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TEA-TABLE TALK (chapter3)

2006-09-08 21:04

    CHAPTER III

    "I never liked her," said the Old Maid; "I always knew she was heartless."

    "To my thinking," said the Minor Poet, "she has shown herself a true woman."

    "Really," said the Woman of the World, laughing, "I shall have to nickname you Dr. Johnson Redivivus. I believe, were the subject under discussion, you would admire the coiffure of the Furies. It would occur to you that it must have been naturally curly."

    "It is the Irish blood flowing in his veins," I told them. "He must always be 'agin the Government.'"

    "We ought to be grateful to him," remarked the Philosopher. "What can be more uninteresting than an agreeable conversation I mean, a conversation——where everybody is in agreement? Disagreement, on the other hand, is stimulating."

    "Maybe that is the reason," I suggested, "why modern society is so tiresome an affair. By tabooing all difference of opinion we have eliminated all zest from our intercourse. Religion, sex, politics—— any subject on which man really thinks, is scrupulously excluded from all polite gatherings. Conversation has become a chorus; or, as a writer wittily expressed it, the pursuit of the obvious to no conclusion. When not occupied with mumbling, 'I quite agree with you'——'As you say'——'That is precisely my opinion'——we sit about and ask each other riddles: 'What did the Pro-Boer?' 'Why did Julius Caesar?'"

    "Fashion has succeeded where Force for centuries has failed," added the Philosopher. "One notices the tendency even in public affairs. It is bad form nowadays to belong to the Opposition. The chief aim of the Church is to bring itself into line with worldly opinion. The Nonconformist Conscience grows every day a still smaller voice."

    "I believe," said the Woman of the World, "that was the reason why Emily never got on with poor dear George. He agreed with her in everything. She used to say it made her feel such a fool." "Man is a fighting animal," explained the Philosopher. "An officer who had been through the South African War was telling me only the other day: he was with a column, and news came in that a small commando was moving in the neighbourhood. The column set off in the highest of spirits, and after three days' trying work through a difficult country came up with, as they thought, the enemy. As a matter of fact, it was not the enemy, but a troop of Imperial Yeomanry that had lost its way. My friend informs me that the language with which his column greeted those unfortunate Yeomen—— their fellow countrymen, men of their own blood-was most unsympathetic."

    "Myself, I should hate a man who agreed with me," said the Girton Girl.

    "My dear," replied the Woman of the World, "I don't think any would."

    "Why not?" demanded the Girton Girl.

    "I was thinking more of you, dear," replied the Woman of the World.

    "I am glad you all concur with me," murmured the Minor Poet. "I have always myself regarded the Devil's Advocate as the most useful officer in the Court of Truth."

    "I remember being present one evening," I observed, "at a dinner-party where an eminent judge met an equally eminent K. C.; whose client the judge that very afternoon had condemned to be hanged. 'It is always a satisfaction,' remarked to him genially the judge, 'condemning any prisoner defended by you. One feels so absolutely certain he was guilty.' The K. C. responded that he should always remember the judge's words with pride."

    "Who was it," asked the Philosopher, "who said: 'Before you can attack a lie, you must strip it of its truth'?"

    "It sounds like Emerson," I ventured.

    "Very possibly," assented the Philosopher; "very possibly not. There is much in reputation. Most poetry gets attributed to Shakespeare."

    "I entered a certain drawing-room about a week ago," I said. "'We were just speaking about you,' exclaimed my hostess. 'Is not this yours?' She pointed to an article in a certain magazine lying open on the table. 'No,' I replied; 'one or two people have asked me that same question. It seems to me rather an absurd article,' I added. 'I cannot say I thought very much of it,' agreed my hostess."

    "I can't help it," said the Old Maid. "I shall always dislike a girl who deliberately sells herself for money."

    "But what else is there to sell herself for?" asked the Minor Poet.

    "She should not sell herself at all," retorted the Old Maid, with warmth. "She should give herself, for love."

    "Are we not in danger of drifting into a difference of opinion concerning the meaning of words merely?" replied the Minor Poet. "We have all of us, I suppose, heard the story of the Jew clothier remonstrated with by the Rabbi for doing business on the Sabbath. 'Doing bithness!' retorted the accused with indignation; 'you call thelling a thuit like that for eighteen shillings doing bithness! By, ith's tharity!' This 'love' for which the maiden gives herself- -let us be a little more exact——does it not include, as a matter of course, material more tangible? Would not the adored one look somewhat astonished on discovering that, having given herself for 'love,' love was all that her lover proposed to give for her. Would she not naturally exclaim: 'But where's the house, to say nothing of the fittings? And what are we to live on'?"

    "It is you now who are playing with words," asserted the Old Maid. "The greater includes the less. Loving her, he would naturally desire——"

    "With all his worldly goods her to endow," completed for her the Minor Poet. "In other words, he pays a price for her. So far as love is concerned, they are quits. In marriage, the man gives himself to the woman as the woman gives herself to the man. Man has claimed, I am aware, greater liberty for himself; but the claim has always been vehemently repudiated by woman. She has won her case. Legally and morally now husband and wife are bound by the same laws. This being so, her contention that she gives herself falls to the ground. She exchanges herself. Over and above, she alone of the twain claims a price."

    "Say a living wage," corrected the Philosopher. "Lazy rubbish lolls in petticoats, and idle stupidity struts in trousers. But, class for class, woman does her share of the world's work. Among the poor, of the two it is she who labours the longer. There is a many- versed ballad popular in country districts. Often I have heard it sung in shrill, piping voice at

    harvest supper or barn dance. The chorus runs

    A man's work 'tis till set of sun, But a woman's work is never done!

    "My housekeeper came to me a few months ago," said the Woman of the World, "to tell me that my cook had given notice. 'I am sorry to hear it,' I answered; 'has she found a better place?' 'I am not so sure about that,' answered Markham; 'she's going as general servant.' 'As general servant!' I exclaimed. 'To old Hudson, at the coal wharf,' answered Markham. 'His wife died last year, if you remember. He's got seven children, poor man, and no one to look after them.' 'I suppose you mean,' I said, 'that she's marrying him.' 'Well, that's the way she puts it,' laughed Markham. 'What I tell her is, she's giving up a good home and fifty pounds a year, to be a general servant on nothing a week. But they never see it.'"

    "I recollect her," answered the Minor Poet, "a somewhat depressing lady. Let me take another case. You possess a remarkably pretty housemaid——Edith, if I have it rightly."

    "I have noticed her," remarked the Philosopher. "Her manners strike me as really quite exceptional."

    "I never could stand any one about me with carroty hair," remarked the Girton Girl.

    "I should hardly call it carroty," contended the Philosopher. "There is a golden tint of much richness underlying, when you look closely."

    "She is a very good girl," agreed the Woman of the World; "but I am afraid I shall have to get rid of her. The other woman servants don't get on with her."

    "Do you know whether she is engaged or not?" demanded the Minor Poet.

    "At the present moment," answered the Woman of the World, "she is walking out, I believe, with the eldest son of the 'Blue Lion.' But she is never adverse to a change. If you are really in earnest about the matter——"

    "I was not thinking of myself," said the Minor Poet. "But suppose some young gentleman of personal attractions equal to those of the 'Blue Lion,' or even not quite equal, possessed of two or three thousand a year, were to enter the lists, do you think the 'Blue Lion' would stand much chance?"

    "Among the Upper Classes," continued the Minor Poet, "opportunity for observing female instinct hardly exists. The girl's choice is confined to lovers able to pay the price demanded, if not by the beloved herself, by those acting on her behalf. But would a daughter of the Working Classes ever hesitate, other things being equal, between Mayfair and Seven Dials?"

    "Let me ask you one," chimed in the Girton Girl. "Would a bricklayer hesitate any longer between a duchess and a scullery- maid?"

    "But duchesses don't fall in love with bricklayers," returned the Minor Poet. "Now, why not? The stockbroker flirts with the barmaid——cases have been known; often he marries her. Does the lady out shopping ever fall in love with the waiter at the bun-shop? Hardly ever. Lordlings marry ballet girls, but ladies rarely put their heart and fortune at the feet of the Lion Comique. Manly beauty and virtue are not confined to the House of Lords and its dependencies. How do you account for the fact that while it is common enough for the man to look beneath him, the woman will almost invariably prefer her social superior, and certainly never tolerate her inferior? Why should King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid appear to us a beautiful legend, while Queen Cophetua and the Tramp would be ridiculous?"

    "The simple explanation is," expounded the Girton Girl, "woman is so immeasurably man's superior that only by weighting him more or less heavily with worldly advantages can any semblance of balance be obtained."

    "Then," answered the Minor Poet, "you surely agree with me that woman is justified in demanding this 'make-weight.' The woman gives her love, if you will. It is the art treasure, the gilded vase thrown in with the pound of tea; but the tea has to be paid for."

    "It all sounds very clever," commented the Old Maid; "yet I fail to see what good comes of ridiculing a thing one's heart tells one is sacred."

    "Do not be so sure I am wishful to ridicule," answered the Minor Poet. "Love is a wondrous statue God carved with His own hands and placed in the Garden of Life, long ago. And man, knowing not sin, worshipped her, seeing her beautiful. Till the time came when man learnt evil; then saw that the statue was naked, and was ashamed of it. Since when he has been busy, draping it, now in the fashion of this age, now in the fashion of that. We have shod her in dainty bottines, regretting the size of her feet. We employ the best artistes to design for her cunning robes that shall disguise her shape. Each season we fix fresh millinery upon her changeless head. We hang around her robes of woven words. Only the promise of her ample breasts we cannot altogether hide, shocking us not a little; only that remains to tell us that beneath the tawdry tissues still stands the changeless statue God carved with His own hands."

    "I like you better when you talk like that," said the Old Maid; "but I never feel quite sure of you. All I mean, of course, is that money should not be her first consideration. Marriage for money——it is not marriage; one cannot speak of it. Of course, one must be reasonable."

    "You mean," persisted the Minor Poet, "you would have her think also of her dinner, of her clothes, her necessities, luxuries."

    "It is not only for herself," answered the Old Maid.

    "For whom?" demanded the Minor Poet.

    The white hands of the Old Maid fluttered on her lap, revealing her trouble; for of the old school is this sweet friend of mine.

    "There are the children to be considered," I explained. "A woman feels it even without knowing. It is her instinct."

    The Old Maid smiled on me her thanks.

    "It is where I was leading," said the Minor Poet. "Woman has been appointed by Nature the trustee of the children. It is her duty to think of them, to plan for them. If in marriage she does not take the future into consideration, she is untrue to her trust."

    "Before you go further," interrupted the Philosopher, "there is an important point to be considered. Are children better or worse for a pampered upbringing? Is not poverty often the best school?"

    "It is what I always tell George," remarked the Woman of the World, "when he grumbles at the tradesmen's books. If Papa could only have seen his way to being a poor man, I feel I should have been a better wife." "Please don't suggest the possibility," I begged the Woman of the World; "the thought is too bewildering."

    "You were never imaginative," replied the Woman of the World.

    "Not to that extent," I admitted.

    "'The best mothers make the worst children,'" quoted the Girton Girl. "I intend to bear that in mind."

    "Your mother was a very beautiful character——one of the most beautiful I ever knew," remarked the Old Maid.

    "There is some truth in the saying," agreed the Minor Poet, "but only because it is the exception; and Nature invariably puts forth all her powers to counteract the result of deviation from her laws. Were it the rule, then the bad mother would be the good mother and the good mother the bad mother. And——"

    "Please don't go on," said the Woman of the World. "I was up late last night."

    "I was merely going to show," explained the Minor Poet, "that all roads lead to the law that the good mother is the best mother. Her duty is to her children, to guard their infancy, to take thought for their equipment."

    "Do you seriously ask us to believe," demanded the Old Maid, "that the type of woman who does marry for money considers for a single moment any human being but herself?"

    "Not consciously, perhaps," admitted the Minor Poet. "Our instincts, that they may guide us easily, are purposely made selfish. The flower secretes honey for its own purposes, not with any sense of charity towards the bee. Man works, as he thinks, for beer and baccy; in reality, for the benefit of unborn generations. The woman, in acting selfishly, is assisting Nature's plans. In olden days she chose her mate for his strength. She, possibly enough, thought only of herself; he could best provide for her then simple wants, best guard her from the disagreeable accidents of nomadic life. But Nature, unseen, directing her, was thinking of the savage brood needing still more a bold protector. Wealth now is the substitute for strength. The rich man is the strong man. The woman's heart unconsciously goes out to him." "Do men never marry for money?" inquired the Girton Girl. "I ask merely for information. Maybe I have been misinformed, but I have heard of countries where the dot is considered of almost more importance than the bride."

    "The German officer," I ventured to strike in, "is literally on sale. Young lieutenants are most expensive, and even an elderly colonel costs a girl a hundred thousand marks."

    "You mean," corrected the Minor Poet, "costs her father. The Continental husband demands a dowry with his wife, and sees that he gets it. He in his turn has to save and scrape for years to provide each of his daughters with the necessary dot. It comes to the same thing precisely. Your argument could only apply were woman equally with man a wealth producer. As it is, a woman's wealth is invariably the result of a marriage, either her own or that of some shrewd ancestress. And as regards the heiress, the principle of sale and purchase, if I may be forgiven the employment of common terms, is still more religiously enforced. It is not often that the heiress is given away; stolen she may be occasionally, much to the indignation of Lord Chancellors and other guardians of such property; the thief is very properly punished——imprisoned, if need be. If handed over legitimately, her price is strictly exacted, not always in money——that she possesses herself, maybe in sufficiency; it enables her to bargain for other advantages no less serviceable to her children——for title, place, position. In the same way the Neolithic woman, herself of exceptional strength and ferocity, may have been enabled to bestow a thought upon her savage lover's beauty, his prehistoric charm of manner; thus in other directions no less necessary assisting the development of the race."

    "I cannot argue with you," said the Old Maid. "I know one case. They were both poor; it would have made no difference to her, but it did to him. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me that, as you say, our instincts are given us to guide us. I do not know. The future is not in our hands; it does not belong to us. Perhaps it were wiser to listen to the voices that are sent to us."

    "I remember a case, also," said the Woman of the World. She had risen to prepare the tea, and was standing with her back to us. 'Like the woman you speak of, she was poor, but one of the sweetest creatures I have ever known. I cannot help thinking it would have been good for the world had she been a mother."

    "My dear lady," cried the Minor Poet, "you help me!"

    "I always do, according to you," laughed the Woman of the World. "I appear to resemble the bull that tossed the small boy high into the apple-tree he had been trying all the afternoon to climb."

    "It is very kind of you," answered the Minor Poet. "My argument is that woman is justified in regarding marriage as the end of her existence, the particular man as but a means. The woman you speak of acted selfishly, rejecting the crown of womanhood because not tendered to her by hands she had chosen."

    "You would have us marry without love?" asked the Girton Girl.

    "With love, if possible," answered the Minor Poet; "without, rather than not at all. It is the fulfilment of the woman's law."

    "You would make of us goods and chattels," cried the Girton Girl.

    "I would make of you what you are," returned the Minor Poet, "the priestesses of Nature's temple, leading man to the worship of her mysteries. An American humorist has described marriage as the craving of some young man to pay for some young woman's board and lodging. There is no escaping from this definition; let us accept it. It is beautiful——so far as the young man is concerned. He sacrifices himself, deprives himself, that he may give. That is love. But from the woman's point of view? If she accept thinking only of herself, then it is a sordid bargain on her part. To understand her, to be just to her, we must look deeper. Not sexual, but maternal love is her kingdom. She gives herself not to her lover, but through her lover to the great Goddess of the Myriad Breasts that shadows ever with her guardian wings Life from the outstretched hand of Death."

    "She may be a nice enough girl from Nature's point of view," said the Old Maid; "personally, I shall never like her."

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