Nightfall

IN January, 1909, the Atlantic Monthly published a little paper wherein I set forth my belief, and experience, that the evening of life could be as sweet as its noon and morning, and in certain ways more so. I was then in the early sixties and thoroughly enjoying myself.

That was twelve years ago. What about the seventies — the approaching eighties?

The question seems to come into the category of delicate subjects, unpleasant facts, things that have to be but are not talked about. It has no interest for the sociologist, no place — at any rate, not the slightest importance — in literature. A little article that did treat of it, written by W. D. Howells shortly before his death, affected me like a voice reverberating through a cave, — the secret lair of sick creatures that had crawled out of sight to die, — so rare was such a breaking of the silence in our old folks’ world. I imagined the responsive thrill that had stirred mine running from heart to heart of others of his lifelong readers, wherever their spectacled eyes lighted upon that curiosity of magazine matter. Spiritually, I had walked beside him since the long-ago days when his first publications came to Australia — those slim little booklets (why are not more literary treasures packed up in that convenient shape?) that I used to pounce on as they arrived, slip into my coat-pocket, and browse on in quiet places, with such peculiar delight; but nothing that he ever wrote appealed tome so poignantly as that last, or nearly last, fragment from his pen. He wrote for his contemporaries (as I am doing now). Who else could understand? Who else would care? How much did we care about the feelings of the graybeards and grannies, when we were young?

Threescore years and ten; and, from that to fourscore, labor and sorrow — there is no getting away from the laws of nature. Other laws may be evaded with impunity, but not hers, however hopefully we may ignore them. She plainly indicates the age for marriage; it is deemed proper to take no notice, and adolescent youth must suffer. She as plainly tells us when it is time to retire from the scene; and we have to turn to her the deafest of deaf ears, however tired and pain-racked we may be. We are not allowed to quietly slip away, as, out of politeness and consideration for others, as well as in our own interests, we should often gladly do. We are compelled, by main force if necessary, to loiter about to the bitter end, cluttering up the place. We cannot help it. Nobody can help it. That being so, there is nothing for it but to make the best of the situation — as dear W. D. H. evidently did.

But W. D. H. was a man, presumably a man of means. He could not speak for my sex, so differently circumstanced, comparatively so unprotected, comparatively so poor.

I suppose that the main reason why, in the multitude and variety of benevolent bequests, so little is done to succor poverty-stricken old women, who are also ladies of culture and refinement, — the class that, suffering silently, suffers most, — rests on this fact: that old men and old women are not in the same boat. Whether rich or poor, men feel that they have a natural right to the domestic services of women (tacitly conceded by them), and so can accept them as comfortably at one time of life as another; and the converse is not the case. While, of course, one allows that men and women alike, who have money to leave, and can therefore be ill and die in their own homes and make it worth the while of their caretakers to want to keep them rather than wish them gone, — that is, the possible benefactors, — being themselves exempt from the worst trials of the broken-down, have no especially compelling sympathy for them.

As I used to have chronic heartaches over forlorn and afflicted old dogs and horses, I am now continually harrowed by the contemplation of human derelicts, who suffer the same adversities, with the same uncomplaining dignity. I look out and around from my own harbor of refuge, and see them everywhere — old maids, old widows, old mothers left alone, retired governesses, and the like — drifting helplessly on the rocks. As long as strength holds out they keep at sea; smile, talk, dress, busy themselves to mask their secret humiliations, to propitiate the inexorable fates; but I know the dread that must haunt them all day and keep them awake at night — the terror of what is going to happen when they can no longer ‘do’ for themselves.

I should like to put into the heads of potential pious founders, looking for ‘objects,’a scheme of almshouses appropriate to these unfortunates whom nobody wants and nobody cares for. Their claim is paramount, who have maintained themselves during the years of active life, but have been unable to lay by for the rainy day, when there is only the old-age pension to fall back on, which does not provide a home. But the framework of any institution to aid the destitute is practically standardized, so that there is no need to elaborate the plan, but only to suggest the idea. It is a more original sort of almshouse, for a rather different class of inmate, that I would like to submit to the consideration of the affluent, will-maker, or the large-hearted investor of wealth who is still able to employ it himself.

An almshouse without alms, for decayed gentlewomen possessing some means but not enough to keep house on, at market-rates; a community of little homes on Garden City lines, with selfsupplying provision of food and service (including nursing and doctoring); enough for their now simple needs, as much as they wanted to be bothered with, and within what they could afford under a strictly nonprofiteering management. That is what I would like to bring into being, if I were in a position to found things.

I wrote in 1909 that, given normal conditions, women are not old at sixty. As I reckon now, they are never old (to matter) so long as their physical powers suffice to serve their physical needs. It is when they have to ‘trouble people’ to wait on them (although they are assured it is no trouble but a pleasure) ; when, to put it bluntly, they have to ‘take charity’ in some form or other, because they cannot pay for maids and maintenance of their own at the only prices they can get them for, yet still yearn with all their souls, and strive with all their ineffectual strength, after such independence as they can hold on to, as the proverbial drowning man to his straw — then comes the real old age, the tragedy of old age to the proud and sensitive.

My imaginary colony would be a godsend to these. The disabilities of their time of life would press as heavily on them there as anywhere else, but they would not be ‘beholden’ to anybody. They could rest in the hands of efficient attendants, adequately paid, and there would be no sense of being under obligations in the give and take of kindnesses between themselves — all in the same boat! They would be there because they belonged together. Before the time came for final retirement to the infirmary that would have to be a part of the institution, life might be very pleasant there to such as had no domestic ties elsewhere.

I think it would be all the pleasanter if decayed gentlemen of the right sort were co-inmates with the decayed gentlewomen, who should also be of the right sort (it would be the responsibility of the Board of Management to see that, they were). I can imagine the comfortable and comforting intercourse between them: the little symposiums by the fireside, the little card-parties, the pairings of the congenial for little toddles in the sun, arm aiding arm, and the exchanging of reminiscent confidences, and the little gallantries and attentions, which would never seem out of place to them because they would never be out of date to each other. All gentlefolk together, they should blend beautifully; and, being gentlefolk, they would know when their company was welcome and when it was not.

Old people need old people, and young people are best without them. They have their own companions, families, interests, and occupations; they live in their own generation, as we in ours. Even the old widowed mother of the best of children, who demand the care of her when she is failing and would not for anything have her feel she could be in the way—even she knows that, in the nature of things, she must be superfluous in the young household. The child who brings her home is inevitably married; and although both partners of the firm are equally dear and good to her, she can never forget that she has no claim whatever upon one of them. ‘I am not her mother’ — ’he is not my son’: a stabbing thought at such times.

And how much lonelier and more difficult the position of the impecunious old maid! Think of the millions of girls whom the battlefields have robbed of the birthright they share with every living female thing! What about those who can never have husbands, because they are not there to have; and so will never have children to look after them in their time of greatest need? Do men and legislators (and millionaires) give any serious consideration to the case of this new army of virgin martyrs, victims of circumstances over which they have had no control?

But I must not talk of martyrs — martyrs are the persecuted; nor of girls, for they are outside the argument. Girls who are young are still mistresses of their fate, so far as human beings can be so. They have the franchise. The worthy of them will do what they did in the great war-years. Their men being absent, they will take up their men’s work and do it as valiantly and efficiently as they did it then. There is no reason why, in their celibate old age, they should not be at least independent of the benefactions of millionaires. It will be their fault if they are not, by then, in a position benevolently to despise those poor male things to whom money-grubbing has been the first and foremost business of life, and massed wealth its highest achievement. Anyway, girls and the future are beside the point. It is the old woman in the present who is the figure in view.

So far, I am afraid, I have been looking at her with a too shortsighted, prejudiced, pessimistic eye. There are many sides to every subject, and, given reasonable freedom from acute physical pain, even the seventies and eighties have their ‘wayside happinesses,’and plenty for those who have deserved them. I can say this, at any rate: if I seem to have been making an appeal to the compassionate, it does not apply to me. My imaginary colony might be functioning at this moment, and its most charming cottage be prepared for my reception — I should almost certainly lack the resolution to go there. If I had to part from my family before I must, although I might do it, I should break my heart. I should not think of doing it, nor attempt to do it, but for that urgent spirit of independence which is born, or not born, in one. I may add, that I should not be allowed to do it in any case.

And it is continually being impressed upon me that the spirit of independence can be carried too far, until it becomes a nuisance, and even a just grievance, to other people. My children point out to me again and again that I have a right to their hospitality, inasmuch as they owe me more in the way of service than I owe them. They ask why they should be prevented from doing their duty and exercising their privileges any more than I. And even if I did owe them anything, is it not more generous (among friends and relatives) to take than to give? And a duty to be happy, when everything that can be done is being done to make one happy?

I know all that. And I am, indeed, as happy as the best of children can make me — which is to be one of the most fortunate of aged womenkind. But there are some things that even the best of children cannot understand, and never will until they come to the day’s end themselves. Only the old know what it means to be old — especially those of them whose bodies have degenerated while their minds remain unimpaired; especially the thin-skinned and finely tempered, who see and feel things most acutely; especially the poor and childless and friendless — Oh, all of them! — all my fellow left-overs, who have outlasted their term of usefulness.

There is no doubt that we have all come face to face with the supreme trial of our lives, although we are variously aware of and affected by the fact ; and that, to meet it worthily, a quality of courage is needed such as no emergency has demanded of us before. Not physical courage (if free from physical agonies, warm, well-fed, and comfortable), even in the presence of imminent death, which is no more formidable than imminent childbirth — a business that no self-respecting Woman funks or makes a fuss about; but morale, the‘stiff upper lip,’the high-minded and high-hearted philosophy that comes of looking above our own heads over the far and wide around us; the religious spirit , in short, that is the inspiration and sustainment, from first to last, of the lifelong truthseekers. I have been trying not to use the worst-abused and most ambiguous word in the English language, but I cannot evade it. Dying Emily Brontë would have known what I mean by religion, because she had it herself.

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts —
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity.

In those last words that she wrote before her death, the source of her noble fortitude is revealed. She could see ‘thine infinity’ in the stars at nightfall, through the clouds of the lower atmosphere, of which the ‘thousand creeds’ are the most confusing.

So may we. In which case, we shall be able to ‘hold fast’ the comforting assurance, that we are worth our places in the world up to the last moment, even if nobody knows it but ourselves.