In time for Valentine's Day, which is a sugary-sweet goo of a holiday, here's a little something of a more cynical nature, loosely inspired by the classic O. Henry tale, "The Gift of the Magi." Only mildly Victorian in nature, I'm afraid, but I hope it is entertaining nonetheless. With apologies to Elvis for the title. - RJ
“Suspicion is a thing very few people can entertain without letting the hypothesis turn, in their minds, into fact.” – David Court, Social Astonishments (1963)
Suspicion is a terrible thing. It can tear a marriage apart, slowly, silently. The only solution to a nagging suspicion that one’s spouse is being unfaithful is to find proof of it.
No, wait. How can that make any sense? Mr. B is sitting in his office, stewing about the possibility that Mrs. B has taken her affections elsewhere – perhaps at this very moment, when Mr. B can do nothing but contemplate the gray filing cabinets to his left and the window that overlooks a garbage-filled alley to his right – so he decides his best shot at happiness is to retain a private detective to find out. Now, this can end in one of two ways only. First, the detective finds no evidence of a clandestine lover. How does that help the situation? One cannot prove a negative, so the suspicions, perhaps abated somewhat, remain and smolder. Second, the detective provides conclusive proof that Mrs. B is enjoying the attentions of another man, that she is getting her groove back, as some uncouth phrase might put it in a time when the English language has been utterly debased. Fine, now he knows. But is he happier?
Still, man is a curious animal, and empirical evidence indicates that the only intolerable situation is not knowing. Hence the ever-increasing demand for private detectives whose stock-in-trade is knowing how to peep into a window without getting caught.
So it came to pass one day in early February that Mr. Charles Forsythe found himself leafing through a directory to hire a man for just such an unsavory job. Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe had been married a decade, and, to his mind, it had been a generally happy decade for the two of them. Perhaps the bloom was somewhat off the rose, perhaps Charles had gained a few pounds over the years and Theresa was not as firm of body as once she was, and perhaps the toll of work at the office (for Charles was an accountant at a moderately successful firm, with offices in Victoria City) and home (for Theresa kept a lovely home in Mayfair for her husband and two young children, with no help but a part-time housekeeper and a day nanny) made the couple a little more tired in the evening than had once been the case. Mr. Forsythe accepted these facts as part of life, and had thought his wife did as well.
Several days before, however, he found himself following his wife down the street at a discreet distance. What roused his suspicions in the first place he could not say. Theresa had been acting strangely for some time, and several times he had come home for lunch only to find Theresa gone, and the nanny could not vouch for the whereabouts of her mistress. He took a day off work and waited in a concealed area near his house where he could watch who came and went. Boredom threatened to overtake him, and Mr. Forsythe started thinking about how he would manage his elevenses. Just then, Theresa left the house in her green day dress and a dark cloak, with a feathered hat fixed firmly upon her head. Charles, although not practiced at the art of skulking, thought he could follow that hat from a considerable distance, thereby reducing the chances she would notice him, and he set out after her.
They walked until Theresa reached one of the less reputable streets in Victoria City, and a brownstone in need of some mortar work, whereupon she rang the bell and waited. Presently, the door opened and a man of about thirty-five, with a dapper little moustache, opened the door. He was in his shirt and suspenders, with no vest or jacket, and no tie. After some brief pleasantries, he let Theresa into the house and closed the door again. Charles risked moving closer, until he could look at the nameplate next to the door. O. Baring-Jones, read the plaque, providing no further information. He crept back to his hiding place, the doorway to a shuttered flower store, and waited. A little later, his wife left the building quickly, and returned home.
This expedition left Charles shaken and suspicious, yet he could not bring himself to believe that his wife was, in fact, engaged in a clandestine affair with Mr. Baring-Jones. He tried and failed to think of an innocent explanation. Still, he believed he owed Theresa the benefit of the doubt, and attempted to put the incident out of his mind.
A few days passed, and Charles, having put in his hours at the accounting firm, made his way home. He exchanged greetings with Theresa and the children, changed clothes, and poured himself a glass of sherry. The February day was short, and Charles moved to close the blinds. As he stood, drink in hand, he saw the shadow of a man near a gas lamp. He strained to identify the man, who drew further into the dark when Charles appeared by the window. Charles was not certain, but he thought the man was Baring-Jones. Sneaking about his house, like a cat burglar! Charles could hardly believe what he had seen – or what he thought he had seen. This man was waiting for Charles to leave the house in order to continue a tryst with Theresa!
At that moment, with his hand wrapped around the glass of warming alcohol, Charles felt his blood go cold. He resolved that his expression would betray none of the emotion churning inside him. The very next day, he would find and engage a private detective to provide proof positive of his wife’s infidelity. Divorce and scandal, he imagined, would follow.
How quickly a good marriage, a good life, can disintegrate! he thought.
A few days before her husband’s fateful discovery, Mrs. Forsythe had made an unsavory find of her own. She had no illusions that she closely resembled the wasp-waisted girl Charles had married a decade ago; her shape was matronly, and she was discovering gray hairs and wrinkles where none previously existed. Still, she thought their marriage was strong, and that Charles loved her and their children as much as one could expect from a man – which is to say, his interests had shifted as he aged and his firm consumed the time and energy that had once been devoted to their courtship.
That day, she had been out shopping and was in the process of stopping at her favorite restaurant in Victoria City for a late lunch. Before she turned the knob to the restaurant door, she glanced inside to see whether a table was available, only to see Charles at a table against the wall. He was not alone. His companion was a striking young woman who was dressed in the latest creation from To a T, and even through the glass pane Theresa could see the woman’s brooch – was that from young Mr. Whybrow’s collection? Theresa had admired his diamond brooch every time she passed his shop in South End – twinkling. Charles put his hand over the woman’s and gave it a loving pat. That was all Theresa needed to see. She fled, her appetite gone.
She waited until the noon hour arrived the next day to keep her appointment. Charles occasionally returned for luncheon with her, but she needed to wait until the nanny arrived and could tend to the children. She had sent a note to a detective, requesting the appointment, and he replied in the affirmative. The man seemed sympathetic to Theresa’s plight – she supposed he heard a variant of this story daily, and his sympathetic face was second nature by now, a prerequisite for obtaining distraught wives as clients – but it calmed Theresa. He listened attentively to her tale. They agreed on terms, and she left, her soul heavy.
The waiting was the hardest part, Theresa reflected. Mr. Baring-Jones had said he would contact her in a week, or earlier if he had news to report. She tried to remain cheerful and go about her duties as though she had no cares, but it was increasingly difficult to do so as the week wore on. Charles looked distracted as well, which only increased her suspicions. Several times she was tempted to send for Mr. Baring-Jones, and refrained from doing so only through exercise of all remaining willpower.
Valentine’s Day came – a day when Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe had traditionally exchanged handwritten notes to one another, expressing their love and devotion – and the spouses still simmered in their suspicions, waiting for their respective agents to report. The day fell on Saturday, when Mr. Forsythe had but a half day of work, so he was home by two p.m. to putter about the house. Mrs. Forsythe avoided him as much as possible.
Both were downstairs, he in the library and she in the sitting room, when a knock came at the front door. As the housekeeper was out, Mr. Forsythe opened the door to find not one, but two deliverymen on his stoop. Mrs. Forsythe approached the door as well, equally surprised to see the two young men standing outside. Mr. Forsythe looked first at the one on the left, then the one on the right, attempting to decide which one he should bid to speak first. His dilemma was solved when the one on the left thrust forth a package, declaring it to be for Mr. Charles Forsythe. Charles took the package from the extended hands. The deliveryman’s counterpart took that as his cue to announce that his package was for Mrs. Charles Forsythe. Charles took that one as well, tipped both lads, and closed the door.
Charles gave his wife her package, and returned to the library to open his. Fetching a letter opener, he slit the cord tying the package, and tore open the brown wrapping paper. Inside lay a small box with a note on the top. The note read, Dearest Charles, Ten years married! This seemed too special an occasion to give you merely a card. I picked these especially for you. Love, Your Theresa. He opened the box, finding inside a pair of cuff links, embossed with a large F in sterling silver. He looked at the links, dumbfounded.
In the sitting room, Theresa found a pair of scissors to cut open delicately the twine on her package. The box bore the label “Sparkle of Sound.” With a puzzled look on her face, she opened the box. Inside was the brooch she had admired from Mr. Whybrow’s shop – but this one was customized, with a T in tiny emeralds. She gasped.
At this point, one might imagine the two spouses comparing notes, their suspicions turned to relief as they discovered what the other was really up to. One might envision the tearful kisses, the reconciliation, the months and years lived knowing that love transcended physical shape, or even the dying of the fires of passion that once burned brightly. Surely, it may be said, that the daily kindliness that a husband may show his wife, or the special look that a wife may show her husband, are what is needed to reassure both parties that what began as passion has ripened into something different, but altogether better, for a mature love is the one that stands the test of time.
Imagine what you like, Dear Reader! Do you forget the admonishment with which this brief tale opened? No, human nature being what it is, an idea such as this, once planted, can only continue to grow. The confessions and relief and tears and kisses that you imagined for the Forsythes were all there. Yet the concerns remained. Theresa increasingly wondered what her husband might be doing during his long absences; similarly, Charles was increasingly concerned about how Theresa spent her time unchaperoned. Indeed, come to think of it, he had only her word for it that this Baring-Jones character was, in fact, a detective and that his only relationship with Theresa was a professional one.
And so it went. One year passed to the next, and, though the couple remained together, their hearts moved apart, locked in prisons of their own making.