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A novel that frankly is devoted to the illustration of the dangers that society runs through the marriage of unsound men with unsuspecting women. The time has gone by when any objection was likely to be taken to a perfectly clean discussion of a nasty subject.
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LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
BOOK I. SYLVIA AS WIFE
BOOK II. SYLVIA AS MOTHER
BOOK III. SYLVIA AS REBEL
BOOK I. SYLVIA AS WIFE
1. I am telling the story of Sylvia Castleman. I should prefer to tell it without mention of myself; but it was written in the book of fate that I should be a decisive factor in her life, and so her story pre-supposes mine. I imagine the impatience of a reader, who is promised a heroine out of a romantic and picturesque “society” world, and finds himself beginning with the autobiography of a farmer’s wife on a solitary homestead in Manitoba. But then I remember that Sylvia found me interesting. Putting myself in her place, remembering her eager questions and her exclamations, I am able to see myself as a heroine of fiction.
I was to Sylvia a new and miraculous thing, a self-made woman. I must have been the first “common” person she had ever known intimately. She had seen us afar off, and wondered vaguely about us, consoling herself with the reflection that we probably did not know enough to be unhappy over our sad lot in life. But here I was, actually a soul like herself; and it happened that I knew more than she did, and of things she desperately needed to know. So all the luxury, power and prestige that had been given to Sylvia Castleman seemed as nothing beside Mary Abbott, with her modern attitude and her common-sense.
My girlhood was spent upon a farm in Iowa. My father had eight children, and he drank. Sometimes he struck me; and so it came about that at the age of seventeen I ran away with a boy of twenty who worked upon a neighbour’s farm. I wanted a home of my own, and Tom had some money saved up. We journeyed to Manitoba, and took out a homestead, where I spent the next twenty years of my life in a hand-to-hand struggle with Nature which seemed simply incredible to Sylvia when I told her of it.
The man I married turned out to be a petty tyrant. In the first five years of our life he succeeded in killing the love I had for him; but meantime I had borne him three children, and there was nothing to do but make the best of my bargain. I became to outward view a beaten drudge; yet it was the truth that never for an hour did I give up. When I lost what would have been my fourth child, and the doctor told me that I could never have another, I took this for my charter of freedom, and made up my mind to my course; I would raise the children I had, and grow up with them, and move out into life when they did.
This was when I was working eighteen hours a day, more than half of it by lamp-light, in the darkness of our Northern winters. When the accident came, I had been doing the cooking for half a dozen men, who were getting in the wheat upon which our future depended. I fell in my tracks, and lost my child; yet I sat still and white while the men ate supper, and afterwards I washed up the dishes. Such was my life in those days; and I can see before me the face of horror with which Sylvia listened to the story. But these things are common in the experience of women who live upon pioneer farms, and toil as the slave-woman has toiled since civilization began.
We won out, and my husband made money. I centred my energies upon getting school-time for my children; and because I had resolved that they should not grow ahead of me, I sat up at night, and studied their books. When the oldest boy was ready for high-school, we moved to a town, where my husband had bought a granary business. By that time I had become a physical wreck, with a list of ailments too painful to describe. But I still had my craving for knowledge, and my illness was my salvation, in a way—it got me a hired girl, and time to patronize the free library.
I had never had any sort of superstition or prejudice, and when I got into the world of books, I began quickly to find my way. I travelled into by-paths, of course; I got Christian Science badly, and New Thought in a mild attack. I still have in my mind what the sober reader would doubtless consider queer kinks; for instance, I still practice “mental healing,” in a form, and I don’t always tell my secret thoughts about Theosophy and Spiritualism. But almost at once I worked myself out of the religion I had been taught, and away from my husband’s politics, and the drugs of my doctors. One of the first subjects I read about was health; I came upon a book on fasting, and went away upon a visit and tried it, and came back home a new woman, with a new life before me.
In all of these matters my husband fought me at every step. He wished to rule, not merely my body, but my mind, and it seemed as if every new thing that I learned was an additional affront to him. I don’t think I was rendered disagreeable by my culture; my only obstinacy was in maintaining the right of the children to do their own thinking. But during this time my husband was making money, and filling his life with that. He remained in his every idea the money-man, an active and bitter leader of the forces of greed in our community; and when my studies took me to the inevitable end, and I joined the local of the Socialist party in our town, it was to him like a blow in the face. He never got over it, and I think that if the children had not been on my side, he would have claimed the Englishman’s privilege of beating me with a stick not thicker than his thumb. As it was, he retired into a sullen hypochondria, which was so pitiful that in the end I came to regard him as not responsible.
I went to a college town with my three children, and when they were graduated, having meantime made sure that I could never do anything but torment my husband, I set about getting a divorce. I had helped to lay the foundation of his fortune, cementing it with my blood, I might say, and I could fairly have laid claim to half what he had brought from the farm; but my horror of the parasitic woman had come to be such that rather than even seem to be one, I gave up everything, and went out into the world at the age of forty-five to earn my own living. My children soon married, and I would not be a burden to them; so I came East for a while, and settled down quite unexpectedly into a place as a field-worker for a child-labour committee.
You may think that a woman so situated would not have been apt to meet Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver, née Castleman, and to be chosen for her bosom friend; but that would only be because you do not know the modern world. We have managed to get upon the consciences of the rich, and they invite us to attend their tea-parties and disturb their peace of mind. And then, too, I had a peculiar hold upon Sylvia; when I met her I possessed the key to the great mystery of her life. How that had come about is a story in itself, the thing I have next to tell.
2. It happened that my arrival in New York from the far West coincided with Sylvia’s from the far South; and that both fell at a time when there were no wars or earthquakes or football games to compete for the front page of the newspapers. So everybody was talking about the prospective wedding. The fact that the Southern belle had caught the biggest prize among the city’s young millionaires was enough to establish precedence with the city’s subservient newspapers, which had proceeded to robe the grave and punctilious figure of the bridegroom in the garments of King Cophetua. The fact that the bride’s father was the richest man in his own section did not interfere with this—for how could metropolitan editors be expected to have heard of the glories of Castleman Hall, or to imagine that there existed a section of America so self-absorbed that its local favourite would not feel herself exalted in becoming Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver?
What the editors knew about Castleman Hall was that they wired for pictures, and a man was sent from the nearest city to “snap” this unknown beauty; whereupon her father chased the presumptuous photographer and smashed his camera with a cane. So, of course, when Sylvia stepped out of the train in New York, there was a whole battery of cameras awaiting her, and all the city beheld her image the next day.
The beginning of my interest in this “belle” from far South was when I picked up the paper at my breakfast table, and found her gazing at me, with the wide-open, innocent eyes of a child; a child who had come from some fairer, more gracious world, and brought the memory of it with her, trailing her clouds of glory. She had stepped from the train into the confusion of the roaring city, and she stood, startled and frightened, yet, I thought, having no more real idea of its wickedness and horror than a babe in arms. I read her soul in that heavenly countenance, and sat looking at it, enraptured, dumb. There must have been thousands, even in that metropolis of Mammon, who loved her from that picture, and whispered a prayer for her happiness.
I can hear her laugh as I write this. For she would have it that I was only one more of her infatuated lovers, and that her clouds of glory were purely stage illusion. She knew exactly what she was doing with those wide-open, innocent eyes! Had not old Lady Dee, most cynical of worldlings, taught her how to use them when she was a child in pig-tails? To be sure she had been scared when she stepped off the train, and strange men had shoved cameras under her nose. It was almost as bad as being assassinated! But as to her heavenly soul—alas, for the blindness of men, and of sentimental old women, who could believe in a modern “society” girl!
I had supposed that I was an emancipated woman when I came to New York. But one who has renounced the world, the flesh and the devil, knowing them only from pictures in magazines and Sunday supplements; such a one may find that he has still some need of fasting and praying. The particular temptation which overcame me was this picture of the bride-to-be. I wanted to see her, and I went and stood for hours in a crowd of curious women, and saw the wedding party enter the great Fifth Avenue Church, and discovered that my Sylvia’s hair was golden, and her eyes a strange and wonderful red-brown. And this was the moment that fate had chosen to throw Claire Lepage into my arms, and give me the key to the future of Sylvia’s life.
3. I am uncertain how much I should tell about Claire Lepage. It is a story which is popular in a certain sort of novel, but I have no wish for that easy success. Towards Claire herself I had no trace of the conventional attitude, whether of contempt or of curiosity. She was to me the product of a social system, of the great New Nineveh which I was investigating. And later on, when I knew her, she was a weak sister whom I tried to help.
It happened that I knew much more about such matters than the average woman—owing to a tragedy in my life. When I was about twenty-five years old, my brother-in-law had moved his family to our part of the world, and one of his boys had become very dear to me. This boy later on had got into trouble, and rather than tell anyone about it, had shot himself. So my eyes had been opened to things that are usually hidden from my sex; for the sake of my own sons, I had set out to study the underground ways of the male creature. I developed the curious custom of digging out every man I met, and making him lay bare his inmost life to me; so you may understand that it was no ordinary pair of woman’s arms into which Claire Lepage was thrown.
At first I attributed her vices to her environment, but soon I realized that this was a mistake; the women of her world do not as a rule go to pieces. Many of them I met were free and independent women, one or two of them intellectual and worth knowing. For the most part such women marry well, in the worldly sense, and live as contented lives as the average lady who secures her life-contract at the outset. If you had met Claire at an earlier period of her career, and if she had been concerned to impress you, you might have thought her a charming hostess. She had come of good family, and been educated in a convent—much better educated than many society girls in America. She spoke English as well as she did French, and she had read some poetry, and could use the language of idealism whenever necessary. She had even a certain religious streak, and could voice the most generous sentiments, and really believe that she believed them. So it might have been some time before you discovered the springs of her weakness.
In the beginning I blamed van Tuiver; but in the end I concluded that for most of her troubles she had herself to thank—or perhaps the ancestors who had begotten her. She could talk more nobly and act more abjectly than any other woman I have ever known. She wanted pleasant sensations, and she expected life to furnish them continuously. Instinctively she studied the psychology of the person she was dealing with, and chose a reason which would impress that person.
At this time, you understand, I knew nothing about Sylvia Castleman or her fiancé, except what the public knew. But now I got an inside view—and what a view! I had read some reference to Douglas van Tuiver’s Harvard career: how he had met the peerless Southern beauty, and had given up college and pursued her to her home. I had pictured the wooing in the rosy lights of romance, with all the glamour of worldly greatness. But now, suddenly, what a glimpse into the soul of the princely lover! “He had a good scare, let me tell you,” said Claire. “He never knew what I was going to do from one minute to the next.”
“Did he see you in the crowd before the church door?” I inquired.
“No,” she replied, “but he thought of me, I can promise you.”
“He knew you were coming?”
She answered, “I told him I had got an admission card, just to make sure he’d keep me in mind!”
4. I did not have to hear much more of Claire’s story before making up my mind that the wealthiest and most fashionable of New York’s young bachelors was a rather self-centred person. He had fallen desperately in love with the peerless Southern beauty, and when she had refused to have anything to do with him, he had come back to the other woman for consolation, and had compelled her to pretend to sympathize with his agonies of soul. And this when he knew that she loved him with the intensity of a jealous nature.
Claire had her own view of Sylvia Castleman, a view for which I naturally made due reservations. Sylvia was a schemer, who had known from the first what she wanted, and had played her part with masterly skill. As for Claire, she had striven to match her moves, plotting in the darkness against her, and fighting desperately with such weak weapons as she possessed. It was characteristic that she did not blame herself for her failure; it was the baseness of van Tuiver, his inability to appreciate sincere devotion, his unworthiness of her love. And this, just after she had been naively telling me of her efforts to poison his mind against Sylvia while pretending to admire her! But I made allowances for Claire at this moment—realizing that the situation had been one to overstrain any woman’s altruism.
She had failed in her subtleties, and there had followed scenes of bitter strife between the two. Sylvia, the cunning huntress, having pretended to relent, van Tuiver had gone South to his wooing again, while Claire had stayed at home and read a book about the poisoners of the Italian renaissance. And then had come the announcement of the engagement, after which the royal conqueror had come back in a panic, and sent embassies of his male friends to plead with Claire, alternately promising her wealth and threatening her with destitution, appealing to her fear, her cupidity, and even to her love. To all of which I listened, thinking of the wide-open, innocent eyes of the picture, and shedding tears within my soul. So must the gods feel as they look down upon the affairs of mortals, seeing how they destroy themselves by ignorance and folly, seeing how they walk into the future as a blind man into a yawning abyss.
I gave, of course, due weight to the sneers of Claire. Perhaps the innocent one really had set a trap—had picked van Tuiver out and married him for his money. But even so, I could hope that she had not known what she was doing. Surely it had never occurred to her that through all the days of her triumph she would have to eat and sleep with the shade of another woman at her side!
Claire said to me, not once, but a dozen times, “He’ll come back to me. She’ll never be able to make him happy.” And so I pictured Sylvia upon her honeymoon, followed by an invisible ghost whose voice she would never hear, whose name she would never know. All that van Tuiver had learned from Claire, the sensuality, the ennin, the contempt for woman—it would rise to torment and terrify his bride, and turn her life to bitterness. And then beyond this, deeps upon deeps, to which my imagination did not go—and of which the Frenchwoman, with all her freedom of tongue, gave me no more than a hint which I could not comprehend.
5. Claire Lepage at this time was desperately lonely and unhappy. Having made the discovery that my arms were sturdy, used to doing a man’s work, she clung to them. She begged me to go home with her, to visit her—finally to come and live with her. Until recently an elderly companion, had posed as her aunt, and kept her respectable while she was upon van Tuiver’s yacht, and at his castle in Scotland. But this companion had died, and now Claire had no one with whom to discuss her soul-states.
She occupied a beautiful house on the West Side, not far from Riverside Drive; and in addition to the use of this she had an income of eight thousand a year—which was not enough to make possible a chauffeur, nor even to dress decently, but only enough to keep in debt upon. Such as the income was, however, she was willing to share it with me. So there opened before me a new profession—and a new insight into the complications of parasitism.
I went to see her frequently at first, partly because I was interested in her and her associates, and partly because I really thought I could help her. But I soon came to realize that influencing Claire was like moulding water; it flowed back round your hands, even while you worked. I would argue with her about the physiological effects of alcohol, and when I had convinced her, she would promise caution; but soon I would discover that my arguments had gone over her head. I was at this time feeling my way towards my work in the East. I tried to interest her in such things as social reform, but realized that they had no meaning for her. She was living the life of the pleasure-seeking idlers of the great metropolis, and every time I met her it seemed to me that her character and her appearance had deteriorated.
Meantime I picked up scraps of information concerning the van Tuivers. There were occasional items in the papers, their yacht, the “Triton,” had reached the Azores; it had run into a tender in the harbour of Gibraltar; Mr. and Mrs. van Tuiver had received the honour of presentation at the Vatican; they were spending the season in London, and had been presented at court; they had been royal guests at the German army-manoeuvres. The million wage-slaves of the metropolis, packed morning and night into the roaring subways and whirled to and from their tasks, read items such as these and were thrilled by the triumphs of their fellow-countrymen.
At Claire’s house I learned to be interested in “society” news. From a weekly paper of gossip about the rich and great she would read paragraphs, explaining subtle allusions and laying bare veiled scandals. Some of the men she knew well, referring to them for my benefit as Bertie and Reggie and Vivie and Algie. She also knew not a little about the women of that super-world—information sometimes of an intimate nature, which these ladies would have been startled to hear was going the rounds.
This insight I got into Claire’s world I found useful, needless to say, in my occasional forays as a soap-box orator of Socialism. I would go from the super-heated luxury of her home to visit tenement-dens where little children made paper-flowers twelve and fourteen hours a day for a trifle over one cent an hour. I would spend the afternoon floating about in the park in the automobile of one of her expensive friends, and then take the subway and visit one of the settlements, to hear a discussion of conditions which doomed a certain number of working-girls to be burned alive every year in factory fires.
As time went on, I became savage concerning such contrasts, and the speeches I was making for the party began to attract attention. During the summer, I recollect, I had begun to feel hostile even towards the lovely image of Sylvia, which I had framed in my room. While she was being presented at St. James’s, I was studying the glass-factories in South Jersey, where I found little boys of ten working in front of glowing furnaces until they dropped of exhaustion and sometimes had their eyes burned out. While she and her husband were guests of the German Emperor, I was playing the part of a Polish working-woman, penetrating the carefully guarded secrets of the sugar-trust’s domain in Brooklyn, where human lives are snuffed out almost every day in noxious fumes.
And then in the early fall Sylvia came home, her honeymoon over. She came in one of the costly suites in the newest of the de luxe steamers; and the next morning I saw a new picture of her, and read a few words her husband had condescended to say to a fellow traveller about the courtesy of Europe to visiting Americans. Then for a couple of months I heard no more of them. I was busy with my child-labour work, and I doubt if a thought of Sylvia crossed my mind, until that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon at Mrs. Allison’s when she came up to me and took my hand in hers.
6. Mrs. Roland Allison was one of the comfortable in body who had begun to feel uncomfortable in mind. I had happened to meet her at the settlement, and tell her what I had seen in the glass factories; whereupon she made up her mind that everybody she knew must hear me talk, and to that end gave a reception at her Madison Avenue home.
I don’t remember much of what I said, but if I may take the evidence of Sylvia, who remembered everything, I spoke effectively. I told them, for one thing, the story of little Angelo Patri. Little Angelo was of that indeterminate Italian age where he helped to support a drunken father without regard to the child-labour laws of the State of New Jersey. His people were tenants upon a fruit-farm a couple of miles from the glass-factory, and little Angelo walked to and from his work along the railroad-track. It is a peculiarity of the glass-factory that it has to eat its children both by day and by night; and after working six hours before midnight and six more after midnight, little Angelo was tired. He had no eye for the birds and flowers on a beautiful spring morning, but as he was walking home, he dropped in his tracks and fell asleep. The driver of the first morning train on that branch-line saw what he took to be an old coat lying on the track ahead, and did not stop to investigate.
All this had been narrated to me by the child’s mother, who had worked as a packer of “beers,” and who had loved little Angelo. As I repeated her broken words about the little mangled body, I saw some of my auditors wipe away a surreptitious tear.
After I had stopped, several women came up to talk with me at the last, when most of the company was departing, there came one more, who had waited her turn. The first thing I saw was her loveliness, the thing about her that dazzled and stunned people, and then came the strange sense of familiarity. Where had I met this girl before?
She said what everybody always says; she had been so much interested, she had never dreamed that such conditions existed in the world. I, applying the acid test, responded, “So many people have said that to me that I have begun to believe it.”
“It is so in my case,” she replied, quickly. “You see, I have lived all my life in the South, and we have no such conditions there.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Our negroes at least can steal enough to eat,” she said.
I smiled. Then—since one has but a moment or two to get in one’s work in these social affairs, and so has to learn to thrust quickly: “You have timber-workers in Louisiana, steel-workers in Alabama. You have tobacco-factories, canning-factories, cotton-mills—have you been to any of them to see how the people live?”
All this I said automatically, it being the routine of the agitator. But meantime in my mind was an excitement, spreading like a flame. The loveliness of this young girl; the eagerness, the intensity of feeling written upon her countenance; and above all, the strange sense of familiarity! Surely, if I had met her before, I should never have forgotten her; surely it could not be—not possibly—
My hostess came, and ended my bewilderment. “You ought to get Mrs. van Tuiver on your child-labour committee,” she said.
A kind of panic seized me. I wanted to say, “Oh, it is Sylvia Castleman!” But then, how could I explain? I couldn’t say, “I have your picture in my room, cut out of a newspaper.” Still less could I say, “I know a friend of your husband.”
Fortunately Sylvia did not heed my excitement. (She had learned by this time to pretend not to notice.) “Please don’t misunderstand me,” she was saying. “I really don’t know about these things. And I would do something to help if I could.” As she said this she looked with the red-brown eyes straight into mine—a gaze so clear and frank and honest, it was as if an angel had come suddenly to earth, and learned of the horrible tangle into which we mortals have got our affairs.
“Be careful what you’re saying,” put in our hostess, with a laugh. “You’re in dangerous hands.”
But Sylvia would not be warned. “I want to know more about it,” she said. “You must tell me what I can do.”
“Take her at her word,” said Mrs. Allison, to me. “Strike while the iron is hot!” I detected a note of triumph in her voice; if she could say that she had got Mrs. van Tuiver to take up child-labour—that indeed would be a feather to wear!
“I will tell you all I can,” I said. “That’s my work in the world.”
“Take Mrs. Abbott away with you,” said the energetic hostess, to Sylvia; and before I quite understood what was happening, I had received and accepted an invitation to drive in the park with Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver. In her role of dea ex machina the hostess extricated me from the other guests, and soon I was established in a big new motor, gliding up Madison Avenue as swiftly and silently as a cloud-shadow over the fields. As I write the words there lies upon my table a Socialist paper with one of Will Dyson’s vivid cartoons, representing two ladies of the great world at a reception. Says the first, “These social movements are becoming quite worth while!” “Yes, indeed,” says the other. “One meets such good society!”
7. Sylvia’s part in this adventure was a nobler one than mine, Seated as I was in a regal motor-car, and in company with one favoured of all the gods in the world, I must have had an intense conviction of my own saintliness not to distrust my excitement. But Sylvia, for her part, had nothing to get from me but pain. I talked of the factory-fires and the horrors of the sugar-refineries, and I saw shadow after shadow of suffering cross her face. You may say it was cruel of me to tear the veil from those lovely eyes, but in such a matter I felt myself the angel of the Lord and His vengeance.
“I didn’t know about these things!” she cried again. And I found it was true. It would have been hard for me to imagine anyone so ignorant of the realities of modern life. The men and women she had met she understood quite miraculously, but they were only two kinds, the “best people” and their negro servants. There had been a whole regiment of relatives on guard to keep her from knowing anybody else, or anything else, and if by chance a dangerous fact broke into the family stockade, they had formulas ready with which to kill it.
“But now,” Sylvia went on, “I’ve got some money, and I can help, so I dare not be ignorant any longer. You must show me the way, and my husband too. I’m sure he doesn’t know what can be done.”
I said that I would do anything in my power. Her help would be invaluable, not merely because of the money she might give, but because of the influence of her name; the attention she could draw to any cause she chose. I explained to her the aims and the methods of our child-labour committee. We lobbied to get new legislation; we watched officials to compel them to enforce the laws already existing; above all, we worked for publicity, to make people realise what it meant that the new generation was growing up without education, and stunted by premature toil. And that was where she could help us most—if she would go and see the conditions with her own eyes, and then appear before the legislative committee this winter, in favour of our new bill!
She turned her startled eyes upon me at this. Her ideas of doing good in the world were the old-fashioned ones of visiting and almsgiving; she had no more conception of modern remedies than she had of modern diseases. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly make a speech!” she exclaimed.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I never thought of such a thing. I don’t know enough.”
“But you can learn.”
“I know, but that kind of work ought to be done by men.”
“We’ve given men a chance, and they have made the evils. Whose business is it to protect the children if not the women’s?”
She hesitated a moment, and then said: “I suppose you’ll laugh at me.”
“No, no,” I promised; then as I looked at her I guessed. “Are you going to tell me that woman’s place is the home?”
“That is what we think in Castleman County,” she said, smiling in spite of herself.
“The children have got out of the home,” I replied. “If they are ever to get back, we women must go and fetch them.”
Suddenly she laughed—that merry laugh that was the April sunshine of my life for many years. “Somebody made a Suffrage speech in our State a couple of years ago, and I wish you could have seen the horror of my people! My Aunt Nannie—she’s Bishop Chilton’s wife—thought it was the most dreadful thing that had happened since Jefferson Davis was put in irons. She talked about it for days, and at last she went upstairs and shut herself in the attic. The younger children came home from school, and wanted to know where mamma was. Nobody knew. Bye and bye, the cook came. ‘Marse Basil, what we gwine have fo’ dinner? I done been up to Mis’ Nannie, an’ she say g’way an’ not pester her—she busy.’ Company came, and there was dreadful confusion—nobody knew what to do about anything—and still Aunt Nannie was locked in! At last came dinner-time, and everybody else came. At last up went the butler, and came down with the message that they were to eat whatever they had, and take care of the company somehow, and go to prayer-meeting, and let her alone—she was writing a letter to the Castleman County Register on the subject of ‘The Duty of Woman as a Homemaker’!”
8. This was the beginning of my introduction to Castleman County. It was a long time before I went there, but I learned to know its inhabitants from Sylvia’s stories of them. Funny stories, tragic stories, wild and incredible stories out of a half-barbaric age! She would tell them and we would laugh together; but then a wistful look would come into her eyes, and a silence would fall. So very soon I made the discovery that my Sylvia was homesick. In all the years that I knew her she never ceased to speak of Castleman Hall as “home”. All her standards came from there, her new ideas were referred there.
We talked of Suffrage for a while, and I spoke about the lives of women on lonely farms—how they give their youth and health to their husband’s struggle, yet have no money partnership which they can enforce in case of necessity. “But surely,” cried Sylvia, “you don’t want to make divorce more easy!”
“I want to make the conditions of it fair to women,” I said.
“But then more women will get it! And there are so many divorced women now! Papa says that divorce is a greater menace than Socialism!”
She spoke of Suffrage in England, where women were just beginning to make public disturbances. Surely I did not approve of their leaving their homes for such purposes as that! As tactfully as I could, I suggested that conditions in England were peculiar. There was, for example, the quaint old law which permitted a husband to beat his wife subject to certain restrictions. Would an American woman submit to such a law? There was the law which made it impossible for a woman to divorce her husband for infidelity, unless accompanied by desertion or cruelty. Surely not even her father would consider that a decent arrangement! I mentioned a recent decision of the highest court in the land, that a man who brought his mistress to live in his home, and compelled his wife to wait upon her, was not committing cruelty within the meaning of the English law. I heard Sylvia’s exclamation of horror, and met her stare of incredulity; and then suddenly I thought of Claire, and a little chill ran over me. It was a difficult hour, in more ways than one, that of my first talk with Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver!
I soon made the discovery that, childish as her ignorance was, there was no prejudice in it. If you brought her a fact, she did not say that it was too terrible to be true, or that the Bible said otherwise, or that it was indecent to know about it. Nor, when you met her next, did you discover that she had forgotten it. On the contrary, you discovered that she had followed it to its remote consequences, and was ready with a score of questions as to these. I remember saying to myself, that first automobile ride: “If this girl goes on thinking, she will get into trouble! She will have to stop, for the sake of others!”
“You must meet my husband some time,” she said; and added, “I’ll have to see my engagement-book. I have so much to do, I never know when I have a moment free.”
“You must find it interesting,” I ventured.
“I did, for a while; but I’ve begun to get tired of so much going about. For the most part I meet the same people, and I’ve found out what they have to say.”
I laughed. “You have caught the society complaint already—ennui!”
“I had it years ago, at home. It’s true I never would have gone out at all if it hadn’t been for the sake of my family. That’s why I envy a woman like you—”
I could not help laughing. It was too funny, Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver envying me!
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“Just the irony of life. Do you know, I cut you out of the newspaper, and put you in a little frame on my bureau. I thought, here is the loveliest face I’ve ever seen, and here is the most-to-be-envied of women.”
She smiled, but quickly became serious. “I learned very early in life that I was beautiful; and I suppose if I were suddenly to cease being beautiful, I’d miss it; yet I often think it’s a nuisance. It makes one dependent on externals. Most of the beautiful women I’ve known make a sort of profession of it—they live to shine and be looked at.
“And you don’t enjoy that?” I asked.
“It restricts one’s life. Men expect it of you, they resent your having any other interest.”
“So,” I responded, gravely, “with all your beauty and wealth, you aren’t perfectly happy?”
“Oh, yes!” she cried—not having meant to confess so much. “I told myself I would be happy, because I would be able to do so much good in the world. There must be some way to do good with money! But now I’m not sure; there seem to be so many things in the way. Just when you have your mind made up that you have a way to help, someone comes and points out to you that you may be really doing harm.”
She hesitated again, and I said, “That means you have been looking into the matter of charity.”
She gave me a bright glance. “How you understand things!” she exclaimed.
“It is possible,” I replied, “to know modern society so well that when you meet certain causes you know what results to look for.”
“I wish you’d explain to me why charity doesn’t do any good!”
“It would mean a lecture on the competitive wage-system,” I laughed— “too serious a matter for a drive!”
This may have seemed shirking on my part. But here I was, wrapped in luxurious furs, rolling gloriously through the park at twilight on a brilliant autumn evening; and the confiscation of property seems so much more startling a proposition when you are in immediate contact with it! This principle, which explains the “opportunism” of Socialist cabinet-ministers and Labour M.P.s may be used to account for the sudden resolve which I had taken, that for this afternoon at least Mrs. Douglas van Tuiver should not discover that I was either a divorced woman, or a soap-box orator of the revolution.
9. Sylvia, in that first conversation, told me much about herself that she did not know she was telling. I became fairly certain, for instance, that she had not married Mr. Douglas van Tuiver for love. The young girl who has so married does not suffer from ennui in the first year, nor does she find her happiness depending upon her ability to solve the problem of charity in connection with her husband’s wealth.
She would have ridden and talked longer, she said, but for a dinner engagement. She asked me to call on her, and I promised to come some morning, as soon as she set a day. When the car drew up before the door of her home, I thought of my first ride about the city in the “rubber-neck wagon,” and how I had stared when the lecturer pointed out this mansion. We, the passengers, had thrilled as one soul, imagining the wonderful life which must go on behind those massive portals, the treasures outshining the wealth of Ormus and of Ind, which required those thick, bronze bars for their protection. And here was the mistress of all the splendour, inviting me to come and see it from within!
She wanted to send me home in the car, but I would not have that, on account of the push-cart men and the babies in my street; I got out and walked—my heart beating fast, my blood leaping with exultation. I reached home, and there on the bureau was the picture—but behold, how changed! It was become a miracle of the art of colour-photography; its hair was golden, its eyes a wonderful red-brown, its cheeks aglow with the radiance of youth! And yet more amazing, the picture spoke! It spoke with the most delicious of Southern drawls—referring to the “repo’t” of my child-labour committee, shivering at the cold and bidding me pull the “fu-uzz” up round me. And when I told funny stories about the Italians and the Hebrews of my tenement-neighbourhood, it broke into silvery laughter, and cried: “Oh, de-ah me! How que-ah!” Little had I dreamed, when I left that picture in the morning, what a miracle was to be wrought upon it.
I knew, of course, what was the matter with me; the symptoms were unmistakable. After having made up my mind that I was an old woman, and that there was nothing more in life for me save labour—here the little archer had come, and with the sharpest of his golden arrows, had shot me through. I had all the thrills, the raptures and delicious agonies of first love; I lived no longer in myself, but in the thought of another person. Twenty times a day I looked at my picture, and cried aloud: “Oh, beautiful, beautiful!”
I do not know how much of her I have been able to give. I have told of our first talk—but words are so cold and dead! I stop and ask: What there is, in all nature, that has given me the same feeling? I remember how I watched the dragon-fly emerging from its chrysalis. It is soft and green and tender; it clings to a branch and dries its wings in the sun, and when the miracle is completed, there for a brief space it poises, shimmering with a thousand hues, quivering with its new-born ecstasy. And just so was Sylvia; a creature from some other world than ours, as yet unsoiled by the dust and heat of reality. It came to me with a positive shock, as a terrifying thing, that there should be in this world of strife and wickedness any young thing that took life with such intensity, that was so palpitating with eagerness, with hope, with sympathy. Such was the impression that one got of her, even when her words most denied it. She might be saying world-weary and cynical things, out of the maxims of Lady Dee; but there was still the eagerness, the sympathy, surging beneath and lifting her words.
The crown of her loveliness was her unconsciousness of self. Even though she might be talking of herself, frankly admitting her beauty, she was really thinking of other people, how she could get to them to help them. This I must emphasize, because, apart from jesting, I would not have it thought that I had fallen under the spell of a beautiful countenance, combined with a motor-car and a patrician name. There were things about Sylvia that were aristocratic, that could be nothing else; but she could be her same lovely self in a cottage—as I shall prove to you before I finish with the story of her life.
I was in love. At that time I was teaching myself German, and I sat one day puzzling out two lines of Goethe:
“Oden and Thor, these two thou knowest; Freya, the heavenly, knowest thou not.”
And I remember how I cried aloud in sudden delight: “I know her!” For a long time that was one of my pet names—”Freya dis Himmlische!” I only heard of one other that I preferred—when in course of time she told me about Frank Shirley, and how she had loved him, and how their hopes had been wrecked. He had called her “Lady Sunshine”; he had been wont to call it over and over in his happiness, and as Sylvia repeated it to me—”Lady Sunshine! Lady Sunshine!” I could imagine that I caught an echo of the very tones of Frank Shirley’s voice.
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