About the Story ...
A late-in-life romance illuminates a discussion of women’s role in the war effort, through the character of Miss Lucy, who bemoans the 'eternal softness' of women as she prepares her beloved brother for enlistment.
Nowhere does Sumner Locke domesticate the war quite as thoroughly as in this story. “Why, bless me,” says the story’s hero, “don’t you see that this eruption of military relations has altogether compromised the domestic world as well?”
But the story is also sharply ironic. Locke does not deny Lucy's 'softness', where softness is sororal pride, love, and compassion. But she contrasts this 'softness' with fierce determination and physical strength. Much like the women of 'Three Gentlemen at the Front', Lucy suggests that the 'softness' that makes women unfit for war work is a matter of convention, not biology.
Miss Lucy swung a heavy hammer, and brought it down with a resounding crash on the head of the nail sticking out of the packing-case she was working upon. The nail sank fully an inch and a half into the wood, and the elderly spinster turned to me as I sat there, wondering.
“I often think,” she said, “that it is a pity women are so useless in the world at such a time as this. That we have to pander to the eternal softness in us.”
She gave the nail another whack, and it sunk a point or two more. “Seems to me we ought to be born more like our brothers,” she went on, lifting a tendril of snowy hair from her eyes with her free hand. “I can’t help feeling it.”
“Why?” I asked, because of the some thing so lovely in the deep womanly face before me.
“Why? Don’t you ever feel what it is to be left but of things at such a crisis in history? Not to be able to help on the ultimate victory attached to our great endeavors wherever Britain has planted man. Don’t you feel — ”
She paused, and I felt in some way that she was trying not to be unkind to me. I was as much part of the eternal softness prohibited from taking part in the great fighting schemes as she was, but I had the only small advantage possible over her of having been able to offer my country my services and of having been refused with thanks, on account of my yellowing years, together with an uncertain vision even with the aid of eye-glasses. The fact that I was a man evidently struck Miss Lucy, and she stopped speaking.
“I mean,” she said again, swinging the hammer, “that there is so much a man can do. So much strength he can offer. So much reserve force of will and brain power he has stored up all his life, that now comes uppermost at a time like this. If only women could be considered something as willing and eager — and capable.”
I took the direct aim of her sweet, brown eyes, and I shivered at the thought of her home-made furniture and my perfectly comfortable, shop-upholstered, maple-veneered bachelor quarters.
Knowing the goodness of this earnest looking woman, I said nothing, and she went on talking while she manufactured a kind of food cupboard out of a packing case she had just towed in from the yard.
“If the Lord had only given us something else but our eternal softness …” she complained, as she wrenched an ingrowing rusty nail from the side of the case, “… something … we … could … be p-r-o-u-d … of.”
The rusty piece of iron round the box came off with a jerk, and I could not help thinking how much I would have thought of myself, leaving out the eternal softness, if I had been able to wield that hammer as she was doing.
“There is Ben, now,” said Miss Lucy. “He is only ten years younger than I am … and he seems so capable … you know Ben, don’t you? He often appears a little delicate, but really he is so able …”
Yes I knew Ben. He was her brother, and she was his sister, mother, father, and all kinds of relations to him at the same time. In fact, she was housewife, housekeeper, char-woman, sewing-woman, nurse, doctor, carpenter, plumber, and general servant. Oh, yes, I knew Ben. Everybody knew him in the little suburb. He was a really nice chap, with a desire for fresh laundry everyday, and his hot bath every Sunday morning served in cans carried up from the copper in the kitchen. He was also a splendid fellow among his friends. They liked him because he was good to his sister. Always went home to dinner unless he had said he would be dining in town. Was considerate about her knowing his friends, and took them home to a meal occasionally, when she said she had something special from the six o’clock market she had waded through that morning.
Moreover, he never did one thing that counted out of his ordinary work at the office, that he did not make a special feature of when he came home at night. He was frequently entertaining, sometimes eloquent, often brilliant, when it came to a certain point about his good luck in having pulled off a special bit of business. Miss Lucy simply ravished for these hours … it was so much to her that Ben was sufficiently brainy to do things that showed; and that made him appear lofty among his office comrades.
Yes … I knew Ben. But more did it count as good to my life that I knew Miss Lucy. Miss Lucy, who wanted to be rid of the eternal softness of her womanhood, and to be able to do things as well as a man. As I looked at her I smiled in the crevices of my own mind.
White-haired, possibly aged 48, slim, brown-eyed, wide-eyed, kind-eyed, and with the eternal softness breaking through the hazy iris of those same brown eyes.
“My goodness,” she said, stopping a moment and adjusting the shelf she was fitting into the box. “My gracious goodness, when I think of what men have done in this war, what they are doing — what they are going to do yet — and it makes me mad to think that Ben is one of the lot who have to wait till he can get his commission. Do you think I’d wait for a commission if I was even half a man?”
We both laughed. Then Miss Lucy rounded her arm and bent over the screw-driver, frantically endeavoring to make little holes to fit little nails into.
“Whatever are you making out of the box?” I inquired. She stiffened while she surveyed her work.
“Just furniture,” she said. “I don’t want Ben to put all his savings into this little house. I love hammer-work and pulling boards about.”
She had pulled some of the boards in that room, I knew, a block further than the next street corner, because it had saved the sixpence she would otherwise have had to pay the man she had bought the timber from.
“I’ve always been thankful, you know, John, that I was made ready at least to take up whatever came along; but what’s the good of it?”
I could not answer. Possibly somebody who may have looked into this woman’s life earlier may have been able to answer. Possibly he did not bother to.
“You have just created this room,” I said, looking round at the cupboards, settees, covered stools, and other home manufactured comforts.
“Well, if I had not, I wonder where we would have been. You see, Ben is likely to marry, and I want him to have every penny saved that is possible.”
“Did you make all these little things alone?” I inquired.
“All but the piano. My goodness, the place is poor enough; what with packing-case sofas and music cupboards made out of oil-cases; but, thank the powers, we have more comforts than we deserve at such a time. John, do you think Ben will be sent to camp soon?”
“Are you anxious?”
“Very. If he does not get called soon I think I’ll go myself. Oh, if only I could — if only women had been made as strong —” She lifted the entire packing case, and carried it to the place where she was building a pantry — “or as capable.” She placed the case into the corner, and mentally observed just where it fitted to a precise angle. “Or even — as level headed in a national crisis —”
My smile broadened behind her back. Ten minutes afterwards, Ben, her brother, came home.
Immediately he reported that which this good woman had been longing for. He had received his papers. He was to join his comrades in camp. He would require everybody’s assistance to get his things ready in the shortest possible time; and he was going to get married before he went.
This last frail piece of information at first caused Miss Lucy to dilate with enthusiasm; then it threw her a point or so back on her own mental reserves.
I felt ready to burst with some thing that had never yielded so quickly to my tongue before. I grew feverish and shaky to the finger-tips. I sat there saying nothing; and, being one who had not the rights to get up and chastise Ben for his selfishness, even with his great effort to assist his country wipe out an enemy, I simply listened, and made mental notes — to be studied afterwards.
Miss Lucy had forgotten the carpentering. She was rushing all over the place. Only once she stopped to explain to me that dinner was going to be a matter of just what was in the house that evening, and perhaps I would not mind going home. I went home unsatisfied; and I slept the same way, perhaps a little more justified in being thoroughly angry with myself that I was the incapable one, with enough of the eternal softness to positively revel in my exclusive bachelorhood.
And Ben went to camp as second Lieutenant. He looked well, fed well (when at home on leave), slept well, and took his matrimonial duties well. As his sister had said, “He was so able.”
I don’t think I ever knew a man as able to cope with positive soul-luxury as Ben did.
For a little while Miss Lucy had forgotten the weight of the eternal softness that was ever goading her to discount herself as anything practical or necessary in the great world crisis.
Then Ben brought his wife home to settle with the good woman, who, by the way, was entirely dependent on the bounty of her brother for the three meals a day she took in payment for her services. Ben’s wife was a nice easy going girl, with womanly ideas. She certainly treated Miss Lucy in the best possible way, though it was rather the respect of a daughter for a mother on whom she was reliant for all major attentions, and with whom she would never quarrel in case it might prove against her good benefits.
I understood that Ben still paid for the upkeep of the home, allowing his wife a nice little sum for dressing, and handing her the housekeeping allowance, which she in turn handed to Miss Lucy, and which, in its own turn, was handed to the butcher, the grocer, gasman and other valuable tradesmen who called regularly. It just about covered the lot, allowing for a few extras in luxurious fodder when the man of the house happened to be on leave. But I did not know how Miss Lucy managed to get her own boots mended, nor how she still was able to pay her fares into the city when she wanted to buy things, only procurable there, to suit the two relatives she was boarding.
However, when it came to the time of Ben’s leave I knew then just where this woman stood in regard to any annuity should her brother be carried off on an enemy bayonet or buried at sea by the treacherous sinking machines of the enemy. She just stood where she had stood all the years she had kept house for him, with this additional bogie. She would be entirely reliant on her brother’s wife, and would even be shriven of her Samaritan goodness should Ben’s wife choose to take unto herself the entire pension supplied by the Government to wives of deceased officers.
But I bided my time and watched, Miss Lucy meantime carrying that same eternal softness into every action she put forth.
One day the inevitable change came. Ben was reported wounded, then the blank of government slackness in which nothing could be ascertained about him at all.
Miss Lucy encouraged the little wife, supplied excuses for Ben’s not writing, made plans for all their futures should Ben be overtaken by the Greater Silence, and went on with the housework — with the eternal softness exuding from every pore.
Then came more disturbing news. Ben was to be invalided home. He was not really an invalid, but he was not quite right. The Government said, he may recover his balance, but it was likely that he would have to be watched, nursed, and put up with for a number of years before he would even be himself.
The little wife rushed to Miss Lucy (I heard it all later, word for word from the good woman’s lips).
“Lucy … I can’t bear it,” she said. “Don’t you see what it means? Ben is a lunatic …”
“Oh, hush,” said Miss Lucy, “The fight has only unsettled his mind. Hundreds of men come back a little nervy …”
“I could not bear him … nervy,” she said. “Lucy … would it matter if I went … away?”
“Desert Ben,” gasped the elderly woman. “You mean for a little while of course. You take a holiday, dear. I can manage quite well without you … but don’t dream of … of …”
The rest was too horrible for the elder woman to think about. The little wife cried outright.
“I … hate to tell you, Lucy, but I don’t want to come back. I don’t care as much as I did, and it would be a sin for me to say I’d return and be his wife again when … when …”
“You don’t love Ben?” gasped Miss Lucy.
“I could never face a man not quite right in his head,” sobbed Ben’s wife. “I … I’m a coward, I know, but I’ve never been used to it.”
“As for that … none of us have been used to it, but we’ve got to do our little bit, dear … My God, child … that is all we’ve got to do, with our eternal softness and our ladylike ways …”
Whatever happened then, passed only to the higher power of discernment, but the little wife went her way. She refused to touch another penny of her husband’s money. It almost seemed as if she thought that might be balanced the wrong way, too. She had never seen him again, nor mentioned his name.
I called on Miss Lucy as she had stowed her brother away in a comfortable bedroom with the key turned in the lock on her side of the door. He was a harmless simpleton, inclined to wander again through the war paths of the Gallipoli Peninsula; but otherwise no more trouble than a creaking gate. I could see that he would never recover, and that the woman who had been mother, father, sister, nurse and general servant would have to go on being those things to him for quite a number of years. I did not let her speak till I had got my own words forward.
“You could have married years ago, Miss Lucy?”
“Why, yes … but isn’t it a good thing I did not. Think of Ben — who would have put up with him at such a time … ? Think of the small pension and the amount of things he will require for years and years … it’s just as well that — somebody changed his mind once long ago. I might possibly have had to change mine — as Ben’s wife did.”
Then I had to go carefully. I wanted to marry Miss Lucy. I wanted the eternal softness of her eyes, her wide eyes, her brown eyes, her hazy, kind, discerning eyes, which could conquer all doubts, all fretfulness, all bogies of the future. But I was over 50. Inclined to be irascible at breakfast, subject to sciatica, nervy about my things being left untouched by a duster when I had them handy. I was not an easy job to handle. My temper was as bad as any other old retired bachelor; but I wanted to make up something to Miss Lucy that some other fool chap had stolen out of her early life. So I went carefully.
“Miss Lucy,” I said, horribly afraid she might take me; and as fearsome that she might refuse; “… you’re so able — so capable — so —”
“Why, John,” she gasped, “whatever has taken you? I don’t really think you are quite right in your head, also. Do you think you are eating well? Sleeping? Taking enough exercise?”
Big motherly eyes were holding me fast. I drove home my words as if they were the rivets of my whole happiness. “Hang it, Lucy,” I broke forth. “For months you’ve been throwing bricks at yourself for not able to do more in the great national crisis.”
“Don’t bring that up, John — I can’t bear to speak of it.”
“But I can,” I shouted. “You spoke of the many things a man could do in this war, of the things he had done and of the things he would yet do. Why, bless me, don’t you see that this eruption of military relations has altogether compromised the domestic world as well? Don’t you see that if there were no women like, you that the fighting crowd might never have been able to stick it out? Don’t you see that you are the little soldier woman fighting in your own private war zone, and a harder, better, more earnest battle no woman has ever put up? Don’t you see —”
“That’s kind of you, John.” Her eyes went into circles of softness, and partly I was feeling myself a fool. How could I expect such a great big spirit as Miss Lucy had to recognise her own worth?
“Very kind of you, John,” she smiled. “But I am afraid that it is only the eternal softness …”
“Of course, it’s the eternal softness,” I choked out. “And it is that which has made you the only really all round capable person I have ever known in my life. Oh, my dear, don’t you see that with that great womanly asset you can take a fellow in hand and make him feel his real manhood … you can cure his ills, put up with his weaknesses, manage his house, his life, his happiness, love him for his own stupidity, and — be the only woman he has ever wanted to marry …”
“John — you don’t mean that?”
And then I kissed the hem of her sleeve.
“Be — wife and mother to me, Lucy,” I murmured. “With your eternal softness help me to fight the dragon old age that is creeping upon both of us. … It means rheumatism, gout, selfishness, temper … but I feel I can’t face that enemy alone … with your eternal softness help me to keep my feet in the creeping cold years when a man wants understanding …”
“Why, of course I will, John,” said Miss Lucy, and that week saw her, the little soldier woman, leading her small army of subordinates through the entanglements and over the pitfalls of common ordinary domesticity, and fighting for the happiness of all with her only weapon, her eternal softness.