Now that he faced this question, it was as if he had been consciously ignoring and putting it aside for a long time. How was it, he asked himself now, that Alice, who had once seemed so bright and keen-witted, who had in truth started out immeasurably his superior in swiftness of apprehension and readiness in humorous quips and conceits, should have grown so dull? For she was undoubtedly slow to understand things nowadays. Her absurd lugging in of the extension-table problem, when the great strategic point of that invitation foisted upon the Presiding Elder came up, was only the latest sample of a score of these heavy-minded exhibitions that recalled themselves to him. And outsiders were apparently beginning to notice it. He knew by intuition what those phrases, “good, honest little soul” and “kind, sweet little body” signified, when another woman used them to a husband about his wife. The very employment of that word “little” was enough, considering that there was scarcely more than a hair’s difference between Mrs. Soulsby and Alice, and that they were both rather tall than otherwise, as the stature of women went.
What she had said about the chronic misfortunes of intellectual men in such matters gave added point to those meaning phrases. Nobody could deny that geniuses and men of conspicuous talent had as a rule, all through history, contracted unfortunate marriages. In almost every case where their wives were remembered at all, it was on account of their abnormal stupidity, or bad temper, or something of that sort. Take Xantippe, for example, and Shakespeare’s wife, and—and—well, there was Byron, and Bulwer-Lytton, and ever so many others.
Of course there was nothing to be done about it. These things happened, and one could only put the best possible face on them, and live one’s appointed life as patiently and contentedly as might be. And Alice undoubtedly merited all the praise which had been so generously bestowed upon her. She was good and honest and kindly, and there could be no doubt whatever as to her utter devotion to him. These were tangible, solid qualities, which must always secure respect for her. It was true that she no longer seemed to be very popular among people. He questioned whether men, for instance, like Father Forbes and Dr. Ledsmar would care much about her. Visions of the wifeless and academic calm in which these men spent their lives—an existence consecrated to literature and knowledge and familiarity with all the loftiest and noblest thoughts of the past—rose and enveloped him in a cloud of depression. No such lot would be his! He must labor along among ignorant and spiteful narrow-minded people to the end of his days, pocketing their insults and fawning upon the harsh hands of jealous nonentities who happened to be his official masters, just to keep a roof over his head—or rather Alice’s. He must sacrifice everything to this, his ambitions, his passionate desires to do real good in the world on a large scale, his mental freedom, yes, even his chance of having truly elevating, intellectual friendships. For it was plain enough that the men whose friendship would be of genuine and stimulating profit to him would not like her. Now that he thought of it, she seemed latterly to make no friends at all.