Chapter 8 Poor Mrs. Jumeau!

"Now, young people, when I go out, let there be no noise in the house; your mother is ill, so let her little folk be thoughtful for her!"

"Oh, is mother sick again?" said little Ned with falling countenance.

"Poor Neddie! he doesn't like mother to be ill. We all have to be so quiet; and, then, there's nowhere to be! It isn't like home when mother isn't about."

"Mary is right," chimed in Charlie, the eldest of the family; "if I were big enough, I should run away and go to sea, mother's so often bad! But, father, isn't it funny? Yesterday she was quite well, and doing all sorts of horrid things, helping the maids to clear out cupboards; and now, I daresay, she is too ill to move or speak, and tomorrow, perhaps, she'll be our jolly mother again, able to go shrimping with us, or anything else."

"That's because your dear mother has no self, Charlie, boy; no sooner does she feel a bit better than she does more than she can for us all, and then she is knocked up again. I wish we could teach her to be selfish, for our sakes as well as hers, for to have her with us is better than anything she can do for us; eh, Charlie?"

"Indeed, yes! We'd take lots of care of her if she'd let us. But her illness must be queer. You know when we had scarlet fever, father? Well, for weeks and weeks, after the fever was gone, I had no more strength than a tom-tit; and you know I could not go about and do things, however unselfish I was (but I'm not, though). That's what is so queer. Do you think Dr Prideau understands about mother?"

"Much better than you do, depend upon it, Charlie; but I confess your mother's illness is puzzling to all of us. There, children, off with you! I must write a letter or two before I go out."

Mr. Jumeau forgot to write his letters, and sat long, with his head between his hands, pondering the nature of his wife's ailments. What Charlie had put with a boy's rude bluntness had already occurred to him in a dim way. Mrs. Jumeau's illness certainly did not deprive her of bodily vigour; the attacks came on suddenly, left her as suddenly, and left her apparently in perfect health and gay spirits. And this was the more surprising because, while an "attack" lasted, the extreme prostration, pallid countenance and blue lips of the sufferer were painful to behold. Besides, his wife was so absolutely truthful by nature, so unselfish and devoted to her husband and family, that it was as likely she should be guilty of flagrant crime as that she should simulate illness. This sort of thing had gone on for several years. Mr. Jumeau had spent his substance on many physicians, and with little result. "No organic disease." "Overdone." "Give her rest, nourishing food, frequent change of scene and thought; no excitement; Nature will work the cure in time––in time, my good sir. We must be patient." This sort of thing he had heard again and again; doctors did not differ, if that were any consolation.

He went up to have a last look at the sufferer. There she lay, stretched out with limbs composed, and a rigidity of muscle terribly like death. A tear fell on the cold check of his wife as Mr. Jumeau kissed it, and he went out aching with a nameless dread, which, if put into words, would run––some day, and she will wake no more out of this death-like stillness.

And she? She felt the tear, heard the sigh, noted the dejected footfalls of her husband, and her weak pulse stirred with a movement of––was it joy? But the "attack" was not over; for hours she lay there rigid, speechless, with closed eyes, taking no notice of the gentle opening of the door now and then when one or another came to see how she was. Were not her family afraid to leave her alone? No; we get used to anything, and the Jumeaus, servants and children, were well used to these "attacks" in the mistress of the house. Dr Prideau came, sent by her husband, and used even violent measures to restore her, but to no effect; she was aware of these efforts, but was not aware that she resisted them effectually.

Business engagements were pressing, and it was late before Mr. Jumeau, anxious as he was, was able to return to his wife. It was one of those lovely warm evenings we sometimes get late in May, when even London windows are opened to let in the breath of the spring. Nearly at the end of the street he heard familiar strains from Parsifal, played with the vigour Wagner demands. His wife? It could be no one else. As he drew nearer, her exquisite touch was unmistakable. The attack was over, then? Strange to say, his delight was not unmixed. What were these mysterious attacks, and how were they brought on?

The evening was delightful. Mrs. Jumeau was in the gayest spirits: full of tenderness towards her husband, of motherly thought for her children, now fast asleep; ready to talk brightly on any subject except the attack of the morning; any allusion to this she would laugh off as a matter of too little consequence to be dwelt upon. The next morning she was down bright and early, having made up her mind to a giro with the children. They did not go a-shrimping, according to Charlie's forecast, but Kew was decided upon as "just the thing," and a long day in the gardens failed to tire mother or children.

"I must get to the bottom of this," thought Mr. Jumeau.

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"Your question is embarrassing; if I say, Mrs. Jumeau is suffering from hysteria, you will most likely get a wrong notion and discredit my words."

Mr. Jumeau's countenance darkened. "I should still be inclined to trust the evidence of my senses, and believe that my wife is unfeignedly ill."

"Exactly as I expected: simulated ailments and hysteria are hopelessly confounded; but no wonder; hysteria is a misnomer, used in the vaguest way, not even confined to women. Why, I knew a man, a cleryman in the North, who suffered from 'clergyman's sore throat'; he was a popular evangelical preacher, and there was no end to the sympathy his case evoked; he couldn't preach, so his devoted congregation sent him, now to the South of France, now to Algiers, now to Madeira. After each delightful sojourn he returned, looking plump and well, but unable to raise his voice above a hardly audible whisper. This went on for three years or so. Then his Bishop interfered; he must provide a curate in permanent charge, with nearly the full emoluments of the living. The following Sunday he preached, nor did he again lose his voice. And this was an earnest and honest man, who would rather any day be at his work than wandering idly about the world. Plainly, too, in the etymological sense of the word, his complaint was not hysteria. But this is not an exceptional case––keep any man in his dressing-gown for a week or two––a bad cold, say––and he will lay himself out to be pitied and petted, will have half the ailments under the sun, and be at death's door with each. And this is your active man; a man of sedentary habits, notwithstanding his stronger frame, is nearly as open as a woman to the advances of this stealthy foe. Why, for what matter, I've seen it in a dog! Did you never see a dog limp pathetically on his three legs that he might be made much of for his lameness, until his master's whistle calls him off at a canter on all fours?"

"I get no nearer; what have these illustrations to do with my wife?"

"Wait a bit, and I'll try to show you. The throat would seem to be a common seat of the affection. I knew a lady––nice woman she was, too––who went about for years speaking in a painful whisper, whilst everybody said, 'Poor Mrs. Marjoribanks!' But one evening she managed to set her bed-curtains alight, and she rushed to the door, screaming, 'Ann! Ann! the house is on fire! Come at once!' The dear woman believed ever after, that 'something burst' in her throat, and described the sensation minutely; her friends believed, and her doctor did not contradict. By the way, no remedy has proved more often effectual than a house on fire, only you will see the difficulties. I knew of a case, however, where the 'house-afire' prescription was applied with great effect. It was in a London hospital for ladies; a most baffling case; patient had been for months unable to move a limb––was lifted in and out of bed like a log, fed as you would pour into a bottle. A clever young house-surgeon laid a plot with the nurses. In the middle of the night her room was filled with fumes, lurid light, etc. She tried to cry out, but the smoke was suffocating; she jumped out of bed and made for the door––more choking smoke––threw up the sash––fireman, rope-ladder––she scrambled down, and was safe. The whole was a hoax, but it cured her, and the nature of the cure was mercifully kept secret. Another example: A friend of mine determined to put a young woman under 'massage' in her own home; he got a trained operator, forbade any of her family to see her, and waited for results. The girl did not mend; 'Very odd! some reason for this,' he thought; and it came out that every night the mother had crept in to wish her child goodnight; the tender visits were put a stop to, and the girl recovered."

"Your examples are interesting enough, but I fail to see how they bear; in each case, you have a person of weak or disordered intellect simulating a disease with no rational object in view. Now the beggars who know how to manufacture sores on their persons have the advantage––they do it for gain."

"I have told my tale badly; these were not persons of weak or disordered intellect; some of them very much otherwise; neither did they consciously simulate disease; not one believed it possible to make the effort he or she was surprised into. The whole question belongs to the mysterious borderland of physical and psychological science––not pathological, observe; the subject of disease and its treatment is hardly for the lay mind."

"I am trying to understand."

"It is worth your while; if every man took the pains to understand the little that is yet to be known on this interesting subject he might secure his own household, at any rate, from much misery and waste of vital power; and not only his household, but perhaps himself––for, as I have tried to show, this that is called 'hysteria' is not necessarily an affair of sex."

"Go on; I am not yet within appreciable distance of anything bearing on my wife's case."

"Ah, the thing is a million-headed monster! hardly to be recognised by the same features in any two cases. To get at the rationale of it, we must take up human nature by the roots. We talk glibly in these days of what we get from our forefathers, what comes to us through our environment, and consider that in these two we have the sum of human nature. Not a bit of it; we have only accounted for some peculiarities in the individual; independently of these, we come equipped with stock for the business of life of which too little account is taken. The subject is wide, so I shall confine myself to an item or two. "We all come into the world––since we are beings of imperfect nature––subject to the uneasy stirrings of some few primary desires. Thus, the gutter child and the infant prince are alike open to the workings of the desire for esteem, the desire for society, for power, etc. One child has this, and another that desire more active and uneasy. Women, through the very modesty and dependence of their nature, are greatly moved by the desire for esteem. They must be thought of, made much of, at any price. A man desires esteem, and he has meetings in the market-place, the chief-room at the feast; the pétroleuse, the city outcast, must have notoriety––the esteem of the bad––at any price, and we have a city in flames, and Whitechapel murders. Each falls back on his experience and considers what will bring him that esteem, a gnawing craving after which is one of his earliest immaterial cognitions. But the good woman has comparatively few outlets. The esteem that comes to her is all within the sphere of her affections. Esteem she must have; it is a necessity of her nature:

   'Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles,'

are truly to her, 'human nature's daily food.'

"Now, experience comes to her aid. When she is ill, she is the centre of attraction, the object of attention, to all who are dear to her; she will be ill."

"You contradict yourself, man! don't you see? You are painting, not a good woman, but one who will premeditate and act a lie!"

"Not so fast! I am painting a good woman. Here comes in a condition which hardly anyone takes into account. Mrs. Jumeau will lie with stiffened limbs and blue pale face for hours at a time. Is she simulating illness? You might as well say that a man could simulate a gunshot wound. But the thing people forget is, the intimate relation and co-operation of body and mind; that the body lends itself involuntarily to carry out the conceptions of the thinking brain. Mrs. Jumeau does not think herself into pallor, but every infinitesimal nerve fibre, which entwines each equally infinitesimal capillary which brings colour to the check, is intimately connected with the thinking brain, in obedience to whose mandates it relaxes or contracts. Its relaxation brings colour and vigour with the free flow of the blood; its contraction, pallor and stagnation; and the feeling as well as the look of being sealed in a death-like trance. The whole mystery depends on this co-operation of thought and substance of which few women are aware. The diagnosis is simply this, the sufferer has the craving for outward tokens of the esteem which is essential to her nature; she recalls how such tokens accompany her seasons of illness, the sympathetic body perceives the situation, and-she is ill; by and by, the tokens of esteem cease to come with the attacks of illness, but the habit has been set up, and she goes on having 'attacks' which bring real suffering to herself, and of the slightest agency in which she is utterly unconscious."

Conviction slowly forced itself on Mr. Jumeau; now that his wife was shown entirely blameless, he could concede the rest. More, he began to suspect something rotten in the State of Denmark, or women like his wife would never have been compelled to make so abnormal a vent for a craving proper to human nature. "I begin to see; what must I do?"

"In Mrs. Jumeau's case, I may venture to recommend a course which would not answer with one in a thousand. Tell her all I have told you. Make her, mistress of the situation.––I need not say, save her as much as you can from the distress of self-contempt. Trust her, she will come to the rescue, and devise means to save herself; and, all the time, she will want help from you, wise as well as tender. For the rest, those who have in less measure––

   "'The reason firm, the temperate will'––

'massage,' and other devices for annulling the extraordinary physical sensibility to mental conditions, and, at the same time, excluding the patient from the possibility of the affectionate notice she craves, may do a great deal. But this mischief which, in one shape or other, blights the lives of too many of our best and most highly organised women, is one more instance of how lives are ruined by an education which is not only imperfect, but proceeds on wrong lines."

"How could education help in this?"

"Why, let them know the facts, possess them of even so slight an outline as we have had before us tonight, and the best women will take measures for self-preservation. Put them on their guard, that is all. It is not enough to give them accomplishments and all sorts of higher learning; these gratify the desire of esteem only in a very temporary way. But something more than a danger-signal is wanted. The woman, as well as the man, must have her share of the world's work, whose reward is the world's esteem. She must, even the cherished wife and mother of a family, be in touch with the world's needs, and must minister of the gifts she has; and that, because it is no dream that we are all brethren, and must therefore suffer from any seclusion from the common life."

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Mrs. Jumeau's life was not "spoilt." It turned out as the doctor predicted; for days after his revelations she was ashamed to look her husband in the face; but then, she called up her forces, fought her own fight and came off victorious.