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- Without Prejudice - 2/66 -
"Give me an income," shrieked a fifth.
"Give me my deceased sister's husband," shrieked a sixth.
"Give me my divorced husband's children," shrieked a seventh.
"Give me the right to paint from the nude in the Academy schools," shrieked an eighth.
"Give me an Oxford degree," shrieked a ninth.
"Give me a cigar," shrieked a tenth.
"Give me a vote," shrieked an eleventh.
"Give me a pair of trousers," shrieked a twelfth.
"Give me a seat in the House," shrieked a thirteenth.
"Daughters of the horse-leech," I made answer, taking advantage of a momentary lull, "I am not in a position to give away any of these things. You had better ask at the Stores." But the tempest out-thundered me.
"I want to ride bareback in the Row in tights and spangles at 1 p. m. on Sundays," shrieked a soberly clad suburban lady, who sported a wedding-ring. "I want to move the world with my pen or the point of my toe; I want to write, dance, sing, act, paint, sculpt, fence, row, ride, swim, hunt, shoot, fish, love all men from young rustic farmers to old town _roués_, lead the Commons, keep a salon, a restaurant, and a zoological garden, row a boat in boy's costume, with a tenor by moonlight alone, and deluge Europe and Asia with blood shed for my intoxicating beauty. I am primeval, savage, unlicensed, unchartered, unfathomable, unpetticoated, tumultuous, inexpressible, irrepressible, overpowering, crude, mordant, pugnacious, polyandrous, sensual, fiery, chaste, modest, married, and misunderstood."
"But, madam," I remarked--for in her excitement she approached within earshot of me--"I understand thee quite well, and I really am not responsible for thy emotions." Her literary style beguiled me into the responsive archaicism of the second person singular.
"Coward!" she snapped. "Coward and satyr! For centuries thou hast trampled upon my sisters, and desecrated womanhood."
"I beg thy pardon," I rejoined mildly.
"Thou dost not deserve it," she interrupted.
"Thou art substituting hysteria for history," I went on. "I was not born yesterday, but I have only scored a few years more than a quarter of one century, and seeing that my own mother was a woman, I must refuse to be held accountable for the position of the sex."
"Sophist!" she shrieked. "It is thy apathy and selfishness that perpetuate the evil."
Then I bethought me of my long vigils of work and thought, the slow, bitter years in which I "ate my bread with tears, and sat weeping on my bed," and I remembered that some of those tears were for the sorrows of that very sex which was now accusing me of organised injustice. But I replied gently: "I am no tyrant; I am a simple, peaceful citizen, and it is as much as I can do to earn my bread and the bread of some of thy sex. Life is hard enough for both sexes, without setting one against the other. We are both the outcome of the same great forces, and both of us have our special selfishnesses, advantages, and drawbacks. If there is any cruelty, it is Nature's handiwork, not man's. So far from trampling on womanhood, we have let a woman reign over us for more than half a century. We worship womanhood, we have celebrated woman in song, picture, and poem, and half civilisation has adored the Madonna. Let us have woman's point of view and the truth about her psychology, by all means. But beware lest she provoke us too far. The _Ewigweibliche_ has become too literal a fact, and in our reaction against this everlasting woman question we shall develop in unexpected directions. Her cry for equal purity will but end in the formal institution of the polygamy of the Orient--"
As I spoke the figure before me appeared to be undergoing a transformation, and, ere I had finished, I perceived I was talking to an angry, seedy man in a red muffler.
"Thee keeps down the proletariat," he interrupted venomously. "Thee lives on the sweat of his brow, while thee fattens at ease. Thee plants thy foot on his neck."
"Do I?" I exclaimed, lifting up my foot involuntarily.
Mistaking the motion, he disappeared, and in his stead I saw a withered old pauper with the Victoria Cross on his breast. "I went to the mouth of hell for thee," he said, with large reproachful eyes; "and thou leavest me to rot in the workhouse."
"I am awfully sorry!" I said. "I never heard of thee. It is the nation--"
"The nation!" he cried scornfully. "_Thou_ art the nation; the nation is only a collection of individuals. Thou art responsible. Thou art the man."
"Thou art the man," echoed a thousand voices: "Society is only an abstraction." And, looking round, I saw, to my horror, that the women had quite disappeared, and their places were filled by men of all complexions, countries, times, ages, and sexes.
"I died in the streets," shouted an old cripple in the background--"round the corner from thy house, in thy wealthy parish--I died of starvation in this nineteenth century of the Christian era, and a generation after Dickens's 'Christmas Carol.'"
"If I had only known!" I murmured, while my eyes grew moist. "Why didst thou not come to me?"
"I was too proud to beg," he answered. "The really poor never beg."
"Then how am I responsible?" I retorted.
"How art thou responsible?" cried the voices indignantly; and one dominating the rest added: "I want work and can't get it. Dost thou call thyself civilised?"
"Civilised?" echoed a weedy young man scornfully. "I am a genius, yet I have had nothing to eat all day. Thy congeners killed Keats and Chatterton, and when I am dead thou wilt be sorry for what thou hast not done."
"But hast thou published anything?" I asked.
"How could I publish?" he replied, indignantly.
"Then how could I be aware of thee?" I inquired.
"But my great-grandfather _did_ publish," said another. "Thou goest into ecstacies over him, and his books have sold by tens of thousands; but me thou leavest pensionless, to earn my living as a cooper. Bah!"
"And thou didst put _my_ father in prison," said another, "for publishing the works of a Continental novelist; but when the novelist himself comes here, thou puttest him in the place of honour."
I was fast growing overwhelmed with shame.
"Where is thy patriotism! Thou art letting some of the most unique British birds become extinct!" "Yes, and thou lettest Christmas cards be made in Germany, and thou deridest Whistler, and refusest to read Dod Grile, and thou lettest books be published with the sheets pinned instead of sewn. And the way thou neglectest Coleridge's grave----"
"Coleridge's grave?" interrupted a sad-eyed enthusiast. "Why, thou hast put no stone at all to mark where James Thomson lies!"
"Thou Hun, thou Vandal!" shrieked a fresh contingent of voices in defiance of the late Professor Freeman. "Thou hast allowed the Emanuel Hospital to be knocked down, thou hast whitewashed the oaken ceiling of King Charles's room at Dartmouth, and threatened to destroy the view from Richmond Hill. Thou hast smashed cathedral windows, or scratched thy name on them, hast pulled down Roman walls, and allowed commons to be inclosed. Thou coverest the Lake District with advertisements of pills, and the blue heaven itself with sky-signs; and in thy passion for cheap and nasty pictorial journalism thou art allowing the art of wood-engraving to die out, even as thou acceptest photogravures instead of etchings."
I cowered before their wrath, while renewed cries of "Thou art responsible! Thou! Thou!" resounded from all sides.
"A pretty Christian _thou_ art!" exclaimed another voice in unthinking vituperation. "Thou decimatest savage tribes with rum and Maxim guns, thou makest money by corrupting the East with opium. Thou allowest the Armenians to be done to death, and thou wilt not put a stop to child-marriages in India."
"But for thee I should have been alive to-day," broke in a venerable spirit hovering near the ceiling. "If thou hadst refused to sell poison except in specially shaped bottles----"
"What canst thou expect of a man who allows anybody to carry firearms?" interrupted another voice.
"Or who fills his newspaper with divorce cases?"
"Is it any wonder the rising generation is cynical, and the young maiden of fifteen has ceased to be bashful?"
"Shame on thee!" hissed the chorus, and advanced upon me so threateningly that I seized my hat and rushed from the room. But a burly being with a Blue Book blocked my way.
"Where didst thou get that hat?" he cried. "Doubtless from some sweating establishment. And those clothes; didst thou investigate where they were made? didst thou inquire how much thy tailor paid his hands? didst thou engage an accountant to examine his books?"
"I--I am so busy," I stammered feebly.
"Shuffler! How knowest thou thou art not spreading to the world the germs of scarlet fever and typhoid picked up in the sweaters' dens?"
"What cares _he_?" cried a tall, thin man, with a slight stoop and gold spectacles. "Does he not poison the air every day with the smoke of his coal fires?"
"Pison the air!" repeated a battered, blear-eyed reprobate. "He pisoned
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