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Twice Told Tales

Wakefield
In some old magazine or newspaper I recollect a story, told as truth, of a man—let us call
him Wakefield—who absented himself for a long time from his wife. The fact, thus
abstractedly stated, is not very uncommon, nor, without a proper distinction of
circumstances, to be condemned either as naughty or nonsensical. Howbeit, this, though
far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the strangest instance on record of marital
delinquency, and, moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of
human oddities. The wedded couple lived in London. The man, under pretence of going a
journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his
wife or friends and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt
upward of twenty years. During that period he beheld his home every day, and frequently
the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity—when
his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory and
his wife long, long ago resigned to her autumnal widowhood—he entered the door one
evening quietly as from a day's absence, and became a loving spouse till death.
This outline is all that I remember. But the incident, though of the purest originality,
unexampled, and probably never to be repeated, is one, I think, which appeals to the
general sympathies of mankind. We know, each for himself, that none of us would
perpetrate such a folly, yet feel as if some other might. To my own contemplations, at
least, it has often recurred, always exciting wonder, but with a sense that the story must
be true and a conception of its hero's character. Whenever any subject so forcibly affects
the mind, time is well spent in thinking of it. If the reader choose, let him do his own
meditation; or if he prefer to ramble with me through the twenty years of Wakefield's
vagary, I bid him welcome, trusting that there will be a pervading spirit and a moral, even
should we fail to find them, done up neatly and condensed into the final sentence.
Thought has always its efficacy and every striking incident its moral.
What sort of a man was Wakefield? We are free to shape out our own idea and call it by
his name. He was now in the meridian of life; his matrimonial affections, never violent,
were sobered into a calm, habitual sentiment; of all husbands, he was likely to be the
most constant, because a certain sluggishness would keep his heart at rest wherever it
might be placed. He was intellectual, but not actively so; his mind occupied itself in long
and lazy musings that tended to no purpose or had not vigor to attain it; his thoughts were
seldom so energetic as to seize hold of words. Imagination, in the proper meaning of the
term, made no part of Wakefield's gifts. With a cold but not depraved nor wandering
heart, and a mind never feverish with riotous thoughts nor perplexed with originality,
who could have anticipated that our friend would entitle himself to a foremost place
among the doers of eccentric deeds? Had his acquaintances been asked who was the man
in London the surest to perform nothing to-day which should be remembered on the
morrow, they would have thought of Wakefield. Only the wife of his bosom might have
hesitated. She, without having analyzed his character, was partly aware of a quiet
selfishness that had rusted into his inactive mind; of a peculiar sort of vanity, the most
uneasy attribute about him; of a disposition to craft which had seldom produced more
 
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