Read CHAPTER I - THE LOAD of The Tinder-Box, free online book, by Maria Thompson Daviess, on ReadCentral.com.

All love is a gas, and it takes either loneliness, strength of character, or religion to liquefy it into a condition to be ladled out of us, one to another.  There is a certain dangerously volatile state of it; and occasionally people, especially of opposite sexes, try to administer it to each other in that form, with asphyxiation resulting to both hearts.  And I’m willing to confess that it is generally a woman’s fault when such an accident occurs.  That is, it is a mistake of her nature, not one of intent.  But she is learning!

Also when a woman is created, the winds have wooed star-dust, rose-dew, peach-down, and a few flint-shavings into a whirlwind of deviltry, and the world at large looks on in wonder and sore amazement, as well as breathless interest.  I know, because I am one, and have just been waked up by the gyrations of the cyclone; and I’m deeply confounded.  I don’t like it, and wish I could have slept longer, but Fate and Jane Mathers decreed otherwise.  At least Jane decreed, and Fate seems so far helpless to controvert the decree.

I might have known that when this jolly, easy-going old Fate of mine, which I inherited from a lot of indolent, pleasure-loving Harpeth Valley Tennesseans, let me pack up my graduating thesis, my B.S., and some delicious frocks, and go off to Paris for a degree from the Beaux Arts in Architecture, we would be caught up with by some kind of Nemesis or other, and put in our place in the biological and ethnological scheme of existence.  Yes, Fate and I are placed, and Jane did it.

Also, I am glad, now that I know what is going to happen to me, that I had last week on shipboard, with Richard Hall bombarding my cardiac regions with his honest eyes and booming voice discreetly muffled to accord with the moonlight and the quiet places around the deck.  I may never get that sort of a joy-drink again, but it was so well done that it will help me to administer the same to others when the awful occasion arrives.

“A woman is the spark that lights the flame on the altar of the inner man, dear, and you’ll have to sparkle when your time comes,” he warned me, as I hurried what might have been a very tender parting, the last night at sea.

Spark” she’s a conflagration by this new plan of Jane’s, but I’m glad he didn’t know about it then.  He may have to suffer from it yet.  It is best for him to be as happy as he can as long as he can.

“Evelina, dear,” said Jane, as she and Mary Elizabeth Conners and I sat in the suite of apartments in which our proud Alma Mater had lodged us old grads, returned for our second degrees, “your success has been remarkable, and I am not surprised at all that that positively creative thesis of yours on the Twentieth Century Garden, to which I listened to-night, procured you an honorable mention in your class at the Beaux Arts.  The French are a nation that quickly recognizes genius.  I am very happy to-night.  All your honors and achievements make me only the more certain that I have chosen the right person for the glorious mission I am about to offer you.”

“Oh, no, Jane!” I exclaimed, from a sort of instinct for trouble to come.  I know that devoted, twenty-second century look in Jane’s intense, near-sighted eyes, and I always fend from it.  She is a very dear person, and I respectfully adore her.  Indeed, I sometimes think she is the real spine in my back that was left out of me, and of its own strength got developed into another and a finer woman.  She became captain of my Freshman soul, at the same time she captured the captaincy of the boat crew, on which I pulled stroke, and I’m still hitting the water when she gives the word, though it now looks as if we are both adrift on the high and uncharted seas or sitting on the lid of a tinder-box, juggling lighted torches.

“You see, dear,” she went on to say slowly, drawing Mary Elizabeth into the spell-bound circle of our intensity, as we three sat together with our newly-engraved sheepskins on our knees, “for these two years while you have been growing and developing along all your natural lines in a country which was not your own, in a little pool I should call it, out of even sight and sound of the current of events, we have been here in your own land engaged in the great work of the organization and reorganization which is molding the destinies of the women of our times, and those that come after us.  That is what I want to talk to you about, and devoutly have I been praying that your heart will be receptive to the call that has claimed the life of Mary Elizabeth and me.  There is a particular work, for which you are fitted as no other woman I have ever known is fitted, and I want to lay the case plainly before you to-night.  Will you give me a hearing?”

And the hearing I gave that beloved and devout woman was the reveille that awakened me to this this whirlwind that seems to be both inside me and outside me, and everywhere else in the whole world.

It’s not woman’s suffrage; it has gone way down past the road from votes for women.  I wish I could have stopped in that political field of endeavor before Jane got to me.  She might have left me there doing little things like making speeches before the United States Senate and running for Governor of Tennessee, after I had, single-handed, remade the archaic constitution of that proud and bat-blind old State of my birth; but such ease was not for me.

Of course for years, as all women have been doing who are sensible enough to use the brains God gave them and stop depending on their centuries-seasoned intuitions and fascinations, I have been reading about this feminist revolution that seems all of a sudden to have revoluted from nobody knows where, and I have been generally indignant over things whether I understood them or not, and I have felt that I was being oppressed by the opposite sex, even if I could not locate the exact spot of the pain produced.  I have always felt that when I got to it I would shake off the shackles of my queer fondness and of my dependence upon my oppressors, and do something revengeful to them.

When my father died in my Junior year and left me all alone in the world, the first thing that made me feel life in my veins again was the unholy rage I experienced when I found that he had left me bodaciously and otherwise to my fifth cousin, James Hardin.

Cousin James is a healthy reversion to the primitive type of Father Abraham, and he has so much aristocratic moss on him that he reminds me of that old gray crag that hangs over Silver Creek out on Providence Road.  Artistically he is perfectly beautiful in an Old-Testament fashion.  He lives in an ancient, rambling house across the road from my home, and he is making a souvenir collection of derelict women.  Everybody that dies in Glendale leaves him a relict, and including his mother, Cousin Martha, he now has either seven or nine female charges, depending on the sex of Sallie Carruthers’s twin babies, which I can’t exactly remember, but will wager is feminine.

My being left to him was an insult to me, though of course Father did not see it that way.  He adored the Crag, as everybody else in Glendale does, and wouldn’t have considered not leaving him precious me.  Wanting to ignore Cousin James, because I was bound out to him until my twenty-fifth year or marriage, which is worse, has kept me from Glendale all these four years since father died suddenly while I was away at college, laid up with the ankle which I broke in the gymnasium.  Still, as much as I resent him, I keep the letter the Crag wrote me the night after Father died, right where I can put my hand on it if life suddenly panics me for any reason.  It covers all the circumstances I have yet met.  I wonder if I ought to burn it now!

But, to be honest with myself, I will have to confess that the explosively sentimental scene on the front porch, the night I left for college, with Polk Hayes has had something to do with my cowardice in lingering in foreign climes.  I feel that it is something I will have to go on with some day, and the devil will have to pick up the chips.  Polk is the kind of man that ought to be exterminated by the government in sympathy for its women wards, if his clan didn’t make such good citizens when they do finally marry.  He ought at least to be labeled “poison for the very young.”  I was very young out on the porch that night.  Still, I don’t resent him like I do the archaic Crag.

And as Jane talked, my seasoned indignation of four years against my keeper flared up, and while she paused at intervals for breath I hurled out plans for his demolishment.  I wish now I had been more conservatively quiet, and left myself a loophole, but I didn’t.  I walked into this situation and shut the door behind me.

“Yes, Evelina, I think you will have to insist forcibly on assuming charge of your own social and financial affairs in your own home.  It may not be easy, with such a man as you describe, but you will accomplish it.  However, many mediocre women have proved their ability to attend to their own fortunes, and do good business for themselves; but your battle is to be fought on still higher grounds.  You are to rise and establish with your fellow-man a plane of common citizenship.  You do it for his sake and your own, and for that of humanity.”

“Suppose, after I get up there on that plateau, I didn’t find any man at all,” I ventured faint-heartedly, but with a ripple of my risibles; the last in life I fear.

“You must reach down your hands to them and draw them up to you,” she answered in a tone of tonic inspiration.  “You are to claim the same right to express your emotions that a man has.  You are to offer your friendship to both men and women on the same frank terms, with no degrading hesitancy caused by an embarrassment on account of your sex.  It is his due and yours.  No form of affection is to be withheld from him.  It is to be done frankly and impressively, and when the time comes ” I can hardly write this, but the memory of the wonderful though fanatic light in Jane’s eyes makes me able to scrawl it “that you feel the mating instinct in you move towards any man, I charge you that you are to consider it a sacred obligation to express it with the same honesty that a man would express the same thing to you, in like case, even if he has shown no sign of that impulse toward you.  No contortions and contemptible indirect method of attack, but a fearless one that is yours by right, and his though he may not acknowledge it.  The barbaric and senseless old convention that denies women the right of selection, for which God has given her the superior instinct, is to be broken down by just such women as you.  A woman less dowered by beauty and all feminine charm could not do it just yet, but to you, to whom the command of men is a natural gift, is granted the wonderful chance to prove that it can be done, honestly and triumphantly, with no sacrifice of the sacredness of womanhood.”

“Oh, Jane.”  I moaned into the arm of the chair on which I had bowed my head.

I am moaning; now just as much, down in the bottom of my heart.  Where are all my gentle foremothers that smiled behind their lace fans and had their lily-white hands kissed by cavalier gentlemen in starched ruffles, out under the stars that rise over Old Harpeth, that they don’t claim me in a calm and peaceful death?  Still, as much as I would like to die, I am interested in what is going to happen.

“Yes, Evelina,” she answered in an adamant tone of voice, “and when I have the complete record of what, I know, will be your triumphant vindication of the truth that it is possible and advisable for women to assert their divine right to choose a mate for their sacred vocation of bearing the race, I shall proceed, as I have told you, to choose five other suitable young women to follow your example, and furnish them the money, up to the sum of a hundred thousand dollars, after having been convinced by your experience.  Be careful to make the most minute records, of even the most emotional phases of the question, in this book for their guidance.  Of course, they will never know the source of the data, and I will help you elucidate and arrange the book, after it is all accomplished.”

If Jane hadn’t had two million dollars all this trouble would not be.

“I can never do it!” I exclaimed with horror, “And the men will hate it and me.  And if I did do it, I couldn’t write it.”

I almost sobbed as a vision flashed before me of thus verbally snap-shotting the scene with dear old Dickie as we stood against the rail of the ship and watched the waves fling back silvery radiance at the full moon, and I also wondered how I was to render in serviceable written data his husky: 

“A woman is the flame that lights the spark ”

Also, what would that interview with Polk Hayes look like reproduced with high lights?

“Now,” she answered encouragingly, “don’t fear the men, dear.  They are sensible and business-like creatures, and they will soon see how much to their advantage it is to be married to women who have had an equal privilege with themselves of showing their preferences.  Then only can they be sure that their unions are from real preferences and not compromises, on the part of their wives, from lack of other choice.  Of course, a woman’s pride will make her refrain from courtship, as does her brother man, until she is financially independent, and self-supporting, lest she be put in the position of a mendicant.”  Jane has thought the whole thing out from Genesis to Revelation.

Still, that last clause about the mendicant leaves hope for the benighted man who still wants the cling of the vine.  A true vine would never want or be able to hustle enough to flower sordid dollars instead of curls and blushes.

“A woman would have to be to be a good deal of a woman, not any less one, to put such a thing across, Jane,” I said, with a preflash of some of the things that might happen in such a cruel crusade of reformation and deprivation of rights.

“That is the reason I have chosen you to collect the data, Evelina,” answered Jane, with another of those glorious tonic looks, issuing from my backbone in her back.  “The ultimate woman must be superb in body, brain, and heart.  You are that now more nearly than any one I have ever seen.  You are the woman!”

I was silenced with awe.

“Jane plans to choose five girls who would otherwise have to spend their lives teaching in crowded cities after leaving college and to start them in any profession they choose, with every chance of happiness, in the smaller cities of the South and Middle West,” said Mary Elizabeth gently, and somehow the tears rose in my eyes, as I thought how the poor dear had been teaching in the high school in Chicago the two glorious years I had been frolicking abroad.  No time, and no men to have good times with.

And there were hundreds like her, I knew, in all the crowded parts of the United States.  And as I had begun, I thought further.  Just because I was embarrassed at the idea of proposing to some foolish man, who is of no importance to me, himself, or the world in general, down in Glendale, where they have all known me all my life, and would expect anything of me anyway after I have defied tradition and gone to college, five lovely, lonely girls would have to go without any delightful suitors like Richard or Polk Hayes, forever.

And, still further, I thought of the other girls, coming under the influence of those five, who might be encouraged to hold up their heads and look around, and at least help out their Richards in their matrimonial quest, and as I sat there with Jane’s compelling and Mary Elizabeth’s hungry eyes on me, I felt that I was being besought by all the lovers of all the future generations to tear down some sort of awful barrier and give them happiness.  And it was the thought of the men that was most appealing.  It takes a woman who really likes them as I do, and has their good really at heart, to see their side of the question as Jane put it, poor dears.  Suddenly, I felt that all the happiness of the whole world was in one big, golden chalice, and that I had to hold it steadily to give drink to all men and all women with a vision of little unborn kiddies in the future.

Then, before I could stop myself, I decided and I hope the dear Lord I say it devoutly indeed I do! will help that poor man in Glendale if I pick out the wrong one.  I’m going to do it.

“I accept your appointment and terms, Jane,” I said quietly, as I looked both those devout, if fanatic, women in the face.  “I pledge myself to go back to Glendale, to live a happy, healthy, normal life, as useful as I can make it.  I had intended to do that anyway, for if I am to evolve the real American garden.  I can’t do better than sketch and study those in the Harpeth Valley, for at least two seasons all around.  I shall work at my profession whole-heartedly, take my allotted place in the community, and refuse to recognize any difference in the obligations and opportunities in my life and that of the men with whom I am thrown, and to help all other women to take such a fearless and honest attitude if Glendale blows up in consequence.  I will seek and claim marriage in exactly the same fearless way a man does, and when I have found what I want I shall expect you to put one hundred thousand dollars, twenty to each, at the disposal of five other suitable young women, to follow my example, as noted down in this book if it has been successful.  Shall I give you some sort of written agreement?”

“Just record the agreement as a note in the book, and I will sign it,” answered Jane, in her crispest and most business-like tone of voice, though I could see she was trembling with excitement, and poor Mary Elizabeth was both awe-struck and hopeful.

I’ll invite Mary Elizabeth down to Glendale, as soon as I stake out my own claim, poor dear!

And here I sit alone at midnight, with a huge, steel-bound, lock-and-keyed book that Jane has had made for me, with my name and the inscription, “In case of death, send unopened to Jane Mathers, Boston, Massachusetts,” on the back, committed to a cause as crazy and as serious as anything since the Pilgrimages, or the Quest of the Knights for the Grail.  It also looks slightly like trying to produce a modern Don Quixote, feminine edition, and my cheeks are flaming so that I wouldn’t look at them for worlds.  And to write it all, too!  I have always had my opinion of women who spill their souls out of an ink-bottle, but I ought to pardon a nihilist, that in the dead of night, cold with terror, confides some awful appointment he has had made him, to his nearest friend.  I am the worst nihilist that ever existed, and the bomb I am throwing may explode and destroy the human race.  But, on the other hand, the explosion might be of another kind.  Suppose that suddenly a real woman’s entire nature should be revealed to the world, might not the universe be enveloped in a rose glory and a love symphony?  We’ll see!

Also, could the time ever come when a woman wouldn’t risk hanging over the ragged edge of Heaven to hold on to the hand of some man?  Never!  Then, as that is the case, I see we must all keep the same firm grip on the creatures we have always had, and haul them over the edge, but we must not do it any more without letting them know about it it isn’t honest.  Yes, women must solidify their love into such a concrete form that men can weigh and measure it, and decide for themselves whether they want to to climb to Heaven for it, or remain comfortable old bachelors.  We mustn’t any more lead them into marriage blinded by the overpowering gaseous fragrance called romantic love.

But, suppose I should lose all love for everybody in this queer quest for enlightenment I have undertaken?  Please, God, let a good man be in Glendale, Tennessee, who will understand and protect me no, that’s the wrong prayer!  Protect him no both of us!