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"The Woman With a Sore Thought"

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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) 130-135.

"I thought all my hopes were dead, Pearl," she said with dry lips, "until you spoke, and then I saw myself years ago, when I came out of school. Life was as rosy and promising, and the future as bright to me then as it is to you now. But I got married young—we were brought up to think if we did not get married—we were rather disgraced, and in our little town in Ontario, men were scarce—they had all come West. So when I got a chance, I took it."

Pearl could see what a beautiful young girl she must have been, when the fires of youth burned in her eye—with her brilliant coloring and her graceful ways. But now her face had something dead about it, something was missing—like a beautifully tiled fireplace with its polished brass fittings, on whose grate lie only the embers of a fire long dead.

Pearl thought of this as she watched her. Mrs. Paine, in her agitation, pleated her muslin apron into a fan.

The tea-kettle on the stove bubbled drowsily, and there was no sound in the house but the purring of the big cat that lay on Pearl's knee.

"Life is a funny proposition, Pearl," continued Mrs. Paine, "I often think it is a conspiracy against women. We are weaker, smaller than men—we have all the weaknesses and diseases they have—and then some of our own. Marriage is a form of bondage—long-term slavery—for women."

Pearl regarded her hostess with astonished eyes. She had always known that Mrs. Paine did not look happy; but such words as these came as a shock to her romantic young heart.

"It isn't the hard work—or the pain—it isn't that—it's the uselessness of it all. Nature is so cruel, and careless. See how many seeds die—nature does not care—some will grow—the others do not matter!"

"O you're wrong, Mrs. Paine," Pearl cried eagerly; "it is not true that even a sparrow can fall to the ground and God not know it."

Mrs. Paine seemed about to speak, but checked her words. Pearl's bright face, her hopefulness, her youth, her unshaken faith in God and the world, restrained her. Let the child keep her faith!

"There is something I want to ask you, Pearl," she said, after a long pause. "You know the laws of this Province are different from what they are in Ontario."

Her voice fell, and the light in her eyes seemed to burn low, like a night-light, turned down.

"He says," she did not call her husband by name, but Pearl knew who was meant, "he says that a man can sell all his property here without his wife's signature, and do what he likes with the money. He wants to sell the farm and buy the hotel in Millford. I won't consent, but he tells me he can take the children away from me, and I would have to go with him then. He says this is a man's country, and men can do as they like. I wonder if you know what the law is?"

"I'm not sure," said Pearl. "I've heard the women talking about it, but I will find out. I will write to them. If that is the law it will be changed—any one could see that it is not fair. Lots of these old laws get written down and no one bothers about them—and they just stay there, forgotten—but anyone would see that was not fair. Men would not be as unjust as that."

"You don't know them," said Mrs. Paine; "I have no faith in men. They've made the world, and they've made it to suit themselves. My husband takes his family cares as lightly as a tomcat. The children annoy him."

She spoke in jerky sentences, often moistening her dry lips, and there was something in her eyes which made Pearl afraid—the very air of the room seemed charged with discords. Pearl struggled to free her heart from the depressing influence.

"All men are not selfish," she said, "and I guess God has done the best He could to be fair to every one. It's some job to make millions of people and satisfy them all."

"Well, the Creator should take some responsibility," Mrs. Paine interrupted, "none of us asked to be born—I'm not God, but I take responsibility for my children. I did not want them, but now they are here I'll stand by them. That's why I've stayed as long as this. But God does not stand by me."

Her voice was colorless and limp like a washed ribbon. It had in it no anger, just a settled conviction.

"See here, Mrs. Paine," began Pearl, "you've been too long alone in the house. You begin to imagine things. You work too hard, and never go out, and that would make an archangel cross. You've just got to mix up more with the rest of us. Things are not half so black as they look to you."

"I could stand it all—until he said he could take away my home," the words seemed to come painfully. "I worked for this," she said, "and though it's small and mean—it's home. Every bit of furniture in this house I bought with my butter money. The only trees we have I planted. I sowed the flowers and dug the place to put them. While he is away buying cattle and shipping them, and making plenty of money—all for himself—I stay here and run the farm. I milk, and churn, and cook for hired men, and manage the whole place, and I've made it pay too, but he has everything in his own name. Now he says he can sell it and take the money. . . . Even a cat will fight and scratch for its hay-loft."

"Oh well," said Pearl, "I hope you won't have to fight. Fighting is bad work. It's a last resort when everything else fails. Mr. Paine can be persuaded out of the hotel business if you go at it right. He does not understand, that's all. That's what causes all the misery and trouble in life—it is lack of understanding."

Mrs. Paine smiled grimly: "It's good to be young, Pearl," she said.

After a while she spoke again: "I did not ask you over entirely for selfish reasons. I wanted to talk to you about yourself; I wanted to warn you, Pearl."

"What about!" Pearl exclaimed.

"Don't get married," she said; "Oh don't, Pearl, I can't bear to think of you being tied down with children and hard work. It's too big a risk, Pearl, don't do it. We need you to help the rest of us. When I listened to you the other day I came nearer praying than I have for many years. I said, 'Oh, Lord, save Pearl,' and what I meant was that He should save you from marriage. You'll have lots of offers."

"None so far," laughed Pearl, "not a sign of one."

"Well, you'll get plenty—but don't do it, Pearl. We need you to talk for us."

"Well, couldn't I talk if I were married?" asked Pearl, "I have heard married women talk."

"Not the same; they haven't the heart. People cannot talk if their own hearts are sore. That's why we want to keep you light-hearted and carefree. I wish you would promise me, Pearl, that you won't marry."

Pearl hesitated, hardly knowing how to meet this.

"That's asking a lot, Mrs. Paine. Every girl hopes to marry some time," she said at last, and if the light had been better Mrs. Paine would have seen the color rising in Pearl's cheeks; "And you are wrong in thinking that all men are mean and selfish. My father is not. We've been poor and all that, but we're happy. My father has never shirked his share of the work, and he has only one thought now, and that is to do well for us. There are plenty of happy marriages. I—can't promise not to but there's no danger yet—I have no notion of it."

"All right, Pearl," said Mrs. Paine, "keep away from it. Some way I can't bear to think of you tied down with a bunch of kids, and all your bright ways dulled with hard work and worry. Well, anyway, you'll talk about it—about the vote I mean."

"All the time," Pearl laughingly responded. "Wherever two or three gather Pearl Watson will rise and make a few remarks unless some one forcibly restrains her."

* * *

When Pearl walked home that night. . . . She thought about Mrs. Paine's words about being tied down with children and hard work, and how she had pleaded with her to be warned! Pearl tried to make the warning real and effective—tried to harden her heart and fill it with ambitions, in which love and marriage had no place. She tried to tell herself it was her duty to never marry; she would be free to work for other women. She tried to think of a future apart from marriage, apart from the hopes and dreams that had been so dear and sweet. Could it be that she was being called of God to be a leader in a new crusade against injustice? Was it her part to speak for other women? Since the day she spoke in the school there had been a glowing wonder in her heart which told her she could move people to higher thinking and nobler action. She had seen it in their eyes that day. She had seen the high resolve in their faces, seen it, and been glad and fearful too. Was it possible that God was calling her to declare a message to the people, and could it be that it was for this reason her sweet dreams had been so suddenly broken?"

 
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