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TEA-TABLE TALK (chapter5)

2006-09-08 21:04

    CHAPTER V

    "Myself," said the Minor Poet, "I read the book with the most intense enjoyment. I found it inspiring——so inspiring, I fear I did not give it sufficient attention. I must read it again."

    "I understand you," said the Philosopher. "A book that really interests us makes us forget that we are reading. Just as the most delightful conversation is when nobody in particular appears to be talking."

    "Do you remember meeting that Russian man George brought down here about three months ago?" asked the Woman of the World, turning to the Minor Poet. "I forget his name. As a matter of fact, I never knew it. It was quite unpronounceable and, except that it ended, of course, with a double f, equally impossible to spell. I told him frankly at the beginning I should call him by his Christian name, which fortunately was Nicholas. He was very nice about it."

    "I remember him distinctly," said the Minor Poet. "A charming man."

    "He was equally charmed with you," replied the Woman of the World.

    "I can credit it easily," murmured the Minor Poet. "One of the most intelligent men I ever met."

    "You talked together for two hours in a corner," said the Woman of the World. "I asked him when you had gone what he thought of you. 'Ah! what a talker!' he exclaimed, making a gesture of admiration with his hands. 'I thought maybe you would notice it,' I answered him. 'Tell me, what did he talk about?' I was curious to know; you had been so absorbed in yourselves and so oblivious to the rest of us. 'Upon my word,' he replied, 'I really cannot tell you. Do you know, I am afraid, now I come to think of it, that I must have monopolised the conversation.' I was glad to be able to ease his mind on that point. 'I really don't think you did,' I assured him. I should have felt equally confident had I not been present."

    "You were quite correct," returned the Minor Poet. "I have a distinct recollection of having made one or two observations myself. Indeed, if I may say so, I talked rather well."

    "You may also recollect," continued the Woman of the World, "that the next time we met I asked you what he had said, and that your mind was equally a blank on the subject. You admitted you had found him interesting. I was puzzled at the time, but now I begin to understand. Both of you, no doubt, found the conversation so brilliant, each of you felt it must have been your own."

    "A good book," I added——"a good talk is like a good dinner: one assimilates it. The best dinner is the dinner you do not know you have eaten."

    "A thing will often suggest interesting thought," observed the Old Maid, "without being interesting. Often I find the tears coming into my eyes as I witness some stupid melodrama——something said, something hinted at, will stir a memory, start a train of thought."

    "I once," I said, "sat next to a country-man in the pit of a music- hall some years ago. He enjoyed himself thoroughly up to half-past ten. Songs about mothers-in-law, drunken wives, and wooden legs he roared at heartily. At ten-thirty entered a well-known artiste who was then giving a series of what he called 'Condensed Tragedies in Verse.' At the first two my country friend chuckled hugely. The third ran: 'Little boy; pair of skates: broken ice; heaven's gates.' My friend turned white, rose hurriedly, and pushed his way impatiently out of the house. I left myself some ten minutes later, and by chance ran against him again in the bar of the 'Criterion,' where he was drinking whisky rather copiously. 'I couldn't stand that fool,' he explained to me in a husky voice. 'Truth is, my youngest kid got drowned last winter skating. Don't see any sense making fun of real trouble.'"

    "I can cap your story with another," said the Philosopher. "Jim sent me a couple of seats for one of his first nights a month or two ago. They did not reach me till four o'clock in the afternoon. I went down to the club to see if I could pick up anybody. The only man there I knew at all was a rather quiet young fellow, a new member. He had just taken Bates's chambers in Staple Inn——you have met him, I think. He didn't know many people then and was grateful for my invitation. The play was one of those Palais Royal farces—— it cannot matter which, they are all exactly alike. The fun consists of somebody's trying to sin without being found out. It always goes well. The British public invariably welcomes the theme, provided it be dealt with in a merry fashion. It is only the serious discussion of evil that shocks us. There was the usual banging of doors and the usual screaming. Everybody was laughing around us. My young friend sat with rather a curious fixed smile upon his face. 'Fairly well constructed,' I said to him, as the second curtain fell amid yells of delight. 'Yes,' he answered, 'I suppose it's very funny.' I looked at him; he was little more than a boy. 'You are rather young,' I said, 'to be a moralist.' He gave a short laugh. 'Oh! I shall grow out of it in time,' he said. He told me his story later, when I came to know him better. He had played the farce himself over in Melbourne——he was an Australian. Only the third act had ended differently. His girl wife, of whom he was passionately fond, had taken it quite seriously and had committed suicide. A foolish thing to do."

    "Man is a beast!" said the Girton Girl, who was prone to strong expression.

    "I thought so myself when I was younger," said the Woman of the World.

    "And don't you now, when you hear a thing like that?" suggested the Girton Girl.

    "Certainly, my dear," replied the Woman of the World; "there is a deal of the animal in man; but——well, I was myself expressing that same particular view of him, the brute, to a very old lady with whom I was spending a winter in Brussels, many years ago now, when I was quite a girl. She had been a friend of my father's, and was one of the sweetest and kindest——I was almost going to say the most perfect woman I have ever met; though as a celebrated beauty, stories, dating from the early Victorian era, were told about her. But myself I never believed them. Her calm, gentle, passionless face, crowned with its soft, silver hair——I remember my first sight of the Matterhorn on a summer's evening; somehow it at once reminded me of her." "My dear," laughed the Old Maid, "your anecdotal method is becoming as jerky as a cinematograph."

    "I have noticed it myself," replied the Woman of the World; "I try to get in too much."

    "The art of the raconteur," observed the Philosopher, "consists in avoiding the unessential. I have a friend who never yet to my knowledge reached the end of a story. It is intensely unimportant whether the name of the man who said the thing or did the deed be Brown or Jones or Robinson. But she will worry herself into a fever trying to recollect. 'Dear, dear me!' she will leave off to exclaim; 'I know his name so well. How stupid of me!' She will tell you why she ought to recollect his name, how she always has recollected his name till this precise moment. She will appeal to half the people in the room to help her. It is hopeless to try and induce her to proceed, the idea has taken possession of her mind. After a world of unnecessary trouble she recollects that it was Tomkins, and is delighted; only to be plunged again into despair on discovery that she has forgotten his address. This makes her so ashamed of herself she declines to continue, and full of self- reproach she retires to her own room. Later she re-enters, beaming, with the street and number pat. But by that time she has forgotten the anecdote."

    "Well, tell us about your old lady, and what it was you said to her," spoke impatiently the Girton Girl, who is always eager when the subject under discussion happens to be the imbecility or criminal tendency of the opposite sex.

    "I was at the age," continued the Woman of the World, "when a young girl tiring of fairy stories puts down the book and looks round her at the world, and naturally feels indignant at what she notices. I was very severe upon both the shortcomings and the overgoings of man——our natural enemy. My old friend used to laugh, and that made me think her callous and foolish. One day our bonne——like all servants, a lover of gossip-came to us delighted with a story which proved to me how just had been my estimate of the male animal. The grocer at the corner of our rue, married only four years to a charming and devoted little wife, had run away and left her. "'He never gave her even a hint, the pretty angel!' so Jeanne informed us. 'Had had his box containing his clothes and everything he wanted ready packed for a week, waiting for him at the railway station——just told her he was going to play a game of dominoes, and that she was not to sit up for him; kissed her and the child good- night, and——well, that was the last she ever saw of him. Did Madame ever hear the like of it?' concluded Jeanne, throwing up her hands to heaven. 'I am sorry to say, Jeanne, that I have,' replied my sweet Madame with a sigh, and led the conversation by slow degrees back to the subject of dinner. I turned to her when Jeanne had left the room. I can remember still the burning indignation of my face. I had often spoken to the man myself, and had thought what a delightful husband he was——so kind, so attentive, so proud, seemingly, of his dainty femme. 'Doesn't that prove what I say,' I cried, 'that men are beasts?' 'I am afraid it helps in that direction,' replied my old friend. 'And yet you defend them,' I answered. 'At my age, my dear,' she replied, 'one neither defends nor blames; one tries to understand.' She put her thin white hand upon my head. 'Shall we hear a little more of the story?' she said. 'It is not a pleasant one, but it may be useful to us.' 'I don't want to hear any more of it,' I answered; 'I have heard enough.' 'It is sometimes well,' she persisted, 'to hear the whole of a case before forming our judgment.' And she rang the bell for Jeanne. 'That story about our little grocer friend,' she said——'it is rather interesting to me. Why did he leave her and run away——do you know?' Jeanne shrugged her ample shoulders. 'Oh! the old story, Madame,' she answered, with a short laugh. 'Who was she?' asked my friend. 'The wife of Monsieur Savary, the wheelwright, as good a husband as ever a woman had. It's been going on for months, the hussy!' 'Thank you, that will do, Jeanne.' She turned again to me so soon as Jeanne had left the room. 'My dear,' she said, 'whenever I see a bad man, I peep round the corner for the woman. Whenever I see a bad woman, I follow her eyes; I know she is looking for her mate. Nature never makes odd samples.'"

    "I cannot help thinking," said the Philosopher, "that a good deal of harm is being done to the race as a whole by the overpraise of women."

    "Who overpraises them?" demanded the Girton Girl. "Men may talk nonsense to us——I don't know whether any of us are foolish enough to believe it——but I feel perfectly sure that when they are alone most of their time is occupied in abusing us."

    "That is hardly fair," interrupted the Old Maid. "I doubt if they do talk about us among themselves as much as we think. Besides, it is always unwise to go behind the verdict. Some very beautiful things have been said about women by men."

    "Well, ask them," said the Girton Girl. "Here are three of them present. Now, honestly, when you talk about us among yourselves, do you gush about our virtue, and goodness, and wisdom?"

    "'Gush,'" said the Philosopher, reflecting, "'gush' would hardly be the correct word."

    "In justice to the truth," I said, "I must admit our Girton friend is to a certain extent correct. Every man at some time of his life esteems to excess some one particular woman. Very young men, lacking in experience, admire perhaps indiscriminately. To them, anything in a petticoat is adorable: the milliner makes the angel. And very old men, so I am told, return to the delusions of their youth; but as to this I cannot as yet speak positively. The rest of us——well, when we are alone, it must be confessed, as our Philosopher says, that 'gush' is not the correct word."

    "I told you so," chortled the Girton Girl.

    "Maybe," I added, "it is merely the result of reaction. Convention insists that to her face we show her a somewhat exaggerated deference. Her very follies we have to regard as added charms——the poets have decreed it. Maybe it comes as a relief to let the pendulum swing back."

    "But is it not a fact," asked the Old Maid, "that the best men and even the wisest are those who have held women in most esteem? Do we not gauge civilization by the position a nation accords to its women?"

    "In the same way as we judge them by the mildness of their laws, their tenderness for the weak. Uncivilised man killed off the useless numbers of the tribe; we provide for them hospitals, almshouses. Man's attitude towards woman proves the extent to which he has conquered his own selfishness, the distance he has travelled from the law of the ape: might is right. "Please don't misunderstand me," pleaded the Philosopher, with a nervous glance towards the lowering eyebrows of the Girton Girl. "I am not saying for a moment woman is not the equal of man; indeed, it is my belief that she is. I am merely maintaining she is not his superior. The wise man honours woman as his friend, his fellow- labourer, his complement. It is the fool who imagines her unhuman."

    "But are we not better," persisted the Old Maid, "for our ideals? don't say we women are perfect——please don't think that. You are not more alive to our faults than we are. Read the women novelists from George Eliot downwards. But for your own sake——is it not well man should have something to look up to, and failing anything better——?"

    "I draw a very wide line," answered the Philosopher, "between ideals and delusions. The ideal has always helped man; but that belongs to the land of his dreams, his most important kingdom, the kingdom of his future. Delusions are earthly structures, that sooner or later fall about his ears, blinding him with dust and dirt. The petticoat-governed country has always paid dearly for its folly." "Elizabeth!" cried the Girton Girl. "Queen Victoria!"

    "Were ideal sovereigns," returned the Philosopher, "leaving the government of the country to its ablest men. France under its Pompadours, the Byzantine Empire under its Theodoras, are truer examples of my argument. I am speaking of the unwisdom of assuming all women to be perfect. Belisarius ruined himself and his people by believing his own wife to be an honest woman."

    "But chivalry," I argued, "has surely been of service to mankind?" "To an immense extent," agreed the Philosopher. "It seized a natural human passion and turned it to good uses. Then it was a reality. So once was the divine right of kings, the infallibility of the Church, for cumbering the ground with the lifeless bodies of which mankind has paid somewhat dearly. Not its upstanding lies—— they can be faced and defeated——but its dead truths are the world's stumbling-blocks. To the man of war and rapine, trained in cruelty and injustice, the woman was the one thing that spoke of the joy of yielding. Woman, as compared with man, was then an angel: it was no mere form of words. All the tender offices of life were in her hands. To the warrior, his life divided between fighting and debauchery, his womenfolk tending the sick, helping the weak, comforting the sorrowing, must have moved with white feet across a world his vices had made dark. Her mere subjection to the priesthood, her inborn feminine delight in form and ceremony——now an influence narrowing her charity——must then, to his dim eyes, trained to look upon dogma as the living soul of his religion, have seemed a halo, deifying her. Woman was then the servant. It was naturally to her advantage to excite tenderness and mercy in man. Since she has become the mistress of the world. It is no longer her interested mission to soften his savage instincts. Nowadays, it is the women who make war, the women who exalt brute force. Today, it is the woman who, happy herself, turns a deaf ear to the world's low cry of pain; holding that man honoured who would ignore the good of the species to augment the comforts of his own particular family; holding in despite as a bad husband and father the man whose sense of duty extends beyond the circle of the home. One recalls Lady Nelson's reproach to her lord after the battle of the Nile. 'I have married a wife, and therefore cannot come,' is the answer to his God that many a woman has prompted to her lover's tongue. I was speaking to a woman only the other day about the cruelty of skinning seals alive. 'I feel so sorry for the poor creatures,' she murmured; 'but they say it gives so much more depth of colour to the fur.' Her own jacket was certainly a very beautiful specimen."

    "When I was editing a paper," I said, "I opened my columns to a correspondence on this very subject. Many letters were sent to me-most of them trite, many of them foolish. One, a genuine document, I remember. It came from a girl who for six years had been assistant to a fashionable dressmaker. She was rather tired of the axiom that all women, at all times, are perfection. She suggested that poets and novelists should take service for a year in any large drapery or millinery establishment where they would have an opportunity of studying woman in her natural state, so to speak."

    "It is unfair to judge us by what, I confess, is our chief weakness," argued the Woman of the World. "Woman in pursuit of clothes ceases to be human——she reverts to the original brute. Besides, dressmakers can be very trying. The fault is not entirely on one side."

    "I still fail to be convinced," remarked the Girton Girl, "that woman is over-praised. Not even the present conversation, so far as it has gone, altogether proves your point."

    "I am not saying it is the case among intelligent thinkers," explained the Philosopher, "but in popular literature the convention still lingers. To woman's face no man cares to protest against it; and woman, to her harm, has come to accept it as a truism. 'What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all that's nice.' In more or less varied form the idea has entered into her blood, shutting out from her hope of improvement. The girl is discouraged from asking herself the occasionally needful question: Am I on the way to becoming a sound, useful member of society? Or am I in danger of degenerating into a vain, selfish, lazy piece of good-fornothing rubbish? She is quite content so long as she can detect in herself no tendency to male vices, forgetful that there are also feminine vices. Woman is the spoilt child of the age. No one tells her of her faults. The World with its thousand voices flatters her. Sulks, bad temper, and pigheaded obstinacy are translated as 'pretty Fanny's wilful ways.' Cowardice, contemptible in man or woman, she is encouraged to cultivate as a charm. Incompetence to pack her own bag or find her own way across a square and round a corner is deemed an attraction. Abnormal ignorance and dense stupidity entitle her to pose as the poetical ideal. If she give a penny to a street beggar, selecting generally the fraud, or kiss a puppy's nose, we exhaust the language of eulogy, proclaiming her a saint. The marvel to me is that, in spite of the folly upon which they are fed, so many of them grow to be sensible women."

    "Myself," remarked the Minor Poet, "I find much comfort in the conviction that talk, as talk, is responsible for much less good and much less harm in the world than we who talk are apt to imagine. Words to grow and bear fruit must fall upon the earth of fact."

    "But you hold it right to fight against folly?" demanded the Philosopher.

    "Heavens, yes!" cried the Minor Poet. "That is how one knows it is Folly——if we can kill it. Against the Truth our arrows rattle harmlessly."

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