A Week in the Future, by Catherine Helen Spence

Chapter i

Introductory

I have often observed that unmarried people, old maids and old bachelors, take a keener interest in old family history, and in the ramifications of the successive generations from the most remote ancestors they can claim, than those who form the actual links in the chain of descent, and leave children behind them to carry on the chronicle. Having lived all my life with a mother who nearly attained the age of a century, and having a strong interest in things past as well as in things present, I have been steeped in memories of old times. I know how middle-class intelligent people lived and worked, dressed and dined, worshipped God and amused themselves, what they read for pleasure and for profit, not only so far as her own recollections could carry the dear old lady, but two generations farther back. In her youth she had lived much with an intelligent grandmother, who could recollect the rebellion of 1745, and the battle of Prestonpans, and had been of mature years during the American War of Independence.

My own mother’s youth had been the period of the gigantic struggle of Great Britain, sometimes single-handed, against the power of the first Napoleon. The older lady had said to her then youthful descendant that no one could expect to see as much as she had seen in her life, which extended from 1734 to 1817, and included the American War, the French Revolution, and the application of machinery to so many of the arts. The grandchild, born at the beginning of 1791, had seen five French Revolutions, and the map of Europe strangely altered; triumphs of art and science, countless in number; steam, gas, electricity, the railway system; mechanical inventions which had revolutionized industry; and the rise of mighty colonies to compensate for the loss of the United States. In the growth of one great colony she had taken a deep personal interest, for she had watched it from the day of very small things in 1839. As we sat and talked together, we would wonder what there could be for me to see that would be equal to what had unfolded before her eyes. Was there to be federation or disintegration? Was the homogeneous yet heterogeneous British Empire to be firmly welded together, or were the component parts to be allowed peacefully to separate and form new states? Was the régime of unrestricted competition and free trade and individualism to be kept up, or were these to be exchanged for protection and collectivism? What was to be the outcome of the Irish Question, of German Socialism, of Russian Nihilism? Was Britain to remain mistress of India, and to keep that dependency? Was she to annex all territory which might be supposed to preserve her open route towards it? What struggle was there to be in central Asia between Britain and Russia? What power was likely to demolish the terrible armed peace of Europe? Such questions as these occupied my own mind primarily — my mother had taken the keenest interest in them all, but latterly she cared less for the questions of the day, and as her health gradually declined, she went further and further back till she seemed to live more in the first ten years of the century than in the more recent past.

When, after a long, wearing, and painful illness, I closed my mother’s eyes — my companionship and occupation both gone at once — I had to consider how I was to take up my life again. I was poorer after her death, because her annuity, which must have made the insurance company the losers, died with her, and I was left with that sort of provision which the world considers quite sufficient for an elderly single woman.

My brother Robert came the day after the funeral to talk matters over with me. “You have had a shock, Emily,” he said, “You would not save yourself any way; — now, you must try to take life easier. What do you yourself think of doing?”

“I mean to stay on here if I can manage it,” I said.

“Don’t attempt to keep house by yourself, it is too expensive, and too much of a tie. Of course, so long as our mother lived, you had to keep a home for her, and to stay in it, but now, if you will not come and live with us, you had better go and board somewhere, or furnish a set of apartments, and that would leave you at liberty. You have not work now for two servants; if you have only one you cannot leave her by herself in the house. Belle says she supposes I cannot persuade you to take up your abode with us.”

My sister-in-law, though in her way an excellent woman, was one of the most abject slaves of Mrs. Grundy, and her ways were not my ways. Their house seemed as full as it could rightly be with their own large family, and I could not in conscience think to occupy their only decent spare room, at present tenanted by the married daughter and her first baby. I was not disposed to go to a little den which did duty for a stray bachelor guest. I clung to a home of my own.

“I dislike boarding-houses and furnished apartments,” I said. “After being virtually the head of a house so long, I do not care to be a mere pecuniary convenience to any one. I want a home to which I can invite my friends, where I can have company or quiet as I please.”

“My dear Emily,” said Robert, “A single woman in your circumstances should be quite satisfied if she has two or three comfortably furnished apartments, and can invite a few friends to tea occasionally.”

“That means that I am to be shut out henceforward from the company of men, for the tea guests are always women.”

“Of course, gentlemen all dine late, and do not appreciate even afternoon tea much; but the social evenings of our youth are no more. You recollect Emily? ‘Come to tea and spend the evening.’ Ah! those were pleasant times. A little music and singing, a carpet dance, round games, and flirtation. But you are past the age for that sort of thing. I did not think you would care now for the disturbing male element in society.”

“I want to mix with people who are in the world, and engaged in its business. I have for years devoted myself to my mother, now I should like to live my own natural life for a few years.”

“You will get far more real information as to how the world goes on from books than from any male guests you can induce to visit you at no end of expense. I am sure the dinner guests whom we entertain, and whom Belle and I meet elsewhere, do not give us any new ideas or much refreshment. If I were you I should be glad of the peaceful life before you, after all you have gone through lately; with books and needlework, and your piano, and a little committee work such as your soul loveth, in conjunction with a number of bright practical women. Or suppose you get one of your friends to join you in housekeeping. That would be pleasant, and make things easier for you. There’s Mary Bell, I dare say she would be glad to do it.”

“I like Mary Bell very well, but I do not like her people, who would of course be constantly coming and going.”

“Everywhere there is a lion in the path — I repeat it, Emily, I would gladly change with you. What between the mill of business, which is grinding exceedingly small in these days in the way of profit — protection and the working man have it all their own way now — and the mill of social requirements, and the mill of family anxieties, life is hardly worth living. As for the young people, after we have got them brought up and educated our troubles seem only to begin. There is Frank spending all his salary, and all I allow him besides, and always in debt, because he will bet on races and play for high stakes with insufficient skill; and Gerald, dangling after a girl in a restaurant who I fear will hook him — the two boys are not much comfort; and Florrie, who is more than half afraid to go back to the station, and I’m sure Belle will have a sore heart to part from her. Who would think that Alf. Henderson was a secret drunkard, and that the delicate health that won Florrie’s compassion was the consequence of his own bad habits. And Jeannie has set her heart on a man who has no merit whatever but that of being a good tennis player and having a fine voice. There is no rise in him. The four younger ones may do better, but you never can tell. I often feel as if a large family was a mistake — at any rate now-a-days, when so much is expected from parents.”

I was very sorry for my brother’s family troubles, but I felt as if he and his wife had lived too much for society and position, and had not taken the intelligent interest in their children, in studying their tastes and guarding against their weaknesses, which might have saved some disappointments. Belle, I knew, had been carried away by Mr. Henderson’s large possessions, and had disregarded some ominous signs in her future son-in-law.

I thought Robert rather cold-blooded in his advice that I should wrench myself from the old home where I had taken root, but the more I thought over ways and means, I became the more afraid that he had sound reason on his side. I, however, delayed advertising my house. I put off the evil day till I could accustom my mind to the change.

A singular feeling of malaise oppressed me, I missed the engrossing occupation of the last two years, and I did not recover the spring and elasticity of body and mind which I had expected. It was on one of those suddenly hot days which we have in an Australian August that I had walked rather far and rather fast, and when I got home, tired and breathless, I found Florrie Henderson come to say good-bye before she went with her little baby boy, Hugh, to the station. Florrie threw herself into my arms in an hysterical passion of tears, and I, instead of being able to comfort her or steady her nerves, fainted away for the first time in my life. Florrie’s alarm about me made her throw off for the time her own trouble; she sent for Dr. Brown, and meantime used all the simple and ordinary remedies for restoration; but I had scarcely recovered full possession of my faculties when he arrived. Dr. Brown had been the wise and kind adviser of my mother, and he had often suggested that my devotion to her should be less absorbing, and predicted that I should suffer from the strain. He had even practised some auscultation from time to time, which he now proceeded to repeat more minutely, and he questioned me closely on my sensations and symptoms. I could read his countenance like a book, and could understand his little impatient gestures and half-uttered words. I felt that there was something seriously wrong.

“Tell me the truth,” I said. “It is the heart?”

“Yes, just the weak part of you, which I have been anxious about all through this long nursing of Mrs. Bethel.”

“And it is serious?”

“Serious? Why, that is according how you take it?”

“I take it literally. It is organic?”

“Yes, organic — but you know with ease and a quiet life, such as you may lead now, there is no immediate danger.”

“I may live — how long? Don’t be afraid to tell me the truth.”

“You will live a year, perhaps two, with great care. You will need to be very careful.”

“I know what that means,” said I, bitterly. “I must give up all the things that make life worth living, all the outside interests that are the very bread of life to a solitary spinster, all the larger objects which the best and noblest of my brothers and sisters are striving to accomplish and absorb myself in the one idea of self-preservation.”

“Oh, Auntie,” said Florrie, who with wet eyes and choking sobs had listened to the death-warrant pronounced by our old, experienced, and kindly family physician. “You must take care for all our sakes. Think how valuable even two years of your life is to many who love and honor you.”

“Yes, valuable so long as it is life,” I said, “but of no value whatever if I shut myself up in my shell, and merely absorb nutriment and warmth, and exclude all disturbing influences — the wind of heaven and the cares and labors of earth.”

“I did not pass so sweeping a sentence, Miss Bethel,” said Dr. Brown. “You are only to avoid all over fatigue, all excitement, and especially all worry.”

“What is life without these things?” I asked vehemently.

“It is what all old people have to do,” said Dr. Brown kindly.

“And was it not this that my poor mother felt so hard? Half her misery was occasioned by ennui. The regret that she could do nothing for herself or for anyone else embittered the last two years of her life. And if even she, at the age of ninety-seven, chafed at the life of inaction and helplessness, what must I do? I am not old; I have not been severed from life and all its interests gradually by the chilling of my sensations and the weakening of my faculties. I can see, hear, speak, learn, observe, reflect, aspire, as well as I ever could do in my life, and to have to die before I have seen the problems which have puzzled me all my life solved, or nearly solved, is to me very hard.”

“Dear Auntie,” said Florrie with a broken, tremulous voice, yet musical, as her voice always was when she quoted from her beloved Tennyson:—

“To thee, dear, doubtless will be given A life that bears immortal fruit, In such high offices as suit The full-grown energies of Heaven.”

“Doubtless — is it doubtless? And even if these high offices were indeed assured to me, it is here on earth that I am passionately interested. How foreign to me with my present nature are the cares and employments of a disembodied spirit, moving about among other equally unsubstantial spirits, or at best reclothed in some strange new personality. It is this world that I have loved and will continue to love,” I said passionately, to the surprise of my two listeners.

“I should have thought that you of all women sat loose to the world,” said Dr. Brown. “And so should I,” said my niece, “Mother always says Aunt Emily is the most unworldly person she ever knew, though not in the least sanctimonious either.”

“In a certain sense I do sit loose to the world, but I know and feel convinced by many signs that we are on the eve of a great social and industrial revolution. I had hoped to have seen some outcome from the groaning and travailing of all creation, and from the efforts of so many earnest and devoted men and women for the amelioration of the conditions under which the toiling masses live and labor. What will come out of Irish Agitation, German Socialism, Russian Nihilism? Will India be prepared for self-government? Is the mighty Chinese Empire really awaking? When and how is the barbarous practice of war to be abolished? Is the scarcely less deadly war between labor and capital to end peacefully, or is the cut-throat competition for cheapness all over the world to be ended by a terrible and destructive catastrophe? Is religion to become more Catholic or more sectarian? What is a year or a problematical two years of life, wrapped up in cotton wadding, to my eager questioning soul? I would give the year or two of life you promise me for ONE WEEK IN THE FUTURE. A solid week I mean. Not a glance like a momentary vision, but one week — seven days and nights to live with the generations who are to come, to see all their doings, and to breathe in their atmosphere, so as to imbibe their real spirit.”

“How far in the future should you like to spend your solid week — twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years hence?” said Dr. Brown, with a curious expression on his intelligent countenance.

“You know, Florrie, I have often said to you and to other people that I would give anything to see the world fifty years after I left it, but as I am not to live such a long life as my mother’s by thirty-five years, and not even the Psalmist’s measure of three score and ten, and as the changes that have to be wrought may take a long time, I think I should prefer a hundred years to elapse before I see my WEEK IN THE FUTURE!”

“But everybody whom you knew and cared about would be dead,” said Florrie. “I should not feel the least interest in the world after a century. A hundred years — it is like an eternity.”

“Like an eternity to twenty-six, but it is only three years longer than your grandmother’s single life.”

“That saw great changes certainly,” said Dr. Brown, “and the progress of events, as you must have observed, becomes more rapid with each decade; I should myself hesitate between fifty years and a hundred — fifty has the advantage which Mrs. Henderson feels so strongly of greater familiarity and possible personal survivals, but a hundred years must work radical changes, more startling, and possibly — I only say possibly — more interesting.”

More interesting to me, I feel sure. And Florrie, my affections strike back to remote ancestors and would strike onward to remote collateral descendants, which are all that an old maid can have. Why, Florrie, I might see little Hugh’s children and grand-children in the flesh.”

“Then,” said Dr. Brown, “you elect to overleap a complete century. And how would you like to see the world of the latter end of the twentieth century. Like Asmodeus, by unroofing the houses and spying on the doings and misdoings of the post nati, or like a beneficent spirit, hovering over the cities and fields, watching the human ants in the nest, or the bees in the hive, or the butterflies among the flowers, and listening to the words you hear them speak, yourself invisible and unheard.”

“No, not like a spirit at all, but just in this habit as I am, like a middle-aged or rather an elderly single woman, who surely can never be altogether out of date in any century”

“And where would you prefer to have your peep? In Melbourne, in London, in your Scotch ancestral home, in New York, or in Pekin?”

“Every place has its charms, but as the older countries are those where the greater need of change exists, let me be located in or close to London.”

“Pekin represents an older civilization,” argued Dr. Brown.

“But too unfamiliar to be as interesting as the British metropolis. I need all my past knowledge to throw light on the new revelations. The language, the literature, the history, and the traditions of England are among my most cherished possessions. A week of London for me.”

“And who will give you to drink of mandragora that you may sleep away that gap of time, and traverse, not spiritually, but in the flesh, so many thousand miles of land and ocean?” asked Dr. Brown.

“Who but you, with your strong leaning towards the occult and the transcendental which are the favorite study of your leisure hours?”

“Are you really serious?” said Dr. Brown more gravely

“Perfectly serious.”

“It is because you believe it to be impossible that you would barter a year, or it may be two, dating from August, 1888 for a single week in 1988. It would really be like all the bargains recorded by tradition or supersitition between man and the arch enemy of souls, always greatly the worse for the human party to the transaction. Why, at best, it would be fifty-two to one.”

“Not so,” said I, “for I should barter a year or two of failing health and disappointed hopes for a week of full life and intellectual satisfaction. I should save my friends from all trouble and anxiety on my behalf. I should at the same time save myself from the temptation to peevish repining and exacting selfishness. I have not received your death-warrant with the meekness and resignation which I know you expected from me. I do not feel as if I could bear to watch the slow closing in of life for myself, just after I have watched it for the being dearest to me in the world, especially with the strong hold on life I have within me at present. It puts me in mind of the terrible story I read when I was a girl, in a Blackwood’s Magazine, of a political offender who was seized by the relentless arm of despotic power, and shut up in a strong prison with thirteen windows. During the first night, by some devilish machinery, one window was closed, and next day there was but twelve, the next day eleven, and so on till at last the coup de grâce was given, and life was crushed out of him simultaneously with the closing of the last window.”

“But Auntie,” said Florrie, softly, “you have always said life was good. Father calls you an optimist. Mother says you always see the best side of things and of people.”

“Yes, life has been good — very good. Like Harriett (sic) Martineau, I feel I have had a good share of life hitherto, but that has been because I have taken an active part in it, and it has been and continues to be so exceedingly interesting, but I should not like to linger on the scene when I can be no longer serviceable.”

“It shows how differently life is held by different people. If I had to deal with your mother, Florrie, she would think a year or two with her husband and children a vast deal better than a week, better than ten years elsewhere,” said Dr. Brown.

“Belle knows they would be all only too happy to have the privilege of nursing her, and that they would do anything to prolong her valuable life,” said I.

“Oh Auntie, how glad I should be to take you with me to the station. It is said to be so healthy, and is not exciting, and I’d be so glad of your society, for mother won’t let Jeannie go, but — ” and Florrie sighed; she had to reckon up a master of the house who was not reasonable, and was not well disposed to his wife’s family. “But anyhow you must not stay here alone, you must go to live with your own near and dear relatives. Do not speak as if you had nobody to whom your life is precious.”

“I do not say that, Florrie, my dear, but though I have kind relatives and dear friends, there is now no one to whom I am indispensable. Indeed, I am doubtful if any of us is so indispensable as he or she fancies to any one, but I always prayed that I might live while my mother needed me, and that at least has been given.”

“I fear I should have to live longer than Dr. Brown’s utmost limit of two years to see that consummation. Your parents’ consent must first be given,” said I.

“I think they are a little moved now they see money is not everything.”

“But Claude has to make his way, and it will take a long while before he can earn an income sufficient for an extravagant girl like Jeannie and the lot of you. Perhaps my death might help Jeannie better than my life.”

“Don’t say so, Auntie, and please don’t call us extravagant. Father says we are, but it isn’t really true.”

“I don’t know what you call extravagant, but you girls each spend as much on your dress and personal expenses as my father gave to his three girls, and he was called liberal. It is a pity, however, that the requirements of modern society make marriage, instead of the hand-in-hand travel up the hill which it ought to be, a goal to be attained when the hill is climbed, unless a young man inherits unearned money.”

“And then it often is a curse,” said Florrie bitterly.

“In most cases it is the culmination of a young man’s ambition to be able to afford to marry a young woman of education and refined tastes. How much better for happiness and morality if it were to be the natural first step in the life of an industrious, steady young man,” I said.

“That opens out large questions, Miss Bethel,” said Dr. Brown. “Will people see things differently a hundred years hence?”

“Anyhow, Florrie, I cannot live to see Jeannie married, but she has my best wishes. I like Claude Moore, and believe he has far more grit in him than your father or mother can see just now. And Claude and Jeannie love each other, which is the main point. He must work hard, and she must reduce her ideas of an establishment to what is obtainable on moderate means. But now, Florrie, I must really send you home. You must leave Dr. Brown to prescribe something, for though I am set down as incurable, of course it would be unprofessional not to give the chemist a turn, though I dare say I would do as well with wholesome neglect and the expectancy treatment. Come, dear, it must be good-bye.”

Her hot tears fell on my cheek as she kissed me. As she went out at the door she met the postman, who brought no letters for me, but one of those tradesmen’s circulars which are the daily annoyance of modern life, and a book sent from England by my dear old friend Mrs. Durant. Florrie came back with the packet in her hand which she proceeded to untie.

“I hope it is a good new novel to cheer you up. By the by, thanks for the Children of Gibeon for my birthday, Auntie. This is not a novel, however, but a book on Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness, by Jane Hume Clapperton. Let me have it when you have done with it. The subject is one after your own heart. I must say good-bye really now. However, you really look better than you did.”

Dr. Brown had taken the book out of my niece’s hand, and glanced rapidly at the running titles on the top of the pages. “I think this will give you some speculative ideas about your week in the future. I shall prescribe, along with a necessary sedative, the careful reading of this book.”

I was indeed deeply interested in the book, I half forgot my own impending fate as I saw what this hopeful writer had gathered from other authors and other observers, and had worked out for herself from the signs of the times into a foreshadowing of the society of the future. Dr. Brown gave me two days to read the book and then called to see how I was.

“You are better, decidedly better;’ he said.

“Not organically better, however?”

“No I cannot say that, but you have been agreeably interested and diverted from the shock of two days ago.”

“It is because I have been living so much in the future.”

“Still harping on the future,” said the doctor. “Are you still serious about your solid week.”

“Quite so, still more eager than ever since I have read this book.”

“Then will you put yourself in my hands, and I shall try what I can do to further your wishes.”

“I am all obedience and submission,” I said.

“Give your maid a week’s holiday, and tell her you are going for a little change of air and scene. Pack up a few necessaries in a hand-bag. I can wait for you, you are no dawdler.”

I said what was needed to Janet, who was overjoyed at a week’s holiday, and promised to take the key of the house with a message to my brother. I could not have written a note to save my life. I changed my dress, and packed my Gladstone bag with more rapidity than was quite prudent, considering the state of my heart, and I stepped into the doctor’s brougham with a curious feeling of expectancy. I was taken last in his rounds that day, and driven not to his own home, but to a private hospital for patients from the country in which he had a large interest, and introduced to a quiet room at the back.

“Now,” said he, “the main thing is strength of volition on your own part, aided by all the power of will I can lend you. This Week in the Future is what you long for more than all things — all other objects are excluded by this over-mastering desire. Lie down on this couch with your bag in your hands. Your appearance, if we succeed in our great experiment, will be that of trance or suspended animation, and that is what I shall call it to the nurse in attendance.”

I obeyed Dr. Brown’s instructions. I did not know what to expect, but I knew what I wished.

“Are you ready for your wonderful journey?” said he, making passes over me. I could just see him in the midst of this performance take out of his waistcoat pocket a small phial containing a colorless liquid.

“Ready?”

“Quite ready,” I whispered. I had not power to speak above my breath.

He poured out the contents into a wine glass, diluted them with a little water, and held the potion to my lips, supporting my head on his left hand.

“Drink and wish.”

I drank, and felt a singular calm come over me for a space, it might have been a few moments, it might have been a whole minute, but it was ineffably sweet, all the malaise, and restlessness had gone — I was at peace. Then came a mighty spasm like what I could conceive death to be. This life was closed to me. I was no longer on the little couch in the private hospital with Dr. Brown bending over me, but standing on my feet with my hand-bag on my arm. I was not in Adelaide or Australia, but as I had wished to be in the old country, in that England I had loved so well, which I had left, indeed, at the age of thirteen, but which I had revisited twenty-five years after in the full maturity of my powers of observation and in the full glow of my womanly sympathies. This was a suburb of London, a north-west suburb so far as I could guess. If so removed as to place, was there not a chance that the still greater removal as to time was also granted me?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/spence/catherine_helen/week_in_the_future/chapter1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30