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Elizabeth and Her German Garden Part 9

"Take that down," murmured Irais aside to Minora--unnecessary advice, for her pencil was scribbling as fast as it could.

"A woman's vanity is so immeasurable that, after having had ninety-nine object-lessons in the difference between promise and performance and the emptiness of pretty speeches, the beginning of the hundredth will find her lending the same willing and enchanted ear to the eloquence of flattery as she did on the occasion of the first. What can the exhortations of the strong-minded sister, who has never had these experiences, do for such a woman? It is useless to tell her she is man's victim, that she is his plaything, that she is cheated, down-trodden, kept under, laughed at, shabbily treated in every way--that is not a true statement of the case. She is simply the victim of her own vanity, and against that, against the belief in her own fascinations, against the very part of herself that gives all the colour to her life, who shall expect a woman to take up arms?"

"Are you so vain, Elizabeth?" inquired Irais with a shocked face, "and had you lent a willing ear to the blandishments of ninety-nine before you reached your final destiny?"

"I am one of the sensible ones, I suppose," I replied, "for nobody ever wanted me to listen to blandishments."

Minora sighed.

"I like to hear you talk together about the position of women," he went on, "and wonder when you will realise that they hold exactly the position they are fitted for. As soon as they are fit to occupy a better, no power on earth will be able to keep them out of it.

Meanwhile, let me warn you that, as things now are, only strong-minded women wish to see you the equals of men, and the strong-minded are invariably plain. The pretty ones would rather see men their slaves than their equals."

"You know," said Irais, frowning, "that I consider myself strong-minded."

"And never rise till lunch-time?"

Irais blushed. Although I don't approve of such conduct, it is very convenient in more ways than one; I get through my housekeeping undisturbed, and whenever she is disposed to lecture me, I begin about this habit of hers. Her conscience must be terribly stricken on the point, for she is by no means as a rule given to meekness.

"A woman without vanity would be unattackable," resumed the Man of Wrath. "When a girl enters that downward path that leads to ruin, she is led solely by her own vanity; for in these days of policemen no young woman can be forced against her will from the path of virtue, and the cries of the injured are never heard until the destroyer begins to express his penitence for having destroyed. If his passion could remain at white-heat and he could continue to feed her ear with the protestations she loves, no principles of piety or virtue would disturb the happiness of his companion; for a mournful experience teaches that piety begins only where passion ends, and that principles are strongest where temptations are most rare."

"But what has all this to do with us?" I inquired severely.

"You were displeased at our law classing you as it does, and I merely wish to justify it," he answered. "Creatures who habitually say yes to everything a man proposes, when no one can oblige them to say it, and when it is so often fatal, are plainly not responsible beings."

"I shall never say it to you again, my dear man," I said.

"And not only that fatal weakness," he continued, "but what is there, candidly, to distinguish you from children? You are older, but not wiser,--really not so wise, for with years you lose the common sense you had as children. Have you ever heard a group of women talking reasonably together?"

"Yes--we do!" Irais and I cried in a breath.

"It has interested me," went on the Man of Wrath, "in my idle moments, to listen to their talk. It amused me to hear the malicious little stories they told of their best friends who were absent, to note the spiteful little digs they gave their best friends who were present, to watch the utter incredulity with which they listened to the tale of some other woman's conquests, the radiant good faith they displayed in connection with their own, the instant collapse into boredom, if some topic of so-called general interest, by some extraordinary chance, were introduced." "You must have belonged to a particularly nice set,"

remarked Irais.

"And as for politics," he said, "I have never heard them mentioned among women."

"Children and idiots are not interested in such things," I said.

"And we are much too frightened of being put in prison," said Irais.

"In prison?" echoed Minora.

"Don't you know," said Irais, turning to her "that if you talk about such things here you run a great risk of being imprisoned?"

"But why?"

"But why? Because, though you yourself may have meant nothing but what was innocent, your words may have suggested something less innocent to the evil minds of your hearers; and then the law steps in, and calls it dolus eventualis, and everybody says how dreadful, and off you go to prison and are punished as you deserve to be."

Minora looked mystified.

"That is not, however, your real reason for not discussing them," said the Man of Wrath; "they simply do not interest you. Or it may be, that you do not consider your female friends' opinions worth listening to, for you certainly display an astonishing thirst for information when male politicians are present. I have seen a pretty young woman, hardly in her twenties, sitting a whole evening drinking in the doubtful wisdom of an elderly political star, with every appearance of eager interest.

He was a bimetallic star, and was giving her whole pamphletsful of information."

"She wanted to make up to him for some reason," said Irais, "and got him to explain his hobby to her, and he was silly enough to be taken in. Now which was the sillier in that case?"

She threw herself back in her chair and looked up defiantly, beating her foot impatiently on the carpet.

"She wanted to be thought clever," said the Man of Wrath. "What puzzled me," he went on musingly, "was that she went away apparently as serene and happy as when she came. The explanation of the principles of bimetallism produce, as a rule, a contrary effect."

"Why, she hadn't been listening," cried Irais, "and your simple star had been making a fine goose of himself the whole evening.

"Prattle, prattle, simple star, Bimetallic, wunderbar.

Though you're given to describe Woman as a dummes Weib.

You yourself are sillier far, Prattling, bimetallic star!"

"No doubt she had understood very little," said the Man of Wrath, taking no notice of this effusion.

"And no doubt the gentleman hadn't understood much either." Irais was plainly irritated.

"Your opinion of woman," said Minora in a very small voice, "is not a high one. But, in the sick chamber, I suppose you agree that no one could take her place?"

"If you are thinking of hospital-nurses," I said, "I must tell you that I believe he married chiefly that he might have a wife instead of a strange woman to nurse him when he is sick."

"But," said Minora, bewildered at the way her illusions were being knocked about, "the sick-room is surely the very place of all others in which a woman's gentleness and tact are most valuable."

"Gentleness and tact?" repeated the Man of Wrath. "I have never met those qualities in the professional nurse. According to my experience, she is a disagreeable person who finds in private nursing exquisite opportunities for asserting her superiority over ordinary and prostrate mankind. I know of no more humiliating position for a man than to be in bed having his feverish brow soothed by a sprucely-dressed strange woman, bristling with starch and spotlessness. He would give half his income for his clothes, and probably the other half if she would leave him alone, and go away altogether. He feels her superiority through every pore; he never before realised how absolutely inferior he is; he is abjectly polite, and contemptibly conciliatory; if a friend comes to see him, he eagerly praises her in case she should be listening behind the screen; he cannot call his soul his own, and, what is far more intolerable, neither is he sure that his body really belongs to him; he has read of ministering angels and the light touch of a woman's hand, but the day on which he can ring for his servant and put on his socks in private fills him with the same sort of wildness of joy that he felt as a homesick schoolboy at the end of his first term."

Minora was silent. Irais's foot was livelier than ever. The Man of Wrath stood smiling blandly down upon us. You can't argue with a person so utterly convinced of his infallibility that he won't even get angry with you; so we sat round and said nothing.

"If," he went on, addressing Irais, who looked rebellious, "you doubt the truth of my remarks, and still cling to the old poetic notion of noble, self-sacrificing women tenderly helping the patient over the rough places on the road to death or recovery, let me beg you to try for yourself, next time any one in your house is ill, whether the actual fact in any way corresponds to the picturesque belief. The angel who is to alleviate our sufferings comes in such a questionable shape, that to the unimaginative she appears merely as an extremely self-confident young woman, wisely concerned first of all in securing her personal comfort, much given to complaints about her food and to helplessness where she should be helpful, possessing an extraordinary capacity for fancying herself slighted, or not regarded as the superior being she knows herself to be, morbidly anxious lest the servants should, by some mistake, treat her with offensive cordiality, pettish if the patient gives more trouble than she had expected, intensely injured and disagreeable if he is made so courageous by his wretchedness as to wake her during the night--an act of desperation of which I was guilty once, and once only. Oh, these good women! What sane man wants to have to do with angels? And especially do we object to having them about us when we are sick and sorry, when we feel in every fibre what poor things we are, and when all our fortitude is needed to enable us to bear our temporary inferiority patiently, without being forced besides to assume an attitude of eager and grovelling politeness towards the angel in the house."

There was a pause.

"I didn't know you could talk so much, Sage," said Irais at length.

"What would you have women do, then?" asked Minora meekly. Irais began to beat her foot up and down again,--what did it matter what Men of Wrath would have us do? "There are not," continued Minora, blushing, "husbands enough for every one, and the rest must do something."

"Certainly," replied the oracle. "Study the art of pleasing by dress and manner as long as you are of an age to interest us, and above all, let all women, pretty and plain, married and single, study the art of cookery. If you are an artist in the kitchen you will always be esteemed."

I sat very still. Every German woman, even the wayward Irais, has learned to cook; I seem to have been the only one who was naughty and wouldn't.

"Only be careful," he went on, "in studying both arts, never to forget the great truth that dinner precedes blandishments and not blandishments dinner. A man must be made comfortable before he will make love to you; and though it is true that if you offered him a choice between Spickgans and kisses, he would say he would take both, yet he would invariably begin with the Spickgans, and allow the kisses to wait."

At this I got up, and Irais followed my example. "Your cynicism is disgusting," I said icily.

"You two are always exceptions to anything I may say," he said, smiling amiably.

He stooped and kissed Irais's hand. She is inordinately vain of her hands, and says her husband married her for their sake, which I can quite believe. I am glad they are on her and not on Minora, for if Minora had had them I should have been annoyed. Minora's are bony, with chilly-looking knuckles, ignored nails, and too much wrist. I feel very well disposed towards her when my eye falls on them. She put one forward now, evidently thinking it would be kissed too.

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