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"The Innocent Disturber"

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The House of Clay

The Woman With a Sore Thought

The Storm

The Innocent Disturber

The Play

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Nellie McClung, Purple Springs (Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1992) 93-106.

Then Mr. Steadman arose! He was a stout man, with a square face, and small, beady black eyes and an aggressive manner; a man who felt sure of himself; who knew he was the centre of his own circle. There was a well-fed, complacent look about him too which left no doubt that he was satisfied with things as they were—and would be deeply resentful of change. There was still in his countenance some trace of his ancestor's belief in the Divine right of kings! It showed in his narrow, thought-proof forehead, and a certain indescribable attitude which he held toward others, and which separated him from his neighbors. Instinctively, the people who met him, knew he lacked human sympathy and understanding, but he had a hold on the people of his constituency, for through his hands went all the Government favors and patronage. Anyone who wanted a telephone, had to "see Mr. Steadman." The young people who went to the city to find employment, were wise to see Mr. Steadman before they went. So although he was not liked, he had a prestige which was undeniable.

Mr. Steadman began his remarks by saying how glad he was to be offered the chair on this glad occasion. He always liked to encourage the young, and he believed it our duty to be very tolerant and encouraging to youth.

The boundaries of the platform began to wriggle. They had heard Mr. Steadman before—he often came in and made speeches—but he never brought any oranges—or peanuts or even "Farmer's Mixed."

"Youth is a time of deep impressions," went on the chairman; "wax to receive—granite to retain." Youth was the time of learning, and he hoped every boy and girl in his presence would earnestly apply himself and herself to their books, for only through much study could success be attained. That is what put him where he was today.

More wriggles, and some discussion at his feet!

He was glad to know that one of Mr. Donald's pupils had been able to do so well in the city. Three cheers for the country! He had always believed it was the best place to be brought up—and was glad to say that he too, had spent his youth on a farm. Most of the successful men of the world came from the farms.

He believed absolutely in education for women, education of a suitable kind, and believed there was a definite place for women in the world—a place which only women could fill. That place was the home—the quiet precincts of home—not the hurly-burly of politics—that was man's sphere—and a hard sphere it was, as he knew well. He didn't wish to see any woman in such a hard life, with its bitter criticism and abuse. He was sorry to notice that there was a new agitation among women in the city—it had come up in the session just closed—that women wanted to vote.

Mr. Steadman threw out his hands with a gesture of unconcern:

"Well," I say, "let them vote—if they want to—let them run the whole country; we'll stay at home. It's time we had a rest, anyway!"

A little dry cackle of laughter went over the room at this, in which Mr. Donald did not join—so it got no support from the pupils of Chicken Hill, who faithfully followed their teacher's lead.

Mr. Steadman went on blithely:

"I am old fashioned enough to want my wife to stay at home. I like to find her there when I come home. I don't want her to sit in Parliament; she hasn't time—for one thing."

Mrs. Steadman sat in front, with the purple plume in her hat nodding its approval:

"And I say it in all kindness to all women—they haven't the ability. They have ability of their own, but not that kind. Parliaments are concerned with serious, big things. This year, the program before our Provincial Parliament, is 'Good Roads.' We want every part of this province to enjoy the blessing of good roads, over which they can bring their produce to market, binding neighborhoods together in the ties of friendship. Good roads for everyone is our policy."

"Now what do women know about making roads? They are all right to go visiting over the roads after they are built, but how much good would they be in building them?"

This was greeted with another scattered rattle of laughter, followed by a silence, which indicated intense listening. Even the restless edging of the platform knew something was happening, and listened.

"Our Opposition is coming forward with a foolish program of fads and fancies. They want the women to have the vote; they want to banish the bar! They want direct legislation. These are all radical measures, new, untried and dangerous. With women voting, I have no sympathy, as I said. They are not fitted for it. It is not that I do not love women—I do—I love them too well—most of them."

He paused a moment here—but no one laughed. The audience did not believe him.

"There are some women in the city whom I would gladly send to jail. They are upsetting women's minds, and hurting the homes. Don't let us take any chances on destroying the homes, which is the bulwark of the nation. What sight is more beautiful than to see a mother, queen of the home, gathering her children around her. She can influence her husband's vote—her son's vote—she has a wider and stronger influence than if she had the vote herself. Her very helplessness is her strength. And besides, I know that the best women, the very best women do not want to sit in Parliament. My wife does not want to—neither did my mother—no true woman wants to, only a few rattle-brained, mentally unbalanced freaks—who do not know what they want."

Pearl smiled at this. She had heard this many times.

"Now, as to banishing the bar, you all know I am not a drinker. I can take it—or leave it—but I am broad minded enough to let other people have the same privilege that I ask for myself. Men like to gather in a friendly way, chat over old times or discuss politics, and have a glass, for the sake of good fellowship, and there's no harm done. There are some, of course, who go too far—I am not denying that. But why do they do it? They did not get the right home training—that is why. In the sacred precincts of home, the child can be taught anything—that's the mother's part, and it is a more honorable part than trying to ape men—and wear the pants."

This brought a decided laugh—though if Mr. Steadman had been sensible to thought currents, he would have felt twinges in his joints, indicating that a storm was brewing. But he was having what the preachers call a "good time," and went merrily on.

"Direct legislation is a dangerous thing, which would upset representative government. It is nothing less than rabble rule, letting the ignorant rabble say what we are to do. Our vote is too wide now, as you know, when every Tom, Dick and Harry has a vote, whether they own an inch of ground or not. Your hired man can kill your vote, though you own a township of land. Do you want to give him more power? I think not! Well if the opposition ever get in power, the women and the hired men, and even the foreigners will run the country, and it will not be fit to live in. We're doing all right now, our public building, our institutions are the best in Canada. We have put the flag on every schoolhouse in the country—we have good, sane, steady government, let us stick to it. I believe that the next election will see the good ship come safely into port with the same old skipper on the bridge, and the flag of empire proudly furling its folds in the breeze. We have no fears of the fads and fancies put forward by short-haired women and long-haired men."

That being the end of his speech, the place where his superior always sat down, amidst thunderous applause. Mr. Steadman sat down, too, forgetting that he had been asked to be the Chairman, and introduce Pearl.

The applause which followed his remarks, was not so vociferous as he had expected, partly because there were no "Especially instructed clappers." No one was very enthusiastic, except Mrs. Steadman, who apparently agreed with all he said.

Rising to his feet again he said: "The good ladies have bountifully provided for our needs today—what would we do without the ladies? But before we come to that very interesting item on our program, we are going to hear from Pearl Watson. Pearl Watson is one of the girls who has taken full advantage of our splendid educational system, than which there is none better in Canada—or in the world. As a member of the legislature, I am justly proud of our Department of Education, and today we will be entertained by one of our own products, Pearl Watson, on whom we might well hang the label "Made in Canada." I do not know whether she intends to say a piece—or what, but bespeak for her a respectful and courteous hearing."

Mr. Steadman sat down, adjusting his gold and blue tie, and removed his glasses, which he put away in a large leather case that closed with a snap. His attitude indicated that the real business of the day was over, now that he had spoken.

Pearl came forward and stepped to the platform, displacing temporarily one of the twins, to make a space where she might step. Having restored him safely, she turned to the people. There was a smile in her eyes that was contagious. The whole roomful of people smiled back at her, and in that moment she established friendly relations with her audience.

"It has been a real surprise to me," she began, in a conversational tone, "to hear Mr. Steadman make a speech. I am sure his colleagues in the House would have been surprised to have heard him today. He is a very quiet man there—he never speaks. The first night I went to the House with a crowd of Normalites, I pointed out our member, to let those city girls see what we could raise in the country—but it seems the speeches are all made by half a dozen, the others just say "Aye" when they're told. All one side of the House say "Aye;" the other side say "No." I have heard Mr. Steadman say "Aye," lots of times—but nothing more. The Premier, or one of the Cabinet Ministers tells them when to say it—it all looks very easy to me. I would have thought even a woman could do it. The girls used to tease me about how quiet my representative was. He sat so still that it just seemed as if he might be asleep, and one girl said she believed he was dead. But one day, a window was left open behind him—and he sneezed, and then he got right up and shut it—Do you remember that day, Mr. Steadman?"

He shook his head impatiently, and the expression of his face was not pleasant. Still, no one would attribute anything but the friendliest motive to Pearl's innocent words.

"My! I was glad that day," she said, "when you sneezed, it was a quick stop to the rumor—I tell you—and I never heard any more about it. I am sorry Mr. Steadman is not in favor of women voting, or going to Parliament, and thinks it too hard for them. It does not look hard to me. Most of the members just sit and smoke all the time, and read the papers, and call the pages. I have seen women do far harder work than this. But of course what Mr. Steadman says about building roads all over the country, is a new one on me. I did not know that the members were thinking of doing the work! But I guess they would be glad to get out and do something after sitting there all cramped up with their feet asleep for the whole winter."

"Still, I remember when Mr. Steadman was Councillor here, and there was a bridge built over Pine Creek—he only let the contract—he did not build it—it was his brother who built it!"

There was a queer thrill in the audience at this, for Bill Steadman had got the contract, in spite of the fact that he was the poorest builder in the country—and the bridge had collapsed inside of two years. George Steadman winced at her words.

But Pearl, apparently innocent of all this, went on in her guileless way:

"I think Mr. Steadman is mistaken about women not wanting to sit in Parliament. He perhaps does not know what it feels like to stand over a wash-tub—or an ironing board—or cook over a hot stove. Women who have been doing these things long would be glad to sit anywhere!"

There was a laugh at this, in which Mr. Steadman made a heroic attempt to join, shaking his head as he did so, to counteract any evil effect which the laugh might cause.

"But I did not intend to speak of politics," said Pearl, "I intended to tell you how glad I am to be back to Chicken Hill School, and how good home looks to me. No one knows how to appreciate their home until they have left it—and gone away where no one cares particularly whether you are sick or well—happy or miserable. Do you boys find it pretty hard to wash your necks—as you wish your mother hadn't such a sharp eye on you—be glad you have some one who thinks enough of you to want your neck to be clean. You hate to fill the wood-box, do you? O, I know what a bottomless pit it is—and how the old stove just loves to burn wood to spite you. But listen! By having to do what you do not want to do, you are strengthening the muscles of your soul—and getting ready for a big job.

"Having to do things is what makes us able to do more. Did you ever wonder why you cannot walk on water. It is because water is so agreeable—it won't resist you. It lets you have your own way.

"The teachers at the Normal talked to us every Friday afternoon, about our social duties, and rural leadership and community spirit and lots of things. They told us not to spend our time out of school tatting and making eyelet embroidery, when there were neighborhoods to be awakened and citizens to be made. That suits me fine, for I can't tat anyway. One of the girls tried to show me, but gave it up after three or four tries. She said some could learn, and some couldn't. It was heredity—or something.

"Anyway, Dr. McLean said teachers were people who got special training for their work, and it was up to them to work at it, in school and out. He said that when we went out to teach, we could be a sort of social cement, binding together all the different units into one coherent community, for that's what was needed in Canada, with its varied population. One third of the people in Canada do not speak English, and that's a bad barrier—and can only be overcome by kindness. We must make our foreign people want to learn our language, and they won't want to, unless they like us.

"He said Canada was like a great sand-pile, each little grain of sand, beautiful in its own way, but needing cement to bind it to other grains, and it was for us to say whether we would be content to be only a sand pile, or would we make ourselves a beautiful temple.

"I wish I could give it all to you—it was great to hear him. He said no matter how fine we were as individuals, or how well we did our work, unless we had it in our hearts to work with others, and for others—it was no good. If we lacked social consciousness, our work would not amount to much. I thought of our old crumply horn cow. She always gave a big pail of milk—but if she was in bad humor, she would quite likely kick it over, just as the pail was full. I used to think maybe a fly had stung her, but I guess what was really wrong was that she lacked social consciousness. She did not see that we were depending on her.

"That's why the liquor traffic is such a bad thing, and should be outlawed. Individuals may be able to drink, and get away with it, but some go under, some homes are made very unhappy over it. If we have this social consciousness, we will see very clearly that the liquor traffic must go! No matter how much some people will miss it. If it isn't safe for everybody, it isn't safe for anybody. I used to wish Dr. McLean could talk to the members of Parliament.

"He told us one of the reasons that the world had so many sore spots in it was because women had kept too close at home, they were beginning to see that in order to keep their houses clean, they would have to clean up the streets, and it was this social consciousness working it them, that made them ask for the vote. They want to do their share, outside as well as in.

"There was a woman who came and talked to us one day at the Normal. She is the editor of the Women's section of one of the papers, and she put it up to us to make a report of her address, and so I remember most of it.

"She said that Canada is like a great big, beautiful house that has been given to us to finish. It is just far enough on so that you can see how fine it is going to be—but the windows are not in—the doors are not hung—the cornices are not put on. It needs polishing, scraping, finishing. That is our work. Every tree we plant, every flower we grow, every clean field we cultivate, every good cow or hog we raise, we are helping to finish and furnish the house and make it fit to live in. Every kind word we say or even think, every gracious deed, if it is only thinking to bring out the neighbor's mail from town, helps to add those little touches which distinguish a house from a barn."

"We have many foreign people in this country, lonesome, homesick people—sometimes we complain that they are not loyal to us—and that is true. It is also true that they have no great reason to be loyal to us. We are not even polite to them, to say nothing of being kind. Loyalty cannot be rammed down anyone's throat with a flag-pole."

Mr. Steadman cleared his throat at this—and seemed about to speak—but she went on without noticing:

"Loyalty is a gentle growth, which spring in the heart. The seeds are in your hands and mine; the heart of our foreign people is the soil—the time of planting is now—and the man or woman who by their kindness, their hospitality, their fair dealing, honesty, neighborliness, makes one of the least of these think well of Canada, is a Master Builder in this Empire."

"If we do not set ourselves to finish the house, you know what will happen to it. I remember this part of her speech because it made me think about our school-house the year before Mr. Donald came—when we could not get a teacher. Do you remember? Windows were broken mysteriously—the rain beat in and warped and drenched and spoiled the floors. The chimney fell. Destruction always comes to the empty house, she said—the unfinished house is a mark for the wantonly mischievous. To keep what we have, we must improve it from year to year. And to that end we must work together—fighting not with each other—but with conditions, discouragements, ignorance, prejudice, narrowness—we must be ready to serve, not thinking of what we can get from our country, but what we can give to it."

In the silence that fell, the people sat motionless. They did not notice that Pearl was done speaking—for their thought went on—she had given them a new view of the service they might give.

Mrs. Piper, on whose heart, Pearl's words had fallen like a benediction, saw that in making her rag-carpet, over which she had worked so hard—she was helping to furnish one little corner of her country, for it would make her front room a brighter place, and there her children, and the boys and girls of the neighborhood would have good times and pleasant memories. She had thought of it in a vague way before, but Pearl had put it into words for her—and her heart was filled with a new rapture. It was worth while to work and struggle and try her best to make a pleasant home. There was a purpose in it all—a plan—a pattern.

 
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