Colymbia/Chapter 14

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IN the assemblies, lectures and entertainments, where my evenings were chiefly spent, and in the various excursions and parties formed to witness or engage in the races and other exercises that take up so much of the time of the Colymbians, I frequently encountered Lily. I had quite overcome my passion for her, and felt no desire to avail myself of her conditional offer to be mine, should she and her husband not agree. It appeared to me, indeed, that they agreed well enough, and I would not for worlds have done anything to interfere with their domestic arrangements. I did not avoid my former flame, but on the other hand I did not seek her society, as I had done before that fatal evening. She perceived my coldness, and, far from resenting it, she once said, "I suppose, from your manner, you no longer think of me as a future wife, and indeed I am very well content with Phoebus, and he, I think, is equally so with me."

I was, I confess, greatly relieved to hear this, as it was not the least to my taste, nor at all consonant with my ideas of morality, to take away a man's wife from him. I intimated as much in the most delicate manner to Lily. She said:—

"Well, you terrestrials have such queer notions on all subjects, that it is not to be wondered that your ideas about marriage are as perverse as the rest. You must remember that it was you yourself who first declared to me that you were in love with me, and your woe-begone appearance when I announced to you my marriage with Phoebus convinced me that your disappointment was great. I was filled with the liveliest pity for you, and one of your own poets says, 'Pity is akin to love.' I should rather say, it often leads to love. I did not love Phoebus, and I knew he did not love me; we only liked one another, and married in order to see if we could love. I might have loved you had I seen that you retained your affection for me; but now that I see you have lost all caring for me, nothing prevents me giving my whole heart to Phoebus, and I dare say we shall make a most exemplary and happy couple."

I saw it was in vain to impress on this fascinating creature the notions respecting marriage which prevail in England. She could not have understood how we insist on love being a condition precedent to the formation of a matrimonial alliance. On this subject she one day said:—

"As you terrestrials know little or nothing of one another's bodies physically or mentally, you must marry your ideals, and what if the reality does not correspond with your ideal, and you are tied for life to one another? How you must hate one another! And how dreadfully immoral to compel persons who detest one another to live together! I could kill any man I hated were I tied to him for life! If Phoebus finds he cannot really love me, or if I find I cannot really love him, after an honest trial we should never think of waiting till we tired of, still less till we hated, one another, but we would separate the best of friends, and always retain esteem if not affection for one another."

"I fear," said I, "I never can reconcile myself to the Colymbian views concerning marriage, and my first shall be also my last disappointment, for I shall not allow myself to think of marriage again."

"Well, certainly, I think you are right not to think of marrying until you get correct views on marriage."

"I am sure," I said, "my present views will never be altered: they are grounded in my mind ineradicably by the teachings of the great and good men of the Church of England—a church," I exclaimed with fervour, "whose principles have a more than human authority."

"Ah!" replied my light-hearted friend, "I forgot I was engaged for the next dance to Charlemagne yonder; I see he is waiting for me, and his politeness forbids him interrupting our interesting talk, which I hope to be permitted to resume on a future occasion."

So saying she darted off to where her partner was, and presently they were gyrating away as gracefully as could be wished.

As shark-hunting proved one of the most fashionable amusements among the young men of the better classes, and it was an object of ambition with all to be able to throw the harpoon with precision,—for it was not always that young men were attended by professional huntsmen as skilled in throwing the harpoon as a Spanish banderillero is in casting his somewhat analogous weapon at the noble animal he tortures,—practice at a target with the harpoon was a very frequent occupation of the young men. The target was a dummy shark, being in fact the stuffed skin of a large specimen, which was kept moving by a small screw revolving near the tail and driven by clock-work in the body of the stuffed fish. The harpoon used in this sport had no cord with the circular parachute attached, nor was it barbed like the real harpoon. It had a sharp point, with a shoulder about three inches from the end to prevent it penetrating deeply, in fact, allowing it to drop out immediately. The best spot for fixing the harpoon was indicated by a circle, and this was considered the bulls-eye of the target. The skin being set in motion, the competitors had to approach it from behind and below, and launch their weapon from a given distance. He who made most bulls-eyes out of a given number of shots was the victor, just as in our own rifle-competitions at home.

These and other games and exercises of the youth of Colymbia were generally witnessed by considerable numbers of their friends and acquaintances of both sexes. The old gentlemen were very fond of witnessing the prowess of the rising generation, and boasting of their own skill in days gone by. The young ladies looked on with affected interest; but it struck me that they attended these games more for the purpose of displaying their own charms than from any interest they felt in the competition, and that their talk savoured more of flirting than of an appreciation of the skill of the harpooners. But perhaps I did them injustice, for it is no easy matter to read what is passing in other people's minds and thoughts, more especially when these others are young ladies who, the world over, are the greatest adepts in concealing their thoughts.

I noticed at all these public games and sports that there were a good many very pretty and graceful young ladies who were never spoken to or noticed by any of the ladies I knew, and whom I did not recollect to have seen at any of the assemblies or parties I had frequented. They seemed on excellent terms with many of the gentlemen, and were as lively, and apparently as intelligent, and certainly as good-looking, as any of the ladies of my acquaintance.

I called the attention of one of my fair friends to these ladies who kept apart from the rest, and asked her who they were. She did not deign to look towards them, but, with a haughty toss of the head, said, "I don't know; don't ask me! No respectable person knows such creatures,"

I was completely mystified, but said no more to my pretty companion about these young ladies. There was evidently something improper about them, or she would not have spoken of them in that scornful manner.

Julian, who had just been competing very successfully at the harpooning, came towards us just then. I slipped my arm within his, and said, "Tell me, my friend, what is the mystery about those pretty girls yonder, that they are treated so scornfully by our lady friends here?"

"Oh," whispered he, "those are young ladies who have been tampering, or are suspected of having tampered, with the air-tubes."

"Tampering with the air-tubes!" I exclaimed; "what, in the name of all that's wonderful, is that?"

"Well," said he, "I can't very well tell you, for in truth I don't know myself; but it is the unpardonable offence in Colymbia. The very suspicion of it is enough to exclude any lady from respectable society."

"Do gentlemen, then," I said, "tamper with the air-tubes?"

"Oh, undoubtedly they do, and that very often; but it is not esteemed a grave offence in them, and no one thinks the worse of a man even though he is well known to have tampered with the air-tubes frequently. The offence has been created by the ladies for the purpose of excluding some of their own sex from society. Pretty creatures! they must have some to persecute, and nothing gives them so much pleasure as to persecute their own sisters. If it depended on the men, probably no notice would be taken of the alleged crime; but the ladies insist on it, and any gentleman who dared to bring one of the tabooed ladies into society would incur their mortal hatred, and be perhaps for ever afterwards excluded from society himself."

"How very droll," I exclaimed, "that what is a trivial error in the one sex should be a mortal sin in the other."

"Well," said Julian, "it is the ladies themselves who have invented the paradox. Though the penalty attaching to the offence affects themselves only, they insist on inflicting it in almost every case inexorably. I say in almost every case, for there are ladies moving in the best circles who are not only suspected but known to have tampered with the air-tubes, but, with admirable inconsistency, they are not only received but courted and flattered by those very ladies who are so inexorable with regard to their other erring sisters. But then these exceptions must belong to very rich and influential families. Some rare instances there are of tabooed women being restored to a certain measure of favour if they have succeeded to large fortunes and distinguished themselves by their great acquirements in transcendental geography. In such cases the influence of the transcendental professors has been enlisted on their side: and, as these professors are all-powerful in female society, they have succeeded in rehabilitating the lost characters of their protegées, but the restoration is never quite complete and their position in society is seldom quite comfortable."

In pondering over this curious trait in the character and conduct of the Colymbian ladies, I came at last to the conclusion that it and some other anomalies I observed must be owing to the want of regular occupation for the females of this strange society. I found that this absolute idleness, as far as useful work was concerned, was owing to their own determination not to work. Exemption from the cares and trials of life was claimed by them as a privilege of their sex. Attempts had been frequently made by agitators to compel women to take a fair share in active life. Books had been written and many lectures delivered, in which it was stated and attempted to be proved by the writers and lecturers, that there was nothing in the physical organization or in the intellectual endowments of women to incapacitate them from many of the occupations and employments engaged in by men; that a fair amount of the work and drudgery of life would be of benefit to women in physical and moral respects, that the mere difference of sex should not be alleged as a reason for throwing all the burdens on the male sex. Appeals were made to the women themselves to come forward and take their share in the operations and employments, the arts and the manufactures that tended to the advantage of the community, and efforts were made to induce the legislature to pass laws compelling women to engage in work suited to their capacities. It was generally believed by men that the position of women would be much improved if they were to assimilate their mode of life to that of men. But these attempts had all, hitherto, ended in failure. Some women, indeed, were convinced of the equality of the sexes, and would have been willing to engage in useful occupation, but they were deterred by the clamour raised by some of their sisters, who declaimed passionately against the whole scheme, which they denounced as an insidious attack on their rights and privileges. It was a monstrous absurdity, they alleged, to represent that they were fitted for work. Their comparative feebleness, their delicate limbs, and elegant rounded forms would be utterly destroyed were they to engage in continuous work. Their capacity was for pleasure only, they were the toys and playthings of men, they were in the world to soothe and refine the rougher sex by their soft and winning ways and their exalted and intellectual conversation. Once allow them to share the occupations of men, all the charms of life would be lost. The poetry of life would be gone for ever, and society would relapse into a state of barbarism. Were women ever to be degraded to the hard mechanical ways of men, life would be one long dull round of irksome labour, uncheered by the civilizing and elevating intercourse of a softer sex, and men would soon find that, while lessening their own labours, they had completely eliminated the pleasures of existence.

"Fellow-countrywomen," exclaimed one of this shrieking sisterhood, "do not allow yourselves to be trampled on. Resist this insidious proposal of tyrant man. Be not cajoled by this sophistical talk about equal rights and equal duties for both sexes. Women, coerce your husbands in parliament, in the government, at the elections; give them no peace until they quash altogether this brutal attempt to induce you to perform what is clearly their own work. Once allow yourselves to be cajoled or forced into doing any useful work, and your despotic master, man, will soon make you do all the work; you will be reduced to the melancholy condition of Red Indian squaws, who are the hewers of wood and the drawers of water for their male oppressors, who pass their time in indolence or fighting. In place of being, as you are now, the ornaments of humanity, the glorious realisation of the perfection of human loveliness, the gems and rare flowers of creation, you will resemble the beasts and the birds, in whom the males usurp all the beauty of form, colour and voice, while the females are mere dowdy, voiceless drudges. Let us never allow ourselves to be degraded to a level with the lower animals. Wherein does the human race differ from the lower orders of beings but in the exaltation of its females above the drudgery of daily life to the æsthetical position of things of beauty, which are joys for ever? Wherein does the civilized human being differ from the outer barbarian but in the exemption of his womankind from all occupations, save those that tend to the beautifying, the adornment and the amenities of life? Resist with all your energy this vile attempt to dethrone you from your present moral ascendency. Let those paltry crawling creatures who would make you mere beasts of burden and pieces of animated mechanism see that you are the cream of creation, the glittering diadem on the head of humanity. Show these artful schemers that you are their betters—a more perfect creature than they are or ever can be. Man's place in nature is to work for woman and worship her, woman's to contribute to the recreation and amusement of man after his labour of the day is over. If both work, life will lose its charms; for the exhausting effects of toil will deprive either of the power of contributing to the entertainment of the other. Therefore, fellow-countrywomen, resist with all your might this encroachment on your proper position, that of embellishing and beautifying the daily life of the community!"

Such appeals to women to maintain their rights and to resist the efforts of men to trample them under foot, had the desired effect of raising such a spirited opposition to the proposition that women should be employed in useful work, that it had to be abandoned, and the women remained mistresses of the situation. They were thus free to develop the beauties and graces of their exquisite figures, and to devote themselves to all those arts and occupations that contribute to sensuous and intellectual enjoyment? And, in truth, they took infinite pains to render life pleasant to the rougher sex after the labours of the day were over. They were ever devising new amusements and diversions, and took care that sameness should not produce satiety.

The proposal to make women work at trades, manufactures, book-keeping, to turn them into clerks, secretaries, heads of departments, &c., was violently opposed, not only by the women themselves through the noisy mouthpieces of their own sex, but also by many men who constituted themselves women's champions, and opposed their admission to the labour-market on various grounds.

Some went in for the sentimental business, and insisted that the softer sex should be spared the burdens for which they were neither physically nor morally adapted. They appealed to the delicacy of woman's frame, their excitable and impulsive character, their want of perseverance, their love of change, as disqualifying them from engaging in man's continuous work. They alleged that woman was so constituted as to be only fit for love and the tender emotions, and they contended that by rude manual or tedious intellectual occupations women would be rendered unfit for the one great business that nature had imposed on them, the propagation of the race. If hard work did not utterly disqualify them from child-bearing, it would have a most injurious effect on their progeny, and the race would either become extinct, or suffer such a degradation, that mankind would degenerate from the high standard of perfection it had attained.

Others, and these were the majority of the working men of the community, opposed the introduction of women into the occupations hitherto filled by men, on the ground that there was not sufficient work to give employment to both men and women. If women were to be allowed to flood the field of labour many men must starve; and it was a lesser evil to endow all women with a regular allowance from the state as at present, than to suffer them to earn their own livelihood by dispossessing men from their posts.

Others took a more cynical view of the question, and loudly contended that women were by their nature and constitution unfitted for any serious occupation. If put in any position that required continuous attention, they would be tempted to neglect their work for every trifling cause, and everything committed to them would be utterly mismanaged and go to ruin. The beautiful harmony that at present prevailed, whereby all parts of the intricate machinery of the state worked smoothly and regularly, would be disturbed, and anarchy and confusion would be substituted for order and regularity.

In short, it was the opinion of the great majority of both sexes, that man should work at the real business of life, and that women should remain as the mere ornaments and decorations of society. So the feeble attempt of the would-be reformers resulted in nothing; and, if any women sought to break through the conventional rules that bound them by engaging in productive occupations, they were denounced on all hands as unwomanly and especially shunned and despised by their own sex.

I have hinted that woman's rights were more hotly contended for by their advocates of the opposite sex than even by themselves—but this was not looked on as anything extraordinary. Indeed, I noticed at a very early period of my residence in Colymbia, that every body seemed to understand his neighbour's business and interests much better than the neighbour himself; and they got excited and eager about a thing in the, inverse proportion of their own concern with it.

This may appear anomalous, but it is nevertheless true, and I am bound to record what I found, however incongruous it may seem, rather than make out a picture consistent in all its details for the sake of getting it the more readily accepted as true. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, and I can readily understand it, for a fiction writer would naturally take pains to make his inventions wear an air of probability, which is often not to be met with in nature.

The reason why the Colymbians were so addicted to interfering with each other's affairs, I could only attribute to the great deal of leisure time they enjoyed. The ladies, of course, had as much as they chose, the gentlemen engaged in business were never occupied more than eight hours a day, and there were very many more, who, having a competence, were not compelled to work at all. The great amount of leisure among the people led them to invent congenial occupations for themselves, and as a rule nothing seemed to give them more delight than fault-finding, unless it were the endeavour to force others to do as they thought right. And all that they did in this way was, as they believed, out of pure philanthropy, and a wish to benefit their fellow-creatures. Whatever any one disliked himself, that he thought must be in itself bad, and ought to be put down, and the less he knew about it the more he was convinced that it was wrong and ought to be suppressed.

Like-minded people formed themselves into societies for the purpose of putting down things they themselves had no inclination for, and from which others seemed to derive enjoyment. Thus there was a society of unenterprising people who wished to suppress shark-hunts. They said that hunting sharks ruined people by imparting to their natures a ferocity not unlike that of the fish they pursued; that it was a dangerous pastime in which the hunters ran the risk of losing their lives, or at least their limbs; that it was wrong to destroy the shark on account of its usefulness in keeping down the excessive swarms of other fish, and in eating up the offal that fell into the sea; that all the efforts of the hunters could never produce any appreciable diminution of the number of sharks which swarmed round the reef; that finally, it was contrary to the principles of transcendental geography to slay sharks, as the books made no mention of sharks having been slain by the inhabitants of the unknown country. I need scarcely add, that the denunciations of this society had not the smallest appreciable effect in deterring persons from engaging in shark-hunts, which were indeed the most popular of all the pastimes of Colymbia.

Then there was a society which objected to the use of what they called contaminated air in the air-tubes, by which expression they meant its admixture with oxygen for breathing purposes, which had proved such a boon to the subaqueous inhabitants. Those worthy people contended that the air as it existed in the atmosphere was the proper air for man to breathe, and that its admixture with any foreign ingredient whatsoever was prejudicial, if not to the body, at all events to the mind of those who used it in that state. They proved by the experiments of chemists and physiologists that a candle would burn with frightful rapidity, and any animal would quickly die in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, that therefore it must be unfit for human beings even though largely diluted with air. These and a thousand other equally cogent reasons they adduced for the abandonment of the practice of mixing oxygen with the breathing air; but their efforts were unavailing, the people insisted on having oxygen in their air, and the very members of the society were fain to avail themselves of the mixture, and would have been heartily disgusted—so their enemies alleged—had they found the air-tubes supplied with unoxygenated air.

Then there were anti-gyrating societies, and these curiously enough, were chiefly composed of the zealous transcendental geographers; although dancing, which was the terrestrial analogue of gyrating, was especially mentioned in the books as being a favourite pastime of the unknown people. The society contended that the dancing of the latter was quite different in its nature from the gyrating of the Colymbians, that it was a solemn pas seul executed in privacy and never performed by two or more persons in public assemblies; though the books gave no intimation of the mode in which dancing was practised in the unknown country.

There were also societies for putting down the reading of works of fiction, for suppressing amusing lectures, for discouraging the use of personal ornaments, for prohibiting the eating of the flesh of reptiles, for emancipating the tethered seals, for putting a stop to the employment of the oral language, for the abolition of the punishment of deportation to the land. In short, there were societies for putting down almost every amusement and occupation of the people.

Though all these societies inveigh against the things they desire to suppress in the most active and energetic manner, their efforts are never in the slightest degree successful. This does not seem to discourage them in the least; indeed, my friend Julian assured me that they did not in reality wish to put an end to the pet objects of their aversion, for had they succeeded, their occupation would have been gone, which was the last thing they really desired.

Each society had its president, vice-presidents, treasurer, secretary and staff of officials, whose pleasure it was to keep it in active operation, to meet, talk, and indulge in denunciations and invectives against the practices they condemned, but who had no wish to do anything that would lead to their own extinction.

I attended meetings of many of these societies and was much struck by the earnest manner and the vigorous eloquence of the chief speakers. The musical oratory invariably employed exercises a strange fascination over both speaker and audience. The former never seems to tire of declaiming, the latter are never weary of listening. I suppose it was my want of a thorough musical education, or perhaps the impossibility I experienced in getting up the needful amount of enthusiasm in the subject discoursed upon, that caused me to feel comparatively little interested by these bursts of eloquence. A certain sameness pervaded all the speeches. The orators invariably argued as if their own peculiar subject were the most important, indeed, the only important thing in the world; as if the putting down of their pet aversion or the carrying out of their pet scheme, were the only thing needed to make life in Colymbia perfect, and to complete the happiness of the whole community. And they never failed to denounce those who differed from them as actuated by the basest motives, or as endowed with the most infinitesimal portion of intelligence. In fact, those who did not go along with them were held up to public ridicule and contempt, as mere knaves or fools, or a combination of both. They never would allow that an opponent had either honesty or intelligence. But they invariably claimed these attributes for themselves. And yet it was remarkable that, though they denounced their opponents so fiercely in public, they lived with them and associated with them on terms of intimacy and friendship, and behaved to them as courteously in private as they handled them discourteously in public. It seemed to be quite an understood thing, that these public denunciations actually meant nothing, but were to be adopted as mere flowers of rhetoric.

The principal orator of these societies was often presented by his admirers with a testimonial of greater or less value to mark their sense of his labours and eloquence. Such presentations were often the occasion of a special burst of eloquence from the fortunate recipient, in which he eulogized the objects of the society and his own special efforts on its behalf, and loaded his opponents with every epithet of contumely he could devise, to the great delight of his admiring audience.

I was present at several of these presentations, and one in especial I remember, where the favourite orator of the society for the liberation of the tethered seals was presented with a magnificent suite of ornaments for the decoration of his wife. He held forth in something like the following strain, though I am sure my memory does not do justice to his burning eloquence:—

"The beautiful and costly testimonial you have just presented to me assures me, if that assurance were needed, that my humble efforts on behalf of the poor chained seals have met with the approbation of a large and influential portion of my fellow-countrymen. It is refreshing to me to find that there are so many good and true men in Colymbia, and that the relentless and wicked conduct of those who keep these poor animals in bondage meets with the disapprobation of so many wise and upright men, who will not quietly submit to see such hideous injustice inflicted on the meanest of animals. If I have been at all instrumental in checking the further extension of the practice of enslaving those intelligent and inoffensive creatures, and in preparing the way for the emancipation of all, it will be the proudest reflection and the greatest solace of my declining years. I have laboured with all my might, actuated by the purest motives, and your approbation is more cheering to my heart than any other event of my active and, I hope, not useless career. I cannot imagine what will be the feelings of our opponents when they learn that you have thus crowned my labours in this great and glorious cause with such a magnificent and appropriate token of your esteem. I envy not the sensations of those who are so lost to all feelings of humanity that they can take delight in the enslaving of their humble fellow-creatures. The cruelty of the deed is not justified by its utility, for though it is conceded that the poor animals perform the task imposed on them with admirable skill and patience, it would be better, a thousand times over, that we should leave our frontiers unwatched, than have them guarded at the expense of the sufferings of intelligent and unoffending animals. But our task is still incomplete. The ignorant and prejudiced promoters of this cruelty are still in a majority, and as long as I have strength remaining and a voice to plead the cause of the helpless and oppressed, you will ever find me in the foremost ranks of those who would strike down oppressors and discomfit the schemes of our ruthless and unscrupulous adversaries."

In something like this strain he continued to hold forth for a long time, to the great satisfaction of his auditors, who seemed to find an ample reward for their trouble and expense, in hearing their favourite topic lauded; and especially, as I thought, in hearing those who differed from them soundly rated.

In private life, this ferocious rhetorician was a mild and amiable man, who would not willingly do the slightest injury to those he so vehemently denounced, and with whom, I was assured, he lived on terms of perfect cordiality.