Story type: Essay
BY ETHELYN LESLIE HUSTON.
Once upon a time in the city of Detroit there lived a society woman who was very wealthy. Her home was one of the most regal of the Woodward avenue mansions. Her aristocratic limbs were clothed in the softest of silks, her delicate hands were weighed down with costliest jewels, her retinue of servants were worthy the princely hospitalities she extended to those of her august order, and her charities–upon occasion–were as munificent as the gifts of gods.
This woman was very fair to look upon, and her life seemed a path of rose leaves upon which all the graces smiled. But there was a canker at the heart of all this loveliness, the deadly breath of the Upas tree sometimes pierced its incense, the hidden head of a coiled asp now and then stirred the laces nestling at her breast. And the tiny asp that slept on her heart was Rumor, that she could not kill, yet whose sting meant death. And when it moved, her lips whitened with fear, but she soothed it back to the warmth of slumber and strewed lavish gifts on the altar of charity. And then for awhile, the asp slept. And so it was that upon one of these occasions the asp moved restlessly, through the soft music of the cultured voices around her there crept an ominous hiss as the little green head parted the perfumed lace.
And the woman knew that her frailties were many and the hiss was Truth, and that all her loveliness was but a whited sepulcher that hid the ghastly bones of a murdered womanhood.
So with her jeweled hand she soothed the asp and gathered about her the women of her kind and told them that as the man of Nazarath had walked among the fallen so ought they. And these women arranged that they should go to the Magdalens of their city and teach them the error of their way and lead them gently into the treadmill of factory and sweat-shop to earn their daily bread and butter and olives.
So in a holy band of six they sought the gilded haunt of sin and asked Madame R—-if they might talk for a while with her-er-young ladies. The former smilingly acquiesced and they were courteously ushered into a stately drawing-room, where a number of the-er-young ladies listened with equally smiling interest to their dissertations on the beauties of a moral life. She of the asp moved to the rear of the drawing-room, where a woman with a delicate, refined face was sitting at a grand piano. Her eyes had a touch of tragedy and a great weariness in their depths, but as they rested gravely on her guest there was the faintest soupcon of amusement under their drooping lids. “My dear,” quoth the grande dame, very gently, “forgive me if I intrude on delicate ground, but I want to ask–to know–that is–,” very regretfully, “just tell me why do you lead a sinful life?”
The other woman was silent for a moment, then she spoke with equal gentleness:
“Madame, I was deserted when a girl-wife with a little child to support. I led this sinful life to support my baby and myself. And now, may I ask in return what is your reason?”
Here the chronicle ended, but the incident is still fresh in the memories of the City of the Straits’ most exclusive 150. It is reluctantly admitted by those who labor sincerely among the world’s unfortunates that the reformation of a fallen woman is more difficult than the twelve labors of Hercules. They are of two classes–the naturally depraved and the victim of circumstances. The former is utterly hopeless because her nature is too coarse-fibred to even realize, let alone heed, her own infamy. The latter is equally hopeless because she realizes too much. And how reform the half-world when society leads so gaily? “We dance along Death’s icy brink, but is the dance less fun?” If morals are lax for sheer amusement, among those of the purple, what wonder if Moses’ tablet grew dim to the people! Did the glorious and glittering sin of the French patricians teach the grisette patience with her lowly lot? Or did not her frantic fingers twist in the soft, perfumed tresses of proud heads, with shrieks for the guillotine the more fierce because of the toil-worn hands?
But she of the monde draws her costly laces over the little asps and gives with the dainty hand of a pictured Lady Bountiful, while her word smiles approval. And she of the half-world, who realizes too much!–what she is, who gave heart and soul and body to a supreme self-abnegation only to be struck back from the blaze of her heaven with the brazen clamor of its closing gates clashing through her stunted brain–she gathers the rags of her life around her and flies, a haunted and a hunted thing to the blackest depths, that can strangle thought and memory and brain. She laughs, too, over her whited sepulchre, but it is a laugh with painted lips and a merriment whose end is madness. We do not ask her for charity,–when we remember her at all, it is to clutch her wages of sin from her grasp to add to the city’s tax. And it is not the green asp of Rumor that sleeps in her breast, covered by jewelled fingers, but under her thin hand burns the flame of Vathek, eating always with its crimson torment till heart and reason are charred and black and dead.
We cannot forgive her, so we fine her. Her name is in the Black List, not the Blue Book. She sins and suffers, while the other sins and smiles, and we lash the woman while we laud the wanton.
Of what avail are our home and refuge and retreat–empty shells of stiff formula and strict red tape? Hospitals to the coarse class, perhaps, but is it there a racked soul would turn while in her tottering brain the armed hosts of heaven and hell wage war?
Of what avail are creed and dogma and ritual, when we ourselves “bow the knee to pomp that loves to varnish guilt”? Of what avail our benevolence that offers, not the Christ-touch of pity and understanding, but the bitter bread of craven servitude and Pharisaical condescension, that says “thou art vile and lost for all time?”
We laud the wanton because she has wealth and power. She buys our favor with her wines and feasts, and blinds our willing eyes with her gifts and charities, and we only murmur with pensive gentleness “who shall judge!”
We are such cultured black-mailers, such refined bribe-seekers, such sensitive sycophants, while she obeys the eleventh commandment and is properly discreet she feeds us epicurean favors as she feeds her English pug bon-bons. And we are careful that the face of the dog shall express the greater intelligence.
And the woman with the flame in her heart? From her we have nothing to gain so–what would you? Her nature was too great to be discreet. She sinned grandly, but the height of her sin made deeper the depths of her soul abasement and her self-torment was too horrible to clothe itself in the tawdry draperies of diplomacy. She bared herself to the whips of the avenging furies, she cowered before the wrath of outraged God, and to her there was no guerdon possible for the shattered chrystal of her girlhood. When her heaven thrust her out, to her there was only left the world’s hell of lost souls. And we in our wisdom accept her own sentence and our lips are silent. We feast the wanton who is wise and bracket Marguerite with Messalina. We kiss the one and curse the other, because the one is a hypocrite in the halls of splendor and the other honest in the haunts of shame. We hover around the one with flatteries and soft courtesies, and we hound down the other with pitiless vengeance, human and divine.
And in all this does our world show its shallowness and its immeasurable stupidity. How dare woman say to her sister woman, “I am better than thou!” In how much has she been tried and tempted? How much does she know of life and its hideous tests? How much does she know woman’s love that is at once her glory and her shame, her crown and her crucifix, her heaven and her Calvary? How dare she judge? Has she ever faced the uphill battle where her two hands alone fought the ravenous wolves of Want and Hunger? Has she ever slipped her bared arm thro’ the iron staples and held it there, while they howled in fury outside, and this iron cut and bruised and tore flesh and nerve,–till her teeth sank through tongue and lips and her eyes grew misty and dim with torture worse than death? Has she ever done all this–while her strength reeled and failed and through it all she cursed God for the white fear in the faces of those who loved and lived upon her? Has she ever felt that sickening GIVE, as the hell-hounds swept her back and down, and in her blind despair she would clutch at aid though it were steeped in all the infamies from here to hades? Has she ever known all this?–she who would draw her silken shirts aside? Then if she have not, let her strip her heart of its stainless selfishness and her limbs of their ignorant ease; let her go out into the world where women live and strive and suffer, and let her humbly crawl to the feet of those women whose toil worn hands and weary faces and scarred hearts and souls shame her shallow usefulness, and let her lay her mouth in the dust and cry “Peccavi!”
How dare she judge! Who is she, with her pitiless eyes and useless hands and ignorant heart and narrow life,–who is she to question lives that in all their ruins are as grand, compared to hers, as a ruined temple compared to a child’s painted toy. Would she write of Rome with the pearl and gold bauble on her dainty, inlaid desk? Would she measure the Pantheon with the little yardstick of her own intellect? Would she weigh Caesar’s life and motives on the jeweled letter-scales of her own experience? Would she gauge Jove by the character of her curate?
If she can do this, then is she competent to voice her judgment on the most profound of all mysteries–human life. Boise City, Idaho, November 12.