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TEA-TABLE TALK (chapter6)

2006-09-08 21:04

    CHAPTER VI

    "But what is her reason?" demanded the Old Maid.

    "Reason! I don't believe any of them have any reason." The Woman of the World showed sign of being short of temper, a condition of affairs startlingly unusual to her. "Says she hasn't enough work to do."

    "She must be an extraordinary woman," commented the Old Maid.

    "The trouble I have put myself to in order to keep that woman, just because George likes her savouries, no one would believe," continued indignantly the Woman of the World. "We have had a dinner party regularly once a week for the last six months, entirely for her benefit. Now she wants me to give two. I won't do it!"

    "If I could be of any service?" offered the Minor Poet. "My digestion is not what it once was, but I could make up in quality——a recherche little banquet twice a week, say on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I would make a point of eating with you. If you think that would content her!"

    "It is really thoughtful of you," replied the Woman of the World, "but I cannot permit it. Why should you be dragged from the simple repast suitable to a poet merely to oblige my cook? It is not reason."

    "I was thinking rather of you," continued the Minor Poet.

    "I've half a mind," said the Woman of the World, "to give up housekeeping altogether and go into an hotel. I don't like the idea, but really servants are becoming impossible."

    "It is very interesting," said the Minor Poet.

    "I am glad you find it so!" snapped the Woman of the World.

    "What is interesting?" I asked the Minor Poet.

    "That the tendency of the age," he replied, "should be slowly but surely driving us into the practical adoption of a social state that for years we have been denouncing the Socialists for merely suggesting. Everywhere the public-houses are multiplying, the private dwellings diminishing."

    "Can you wonder at it?" commented the Woman of the World. "You men talk about 'the joys of home.' Some of you write poetry——generally speaking, one of you who lives in chambers, and spends two-thirds of his day at a club." We were sitting in the garden. The attention of the Minor Poet became riveted upon the sunset. "'Ethel and I by the fire.' Ethel never gets a chance of sitting by the fire. So long as you are there, comfortable, you do not notice that she has left the room to demand explanation why the drawing-room scuttle is always filled with slack, and the best coal burnt in the kitchen range. Home to us women is our place of business that we never get away from."

    "I suppose," said the Girton Girl——to my surprise she spoke with entire absence of indignation. As a rule, the Girton Girl stands for what has been termed "divine discontent" with things in general. In the course of time she will outlive her surprise at finding the world so much less satisfactory an abode than she had been led to suppose——also her present firm conviction that, given a free hand, she could put the whole thing right in a quarter of an hour. There are times even now when her tone suggests less certainty of her being the first person who has ever thought seriously about the matter. "I suppose," said the Girton Girl, "it comes of education. Our grandmothers were content to fill their lives with these small household duties. They rose early, worked with their servants, saw to everything with their own eyes. Nowadays we demand time for self-development, for reading, for thinking, for pleasure. Household drudgery, instead of being the object of our life, has become an interference to it. We resent it."

    "The present revolt of woman," continued the Minor Poet, "will be looked back upon by the historian of the future as one of the chief factors in our social evolution. The 'home'——the praises of which we still sing, but with gathering misgiving——depended on her willingness to live a life of practical slavery. When Adam delved and Eve span——Adam confining his delving to the space within his own fence, Eve staying her spinning-wheel the instant the family hosiery was complete——then the home rested upon the solid basis of an actual fact. Its foundations were shaken when the man became a citizen and his interests expanded beyond the domestic circle. Since that moment woman alone has supported the institution. Now she, in her turn, is claiming the right to enter the community, to escape from the solitary confinement of the lover's castle. The 'mansions,' with common dining-rooms, reading-rooms, their system of common service, are springing up in every quarter; the house, the villa, is disappearing. The story is the same in every country. The separate dwelling, where it remains, is being absorbed into a system. In America, the experimental laboratory of the future, the houses are warmed from a common furnace. You do not light the fire, you turn on the hot air. Your dinner is brought round to you in a travelling oven. You subscribe for your valet or your lady's maid. Very soon the private establishment, with its staff of unorganised, quarrelling servants, of necessity either over or underworked, will be as extinct as the lake dwelling or the sandstone cave."

    "I hope," said the Woman of the World, "that I may live to see it."

    "In all probability," replied the Minor Poet, "you will. I would I could feel as hopeful for myself."

    "If your prophecy be likely of fulfilment," remarked the Philosopher, "I console myself with the reflection that I am the oldest of the party. Myself; I never read these full and exhaustive reports of the next century without revelling in the reflection that before they can be achieved I shall be dead and buried. It may be a selfish attitude, but I should be quite unable to face any of the machine-made futures our growing guild of seers prognosticate. You appear to me, most of you, to ignore a somewhat important consideration——namely, that mankind is alive. You work out your answers as if he were a sum in rule-of-three: 'If man in so many thousands of years has done so much in such a direction at this or that rate of speed, what will he be doing——?' and so on. You forget he is swayed by impulses that can enter into no calculation——drawn hither and thither by powers that can never be represented in your algebra. In one generation Christianity reduced Plato's republic to an absurdity. The printing-press has upset the unanswerable conclusions of Machiavelli."

    "I disagree with you," said the Minor Poet.

    "The fact does not convince me of my error," retorted the Philosopher.

    "Christianity," continued the Minor Poet, "gave merely an added force to impulses the germs of which were present in the infant race. The printing-press, teaching us to think in communities, has nonplussed to a certain extent the aims of the individual as opposed to those of humanity. Without prejudice, without sentiment, cast your eye back over the panorama of the human race. What is the picture that presents itself? Scattered here and there over the wild, voiceless desert, first the holes and caves, next the rude- built huts, the wigwams, the lake dwellings of primitive man. Lonely, solitary, followed by his dam and brood, he creeps through the tall grass, ever with watchful, terror-haunted eyes; satisfies his few desires; communicates, by means of a few grunts and signs, his tiny store of knowledge to his offspring; then, crawling beneath a stone, or into some tangled corner of the jungle, dies and disappears. We look again. A thousand centuries have flashed and faded. The surface of the earth is flecked with strange quivering patches: here, where the sun shines on the wood and sea, close together, almost touching one another; there, among the shadows, far apart. The Tribe has formed itself. The whole tiny mass moves forward, halts, runs backwards, stirred always by one common impulse. Man has learnt the secret of combination, of mutual help. The City rises. From its stone centre spreads its power; the Nation leaps to life; civilisation springs from leisure; no longer is each man's life devoted to his mere animal necessities. The artificer, the thinker——his fellows shall protect him. Socrates dreams, Phidias carves the marble, while Pericles maintains the law and Leonidas holds the Barbarian at bay. Europe annexes piece by piece the dark places of the earth, gives to them her laws. The Empire swallows the small State; Russia stretches her arm round Asia. In London we toast the union of the English-speaking peoples; in Berlin and Vienna we rub a salamander to the deutscher Bund; in Paris we whisper of a communion of the Latin races. In great things so in small. The stores, the huge Emporium displaces the small shopkeeper; the Trust amalgamates a hundred firms; the Union speaks for the worker. The limits of country, of language, are found too narrow for the new Ideas. German, American, or English——let what yard of coloured cotton you choose float from the mizzenmast, the business of the human race is their captain. One hundred and fifty years ago old Sam Johnson waited in a patron's anteroom; today the entire world invites him to growl his table talk the while it takes its dish of tea. The poet, the novelist, speak in twenty languages. Nationality——it is the County Council of the future. The world's high roads run turnpike-free from pole to pole. One would be blind not to see the goal towards which we are rushing. At the outside it is but a generation or two off. It is one huge murmuring Hive-one universal Hive just the size of the round earth. The bees have been before us; they have solved the riddle towards which we in darkness have been groping.

    The Old Maid shuddered visibly. "What a terrible idea!" she said.

    "To us," replied the Minor Poet; "not to those who will come after us. The child dreads manhood. To Abraham, roaming the world with his flocks, the life of your modern City man, chained to his office from ten to four, would have seemed little better than penal servitude."

    "My sympathies are with the Abrahamitical ideal," observed the Philosopher.

    "Mine also," agreed the Minor Poet. "But neither you nor I represent the tendency of the age. We are its curiosities. We, and such as we, serve as the brake regulating the rate of progress. The genius of species shows itself moving in the direction of the organised community——all life welded together, controlled by one central idea. The individual worker is drawn into the factory. Chippendale today would have been employed sketching designs; the chair would have been put together by fifty workers, each one trained to perfection in his own particular department. Why does the hotel, with its five hundred servants, its catering for three thousand mouths, work smoothly, while the desirable family residence, with its two or three domestics, remains the scene of waste, confusion, and dispute? We are losing the talent of living alone; the instinct of living in communities is driving it out."

    "So much the worse for the community," was the comment of the Philosopher. "Man, as Ibsen has said, will always be at his greatest when he stands alone. To return to our friend Abraham, surely he, wandering in the wilderness, talking with his God, was nearer the ideal than the modern citizen, thinking with his morning paper, applauding silly shibboleths from a theatre pit, guffawing at coarse jests, one of a music hall crowd? In the community it is the lowest always leads. You spoke just now of all the world inviting Samuel Johnson to its dish of tea. How many read him as compared to the number of subscribers to the Ha'penny Joker? This 'thinking in communities,' as it is termed, to what does it lead? To mafficking and Dreyfus scandals. What crowd ever evolved a noble idea? If Socrates and Galileo, Confucius and Christ had 'thought in communities,' the world would indeed be the ant-hill you appear to regard as its destiny."

    "In balancing the books of life one must have regard to both sides of the ledger," responded the Minor Poet. "A crowd, I admit, of itself creates nothing; on the other hand, it receives ideals into its bosom and gives them needful shelter. It responds more readily to good than to evil. What greater stronghold of virtue than your sixpenny gallery? Your burglar, arrived fresh from jumping on his mother, finds himself applauding with the rest stirring appeals to the inborn chivalry of man. Suggestion that it was right or proper under any circumstances to jump upon one's mother he would at such moment reject with horror. 'Thinking in communities' is good for him. The hooligan, whose patriotism finds expression in squirting dirty water into the face of his coster sweetheart: the boulevardiere, primed with absinth, shouting 'Conspuez les Juifs!'—— the motive force stirring them in its origin was an ideal. Even into making a fool of itself, a crowd can be moved only by incitement of its finer instincts. The service of Prometheus to mankind must not be judged by the statistics of the insurance office. The world as a whole has gained by community, will attain its goal only through community. From the nomadic savage by the winding road of citizenship we have advanced far. The way winds upward still, hidden from us by the mists, but along its tortuous course lies our track into the Promised Land. Not the development of the individual——that is his own concern-but the uplifting of the race would appear to be the law. The lonely great ones, they are the shepherds of the flock——the servants, not the masters of the world. Moses shall die and be buried in the wilderness, seeing only from afar the resting-place of man's tired feet. It is unfortunate that the Ha'penny Joker and its kind should have so many readers. Maybe it teaches those to read who otherwise would never read at all. We are impatient, forgetting that the coming and going of our generations are but as the swinging of the pendulum of Nature's clock. Yesterday we booked our seats for gladiatorial shows, for the burning of Christians, our windows for Newgate hangings. Even the musical farce is an improvement upon that——at least, from the humanitarian point of view."

    "In the Southern States of America," observed the Philosopher, sticking to his guns, "they run excursion trains to lynching exhibitions. The bull-fight is spreading to France, and English newspapers are advocating the reintroduction of bear-baiting and cock-fighting. Are we not moving in a circle?"

    "The road winds, as I have allowed," returned the Minor Poet; "the gradient is somewhat steep. Just now, maybe, we are traversing a backward curve. I gain my faith by pausing now and then to look behind. I see the weary way with many a downward sweep. But we are climbing, my friend, we are climbing."

    "But to such a very dismal goal, according to your theory," grumbled the Old Maid. "I should hate to feel myself an insect in a hive, my little round of duties apportioned to me, my every action regulated by a fixed law, my place assigned to me, my very food and drink, I suppose, apportioned to me. Do think of something more cheerful."

    The Minor Poet laughed. "My dear lady," he replied, "it is too late. The thing is already done. The hive already covers us, the cells are in building. Who leads his own life? Who is master of himself? What can you do but live according to your income in, I am sure, a very charming little cell; buzz about your little world with your cheerful, kindly song, helping these your fellow insects here, doing day by day the useful offices apportioned to you by your temperament and means, seeing the same faces, treading ever the same narrow circle? Why do I write poetry? I am not to blame. I must live. It is the only thing I can do. Why does one man live and die upon the treeless rocks of Iceland, another labour in the vineyards of the Apennines? Why does one woman make matches, ride in a van to Epping Forest, drink gin, and change hats with her lover on the homeward journey; another pant through a dinner-party and half a dozen receptions every night from March to June, rush from country house to fashionable Continental resort from July to February, dress as she is instructed by her milliner, say the smart things that are expected of her? Who would be a sweep or a chaperon, were all roads free? Who is it succeeds in escaping the law of the hive? The loafer, the tramp. On the other hand, who is the man we respect and envy? The man who works for the community, the public-spirited man, as we call him; the unselfish man, the man who labours for the labour's sake and not for the profit, devoting his days and nights to learning Nature's secrets, to acquiring knowledge useful to the race. Is he not the happiest, the man who has conquered his own sordid desires, who gives himself to the public good? The hive was founded in dark days before man knew; it has been built according to false laws. This man will have a cell bigger than any other cell; all the other little men shall envy him; a thousand fellow-crawling mites shall slave for him, wear out their lives in wretchedness for him and him alone; all their honey they shall bring to him; he shall gorge while they shall starve. Of what use? He has slept no sounder in his foolishly fanciful cell. Sleep is to tired eyes, not to silken coverlets. We dream in Seven Dials as in Park Lane. His stomach, distend it as he will——it is very small——resents being distended. The store of honey rots. The hive was conceived in the dark days of ignorance, stupidity, brutality. A new hive shall arise."

    "I had no idea," said the Woman of the World, "you were a Socialist."

    "Nor had I," agreed the Minor Poet, "before I began talking."

    "And next Wednesday," laughed the Woman of the World; "you will be arguing in favour of individualism."

    "Very likely," agreed the Minor Poet. "'The deep moans round with many voices.'"

    "I'll take another cup of tea," said the Philosopher.

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