Chapter XX

Happily for Mary Datchet she returned to the office to find that by some obscure Parliamentary maneuver the vote had once more slipped beyond the attainment of women. Mrs. Seal was in a condition bordering upon frenzy. The duplicity of Ministers, the treachery of mankind, the insult to womanhood, the setback to civilization, the ruin of her life’s work, the feelings of her father’s daughter—all these topics were discussed in turn, and the office was littered with newspaper cuttings branded with the blue, if ambiguous, marks of her displeasure. She confessed herself at fault in her estimate of human nature.

“The simple elementary acts of justice,” she said, waving her hand towards the window, and indicating the foot-passengers and omnibuses then passing down the far side of Russell Square, “are as far beyond them as they ever were. We can only look upon ourselves, Mary, as pioneers in a wilderness. We can only go on patiently putting the truth before them. It isn’t THEM,” she continued, taking heart from her sight of the traffic, “it’s their leaders. It’s those gentlemen sitting in Parliament and drawing four hundred a year of the people’s money. If we had to put our case to the people, we should soon have justice done to us. I have always believed in the people, and I do so still. But—” She shook her head and implied that she would give them one more chance, and if they didn’t take advantage of that she couldn’t answer for the consequences.

Mr. Clacton’s attitude was more philosophical and better supported by statistics. He came into the room after Mrs. Seal’s outburst and pointed out, with historical illustrations, that such reverses had happened in every political campaign of any importance. If anything, his spirits were improved by the disaster. The enemy, he said, had taken the offensive; and it was now up to the Society to outwit the enemy. He gave Mary to understand that he had taken the measure of their cunning, and had already bent his mind to the task which, so far as she could make out, depended solely upon him. It depended, so she came to think, when invited into his room for a private conference, upon a systematic revision of the card-index, upon the issue of certain new lemon-colored leaflets, in which the facts were marshaled once more in a very striking way, and upon a large scale map of England dotted with little pins tufted with differently colored plumes of hair according to their geographical position. Each district, under the new system, had its flag, its bottle of ink, its sheaf of documents tabulated and filed for reference in a drawer, so that by looking under M or S, as the case might be, you had all the facts with respect to the Suffrage organizations of that county at your fingers’ ends. This would require a great deal of work, of course.

“We must try to consider ourselves rather in the light of a telephone exchange—for the exchange of ideas, Miss Datchet,” he said; and taking pleasure in his image, he continued it. “We should consider ourselves the center of an enormous system of wires, connecting us up with every district of the country. We must have our fingers upon the pulse of the community; we want to know what people all over England are thinking; we want to put them in the way of thinking rightly.” The system, of course, was only roughly sketched so far—jotted down, in fact, during the Christmas holidays.

“When you ought to have been taking a rest, Mr. Clacton,” said Mary dutifully, but her tone was flat and tired.

“We learn to do without holidays, Miss Datchet,” said Mr. Clacton, with a spark of satisfaction in his eye.

He wished particularly to have her opinion of the lemon-colored leaflet. According to his plan, it was to be distributed in immense quantities immediately, in order to stimulate and generate, “to generate and stimulate,” he repeated, “right thoughts in the country before the meeting of Parliament.”

“We have to take the enemy by surprise,” he said. “They don’t let the grass grow under their feet. Have you seen Bingham’s address to his constituents? That’s a hint of the sort of thing we’ve got to meet, Miss Datchet.”

He handed her a great bundle of newspaper cuttings, and, begging her to give him her views upon the yellow leaflet before lunch-time, he turned with alacrity to his different sheets of paper and his different bottles of ink.

Mary shut the door, laid the documents upon her table, and sank her head on her hands. Her brain was curiously empty of any thought. She listened, as if, perhaps, by listening she would become merged again in the atmosphere of the office. From the next room came the rapid spasmodic sounds of Mrs. Seal’s erratic typewriting; she, doubtless, was already hard at work helping the people of England, as Mr. Clacton put it, to think rightly; “generating and stimulating,” those were his words. She was striking a blow against the enemy, no doubt, who didn’t let the grass grow beneath their feet. Mr. Clacton’s words repeated themselves accurately in her brain. She pushed the papers wearily over to the farther side of the table. It was no use, though; something or other had happened to her brain—a change of focus so that near things were indistinct again. The same thing had happened to her once before, she remembered, after she had met Ralph in the gardens of Lincoln’s Inn Fields; she had spent the whole of a committee meeting in thinking about sparrows and colors, until, almost at the end of the meeting, her old convictions had all come back to her. But they had only come back, she thought with scorn at her feebleness, because she wanted to use them to fight against Ralph. They weren’t, rightly speaking, convictions at all. She could not see the world divided into separate compartments of good people and bad people, any more than she could believe so implicitly in the rightness of her own thought as to wish to bring the population of the British Isles into agreement with it. She looked at the lemon-colored leaflet, and thought almost enviously of the faith which could find comfort in the issue of such documents; for herself she would be content to remain silent for ever if a share of personal happiness were granted her. She read Mr. Clacton’s statement with a curious division of judgment, noting its weak and pompous verbosity on the one hand, and, at the same time, feeling that faith, faith in an illusion, perhaps, but, at any rate, faith in something, was of all gifts the most to be envied. An illusion it was, no doubt. She looked curiously round her at the furniture of the office, at the machinery in which she had taken so much pride, and marveled to think that once the copying-presses, the card-index, the files of documents, had all been shrouded, wrapped in some mist which gave them a unity and a general dignity and purpose independently of their separate significance. The ugly cumbersomeness of the furniture alone impressed her now. Her attitude had become very lax and despondent when the typewriter stopped in the next room. Mary immediately drew up to the table, laid hands on an unopened envelope, and adopted an expression which might hide her state of mind from Mrs. Seal. Some instinct of decency required that she should not allow Mrs. Seal to see her face. Shading her eyes with her fingers, she watched Mrs. Seal pull out one drawer after another in her search for some envelope or leaflet. She was tempted to drop her fingers and exclaim:

“Do sit down, Sally, and tell me how you manage it—how you manage, that is, to bustle about with perfect confidence in the necessity of your own activities, which to me seem as futile as the buzzing of a belated blue-bottle.” She said nothing of the kind, however, and the presence of industry which she preserved so long as Mrs. Seal was in the room served to set her brain in motion, so that she dispatched her morning’s work much as usual. At one o’clock she was surprised to find how efficiently she had dealt with the morning. As she put her hat on she determined to lunch at a shop in the Strand, so as to set that other piece of mechanism, her body, into action. With a brain working and a body working one could keep step with the crowd and never be found out for the hollow machine, lacking the essential thing, that one was conscious of being.

She considered her case as she walked down the Charing Cross Road. She put to herself a series of questions. Would she mind, for example, if the wheels of that motor-omnibus passed over her and crushed her to death? No, not in the least; or an adventure with that disagreeable-looking man hanging about the entrance of the Tube station? No; she could not conceive fear or excitement. Did suffering in any form appall her? No, suffering was neither good nor bad. And this essential thing? In the eyes of every single person she detected a flame; as if a spark in the brain ignited spontaneously at contact with the things they met and drove them on. The young women looking into the milliners’ windows had that look in their eyes; and elderly men turning over books in the second-hand book-shops, and eagerly waiting to hear what the price was—the very lowest price—they had it, too. But she cared nothing at all for clothes or for money either. Books she shrank from, for they were connected too closely with Ralph. She kept on her way resolutely through the crowd of people, among whom she was so much of an alien, feeling them cleave and give way before her.

Strange thoughts are bred in passing through crowded streets should the passenger, by chance, have no exact destination in front of him, much as the mind shapes all kinds of forms, solutions, images when listening inattentively to music. From an acute consciousness of herself as an individual, Mary passed to a conception of the scheme of things in which, as a human being, she must have her share. She half held a vision; the vision shaped and dwindled. She wished she had a pencil and a piece of paper to help her to give a form to this conception which composed itself as she walked down the Charing Cross Road. But if she talked to any one, the conception might escape her. Her vision seemed to lay out the lines of her life until death in a way which satisfied her sense of harmony. It only needed a persistent effort of thought, stimulated in this strange way by the crowd and the noise, to climb the crest of existence and see it all laid out once and for ever. Already her suffering as an individual was left behind her. Of this process, which was to her so full of effort, which comprised infinitely swift and full passages of thought, leading from one crest to another, as she shaped her conception of life in this world, only two articulate words escaped her, muttered beneath her breath—“Not happiness—not happiness.”

She sat down on a seat opposite the statue of one of London’s heroes upon the Embankment, and spoke the words aloud. To her they represented the rare flower or splinter of rock brought down by a climber in proof that he has stood for a moment, at least, upon the highest peak of the mountain. She had been up there and seen the world spread to the horizon. It was now necessary to alter her course to some extent, according to her new resolve. Her post should be in one of those exposed and desolate stations which are shunned naturally by happy people. She arranged the details of the new plan in her mind, not without a grim satisfaction.

“Now,” she said to herself, rising from her seat, “I’ll think of Ralph.”

Where was he to be placed in the new scale of life? Her exalted mood seemed to make it safe to handle the question. But she was dismayed to find how quickly her passions leapt forward the moment she sanctioned this line of thought. Now she was identified with him and rethought his thoughts with complete self-surrender; now, with a sudden cleavage of spirit, she turned upon him and denounced him for his cruelty.

“But I refuse—I refuse to hate any one,” she said aloud; chose the moment to cross the road with circumspection, and ten minutes later lunched in the Strand, cutting her meat firmly into small pieces, but giving her fellow-diners no further cause to judge her eccentric. Her soliloquy crystallized itself into little fragmentary phrases emerging suddenly from the turbulence of her thought, particularly when she had to exert herself in any way, either to move, to count money, or to choose a turning. “To know the truth—to accept without bitterness”—those, perhaps, were the most articulate of her utterances, for no one could have made head or tail of the queer gibberish murmured in front of the statue of Francis, Duke of Bedford, save that the name of Ralph occurred frequently in very strange connections, as if, having spoken it, she wished, superstitiously, to cancel it by adding some other word that robbed the sentence with his name in it of any meaning.

Those champions of the cause of women, Mr. Clacton and Mrs. Seal, did not perceive anything strange in Mary’s behavior, save that she was almost half an hour later than usual in coming back to the office. Happily, their own affairs kept them busy, and she was free from their inspection. If they had surprised her they would have found her lost, apparently, in admiration of the large hotel across the square, for, after writing a few words, her pen rested upon the paper, and her mind pursued its own journey among the sun-blazoned windows and the drifts of purplish smoke which formed her view. And, indeed, this background was by no means out of keeping with her thoughts. She saw to the remote spaces behind the strife of the foreground, enabled now to gaze there, since she had renounced her own demands, privileged to see the larger view, to share the vast desires and sufferings of the mass of mankind. She had been too lately and too roughly mastered by facts to take an easy pleasure in the relief of renunciation; such satisfaction as she felt came only from the discovery that, having renounced everything that made life happy, easy, splendid, individual, there remained a hard reality, unimpaired by one’s personal adventures, remote as the stars, unquenchable as they are.

While Mary Datchet was undergoing this curious transformation from the particular to the universal, Mrs. Seal remembered her duties with regard to the kettle and the gas-fire. She was a little surprised to find that Mary had drawn her chair to the window, and, having lit the gas, she raised herself from a stooping posture and looked at her. The most obvious reason for such an attitude in a secretary was some kind of indisposition. But Mary, rousing herself with an effort, denied that she was indisposed.

“I’m frightfully lazy this afternoon,” she added, with a glance at her table. “You must really get another secretary, Sally.”

The words were meant to be taken lightly, but something in the tone of them roused a jealous fear which was always dormant in Mrs. Seal’s breast. She was terribly afraid that one of these days Mary, the young woman who typified so many rather sentimental and enthusiastic ideas, who had some sort of visionary existence in white with a sheaf of lilies in her hand, would announce, in a jaunty way, that she was about to be married.

“You don’t mean that you’re going to leave us?” she said.

“I’ve not made up my mind about anything,” said Mary—a remark which could be taken as a generalization.

Mrs. Seal got the teacups out of the cupboard and set them on the table.

“You’re not going to be married, are you?” she asked, pronouncing the words with nervous speed.

“Why are you asking such absurd questions this afternoon, Sally?” Mary asked, not very steadily. “Must we all get married?”

Mrs. Seal emitted a most peculiar chuckle. She seemed for one moment to acknowledge the terrible side of life which is concerned with the emotions, the private lives, of the sexes, and then to sheer off from it with all possible speed into the shades of her own shivering virginity. She was made so uncomfortable by the turn the conversation had taken, that she plunged her head into the cupboard, and endeavored to abstract some very obscure piece of china.

“We have our work,” she said, withdrawing her head, displaying cheeks more than usually crimson, and placing a jam-pot emphatically upon the table. But, for the moment, she was unable to launch herself upon one of those enthusiastic, but inconsequent, tirades upon liberty, democracy, the rights of the people, and the iniquities of the Government, in which she delighted. Some memory from her own past or from the past of her sex rose to her mind and kept her abashed. She glanced furtively at Mary, who still sat by the window with her arm upon the sill. She noticed how young she was and full of the promise of womanhood. The sight made her so uneasy that she fidgeted the cups upon their saucers.

“Yes—enough work to last a lifetime,” said Mary, as if concluding some passage of thought.

Mrs. Seal brightened at once. She lamented her lack of scientific training, and her deficiency in the processes of logic, but she set her mind to work at once to make the prospects of the cause appear as alluring and important as she could. She delivered herself of an harangue in which she asked a great many rhetorical questions and answered them with a little bang of one fist upon another.

“To last a lifetime? My dear child, it will last all our lifetimes. As one falls another steps into the breach. My father, in his generation, a pioneer—I, coming after him, do my little best. What, alas! can one do more? And now it’s you young women—we look to you—the future looks to you. Ah, my dear, if I’d a thousand lives, I’d give them all to our cause. The cause of women, d’you say? I say the cause of humanity. And there are some”—she glanced fiercely at the window—“who don’t see it! There are some who are satisfied to go on, year after year, refusing to admit the truth. And we who have the vision—the kettle boiling over? No, no, let me see to it—we who know the truth,” she continued, gesticulating with the kettle and the teapot. Owing to these encumbrances, perhaps, she lost the thread of her discourse, and concluded, rather wistfully, “It’s all so SIMPLE.” She referred to a matter that was a perpetual source of bewilderment to her—the extraordinary incapacity of the human race, in a world where the good is so unmistakably divided from the bad, of distinguishing one from the other, and embodying what ought to be done in a few large, simple Acts of Parliament, which would, in a very short time, completely change the lot of humanity.

“One would have thought,” she said, “that men of University training, like Mr. Asquith—one would have thought that an appeal to reason would not be unheard by them. But reason,” she reflected, “what is reason without Reality?”

Doing homage to the phrase, she repeated it once more, and caught the ear of Mr. Clacton, as he issued from his room; and he repeated it a third time, giving it, as he was in the habit of doing with Mrs. Seal’s phrases, a dryly humorous intonation. He was well pleased with the world, however, and he remarked, in a flattering manner, that he would like to see that phrase in large letters at the head of a leaflet.

“But, Mrs. Seal, we have to aim at a judicious combination of the two,” he added in his magisterial way to check the unbalanced enthusiasm of the women. “Reality has to be voiced by reason before it can make itself felt. The weak point of all these movements, Miss Datchet,” he continued, taking his place at the table and turning to Mary as usual when about to deliver his more profound cogitations, “is that they are not based upon sufficiently intellectual grounds. A mistake, in my opinion. The British public likes a pellet of reason in its jam of eloquence—a pill of reason in its pudding of sentiment,” he said, sharpening the phrase to a satisfactory degree of literary precision.

His eyes rested, with something of the vanity of an author, upon the yellow leaflet which Mary held in her hand. She rose, took her seat at the head of the table, poured out tea for her colleagues, and gave her opinion upon the leaflet. So she had poured out tea, so she had criticized Mr. Clacton’s leaflets a hundred times already; but now it seemed to her that she was doing it in a different spirit; she had enlisted in the army, and was a volunteer no longer. She had renounced something and was now—how could she express it?—not quite “in the running” for life. She had always known that Mr. Clacton and Mrs. Seal were not in the running, and across the gulf that separated them she had seen them in the guise of shadow people, flitting in and out of the ranks of the living—eccentrics, undeveloped human beings, from whose substance some essential part had been cut away. All this had never struck her so clearly as it did this afternoon, when she felt that her lot was cast with them for ever. One view of the world plunged in darkness, so a more volatile temperament might have argued after a season of despair, let the world turn again and show another, more splendid, perhaps. No, Mary thought, with unflinching loyalty to what appeared to her to be the true view, having lost what is best, I do not mean to pretend that any other view does instead. Whatever happens, I mean to have no presences in my life. Her very words had a sort of distinctness which is sometimes produced by sharp, bodily pain. To Mrs. Seal’s secret jubilation the rule which forbade discussion of shop at tea-time was overlooked. Mary and Mr. Clacton argued with a cogency and a ferocity which made the little woman feel that something very important—she hardly knew what—was taking place. She became much excited; one crucifix became entangled with another, and she dug a considerable hole in the table with the point of her pencil in order to emphasize the most striking heads of the discourse; and how any combination of Cabinet Ministers could resist such discourse she really did not know.

She could hardly bring herself to remember her own private instrument of justice—the typewriter. The telephone-bell rang, and as she hurried off to answer a voice which always seemed a proof of importance by itself, she felt that it was at this exact spot on the surface of the globe that all the subterranean wires of thought and progress came together. When she returned, with a message from the printer, she found that Mary was putting on her hat firmly; there was something imperious and dominating in her attitude altogether.

“Look, Sally,” she said, “these letters want copying. These I’ve not looked at. The question of the new census will have to be gone into carefully. But I’m going home now. Good night, Mr. Clacton; good night, Sally.”

“We are very fortunate in our secretary, Mr. Clacton,” said Mrs. Seal, pausing with her hand on the papers, as the door shut behind Mary. Mr. Clacton himself had been vaguely impressed by something in Mary’s behavior towards him. He envisaged a time even when it would become necessary to tell her that there could not be two masters in one office—but she was certainly able, very able, and in touch with a group of very clever young men. No doubt they had suggested to her some of her new ideas.

He signified his assent to Mrs. Seal’s remark, but observed, with a glance at the clock, which showed only half an hour past five:

“If she takes the work seriously, Mrs. Seal—but that’s just what some of your clever young ladies don’t do.” So saying he returned to his room, and Mrs. Seal, after a moment’s hesitation, hurried back to her labors.