Moving the Mountain, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Chapter 2.

THE day after tomorrow! I was to see it the day after tomorrow — this strange, new, abhorrent world!

The more I considered what bits of information I had gleaned already, the more I disliked what lay before me. In the first blazing light of returned memory and knowledge, the first joy of meeting my sister, the hope of seeing home again, I had not distinguished very sharply between what was new to my bewildered condition and what was new indeed — new to the world as well as to me. But now a queer feeling of disproportion and unreality began to haunt me.

As my head cleared, and such knowledge as I was now gathering began to help towards some sense of perspective and relation, even my immediate surroundings began to assume a sinister importance.

Any change, to any person, is something of a shock, though sometimes a beneficial one. Changes too sudden, and too great, are hard to bear, for any one. But who can understand the peculiar horror of my unparalleled experience?

Slowly the thing took shape in my mind.

There was the first, irrevocable loss — my life!

Thirty years — the thirty years in which a man may really live — these were gone from me forever.

I was coming back; strong to be sure; well enough in health; even, I hoped, with my old mental vigor — but not to the same world.

Even the convict who survives thirty years imprisonment, may return at length to the same kind of world he had left so long.

But I! It was as if I had slept, and, in my sleep, they had stolen my world.

I threw off the thought, and started in to action.

Here was a small world — the big steamer beneath me. I had already learned much about her. In the first place, she was not a

“steamer,” but a thing for which I had no name; her power was electric,

“Oh, well,” I thought, as I examined her machinery, “this I might have expected. Thirty years of such advances as we were making in 1910 were sure to develop electric motors of all sorts.”

The engineer was a pleasant, gentlemanly fellow, more than willing to talk about his profession and its marvellous advances. The ship was well manned, certainly; though the work required was far less than it used to be, the crew were about as numerous. I had made some acquaintances among the ship’s officers — even among the men, who were astonishingly civil and well-mannered — but I had not at first noticed the many points of novelty in their attitude or in my surroundings.

Now I paced the deck and considered the facts I had observed — the perfect ventilation of the vessel, the absence of the smell of cooking and of bilge water, the dainty convenience and appropriate beauty of all the fittings and furnishings, the smooth speed and steadiness of her,

The quarters of the crew I found as remarkable as anything else about the vessel; indeed the forecastle and steerage differed more from what I remembered than from any other part. Every person on board had a clean and comfortable lodging, though there were grades of distinction in size and decoration. But any gentleman could have lived in that “foks’le” without discomfort. Indeed, I soon found that many gentlemen did. I discovered, quite by accident, that one of the crew was a Harvard man. He was not at all loath to talk of it, either — was evidently no black sheep of any sort.

Why had he chosen this work?

Oh, he wanted the experience — it widened life, knowing different trades.

Why was he not an officer then?

He didn’t care to work at it long enough — this was only experience work, you see.

I did not see, nor ask, but I inferred, and it gave me again that feeling as if the ground underfoot had wiggled slightly.

Was that old dream of Bellamy’s stalking abroad? Were young men portioned out to menial service, willy-nilly?

It was evidently not a universal custom, for some of the sailors were much older men, and long used to the business. I got hold of one who seemed more like the deckhands of old days, though cleaner and more cheerful; a man who was all of sixty.

Yes he had f followed the sea from boyhood. Yes, he liked it, always had liked it, liked it better now than when he was young.

He had seen many changes? I listened carefully, though I asked the question lightly enough.

Changes! He guessed he had. Terbacca was better for one thing — I was relieved to see that men still smoked, and then the jar came again as I remembered that save for this man, and one elderly officer, I had not seen anyone smoking on the vessel.

“How do you account for it?” I asked the old Yankee. “For tobacco’s being better?”

He grinned cheerfully.

“Less run on it, I guess,” said he. “Young fellers don’t seem to smoke no more, and I ain’t seen nobody chewing for — well, for ten years back,”

ee-ls it cheaper as well as better?” No, sir, it ain’t. It’s perishing high. But then, wages is high, too,” he grudgingly admitted.

“Better tobacco and better wages — anything else improved?”

“Yes, sir-ee! Grub’s better, by square miles — and ’commodations — an’ close. Make better stuff now.

“Well! well!” said I as genially as I knew how. “That’s very different from my young days. Then everybody older than I always complained about all manner of things, and told how much better — and cheaper — things were when they were young.”

“Yes, ’twas so,” he admitted meditatively. “But ‘tain’t so now. Shoes is better, most things is better, I guess. Seems like water runnin’ up hill, don’t it, sir?”

It did. I didn’t like it. I got away from the old man, and walked by myself — like Kipling’s cat.

“Of course, of course!” I said to myself impatiently, “I may as well expect to find everything as much improved from what it was in my time as in, say, sixty years before.

That sort of progress goes faster and faster. Things change, but people — ”

And here is where I got this creepy sense of unreality.

At first everything was so strange to me, and my sister was so kind and thoughtful, so exquisitely considerate of my feelings and condition, that I had failed to notice this remarkable circumstance — so were the other people. It was like being in a — well, in a house-party of very nice persons. Kind, cheerful, polite — here I suddenly realized that I had not seen a grouchy face, heard an unkind remark, felt, as one does feel through silk and broadcloth, the sense of discontent and disapproval.

There was one, the somewhat hard-faced old lady, Mrs. Talbot, of whom I had hopes. I sought her, and laid myself out to please her by those little attentions which are so grateful to an elderly woman from a young man.

Her accepting these as a commonplace, her somewhat too specific inquiries about my health, suddenly reminded me that I was not a young man.

She talked on while I made again that effort at readjustment which was so hideously hard. Gone in a night — all my young manhood — gone untasted!

“Do you find it difficult to concentrate your attention?” she was saying, a steely eye fixed upon my face.

“I beg your pardon, madam. I fear I do. You were saying — ”

“I was saying that you will find many changes when you get back.”

“I find them already, Mrs. Talbot. They rather loom up. It is sudden, you see.”

“Yes, you’ve been away a long time, I understand. In the far East?”

Mrs. Talbot was the first person who had asked me a question. Evidently hers were the manners of an older generation, and for once I had to admit that the younger generation had improved.

But I recalled the old defensive armor against the old assaults.

“Quite a while,” I answered cheerfully, “Quite a while. Now what should you think would impress me most — in the way of change?” it

“The women,” she answered promptly.

I smiled my gallantest, and replied, bowing:

“I find them still charming.”

Her set face broke into a pleased smile.

“You do my heart good!” she cried. “I haven’t heard a compliment in fifteen years.”

“Good Heavens, madam! what are our men thinking of?”

“It’s not the men’s fault; it’s the women’s. They won’t have it.”

“Are there many of these — new women?”

“There’s nothing else — except a few old ones like me.”

I hastened to assure her that a woman like her would never be called old — and she looked as pleased as a girl.

Presently I excused myself and left her, with relief. It was annoying beyond measure to have the only specimen of the kind of woman I used to like turn out to be personally the kind I never liked.

On the opposite deck, I found Miss Elwell — and for once alone. A retiring back, wearing an aggrieved expression showed that it had not been for long.

“May I join you, Miss Elwell?”

I might. I did. We paced up and down, silent for a bit.

She was a joy to the eye, a lovely, straight, young thing, with a fresh, pure color and eyes of dancing brightness. I spoke of this and that aboard ship — the sea, the weather; and she was so gaily friendly, so sweet and modest, yet wholly frank, that I grew quite happy in her company.

My sister must have been mistaken about her being a civil engineer. She might be a college girl — but nothing worse. And she was so pretty!

I devoted myself to Miss Elwell ‘till she took herself off, probably to join her — her — it occurred to me that I had seen no one with Miss Elwell.

“Nellie” said I, “for heaven’s sake give me the straight of all this. I’m going distracted with the confusion. What has happened to the world? Tell me all, I can bear it — as the extinct novels used to say. But I cannot bear this terrible suspense! Don’t you have novels any more?”

“Novels? Oh, yes, plenty; better than ever were written. You’ll find it splendidly worth while to read quite a few of them while you’re getting oriented . . . Well, you want a kind of running, historic sketch?”

“Yes. Give me the outlines — just the heads, as it were. You see, my dear, it is not easy to get readjusted even to the old things, and there are so many new ones ”

We were in our steamer chairs, most people dozing after their midday meal. She reached over and took my hand in hers, and held it tight. It was marvelously comforting, this one live visible link between what was forever past and this uncertain future. But for her, even those old, old days might have flickered and seemed doubtful — I should have felt like one swimming under water and not knowing, which way was up. She gave me solid ground underfoot at any rate. Whatever her place might be in this New World, she had talked to me only of the old one.

In these long, quiet, restful days, she had revived in my mind the pleasant memories of our childhood together; our little Southern home; our patient, restrained Northern mother and the fine education she gave her school-less little ones; our high-minded — and, alas, narrow-minded — father, handsome, courteous, inflexible. Under Nellie’s gentle leading, my long unused memory-cells had revived like rain-washed leaves, and my past life had, at last, grown clear and steady.

My college life; my old chum, Granger, who had visited us once; our neighbors and relations; little gold-haired Cousin Drusilla, whom I, in ten years proud seniority, had teased as a baby, played with and tyrannized over as a confiding child, and kissed good-bye — a slim, startled little figure — when I left for Asia.

Nellie had always spoken of things as I remembered them, and avoided adroitly, or quietly refused to discuss, their new aspects.

I think she was right — at first.

“Out with it!” said I. “Come — Have we adopted Socialism?” I braced myself for the answer.

“Socialism? Oh — why, yes. I think we did. But that was twenty years ago.”

“And it didn’t last? You’ve proved the impracticable folly of it? You've discarded it?”

I sat up straight, very eager.

“Why, no — ” said Nellie. “It’s very hard to put these new things into old words — We’ve got beyond it.”

“Beyond Socialism! Not — not — Anarchy?”

“Oh, bless you, no; no indeed! We understand better what socialism meant, that’s all. We have more, much more, than it ever asked; but we don’t call it that.”

I did not understand.

“It’s like this,” she said. “Suppose you had left a friend in the throes of a long, tempestuous’ courtship, full of ardor, of keen joy, and keener anticipation. Then, returning, you say to your friend, ‘Do you still have courtship?’ And he says, ‘Why no, I’m married.’ It’s not that he has discarded it, proved it’s impracticable folly. He had to have it — he liked it — but he’s got beyond it.”

“Go on and elucidate,” I said. “I don’t quite follow your parable.”

She considered a bit.

“Well, here’s a more direct parallel. Back in the 18th century, the world was wild about Democracy — Democracy was going to do all things for all men. Then, with prodigious struggles, they acquired some Democracy — set it going. It was a good thing. But it took time. It grew. It had difficulties. In the next century, there was less talk about all the heavenly results of Democracy, and more definite efforts to make it work.”

This was clearer.

“You mean,” I followed her slowly.

“That what was called socialism was attained — and you’ve been improving upon it?”

“Exactly, Brother, ‘you are on’ — as we used to say. But even that’s not the main step.”

“No? What else?”

“Only a New Religion.”

I showed my disappointment. Nellie watched my face silently. She laughed. She even kissed me.

“John” said she, “I could make vast sums by exhibiting you to psychologists! as An Extinct Species of Mind. You’d draw better than a Woolly Mammoth.”

I smiled wryly; and she squeezed my hand. “Might as well make a joke of it, Old Man — you’ve got to get used to it, and ‘the sooner the quicker!’ ”

“All right — Go ahead with your New Religion.”

She sat back in her chair with an expression of amused retrospection.

“I had forgotten,” she said, “I had really forgotten. We didn’t use to think much of religion, did we?”

“Father did,” said I.

“No, not even Father and his kind — they only used it as a — what was the old joke? a patent fire escape! Nobody appreciated Religion!”

“They spent much time and money on it,” I suggested.

“That’s not appreciation!”

“Well, come on with the story. Did you have another Incarnation of any body?”

“You might call it that,” Nellie allowed, her voice growing quietly earnest, “We certainly had somebody with an unmistakable Power.”

This did not interest me at all. I hated to see Nellie looking so sweetly solemn over her “New Religion,” In the not unnatural reaction of a minister’s son, rigidly reared, I had had small use for religion of any sort. As a scholar I had studied them all, and felt as little reverence for the ancient ones as for the shifty mushroom crop of new sects and schools of thought with which the country teemed in my time.

“Now, look here, John,” said she at length, “I’ve been watching you pretty closely and I think you’re equal to a considerable mental effort — In one way, it may be easier for you, just because you’ve not seen a bit of it — anyhow, you’ve got to face it. Our world has changed in these thirty years, more than the change between what it used to be and what people used to imagine about Heaven. Here is the first thing you’ve got to do — mentally. You must understand, clearly, in your human consciousness, that the objection and distaste you feel is only in your personal consciousness. Everything is better; there is far more comfort, pleasure, peace of mind; a richer swifter growth, a higher happier life in every way; and yet, you won’t like it because your — ” she seemed to hesitate for a word, now and then; as one trying to translate, “reactions are all tuned to earlier con ditions. If you can understand this and see over your own personal — attitudes it will not be long before a real convincing sense of joy, of life, will follow the intellectual perception that things are better.”

“Hold on,” I said, “Let me chew on that a little.”

“As if,” I presently suggested, “as if I’d left a home that was poor and dirty and crowded, with a pair of quarrelsome inefficient parents — drunken and abusive, maybe, and a lot of horrid, wrangling, selfish, little brothers and sisters — and woke up one fine morning in a great clean beautiful house — richly furnished — full of a lot of angels — who were total strangers?”

“Exactly!” she cried. “Hurrah for you, Johnnie, you couldn’t have defined it better.”

“I don’t like it,” said I. “I’d rather have my old home and my own family than all the princely palaces and amiable angels you could dream of in a hundred years.”

“Mother had an old story-book by a New England author,” Nellie quietly remarked, “where somebody said, ‘You can’t always have your “druthers” ‘ — she used to quote it to me when I was little and complained that things were not as I wanted them. John, dear, please remember that the new people in the new world find it ‘like home’ and love it far better than we used to. It’ll be queer to you, but it’s a pleasant commonplace to them. We have found out at last that it is natural to be happy.”

She was silent and I was silent; till I asked her “What’s the name of your new religion?”

“It hasn’t any,” she answered.

“Hasn’t any? What do they call it? the Believers, I mean?”

“They call it ‘Living’ and ‘Life’ — that’s all.”

“Hm! and what’s their specialty?”

Nellie gave a funny little laugh, part sad, part tender, part amused.

“I had no idea it would be so hard to tell you things,” she said. “You’ll have to just see for yourself, I guess.”

“Do go on, Nellie. I’ll be good. You were going to tell me, in a nutshell, what had happened — please do.”

“The thing that has happened,” said she, slowly, “is just this. The world has come alive. We are doing in a pleasant, practical way, all the things which we could have done, at any time before — only we never thought so. The real change is this: we have changed our minds. This happened very soon after you left. Ah! that was a time! To think that you should have missed it!” She gave my hand another sympathetic squeeze and went on. “After that it was only a question of time, of how soon we could do things. And we’ve been doing them ever since, faster and faster.”

This seemed rather flat and disappointing.

“I don’t see that you make out anything wonderful — so far. A new Religion which seems to consist only in behaving better; and a gradual improvement of social conditions — all that was going on when I left.”

Nellie regarded me with a considering eye.

“I see how you interpret it,” she said, “behaving better in our early days was a small personal affair; either a pathetically inadequate failure to do what one could not, or a pharisaic, self-righteous success in doing what one could. All personal — personal!”

“Good behavior has to be a personal affair, hasn’t it?” I mildly protested.

“Not by any means!” said Nellie with decision. “That was precisely what kept us so small and bad, so miserably confined and discouraged. Like a lot of well-meaning soldiers imagining that their evolutions were ‘a personal affair’ — or an orchestra plaintively protesting that if each man played a correct tune of his own choosing, the result would be perfect! Dear! dear! No, Sir” she continued with some fierceness, “that’s just where we changed our minds! Humanity has come alive, I tell you and we have reason to be proud of our race!”

She held her head high, there was a glad triumphant look in her eyes — not in the least religious. Said she: “You’ll see results. That will make it clearer to you than anything I can say. But if I may remark that we have no longer the fear of death — much less of damnation, and no such thing as ‘sin’; that the only kind of prison left is called a quarantine — that punishment is unknown but preventive means are of a drastic and sweeping nature such as we never dared think of before — that there is no such thing in the civilized world as poverty — no labor problem — no color problem — no sex problem — almost no disease — very little accident — practically no fires — that the world is rapidly being reforested — the soil improved; the output growing in quantity and quality; that no one needs to work over two hours a day and most people work four — that we have no graft — no adulteration of goods — no malpractice — no crime.”

“Nellie,” said I, “you are a woman and my sister. I’m very sorry, but I don’t believe it.”

“I thought you wouldn’t,” said she. Women always will have the last word.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17