BREAKFAST was laid for two in the smallest room—a jewel of a room—of perhaps the largest house in Park Lane. It was already half-past ten, but as yet there was only one occupant of the room, an elderly lady of striking appearance. Her face, a long oval face, was wrinkled and crow-footed in a thousand lines; her capacious forehead was contracted as if with thought; her white eyebrows were thick and firmly drawn; her deep-set eyes were curiously keen and bright; her features were strongly marked,—-it was a handsome face which could never, even in early girlhood, have been a pretty face; her abundant hair was of a rich creamy white, the kind of white which in age compensates its owner for the years of her youth when it was inclined to redness; her mouth was full, the lower lip slightly projecting, as is often found with those who speak much and in large rooms; her fingers were restless; her figure was withered by time. When she laid aside the paper she had been reading, and walked across the room to the open window, you might have noticed how frail and thin she seemed, yet how firmly she walked and stood.
This wrinkled face, this frail form, belonged to the foremost intellect of England; the lady was none other than Dorothy Ingleby, Professor of Ancient and Modern History in the University of Cambridge.
It would be difficult, without going into great detail, and telling many anecdotes, to account for her great reputation and the weight of her authority. She had written little; her lectures were certainly not popular with undergraduates, partly because undergraduates will never attend Professors' lectures, and partly because the University would not allow her to lecture at all on the history of the past, and the story of the present was certainly neither interesting nor enlivening.
As girls at school, everybody had learned about the Great Transition, and the way in which the transfer of Power, which marked the last and greatest step of civilisation, had been brought about: the gradual substitution of women for men in the great offices; the spread of the new religion; the abolition of the monarchy; the introduction of pure theocracy, in which the ideal Perfect Woman took the place of a personal sovereign; the wise measures by which man's rough and rude strength was disciplined into obedience,—all these things were mere commonplaces of education. Even men, who learned little enough, were taught that in the old days strength was regarded more than mind, while the father actually ruled in the place which should have been occupied by the mother; these things belonged to constitutional history—nobody cared much about them; while, on the other hand, they would have liked to know—-the more curious among them—what was the kind of world which existed before the development of culture gave the reins to the higher sex; and it was well known that the only person at all capable of presenting a faithful restoration of the old world was Professor Ingleby.
Again, there was a mystery about her: although in holy orders, she had always refused to preach; it was whispered that she was not orthodox. She had been twice called upon to sign the hundred and forty-four Articles, a request with which, on both occasions, she cheerfully complied, to the discomfiture of her enemies. Yet her silence in matters of religion provoked curiosity and surmise—a grave woman, a woman with all the learning of the University Library in her head, a woman who, alone among women, held her tongue, and who, when she did speak, spoke slowly, and weighed her words, and seemed to have written out her conversation beforehand, so pointed and polished it was. In religion and politics, however, the Professor generally maintained silence absolute. Now, if a woman is always silent on those subjects upon which other women talk oftenest and feel most deeply, it is not wonderful if she becomes suspected of heterodoxy. It was known positively, and she had publicly declared, that she wished the introduction—she once said, mysteriously, the return—of a more exact and scientific training than could be gained from the political, social, and moral economy which formed the sole studies of Cambridge. Now, the Heads of Houses, the other professors, the college lecturers, and the fellows, all held the orthodox doctrine that there is no other learning requisite or desirable than that contained in the aforesaid subjects. For these, they maintained, embrace all the branches of study which are concerned with the conduct of life.——-
The Professor threw aside the Gazette, which contained as full a statement as was permitted of last night's debate, with an angry gesture, and walked to the open window.
"Another defeat!" she murmured. "Poor Constance! This time, I suppose, they must resign. These continual changes of ministry bring contempt as well as disaster upon the country. Six months ago, all the Talents! Three months ago, all the Beauties! Now, all the First-classes! And what a mess—what a mess—they make between them! Why do they not come to me and make me lecture on ancient history, and learn how affairs were conducted a hundred years ago, when man was in his own place, and"—here she laughed and looked around her with a certain suspicion—"and woman was in hers?"
Then she turned her eyes out to the park below her. It was a most charming morning in June; the trees were at their freshest and their most beautiful: the flowers were at their brightest, with great masses of rhododendron, purple lilac, and the golden rain of the laburnum. The Row was well filled: young men were there, riding bravely and gallantly with their sisters, their mothers, or their wives; girls and ladies were taking their morning canter before the official day began; and along the gravel-walks girls were hastening quickly to their offices or their lecture-rooms; older ladies sat in the shade, talking politics; idlers of both sexes were strolling and sitting, watching the horses or talking to each other.
"Youth and hope!" murmured the Professor. "Every lad hopes for a young wife; every girl trusts that success will come to her while she is still young enough to be loved. Age looks on with her young husband at her side, and prides herself in having no illusions left. Poor creatures! You destroyed love—love the consoler, love the leveller— when you, who were born to receive, undertook to give. Blind! blind!"
She turned from the window and began to examine the pictures hanging on the walls. These consisted entirely of small portraits copied from larger pictures. They were arranged in chronological order, and were in fact family portraits. The older pictures were mostly the heads of men, taken in the fall of life, gray-bearded, with strong, steadfast eyes, and the look of authority. Among them were portraits of ladies, chiefly taken in the first fresh bloom of youth.
"They knew," said the Professor, "how to paint a face in those days."
Among the modern pictures a very remarkable change was apparent. The men were painted in early manhood, the women at a more mature age; the style was altered for the worse, a gaudy conventional mannerism prevailed; there was weakness in the drawing and a blind following in the colour: as for the details, they were in some cases neglected altogether, and in others elaborated so as to swamp and destroy the subject of the picture. The faces of the men were remarkable for a self—conscious beauty of the lower type: there was little intellectual expression; the hair was always curly, and while some showed a bull-like repose of strength, others wore an expression of meek and gentle submissiveness. As for the women, they were represented with all the emblems of authority—-tables, thrones, papers, deeds, and pens.
"As if," said the Professor, "the peeresses' right divine to rule was in their hearts! But, in these days, the painter's art is a rule of thumb."
There was a small stand full of books, chiefly of a lighter kind, prettily bound and profusely gilt. Some were novels, with such titles as The Hero of the Cricket Field, The Long Jump, The Silver Racket, and so on. Some were apparently poems, among them being Lady Longspin's Vision of the Perfect Knight, with a frontispiece, showing the Last Lap of the Seven-Mile Race; Julia Durdle's poems of the Young Man's Crown of Glory, and Aunt Agatha's Songs for Girls at School or College. There were others of a miscellaneous character, such as Guide to the Young Politician, being a series of letters to a peeress at Oxford; Meditations in the University Church; Hymns for Men; the Sacrifice of the Faithful Heart; The Womanhood of Heaven; or, the Light and Hope of Men, with many others whose title proclaimed the nature of their contents. The appearance of the books, however, did not seem to show that they were much read.
"I should have thought," said the Professor, "that Constance would have turned all this rubbish out of her breakfast-room. After all, though, what could she put in its place here?"
As the clock struck eleven, the door opened, and the young lady whom the Professor spoke of as Constance appeared.
She was a girl of twenty, singularly beautiful; her face was one of those very rare faces which seem as if nature, after working steadily in one mould for a good many generations, has at last succeeded in perfecting her idea. Most of our faces, somehow, look as if the mould had not quite reached the conception of the sculptor. Unfortunately, while such faces as that of Constance, Countess of Carlyon, are rare, they are seldom reproduced in children. Nature, in fact, smashes her mould when it is quite perfect, and begins again upon another. The hair was of that best and rarest brown, in which there is a touch of gold when the sun shines upon it. Her eyes were of a dark, deep blue; her face was a beautiful and delicate oval; her chin was pointed; her cheek perhaps a little too pale, and rather thin; and there was a broad edging of black under her eyes, which spoke of fatigue, anxiety, or disappointment. But she smiled when she saw her guest.
"Good morning, Professor," she said, kissing the wrinkled cheek. "It was good indeed of you to come. I only heard you were in town last night."
"You are well this morning, Constance?" asked the Professor.
"Oh, yes!" replied the girl wearily. "I am well enough. Let us have breakfast. I have been at work since eight with my secretary. You know that we resign to-day."
"I gathered so much," said the Professor, "from the rag they call the Official Gazette. They do not report fully, of course, but it is clear that you had an exciting debate, and that you were defeated."
The Countess sighed. Then she reddened and clenched her hands.
"I cannot bear to think of it," she cried. "We had a disgraceful night. I shall never forget it—or forgive it. It was not a debate at all; it was the exchange of unrestrained insults, rude personalities, humiliating recrimination."
"Take some breakfast first, my dear," said the Professor, "and then you shall tell me as much as you please."
Most of the breakfast was eaten by the Professor herself. Long before she had finished, Constance sprang from the table and began to pace the room in uncontrollable agitation.
"It is hard—oh! it is very hard—to preserve even common dignity, when such attacks are made. One noble peeress taunted me with my youth. It is two years since I came of age—I am twenty,—but never mind that. Another threw in my teeth my—-my—my cousin Chester,"—she blushed violently; "to think that the British House of Peeresses should have fallen so low! Another charged me with trying to be thought the loveliest woman in London; can we even listen to such things without shame? And the Duchesse de la Vieille Roche"—here she laughed bitterly—"actually had the audacity to attack my Political Economy—mine; and I was Senior in the Tripos! When they were tired of abusing me, they began upon each other. No reporters were present. The Chancellor, poor lady! tried in vain to maintain order; the scene— with the whole House, as it seemed, screeching, crying, demanding to be heard, throwing accusations, innuendoes, insinuations, at each other—made one inclined to ask if this was really the House of Peeresses, the Parliament of Great Britain, the place where one would expect to find the noblest representatives in the whole world of culture and gentlehood."
Constance paused, exhausted but not satisfied. She had a good deal more to say, but for the moment she stood by the window, with flashing eyes and trembling lips.
"The last mixed Parliament," said the Professor, thoughtfully—"that in which the few men who were members seceded in a body—presented similar characteristics. The abuse of the liberty of speech led to the abolition of the Lower House. Absit omen!"
"Thank Heaven," replied the Countess, "that it was abolished! Since then we have had—at least we have generally had—decorum and dignity of debate."
"Until last night, dear Constance, and a few similar last nights. Take care."
"They cannot abolish us," said Constance, "because they would have nothing to fall back upon."
The Professor coughed dryly, and took another piece of toast.
The Countess threw herself into a chair.
"At least," she said, "we have changed mob-government for divine right."
"Ye—yes." The Professor leaned back in her chair. "James II., in the old time, said much the same thing; yet they abolished him. To be sure, in his days, divine right went through the male line."
"Men said so," said the Countess, "to serve their selfish ends. How can any line be continued except through the mother? Absurd!"
Then there was silence for a little, the Professor calmly eating an egg, and the Home Secretary playing with her tea—spoon.
"We hardly expected success," she continued, after a while; "it was only in the desperate condition of the Party that the Cabinet gave way to my proposal. Yet I did hope that the nature of the Bill would have awakened the sympathy of a House which has brothers, fathers, nephews, and male relations of all kinds, and does not consist entirely of orphaned only daughters."
"That is bitter, Constance," sighed the Professor. "I hope you did not begin by saying so."
"No, I did not. I explained that we were about to ask for a Commission into the general condition of the men of this country. I set forth, in mild and conciliating language, a few of my facts. You know them all; I learned them from you. I showed that the whole of the educational endowments of this country have been seized upon for the advantage of women. I suggested that a small proportion might be diverted for the assistance of men. Married men with property, I showed, have no protection from the prodigality of their wives. I pointed out that the law of evidence, as regards violence towards wives, presses heavily on the man. I showed that single men's wages are barely sufficient to purchase necessary clothing. I complained of the long hours during which men have to toil in solitude or in silence, of the many cases in which they have to do housework and attend to the babies, as well as do their long day's work. And I ventured to hint at the onerous nature of the Married Mother's Tax—that five per cent. on all men's earnings."
"My dear Constance," interrupted the Professor, "was it judicious to show your whole hand at once? Surely step by step would have been safer."
"Perhaps. I ventured next to call the serious attention of the House to the grave discontent among the younger women of the middle classes who, by reason of the crowded state of the professions, are unable to think of marriage, as a rule, before forty, and often have to wait later. This was received with cold disapprobation: the House is always touchy on the subject of marriage. But when I went on to hint that there was danger to the State in the reluctance with which the young men entered the married state under these conditions, there was such a clamour that I sat down."
The Professor nodded.
"Just what one would have expected. Talk the conventional commonplace, and the House will listen; tell the truth, and the House will rise with one consent and shriek you down. Poor child! what did you expect?"
"A dozen rose together. Lady Cloistertown caught the Chancellor's eye. I suppose you know her extraordinary command of commonplaces. She asked whether the House was prepared to place man on an equality with woman; she supposed we should like to see him sitting with ourselves, voting with the rudeness of his intellect, even speaking with the bluntness of the masculine manner. And then she burst into a scream. `Irreligion,' she cried, `was rampant; was this a moment for bringing forward such a motion? Not only women, but even men, had begun to doubt the Perfect Woman; the rule of the higher intellect was threatened; the new civilisation was tottering; we might even expect an attempt to bring about a return of the reign of brute force—' Heavens! and that was only a beginning. Then followed the weary platitudes that we know so well. Can no one place truth before us in words of freshness?"
"If you insist upon every kind of truth being naked," said the Professor, "you ought not to grumble if her limbs sometimes look unlovely."
"Then let us for a while agree to accept truth in silence."
"I would we could!" echoed the elder lady. "I know the weariness of the commonplace. When we are every year invaded by gentlemen at Commemoration, I have to go through the same dreary performance. The phrases about the higher intellect, the sex which is created to carry on the thought, while the other executes the work of this world; the likeness and yet unlikeness between us due to that beautiful arrangement of nature; the extraordinary success we are making of our power; the loveliness of the new religion, revealed bit by bit, to one woman after another, until we were able to reach unto the conception, the vision, the realisation of the Perfect Woman—"
"Professor," interrupted Constance, laying her hand on her friend's shoulder, "do not talk so. Strengthen my faith; do not destroy what is left of religion by a sneer. Alas! everything seems falling away; nothing satisfies; there is no support anywhere, nor any hope. I suppose I am not strong enough for my work; at least I have failed. The whole country is crying out with discontent. The Lancashire women cannot sell their husband's work. I hear that they are taking to drink. Wife—beating has broken out again in the Potteries. It is reported that secret associations are again beginning to be formed among the men; and then there are these county magistrates with their unjust sentences. A man at Leicester has been sentenced to penal servitude for twenty years because his wife says he swore at her and threatened her. I wrote for information; the magistrate says she thought an example was needed. And, innocent or guilty, the husband is not allowed to cross-examine his wife. Then look at the recent case at Cambridge."
"Yes," said the Professor; "that is bad indeed."
"The husband—a man of hitherto blameless character,—young, well- born, handsome, good at his trade, and with some pretensions to the higher culture—sentenced to penal servitude for life for striking his wife, one of the senior fellows of Trinity!"
The Professor's eyes flashed.
"As you are going out of office to-day, my Lady Home Secretary, and can do no more justice for a while, I will tell you the truth of that case. The wife was tired of her husband. It was a most unhappy match. She wanted to marry another man, so she trumped up the charge; that is the disgraceful truth. No fishwife of Billingsgate could have lied more impudently. He, in accordance with our no doubt most just and well-intentioned, laws, becomes a convict for the rest of his days; she marries again. Everybody knows the truth, but nobody ventures to state it. She banged her own arm black and blue herself with the poker, and showed it in open court as the effects of his violence. As for her husband, I visited him in prison. He was calm and collected. He says that he is glad there are no children to lament his disgrace, that prison life is preferable to living any longer with such a woman, and that, on the whole, death is better than life when an innocent man can be so treated in a civilised country."
"Poor man!" groaned Constance. "Stay; I have a few hours yet of power. His name?" she sprang to her desk.
"John Phillips—no; Phillips is the wife's name. I forgot that the sentence itself carries divorce with it. His bachelor name was Coryton."
Constance wrote rapidly.
"John Coryton. He shall be released. A free pardon from the Home Secretary cannot be appealed against. He is free."
She sprang from the table and rang the bell. Her private secretary appeared.
"This despatch to be forwarded at once," she said. "Not a moment's delay."
"Constance!" The Professor seized her hand. "You will have the thanks of every woman who knows the truth. All those who do not will curse the weakness of the Home Secretary."
"I care not," she said. "I have done one just action in my short term of office. I—who looked to do so many good and just actions!"
"It is difficult, more difficult than one ever suspects, for a Minister to do good. Alas! my dear, John Coryton's case is only one of many."
"I know," replied Constance sighing. "Yet what can I do! Our greatest enemies are—ourselves. Oh, Professor! when I think of the men working at their looms from morning until night, cooking the dinners and looking after the children, while the women sit about the village pump or in their clubs, to talk unmeaning politics—-Tell me, logician, why our theories are all so logical, and our practice is so bad?"
"Everything," said the Professor, "in our system is rigorously logical and just. If it could not be proved scientifically—if it were not absolutely certain—the system could never be accepted by the exact intellect of cultivated women. Have not Oxford and Cambridge proclaimed this from a hundred pulpits and in a thousand text-books? My dear Lady Carlyon, you yourself proved it when you took your degree in the most brilliant essay ever written."
The Countess winced.
"Must we, then," she asked, "cease to believe in logic?"
"Nay," replied Professor Ingleby; "I said not that. But every conclusion depends upon the minor premiss. That, dear Countess, in the case of our system, appears to me a little uncertain."
"But where is the uncertainty? Surely you will allow me, my dear Professor,"—Constance smiled,—"although I am only a graduate of two years' standing, to know enough logic to examine a syllogism?"
"Surely, Constance. My dear, I do not presume to doubt your reasoning powers. It was only an expression of perplexity. We are so right, and things go so wrong."
Both ladies were silent for a few moments, and Constance sighed.
"For instance," the Professor went on, "we were logically right when we suppressed the Sovereignty. In a perfect State, the head must also be perfect. Whom, then, could we acknowledge as head but the Perfect Woman? So we became a pure theocracy. Then, again, we were right when we abolished the Lower House; for in a perfect State, the best rulers must be those who are well-born, well-educated, and well-bred. All this requires no demonstration. Yet—"
But the Countess shook her head impatiently, and sprang to her feet.
"Enough, Professor! I am tired of debates and the battles of phrase. The House may get on without me. And I will inquire no more, even of you, Professor, into the foundations of faith, constitution, and the rest of it. I am brave, when I rise in my place, about the unalterable principles of religious and political economy: brave words do not mean brave heart. Like so many who are outspoken, which I cannot be—at least yet—my faith is sapped, I doubt."
"She who doubts," said the Professor, "is perhaps near the truth."
"Nay; for I shall cease to investigate; I shall go down to the country and talk with my tenants."
"Do you learn much," asked the Professor, "of your country tenants?"
The Countess laughed.
"I teach a great deal, at least," she replied. "Three times a—week I lecture the women on constitutional law, and twice on the best management of husbands, sons, and farm-labourers, and so forth."
"And you are so much occupied in teaching that you never learn? That is a great pity, Constance. Do you observe?"
"I suppose I do. Why, Professor?"
"Old habits linger longest in country places. What do you find to remark upon, most of all?"
"The strange and unnatural deference," replied the girl, with a blush of shame, "paid by country women to the men. Yes, Professor, after all our teaching, and in spite of all our laws, in the country districts the old illogical supremacy of brute force still obtains, thinly disguised."
"My dear, who manages the farm?"
"Why," said the Countess, "the wives are supposed to manage, but their husbands really have the whole management in their own hands."
"Who drives the cattle, sows the seed, reaps, ploughs?"
"The husband, of course. It is his duty."
"It is," said the Professor. "Child, a few generations ago he did all this as the acknowledged head of the house. He does not forget."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, my dear Countess, that things are never so near their end as when they appear the firmest. Now, if you please, tell me something more of this great speech of yours, which so roused the wrath of assembled and hereditary wisdom. What did you intend to say?"
Constance began, in a quick, agitated way, nervously pacing the room, to run through the main points of the speech which she had prepared but had not been allowed to deliver. It was a plea for the intellectual elevation of the other sex. She pointed out that, although there was legislation in plenty for their subjection,— although the greatest care was taken to prevent men from working together, conspiring, and meeting, so that most work was done in solitude or at home—and when that was not the case, a woman was always present to enforce silence—-although laws had been passed to stamp out violence, and to direct the use of brute strength into useful channels,—little or nothing had been done, even by private enterprise, for the education of men. She showed that the prisons were crammed with cases of young men who had "broken out"; that very soon they would have no more room to hold their prisoners; that the impatience of men under the severe restrictions of the law was growing greater every day, and more dangerous to order; and that, unless some remedy were found, she trembled for the consequences.
Here the Professor raised her eyes, and laughed gently.
The Countess went on with her speech. "I am not advocating, before this august assembly, the adoption of unconstitutional and revolutionary measures,—I claim only for men such an education of their reasoning faculties as will make them reasoning creatures. I would teach them something of what we ourselves learn, so that they may reason as we reason, and obey the law because they cannot but own that the law is just. I know that we must first encourage the young men to follow a healthy instinct which bids them be strong; yet there is more in life for a man to do than to work, to dig, to carry out orders, to be a good athlete, an obedient husband, and a conscientious father."
Here the Professor laughed again.
"Why do you laugh, Professor?"
"Because, my dear, you are already in the way that leads to understanding."
"You speak in parables."
"You are yet in twilight, dear Constance." The Professor rose and laid her hand on the young Countess's arm. "Child, your generous heart has divined what your logic would have made it impossible for you to perceive—a great truth, perhaps the greatest of truths. Go on."
"Have I? The House would not allow me to say it, then; my own friends deserted me; a vote of want of confidence was hurriedly passed by a majority of 235 to 22; and"—the young Minister laughed bitterly— "there is an end of my great schemes."
"For a time—yes," said the Professor. "But, Constance, there is a greater work before you than you suspect or dream. Greatest of the women of all time, my child, shall you be—if what I hope may be brought to pass. Let not this little disappointment of an hour vex you any longer. Go—gain strength in the country—meditate—and read."
"Oh, read!" cried the girl, impatiently; "I am sick of reading."
"Read," continued the Professor; "read—with closed doors—-the forbidden books. They stand in your own castle, locked up in cases; they have not been destroyed because they are not known to exist. Read Shakespeare."
Events which followed prevented the Countess from undertaking this course of study; for she remained in town. From time to time the Professor was wont to startle her by reading or quoting some passage which appealed to her imagination as nothing in modern poetry seemed able to do. She knew that the passage came from one of the old books which had been put away, locked up, or destroyed. It was generally a passage of audacity, clothing a revolutionary sentiment in words which burned themselves into her brain, and seemed alive. She never forgot these words, but she dared not repeat them. And she knew herself that the very possession of the sentiments, the knowledge that they existed, made her "dangerous," as her enemies called her; for most of them were on the attributes of man.
The conversation was interrupted by a servant, who brought the Countess a note.
"How very imprudent!" cried Constance, reddening with vexation. "Why will the boy do these wild things? Help me, Professor. My cousin, Lord Chester, wants to see me, and is coming, by himself, to my house— here—immediately."
"Surely I am sufficient guardian of the proprieties, Constance. We will say, if you like, that the boy came to see his old tutor. Let him come, and, unless he has anything for your ear alone, I can be present."
"Heaven knows what he has to say," his cousin sighed. "Always some fresh escapade, some kicking over the limits of convention." She was standing at the window, and looked out. "And here he comes, riding along Park Lane as if it were an open common."