THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
I AM a lady, and a coward. The two facts have no relation to each other, but both are necessary to a comprehension of my sentiments about to be delivered. Soberly revolving the universe in my mind, I find only one thing of which I am sure I am not afraid, and that is –dying. I mean merest dying, for I am as fearsome as any of being tossed in air, disjecta membra, by an automobile; of furnishing lingering sweetness to an epicurean tiger ; of being played with, and pawed and tweaked by disease, cat-and-mouselike ; it is only the actual slipping by the portal of which I am not afraid. With this sole exception, I am afraid of everything : firecrackers, reptiles, drunken cooks, dogs, tunnels, trolleys, and caterpillars. About ghosts I am a little uncertain ; experience leads me to conjecture that ghosts are usually your own fault: that is, they are a little like rattlesnakes ; if you don’t intrude, neither will they. But that circumstance which is to me the very quintessence of terror is Night and A Man. I speak hypothetically –it has never happened.
Strange what a difference mere plurality of a noun and mere presence or absence of an article make to my mind. Now Men, Man, and A Man stand for most diverse conceptions. Man, –I think of Mr. Alexander Pope, and of a creature of watery intellect, whose vitality is something between that of a frog and a jumping-jack, and who is diddled puppet-wise by an equally anæmic deity. Man is humanity dehumanized, but Men are about the most human thing there is. Men are the big people, clean-scrubbed spiritually and physically, who come to see you and take you about, and look after the universe, and keep it in a good humor; who, when you are making a fool of yourself, laugh at you in a genial, masculine fashion. In a thin, tentative, feminine way, you try to imitate, and the effort, however quavering, somehow makes you feel better. Men, of your own family or out of it, sometimes put you on trains, and take care of you– sometimes. Thus Men.
But A Man –ugh ! I saw him first in a nightmare when I was six. He wore a black Prince Albert, and on his head three high hats jammed down one on top of the other. He stood on the cone of a hill, black as a coal against the red light of fires in the rear. From under his three hats he grinned at me, and on that black hill, against that lurid sky, he danced and danced and danced. He frightens me still. It is since then that Night and A Man have been my crown of terrors. A Man lurks in every darkened doorway, stretches an arm from every tree trunk, pursues me, –pat, pat, pat, –and fades into the common light of lamp and fire only when I am safely under my own roof-tree. Even in the daytime, A Man never deserts me: he haunts the solitary country lanes, lush and lovely with spring ; he pops out upon me from mountain woods ; on the stretches of beach he lurks just around the point. He is always there; at least, I suppose he is, for I never am –alone.
By day, A Man is a leering horror, but at night he becomes, like that figure in my dream, pure devil. I am a suburbanite, and as I said before, a lady, a laboring lady. This is why I find myself not infrequently alone at night. The alarm set a-quiver when I descend from the social, bright-lit, suburban car and plunge forth into the dark is something that custom cannot stale. Yet sometimes the spell of the night is as a buckler against fear, making me wonder if solitude is really terror, genuine solitude, solitude belonging to me, and not to A Man. I remember one early winter evening, white with a recent snowfall; there had been an ice storm, and our trees were all incased, each tiniest twig, and the full moon rode low : I forgot A Man, in every nerve I was glad to be alone, but hark, a step in the distance, and earth again !
It is worth some study, the sensation of that approaching step, that emerging shadow, –bifurcated or petticoated, two feet or four ? I am never afraid of two men: neither actually nor grammatically can A Man be two. Joseph and the Babes in the Wood for precedent, dissension steps in between violence and its victim so soon as the aggressive party is multiplied by even two. And as for a group of men, whatever their caste or condition, however socially uncouth, by mere virtue of numbers they become a protection rather than a peril; by mere aggregate of protective instinct, A Man sufficiently multiplied equals Men (supra).
In addition to these distinctions in regard to the number of your potential aggressor, there are also distinctions geographic and geometric. I appeal to any lady of my sex and condition, whether there is not the greatest possible difference in amount of peril to be inferred between the man who is walking in front of you on a lonely street, and the man who is walking behind. If a man paces on soberly and regularly some few discreet rods ahead, straightway he is enhaloed with succor and salvation, –you are safe, you need only to call him in your need, and he will save. But should he go more slowly, fall behind, then in the very instant of passing you this same protecting saint becomes decanonized, and worse. There is nothing so suspicious as this dropping behind. True, you preserve a bold back, walk no faster, –note, sir, my valiancy, my unconcern, –but still your knee crooks for flight, and your vocal cords contract for that scream you wonder if you could ever really utter. A corresponding transformation in moral intention, blackguard and chevalier, is possible for the man in your rear. On a recent evening I was hurrying home along the solitary street –steps behind! Flying, pursuing steps ! Nearer, nearer ! Upon me, and my heart sickened and stopped beating ! But past me, fleeting on and on, disappearing, oh, too swiftly ! For as he left me so quickly again to solitude, I could hardly resist an impulse to gather up my skirts and scamper after, after my retreating protector. I think he made his train.
I have been at some pains to prove the second of my introductory assertions. The reason I have not tried to prove the first is explained by the difference between the Contributors’ Club and polite society. In polite society, one is under the obligation of confessing one’s virtues, not blatantly, but none the less persistently, wearily, –one’s dogging old virtues, as if it were not enough of a bore to live with them in private without having to be seen with them in public. In the Contributors’ Club one may have the exquisite pleasure of confessing one’s vices. Such is the relief due to the anonymous. To be sure, there are the editors, but then, I don’t know the editors ; they are not in our set.