Presently Edith and her mother went into the house to study out the letters, and the doctor being so delightfully absorbed with the stocks and bonds that it would have been unkind not to leave him alone, it struck me that the occasion was favorable for the execution of a private project for which opportunity had hitherto been lacking.
From the moment of receiving my credit card I had contemplated a particular purchase which I desired to make on the first opportunity. This was a betrothal ring for Edith. Gifts in general, it was evident, had lost their value in this age when everybody had everything he wanted, but this was one which, for sentiment's sake, I was sure would still seem as desirable to a woman as ever.
Taking advantage, therefore, of the unusual absorption of my hosts in special interests, I made my way to the great store Edith had taken me to on a former occasion, the only one I had thus far entered. Not seeing the class of goods which I desired indicated by any of the placards over the alcoves, I presently asked one of the young women attendants to direct me to the jewelry department.
"I beg your pardon," she said, raising her eyebrows a little, "what did I understand you to ask for?"
"The jewelry department," I repeated. "I want to look at some rings."
"Rings," she repeated, regarding me with a rather blank expression. "May I ask what kind of rings, for what sort of use?"
"Finger rings," I repeated, feeling that the young woman could not be so intelligent as she looked.
At the word she glanced at my left hand, on one of the fingers of which I wore a seal ring after a fashion of my day. Her countenance took on an expression at once of intelligence and the keenest interest.
"I beg your pardon a thousand times!" she exclaimed. "I ought to have understood before. You are Julian West?"
I was beginning to be a little nettled with so much mystery about so simple a matter.
"I certainly am Julian West," I said; "but pardon me if I do not see the relevancy of that fact to the question I asked you."
"Oh, you must really excuse me," she said, "but it is most relevant. Nobody in America but just yourself would ask for finger rings. You see they have not been used for so long a period that we have quite ceased to keep them in stock; but if you would like one made to order you have only to leave a description of what you want and it will be at once manufactured."
I thanked her, but concluded that I would not prosecute the undertaking any further until I had looked over the ground a little more thoroughly.
I said nothing about my adventure at home, not caring to be laughed at more than was necessary; but when after dinner I found the doctor alone in his favorite outdoor study on the housetop, I cautiously sounded him on the subject.
Remarking, as if quite in a casual way, that I had not noticed so much as a finger ring worn by any one, I asked him whether the wearing of jewelry had been disused, and, if so, what was the explanation of the abandonment of the custom?
The doctor said that it certainly was a fact that the wearing of jewelry had been virtually an obsolete custom for a couple of generations if not more. "As for the reasons for the fact," he continued, "they really go rather deeply into the direct and indirect consequences of our present economic system. Speaking broadly, I suppose the main and sufficient reason why gold and silver and precious stones have ceased to be prized as ornaments is that they entirely lost their commercial value when the nation organized wealth distribution on the basis of the indefeasible economic equality of all citizens. As you know, a ton of gold or a bushel of diamonds would not secure a loaf of bread at the public stores, nothing availing there except or in addition to the citizen's credit, which depends solely on his citizenship, and is always equal to that of every other citizen. Consequently nothing is worth anything to anybody nowadays save for the use or pleasure he can personally derive from it. The main reason why gems and the precious metals were formerly used as ornaments seems to have been the great convertible value belonging to them, which made them symbols of wealth and importance, and consequently a favorite means of social ostentation. The fact that they have entirely lost this quality would account, I think, largely for their disuse as ornaments, even if ostentation itself had not been deprived of its motive by the law of equality."
"Undoubtedly," I said; "yet there were those who thought them pretty quite apart from their value."
"Well, possibly," replied the doctor. "Yes, I suppose savage races honestly thought so, but, being honest, they did not distinguish between precious stones and glass beads so long as both were equally shiny. As to the pretension of civilized persons to admire gems or gold for their intrinsic beauty apart from their value, I suspect that was a more or less unconscious sham. Suppose, by any sudden abundance, diamonds of the first water had gone down to the value of bottle glass, how much longer do you think they would have been worn by anybody in your day?"
I was constrained to admit that undoubtedly they would have disappeared from view promptly and permanently.
"I imagine," said the doctor, "that good taste, which we understand even in your day rather frowned on the use of such ornaments, came to the aid of the economic influence in promoting their disuse when once the new order of things had been established. The loss by the gems and precious metals of the glamour that belonged to them as forms of concentrated wealth left the taste free to judge of the real aesthetic value of ornamental effects obtained by hanging bits of shining stones and plates and chains and rings of metal about the face and neck and fingers, and the view seems to have been soon generally acquiesced in that such combinations were barbaric and not really beautiful at all."
"But what has become of all the diamonds and rubies and emeralds, and gold and silver jewels?" I exclaimed.
"The metals, of course--silver and gold--kept their uses, mechanical and artistic. They are always beautiful in their proper places, and are as much used for decorative purposes as ever, but those purposes are architectural, not personal, as formerly. Because we do not follow the ancient practice of using paints on our faces and bodies, we use them not the less in what we consider their proper places, and it is just so with gold and silver. As for the precious stones, some of them have found use in mechanical applications, and there are, of course, collections of them in museums here and there. Probably there never were more than a few hundred bushels of precious stones in existence, and it is easy to account for the disappearance and speedy loss of so small a quantity of such minute objects after they had ceased to be prized."
"The reasons you give for the passing of jewelry," I said, "certainly account for the fact, and yet you can scarcely imagine what a surprise I find in it. The degradation of the diamond to the rank of the glass bead, save for its mechanical uses, expresses and typifies as no other one fact to me the completeness of the revolution which at the present time has subordinated things to humanity. It would not be so difficult, of course, to understand that men might readily have dispensed with jewel-wearing, which indeed was never considered in the best of taste as a masculine practice except in barbarous countries, but it would have staggered the prophet Jeremiah to have his query 'Can a maid forget her ornaments?' answered in the affirmative."
The doctor laughed.
"Jeremiah was a very wise man," he said, "and if his attention had been drawn to the subject of economic equality and its effect upon the relation of the sexes, I am sure he would have foreseen as one of its logical results the growth of a sentiment of quite as much philosophy concerning personal ornamentation on the part of women as men have ever displayed. He would not have been surprised to learn that one effect of that equality as between men and women had been to revolutionize women's attitude on the whole question of dress so completely that the most bilious of misogynists--if indeed any were left--would no longer be able to accuse them of being more absorbed in that interest than are men."
"Doctor, doctor, do not ask me to believe that the desire to make herself attractive has ceased to move woman!"
"Excuse me, I did not mean to say anything of the sort," replied the doctor. "I spoke of the disproportionate development of that desire which tends to defeat its own end by over-ornament and excess of artifice. If we may judge from the records of your time, this was quite generally the result of the excessive devotion to dress on the part of your women; was it not so?"
"Undoubtedly. Overdressing, overexertion to be attractive, was the greatest drawback to the real attractiveness of women in my day."
"And how was it with the men?"
"That could not be said of any men worth calling men. There were, of course, the dandies, but most men paid too little attention to their appearance rather than too much."
"That is to say, one sex paid too much attention to dress and the other too little?"
"That was it."
"Very well; the effect of economic equality of the sexes and the consequent independence of women at all times as to maintenance upon men is that women give much less thought to dress than in your day and men considerably more. No one would indeed think of suggesting that either sex is nowadays more absorbed in setting off its personal attractions than the other. Individuals differ as to their interest in this matter, but the difference is not along the line of sex."
"But why do you attribute this miracle," I exclaimed, "for miracle it seems, to the effect of economic equality on the relation of men and women?"
"Because from the moment that equality became established between them it ceased to be a whit more the interest of women to make themselves attractive and desirable to men than for men to produce the same impression upon women."
"Meaning thereby that previous to the establishment of economic equality between men and women it was decidedly more the interest of the women to make themselves personally attractive than of the men."
"Assuredly," said the doctor. "Tell me to what motive did men in your day ascribe the excessive devotion of the other sex to matters of dress as compared with men's comparative neglect of the subject?"
"Well, I don't think we did much clear thinking on the subject. In fact, anything which had any sexual suggestion about it was scarcely ever treated in any other than a sentimental or jesting tone."
"That is indeed," said the doctor, "a striking trait of your age, though explainable enough in view of the utter hypocrisy underlying the entire relation of the sexes, the pretended chivalric deference to women on the one hand, coupled with their practical suppression on the other, but you must have had some theory to account for women's excessive devotion to personal adornment."
"The theory, I think, was that handed down from the ancients--namely, that women were naturally vainer than men. But they did not like to hear that said: so the polite way of accounting for the obvious fact that they cared so much more for dress than did men was that they were more sensitive to beauty, more unselfishly desirous of pleasing, and other agreeable phrases."
"And did it not occur to you that the real reason why woman gave so much thought to devices for enhancing her beauty was simply that, owing to her economic dependence on man's favor, a woman's face was her fortune, and that the reason men were so careless for the most part as to their personal appearance was that their fortune in no way depended on their beauty; and that even when it came to commending themselves to the favor of the other sex their economic position told more potently in their favor than any question of personal advantages? Surely this obvious consideration fully explained woman's greater devotion to personal adornment, without assuming any difference whatever in the natural endowment of the sexes as to vanity."
"And consequently," I put in, "when women ceased any more to depend for their economic welfare upon men's favor, it ceased to be their main aim in life to make themselves attractive to men's eyes?"
"Precisely so, to their unspeakable gain in comfort, dignity, and freedom of mind for more important interests."
"But to the diminution, I suspect, of the picturesqueness of the social panorama?"
"Not at all, but most decidedly to its notable advantage. So far as we can judge, what claim the women of your period had to be regarded as attractive was achieved distinctly in spite of their efforts to make themselves so. Let us recall that we are talking about that excessive concern of women for the enhancement of their charms which led to a mad race after effect that for the most part defeated the end sought. Take away the economic motive which made women's attractiveness to men a means of getting on in life, and there remained Nature's impulse to attract the admiration of the other sex, a motive quite strong enough for beauty's end, and the more effective for not being too strong."
"It is easy enough to see," I said, "why the economic independence of women should have had the effect of moderating to a reasonable measure their interest in personal adornment; but why should it have operated in the opposite direction upon men, in making them more attentive to dress and personal appearance than before?"
"For the simple reason that their economic superiority to women having disappeared, they must henceforth depend wholly upon personal attractiveness if they would either win the favor of women or retain it when won."