The Ghost of a Perfect Husband: 1841

Victorian widow at the grave

A widow swoons on the grave of  the best of husbands. 1846



WE often see young men in the gaiety of youth, resolve against marrying while they enjoy health and spirits; and we as often see, that some unforeseen accident disconcerts all their fine resolutions.
So it was with Julius de Mersaint. Young, rich, handsome, possessing all the advantages of life, he was positively determined, that as long as he was able to enjoy them, he would remain a bachelor. It would be time enough to think of marriage, when he was tired of amusement. In consequence of this resolution, he had courageously resisted the numerous attacks that had been made on him. The kind attentions of the mammas who had marriageable daughters; the pretty airs of the young ladies themselves, had all been met with equal indifference. But at last he met with a widow, and matters took a different turn.

A widow is a two-edged sword; the most adroit master of fence can hardly escape a wound in such an encounter. Julius thought he might trifle with the lady, and found himself in love before he was aware. He had engaged himself too far to retreat; but he found it no difficult matter to reconcile himself to his fate. “After all,” thought he, “what can I do better than to marry a woman who is young, pretty, rich, amiable, and irreproachable in her character? It is every way, an excellent match!” So the project of celibacy was given to the winds, and the lady suffered herself to be persuaded to renounce the state of widowhood.

Soon after the wedding, a friend of Julius arrived from a journey, and came to see the bridegroom. “I am glad to see you,” said the latter; “of course, you come to congratulate me.” “Not at all,” said Frederic, “you know how sincere I am. I should have advised you not to marry; but since the step cannot be recalled, I shall content myself with saying it was a very imprudent one.” “What do you mean?” exclaimed Julius; “you cannot have heard any thing against my wife.” “Oh no! by no means. During her first husband’s life, she lived chiefly in the country, and was but little seen in Paris. Since she has been a widow, and returned to society, she has not given the least occasion for slander. I am happy to do her that justice. In fact, I know no fault that can be found with her except her having been a widow. It is that fact my friend, that constitutes your imprudence.”

“Really, Frederic, I thought you had more sense. You are rather too sentimental.” “No, it is not as a matter of sentiment that I object to it. Did you know the late Mr. Doligny?” “No, I did not.” “Then you do not know who you have married.” “I know I have married a charming woman, only twenty-five years old, who is perfectly amiable, and whom, notwithstanding your odd notions, I am sure you will be delighted with; though she has had the misfortune of being a wife during four years.” “I admire the light manner in which you treat so serious an affair; you marry a woman who has come to years of discretion, without considering in the least what sort of an education she has received from her first master, or caring what responsibilities this reign of four years entails upon you.”

“Indeed, I am not afraid of the past.” “Then you know something about Mr. Doligny; you have heard what was his character, his temper, his habits.” “No, I have seen nobody who knew much about him; but there hangs his portrait in that handsome frame, look at it.” “Why, I must acknowledge that the dear deceased was not very handsome. In that point you have a decided advantage over him. Still, that may not be sufficient. There are some men who can make their wives forget their ugliness; and that very face that quiets your alarms, is perhaps exactly what ought to excite them. You do not know what a degree of complaisance, what attention, what sacrifices, the original of that portrait may have considered himself obliged to use; and depend upon it, no less will be expected from you, notwithstanding your good looks.”

“Well, I intend to be a good husband. I shall endeavour to make my wife happy; what more can be expected?” “I do not know what may be expected. But why is that portrait still there? When the reign is concluded, and the interregnum past; when the people have cried, the king is dead, long live the king, it is the usual custom to transfer the emblem of defunct royalty, either to the lumber room or the garret.” “What! a painting like that! done by one of the first masters. We preserve it as a work of art, without reference to the original, who is dead and out of the way.” “I hope you may find that he is.” “Why you do not believe in ghosts?” “I believe ghosts sometimes come when they are called, and I believe the apparition of a first husband is very apt to be in the way of the imprudent man who has ventured to take his place.”

The next day, the two friends took a ride together. On their return, Frederic requested Julius to go with him into a cemetery, saying with a solemn air, “The living ought to take lessons from the dead.” They walked through several rows of tombstones, with cypresses drooping over them, till Frederic stopped and pointed out an inscription to his friend. “Here rests John Joseph Aristides Doligny; the best of men, and the model of husbands. His inconsolable widow has raised this monument to his memory.” “That inconsolable,” observed Derville, “is an honour to you, for you have triumphed over an eternal sorrow. But the lesson to which I would call your attention, is comprised in the first line. ‘The best of men, and the model of husbands.’ Mark what I tell you, this epitaph will be repeated to you, and this funeral eulogium held up to you as a rule of conduct, from which you may not depart without exposing yourself to witness regrets, which will not be very flattering to you; and to see your wife become once more an inconsolable widow. You smile, you do not believe me?” “How can I? am I not the happiest of husbands.” “Certainly, at this period of your marriage; you may expect to enjoy your honey moon as every body else does; only in the case of a widow, this moon is sometimes curtailed of its fair proportions, and only lasts two or three weeks.” “Really, Frederic, if you were not such an old friend, I should quarrel with you.” “I should not be surprised if you did.”

Julius went home and dined alone with his wife. As he looked on her sweet face, and listened to her agreeable conversation, he thought of the ridiculous fears of his friend. “Poor Frederic,” said he to himself, “he certainly means kindly, but he is strangely mistaken?” His wife interrupted his meditations, by asking if he had not been riding out that morning. “Yes my dear, I took a ride while you were with your mother.” “And I believe you had a friend with, you.” “Yes, Frederic Derville, a charming young man.” “Charming! oh I do not doubt that. But I have heard of the gentleman; and between you and I, that intimacy is one which I think is no longer very suitable for you.” “Not suitable ? why?” “Why, do not you think that a single man has sometimes acquaintances, whom it is as well to give up when he marries?” “Certainly; but Frederic – ” “He is a singular man, and besides he has met with some adventures. He has been talked of, and his attentions have injured the characters of some ladies.” “That is to say, some ladies who had no characters to lose, have been very willing to allow his attentions; but I assure you that Frederic is a man of honour, and incapable – ” “Oh! I dare say, but I can only judge from what I hear. Mr. Frederic Derville would be an improper acquaintance for me, and you surely would not keep up any acquaintance with a person who could not be admitted into my society.” “But, my love, when you become acquainted with Frederic, you will become convinced of your prejudices.” “I shall not become acquainted with him, I assure you.” “Is it possible, Amelia? an old friend of your husband’s?” “If you choose still to consider him as such, I cannot certainly prevent it; but at least, I trust you will refrain from introducing to my acquaintance a person whose character I cannot approve.”

“I hope we are not going to quarrel so soon.” “I certainly do not wish to do so, but I must confess I did not expect so much opposition to a very reasonable request. But I have been deceived by the past.” “What do you mean?” “I mean, that when Mr. Doligny married me, he made no difficulty in giving up any of his old companions; and that the moment I had expressed my disapprobation of any person, he broke with him immediately.” Julius could not answer. The name of Doligny had proved that Frederic was not altogether mistaken: and the honey-moon, had as yet completed but half its course. The cloud, however, soon passed away from the face of the fair planet.

A little time, and this unpleasant scene was forgotten, and the bridegroom again revelled in his visions of perfect happiness, when one day his wife said to him, “My dear, winter is drawing near; have you thought of our box at the opera, and the Italian theatre?” “What box, my love?” “You know how fond I am of music.” “I know that you sing like an angel.” “Then surely, the angel must have at least once a week, a box at the opera, and the Italian theatre.” “Why, I am not quite sure that our fortune will allow of such an indulgence.” “Mr. Doligny had precisely the same income as you; and in his time, I had a box every Monday at the opera, and every Saturday at the Italian theatre.” There was the phantom of the first husband coming a second time, to disturb the comfort of poor Julius; he could not resolve to appear less generous than his predecessor, so he consented to hire both boxes. In another respect he was obliged to imitate Mr. Doligny; he saw Frederic but seldom and almost by stealth. “I do not ask you to come to our house,” said he, “I can offer you so little pleasure. We live very much alone, we see no company, – you would find us very dull.” “Don’t trouble yourself to apologize,” said his friend with a smile, “it is not you, but Mr. Doligny, who refuses to welcome me.”

M. de Mersaint was not only one of the prettiest women in Paris, but one of the best drest. The expense in that particular, was enormous. Her husband observed one day with a manner that was but half agreeable, “You appear frequently in new dresses.” “Is that a compliment, or a reproof,” asked the lady. The poor husband made no reply, and the lady continued. “Mr. Doligny always liked to see me outshine the best dressed women in company; he never thought his idol could be too much adorned.” Presently, the bills came in, and very long bills they were. That of the milliner in particular, presented a frightful amount. Julius could not refrain from expressing some surprise. “What,” cried he, “such a sum for nothing but flowers, feathers, and ribbons.” “Do you think it much?” “What do you think yourself?” “Really, I never had occasion to think about it. Mr. Doligny never made any remarks about such details. The bills were presented, and he paid them, and I heard no more about it.”

The visits of the apparition were becoming more frequent. At first, he only appeared at intervals, but he ended by taking complete possession of the house. He was always present; was brought in on every occasion, consulted in every debate, and there was no appeal from his decisions. He ruled his successor with a rod of iron. At last, he thought fit to introduce another inmate into the family, in the person of a young officer of hussars, a cousin of the lady. “I hope,” said Madame de Mersaint, “that you will treat my cousin Edward as Mr. Doligny used to do. He always considered our house as his home when he had leave of absence.” The tyranny of the ghost was really becoming insupportable; the only consolation Julius had, was to complain in secret to his friend Frederic.

“Ah!” said he to him, “you were quite right. Mr. Doligny does persecute me strangely; his epitaph is a most unreasonable rule of conduct; and I am almost worn out with the difficulty of keeping up to it.” “You would not be the first who has sunk under such a task. I have known many unlucky fellows, who like you, had thoughtlessly married widows, without knowing any thing of their past lives. Some died under the trial; the others only lived to repent; and I have heard more than one express the wish that the admirable customs of India, respecting widows, had been the fashion in France.” Sometimes Julius would make an attempt at rebellion. Then Madame de Mersaint with tears in her eyes, would turn towards the portrait, and exclaim, “Oh! my Aristides, you would not thus have afflicted me! you loved me, and made me happy!” How was it possible to resist that!

However, one evening Julius met at a ball, an old gentleman who had known Madame de Mersaint during her first marriage. “I rejoice,” said he, “to see Madame de Mersaint so happily married; she really deserved some compensation, for all she suffered with her first husband.” “Suffered, my dear sir, why he was a model for all husbands! so says his epitaph, and so his widow says. I try to replace him worthily, but I assure you it is a difficult matter: he was so good a husband as to spoil her for any other.” “My dear sir, it is all very proper for you and her to talk so, but I happened to know Mr. Doligny very well; I spent a great deal of time with them at their country house.” “A beautiful place, was it not?” “You have never been there?” “Never.” “So I perceive.” The curtain was drawn; a new world was opening to the astonished husband. He went on from one discovery to another, and found them well worth making.

Soon after, he informed his wife that he was called from home by business; he refused to answer her inquiries on the subject. “Business which I must not know! Mr. Doligny never had any secrets for me.” Julius went; and on his return, found his wife in rather an ill humour; at last she consented to make peace on one condition. “What is it?” “Take me to the waters of Baden, Mr. Doligny used often to go there with me.” “When you did not pass the summer at your delightful country house.” “Oh! if I had a country house I should like it quite as well to go there.”

“Well, I have got one for you. I wanted to give you a surprise. Make your preparations, and we will set off” “Is it far from here?” “You shall see.” The surprise of Madame de Mersaint may be imagined when she found herself driving up to her former country house. The husband certainly could never have found it out from her description. “My love,” said he, as he handed her from the carriage, “I have bought this place to please you; you know I wish to procure you all the pleasures and indulgences which Mr. Doligny delighted to lavish upon you. And I shall now find it easy to follow his example; as I find his conduct traced by your own hand in this paper.” “My own hand!” cried his wife alarmed. “Yes, my love, your own hand. I received the precious document from your lawyer, with whom I have had a conference; read it yourself.” It was a petition for a separation founded on various acts of ill-treatment, and cruelty, which this model of husbands had exercised towards his disconsolate widow; his death had prevented the affair from coming before the public. Madame de Mersaint cast down her eyes, and the phantom disappeared for ever. They returned to Paris. Julius opened his house to Frederic, who observed, “You have discovered the secret: apparitions are only to be feared in the dark.”

Godey’s Lady’s Book, December, 1841


One thought on “The Ghost of a Perfect Husband: 1841

  1. Pingback: Visiting a Dead Husband: 1813 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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