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The Two Sexes In Fives Or Sixes Post by :Tennyson Category :Essays Author :Stephen Leacock Date :November 2011 Read :2325

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The Two Sexes In Fives Or Sixes

A Dinner-party Study

"But, surely," exclaimed the Hostess, looking defiantly and searchingly through the cut flowers of the centre-piece, so that her eye could intimidate in turn all the five men at the table, "one must admit that women are men's equals in every way?"

The Lady-with-the-Bust tossed her head a little and echoed, "Oh, surely!"

The Debutante lifted her big blue eyes a little towards the ceiling, with the upward glance that stands for innocence. She said nothing, waiting for a cue as to what to appear to be.

Meantime the Chief Lady Guest, known to be in suffrage work, was pinching up her lips and getting her phrases ready, like a harpooner waiting to strike. She knew that the Hostess meant this as an opening for her.

But the Soft Lady Whom Men Like toyed with a bit of bread on the tablecloth (she had a beautiful hand) and smiled gently. The other women would have called it a simper. To the men it stood for profound intelligence.

The five men that sat amongst and between the ladies received the challenge of the Hostess's speech and answered it each in his own way.

From the Heavy Host at the head of the table there came a kind of deep grunt, nothing more. He had heard this same talk at each of his dinners that season.

There was a similar grunt from the Heavy Business Friend of the Host, almost as broad and thick as the Host himself. He knew too what was coming. He proposed to stand by his friend, man for man. He could sympathise. The Lady-with-the-Bust was his wife.

But the Half Man with the Moon Face, who was known to work side by side with women on committees and who called them "Comrades," echoed:

"Oh, surely!" with deep emphasis.

The Smooth Gentleman, there for business reasons, exclaimed with great alacrity, "Women equal! Oh, rather!"

Last of all the Interesting Man with Long Hair, known to write for the magazines--all of them--began at once:

"I remember once saying to Mrs. Pankhurst--" but was overwhelmed in the general conversation before he could say what it was he remembered saying to Mrs. Pankhurst.

In other words, the dinner-party, at about course number seven, had reached the inevitable moment of the discussion of the two sexes.

It had begun as dinner-parties do.

Everybody had talked gloomily to his neighbour, over the oysters, on one drink of white wine; more or less brightly to two people, over the fish, on two drinks; quite brilliantly to three people on three drinks; and then the conversation had become general and the European war had been fought through three courses with champagne. Everybody had taken an extremely broad point of view. The Heavy Business Friend had declared himself absolutely impartial and had at once got wet with rage over cotton. The Chief Lady Guest had explained that she herself was half English on her mother's side, and the Lady-with- the-Bust had told how a lady friend of hers had a cousin who had travelled in Hungary. She admitted that it was some years ago. Things might have changed since. Then the Interesting Man, having got the table where he wanted it, had said: "I remember when I was last in Sofia--by the way it is pronounced Say-ah-fee-ah--talking with Radovitch--or Radee-ah-vitch, as it should be sounded--the foreign secretary, on what the Sobranje--it is pronounced Soophrangee--would be likely to do"--and by the time he had done with the Sobranje no one dared speak of the war any more.

But the Hostess had got out of it the opening she wanted, and she said:

"At any rate, it is wonderful what women have done in the war--"

"And are doing," echoed the Half Man with the Moon Face.

And then it was that the Hostess had said that surely every one must admit women are equal to men and the topic of the sexes was started. All the women had been waiting for it, anyway. It is the only topic that women care about. Even men can stand it provided that fifty per cent or more of the women present are handsome enough to justify it.

"I hardly see how, after all that has happened, any rational person could deny for a moment," continued the Hostess, looking straight at her husband and his Heavy Business Friend, "that women are equal and even superior to men. Surely our brains are just as good?" and she gave an almost bitter laugh.

"Don't you think perhaps--?" began the Smooth Gentleman.

"No, I don't," said the Hostess. "You're going to say that we are inferior in things like mathematics or in logical reasoning. We are not. But, after all, the only reason why we are is because of training. Think of the thousands of years that men have been trained. Answer me that?"

"Well, might it not be--?" began the Smooth Gentleman.

"I don't think so for a moment," said the Hostess. "I think if we'd only been trained as men have for the last two or three thousand years our brains would be just as well trained for the things they were trained for as they would have been now for the things we have been trained for and in that case wouldn't have. Don't you agree with me," she said, turning to the Chief Lady Guest, whom she suddenly remembered, "that, after all, we think more clearly?"

Here the Interesting Man, who had been silent longer than an Interesting Man can, without apoplexy, began:

"I remember once saying in London to Sir Charles Doosey--"

But the Chief Lady Guest refused to be checked.

"We've been gathering some rather interesting statistics," she said, speaking very firmly, syllable by syllable, "on that point at our Settlement. We have measured the heads of five hundred factory girls, making a chart of them, you know, and the feet of five hundred domestic servants--"

"And don't you find--" began the Smooth Gentleman.

"No," said the Chief Lady Guest firmly, "we do not. But I was going to say that when we take our measurements and reduce them to a scale of a hundred--I think you understand me--"

"Ah, but come, now," interrupted the Interesting man, "there's nothing really more deceitful than anthropometric measures. I remember once saying (in London) to Sir Robert Bittell--the Sir Robert Bittell, you know--"

Here everybody murmured, "Oh, yes," except the Heavy Host and his Heavy Friend, who with all their sins were honest men.

"I said, 'Sir Robert, I want your frank opinion, your very frank opinion--'"

But here there was a slight interruption. The Soft Lady accidentally dropped a bangle from her wrist on to the floor. Now all through the dinner she had hardly said anything, but she had listened for twenty minutes (from the grapefruit to the fish) while the Interesting Man had told her about his life in Honduras (it is pronounced Hondooras), and for another twenty while the Smooth Gentleman, who was a barrister, had discussed himself as a pleader. And when each of the men had begun to speak in the general conversation, she had looked deep into their faces as if hanging on to their words. So when she dropped her bangle two of the men leaped from their chairs to get it, and the other three made a sort of struggle as they sat. By the time it was recovered and replaced upon her arm (a very beautiful arm), the Interesting Man was side-tracked and the Chief Lady Guest, who had gone on talking during the bangle hunt, was heard saying:

"Entirely so. That seems to me the greatest difficulty before us. So few men are willing to deal with the question with perfect sincerity."

She laid emphasis on the word and the Half Man with the Moon Face took his cue from it and threw a pose of almost painful sincerity.

"Why is it," continued the Chief Lady Guest, "that men always insist on dealing with us just as if we were playthings, just so many dressed-up dolls?"

Here the Debutante immediately did a doll.

"If a woman is attractive and beautiful," the lady went on, "so much the better." (She had no intention of letting go of the doll business entirely.) "But surely you men ought to value us as something more than mere dolls?"

She might have pursued the topic, but at this moment the Smooth Gentleman, who made a rule of standing in all round, and had broken into a side conversation with the Silent Host, was overheard to say something about women's sense of humour.

The table was in a turmoil in a moment, three of the ladies speaking at once. To deny a woman's sense of humour is the last form of social insult.

"I entirely disagree with you," said the Chief Lady Guest, speaking very severely. "I know it from my own case, from my own sense of humour and from observation. Last week, for example, we measured no less than seventy-five factory girls--"

"Well, I'm sure," said the Lady-with-the-Bust, "I don't know what men mean by our not having a sense of humour. I'm sure I have. I know I went last week to a vaudeville, and I just laughed all through. Of course I can't read Mark Twain, or anything like that, but then I don't call that funny, do you?" she concluded, turning to the Hostess.

But the Hostess, feeling somehow that the ground was dangerous, had already risen, and in a moment more the ladies had floated out of the room and upstairs to the drawing-room, where they spread themselves about in easy chairs in billows of pretty coloured silk.

"How charming it is," the Chief Lady Guest began, "to find men coming so entirely to our point of view! Do you know it was so delightful to-night: I hardly heard a word of dissent or contradiction."

Thus they talked; except the Soft Lady, who had slipped into a seat by herself with an album over her knees, and with an empty chair on either side of her. There she waited.

Meantime, down below, the men had shifted into chairs to one end of the table and the Heavy Host was shoving cigars at them, thick as ropes, and passing the port wine, with his big fist round the neck of the decanter. But for his success in life he could have had a place as a bar tender anywhere.

None of them spoke till the cigars were well alight.

Then the Host said very deliberately, taking each word at his leisure, with smoke in between:

"Of course--this--suffrage business--"

"Tommyrot!" exclaimed the Smooth Gentleman, with great alacrity, his mask entirely laid aside.

"Damn foolishness," gurgled the Heavy Business Friend, sipping his port.

"Of course you can't really discuss it with women," murmured the Host.

"Oh, no," assented all the others. Even the Half Man sipped his wine and turned traitor, there being no one to see.

"You see," said the Host, "if my wife likes to go to meetings and be on committees, why, I don't stop her."

"Neither do I mine," said the Heavy Friend. "It amuses her, so I let her do it." His wife, the Lady-with-the-Bust, was safely out of hearing.

"I remember once," began the Interesting Man, "saying to"--he paused a moment, for the others were looking at him--"another man that if women did get the vote they'd never use it, anyway. All they like is being talked about for not getting it."

After which, having exhausted the Woman Question, the five men turned to such bigger subjects as the fall in sterling exchange and the President's seventeenth note to Germany.

Then presently they went upstairs. And when they reached the door of the drawing-room a keen observer, or, indeed, any kind of observer, might have seen that all five of them made an obvious advance towards the two empty seats beside the Soft Lady.

(The end)
Stephen Leacock's essay: The Two Sexes In Fives Or Sixes

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