The Adventures of Dr. Whitty/Chapter 3

 

III
MRS. CHALLONER'S PUBLIC MEETING

"I DON'T think you've ever met my daughter, Mrs. Challoner," said Colonel Beresford to Dr. Whitty one day near the end of October.

"No," said the doctor, "I haven't. She hasn't been over in Ballintra since I've been in the place."

"She very seldom pays me a visit," said the colonel. "She's a good deal tied to London. Her husband is a barrister, and when he gets a holiday he likes to go abroad. However, it seems she's been working too hard lately, and has knocked herself up. She's coming over here for rest and quiet."

"She'll get them both. I don't know anywhere with more quiet about it than Ballintra in the autumn."

Dr. Whitty wondered what Mrs. Challoner worked at in London, but he was too well-mannered a man to ask a direct question.

"I dare say you've seen her name in the papers," said the colonel. "It has been pretty prominent in the discussions about Woman's Suffrage. She has taken the matter up, and, like all women, she's tremendously keen."

Dr. Whitty had not seen her name. He seldom saw an English paper, and unless a woman makes herself very remarkable indeed, unless she gets imprisoned in circumstances of an entirely novel kind, the Irish papers take no notice of her,

"Of course I have," said Dr. Whitty; "but I didn't think of her being your daughter."

"I wish she wouldn't do it," said the colonel. "It's too much for her. I quite agree with her view of the question, but I'd sooner she left the heavy end of the work to some one else."

This surprised Dr. Whitty a good deal. He would not have suspected Colonel Beresford of being an advocate of Woman's Suffrage.

"I don't know what your opinions on the subject are," said the colonel.

Dr. Whitty had no opinions. Woman's Suffrage is not a burning question in Connacht; he had never given it a moment's serious thought.

"I entirely agree with you and Mrs. Challoner," he said. "I don't see how any man, not actually blinded by prejudice, can take the other view."

"I'm glad to hear that, because I want to ask you up to dinner to meet my daughter when she arrives, but I couldn't do it if you had been likely to disagree with her. She's not a woman who tolerates any difference of opinion. She likes arguing, and arguments on that subject bore me."

"I don't want to argue," said the doctor. "I shall agree with every word she says, even if she goes further than I'm inclined to go myself."

"It's a pity she does it," said the colonel. "She's right, of course, in principle, but I can't help feeling a dislike for her making herself so prominent in public. Of course, not having any children, she naturally wants something to occupy her mind."

"You can't expect all women to have children," said the doctor tolerantly. "There'd be too many children in the world if they were all like Mrs. Michael Geraghty. She has thirteen."

Mrs. Challoner turned out to be a most charming lady. Her clothes in themselves excited the reverent admiration of Dr. Whitty. He had never in his life seen anything so fine as the black and green evening gown she wore at dinner. It glittered all over with little shiny discs which he discovered afterwards were called sequins. Her figure was regal. She was at least four inches taller than the doctor, and looked quite as tall as the colonel, who of late years stooped a little. She moved with a sumptuous grace which made it a pleasure to watch her cross the room. She had large flashing eyes, and a smile which made the doctor's heart beat rapidly. He fell a victim to her before he had been ten minutes in her company, and after he had taken her in to dinner he felt that Mr. Challoner, the barrister, was an exceedingly fortunate man.

The conversation turned at once on the question of Woman's Suffrage.

"I'm glad to hear. Dr. Whitty," said Mrs. Challoner, "that you take our view of the matter."

"I do, thoroughly."

"It seems such a pity that women should neglect to use the enormous influence for good they might have and ought to have."

"It is a pity. When I look round the women of this town, for instance, and think what a difference it would make if only——"

"I like to think of woman," said Mrs. Challoner, "not as the rival of man, not as a competitor for the prizes of the market-place, but as his comrade."

Dr. Whitty was a little puzzled. He had a vague idea that the advocates of Woman's Suffrage did want to be rivals and competitors.

"Quite so," he said. "Look at Mrs. Michael Geraghty, for instance——"

"I was thinking," said Mrs. Challoner, who generally interrupted anyone else who spoke, "of trying to do a little work among the women here now that I am over with them. I suppose there would be no difficulty about getting up a public meeting?"

"My dear," said the colonel, alarmed, "do recollect that you have come over here for rest and quietness. It is absolutely necessary—I am sure Dr. Whitty will agree with me that you ought not to address a public meeting." He looked appealingly at the doctor.

Unfortunately Dr. Whitty, besides being exhilarated by the extraordinary beauty of Mrs. Challoner's eyes and smile, had drunk his first glass of champagne. He basely deserted the colonel.

"I don't think one meeting would do Mrs. Challoner any harm," he said.

"And besides," said the colonel, "you couldn't possibly get up a meeting of the sort in Ballintra. The people know nothing about the subject, and care less."

"That seems to me," said Mrs. Challoner, with a radiant smile, "all the more reason for having a meeting. Don't you think so, Dr. Whitty?"

"Certainly. I should like to see a strong branch of your—your——" (he did not feel quite certain whether Mrs. Challoner presided over a league, a guild, a union, an association, or a simple society) "your organisation established in Ballintra. Take the case of Mrs. Michael Geraghty. That poor woman——"

"The priest won't like a meeting for women," said the colonel; "and you can't run a thing of the sort here without the priest."

"We'll try," said Mrs. Challoner, smiling again. "I have faced worse obstacles than that."

"The priest will be all right," said Dr. Whitty. "He's a reasonable man. If he's approached the right way and talked to sensibly he'll come to the meeting and make a speech."

"He ought to, of course," said Mrs. Challoner. "The Church has always taken a strong line on the subject. We count on the support of the clergy of every denomination wherever we go."

This surprised Dr. Whitty. He had always supposed that the ecclesiastical mind was prejudiced against the enfranchisement of anyone.

"Perhaps," said Mrs. Challoner, "you'll see the priest, Dr. Whitty, and talk to him. My doctor has strictly forbidden me to undertake any work I can possibly avoid. Otherwise, of course, I should not dream of encroaching on your time."

"I will," said Dr. Whitty. "I'll see him to-morrow. I'll work the whole thing up for you. You'll want women and not men at the meeting?"

"Certainly. Get all the women you can. It's a woman's question, and it ought to be settled by women. I shall have a copy of our monster petition sent over from our London office, and, after the meeting, we can obtain the signatures of those present."

"Some of them can't write very well," said the doctor, "but we'll make their marks for them. Mrs. Michael Geraghty will come. So will Mrs. Thady Glynn and her eldest daughter, who's just home from school. You won't object to Mrs. Glynn, will you, colonel?"

"I won't have him," said the colonel. "Remember that now, doctor. No tricks like that deputation one."

"Certainly not. You'll be quite safe. I won't have a man in the room except Father Henaghan, Mr. Jackson—you'd like to have him, of course, when you're having the priest—and myself. We don't count. Clergy and doctors occupy a sort of intermediate position between the two sexes. We're not really either one thing or the other."

Next day Dr. Whitty felt rather less confident about the success of his mission to the town of Ballintra. The daylight of an October morning is not a good tonic for a fading enthusiasm. Tea—breakfast tea—does not exhilarate as champagne does. Mrs. Challoner's eyes and smile were with him still, but only as a memory. Their radiance no longer made the world seem an easy thing to conquer. Nevertheless, being a man of great hopefulness, he went out and called on the priest.

"Good morning, Father Henaghan. You know Mrs. Challoner, of course."

"Is that the colonel's daughter? I know the look of her, but I never spoke three words to her."

"She wants to get up a meeting in the town," said the doctor, "in favour of Woman's Suffrage. I suppose you won't have any objection to taking the chair?"

"A meeting in favour of what?"

"Woman's Suffrage, giving women votes, you know. It's a capital thing; the Church all over the world has pronounced in favour of it."

"I'll take the chair at no such meeting."

"I'm sorry to hear you say that," said the doctor. "By taking up that sort of reactionary attitude you will be throwing yourself into opposition to the great majority of the clergy. Mrs. Challoner told me last night that everywhere she went she had the support of the clergy."

"It's different in England. England's a Protestant country,"

"She wasn't talking of England. She was talking of Ireland. Why, your own bishop is as strongly in favour of it as any man."

"What makes you say that? I never heard it of him."

"Mrs. Challoner told me so," said the doctor, lying boldly, "and she'd be sure to know."

"She's mistaken," said the priest. "The bishop has more sense."

"I don't see what harm it can do you to preside," said the doctor. "You may just as well do the civil thing when you're asked. We won't let it get into the papers."

"I'm against it," said the priest. "That's why I won't do it. In my opinion women are a deal better without votes."

"Of course they are. I quite agree with you."

"Then why should I be getting votes for them?"

"You won't, if you presided at fifty meetings. If you presided at one, once a week for five years, you wouldn't get a vote for a solitary woman at the end of it. Come now, Father Henaghan, it's a mere question of obliging a lady."

"What use would votes be to women if they had them?"

"None," said the doctor, "none whatever. They'd never use them. Votes aren't any use to men; so it's not likely they would be to women if they got them, which, of course, they won't."

"Then what's the good of the meeting?"

"The same good as all the other meetings. In fact, this one will be a great deal more good than most. For if you preside at it, like a sensible man, the colonel will be so pleased that he'll give you that field beyond my house for your new school. You want that field badly, you know you do."

"I have a great respect for the colonel," said the priest.

"Then you'll preside at the meeting. I knew you would."

"If I do," said the priest, "I'll not make a speech."

"You needn't. All that's necessary is for you to introduce Mrs. Challoner in a few well-chosen words, something about a charming and distinguished lady whose career has been watched with interest by the people of her native town."

"I know what to say," said the priest, "without your teaching me."

"You do, of course. Good-bye. Oh, by the way, Tuesday next is the day. Eight o'clock in the schoolroom."

Dr. Whitty had much less difficulty at the rectory. He saw Mrs. Jackson first. She was a lady with leanings towards culture, and an unsatisfied desire for what she thought of as a "fuller life." She was greatly interested in hearing that Mrs. Challoner was an ardent advocate of Woman's Suffrage. It appeared to her from the short sketch the doctor gave her of the objects of the movement that it was just the thing she had always been looking out for, something that would lift her soul out of the dreary monotony of house cleaning and baby culture. She promised to use her influence to persuade her husband to attend the meeting. She went to the door of the room and called him in a loud voice until he came.

Mr. Jackson held no strong views on any political subject except temperance. About that he was violent and extreme. He wanted a Bill passed forbidding the sale of alcohol in any form, except in chemists' shops on presentation of a written order from a medical man. Dr. Whitty knew this and shaped his arguments to suit the circumstances.

"In Finland," he said, "the effect of the women's vote—you know, of course, that women have votes in Finland—has been to close every public-house in the entire country, and to make the manufacture of whisky a criminal offence."

Mr. Jackson, though his favourite study was temperance legislation, had never heard of the drastic action of the Finnish Parliament. He expressed surprise.

"I'm not telling you that on my own authority," said the doctor; "in fact, I never heard it until Mrs. Challoner mentioned it to me last night at dinner. But she ought to know. She's gone into all these questions thoroughly. Her husband, as you know, is an international lawyer, makes speeches at the Hague Conference, sits on Boards of Arbitration, and that kind of thing."

"I suppose she's right," said Mr. Jackson, "but I never heard of it."

"That being so," said Dr. Whitty, "you will of course support this Suffrage movement. What we want you to do is to open the meeting by proposing that Father Henaghan takes the chair. Quite a short speech will do. You needn't say much about the question itself. Mrs. Challoner will have all the arguments ready cut and dried when her turn comes. All you have to do is to be sympathetic in a general way. You could mention, if you like, that the hand which rocks the cradle ought to rule the world; or any other little thing of that kind that occurred to you. You'll know, better than I can, what the proper thing is."

Mrs. Jackson added her voice to Dr. Whitty's, and the rector allowed himself to be persuaded. When the doctor had left the house, he wrote to the secretary of the Total Abstinence Society to which he belonged for all the pamphlets in existence which dealt with the temperance question in Finland.

Dr. Whitty walked up towards Ballintra House, intending to report his success to Mrs. Challoner. On the way he met Michael Geraghty, who, pursuing his profession of builder and contractor, was erecting a new cow byre for a farmer near the village.

"Look here, Michael," said the doctor, "I want your wife to attend a meeting in the schoolroom at eight o'clock on Tuesday next."

"Herself might go," said Michael. "But she has her hands full with the baby. I'm not sure that she'll be able."

"The baby's a girl, isn't it?" said the doctor.

"It is. It's the tenth girl."

"Then tell her to bring it. I couldn't have asked it if it had been a boy. Be sure now, Michael, you don't forget to tell her. I can't be running round the town inviting everybody twice."

"Doctor," called Michael Geraghty, as Whitty left him, "did you say it was the preventing of consumption the meeting was for?"

"No, it's not"

"Then it'll be dairying, or cookery, maybe?"

"No. It's not. It's Woman's Suffrage."

"It'll be all the same to herself," said Michael Geraghty. "Only it would be as well for her to be told, so as she'd know what to be expecting. I'll give her the message."

The day of the meeting arrived. As soon as the children had gone home, Dr. Whitty took possession of the schoolroom. He swept it out with a brush he borrowed from the schoolmaster's wife, working vigorously but not very effectively. He disturbed a great deal of dirt, but got very little of it out of the door. He arranged the forms and desks in rows, so that the audience would be obliged to face the speakers. He put the schoolmaster's kitchen table at the top of the room and covered it with a green cloth which came from his own dining-room. He placed two vases full of roses, supplied by Colonel Beresford's gardener, on the table, got a pen, a bottle of ink, and a sheet of blotting-paper. Then he went home and had something to eat. At half-past seven he got back to the schoolroom. At twenty-five minutes to eight Mrs. Michael Geraghty came in. Dr. Whitty, who was anxious about the size of the audience, welcomed her heartily.

"I ran round," she said, "to tell you that I couldn't attend the meeting. The baby's that cross I couldn't bring her, for fear she'd be disturbing the people with her crying, and I daren't leave her."

"You'll stay here, now you are here," said the doctor.

"Where's the use?" she said. "I heard all they had to say about domestic economy, or whatever it is they call it, the last meeting there was in it. What's more, I didn't think much of it."

"This isn't domestic economy. It's Woman's Suffrage. And you've got to stay."

"I'd do a deal for you, doctor, but the baby——"

"Sit down now and don't talk. Here's somebody else."

It was Thady Glynn's daughter, very sumptuously arrayed in a blue dress. Her hat was magnificent. She apologised for her mother's absence. Four more women dribbled in after her, and gathered in a close group round Mrs. Michael Geraghty. Miss Glynn sat on the front bench by herself. There was a noise of wheels. Dr. Whitty rushed to the door, fearing that Mrs. Challoner might have arrived before her time. He was met by six women, four of them female servants from Ballintra House; the fifth, Mrs. Challoner's own maid, whose opinions on the subject of the suffrage were probably formed; the sixth, the coachman's wife. They took their places in a prim row on the back bench, and sat very much as they did in the great hall of Ballintra House while the colonel read prayers in the morning. At ten minutes to eight Mr. and Mrs. Jackson arrived. Dr. Whitty placed Mr. Jackson on one of the chairs behind the table, and arranged Mrs. Jackson at a decent distance from Miss Glynn on the front bench. Father Henaghan came next. He looked round the audience and grinned.

"You haven't got very many people," he said.

"I have not," said the doctor. "It got out some way that you didn't approve of the meeting, and so they wouldn't come. I shouldn't be surprised if the colonel refused to give you that field after all."

The priest had something to say in reply, but the arrival of Mrs. Challoner prevented his saying it. She, too, glanced at the empty benches, but she had the grace to conceal her disappointment. Dr. Whitty placed her in a chair beside Mr. Jackson. The school-master's wife arrived immediately after Mrs. Challoner, and sat by herself in front of the Ballintra House servants. Dr. Whitty crossed the room and whispered to Mr. Jackson. The rector rose nervously.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "I have much pleasure in proposing that Father Henaghan take the chair. I shall not detain you with any remarks of my own on a subject about which I hope to know more when I leave this room than I do at present. But I think I ought to say that, in so far as Woman's Suffrage promotes the cause of temperance throughout the world, it has my sincerest sympathy."

Dr. Whitty applauded this sentiment vigorously. It struck him that Mrs. Challoner did not look pleased, and he wished that Mr. Jackson would express himself more warmly. It seemed a pity to rest his support of the Suffrage movement entirely on temperance. He sincerely hoped that no mention would be made of the remarkable achievement of the women of Finland. Mr. Jackson did not say much more, but he succeeded, to Dr. Whitty's gratification, in working in the proverb about rocking the cradle and ruling the world.

Father Henaghan took the chair amid loud applause from Dr. Whitty, backed by the tapping of the schoolmistress' umbrella on the floor. The priest began his speech by saying that he was glad to have the opportunity of welcoming to their midst a lady whose brilliant and striking career had long been watched with deep interest and unfailing admiration by the people of Ballintra. The sentence was so well rounded and delivered with such fervour that it was applauded by several members of the audience as well as by Dr. Whitty and the schoolmaster's wife. Mrs. Challoner's face cleared. She evidently liked the priest's speech, so far, better than she had liked the rector's.

"I'm sorry," Father Henaghan went on, "that we haven't a better room in which to welcome the lady who has come to address us. This school isn't what it ought to be, but there's talk of building a new one, more suited to the needs of the parish, and more appropriate to the accommodation of meetings of this sort. I think I may say that if we had a suitable site we wouldn't be long in getting together the money for the building."

He glanced round at Mrs. Challoner to see how she was taking the hint. She smiled and nodded in the most encouraging manner. Father Henaghan felt he might complete the impression he had evidently made on her by a few judicious words on the subject of Female Suffrage.

"With regard to the cause which we have assembled here to support," he said, "it wouldn't suit me to be saying too much. I'm a man myself, and in my opinion it's women who ought to look into the matter. I haven't what you call a strong opinion either one way or the other."

The schoolmaster's wife applauded feebly with her umbrella. Mrs. Michael Geraghty, noticing that the doctor was looking the other way, slipped as quietly as possible from the room. She was really anxious about her baby. Mrs. Challoner appeared puzzled and slightly annoyed. Dr. Whitty winked ferociously at Father Henaghan. He was watching Mrs. Challoner's face, and he didn't like the look of it. The priest glanced round quickly and saw the incipient frown which had aroused Dr. Whitty's alarm. He felt he must improve on his non-committal attitude.

"I haven't," he said, "what you'd call a strong opinion, but I may tell you this: if I had an opinion, it would be entirely in favour of Woman's Suffrage; and, what's more, if any one among you wants a good argument in favour of women being given the right to vote, let him look at Mrs. Challoner. I defy any man to doubt that if she had a vote she'd use it well."

After this effort he felt he could do no more. He called upon Mrs. Challoner to address the meeting and sat down.

Mrs. Challoner stood up, and there was no doubt she was in an uncommonly bad temper. Dr. Whitty was anxious and puzzled. The servants from Ballintra House fidgeted nervously.

"I came here to-night," she began, "under the impression that I was to address a meeting of opponents to the monstrous and ridiculous demands for Votes for Women. I find I was mistaken. The two clergymen who addressed you appear to be in favour of what I regard as the degradation of my sex."

Mr. Jackson, who had not paid much attention to Father Henaghan's speech, woke up with a start and looked surprised. Father Henaghan glared savagely at Dr. Whitty.

"In the circumstances," said Mrs. Challoner, "I am thankful to observe that this is an extremely small meeting, and apparently quite wanting in enthusiasm. I am glad of it. The other women—those who are not present—have shown good taste and sound sense in staying away. I do not know that I ought to address you at all to-night, but I shall say a few words in the hope that I may convince some of the least obstinate among you of the folly of the course you are bent on pursuing."

Her eyes were fixed as she spoke on Colonel Beresford's under-housemaid. The poor girl trembled visibly. Mrs. Challoner then denounced all supporters of Woman's Suffrage, especially those whom she called the "Male Suffragettes." Her speech lasted for more than half an hour. She repeated with contemptuous emphasis a large number of witticisms which had appeared in comic papers. She quoted, though without reference to the original documents, a good many articles from London daily papers. She explained that she was a leading member of an organisation of right-minded women pledged to resist to the uttermost the demands of infatuated members of their sex. She produced at last a copy of a petition to Parliament. It asked, so she informed her audience, that the suffrage should never, under any pressure, be granted to women.

"I do not suppose," she said, "that more than one or two of those present will sign it." She glanced, as she spoke, at her own maid, who had signed twice before, "but I mean to take it round the town to-morrow myself and obtain the signatures of those who have had the good sense not to attend this meeting."

She sat down. Father Henaghan, a little redder in the face than usual, but with a twinkle in his eye, called upon Dr. Whitty to propose a vote of thanks to Mrs. Challoner. The doctor rose without exhibiting any very obvious embarrassment.

"Reverend chairman, ladies, and gentlemen," he said, "I came here to-night a convinced and determined supporter of Woman's Suffrage. So did the Rev. Mr. Jackson, so did Father Henaghan——"

"I did not," exclaimed the priest.

Mr. Jackson, who seemed a good deal bewildered, shook his head.

"You did," said the doctor, "both of you. And there's no use your denying it, because you committed yourselves in the speeches you made. But it's open to you, as it is to me, to change your views; and I may say that, after listening to the extraordinarily powerful and convincing speech just made by Mrs. Challoner, I have changed mine. The ladies who have attended the meeting have also, I feel certain, changed theirs. That is the best compliment we can pay Mrs. Challoner to-night, and by way of showing that it's not a mere empty form of words, I propose that every one here signs the petition which has been laid on the table before the chairman."

He sat down. Father Henaghan rose at once.

"Ladies," he said, "let each one of you step forward and sign the petition, and let nobody leave the room till that's done."

"I don't want people to sign against their will," said Mrs. Challoner. "If there's any woman here who sincerely believes——"

"There isn't," said Father Henaghan.

"There is not," said the doctor with emphasis. "I know them all well, and there isn't one that sincerely believes votes would be the slightest use to her, if she had them given out free by the stone, the same as the Congested Districts Board would give potatoes."

The petition was signed. Mrs. Challoner, who went back to London early in November, parted with Dr. Whitty on terms of the warmest friendship. She afterwards spoke of him as a singularly open-minded man, one of the very few who are ready to surrender an opinion when it is clearly shown to be wrong.