A PASSAGE FROM THE ORAL HISTORY OF ARDEVORA.
Woman Suffrage? It’s surprising to me how light some folks will talk– with a Providence, for all they know, waiting round the corner to take them at their word. I put my head in at the Working Man’s Institute last night, and there was the new Coastguard officer talking like a book, arguing about Woman Suffrage in a way that made me nervous. “Look ‘ee here,” he was saying, “a woman must be either married, or unmarried, or otherwise. Keep they three divisions clear in your heads, and then I’ll ask you to follow me–” And all the company sitting round with their mouths open. I came away: I couldn’t stand it. It put me in mind how my poor mother used to warn me against squinting for fun. “One of these days,” she’d say, “the wind’ll take and change sudden while you’re doing it; and there you’ll be fixed and looking fifty ways for Sunday until we meet in the land of marrow and fatness.”
And here in Ardevora, of all places!–where the womenkind be that masterful already, a man must get into his sea-boots before he can call his soul his own. Why, there was a woman here once that never asked for a vote in her life, and yet capsized an Election for Parliament–candidates, voters, and the whole apple-cart–as easy as you might turn over a plate. Did you ever hear tell of Kitty Lebow and her eight tall daughters? No; I daresay not. The world’s old and losing its memory when it begins to talk of Woman Suffrage.
This Kitty, or Christian, or Christiana Lebow was by birth a Bottrell: and a finer family than the Bottrells, by their own account, you wouldn’t find in all England. Not that it matters whether they came over with William the Norman, nor whether they could once on a time ride from sea to sea on their own acres. For Kitty was the last to carry the name, and she left it in Ardevora vestry the day she signed marriage with Paul Lebow (or, as he wrote it, Lebeau–“b-e-a-u,”): and the property had gone generations before. As she said ‘pon her death-bed, “five-foot-six of church-hay will hold the only two achers left to me,” she being a little body and very facetious to the last, and meaning her legs, of course.
Now the reason I can’t tell you: but the mischief with the Bottrells was this: That for generation after generation all the spirit of the family went to the females. The men just dandered away their time and their money, fell into declines, or had fits and went out like the snuff of a candle. But the women couldn’t be held nor bound, lived to any age they pleased, and either kept their sweethearts on the hook or married them and made their lives a burden. Oh, a bean-fed sex, sir, and monstrous handsome! And Kitty, though little, was as handsome as any, and walked Ardevora streets with her eight daughters, all tall as grenadiers and terrible as an army with banners.
Her father, old Piers Bottrell, had been a ship’s captain: a very tidy old fellow in his behaviour, but muddled in mind, especially towards the end; so that when he died (which he did in his bed, quite peaceful) he must needs take and haunt the house. There wasn’t a ha’porth of reason for it, that anyone could discover; and Kitty didn’t mind it one farthing. But some say it frightened her husband into his grave: though I reckon he took worse fright at Kitty presenting him with eight daughters one after the other. With a woman like that, you can’t say where accident ends and love of mischief begins. And for that matter, there was no telling why she’d married the man at all except for mischief: his father and mother being poor French refugees that had come to Ardevora, thirty years before, and been given shelter by the borough charity in the old Ugnes House– the same that old Piers Bottrell afterwards bought and died in: and Lebow himself, though born in the town and a fisherman by calling, never able to get his tongue round good plain English until the day he was drowned on the whiting-grounds and left Kitty a widow-woman.