Read CHAPTER XIV of The Daughters of Danaus , free online book, by Mona Caird, on ReadCentral.com.

During Henriette’s visit, one of the meetings of the Preposterous Society fell due, and she expressed a strong wish to be present. She also craved the privilege of choosing the subject of discussion. Finally, she received a formal request from the members to give the lecture herself. She was full of enthusiasm about the Society (such an educating influence!), and prepared her paper with great care. There had been a tendency among the circle, to politely disagree with Henriette. Her ideas respecting various burning topics were at variance with the trend of opinion at Dunaghee, and Miss Temperley was expected to take this opportunity of enlightening the family. The family was equally resolved not to be enlightened.

“I have chosen for my subject to-night,” said the lecturer, “one that is beginning to occupy public attention very largely: I mean the sphere of woman in society.”

The audience, among whom Hubert had been admitted at his sister’s earnest request, drew themselves together, and a little murmur of battle ran along the line. Henriette’s figure, in her well-fitting Parisian gown, looked singularly out of place in the garret, with the crazy old candle-holder beside her, the yellow flame of the candle flinging fantastic shadows on the vaulted roof, preposterously distorting her neat form, as if in wicked mockery. The moonlight streamed in, as usual on the nights chosen by the Society for their meetings.

Henriette’s paper was neatly expressed, and its sentiments were admirable. She maintained a perfect balance between the bigotry of the past and the violence of the present. Her phrases seemed to rock, like a pair of scales, from excess to excess, on either side. She came to rest in the exact middle. This led to the Johnsonian structure, or, as Hadria afterwards said, to the style of a Times leading article: “While we remember on the one hand, we must not forget on the other

At the end of the lecture, the audience found themselves invited to sympathize cautiously and circumspectly with the advancement of women, but led, at the same time, to conclude that good taste and good feeling forbade any really nice woman from moving a little finger to attain, or to help others to attain, the smallest fraction more of freedom, or an inch more of spiritual territory, than was now enjoyed by her sex. When, at some future time, wider privileges should have been conquered by the exertions of someone else, then the really nice woman could saunter in and enjoy the booty. But till then, let her leave boisterous agitation to others, and endear herself to all around her by her patience and her loving self-sacrifice.

“That pays better for the present,” Hadria was heard to mutter to an adjacent member.

The lecturer, in her concluding remarks, gave a smile of ineffable sweetness, sadly marred, however, by the grotesque effect of the flickering shadows that were cast on her face by the candle. After all, duty not right was the really important matter, and the lecturer thought that it would be better if one heard the former word rather oftener in connection with the woman’s question, and the latter word rather more seldom. Then, with new sweetness, and in a tone not to be described, she went on to speak of the natural responsibilities and joys of her sex, drawing a moving, if somewhat familiar picture of those avocations, than which she was sure there could be nothing higher or holier.

For some not easily explained cause, the construction of this sentence gave it a peculiar unctuous force: “than which,” as Fred afterwards remarked, “would have bowled over any but the most hardened sinner.”

For weeks after this memorable lecture, if any very lofty altitude had to be ascended in conversational excursions, the aspirant invariably smiled with ineffable tenderness and lightly scaled the height, murmuring “than which” to a vanquished audience.

The lecture was followed by a discussion that rather took the stiffness out of Miss Temperley’s phrases. The whole party was roused. Algitha had to whisper a remonstrance to the boys, for their solemn questions were becoming too preposterous. The lecture was discussed with much warmth. There was a tendency to adopt the form “than which” with some frequency. Bursts of laughter startled a company of rats in the wainscoting, and there was a lively scamper behind the walls. No obvious opposition was offered. Miss Temperley’s views were examined with gravity, and indeed in a manner almost pompous. But by the end of that trying process, they had a sadly bedraggled and plucked appearance, much to their parent’s bewilderment. She endeavoured to explain further, and was met by guilelessly intelligent questions, which had the effect of depriving the luckless objects of their solitary remaining feather. The members of the society continued to pine for information, and Miss Temperley endeavoured to provide it, till late into the night. The discussion finally drifted on to dangerous ground. Algitha declared that she considered that no man had any just right to ask a woman to pledge herself to love him and live with him for the rest of her life. How could she? Hubert suggested that the woman made the same claim on the man.

“Which is equally absurd,” said Algitha. “Just as if any two people, when they are beginning to form their characters, could possibly be sure of their sentiments for the rest of their days. They have no business to marry at such an age. They are bound to alter.”

“But they must regard it as their duty not to alter with regard to one another,” said Henriette.

“Quite so; just as they ought to regard it as their duty among other things, not to grow old,” suggested Fred.

“Then, Algitha, do you mean that they may fall in love elsewhere?” Ernest inquired.

“They very likely will do so, if they make such an absurd start,” Algitha declared.

“And if they do?”

“Then, if the sentiment stands test and trial, and proves genuine, and not a silly freak, the fact ought to be frankly faced. Husband and wife have no business to go on keeping up a bond that has become false and irksome.”

Miss Temperley broke into protest. “But surely you don’t mean to defend such faithlessness.”

Algitha would not admit that it was faithlessness. She said it was mere honesty. She could see nothing inherently wrong in falling in love genuinely after one arrived at years of discretion. She thought it inherently idiotic, and worse, to make a choice that ought to be for life, at years of indiscretion. Still, people were idiotic, and that must be considered, as well as all the other facts, such as the difficulty of really knowing each other before marriage, owing to social arrangements, and also owing to the training, which made men and women always pose so ridiculously towards one another, pretending to be something that they were not.

“Well done, Algitha,” cried Ernest, laughing; “I like to hear you speak out. Now tell me frankly: supposing you married quite young, before you had had much experience; supposing you afterwards found that you and your husband had both been deceiving yourselves and each other, unconsciously perhaps; and suppose, when more fully awakened and developed, you met another fellow and fell in love with him genuinely, what would you do?”

“Oh, she would just mention it to her husband casually,” Fred interposed with a chuckle, “and disappear.”

“I should certainly not go through terrific emotions and self-accusations, and think the end of the world had come,” said Algitha serenely. “I should calmly face the situation.”

“Calmly! She by supposition being madly in love!” ejaculated Fred, with a chuckle.

“Calmly,” repeated Algitha. “And I should consider carefully what would be best for all concerned. If I decided, after mature consideration and self-testing, that I ought to leave my husband, I should leave him, as I should hope he would leave me, in similar circumstances. That is my idea of right.”

“And is this also your idea of right, Miss Fullerton?” asked Temperley, turning, in some trepidation, to Hadria.

“That seems to me right in the abstract. One can’t pronounce for particular cases where circumstances are entangled.”

Hubert sank back in his chair, and ran his hand over his brow. He seemed about to speak, but he checked himself.

“Where did you get such extraordinary ideas from?” cried Miss Temperley.

“They were like Topsy; they growed,” said Fred.

“We have been in the habit of speculating freely on all subjects,” said Ernest, “ever since we could talk. This is the blessed result!”

“I am not quite so sure now, that the Preposterous Society meets with my approval,” observed Miss Temperley.

“If you had been brought up in the bosom of this Society, Miss Temperley, you too, perhaps, would have come to this. Think of it!”

“Does your mother know what sort of subjects you discuss?”

There was a shout of laughter. “Mother used often to come into the nursery and surprise us in hot discussion on the origin of evil,” said Hadria.

“Don’t you believe what she says, Miss Temperley,” cried Fred; “mother never could teach Hadria the most rudimentary notions of accuracy.”

“Her failure with my brothers, was in the department of manners,” Hadria observed.

“Then she does not know what you talk about?” persisted Henriette.

“You ask her,” prompted Fred, with undisguised glee.

“She never attends our meetings,” said Algitha.

“Well, well, I cannot understand it!” cried Miss Temperley. “However, you don’t quite know what you are talking about, and one mustn’t blame you.”

“No, don’t,” urged Fred; “we are a sensitive family.”

“Shut up!” cried Ernest with a warning frown.

“Oh, you are a coarse-grained exception; I speak of the family average,” Fred answered with serenity.

Henriette felt that nothing more could be done with this strange audience. Her business was really with the President of the Society. The girl was bent on ruining her life with these wild notions. Miss Temperley decided that it would be better to talk to Hadria quietly in her own room, away from the influence of these eccentric brothers and that extraordinary sister. After all, it was Algitha who had originated the shocking view, not Hadria, who had merely agreed, doubtless out of a desire to support her sister.

“I have not known you for seven years, but I am going to poke your fire,” said Henriette, when they were established in Hadria’s room.

“I never thought you would wait so long as that,” was Hadria’s ambiguous reply.

Then Henriette opened her batteries. She talked without interruption, her companion listening, agreeing occasionally with her adversary, in a disconcerting manner; then falling into silence.

“It seems to me that you are making a very terrible mistake in your life, Hadria. You have taken up a fixed idea about domestic duties and all that, and are going to throw away your chances of forming a happy home of your own, out of a mere prejudice. You may not admire Mrs. Gordon’s existence; for my part I think she leads a very good, useful life, but there is no reason why all married lives should be like hers.”

“Why are they, then?”

“I don’t see that they are.”

“It is the prevailing type. It shows the way the domestic wind blows. Fancy having to be always resisting such a wind. What an oblique, shorn-looking object one would be after a few years!”

Henriette grew eloquent. She recalled instances of women who had fulfilled all their home duties, and been successful in other walks as well; she drew pictures in attractive colours of Hadria in a home of her own, with far more liberty than was possible under her parents’ roof; and then she drew another picture of Hadria fifteen years hence at Dunaghee.

Hadria covered her face with her hands. “You who uphold all these social arrangements, how do you feel when you find yourself obliged to urge me to marry, not for the sake of the positive joys of domestic existence, but for the merely negative advantage of avoiding a hapless and forlorn state? You propose it as a pis-aller. Does that argue that all is sound in the state of Denmark?”

“If you had not this unreasonable objection to what is really a woman’s natural destiny, the difficulty would not exist.”

“Have women no pride?”

Henriette did not answer.

“Have they no sense of dignity? If one marries (accepting things on the usual basis, of course) one gives to another person rights and powers over one’s life that are practically boundless. To retain one’s self-direction in case of dispute would be possible only on pain of social ruin. I have little enough freedom now, heaven knows; but if I married, why my very thoughts would become the property of another. Thought, emotion, love itself, must pass under the yoke! There would be no nook or corner entirely and indisputably my own.”

“I should not regard that as a hardship,” said Henriette, “if I loved my husband.”

“I should consider it not only a hardship, but beyond endurance.”

“But, my dear, you are impracticable.”

“That is what I think domestic life is!” Hadria’s quiet tone was suddenly changed to one of scorn. “You talk of love; what has love worthy of the name to do with this preposterous interference with the freedom of another person? If that is what love means the craving to possess and restrain and demand and hamper and absorb, and generally make mincemeat of the beloved object, then preserve me from the master-passion.”

Henriette was baffled. “I don’t know how to make you see this in a truer light,” she said. “There is something to my mind so beautiful in the close union of two human beings, who pledge themselves to love and honour one another, to face life hand in hand, to share every thought, every hope, to renounce each his own wishes for the sake of the other.”

“That sounds very elevating; in practice it breeds Mr. and Mrs. Gordon.”

“Do you mean to tell me you will never marry on this account?”

“I would never marry anyone who would exact the usual submissions and renunciations, or even desire them, which I suppose amounts almost to saying that I shall never marry at all. What man would endure a wife who demanded to retain her absolute freedom, as in the case of a close friendship? The man is not born!”

“You seem to forget, dear Hadria, in objecting to place yourself under the yoke, as you call it, that your husband would also be obliged to resign part of his independence to you. The prospect of loss of liberty in marriage often prevents a man from marrying ("Wise man!” ejaculated Hadria), so you see the disadvantage is not all on one side, if so you choose to consider it.”

“Good heavens! do you think that the opportunity to interfere with another person would console me for being interfered with myself? I don’t want my share of the constraining power. I would as soon accept the lash of a slave-driver. This moral lash is almost more odious than the other, for its thongs are made of the affections and the domestic ‘virtues,’ than which there can be nothing sneakier or more detestable!”

Henriette heaved a discouraged sigh. “You are wrong, my dear Hadria,” she said emphatically; “you are wrong, wrong, wrong.”

“How? why?”

“One can’t have everything in this life. You must be willing to resign part of your privileges for the sake of the far greater privileges that you acquire.”

“I can imagine nothing that would compensate for the loss of freedom, the right to oneself.”

“What about love?” murmured Henriette.

“Love!” echoed Hadria scornfully. “Do you suppose I could ever love a man who had the paltry, ungenerous instinct to enchain me?”

“Why use such extreme terms? Love does not enchain.”

“Exactly what I contend,” interrupted Hadria.

“But naturally husband and wife have claims.”

“Naturally. I have just been objecting to them in what you describe as extreme terms.”

“But I mean, when people care for one another, it is a joy to them to acknowledge ties and obligations of affection.”

“Ah! one knows what that euphemism means!”

“Pray what does it mean?”

“That the one serious endeavour in the life of married people is to be able to call each other’s souls their own.”

Henriette stared.

“My language may not be limpid.”

“Oh, I see what you mean. I was only wondering who can have taught you all these strange ideas.”

Hadria at length gave way to a laugh that had been threatening for some time.

“My mother,” she observed simply.

Henriette gave it up.