Literary Thoughts edition presents Goslings; or, A World of Women by J.D. Beresford ------ "Goslings; or, A World of Women" is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a global plague that has decimated England’s male population and the once-predictable Gosling family is now free to fulfill its long-frustrated desires and to peruse their sexual vices, the Gosling daughters, who lack experience and self-independence, find shelter in a matriarchal commune. However their new life is threatened by the community elders’ views on free love. The novel was written by John Davys Beresford (1873–1947), also known as J.D. Beresford. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Liczba stron: 378
Transscribed and Published by Jacson Keating (editor)
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“Where’s the gels gone to?” asked Mr Gosling.
“Up the ’Igh Road to look at the shops. I’m expectin’ ’em in every minute.”
“Ho!” said Gosling. He leaned against the dresser; the kitchen was hot with steam, and he fumbled for a handkerchief in the pocket of his black tail coat. He produced first a large red bandanna with which he blew his nose vigorously. “Snuff ’andkerchief; brought it ’ome to be washed,” he remarked, and then brought out a white handkerchief which he used to wipe his forehead.
“It’s a dirty ’abit snuff-taking,” commented Mrs Gosling.
“Well, you can’t smoke in the orfice,” replied Gosling.
“Must be doin’ somethin’, I suppose?” said his wife.
When the recital of this formula had been accomplished—it was hallowed by a precise repetition every week, and had been established now for a quarter of a century—Gosling returned to the subject in hand.
“They does a lot of lookin’ at shops,” he said, “and then nothin’ ’ll satisfy ’em but buyin’ somethin’. Why don’t they keep away from ’em?”
“Oh, well; sales begin nex’ week,” replied Mrs Gosling. “An’ that’s a thing we ’ave to consider in our circumstances.” She left the vicinity of the gas-stove, and bustled over to the dresser. “’Ere, get out of my way, do,” she went on, “an’ go up and change your coat. Dinner’ll be ready in two ticks. I shan’t wait for the gells if they ain’t in.”
“Them sales is a fraud,” remarked Gosling, but he did not stop to argue the point.
He went upstairs and changed his respectable “morning” coat for a short alpaca jacket, slipped his cuffs over his hands, put one inside the other and placed them in their customary position on the chest of drawers, changed his boots for carpet slippers, wetted his hair brush and carefully plastered down a long wisp of grey hair over the top of his bald head, and then went into the bathroom to wash his hands.
There had been a time in George Gosling’s history when he had not been so regardful of the decencies of life. But he was a man of position now, and his two daughters insisted on these ceremonial observances.
Gosling was one of the world’s successes. He had started life as a National School boy, and had worked his way up through all the grades—messenger, office-boy, junior clerk, clerk, senior clerk, head clerk, accountant—to his present responsible position as head of the counting-house, with a salary of £26 a month. He rented a house in Wisteria Grove, Brondesbury, at £45 a year; he was a sidesman of the church of St John the Evangelist, Kilburn; a member of Local Committees; and in moments of expansion he talked of seeking election to the District Council. A solid, sober, thoroughly respectable man, Gosling, about whom there had never been a hint of scandal; grown stout now, and bald—save for a little hair over the ears, and that one persistent grey tress which he used as a sort of insufficient wrapping for his naked skull.
Such was the George Gosling seen by his wife, daughters, neighbours, and heads of the firm of wholesale provision merchants for whom he had worked for forty-one years in Barbican, E.C. Yet there was another man, hardly realized by George Gosling himself, and apparently so little representative that even his particular cronies in the office would never have entered any description of him, if they had been obliged to give a detailed account of their colleague’s character.
Nevertheless, if you heard Gosling laughing uproariously at some story produced by one of those cronies, you might be quite certain that it was a story he would not repeat before his daughters, though he might tell his wife—if it were not too broad. If you watched Gosling in the street, you would see that he took a strange, unaccountable interest in the feet and ankles of young women. And if many of Gosling’s thoughts and desires had been translated into action, the Vicar of St John the Evangelist would have dismissed his sidesman with disgust, the Local Committees would have had no more of him, and his wife and daughters would have regarded him as the most depraved of criminals.
Fortunately, Gosling had never been tempted beyond the powers of his resistance. At fifty-five, he may be regarded as safe from temptation. He seldom put any restraint upon his thoughts, outside business hours; but he had an ideal which ruled his life—the ideal of respectability. George Gosling counted himself—and others counted him also—as respectable a man as could be found in the Metropolitan Police area. There were, perhaps, a quarter of a million other men in the same area, equally respectable.
As he was drying his hands, Gosling heard the front door slam and his daughters’ voices in the passage below, followed by a shrill exhortation from the kitchen: “Now, gels, ’urry up, dinner’s all ready and your father’s waitin’!”
Gosling trotted downstairs and received the usual salute from his two girls. He noted that they were a shade more effusive than usual. “Want more money for fal-lals,” was his inward comment. They were always wanting money for “fal-lals.”
He adopted his usual line of defence through dinner and constantly brought the subject of conversation back to the need for a reduction of expenses. He did not see Blanche wink at Millie across the table, during these strategic exercises; nor catch the glance of understanding which passed between the girls and their mother. So, as his dinner comforted and cheered him, Gosling began to relax into his usual facetiousness; incredibly believing, despite the invariable precedents of his family history, that his daughters had been convinced of the hopelessness of approaching him for money that evening.
The credulous creature even allowed them to make their opening, and then assisted them to a statement of their petition.
They were talking of a friend’s engagement to be married, and Gosling with an obtuseness he never displayed in business remarked, “Wish my gels ’ud get married.”
“Talking about us, father?” asked Blanche.
“Well, you’re the only gels I’ve got—as I know of,” said Gosling.
“Well, how can you expect us to get married when we haven’t got a decent thing to put on?” returned Blanche.
Gosling realized his danger too late. “Pooh! That don’t make any difference,” he said hastily, adopting a thoroughly unsound line of defence; “I never noticed what your mother was wearing when I courted ’er.”
“Dessay you didn’t,” replied Millie, “I dessay most fellows couldn’t tell you what a girl was wearing, but it makes just all the difference for all that.”
“Of course it does,” said Blanche. “A girl’s got no chance these days unless she can look smart. No fellow’s going to marry a dowdy.”
“It does make a big difference, there’s no denyin’,” put in Mrs Gosling, as though she was being convinced against her will.
“And now the sales are just beginning——”
Poor Gosling knew the game was up. They had made no direct attack upon his pocket, yet; but they would not relax their grip of this fascinating subject till they had achieved their object. Blanche was saying that she was ashamed to be seen anywhere; and procrastination would be met at once by the argument—how well he knew it—based on the premise that if you didn’t buy at sale-time, you had to pay twice as much later.
It was quite useless for Gosling to fidget, throw himself back in his chair, frown, shake his head, and look horribly determined; the course of progress was unalterable from the direct attack: “Do you like to see us going about in rags, father?” through the stage of “Well, well, ’ow much do you want? I simply can’t afford——” and the ensuing haggles down to the despairing sigh as the original minimum demanded—in this case no less than five pounds—was forlornly conceded, and clinched by Blanche’s, “We must have it before the end of the week, dad, the sales begin on Monday.”
At the end of it all, he received what compensation they had to offer him; hugs and kisses, offers to do all sorts of impossible things, assistance in getting his armchair into precisely the right position, and him into the chair, and the table cleared and the lamp in just the right place for him to read his half-penny evening paper which was fetched for him from the pocket of his overcoat. And, finally, the crux of Gosling’s whole position, a general air of complacency, good-temper and comfort.
Gosling was an easy-going man, he hated rows.
“Mind you, you two,” he remarked with a return to facetiousness as he settled himself with his carpet slippers spread out to the fire—“mind you, I look on this money as an investment. You two gels got to get married; and quick or I shall be in the bankrup’cy Court. Don’t you forget as these ‘fal-lals’ is bought for a purpose.”
“Oh, don’t be so horrid, father,” said Blanche, with a change of front; “it sounds as if we were setting traps for men.”
“Well, ain’t you?” asked Gosling. “You said just now——”
“Not like that,” interrupted Blanche. “It’s very different just wanting to look nice. Personally, I’m in no ’urry to get married, thank you.”
“You wait till Mr Right comes along,” put in Mrs Gosling, and then turned the conversation by saying: “Well, father, what’s the news this evening?”
“Nothin’ excitin’,” replied Gosling. “Seems this new plague’s spreadin’ in China.”
“They’re always inventin’ new diseases, nowadays, or callin’ old ones by new names,” said Mrs Gosling. The two girls were busy with a sheet of note-paper and a stump of pencil that seemed to require frequent lubrication; they were making calculations.
“This one’s quite new, seemingly,” returned Gosling. “It’s only the men as get it.”
“No need for us to worry, then,” put in Millie, more as a duty, some slight return for benefits promised, than because she took any interest in the subject. Blanche was absorbed; her unseeing gaze was fixed on the mantelpiece and ever and again she removed the point of the pencil from her mouth and wrote feverishly.
“Oh, ain’t there?” replied Gosling. He turned his head in order to argue from so strong a position. “And where’d you be, and all the rest of the women, if you ’adn’t got no men to look after you?”
“I expect we could get along pretty well, if we had to,” said Millie.
Gosling winked at his wife, and indicated by an upward movement of his chin that he was astounded at such innocence. “Who’d buy your ‘fal-lals’ for you, I should like to know?” he asked.
“We’d have to earn money for ourselves,” said Millie.
“Ah! I’d like to see you or Blanche takin’ over my job,” replied her father. “Why, I’ll lay there’s ’alf a dozen mistakes in the figurin’ she’s doing at the present moment. Let me see!”
Blanche descended suddenly from visions of Paradise, and put her hand over the sheet of note-paper. “You can’t, father,” she said.
Gosling looked sly. “Indeed?” he said, with simulated surprise. “And why not? Ain’t I to be allowed to judge of the nature of the investment I’m goin’ in for? I might give you an ’int or two from the gentleman’s point of view.”
Blanche shook her head. “I haven’t added it up yet,” she said.
Gosling did not press the point; he returned to his original position. “I dunno where you ladies ’ud be if you ’adn’t no gentlemen to look after you.”
Mrs Gosling smirked. “We’ll ’ope it won’t come to that,” she said. “China’s a long way off.”
“Appears as there’s been one case in Russia, though,” remarked Gosling. He saw that he had rather a good thing in this threat of male extermination, a pleasant, harmless threat to hold over his feminine dependents; a means to emphasize the facts of masculine superiority and of the absolute necessity for masculine intelligence; facts that were not sufficiently well realized in Wisteria Grove, at times.
Mrs Gosling yawned surreptitiously. She was doing her best to be pleasant, but the subject bored her. She was a practical woman who worked hard all day to keep her house clean, and received very feeble assistance from the daughters for whom her one ambition was an establishment conducted on lines precisely similar to her own.
Millie and Blanche had returned to their calculations and were completely absorbed.
“In Russia? Just fancy,” commented Mrs Gosling.
“In Moscow,” said Gosling, studying his Evening News. “’E was an official on the trans-Siberian Railway. ‘As soon as the disease was identified as a case of the new plague,’” read Gosling, “‘the patient was at once removed to the infectious hospital and strictly isolated. He died within two hours of his admission. Stringent measures are being taken to prevent the infection from spreading.’”
“Was ’e a married man?” asked Mrs Gosling.
“Doesn’t say,” replied her husband. “But the point is that if it once gets to Europe, who knows where it’ll stop?”
“They’ll see to that, you may be sure,” said Mrs Gosling, with a beautiful faith in the scientific resources of civilization. “It said somethin’ about that in the bit you’ve just read.”
Gosling was not to be done out of his argument. “Very like,” he said. “But now, just supposin’ as this ’ere plague did spread to London, and ’alf the men couldn’t go to work; where d’you fancy you’d be?”
Mrs Gosling was unable to grasp the intricacies of this abstraction. “Well, of course, every one knows as we couldn’t get on without the men,” she said.
“Ah! well there you are, got it in once,” said Gosling. “And don’t you gels forget it,” he added turning to his daughters.
Millie only giggled, but Blanche said, “All right, dad, we won’t.”
The girls returned to their calculations; they had arrived at the stage of cutting out all those items which were not “absolutely necessary.” Five pounds had proved a miserably inadequate sum on paper.
Gosling returned to his Evening News, which presently slipped gently from his hand to the floor. Mrs Gosling looked up from her sewing and put a finger on her lips. The voices of Blanche and Millie were subdued to sibilant whisperings.
Gosling had forgotten his economic problems, and his daring abstractions concerning a world despoiled of male activity, especially of that essential activity, as he figured it, the making of money—the wage-earner was enjoying his after-dinner nap, hedged about, protected and cared for by his womankind.
There may have been a quarter of a million wage-earners in Greater London at that moment, who, however much they differed from Gosling on such minor questions as Tariff Reform or the capabilities of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, would have agreed with him as a matter of course, on the essentials he had discussed that evening.
At half-past nine the click of the letter-box, followed by a resounding double-knock, announced the arrival of the last post. Millie jumped up at once and went out eagerly.
Mr Gosling opened his eyes and stared with drunken fixity at the mantelpiece; then, without moving the rest of his body, he began to grope automatically with his left hand for the fallen newspaper. He found it at last, picked it up and pretended to read with sleep-sodden eyes.
“It’s the post, dear,” remarked Mrs Gosling.
Gosling yawned enormously. “Who’s it for?” he asked.
“Millie! Millie!” called Mrs Gosling. “Why don’t you bring the letters in?”
Millie did not reply, but she came slowly into the room, in her hands a letter which she was examining minutely.
“Who’s it for, Mill?” asked Blanche, impatiently.
“Father,” replied Millie, still intent on her study. “It’s a foreign letter. I seem to remember the writing, too, only I can’t fix it exactly.”
“’Ere, ’and it over, my gel,” said Gosling, and Millie reluctantly parted with her fascinating enigma.
“I know that ’and, too,” remarked Gosling, and he, also, would have spent some time in the attempt to guess the puzzle without looking up the answer within the envelope, but the three spectators, who were not sharing his interest, manifested impatience.
“Well, ain’t you going to open it, father?” asked Millie, and Mrs Gosling looked at her husband over her spectacles and remarked, “It must be a business letter, if it comes from foreign parts.”
“Don’t get business letters to this address,” returned the head of the house, “besides which it’s from Warsaw; we don’t do nothin’ with Warsaw.”
At last he opened the letter.
The three women fixed their gaze on Gosling’s face.
“Well?” ejaculated Millie, after a silence of several seconds. “Aren’t you going to tell us?”
“You’d never guess,” said Gosling triumphantly.
“Anyone we know?” asked Blanche.
“Yes, a gentleman.”
“Oh! tell us, father,” urged the impatient Millie.
“It’s from the Mr Thrale, as lodged with us once,” announced Gosling.
“Oh! dear, our Mr Fastidious,” commented Blanche, “I thought he was dead long ago.”
“It must be over four years since ’e left,” put in Mrs Gosling.
“Getting on for five,” corrected Blanche. “I remember I put my hair up while he was here.”
“What’s he say?” asked Millie.
“’E says, ‘Dear Mr Gosling, I expect you will be surprised to ’ear from me after my five years’ silence——’”
“I said it was five years,” put in Blanche. “Go on, dad!”
Dad resumed “... ‘but I ’ave been in various parts of the world and it ’as been quite impossible to keep up a correspondence. I am writing now to tell you that I shall be back in London in a few days, and to ask you whether you can find a room for me in Wisteria Grove?’”
“Well! I should ’ave thought he’d ’ave written to me to ask that!” said Mrs Gosling.
“So ’e should ’ave, by rights,” agreed Gosling. “But ’e’s a queer card is Mr Thrale.”
“Bit dotty, if you ask me,” said Blanche.
“’S that all?” asked Mrs Gosling.
“No, ’e says: ‘I can’t give you an address as I go on to Berlin immediately, but I will look you up the evening after I arrive. Eastern Europe is not safe at the present time. There ’ave been several cases of the new plague in Moscow, but the authorities are doing everything they can—which is much in Russia—to keep the news out of the press, yours sincerely, Jasper Thrale,’ and that’s the lot,” concluded Gosling.
“I do think he’s a cool hand,” commented Blanche. “Of course you won’t have him as a paying guest now?”
Gosling and his wife looked at each other, thoughtfully.
“Well——” hesitated Gosling.
“’E might bring the infection,” suggested Mrs Gosling.
“Oh! no fear of that,” returned her husband, “but I dunno as we want a boarder now. Five years ago I ’adn’t got my big rise——”
“Oh, no, father; what would the neighbours think of us if we started to take boarders again?” protested Blanche.
“It wouldn’t look well,” agreed Mrs Gosling.
“Jus’ what I was thinking,” said the head of the house. “’Owever, there’s no ’arm in payin’ us a friendly visit.”
“O’ course not,” said Mrs Gosling, “though I do think it odd ’e shouldn’t ’ave written to me in the first place.
“He’s dotty!” said Blanche.
Gosling shook his head. “Not by a very long chalk ’e ain’t,” was his firm pronouncement....
“Well, girls, what about bed?” asked Mrs Gosling, putting away the “bit of mending” she had been engaged upon.
Gosling yawned again, stretched himself, and rose grunting to his feet. “I’m about ready for my bed,” he remarked, and after another yawn he started his nightly round of inspection.
When he returned to the sitting-room the others were all ready to retire. Gosling kissed his daughters, and the two girls and their mother went upstairs. Gosling carefully took off the larger pieces of coal from the fire and put them under the grate, rolled up the hearthrug, saw that the window was securely fastened, extinguished the lamp and followed his “womenfolk.”
As he was undressing his thoughts turned once more to the threat of the new disease which was devastating China.
“Rum thing about that new plague,” he remarked to his wife. “Seems as it’s only men as get it.”
“They’d never let it spread to England,” replied Mrs Gosling.
“Oh! there’s no fear of that, none whatever,” said Gosling, “but it’s rum that about women never catching it.”
The attitude of the Goslings faithfully reflected that of the immense majority of English people. The faith in the hygienic and scientific resources which were at the disposal of the authorities, and the implicit trust in the vigilance and energy of those authorities, were sufficient to allay any fears that were not too imminent. It was some one’s duty to look after these things, and if they were not looked after there would be letters in the papers about it. At last, without question, the authorities would be roused to a sense of duty and the trouble, whatever it was, would be stopped. Precisely what authority managed these affairs none of the huge Gosling family knew. Vaguely they pictured Medical Boards, or Health Committees; dimly they connected these things with local government; at the top, doubtless, was some managing authority—in Whitehall probably—something to do with the supreme head of affairs, the much abused but eminently paternal Government.
“Lord, how I do envy you,” said Morgan Gurney.
Jasper Thrale sat forward in his chair. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do what I’ve done—and more,” he said.
“Theoretically, I suppose not,” replied Gurney. “It’s just making the big effort to start with. You see I’ve got a very decent berth and good prospects, and it’s comfortable and all that. Only when some fellow like you comes along and tells one yarns of the world outside, I get sort of hankerings after the sea and adventure, and seeing the big things. It’s only now and then—ordinary times I’m contented enough.” He stuck his pipe in the corner of his mouth and stared into the fire.
“The only things that really count are feeling clean and strong and able,” said Thrale. “You never really have that feeling if you live in the big cities.”
“I’ve felt like that sometimes after a long bicycle ride,” interpolated Gurney.
“But then the feeling is wasted, you see,” said Thrale. “When you feel like that and there is something tremendous to spend it upon, you get the great emotion as well.”
“Like the glimmer of St Agnes’ light, after you’d been eight weeks out of sight of land?” reflected Gurney, going back to one of Thrale’s reminiscences.
“To feel that you are a part of life, not this dead, stale life of the city, but the life of the whole universe,” said Thrale.
“I know,” replied Gurney. “To-night I’ve half a mind to chuck my job and go out looking for mystery.”
“But you won’t do it,” said Thrale.
Gurney sighed and began to analyse the instinct within himself, to find precisely why he wanted to do it.
“Well, I must go,” said Thrale, getting to his feet, “I’ve got to find some sort of lodging.”
“I thought you were going to stay with those Gosling people of yours,” said Gurney.
“No! That’s off. I went to see them last night and they won’t have me. The old man’s making his £300 a year now, and the family’s too respectable to take boarders.” Thrale picked up his hat and held out his hand.
“But, look here, old chap, why the devil can’t you stay here?” asked Gurney.
“I didn’t know that you’d anywhere to put me,” said Thrale.
“Oh, yes. There’s always a room to be had downstairs,” said Gurney.
After a brief discussion the arrangement was made.
“It’s understood I’m to pay my whack,” said Thrale.
“Of course, if you insist——”
When Thrale had gone to fetch his luggage from the hotel, Gurney sat pondering over the fire. He was debating whether he had been altogether wise in pressing his invitation. He was wondering whether the curiously rousing personality of Thrale, and the stories of those still existent corners of the world outside the rules of civilization were good for a civil servant with an income of £600 a year. Gurney, faced with the plain alternatives, could only decide that he would be a fool to throw up a congenial and lucrative occupation such as his own, in order to face present physical discomfort and future penury. He knew that the discomforts would be very real to him at first. His friends would think him mad. And all for the sake of experiencing some high emotion now and again, in order to feel clean and fresh and be able to discover something of the unknown mystery of life.
“I suppose there is something of the poet in me,” reflected Gurney. “And I expect I should hate the discomforts. One’s imagination gets led away....”
During the next few evenings the conversations between these two friends were many and protracted.
Thrale was the teacher, and Gurney was content to sit at his feet and learn. He had a receptive mind, he was interested in all life, but Uppingham, Trinity Hall, and the Home Civil had constricted his mental processes. At twenty-nine he was losing flexibility. Thrale gave him back his power to think, set him outside the formulas of his school, taught him that however sound his deductions, there was not one of his premises which could not be disputed.
Thrale was Gurney’s senior by three years, and when Thrale left Uppingham at eighteen, he had gone out into the world. He had a patrimony of some £200 a year; but he had taken only a lump sum of £100 and had started out to appease his furious curiosity concerning life. He had laboured as a miner in the Klondike; had sailed, working his passage as an ordinary seaman, from San Francisco to Southampton; he had been a stockman in Australia, assistant to a planter in Ceylon, a furnace minder in Kimberley and a tally clerk in Hong Kong. For nearly nine years, indeed, he had earned a living in every country of the world except Europe, and then he had come back to London and invested the accumulation of income that his trustee had amassed for him. The mere spending of money had no fascination for him. During the six months he had remained in London he had lived very simply, lodging with the Goslings in Kilburn, and, because he could not live idly, exploring every corner of the great city and writing articles for the journals. He might have earned a large income by this latter means, for he had an originality of outlook and a freshness of style that made his contributions eagerly sought after once he had obtained a hearing—no difficult matter in London for anyone who has something new to say. But experience, not income, was his desire, and at the end of six months he had accepted an offer from the Daily Post as a European correspondent—on space. He was offered £600 a year, but he preferred to be free, and he had no wish to be confined to one capital or country.
In those five years he had traversed Europe, sending in his articles irregularly, as he required money. And during that time his chief trustee—a lawyer of the soundest reputation—had absconded, and Thrale found his private income reduced to about £40 a year, the interest on one of the investments he had made, in his own name only, with his former accumulation—two other investments made at the same time had proved unsound.
This loss had not troubled him in any way. When he had read in a London journal of his trustee’s abscondence—he was later sentenced to fourteen years’ penal servitude—Thrale had smiled and dismissed the matter from his mind. He could always earn all the money he required, and had never, not even subconsciously, relied upon his private fortune.
He had now come back to London with a definite purpose, he had come to warn England of a great danger....
One other distinguishing mark of Jasper Thrale’s life must be understood, a mark which differentiated him from the overwhelming majority of his fellow men—women had no fascination for him. Once in his life, and once only, had he approached and tasted experience—with a pretty little Melbourne cocotte. That experience he had undertaken deliberately, because he felt that until it had been undergone one great factor of life would be unknown to him. He had come away from it filled with a disgust of himself that had endured for months....
Fragments of the long conversations between Thrale and Gurney, the exchange of a few germane ideas among the irrelevant mass, had a bearing upon their immediate future. There was, for instance, a criticism of the Goslings, introduced on one occasion, which had a certain significance in relation to subsequent developments.
Some question of Gurney’s prompted Thrale to the opinion that the Goslings were in the main precisely like half a million other families of the same class.
“But that’s just what makes them so interesting,” said Gurney, not because he believed it, but because at the moment he wanted to lead the conversation into safe ground, away from the too appealing attractions of the big world outside the little village of London.
Thrale laughed. “That’s truer than you guess,” he said. “Every large generalization, however trite, is a valuable contribution to knowledge—if it’s more or less accurate.”
“Generalize, then, mon vieux,” suggested Gurney, “from the characters and doings of your little geese.”
“I’ve seen glimmerings of the immortal god in the old man,” said Thrale, “like the hint of sunlight seen through a filthy pane of obscured glass. He’s a prurient-minded old beast leading what’s called a respectable life, but if he could indulge his ruling desire with absolute secrecy, no woman would be safe with him. In his world he can’t do that, or thinks he can’t, which comes to precisely the same thing. He is too much afraid of being caught, he sees danger where none exists, he looks to all sorts of possibilities, and won’t take a million-to-one chance because he is risking his all—which is included in the one word, respectability.”
“Jolly good thing. What?” remarked Gurney.
“Good for society as a whole, apparently,” replied Thrale, “but surely not good for the man. I’ve told you that I have seen glimmerings of the god in him, but outside the routine of his work the man’s mind is clogged. He’s not much over fifty, and he has no outlet, now, for his desires. He’s like a man with choked pores, and his body is poisoned. And in this particular Gosling is certainly no exception either to his class or to the great mass of civilized man. Well, what I wonder is whether in a society which is built up of interdependent units the whole can be sound when the greater number of the constituent units are rotten.”
“But look here, old chap,” protested Gurney, “if things are as you say, and men rule the country, why shouldn’t they alter public opinion, and so open the way to do as they jolly well please?”
“Because the majority are too much ashamed of their desires to dare the attempt in the first place, and in the second because they don’t wish to open the way for other men. They aren’t united in this; they are as jealous as women. If they once opened the way to free love, their own belongings wouldn’t be safe.”
“What’s your remedy, then?”
“Oh! a few thousand more years of moral development,” said Thrale, carelessly, “an evolution towards self-consciousness, a fuller understanding of the meaning of life, and a finer altruism.”
“You don’t look far ahead,” remarked Gurney.
“Do you think anyone can look even a year ahead?” asked Thrale.
“There have been some pretty good attempts in some ways—Swedenborg, for instance, and Samuel Butler....”
“Yes, yes, that’s all right, in some ways—the development of certain sorts of knowledge, for example. But there is always the chance of the unpredictable element coming in and upsetting the whole calculation. Some invention may do it, an unforeseen clash of opinions or an epidemic....”
For a time they drifted further away from their original topic till some remark reminded Gurney that he had meant to ask a question and had forgotten it.
“By the way,” he said, “I wanted to ask you what you meant when you said you had seen a god in old Gosling?”
“Just a touch of imagination and wonder, now and again,” replied Thrale. “Something he was quite unconscious of himself. I remember standing with him on Blackfriars Bridge, and he looked down at the river and said: ‘I s’pose it was clean once, banks and sand and so on, before all this muck came.’ Then he looked at me quickly to see if I was laughing at him. That was the god in him trying to create purity out of filth, even though it was only a casual thought. It was smothered again at once. His training reasserted itself. ‘Lot better for trade the way it is, though,’ was his next remark.”
“But how can you alter it?” asked Gurney.
“My dear chap, you can’t alter these things by any cut-and-dried plan, any more than you can dam the Gulf Stream. We can only lay a brick or two in the right place. We aren’t the architects; the best of us are only bricklayers, and the best of the best can only lay two or three bricks in a lifetime. Our job is to do that if we can. We can only guess very feebly at the design of the building; and often it is our duty partly to pull down the work that our forefathers built....”
Presently Gurney asked if his companion had ever seen a god in Mrs Gosling.
Thrale shook his head. “It didn’t come within my experience,” he said. “Don’t condemn her on that account, but she, like all the women I have ever met, has been too intent upon the facts of life ever to see its mystery. Mrs Gosling hadn’t the power to conceive an abstract idea; she had to make some application of it to her own particular experience before she could understand the simplest concept. Morality to her signified people who behaved as she and her family did; wickedness meant vaguely, criminals, Sarah Jones who was an unmarried mother, and anyone who didn’t believe in the God of the Established Church. Always people, you see, in this connexion; in others it might be things; but ideas apart from people or things she couldn’t grasp. Her two daughters thought in precisely the same way....”
One Saturday afternoon Thrale came into Gurney’s chambers and burst out: “Just Heaven! why you fools stand it I can’t imagine!”
“What’s up now?” asked Gurney.
Thrale sat down and drew his chair up to the table. The pupils of his dark eyes were contracted and seemed to glow as if they were illuminated from within.
“I was in Oxford Street this morning, watching the women at the sales,” he said. “All the biggest shops in London are devoted to women’s clothes. Do you realize that? And it’s not only that they’re the biggest—there are more of them than any other six trades put together can show, bar the drink trade, of course. The north side of Oxford Street from Tottenham Court Road to the Marble Arch is one long succession of huge drapers and milliners. And what in God’s name is the sense or reason of it? What do these huge shops sell?”
“Dresses, I suppose,” ventured Gurney, “and stockings, underlinen, corsets, hats, and so on.”
“And frippery,” said Thrale, fixing his brilliant dark eyes on Gurney, “And frippery. Machine lace, ribbons, yokes, cheap blouses, feathers, insertions, belts, fifty thousand different kinds of bits and rags to be tacked on here and there, worn for a few weeks and then thrown away. Millions of little frivolous, stupid odds and ends that are bought by women and girls of all classes below the motor-class, to make a pretence—gauds and tawdry rubbish not one whit better from the artistic point of view than the shells and feathers of any half-naked Melanesian savage. In fact, meaningless as the Melanesians’ decorations are, they do achieve more effect. And what’s it all for, I ask you?”
Thrale paused, and Gurney offered his solution.
“The sex instinct, fundamentally, isn’t it?” he said. “The desire—often subconscious, no doubt—to attract.”
“Well, if that is so,” said Thrale, “what terribly unintelligent fools women must be! If women really set out to attract men, they must realize that they are pandering to a sex instinct. Do you think any man is attracted by a litter of odds and ends? Doesn’t every woman sneer when they see some Frenchwoman, perhaps, who dresses to display her figure instead of hiding it? Don’t they bitterly resent the fact that their own men-folk are resistlessly drawn to stare at, and inwardly desire, such a woman? Don’t they know perfectly well that such a woman is attractive to men in a way their own disguised bodies can never be?”
“Yes, old chap; but your average middle-class English girl hasn’t got the physical attractions to start with,” put in Gurney.
“Look at it in another way, then,” replied Thrale. “Doesn’t every woman know perfectly well—haven’t you heard them say—that a nurse’s dress is very becoming—a plain, more or less tightly-fitting print dress, with linen collars and cuffs? Don’t you know yourself that that attire is more attractive to you than any befrilled and bedecorated arrangement of lace, ribbons and gauds? Why are so many men irresistibly attracted by parlourmaids and housemaids?”
“Yes,” meditated Gurney, “that’s all true enough. Well, are women all fools, or what is it?”
“The majority of women are sheep,” said Thrale. “They follow as they are led, and don’t or won’t see that they are being led. And the leaders are chiefly men—men who have trumpery to sell. Why do the fashions change every year—sometimes more often than that in matters of detail? Because the trade would smash if they didn’t. New fashions must be forced on the buyers, or the returns would drop; women would be able to make their last year’s clothes do for another summer. That must be stopped at any cost. Those vast establishments must maintain an enormous turnover if they are to pay their fabulous rents and armies of assistants. There are two means of keeping up the sales, and both are utilized to the full. The first is to supply cheap, miraculously cheap, rubbish which cannot be made to last for more than a season. The second is to alter the fashions which affect the more durable stuffs, so that last year’s dresses cannot be used again. This fashion-working scheme reacts upon the poorer buyers, because it compels them to do something to imitate the prevailing mode, if they can’t afford to have entirely new frocks. That is where all these bits of frilling and what-not come in; make-believe stuff to imitate the real buyers—the large majority of whom don’t buy in Oxford Street, by the way.
“Mind you, there is a limit to the sheep-like docility of women in this connexion. They refused, for instance, to return to the crinoline, and they refused the harem skirt—one of the very few sensible devices of the fashion-imposers. And this in the face of the prolonged, strenuous and expensive methods of the fashion ring. With regard to the crinoline, I think that failure was due to over-conceit on the part of the fashion-imposers. They had come to believe that they could make the poor fools of women accept anything, and on the two marked occasions on which they attempted to introduce the crinoline, the contrast to the existing mode was too glaring. If the fraud had been worked more gradually by way of full skirts and flounces, some modification of the crinoline to the necessities of ’buses and tubes might have been foisted upon the buyers.”
“Oh, my Lord!” ejaculated Gurney; “do you mean to say that women just accept these fashions without any sense or reason at all?”
“You’re rather a blithering ass, at times, Gurney,” remarked Thrale.
Gurney smiled. “You don’t give me time to think,” he said, “I feel like an accumulator being charged. I haven’t had time yet to begin working on my own account. You’re so mighty—so mighty dynamic—and positive, old chap.”
“Well, it’s so absurdly obvious that there must be a reason for women accepting the fashions, you idiot!” returned Thrale. “And the first and biggest reason is class distinction. The women with money want to brag of it by differentiating themselves from the ruck of their sisters, and the poor women try to imitate them to the best of their ability. Women dress for other women. There is sex rivalry as well as class rivalry at the bottom of it, but they dare not put sex rivalry first and dress to please men alone, because they are afraid of the opinions of other women.”
“Sounds all right,” said Gurney, and sighed.
“And we, damned fools of men, stand all this foolishness and pay for it. Pay, by Jove! I should think so! I should like to see the trade returns of all the stuff of this kind that is sold in England alone in one year. They would make the naval estimates look small, I’ll warrant. We even imitate the women’s foolishness in some degree. There are men’s fashions too, but the madness is not so marked; fortunately the body of middle-class men can’t afford to make fools of themselves as well as of their women—though they are asses enough to wear linen shirts and collars which are uncomfortable unsightly and expensive to wash.”
Gurney regarded his lecturer’s canvas shirt and collar, and then stood up and observed his own immaculate linen in the glass over the fireplace. “I must say I like stiff collars and shirts,” he remarked; “gives one a kind of spruceness.”
Thrale laughed. “It’s only another sex instinct,” he said. “Women like men to look ‘smart.’ When you are playing games with other men, or camping out, you don’t care a hang for your ‘spruceness.’ Oh! and I’ll admit the class distinction rot comes in too. You’re afraid of public opinion, afraid of being thought common. If the jeunesse dorée started the soft shirt in real earnest, you would soon be able to persuade your women that that looked smart or spruce, or whatever you liked to call it.”
“Look here, you know,” said Gurney, “you’re an anarchist, that’s what you are.”
“You’re half a woman, Gurney,” said Thrale. “You think in names. All people are ‘anarchists’ who think in ideas instead of following conventions.”
Not until he had been staying with Gurney for more than a week did Thrale speak explicitly of his purpose in London. But one cold evening at the end of January, as the two men were sitting by a roaring fire that Gurney had built up, the younger man unknowingly opened the subject by saying,
“Things are pretty slack at the present moment. The Evening Chronicle has even fallen back on the ‘New Plague’ for the sake of news.”
“What do they say?” asked Thrale. He was lying back in his chair, nursing one knee, and staring up at the ceiling.
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