An excited, incredulous twittering broke out among the little women in the corner. The uniformed girl quelled them with a look.
"Get the Mother dressed and make her ready," she commanded.
The little women came out of their corner hesitantly, directing nervous, propitiatory smiles towards the pair. The second one told them briskly, though not altogether unkindly. "Come along now. Jump to it." They jumped. . . . "
I was almost swathed in my pink draperies again when the doctor strode in. She frowned at the two in uniform.
"Whats all this? What are you doing here?" she demanded. The leader, of the two explained.
"Arrest!" exclaimed the doctor. "Arrest a Mother! I never heard such nonsense. Whatís the charge?"
The uniformed girl said, a little sheepishly. "She is accused of Reactionism." The doctor simply stared at her.
"A Reactionist Mother! Whatíll you people think of next? Go on, get out, both of you." The young woman protested.
"We have our orders, Doctor."
"Rubbish. Thereís no authority. Have you ever heard of a Mother being arrested?"
"Well, you arenít going to make a precedent now. Go on." The uniformed girl hesitated unhappily, then an idea occurred to her.
"If you would let me have a signed refusal to surrender the Mother ... ?" she suggested helpfully.
When the two had departed, quite satisfied with their piece of paper, the doctor looked at the little women gloomily.
"You canít help tattling, you servitors, can you? Anything you happen to hear goes through the lot of you like a fire in a cornfield, and makes trouble all round. Well, if I hear any more of this I shall know where it comes from." She turned to me. "And you, Mother Orchis, will in future please restrict yourself to yes-and-no in the hearing of these nattering little pests. Iíll see you again shortly. We want to ask you some questions," she added,, and went out, leaving a subdued, industrious silence behind her.
"But I don't want to. I'd just like to read quietly," I objected. She patted my shoulder, a little uncertainly.
She returned just as the tray which had held my gargantuan breakfast was being removed, and not alone. The four women who accompanied her, and looked as normal as herself, were followed by a number of little women lugging in chairs which they arranged beside my couch. When they had departed, the five women, all in white overalls, sat down and regarded me as if I were an exhibit. One appeared to be much the same age as the first doctor, two nearer fifty, and one sixty, or more.
"Now, Mother Orchis," said the doctor, with an air of, opening the proceedings, "it is quite clear that something highly unusual has taken place. Naturally we are interested to understand just what and, if possible, why. You donít need to worry about those police this morning -- it was quite improper of them to come here at all. This is simply an inquiry -- a scientific inquiry -- to establish what has happened."
"You canít want to understand more than I do," I replied. I looked at them, at the room about me, and finally at my massive prone form. "I am aware that all this must be an hallucination, but what is troubling me most is that I have always supposed that any hallucination must be deficient in at least one dimension -- must lack reality to some of the senses. But this does not. I have all my senses, and can use them. Nothing is insubstantial. I am trapped in flesh that is very palpably too, too solid. The only striking deficiency, so far as I can see, is reason -- even symbolic reason."
The four other woman stared at me in astonishment. The doctor gave them a sort of now-perhaps-you'll-believe-me glance, and then turned to me again.
"Weíll start with a few questions," she said.
"Before you begin," I put in, "I have something to add to what I told you last night. It has come back to me."
"Perhaps the knock when you fell," she suggested, looking at my piece of plaster. "What were you trying to do?" I ignored that.
"I think I"d better tell you the missing part -- it might help -- a bit, anyway."
"Very well," she agreed. "You told me you were -- er -- married, and that your -- er -- husband was killed soon after wards." She glanced at the others, their blankness of expression was somehow studious. "It was the part after that that was missing," she added.
"Yes," I said. "He was a test-pilot," I explained to them. "It happened six months after we were married -- only one month before his contract was due to expire.
"After that, an aunt took me away for some weeks. I donít suppose Iíll ever remember that part very well -- I -- I wasnít noticing anything very much.... But then I remember waking up one morning and suddenly seeing things differently, and telling myself that I couldnít go on like that. I knew I must have some work, something that would keep me busy.
Dr Hellyer, who is in charge of the Wraychester Hospital where I was working before I married, told me he would be glad to have me with them again. So I went back, and worked very hard, so that I did not have much time to think. That would be about eight months ago, now.
Then one day Dr Hellyer spoke about a drug that a friend of his had succeeded in synthesising. I donít think he was really asking for volunteers, but I offered to try it out. From what he said it sounded as if the drug might have some quite important properties. It struck me as a chance to do something useful. Sooner or later, someone would try it, and as I didnít have any ties and didnít care very much what happened, anyway, I thought I might as well be the one to try it."
The spokesman doctor interrupted to ask.
"What was this drug?"
"Itís called chuinjuatin," I told her. "Do you know it?" She shook her head. One of the others put in, "Iíve heard the name. What is it?"
"Itís a narcotic," I told her. "The original form is in the leaves of a tree that grows chiefly in the south of Venezuela. The tribe of Indians who live there discovered it somehow, like others did quinine and mescalin. And in much the same way they use it for orgies. Some of them sit and chew the leaves -- they have to chew about six ounces of them -- and gradually they go into a zombie-like, trance state. It lasts three or four days during which they are quite helpless and incapable of doing the simplest thing for themselves, so that other members of the tribe are appointed to look after them as if they were children, and to guard them. Itís necessary to guard them because the Indian belief is that chuinjuatin liberates the spirit from the body, setting it , free to wander anywhere in space and time, and the guardianís most important job is to see that no other wandering spirit shall slip into the body while the true owner is away. When the subjects recover they claim to have had wonderful mystical experiences. There seem to be no physical ill effects, and no craving results from it. The mystical experiences, though, are said to be intense, and clearly remembered.
Dr Hellyerís friend had tested his synthesised chuinjuatin on a number of laboratory animals and worked out the dosage, and tolerances, and that kind of thing, but what he could not tell, of course, was what validity, if any, the reports of the mystical experiences had. Presumably they were the product of the drugís influence on the nervous system -- but whether that effect produced a sensation of pleasure, ecstasy, awe, fear, horror, or any of a dozen more, it was impossible to tell without a human guinea-pig. So that was what I volunteered for. I stopped. I looked at their serious, puzzled faces, and at the billow of pink satin in front of me.
"In fact," I added, "it appears to have produced a combination of the absurd, the incomprehensible, and the grotesque." They were earnest women, these, not to be side-tracked. They were there to disprove an anomaly -- if they could.
"I see," said the spokeswoman with an air of preserving reasonableness, rather than meaning anything. She glanced down at a paper on which she had made a note from time to time.
"Now, can you give us the time and date at which this experiment took place?"
I could, and did, and after that the questions went on and on and on.... The least satisfactory part of it from my point of view was that even though my answers caused them to grow more uncertain of themselves as we went on, they did at least get them, whereas when I put a question it was usually evaded, or answered perfunctorily, as an unimportant digression.
They went on steadily, and only broke off when my next meal arrived. Then they went away, leaving me thankfully in peace -- but little the wiser. I half expected them to return, but when they did not I fell into a doze from which I was awakened by the incursion of a cluster of the little women, once more. They brought a trolley with them, and in a short time were wheeling me out of the building on it -- but not by the way I had arrived. This time we went down a ramp where another, or the same, pink ambulance waited at the bottom. When they had me safely loaded aboard, three of them climbed in, too, to keep me company. They were chattering as they did so, and they kept it up inconsequently, and mostly incomprehensibly, for the whole hour and a half of the journey that ensued.
The countryside differed little from that I had already seen. Once we were outside the gates there were the same tidy fields and standardised farms. The occasional built-up areas were not extensive and consisted of the same types of blocks close by, and we ran on the same, not very good, road surfaces. There were groups of the Amazon types, and, more rarely, individuals, to be seen at work in the fields, the sparse traffic was lorries, large or small, and occasional buses, but with never a private car to be seen. My illusion, I reflected, was remarkably consistent in its details. Not a single group of Amazons, for instance, failed to raise its right hands in friendly, respectful greeting to the pink car.
Once, we crossed a cutting. Looking down from the bridge I thought at first that we were over the dried bed of a canal, but then I noticed a post leaning at a crazy angle among the grass and weeds. Most of its attachments had fallen off, but there were enough left to identify it as a railway-signal.
We passed through one concentration of identical blocks which was in size, though in no other way, quite a town, and then, two or three miles farther on, ran through an ornamental gateway into a kind of park.
In one way it was not unlike the estate we had left, for everything was meticulously tended, the lawns like velvet, the flower-beds vivid with spring blossoms, but it differed essentially in that the Buildings were not blocks. They were houses, quite small for the most part, and varied in style, often no larger than roomy cottages. The place had a subduing effect on my small companions, for the first time they left off chattering, and gazed about them with obvious awe. The driver stopped once to inquire the way of an overalled Amazon who was striding along with a hod on her shoulder. She directed us, and gave me a cheerful, respectful grin through the window, and presently we drew up again in front of a neat little two-storey Regency-style house.
This time there was no trolley. The little women, assisted by the driver, fussed over helping me out, and then half-supported me into the house, in a kind of buttressing formation. Inside, I was manoeuvred with some difficulty through a door on the left, and found myself in a beautiful room, elegantly decorated and furnished in the period-style of the house. A white-haired woman in a purple silk dress was sitting in a wing-chair beside a wood fire. Both her face and her hands told of considerable age, but she looked at me from keen, lively eyes.
"Welcome, my dear," she said, in a voice which had no trace of the quaver I half-expected.
Her glance went to a chair. Then she looked at me again, and thought better of it.
"I expect youíd be more comfortable on the couch," she suggested.
I regarded the couch -- a genuine Georgian piece, I thought -- doubtfully.
"Will it stand it?" I wondered.
"Oh, I think so," she said, but not too certainly.
The retinue deposited me there carefully, and stood by, with anxious expressions. When it was clear that though it creaked it was probably going to hold, the old lady shooed them away, and rang a little silver bell. A diminutive figure, a perfect parlour-maid three-foot-ten in height, entered.
"The brown sherry, please, Mildred," instructed the old lady. "Youíll take sherry, my dear?" she added to me.
"Y -- yes -- yes, thank you," I said, faintly. After a pause I added. "You will excuse me, Mrs -- er -- Miss --?"
"Y -- yes -- yes, thank you," I said, faintly. After a pause I added. "You will excuse me, Mrs -- er -- Miss --?"
"Oh, I should have introduced myself. My name is Laura -- not Miss, or Mrs, just Laura. You, I know, are Orchis -- Mother Orchis."
"So they tell me," I owned, distastefully.
We studied one another. For the first time since the hallucination had set in I saw sympathy, even pity, in someone elseís eyes. I looked round the room again, noticing the perfection of details.
"This is Ė Iím not mad, am I?" I asked.
She shook her head slowly, but before she could reply the miniature parlour-maid returned, bearing a cut-glass decanter and glasses on a silver tray. As she poured out a glass for each of us I saw the old lady glance from her to me and back again, as though comparing us. There was a curious, uninterpretable expression on her face. I made an effort.
"Shouldnít it be Madeira?" I suggested. She looked surprised, and then smiled, and nodded appreciatively.
"I think you have accomplished the purpose of this visit in one sentence," she said.
The parlourmaid left, and we raised our glasses. The old lady sipped at hers and then placed it on an occasional table beside her.
"Nevertheless," she went on, "we had better go into it a little more. Did they tell you why they have sent you to me, my dear?"
"No," I shook my head.
"It is because I am an historian," she informed me. "Access to history is a privilege. It is not granted to many of us nowadays -- and then somewhat reluctantly. Fortunately, a feeling that no branches of knowledge should be allowed to perish entirely still exists -- though some of them are pursued at the cost of a certain political suspicion." She smiled deprecatingly, and then went on.
"So when confirmation is required it is necessary to appeal to a specialist. Did they give you any report on their diagnosis?"
I shook my head again.
"I thought not. So like the profession, isnít it? Well, Iíll tell you what they told me on the telephone from the Mothersí Home, and we shall have a better idea of what we are about. I was informed that you have been interviewed by several doctors whom you have interested, puzzled -- and I suspect, distressed -- very much, poor things. None of them has more than a minimum smattering of history, you see. Well, briefly, two of them are of the opinion that you are suffering from delusions of a schizophrenic nature. and three are inclined to think you are a genuine case of transferred personality. It is an extremely rare condition. There are not more than three reliably documented cases, and one that is more debatable, they tell me, but of those confirmed two are associated with the drug chuinjuatin, and the third with a drug of very similar properties.
Now, the majority of three found your answers coherent for the most part, and felt that they were authentically circumstantial. That is to say that nothing you told them conflicted directly with what they know, but, since they know so little outside their professional field, they found a great deal of the rest both hard to believe and impossible to check. Therefore I, with my better means of checking, have been asked for my opinion."
She paused, and looked me thoughtfully over.
"I rather think," she added, "that this is going to be one of the most curiously interesting things that has happened to me in my quite long life. Your glass is empty, my dear."
'Transferred personality," I repeated wanderingly, as I held out my glass. 'Now, if that were possible'
"Oh, there's no doubt about the possibility. Those three cases I mentioned are fully authenticated."
"It might be that -- almost," I admitted. "At least, in some ways it might be -- but not in others. There is this nightmare quality. You seem perfectly normal to me, but look at me, myself -- and at your little maid! There's certainly an element of delusion. I seem to be here, like this, and talking to you -- but it can't really be so, so where am I?'
"I can understand, better than most, I think, how unreal this must seem to you. In fact, I have spent so much of my time in books that it sometimes seems unreal to me -- as if I did not quite belong anywhere. Now, tell me my dear, when were you born?" I told her. She thought for a moment
"H'm," she said. "George the Sixth Ė but do you remember the second big war?"
"No," I agreed.
"But you might remember the co-monarch? Whose was that?"
"Elizabeth -- Elizabeth the Second. My mother took me to see the procession," I told her.
"Do you remember anything about it?"
"Not a lot, not really -- except that it rained, nearly all day," I admitted.
We went on like that for a little while, then she smiled, reassuringly.
"Well, I don't think we need any more to establish our point. I've heard about that coronation before -- at second -- hand. It must have been a wonderful scene in the abbey." She mused a moment, and gave a little sigh. "You've been very patient with me, my dear. It is only fair that you should have your turn -- but I'm afraid you must prepare yourself for some shocks,"
"I think I must be inured after my last thirty-six hours -- or what has appeared to be thirty-six hours" I told her.
"I doubt it," she said, looking at me seriously. "Tell me," I asked her. "Please explain it all -- if you can."
"Your glass, my dear. Then Iíll get the crux of it over." She poured for each of us, then she asked.
"What strikes you as the oddest feature of your experience, so far?"
I considered. "Thereís so much."
"Might it not be that you have not seen a single man?" she suggested. I thought back. I remembered the wondering tone of one , of the Mothers asking. "What is a man?"
"Thatís certainly one of them," I agreed. "Where are they?"
She shook her head, watching me steadily.
"There arenít any, my dear. Not any more. None at all."
I simply went on staring at her. Her expression was perfectly serious and sympathetic. There was no trace of guile there, or deception, while I struggled with the idea. At last I managed.
"But -- but thatís impossible! There must be some somewhere.... You couldnít -- I mean, how? -- I meanÖ.." , My expostulation trailed off in confusion.
She shook her head.
"I know it must seem impossible to you, Jane -- may I call you Jane? But it is so. I am an old woman now, nearly eighty, and in all my long life I have never seen a man -- save in old pictures and photographs. Drink your sherry, my dear. It will do you good." She paused. "Iím afraid this upsets you."
I obeyed, too bewildered for further comment at the moment, protesting inwardly, yet not altogether disbelieving, for certainly I had not seen one man, nor sign of any. She went on quietly, giving me time to collect my wits.
"I can understand a little how you must feel. I havenít had to learn all my history entirely from books, you see. When I was a girl, sixteen or seventeen, I used to listen a lot to my grandmother. She was as old then as I am now, but her memory of her youth was still very good. I was able almost to see the places she talked about -- but they were part of such a different world that it was difficult for me to understand how she felt. When she spoke about the young man she had been engaged to, tears would roll down her cheeks, even then Ė not just for him, of course, but for the whole world that she had known as a girl. I was sorry for her, although I could not really understand how she felt. -- How should I? But now that I am old, too, and have read so much, I am perhaps a little nearer to understanding her feelings, I think."
She looked at me curiously.
"And you, my dear. Perhaps you, too, were engaged to be married?"
"I was married -- for a little time," I told her.
She contemplated that for some seconds, then.
"It must be a very strange experience to be owned," she remarked, reflectively.
"Owned?" I exclaimed, in astonishment.
"Ruled by a husband," she explained, sympathetically. I stared at her.
"But it -- it wasnít like that -- it wasnít that at all," I protested. "It was --" But there I broke off, with tears too close. To steer her away I asked.
"But what happened? What on earth happened to the men?"
"They all died," she told me. "They fell sick. Nobody could do anything for them, so they died. In little more than a year they were all gone -- all but a very few."
"But surely -- surely everything would collapse?"
"Oh, yes. Very largely it did. It was very bad. There was a dreadful lot of starvation. The industrial parts were the worst hit, of course. In the more backward countries and in rural areas women were able to turn to the land and till it to keep themselves and their children alive, but almost all the large organisations broke down entirely. Transport ceased very soon, petrol ran out, and no coal was being mined. It was quite a dreadful state of affairs because although there were a great many women, and they had outnumbered the men, in fact, they had only really been important as consumers and spenders of money. So when the crisis came it turned out that scarcely any of them knew how to do any of the important things because they had nearly all been owned by men, and had to lead their lives as pets and parasites."
I started to protest, but her frail hand waved me aside.
"It wasnít their fault -- not entirely," she explained. "They were caught up in a process, and everything conspired against their escape. It was a long process, going right back to the eleventh century, in Southern France. The Romantic conception started there as an elegant and amusing fashion for the leisured classes. Gradually, as time went on, it permeated through most levels of society, but it was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that its commercial possibilities were intelligently perceived, and not until the twentieth that it was really exploited. At the beginning of the twentieth.
"But," I said helplessly, "I know the time. Itís my time. This is all distorted."
"The perspective of history must be truer," she told me again, unimpressed, and went on. "But if what happened had to happen, then it chose a fortunate time to happen. A hundred years earlier, even fifty years earlier, it would very likely have meant extinction. Fifty years later might easily have been too late -- it might have come upon a world in which all women had profitably restricted themselves to domesticity and consumership. Luckily, however, in the middle of the century some women were still entering the professions, and by far the greatest number of professional women was to be found in medicine -- which is to say that they were only really numerous in, and skilled in, the very profession which immediately became of vital, importance if we were to survive at all.
I have no medical knowledge, so I cannot give you any details of the steps they took. All I can tell you is that there was intensive research on lines which will probably be more obvious to you than they are to me. A species, even our species, has great will to survive, and the doctors saw to it that the will had the means of expression. Through all the hunger, and the chaos, and the other privations, babies somehow continued to be born. That had to be.
Reconstruction could wait. The priority was the new generation that would help in the reconstruction, and then inherit it. So babies were born, the girl babies lived, the boy babies died. That was distressing, and wasteful, too, and so, presently, only girl babies were born -- again, the means by which that could be achieved will be easier for you to understand than for me. It is, they tell me, not nearly so remarkable as it would appear at first sight. The locust, it seems, will continue to produce female locusts without male, or any other kind of assistance, the aphis, too, is able to go on breeding alone and in seclusion, certainly for eight generations, perhaps more. So it would be a poor thing if we, with all our knowledge and powers of research to assist us, should find ourselves inferior to the locust and the aphis in this respect, would it not?"
She paused, looking at me somewhat quizzically for my response. Perhaps she expected amazed -- or possibly shocked -- disbelief. If so, I disappointed her. Technical achievements have ceased to arouse simple wonder since atomic physics showed how the barriers fall before the pressure of a good brains-team. One can take it that most things are possible. Whether they are desirable, or worth doing, is a different matter -- and one that seemed to me particularly pertinent to her question. I asked her.
"And what is it that you have achieved?"
"Survival," she said, simply.
"Materially," I agreed, "I suppose you have. But when it has cost all the rest, when love, art, poetry, excitement, and physical joy have all been sacrificed to mere continued existence, what is left but a soulless waste? What reason is there any longer for survival?"
"As to the reason, I donít know -- except that survival is a desire common to all species. I am quite sure that the reason for that desire was no clearer in the twentieth century than it is now. But, for the rest, why should you assume that they are gone? Did not Sappho write poetry? And your assumption that the possession of a soul depends upon a duality of sexes surprises me, it has so often been held that the two are in some sort of conflict, has it not?"
"As an historian who must have studied men, women, and motives you should have taken my meaning better," I told her.
She shook her head, with reproof. "You are so much the conditioned product of your age, my dear. They told you, on all levels, from the works of Freud to that of the most nugatory magazines for women, that it was sex, civilised into romantic love, that made the world go round -- and you believed them. But the world continues to go round for others, too -- for the insects, the fish, the birds, the animals -- and how much do you suppose they know of romantic love, even in brief mating seasons? They hoodwinked you, my dear. Between them they channelled your interests and ambitions along courses that were socially convenient, economically profitable, and almost harmless."
I shook my head. "I just donít believe it. Oh, yes, you know something of my world -- from the outside. But you donít understand it, or feel it."
"Thatís your conditioning, my dear," she told me, calmly. Her repeated assumption irritated me. I asked.
"Suppose I were to believe what you say, what is it, then, that does make the world go round?"
"Thatís simple, my dear. It is the will to power. We have that as babies, we have it still in old age. It occurs in men and women alike. It is more fundamental, and more desirable, than sex, I tell you, you were misled -- exploited, sublimated for economic convenience. After the disease had struck, women ceased, for the first time in history, to be an exploited class. Without male rulers to confuse and divert them they began to perceive that all true power resides in the female principle.
The male had served only one brief useful purpose, for the rest of his life he was a painful and costly parasite.
As they became aware of power, the doctors grasped it. In twenty years they were in full control. With them were the few women engineers, architects, lawyers, administrators, some teachers, and so on, but it was the doctors who held the keys of life and death. The future was in their hands and, as things began gradually to revive, they, together with the other professions, remained the dominant class and became known as the Doctorate. It assumed authority, it made the laws, it enforced them.
There was opposition, of course. Neither the memory of the old days, nor the effect of twenty years of lawlessness, could be wiped out at once, but the doctors had the whip hand any woman who wanted a child had to come to them, and they saw to it that she was satisfactorily settled in a community. The roving gangs dwindled away, and gradually order was restored. Later on, they faced better-organised opposition. There was a party which contended that the disease which had struck down the men had run its course, and the balance could, and should, be restored -- they were known as Reactionists, and they became an embarrassment.
Most of the Council of the Doctorate still had clear memories of a system which used every weakness of women, and had been no more than a mere civilised culmination of their exploitation through the ages. They remembered how they themselves had only grudgingly been allowed to qualify for their careers. They were now in command, they felt no obligation to surrender their power and authority, and eventually, no doubt, their freedom to a creature whom they had proved to be biologically, and in all other ways, expendable. They refused unanimously to take a step that would lead to corporate suicide, and the Reactionists were proscribed as a subversive criminal organisation. That, however, was just a palliative. It quickly became clear that they were attacking a symptom and neglecting the cause. The Council was driven to realise that it had an unbalanced society at its hands -- a society that was capable of continuity, but was in structure, you might say, little more than the residue of a vanished form. It could not continue in that truncated shape, and as long as it tried to disaffection would. Therefore, if power was to become stable, a new form suitable to the circumstances must be found.
In deciding the shape it should take, the natural tendencies of the little-educated and uneducated woman were carefully considered -- such qualities as her feeling for hierarchical principles and her disposition to respect artificial distinctions. You will no doubt recollect that in your own time any fool of a woman whose husband was ennobled or honoured at once acquired increased respect and envy from other women though she remained the same fool, and also, that any gathering or society of unoccupied women, would soon become obsessionally enmeshed in the creation and preservation of social distinctions. Allied to this is the high value they usually place upon a feeling of security. Important, too, is the capacity for devoted self-sacrifice, and slavery to conscience within the canons of any local convention. We are naturally very biddable creatures. Most of us are happiest when we are being orthodox, however odd our customs may appear to an outsider, the difficulty in handling us lies chiefly in establishing the required standards of orthodoxy.
Obviously, the broad outline of a system which was going to stand any chance of success, would have to provide scope for these and other characteristic traits. It must be a scheme where the interplay of forces would preserve equilibrium and respect for authority. The details of such an organisation, however, were less easy to determine.
An extensive study of social forms and orders was undertaken but for several years every plan put forward was rejected as in some way unsuitable. The architecture of that finally chosen was said, though I do not know with how much truth, to have been inspired by the Bible -- a book at that time still unprohibited, and the source of much unrest -- I am told that it ran something like.. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways."