind him in his office when he set his face toward home and imaginary peace. Had he found fault with Margaret a week ago, he would have been a "Molly" Should he withhold sympathy from the mistress to-day, to the extent of commending the ingrate's past services, and wondering if there may not be possible palliation somewhere for her present behavior - he is unfeeling, and - "a man!" When a woman brings out the monosyllable in that accent, she may as well go a semi-tone higher and say, "Monster!"
To be explicit, John must dance when his spouse puts the pipes to her lips, and not presume to mourn but at her lamenting. As her sister, my sympathies topple dangerously toward her. As an impartial chronicler I can not deny that much may be said in his defense, even when he is convicted of womanish meddling. He is but a passenger upon the domestic craft in fair weather, a paying passenger, who is expected, nevertheless, to be smilingly content with his accommodations, to eat as he is fed, sleep upon the bed as it is made, and to complain of nothing until the sea gets rough, and another and a stout hand is needed on deck and in the rigging.
The principle should work well both ways, or it will go to pieces of its own weight.