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McClure's Magazine/Volume 10/A Twentieth Century Woman


A TWENTIETH CENTURY WOMAN.

By Ella Higginson,

Author of "The Takin' In of Old Miss Lane," and Other Stories.

MR. DAWSON stood at the dining room window. His hands were deep in his trousers pockets. He was jingling some pieces of silver money, and swearing silently with closed lips.

The room looked more like a business office than a dining-room in a house. It was furnished handsomely, but with extreme plainness. There was an air of stiffness about everything. There were no plants in the windows; there was not a flower on the table, which stood ready for breakfast. In a word, there were no feminine touches anywhere.

Precisely at eight o'clock a strong, quick step came down the stairs and through the hall. Mr. Dawson turned with a quelled impatience in his manner. His wife entered.

"Oh," she said. She glanced at him, smiling mechanically, as one would at a child. Then she walked rapidly to a little table, and began to look over the morning mail. "Have you been waiting?" she added, absent-mindedly.

"It is not of the least consequence." Mr. Dawson spoke with a fine sarcasm. It was wasted. She did not even hear the reply.

"Ah," she said, tossing down a letter and turning to ring for breakfast. "I must run up to Salem on the noon train."

An untidy servant entered.

"Breakfast, please," said Mrs. Dawson, without looking at the girl. She seated herself at the breakfast-table, and opened the morning paper, which had been laid at her place. Mr. Dawson sat down opposite her. There was silence, save for the occasional rustle of the paper as Mrs. Dawson turned it sharply. Her eyes glanced alertly from heading to heading, pausing here and there to read something of interest. Her husband looked at her from time to time. At last he said, again with fine sarcasm, "Any news?"

Mrs. Dawson finished the article she was reading. Then, with a little start, as if she had just heard, she said: "Oh, no, no; nothing of consequence, my dear." But she read on, more intently than before.

"Well," said her husband presently, with a touch of sharpness, "here are the strawberries. Can you take time to eat them?"

She sighed impatiently. Three deep lines gathered between her brows. She folded the paper slowly, and put it in an inside pocket of her jacket. She wore a street dress, made with a very full skirt which reached a few inches below the knees. The jacket was short, and had many pockets. She wore, also, a tan-silk shirt, rolled collar and tie, and leggings. Her hair was arranged very plainly. In spite of her unbecoming attire, however, she was a beautiful woman, and her husband loved her and was proud of her.

This did not prevent him, though, from saying, with something like a feminine pettishhess, "Mrs. Dawson, i wish you would remember to leave the paper for me."

Mrs. Dawson looked at him in surprised displeasure. "I have not finished reading it myself," she said coldly. "Besides, there is nothing in it that will interest you. It is mostly political news. If I had time to read it before I go down town, it would be different; but I am out so late every night, I must sleep till the last minute in the morning to keep my strength, for the campaign. You cannot complain that I forget to bring it home for you in the evening."

Mr. Dawson coughed scornfully, but made no reply for some minutes. Finally he said, in a taunting tone, "It's all very well for you. You are down town all day, among people, hearing everything that is going on—while I sit here alone, without even a paper to read!"

For a moment Mrs. Dawson was angry. Here she was with an invalid husband and two children, working early and late to support them comfortably. She had been successful—so successful that she had received the nomination for State Senator on the Republican ticket. She loved her husband. She was proud of herself for her own sake, but certainly more for his sake. She thought he ought to make her way easier for her. He was not strong, and it was her wish that he should not exert himself in the least. All she asked of him was to look after the servants, order the dinners, entertain the children when the nurse was busy, and be cheerful and pleasant the short time she was at home. Surely, it was little enough to ask of him; and it was hard that he should fail even in this.

When, two years previous, equal suffrage had been graciously granted to women, Mr. Dawson, being then in failing health, had most cheerfully turned his real-estate business over to his wife. At first she managed it under his advice and instructions. He was simply amazed at the ease with which she "caught on." In less than six months she ceased to ask for suggestions, and his proffered advice was received with such a chill surprise that it soon ceased altogether.

At first the change had seemed like heaven to Mr. Dawson. It was a delightful novelty to give orders about dinners and things to maids who giggled prettily at his mistakes; to have the children brought in. by the respectfully amused nurse for an hour's romp; to entertain his gentlemen friends at afternoon "smokers" (Mrs. Dawson's dainty afternoon tea-table had been removed to the garret; a larger table, holding cigars, decanters, etc., had taken its place); to saunter down to his wife's office whenever he felt inclined.

But the maids soon grew accustomed to the change. They received some of his more absurd orders with more insolence than merriment. He began to have an uneasy feeling in their presence. They really were not respectful. The nurse no longer smiled when she brought the children. What. was worse, she left them with him much more than at first.

The children themselves, somehow, seemed to be getting out of clothes and out of manners. He told the nurse to have some clothes made for them. She asked what seamstress he preferred, and what material.

"I don't know," he answered, helplessly. "Get any good seamstress, and let her select the materials."

The nurse brought a friend from the country. She asked him how he wished them made.

"How?" he repeated, with some anger. "Why, in the fashion, of course." She made them in the style then in vogue in Stumpville. When he saw them, he swore. When he spoke to his wife about it, she replied, with an impatience that strove to be good-natured, "Why, my dear, I don't trouble you about my business perplexities, do I? Really, I haven't time to think of so much—with this campaign on my shoulders, too. You must try to manage better. Find stylish seamstresses—and don't trust even them. Study the magazines and styles yourself. It is quite a study—but I am sure you have time. And while I think about it, dear, I wish you would see that the roasts are not overdone."

The smokers and little receptions among the men became bores.

So many women now being in business, their husbands were compelled to maintain the family position in society. Mr. Dawson submitted. But he considered it an infernal nuisance to carry his wife's cards around with him. Sometimes he could not remember how many gentlemen there were in a family.

There was something worse than all this. He could not fail to perceive, in spite of the usual masculine obtuseness in such matters, that he was no longer welcome at his wife's office. She received him politely but coldly. Then she ignored his presence. If she chanced to be busy, she at once became very busy—aggressively so, in fact. If idle, she immediately found something to engross her attention.

In anger, one day, he taunted her with it. She replied, without passion, but with cutting coldness, that it was not good for business to have one's husband sitting around the office; that women did not come in so readily, feeling afraid that something might be overheard and repeated.

"You have a young gentleman typewriter," sneered Mr. Dawson.

"That is different," said his wife, smiling good-naturedly.

So the two years had gone by. Some things had improved; others had grown worse. Ill health and the narrow world he moved in seemed to have affected Mr. Dawson's mind, He felt that his wife neglected him. At times he was proud of her brilliant success, financial and political; her popularity, her beauty and grace. At others he was violently jealous of—everything and everybody, even the young man who musically took down her thoughts in the office.

It wag absurd, of course, but he was such a beastly good-looking young fool! What business had he to put fresh flowers in her vase every day? Mr. Dawson asked her once furiously if she paid him for that. She looked at him in cold displeasure. Then she left the house, and scarcely spoke to him for a week. At the end of the week she remembered his invalidism, and relented. On the way home she bought a pretty trifle, a jeweled scarf-pin, and gave it to him with a little show of affection. He was deeply touched. Then she really loved him, after all!

Thereafter she permitted herself to become angry with him more readily. The temporary estrangement furnished a reasonable excuse to spend several nights down town with the girls; and, when she was tired of it, she had only to carry home some pretty jewel—and peace was restored. Mr. Dawson's life was becoming such a narrow, walled-in one that he was losing his spirit.

It is not surprising that Mrs. Dawson looked at him angrily over the breakfast-table. However, she made no answer to his unreasonable complaint.

"Is it necessary that you should make so many trips to Salem?" he asked, presently.

"Yes, my dear," she replied, coldly. "Unless you wish to see me defeated."

"And is it necessary that you should remain out until one or two o'clock every night?"

"It is." Mrs. Dawson spoke firmly to convince herself as well as her husband. "My dear, I have had enough of this. You were pleased—I repeat, pleased—with the idea of my running for senator, or I should not have accepted the nomination. Now, already, you annoy me with petty complaints and jealousies. I prefer being at home with you and the children, certainly; but I cannot neglect my business, or we should soon be in the poor-house. Nor can I make anything of a canvass without spending some time with the girls."

"And money," sneered Mr. Dawson.

"Yes, and money"—more coldly. "God knows I do not enjoy it; my tastes are domestic."

Mr. Dawson got up suddenly. He lifted his chair, and set it down with a crash.

"Mrs. Dawson," he said, "I don't care whether you make a good canvass or a poor one. When I gave my consent to our going into this thing, I supposed you'd run it differently. You women have been talking and ranting for the last fifty years about the way you'd purify politics when you got the ballot—and here you are running things just as men have been doing ever since the United States were born."

"Oh, my dear!" interrupted Mrs. Dawson, with a little, aggravating laugh. "That is wrong, isn't it? was born would be better. Besides, why not say the earth at once?"

"And I don't care if you are defeated! I'm tired of being cooped up here with a lot of children and servants! Ordering puddings, and leaving cards on fools because you happen to know their wives in a business way, and doctoring measles and mumps! And you down town canvassing with the girls! What a home, where the wife only comes to eat!"

Mrs. Dawson arose silently and, putting on her hat in the hall, left the house. She was furious. Her face was very white. She shook with passion. What a life! What a home! What a husband for a rising woman to have dragging her down! Not even willing to help her socially! Why, it had been only two years, and here he was sunk to the shoulders in the narrow groove it had taken women centuries to struggle out of! Had she ever been proud of him? Impossible! He was unjust, contemptible, mean! Why—why—could he not be like John Darrach? There was a man, strong, fearless, a politician. He had not lost his grip. If she won, it would be because of his earnest support.

She went into her private office, and laid her head upon her desk and wept passionately.

Presently a knock came upon the door. She did not hear. The door opened, but she did not hear that either. But she felt a hand close firmly around her wrist; and then she heard a voice say, "Why, what does this mean?"

She lifted her head, and looked through her tears into John Darrach's eyes.

There was unmistakable tenderness in the look and in the pressure of his strong fingers. A warm color flamed over her face and throat. She controlled her feeling and smiled through her tears, slowly drawing her arm from his clasp.

"Forgive me," he said, instantly, returning to his usual manner toward her. "When I saw you were in trouble, I—forgot."

"It is nothing," she said, with an exaggerated cheerfulness. "Only, sometimes I fear this campaign is making me nervous. I hate nervous people," she added passionately.

"My carriage is at the door," said Darrach. he looked away from her with a visible effort. "Shall we drive out to see that piece of property now?"

"Oh, yes, indeed; I had forgotten that. How good of you to always remind me! I am afraid I depend upon you too much."

"Not as much as I wish," he answered her in a low voice. He stood holding the door open while she rapidly drew on her gloves. Then seeing the color coming to her face again, he added, grimly: "I must earn my salary as your attorney, you know."

That was a delightful morning. The road ran along the Willamette from Portland to Vancouver. The perfect blue of an Oregon sky bent softly over them. The long, silver curves of the slow-moving river wound before them. There were green fields and bits of emerald wood and picturesque islands. Farther away were the heavily timbered hills, purple in the distance; and grand and white and glistening against the sky were the superb snow mountains, majestic in their far loneliness.

The air was fragrant with wild syringa, which grew by the roadside, flinging long, slender sprays of white, gold-hearted flowers in all directions. ' The soft, caressing winds let free about them a breath from the far ocean.

Mrs. Dawson leaned back in the carriage and forgot domestic cares—forgot ill-bred servants and over-done roasts, shabbily dressed children and an unreasonable, fault-finding husband. She loved the soft sway of the carriage, the spirited music of the horses' feet on the hard road, the sensuous, compelling caresses of the wind on her face and throat.

Darrach stopped the horses in a shady spot.

"We must have some of this syringa," he said, putting the reins in her hands. He broke a great armful, snapping the stems almost roughly. He bore them to the carriage, and piled them upon her knees until they covered her bosom and shoulders with their snowy drifts—some of the scented sprays curling even about her throat and hair.

"Do you know," said Darrach, looking at her, "these cool, white sprays always make me think of a woman's arms." He reached for the reins, and for a second his hand rested upon hers. She turned very pale.

"By the way," said Darrach, instantly, in a light tone, "is the canvass going on satisfactorily?"

"Not quite as I could wish," she replied." "As I expected, the lower classes are solid for—my opponent. It is a bitter thing to run against such a woman. It will be more bitter to be defeated by her."

"You must not be."

"I cannot help it. How can I get such votes?"

Darrach shrugged his shoulders.

"Put up more money," he said, coldly, but in a low tone.

"Ah," said Mrs. Dawson, with deep contempt. "It is dishonorable—disgusting! Sell my birthright for a mess of pottage?"

"Nonsense," said Darrach. He turned and smiled at her. "Am I to be disappointed in you? Have I not guided you with a careful hand through dangers and pitfalls? Have I not helped you to success? It is wrong to spend money for such a purpose—I confess it, of course. We want all that changed. We can change it only by getting good women into power. We can get them into power only through money. We must ourselves stoop at first, to elevate politics eventually. Mrs. Dawson, you owe it to the State—to your country—you owe it to yourself—to sacrifice your noble principles and ideals this time, in view of the powerful reform you, and such women as you, can bring about in politics, once you are in power."

He turned the horses into a long, locust-bordered lane. At the end of it was a large, white farm-house. A woman sat on the front steps. She was tall and thin. Her face and hands were wrinkled and harsh. Her eyes were narrow and faded. Her sandy hair, gray in places, was brushed straight back from her face, and wound in a knot with painful tightness. She sat with her sharp elbows on her knees, her chin sunk in her palms.

She arose with a little country flurry of embarrassment at their approach. She stood awkwardly, looking at them, keeping her shabbily clad feet well under her scant skirt.

"Are you the lady who wishes to borrow money on a farm?" asked Darrach.

"Yes," she said, "I be." She did not change her expression. Her only emotion seemed to be excessive self-consciousness. She put her hands behind her to feel if her apron-strings were tied. Then she rested her right elbow in her left hand, and began to smooth her hair nervously with her right hand. "Yes, I want to git $500 on this here farm. Land knows it's worth twicet thet."

"Yes," said Darrach, politely.

"It is too bad to mortgage it" said Mrs. Dawson, feeling a sudden pity. "Is it absolutely necessary?"

"Yes," said the woman, closing her thin lips together firmly; "my mind's set. My man's one o' them kind o' easy-goin's thet you can't never git worked up to the pitch o' doin' anythin'. I'm tired of it. We've set here on this here place sence we crossed the plains, an' we ain't got anythin' but land an' stawk an' farm machin'ry. We ain't got a buggy, ner a drivin' horse, ner a side-saddle; we ain't got 'n org'n, ner a fiddle, ner so much's a sewin'-machine—an' him a-gettin' new rakes, an' harrers, an' drills, an' things ev'ry year, all of 'em with seats to ride on. I ain't even got a washin'-machine!"

"But why do you mortgage your farm?" asked Mrs. Dawson, quietly.

"Because I've got my dose," said the woman, fiercely. "The place's in my name, an' now thet we've got our rights, I'm goin' to move to town. I'll show him! I'll git a job 's street commish'ner—er somepin. He can let the place out er run it hisself, jist 's he's a mind, but I'm goin' to take that money an' hire a house 'n town an' buy furniture. My mind's set. I didn't sense what a fool I be tell we got our rights. If he'd a half give me my rights afore, I'd give him his'n now; but I've got the whip-hand, an' I guess I'll git even. He never even let me hev the hen money—consarn his ugly picter!"

"Oh, I am sure it is wrong to mortgage your farm," said Mrs. Dawson, looking distressed. "Your husband must have trusted you, or he would not have put it in your name."

The woman laughed harshly, but without mirth.

"Oh, I've played my game cute," she said. "I've schemed and laid low. Back 'n Kanzus we hed a fine place out 'n the rollin' kentry, all 'n his name, an' he made me sign a mortgage on 't to buy machin'ry with—said he'd leave me 'f I didn't, an' the hull place went. Mebbe I ain't worked to lay his sphish'uns, though! Mebbe I ain't laid awake nights a-plannin' to git this place 'n my name! Mebbe I didn't git it, too!"

"But will he sign the mortgage?" asked Darrach.

"He'll hev to." She spoke with something like a snarl. "If he don't—I'll do what he threatened me with back 'n Kanzus! I'll leave him!" Her tone was terrible now.

"Let us go," said Mrs Dawson, turning a pale face to Darrach.

He made an appointment to meet the woman in town. Then they returned to the carriage. Looking back, they saw that she had reseated herself in the same listless attitude on the steps, her chin sunken in her hand, watching them with those dull, narrow eyes.

Darrach sent the horses down the lane at a lively pace. Mrs. Dawson sat erect. Her face was pale and troubled.

"Well, that's awful, isn't it?" said Darrach, cheerfully. "It makes me suspect that this suffrage business isn't all it is represented to be."

"Oh, it is terrible," said Mrs. Dawson, earnestly. "That a woman should have such a feeling"—she pressed her hands together upon her knees—" I cannot help feeling sorry for her. She is wrong, all wrong, now; yet I think I understand what a miserable, starved life she has had. I believe that the hearts of millions of women would have leaped could they have heard those words: 'If he'd a half given me my rights before!' You men have been wrong; you have not been wise. You brought this revolution on your own heads. Why, what can one expect of the kind of man that woman's husband must be, when my own husband—a man of refinement and culture—treated me like a dependent in money matters?"

"The beast!" said Darrach. She turned a white, startled face upon him. "What?" she stammered.

He laughed instantly, although a thick color mounted into his face. "Oh, I didn't mean Dawson. I was still thinking of that woman's husband." But he was trembling under strength of the feeling he was endeavoring to control.

"We must hasten," said she, "or I shall be too late for the Salem train."

Once on the train, Mrs. Dawson had three hours of hard and bitter reflection. There are certain crises in the lives of all of us when a word, a look, a gesture, is sufficient to awaken us to a full realization of some wrong that we have been committing with shut eyes and dulled conscience. Mrs. Dawson had reached the crisis in her life. Her awakening was sudden and complete; but it was crushing.

She sat with her burning cheek in her hand, looking out the window. She saw nothing—neither wide green fields, nor peaceful village, nor silver, winding river. The events of the past two years were marching, panorama-wise, before her aching eyes. Her heart beat painfully under its burden of self-accusation. Oh, blind, foolish, wicked!

She did not care for Darrach. He was an attentive, congenial companion; that was all. But how wrong, how loathsome, now seemed her association with him!

She felt a great choke coming into her throat. She detested her campaign, woman suffrage, and, most of all, herself as she had been in these two years.

Suddenly she sat erect. "I will give it all up," she said. "I will go back to my husband and my children, from whom I have wandered—oh, God, how far! Other women may do as they choose—I shall make a home again, and stay therein. I believe active life will restore my husband's health. We will try all over again to forget, and just be happy. Oh, I have been walking in my sleep for two years! I have awakened—in time, thank God! Every act, almost every thought, of these two years is loathsome to me now. But I shall atone. I shall make my husband and my children happy."

Mr. Dawson had spent a wretched day. Upon reflection, he was heartily ashamed of the way he had spoken to his wife. Notwithstanding their deep love for each other, he felt that they were growing farther apart each day. He blamed himself bitterly. He even thought of going down to the office and apologizing; but he remembered that she was going to Salem.

Mrs. Dawson returned with a violent headache and fever. She had had a chill on the train. She took a cab and drove straight home. Her husband opened the door for her. "Dearest," he said. She threw herself upon his breast, and clung to him in her old dependent, girlish way, that was indescribably sweet to him.

"I am ill, dear," she sobbed, "so ill. And oh, I am so tired of it all! I have given it all up. I don't want to be a senator, nor a business woman, nor even a progressive woman; I just want to be your wife again. I want to take care of my children and my home, and I want you to be a man again!"

"Why, God bless my soul!" said Mr. Dawson. He was looking down at the back of her head with the most amazed eyes imaginable.

Mrs. Dawson went to bed without her dinner. In the morning the doctor came, and said it was typhoid fever.

It was six weeks before Mrs. Dawson was able to go about the house and to hear news of the outside world. Then, one morning, Mr. Dawson conveyed to her with extreme delicacy and caution the information that woman suffrage had been declared unconstitutional and had been abolished. He added that he had considered it his duty to take her place, and he was now running for the Senate.

"How lovely of you, dearest!" she said, with a sphinx-like smile.

Then she inquired for Darrach.

"Oh, he went off on a wild-goose chase to Australia soon after you were taken ill," said Dawson, lightly.

"Oh," said Mrs. Dawson. "And my typewriter? Is he still with you?"

"Why—er—no," said Dawson. He looked with deep attention at an old Chinaman going along the street on a trot with two baskets of vegetables dangling at the ends of a pole on his shoulder. "The fact is I didn't just like him. He wasn't competent. I—" he jingled some coins in his pocket "I have a very speedy young woman—er—a Miss Standish."

"Oh," said Mrs. Dawson.

When Mr. Dawson started for the office the following morning his wife followed him to the hall door. She looked charming in her long, soft house-dress. Her lovely arms shone out of the flowing sleeves. Her hair was parted in the middle, and waved daintily. A red rose glowed on her breast. The color was coming back to her cheeks, and her eyes were bright.

Her husband put his arm around her, and drew her to him with affection and satisfaction. He was fully restored to health, and thoroughly pleased with himself. Mrs. Dawson put one arm around his shoulder, and as she kissed him, with the other hand deftly extracted the morning paper from his inside pocket—at the same time giving him a most charming and adorable smile.

Dawson's countenance fell. But he decided instantly not to remonstrate—this time. By and by, when she was stronger.

At the steps he paused and said, lightly, "Oh, I forgot: I'll not be home to dinner. Have to dine with some of the boys at the club. Infernal nuisance, this campaign!"

It requires so many exhausting lessons to teach a man anything.