The Woman's Progress Club by Dora Sigerson Shorter
I think it would be well if Miss Gillson called upon Mr. Westcliff;
he is an influential member of Parliament, and might be willing to help
our Progress Club.
A chorus of female voices interrupted, Oh, but we have called, and
he is impossible to move.
I think Miss Gillson is a friend of his, the president continued,
smiling upon the animated assembly of hats and bonnets, which might, at
first sight, have been taken for a crowd of birds, so variously and
wonderfully were they decorated by plumage; otherwise I know it would
be vain to send any one, even Miss Gillson, where so many charming
young ladies had failed.
He is not a friend of mine, Miss Gillson said; I knew him when I
was a young girl slightly.
So long ago as that, a member said absently. Then there is not
much use going to see him. Miss Gillson flushed. I have made up my
mind to go. I have often thought of that old man living there, with his
old-fashioned ideas and narrow-mindedness, and I confess it has worried
She rose and stood before the glass, then drew her veil down over her
face after a dissatisfied glance.
A member sitting near her was toying with a crimson rose. Miss
Gillson looked at her and their eyes met.
Don't break the pretty thing, she said. There was almost a request
in her voice, and the other smiled.
Do you care to take it? Miss Gillson blushed; she read meaning in
To save it from destruction, she said; and took the flower, fixing
it carefully in her bodice. She looked again at the glass and
rearranged the angle of her hat.
Until women cease to think of dress, the president of the Club said
pointedly, I shall not believe the old Adamor should I say the old
I never heard, said a gay voice from a corner, that Adam was much
troubled by his wife's dress accounts. It's the present-day husbands
that complain of that grievance.
The present-day husbands complain of a good many grievances, a
careworn woman sighed bitterly.
And why? said a stern-looking member in glasses. Because their
mothers spoil them first and their wives afterwards. Most of their
faults are to be traced to their great selfishnessthe selfishness
which is natural to their sex and carefully cultivated by mothers and
wives. It should be smacked out of them when babies, worked out of them
when boys, andand later, nagged out of them by wives. Mothers, in
particular, should not spare the rod. However, this is not what is
before the meeting. Mrs. Dickson will you read the reports.
Mrs. Dickson opened the book before her. You couldn't do it, she
said softly; it's quite impossible to refuse baby anything if he cries
for it. It's awful to hear a child crying when it's just at the
beginning of its life's journey. It's such a little thing it wants,
after all, to please it.
That's it, exactly as I say, said the member in glasses. The
mothers spoil them; it's so easy to give in: and I say it's equally
easy to hold out.
It's the hardest thing in the world, Mrs. Dickson replied as she
turned a page of her book.
What I really want to tell you ladies, she continued, is that I
have no time to continue a member of the Club. You see, it was
different before I married; but I find, what with baby and with my
husband being at home more than formerly, that I really must resign.
I am sure we shall all regret you very much, the president said. I
am especially sorry when married ladies leave us. They can be of so
much help by converting their husbands, and through them, perhaps,
other men, to a recognition of our grievances.
I don't know why women marry, remarked a lady of uncertain age to
her neighbour; it is such a drag on them, it puts an end to all their
I don't know, I'm sure, the other said snappishly. I suppose
because they get the chance. She looked her up and down. That's the
old maid that keeps the shop at the corner of our road, she thought;
how impertinent of her to address me!
The other returned the glance with interest. You are the person who
keeps a lodging-house down our street, she looked; then turned her
Excuse me. I didn't see whom I was addressing, she said.
It isn't a drag to have to care for a man who loves you or your own
child, Mrs. Dickson continued softly. You can't imagine what an
inexplicable feeling of happiness it gives you to even put on buttons
and fold away their things, and to feel that you are the person who
keeps warm and cheerful the little house that contains your treasures.
I can't, indeed, a member muttered sadly.
We are wandering from the subject of our meeting, the president
said, smiling. Mrs. Dickson, you will have a bad effect on our members
if you become sentimental. Remember all the women who have no husbands,
the widows who keep houses, and unmarried ladies who do their work side
by side with men, yet do not get their advantages; and, indeed, the
wives who keep their husbands, as often happens in the lower classes,
and sometimes in our own. Why are these not to have votes with the
menand equal chances? However, we really must get on with the
business of the meeting. Miss Gillson! where is Miss Gillson? Is it
possible you are still before the glass, Miss Gillson? I fear I shall
never make a new woman of you, my dear.
Miss Gillson turned smiling. It was a hook that would not hook, she
said, confused. I wasn't admiring myself, I assure you. I won't sit
down, but shall go right on and try to convert Mr. Westcliff. She
passed out, closing the door softly behind her.
It wasn't the hook that kept her, it was the baiting of it, said a
woman with a sour smile.
She is a dear creature, her neighbour answered. I should not
wonder if Mr. Westcliff were an old lover, she took such pains over her
She is, indeed, the other said, more heartily. I always love to
kiss herher make-up has such a lovely perfume.
But Miss Gillson, all unconscious of her critics, was walking smartly
along the country lane that led to George Westcliff's little house.
It's extraordinary how I dislike this man, she muttered. I can't
account for it. She rearranged the bow beneath her chin and tried to
see her face in a little stream that ran beside the road. I wonder if
I am much changed? I hope he won't think, to use a horridly feminine
expression, that I have 'gone off' much.
When she reached the door she hesitated for a few moments, overcome
with a sudden shyness she seldom experienced. How will he meet me
after all these years? What is the man like that I only knew as a lad?
A slatternly servant opened the door at her knock, then shuffled off,
down at the heel, to announce her. She heard the girl say, A Miss
Pilsoner to see you; and, looking through the opened door, caught a
sudden glimpse of George Westcliff. In the momentary glance she took in
the whole untidy room and the desolate figure of the man. He was
sitting staring through the dirty window at the grey sky beyond. The
remains of his lunch were still upon the table.
When the girl spoke he started as though from sleep and turned to his
visitor. When he saw her he rose quickly and gasped Barbara! but
recovered himself and advanced with outstretched hands.
You remember me? she said, pleased that the years had done so well
I could not forget you, he said lightly, and you have not changed.
His tone seemed a question as well as a statement.
My opinions haven't, she said, rather coldly, and it's about them
I have come to see you. He motioned her to be seated and seemed
What can I do for you, he said, Mrs.did the servant say 'Mrs.
She laughed. No; I am still Miss Gillson.
His face cleared. He moved a trifle nearer her. She thought to
herself, I am sure of his support, if he has so much sentiment left,
and turned to him smiling. I'm a member of the Women's League, and we
want your help in Parliament.
I have always been against allowing women out of their proper
placetheir home, he answered.
I thought with years you would have grown less narrow-minded, she
Is it a great injustice to your sex to wish them safe by their own
fireside, with some one to protect them from the rough winds of the
But every one hasn't her own fireside, or the somebody, she
answered, smiling. And these are the women one wants to help.
Yes, those are the women you want to help; and so wives neglect
their husbands and children, and daughters their fathers and mothers to
foster plans for those women who have no one belonging to them. I have
often met such women in the world pushing into men's departments and
getting hustled by men. Men can't help jostling them in the hurry of
life, but it hurts me to see it.
I think your argument very old-fashioned and stupid, Barbara said
calmly. There are so many women who have to work, widows, and girls
with, perhaps, old people depending on them. But men are so selfish
that they want all the good things for themselves, all their pursuits
to have few rivals, and the women to stay at home and make them
comfortable when they are tired of their ambitions outside.
It isn't that they are selfish. I thinkhe rose to his feet,
looking aroundit's that they are so helpless without women to look
after them. I am strong enough to work hard with my hands and brain all
day, yet when it comes to making a homethere's something terribly
wrong herehe waved his hands as though to take in the little
roomand I don't know what it is or what to dobut I hate it!
It's the dust and the remains of lunch, I think, she answered; and,
with a sudden rush of foolish feminity, longed to sweep and tidy. Did
you sew that button on yourself? She was staring at his coat, where a
loose button hung by a white thread.
A man is as helpless with a needle as a woman with a gun. He smiled
at her, but she had risen and was going round the room.
The poor thing! she laughed softly with tears in her eyes. She had
come upon a sock with a large hole in the heel; there had been an
attempt to draw it together by a bit of string. I have never seen
anything so pathetic.
You see what a man is without a woman. He was watching her, and she
What answer am I to take back to my president? she said.
I'll tell you, he answered, if you will come outside; it's so
untidy and dreary in here.
Why don't you discharge your servant? she said, with a laugh; it's
the woman at home who is the cause of your discomfort.
I daren't. He smiled. I am afraid; and if I were not I do not know
who I should get in her place.
She turned her face away from him. Why do you not capture one of
your ideal home women, and set her by your hearth?
I'll tell you. He looked keenly at her. Because you progress women
have claimed her and are too strong for me.
Barbara shivered as with a sudden chill. She did not answer and
hurried along by his side. He brought her away from the house into a
little wood, and, after some seeking, led the way to the trunk of a
We will sit down here, he said, and lean against this old oak; it
makes a wonderful seat for two.
Barbara sat beside him, her blood beginning to grow hot in her
cheeks. Does he forget this was where we used to meet long ago? She
looked around sadly, with a vague sense of something lost, Was it love
or years? She looked up at him. He was regarding her quietly.
This was once a bees' nest. He pointed to a deep hole in the trunk
of the tree. Does he not remember it was our pillar-box?
She turned away from him angrily. Oh, please, tell me why and how
you lost the ideal woman, and won't help us in consequence.
The ideal woman and I were engaged to be married, he said, seating
himself and looking away from her. It was long agofifteen years ago,
I think. Barbara started and her face changed. We used to come and
sit for hours in the woods talking over our plans; we were to have a
little cottage in the country with a garden full of hollyhocks.
Of lilies, I think, Barbara said; then stopped confused.
Perhaps it was lilies, he continued, without seeming to notice her
confusion. Anyway it does not matter; neither were planted. The little
cottage was built in the clouds only, and soon tumbled to ruin, leaving
the man homeless and loveless during the years that followed, and they
were such long years. He did not know where to go nor what to do. He
was like one who had been going singing along a happy road and suddenly
stumbled into night and weariness. It was like as though he had been
led by happiness, so that he was blind to misfortune, and suddenly
missed her hand. Then all the unseen things became visible, sorrow trod
beside him, solitude echoed his footsteps, age pushed him on the
shoulders, and whispered of the dreariness of his loveless years.
And the girl? said Barbara angrily, while she struggled to keep
back her tears; what did she do? did she suffer at all?
I don't imagine she suffered, he said, hesitating; no, not a
little bit. She was full of a great ambition to benefit her sex. She
told me that if she married she must still continue to serve this
ideal, and I was young and hot-headed then, and we quarrelled over it
It was a little thing for which to throw over a woman you loved,
Barbara said, her face crimson and her eyes studying the distance.
A little thing! he said hotly; it was no little thing, that cursed
'movement,' that took a soft, gentle, loving woman and changed her into
a hard, unforgiving, cruel one.
Barbara regarded him in angry surprise.
They both parted to go their own ways, she said, the man as well
as the woman.
But the man wrote a humble letter to the woman begging her
forgiveness, asking her to come back to him, that he was miserable and
wretched, that he was going abroad unless she told him to stay.
He rose to his feet and put his hand into the hollow of the tree.
He posted it here, and when he came for an answer the letter was
gone and there was no other. As he spoke he drew from the hole a
handful of moss and dead leaves, tossing them on the ground. From
amongst them a yellow piece of paper dropped. Barbara lifted it and
held it in her hands. She bent her head upon it, crying bitterly.
I never got it, she said; leaves must have fallen upon it. Oh,
poor little letter! all these years I have been longing for you.
George Westcliff took her hands in his; his face was the face of a
Barbara dear, Barbara, he said, and she looked up, smiling through
What a commonplace story after all! she said; I should have known
there was a lost letter in itthere always is when old lovers meet and
explanations follow. To think of it happening to us, though!
He drew her, unresisting, into his arms. What matter how commonplace
it is as long as it ends happily? Barbara, my Barbara, only love me and
you shall do as you like. I shall do all I can for your Women's
Progress Club, and you shall spare me only what time you choose.
I haven't the faintest interest in the Women's Progress Club, she
said, taking the lappet of his coat in her hand with a tremble that was
not all laughter in her voice. My only ambition is to sew this poor
button on your jacket with black thread.