After thirty years of married happiness, he could still remind himself that Victoria was endowed with every charm except the thrilling touch of human frailty. Though her perfection discouraged pleasures, especially the pleasures of love, he had learned in time to feel the pride of a husband in her natural frigidity. For he still clung, amid the decay of moral platitudes, to the discredited ideal of chivalry. In his youth, the world was suffused with the after-glow of the long Victorian age, and a graceful feminine style had softened the manners, if not the natures, of men. At the end of that interesting epoch, when womanhood was exalted from a biological factsintosa miraculous power, Virginius Littlepage, the younger son of an old and affluent family, had married Victoria Brooke, the grand-daughter of a tobacco planter, who had made a satisfactory fortune by forsaking his plantation and converting tobaccos into cigarettes. While Virginius had been trained by stern tradition to respect every woman who had not stooped to folly, the virtue peculiar to her sex was among the least of his reasons for admiring Victoria. She was not only modest, which was usual in the nineties, but she was beautiful, which is unusual in any decade.
At the beginning of their acquaintance, he had gone even further and ascribed intellect to her, but a few months of marriage had shown this to be merely one of the many delusions created by perfect features and noble expression. Everything about her had been smooth and definite, even the tones of her voice and the way her light brown hair, which she wore a la Pompadour*, was rolled stiffly back from her forehead and coiled in a burnished rope on the top of her head.
A serious young man, ambitious to attain a place in the world more brilliant than the secluded seat of his ancestors, he had been impressed at their first meeting by the compactness and precision of Victoria's orderly mind. For in that earnest period the minds, as well as the emotions, of lovers were orderly. It was an age when eager young men flocked to church on Sunday morning, and eloquent divines discoursed upon the Victorian poets in the middle of the week. He could afford to smile now when he recalled the solemn Browning class in which he had first lost his heart. How passionately he had admired Victoria's virginal features! How fervently he had envied her competent but caressing way with the poet!
Incredible as it seemed to him now, he had fallen in love with her while she recited from the more ponderous passages in The Ring and the Book. He had fallen in love with her then, though he had never really enjoyed Browning, and it had been a relief to him when the Unseen, in company with its illustrious poet, had at last gone out of fashion. Yet, since he was disposed to admire all the qualities he did not possess, he had never ceased to respect the firmness with whichVictoriacontinued to deal in other forms with the Absolute.
As the placid years passed, and she came to rely less upon her virginal features, it seemed to him that the ripe opinions of her youth began to shrink and flatten as fruit does that has hung too long on the tree. She had never changed, he realized, since he had first known her; she had become merely riper, softer, and sweeter.
Her advantage rested where advantage never fails to rest, in moral fervor. To be invariably right was her single wifely failing. For his wife, he sighed, with the vague unrest of a husband whose infidelities are imaginary, was a genuinely good woman. She was as far removed from pretense as she was from the posturing virtues that flourish in the credulous world of the drama. The pity of it was that even the least exacting husband should so often desire something more piquant than goodness.