Equality (Bellamy)/Chapter 6
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Honi soit qui mal y pense
|Chapter VII. A string of surprises→|
When we reached the house the doctor said:
"I am going to leave you to Edith this morning. The fact is, my duties as mentor, while extremely to my taste, are not quite a sinecure. The questions raised in our talks frequently suggest the necessity of refreshing my general knowledge of the contrasts between your day and this by looking up the historical authorities. The conversation this morning has indicated lines of research which will keep me busy in the library the rest of the day."
I found Edith in the garden, and received her congratulations upon my fully fledged citizenship. She did not seem at all surprised on learning my intention promptly to find a place in the industrial service.
"Of course you will want to enter the service as soon as you can," she said. "I knew you would. It is the only way to get in touch with the people and feel really one of the nation. It is the great event we all look forward to from childhood."
"Talking of industrial service," I said, "reminds me of a question it has a dozen times occurred to me to ask you. I understand that everyone who is able to do so, women as well as men, serves the nation from twenty-one to forty-five years of age in some useful occupation; but so far as I have seen, although you are the picture of health and vigor, you have no employment, but are quite like young ladies of elegant leisure in my day, who spent their time sitting in the parlor and looking handsome. Of course, it is highly agreeable to me that you should be so free, but how, exactly, is so much leisure on your part squared with the universal obligation of service?"
Edith was greatly amused. "And so you thought I was shirking? Had it not occurred to you that there might probably be such things as vacations or furloughs in the industrial service, and that the rather unusual and interesting guest in our household might furnish a natural occasion for me to take an outing if I could get it?"
"And can you take your vacation when you please?"
"We can take a portion of it when we please, always subject, of course, to the needs of the service."
"But what do you do when you are at work--teach school, paint china, keep books for the Government, stand behind a counter in the public stores, or operate a typewriter or telegraph wire?"
"Does that list exhaust the number of women's occupations in your day?"
"Oh, no; those were only some of their lighter and pleasanter occupations. Women were also the scrubbers, the washers, the servants of all work. The most repulsive and humiliating kinds of drudgery were put off upon the women of the poorer class; but I suppose, of course, you do not do any such work."
"You may be sure that I do my part of whatever unpleasant things there are to do, and so does every one in the nation; but, indeed, we have long ago arranged affairs so that there is very little such work to do. But, tell me, were there no women in your day who were machinists, farmers, engineers, carpenters, iron workers, builders, engine drivers, or members of the other great crafts?"
"There were no women in such occupations. They were followed by men only."
"I suppose I knew that," she said; "I have read as much; but it is strange to talk with a man of the nineteenth century who is so much like a man of to-day and realize that the women were so different as to seem like another order of beings."
"But, really," said I, "I don't understand how in these respects the women can do very differently now unless they are physically much stronger. Most of these occupations you have just mentioned were too heavy for their strength, and for that reason, largely, were limited to men, as I should suppose they must still be."
"There is not a trade or occupation in the whole list," replied Edith, "in which women do not take part. It is partly because we are physically much more vigorous than the poor creatures of your time that we do the sorts of work that were too heavy for them, but it is still more an account of the perfection of machinery. As we have grown stronger, all sorts of work have grown lighter. Almost no heavy work is done directly now; machines do all, and we only need to guide them, and the lighter the hand that guides, the better the work done. So you see that nowadays physical qualities have much less to do than mental with the choice of occupations. The mind is constantly getting nearer to the work, and father says some day we may be able to work by sheer will power directly and have no need of hands at all. It is said that there are actually more women than men in great machine works. My mother was first lieutenant in a great iron works. Some have a theory that the sense of power which one has in controlling giant engines appeals to women's sensibilities even more than to men's. But really it is not quite fair to make you guess what my occupation is, for I have not fully decided on it."
"But you said you were already at work."
"Oh, yes, but you know that before we choose our life occupation we are three years in the unclassified or miscellaneous class of workers. I am in my second year in that class."
"What do you do?"
"A little of everything and nothing long. The idea is to give us during that period a little practical experience in all the main departments of work, so that we may know better how and what to choose as an occupation. We are supposed to have got through with the schools before we enter this class, but really I have learned more since I have been at work than in twice the time spent in school. You can not imagine how perfectly delightful this grade of work is. I don't wonder some people prefer to stay in it all their lives for the sake of the constant change in tasks, rather than elect a regular occupation. Just now I am among the agricultural workers on the great farm near Lexington. It is delightful, and I have about made up my mind to choose farm work as an occupation. That is what I had in mind when I asked you to guess my trade. Do you think you would ever have guessed that?"
"I don't think I ever should, and unless the conditions of farm work have greatly changed since my day I can not imagine how you could manage it in a woman's costume."
Edith regarded me for a moment with an expression of simple surprise, her eyes growing large. Then her glance fell to her dress, and when she again looked up her expression had changed to one which was at once meditative, humorous, and wholly inscrutable. Presently she said:
"Have you not observed, my dear Julian, that the dress of the women you see on the streets is different from that which women wore in the nineteenth century?"
"I have noticed, of course, that they generally wear no skirts, but you and your mother dress as women did in my day."
"And has it not occurred to you to wonder why our dress was not like theirs--why we wear skirts and they do not?"
"Possibly that has occurred to me among the thousand other questions that every day arise in my mind, only to be driven out by a thousand others before I can ask them; but I think in this case I should have rather wondered why these other women did not dress as you do instead of why you did not dress as they do, for your costume, being the one I was accustomed to, naturally struck me as the normal type, and this other style as a variation for some special or local reason which I should later learn about. You must not think me altogether stupid. To tell the truth, these other women have as yet scarcely impressed me as being very real. You were at first the only person about whose reality I felt entirely sure. All the others seemed merely parts of a fantastic farrago of wonders, more or less possible, which is only just beginning to become intelligible and coherent. In time I should doubtless have awakened to the fact that there were other women in the world besides yourself and begun to make inquiries about them."
As I spoke of the absoluteness with which I had depended on her during those first bewildering days for the assurance even of my own identity the quick tears rushed to my companion's eyes, and--well, for a space the other women were more completely forgotten than ever.
Presently she said: "What were we talking about? Oh, yes, I remember--about those other women. I have a confession to make. I have been guilty toward you all this time of a sort of fraud, or at least of a flagrant suppression of the truth, which ought not to be kept up a moment longer. I sincerely hope you will forgive me, in consideration of my motive, and not----"
"Not be too much startled."
"You make me very curious," I said. "What is this mystery? I think I can stand the disclosure."
"Listen, then," she said. "That wonderful night when we saw you first, of course our great thought was to avoid agitating you when you should recover full consciousness by any more evidence of the amazing things that had happened since your day than it was necessary you should see. We knew that in your time the use of long skirts by women was universal, and we reflected that to see mother and me in the modern dress would no doubt strike you very strangely. Now, you see, although skirtless costumes are the general--indeed, almost universal--wear for most occasions, all possible costumes, ancient and modern, of all races, ages, and civilizations, are either provided or to be obtained on the shortest possible notice at the stores. It was therefore very easy for us to furnish ourselves with the old-style dress before father introduced you to us. He said people had in your day such strange ideas of feminine modesty and propriety that it would be the best way to do. Can you forgive us, Julian, for taking such an advantage of your ignorance?"
"Edith," I said, "there were a great many institutions of the nineteenth century which we tolerated because we did not know how to get rid of them, without, however, having a bit better opinion of them than you have, and one of them was the costume by means of which our women used to disguise and cripple themselves."
"I am delighted!" exclaimed Edith. "I perfectly detest these horrible bags, and will not wear them a moment longer!" And bidding me wait where I was, she ran into the house.
Five minutes, perhaps, I waited there in the arbor, where we had been sitting, and then, at a light step on the grass, looked up to see Edith with eyes of smiling challenge standing before me in modern dress. I have seen her in a hundred varieties of that costume since then, and have grown familiar with the exhaustless diversity of its adaptations, but I defy the imagination of the greatest artist to devise a scheme of color and fabric that would again produce upon me the effect of enchanting surprise which I received from that quite simple and hasty toilet.
I don't know how long I stood looking at her without a thought of words, my eyes meanwhile no doubt testifying eloquently enough how adorable I found her. She seemed, however, to divine more than that in my expression, for presently she exclaimed:
"I would give anything to know what you are thinking down in the bottom of your mind! It must be something awfully funny. What are you turning so red for?"
"I am blushing for myself," I said, and that is all I would tell her, much as she teased me. Now, at this distance of time I may tell the truth. My first sentiment, apart from overwhelming admiration, had been a slight astonishment at her absolute ease and composure of bearing under my gaze. This is a confession that may well seem incomprehensible to twentieth-century readers, and God forbid that they should ever catch the point of view which would enable them to understand it better! A woman of my day, unless professionally accustomed to use this sort of costume, would have seemed embarrassed and ill at ease, at least for a time, under a gaze so intent as mine, even though it were a brother's or a father's. I, it seems, had been prepared for at least some slight appearance of discomposure on Edith's part, and was consciously surprised at a manner which simply expressed an ingenuous gratification at my admiration. I refer to this momentary experience because it has always seemed to me to illustrate in a particularly vivid way the change that has taken place not only in the customs but in the mental attitude of the sexes as to each other since my former life. In justice to myself I must hasten to add that this first feeling of surprise vanished even as it arose, in a moment, between two heart-beats. I caught from her clear, serene eyes the view point of the modern man as to woman, never again to lose it. Then it was that I flushed red with shame for myself. Wild horses could not have dragged from me the secret of that blush at the time, though I have told her long ago.
"I was thinking," I said, and I was thinking so, too, "that we ought to be greatly obliged to twentieth-century women for revealing for the first time the artistic possibilities of the masculine dress."
"The masculine dress," she repeated, as if not quite comprehending my meaning. "Do you mean my dress?"
"Why, yes; it is a man's dress I suppose, is it not?"
"Why any more than a woman's?" she answered rather blankly. "Ah, yes, I actually forgot for a moment whom I was talking to. I see; so it was considered a man's dress in your day, when the women masqueraded as mermaids. You may think me stupid not to catch your idea more quickly, but I told you I was dull at history. It is now two full generations since women as well as men have worn this dress, and the idea of associating it with men more than women would occur to no one but a professor of history. It strikes us merely as the only natural and convenient solution of the dress necessity, which is essentially the same for both sexes, since their bodily conformation is on the same general lines."