Herland, Chapter 3: A Peculiar Imprisonment (Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman)

From a slumber as deep as death, as refreshing as that of a
healthy child, I slowly awakened.

It was like rising up, up, up through a deep warm ocean,
nearer and nearer to full light and stirring air. Or like the return
to consciousness after concussion of the brain. I was once thrown
from a horse while on a visit to a wild mountainous country quite
new to me, and I can clearly remember the mental experience of
coming back to life, through lifting veils of dream. When I first
dimly heard the voices of those about me, and saw the shining
snowpeaks of that mighty range, I assumed that this too would
pass, and I should presently find myself in my own home.

That was precisely the experience of this awakening: receding
waves of half-caught swirling vision, memories of home, the
steamer, the boat, the airship, the forest--at last all sinking away
one after another, till my eyes were wide open, my brain clear,
and I realized what had happened.

The most prominent sensation was of absolute physical comfort.
I was lying in a perfect bed: long, broad, smooth; firmly soft
and level; with the finest linen, some warm light quilt of blanket,
and a counterpane that was a joy to the eye. The sheet turned
down some fifteen inches, yet I could stretch my feet at the foot
of the bed free but warmly covered.

I felt as light and clean as a white feather. It took me some
time to conscientiously locate my arms and legs, to feel the vivid
sense of life radiate from the wakening center to the extremities.

A big room, high and wide, with many lofty windows whose
closed blinds let through soft green-lit air; a beautiful room, in
proportion, in color, in smooth simplicity; a scent of blossoming
gardens outside.

I lay perfectly still, quite happy, quite conscious, and yet not
actively realizing what had happened till I heard Terry.

"Gosh!" was what he said.

I turned my head. There were three beds in this chamber, and
plenty of room for them.

Terry was sitting up, looking about him, alert as ever. His
remark, though not loud, roused Jeff also. We all sat up.

Terry swung his legs out of bed, stood up, stretched himself
mightily. He was in a long nightrobe, a sort of seamless garment,
undoubtedly comfortable--we all found ourselves so covered.
Shoes were beside each bed, also quite comfortable and goodlooking
though by no means like our own.

We looked for our clothes--they were not there, nor anything
of all the varied contents of our pockets.

A door stood somewhat ajar; it opened into a most attractive
bathroom, copiously provided with towels, soap, mirrors, and all
such convenient comforts, with indeed our toothbrushes and combs,
our notebooks, and thank goodness, our watches--but no clothes.

Then we made a search of the big room again and found a
large airy closet, holding plenty of clothing, but not ours.

"A council of war!" demanded Terry. "Come on back to bed
--the bed's all right anyhow. Now then, my scientific friend, let
us consider our case dispassionately."

He meant me, but Jeff seemed most impressed.

"They haven't hurt us in the least!" he said. "They could have
killed us--or--or anything--and I never felt better in my life."

"That argues that they are all women," I suggested, "and
highly civilized. You know you hit one in the last scrimmage--
I heard her sing out--and we kicked awfully."

Terry was grinning at us. "So you realize what these ladies
have done to us?" he pleasantly inquired. "They have taken
away all our possessions, all our clothes--every stitch. We have
been stripped and washed and put to bed like so many yearling
babies--by these highly civilized women."

Jeff actually blushed. He had a poetic imagination. Terry had
imagination enough, of a different kind. So had I, also different.
I always flattered myself I had the scientific imagination, which,
incidentally, I considered the highest sort. One has a right to a
certain amount of egotism if founded on fact--and kept to one's
self--I think.

"No use kicking, boys," I said. "They've got us, and apparently
they're perfectly harmless. It remains for us to cook up some plan
of escape like any other bottled heroes. Meanwhile we've got to put
on these clothes--Hobson's choice."

The garments were simple in the extreme, and absolutely
comfortable, physically, though of course we all felt like supes
in the theater. There was a one-piece cotton undergarment, thin
and soft, that reached over the knees and shoulders, something
like the one-piece pajamas some fellows wear, and a kind of
half-hose, that came up to just under the knee and stayed there
--had elastic tops of their own, and covered the edges of the first.

Then there was a thicker variety of union suit, a lot of them
in the closet, of varying weights and somewhat sturdier material
--evidently they would do at a pinch with nothing further. Then
there were tunics, knee-length, and some long robes. Needless to
say, we took tunics.

We bathed and dressed quite cheerfully.

"Not half bad," said Terry, surveying himself in a long mirror.
His hair was somewhat longer than when we left the last barber,
and the hats provided were much like those seen on the prince
in the fairy tale, lacking the plume.

The costume was similar to that which we had seen on all the
women, though some of them, those working in the fields, glimpsed
by our glasses when we first flew over, wore only the first two.

I settled my shoulders and stretched my arms, remarking:
"They have worked out a mighty sensible dress, I'll say that for
them." With which we all agreed.

"Now then," Terry proclaimed, "we've had a fine long sleep
--we've had a good bath--we're clothed and in our right minds,
though feeling like a lot of neuters. Do you think these highly
civilized ladies are going to give us any breakfast?"

"Of course they will," Jeff asserted confidently. "If they had
meant to kill us, they would have done it before. I believe we are
going to be treated as guests."

"Hailed as deliverers, I think," said Terry.

"Studied as curiosities," I told them. "But anyhow, we want food.
So now for a sortie!"

A sortie was not so easy.

The bathroom only opened into our chamber, and that had
but one outlet, a big heavy door, which was fastened.

We listened.

"There's someone outside," Jeff suggested. "Let's knock."

So we knocked, whereupon the door opened.

Outside was another large room, furnished with a great table
at one end, long benches or couches against the wall, some smaller
tables and chairs. All these were solid, strong, simple in structure,
and comfortable in use--also, incidentally, beautiful.

This room was occupied by a number of women, eighteen to
be exact, some of whom we distinctly recalled.

Terry heaved a disappointed sigh. "The Colonels!" I heard
him whisper to Jeff.

Jeff, however, advanced and bowed in his best manner; so did
we all, and we were saluted civilly by the tall-standing women.

We had no need to make pathetic pantomime of hunger; the
smaller tables were already laid with food, and we were gravely
invited to be seated. The tables were set for two; each of us found
ourselves placed vis-a-vis with one of our hosts, and each table
had five other stalwarts nearby, unobtrusively watching. We had
plenty of time to get tired of those women!

The breakfast was not profuse, but sufficient in amount and
excellent in quality. We were all too good travelers to object to
novelty, and this repast with its new but delicious fruit, its dish
of large rich-flavored nuts, and its highly satisfactory little cakes
was most agreeable. There was water to drink, and a hot beverage
of a most pleasing quality, some preparation like cocoa.

And then and there, willy-nilly, before we had satisfied our
appetites, our education began.

By each of our plates lay a little book, a real printed book,
though different from ours both in paper and binding, as well,
of course, as in type. We examined them curiously.

"Shades of Sauveur!" muttered Terry. "We're to learn the language!"

We were indeed to learn the language, and not only that, but
to teach our own. There were blank books with parallel columns,
neatly ruled, evidently prepared for the occasion, and in these,
as fast as we learned and wrote down the name of anything, we
were urged to write our own name for it by its side.

The book we had to study was evidently a schoolbook, one
in which children learned to read, and we judged from this, and
from their frequent consultation as to methods, that they had
had no previous experience in the art of teaching foreigners their
language, or of learning any other.

On the other hand, what they lacked in experience, they
made up for in genius. Such subtle understanding, such instant
recognition of our difficulties, and readiness to meet them,
were a constant surprise to us.

Of course, we were willing to meet them halfway. It was wholly
to our advantage to be able to understand and speak with them, and
as to refusing to teach them--why should we? Later on we did try
open rebellion, but only once.

That first meal was pleasant enough, each of us quietly studying
his companion, Jeff with sincere admiration, Terry with that highly
technical look of his, as of a past master--like a lion tamer,
a serpent charmer, or some such professional. I myself was
intensely interested.

It was evident that those sets of five were there to check any
outbreak on our part. We had no weapons, and if we did try to do any
damage, with a chair, say, why five to one was too many for us, even
if they were women; that we had found out to our sorrow. It was not
pleasant, having them always around, but we soon got used to it.

"It's better than being physically restrained ourselves,"
Jeff philosophically suggested when we were alone. "They've
given us a room--with no great possibility of escape--and
personal liberty--heavily chaperoned. It's better than we'd
have been likely to get in a man-country."

"Man-Country! Do you really believe there are no men here,
you innocent? Don't you know there must be?" demanded Terry.

"Ye--es," Jeff agreed. "Of course--and yet--"

"And yet--what! Come, you obdurate sentimentalist--what
are you thinking about?"

"They may have some peculiar division of labor we've never
heard of," I suggested. "The men may live in separate towns, or
they may have subdued them--somehow--and keep them shut up.
But there must be some."

"That last suggestion of yours is a nice one, Van,"
Terry protested. "Same as they've got us subdued and shut up!
you make me shiver."

"Well, figure it out for yourself, anyway you please. We saw
plenty of kids, the first day, and we've seen those girls--"

"Real girls!" Terry agreed, in immense relief. "Glad you
mentioned 'em. I declare, if I thought there was nothing in the
country but those grenadiers I'd jump out the window."

"Speaking of windows," I suggested, "let's examine ours."

We looked out of all the windows. The blinds opened easily
enough, and there were no bars, but the prospect was not reassuring.

This was not the pink-walled town we had so rashly entered the
day before. Our chamber was high up, in a projecting wing of a sort
of castle, built out on a steep spur of rock. Immediately below us
were gardens, fruitful and fragrant, but their high walls followed the
edge of the cliff which dropped sheer down, we could not see how far.
The distant sound of water suggested a river at the foot.

We could look out east, west, and south. To the southeastward
stretched the open country, lying bright and fair in the morning light,
but on either side, and evidently behind, rose great mountains.

"This thing is a regular fortress--and no women built it, I can
tell you that," said Terry. We nodded agreeingly. "It's right up
among the hills--they must have brought us a long way."

"We saw some kind of swift-moving vehicles the first day,"
Jeff reminded us. "If they've got motors, they ARE civilized."

"Civilized or not, we've got our work cut out for us to get
away from here. I don't propose to make a rope of bedclothes and
try those walls till I'm sure there is no better way."

We all concurred on this point, and returned to our discussion
as to the women.

Jeff continued thoughtful. "All the same, there's something
funny about it," he urged. "It isn't just that we don't see any men
--but we don't see any signs of them. The--the--reaction of
these women is different from any that I've ever met."

"There is something in what you say, Jeff," I agreed. "There
is a different--atmosphere."

"They don't seem to notice our being men," he went on.
"They treat us--well--just as they do one another. It's as if our
being men was a minor incident."

I nodded. I'd noticed it myself. But Terry broke in rudely.

"Fiddlesticks!" he said. "It's because of their advanced age.
They're all grandmas, I tell you--or ought to be. Great aunts,
anyhow. Those girls were girls all right, weren't they?"

"Yes--" Jeff agreed, still slowly. "But they weren't afraid--
they flew up that tree and hid, like schoolboys caught out of bounds--
not like shy girls."

"And they ran like marathon winners--you'll admit that, Terry,"
he added.

Terry was moody as the days passed. He seemed to mind our
confinement more than Jeff or I did; and he harped on Alima, and
how near he'd come to catching her. "If I had--" he would say,
rather savagely, "we'd have had a hostage and could have made terms."

But Jeff was getting on excellent terms with his tutor, and
even his guards, and so was I. It interested me profoundly to note
and study the subtle difference between these women and other
women, and try to account for them. In the matter of personal
appearance, there was a great difference. They all wore short hair,
some few inches at most; some curly, some not; all light and clean
and fresh-looking.

"If their hair was only long," Jeff would complain,
"they would look so much more feminine."

I rather liked it myself, after I got used to it. Why we should
so admire "a woman's crown of hair" and not admire a Chinaman's
queue is hard to explain, except that we are so convinced that
the long hair "belongs" to a woman. Whereas the "mane" in horses
is on both, and in lions, buffalos, and such creatures only on the male.
But I did miss it--at first.

Our time was quite pleasantly filled. We were free of the
garden below our windows, quite long in its irregular rambling
shape, bordering the cliff. The walls were perfectly smooth and
high, ending in the masonry of the building; and as I studied
the great stones I became convinced that the whole structure
was extremely old. It was built like the pre-Incan architecture
in Peru, of enormous monoliths, fitted as closely as mosaics.

"These folks have a history, that's sure," I told the others.
"And SOME time they were fighters--else why a fortress?"

I said we were free of the garden, but not wholly alone in it.
There was always a string of those uncomfortably strong women
sitting about, always one of them watching us even if the others
were reading, playing games, or busy at some kind of handiwork.

"When I see them knit," Terry said, "I can almost call them

"That doesn't prove anything," Jeff promptly replied.
"Scotch shepherds knit--always knitting."

"When we get out--" Terry stretched himself and looked at
the far peaks, "when we get out of this and get to where the real
women are--the mothers, and the girls--"

"Well, what'll we do then?" I asked, rather gloomily. "How
do you know we'll ever get out?"

This was an unpleasant idea, which we unanimously considered,
returning with earnestness to our studies.

"If we are good boys and learn our lessons well," I suggested.
"If we are quiet and respectful and polite and they are not afraid
of us--then perhaps they will let us out. And anyway--when we
do escape, it is of immense importance that we know the language."

Personally, I was tremendously interested in that language,
and seeing they had books, was eager to get at them, to dig into
their history, if they had one.

It was not hard to speak, smooth and pleasant to the ear, and
so easy to read and write that I marveled at it. They had an
absolutely phonetic system, the whole thing was as scientific as
Esparanto yet bore all the marks of an old and rich civilization.

We were free to study as much as we wished, and were not
left merely to wander in the garden for recreation but introduced
to a great gymnasium, partly on the roof and partly in the story
below. Here we learned real respect for our tall guards. No
change of costume was needed for this work, save to lay off outer
clothing. The first one was as perfect a garment for exercise as
need be devised, absolutely free to move in, and, I had to admit,
much better-looking than our usual one.

"Forty--over forty--some of 'em fifty, I bet--and look at
'em!" grumbled Terry in reluctant admiration.

There were no spectacular acrobatics, such as only the young
can perform, but for all-around development they had a most
excellent system. A good deal of music went with it, with posture
dancing and, sometimes, gravely beautiful processional performances.

Jeff was much impressed by it. We did not know then how
small a part of their physical culture methods this really was,
but found it agreeable to watch, and to take part in.

Oh yes, we took part all right! It wasn't absolutely compulsory,
but we thought it better to please.

Terry was the strongest of us, though I was wiry and had
good staying power, and Jeff was a great sprinter and hurdler,
but I can tell you those old ladies gave us cards and spades.
They ran like deer, by which I mean that they ran not as if
it was a performance, but as if it was their natural gait.
We remembered those fleeting girls of our first bright adventure,
and concluded that it was.

They leaped like deer, too, with a quick folding motion of the
legs, drawn up and turned to one side with a sidelong twist of
the body. I remembered the sprawling spread-eagle way in which
some of the fellows used to come over the line--and tried to learn
the trick. We did not easily catch up with these experts, however.

"Never thought I'd live to be bossed by a lot of elderly lady
acrobats," Terry protested.

They had games, too, a good many of them, but we found
them rather uninteresting at first. It was like two people playing
solitaire to see who would get it first; more like a race or a--a
competitive examination, than a real game with some fight in it.

I philosophized a bit over this and told Terry it argued against
their having any men about. "There isn't a man-size game in the lot,"
I said.

"But they are interesting--I like them," Jeff objected, "and
I'm sure they are educational."

"I'm sick and tired of being educated," Terry protested.
"Fancy going to a dame school--at our age. I want to Get Out!"

But we could not get out, and we were being educated
swiftly. Our special tutors rose rapidly in our esteem. They
seemed of rather finer quality than the guards, though all were
on terms of easy friendliness. Mine was named Somel, Jeff's
Zava, and Terry's Moadine. We tried to generalize from the names,
those of the guards, and of our three girls, but got nowhere.

"They sound well enough, and they're mostly short,
but there's no similarity of termination--and no two alike.
However, our acquaintance is limited as yet."

There were many things we meant to ask--as soon as we could talk
well enough. Better teaching I never saw. From morning to night
there was Somel, always on call except between two and four;
always pleasant with a steady friendly kindness that I grew to
enjoy very much. Jeff said Miss Zava--he would put on a title,
though they apparently had none--was a darling, that she reminded
him of his Aunt Esther at home; but Terry refused to be won,
and rather jeered at his own companion, when we were alone.

"I'm sick of it!" he protested. "Sick of the whole thing. Here
we are cooped up as helpless as a bunch of three-year-old orphans,
and being taught what they think is necessary--whether we like it
or not. Confound their old-maid impudence!"

Nevertheless we were taught. They brought in a raised map
of their country, beautifully made, and increased our knowledge
of geographical terms; but when we inquired for information as
to the country outside, they smilingly shook their heads.

They brought pictures, not only the engravings in the books
but colored studies of plants and trees and flowers and birds.
They brought tools and various small objects--we had plenty of
"material" in our school.

If it had not been for Terry we would have been much more
contented, but as the weeks ran into months he grew more and
more irritable.

"Don't act like a bear with a sore head," I begged him.
"We're getting on finely. Every day we can understand them better,
and pretty soon we can make a reasonable plea to be let out--"

"LET out!" he stormed. "LET out--like children kept after
school. I want to Get Out, and I'm going to. I want to find the
men of this place and fight!--or the girls--"

"Guess it's the girls you're most interested in," Jeff commented.
"What are you going to fight WITH--your fists?"

"Yes--or sticks and stones--I'd just like to!" And Terry squared
off and tapped Jeff softly on the jaw. "Just for instance," he said.

"Anyhow," he went on, "we could get back to our machine and clear out."

"If it's there," I cautiously suggested.

"Oh, don't croak, Van! If it isn't there, we'll find our way down
somehow--the boat's there, I guess."

It was hard on Terry, so hard that he finally persuaded us to
consider a plan of escape. It was difficult, it was highly dangerous,
but he declared that he'd go alone if we wouldn't go with him, and of
course we couldn't think of that.

It appeared he had made a pretty careful study of the environment.
From our end window that faced the point of the promontory we could get
a fair idea of the stretch of wall, and the drop below. Also from the
roof we could make out more, and even, in one place, glimpse a sort of
path below the wall.

"It's a question of three things," he said. "Ropes, agility, and
not being seen."

"That's the hardest part," I urged, still hoping to dissuade him.
"One or another pair of eyes is on us every minute except at night."

"Therefore we must do it at night," he answered. "That's easy."

"We've got to think that if they catch us we may not be so
well treated afterward," said Jeff.

"That's the business risk we must take. I'm going--if I break
my neck." There was no changing him.

The rope problem was not easy. Something strong enough to
hold a man and long enough to let us down into the garden, and
then down over the wall. There were plenty of strong ropes in
the gymnasium--they seemed to love to swing and climb on
them--but we were never there by ourselves.

We should have to piece it out from our bedding, rugs, and
garments, and moreover, we should have to do it after we were
shut in for the night, for every day the place was cleaned to
perfection by two of our guardians.

We had no shears, no knives, but Terry was resourceful.
"These Jennies have glass and china, you see. We'll break a glass
from the bathroom and use that. `Love will find out a way,'" he
hummed. "When we're all out of the window, we'll stand three-man
high and cut the rope as far up as we can reach, so as to have more
for the wall. I know just where I saw that bit of path below, and
there's a big tree there, too, or a vine or something--I saw the leaves."

It seemed a crazy risk to take, but this was, in a way, Terry's
expedition, and we were all tired of our imprisonment.

So we waited for full moon, retired early, and spent an anxious
hour or two in the unskilled manufacture of man-strong ropes.

To retire into the depths of the closet, muffle a glass in thick
cloth, and break it without noise was not difficult, and broken
glass will cut, though not as deftly as a pair of scissors.

The broad moonlight streamed in through four of our windows--we
had not dared leave our lights on too long--and we worked hard and
fast at our task of destruction.

Hangings, rugs, robes, towels, as well as bed-furniture--even the
mattress covers--we left not one stitch upon another, as Jeff put it.

Then at an end window, as less liable to observation, we
fastened one end of our cable, strongly, to the firm-set hinge of
the inner blind, and dropped our coiled bundle of rope softly over.

"This part's easy enough--I'll come last, so as to cut the rope,"
said Terry.

So I slipped down first, and stood, well braced against the
wall; then Jeff on my shoulders, then Terry, who shook us a
little as he sawed through the cord above his head. Then I
slowly dropped to the ground, Jeff following, and at last we
all three stood safe in the garden, with most of our rope with us.

"Good-bye, Grandma!" whispered Terry, under his breath,
and we crept softly toward the wall, taking advantage of the
shadow of every bush and tree. He had been foresighted enough
to mark the very spot, only a scratch of stone on stone, but we
could see to read in that light. For anchorage there was a tough,
fair-sized shrub close to the wall.

"Now I'll climb up on you two again and go over first," said
Terry. "That'll hold the rope firm till you both get up on top.
Then I'll go down to the end. If I can get off safely, you can see
me and follow--or, say, I'll twitch it three times. If I find there's
absolutely no footing--why I'll climb up again, that's all. I don't
think they'll kill us."

From the top he reconnoitered carefully, waved his hand, and
whispered, "OK," then slipped over. Jeff climbed up and I followed,
and we rather shivered to see how far down that swaying, wavering
figure dropped, hand under hand, till it disappeared in a mass of
foliage far below.

Then there were three quick pulls, and Jeff and I, not without
a joyous sense of recovered freedom, successfully followed our leader.


Originally published in Forerunner (1915).

Etext from Project Gutenberg.

This public domain text has been presented as found (with some minor format changes); this website and its owners are not responsible for errors, substantive and/or minor.

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