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XXVIII. Mice and martyrdom.

That fine old Anglo-American or Americano-Englishman, R-- S-- , used to tell at his dinnertable in London this story of a very celebrated English general. The military hero was once dining with Mr. S-- , when a stray mouse was seen running to and fro, looking for a hiding-place. With one spring the general was on his chair; with another, on the table. Amid much laughter the host rose and proceeded in the direction of the mouse. “Oh! Stop, S- ,” shouted the man of war; “for Heaven's sake don't exasperate him!”

The exasperated mouse and the intimidated beholders are still on duty, it seems, in Mr. Howells's good-natured farce, “The mouse-trap;” but the lions are the painters, and the sex is conveniently changed. Every woman who comes into the room in his little drama takes more or less gracefully to chair or table, when the mouse is announced; and even the Irish domestic follows them, though I have generally found Bridget ready to enforce home rule vigorously on such intruders by the aid of a pair of tongs. The [142] only person in the tale who is not frightened is a man, and he is not severely tested, inasmuch as it was he who invented the mouse. But he is all ready to punish the ladies for their timidity, and, with a discipline severer than that of the British army, prohibits them from ever again attacking the political opponents of their sex. What if the Queen of England had caused General to be cashiered for cowardice by reason of his retreat before the “exasperated” animal?

Crossing the Atlantic once, and talking with the surgeon of the ocean steamer, I was told by him that in his wide experience he had found women, on the whole, cooler than men in case of disaster at sea. He told me of one occasion when they expected that the vessel would ultimately sink, and he asked the one woman on board to remain a few minutes in the cabin with her children, because they would be in the way on deck, he promising to call them in ample time for safety. When he went below, all was so quiet in the cabin that he thought they must have gone elsewhere, but he found the mother sitting on the sofa with the three children around her, telling them stories in a low voice to keep them still. All were carefully dressed in their warmest clothes, with everything tied carefully about them, ready for any emergency. She also had a small hand-bag packed with a few essentials, and a [143] pillow-case filled with ship-bread, and securely tied at the top. On his expressing surprise at the last piece of thoughtfulness, she said that she had been shipwrecked once before, and that a whole boat's crew had subsisted for several days upon a similar supply, which no one else had happened to remember. “She was the very coolest person,” he said, “with whom I ever made a voyage.”

It is pleasant to see that the reports of passengers on the ill fated Oregon agree in the statement that the women on board behaved well. “An elderly gentleman,” after describing the passengers as rushing on deck half clothed and half awaked, says that “the ladies behaved splendidly, considering the circumstances.” Mr. M. J. Emerson says that “most of the men were very much excited; the ladies, however, were very cool and self-possessed.” Mrs. Emerson “spoke of the coolness of the ladies, saying that it was very noticeable.” “Whatever you say about it,” said Mr. S. Newton Beach, a London merchant, “say this: that the coolest persons on board were the ladies, as they always are when the case is not one of a mouse, but one of real danger.”

What is the secret of this curious variableness of emotion, this undisguised terror of the little, this courage before that which is great? It may be said that women are cool in shipwreck because they are [144] merely passive, or because they expect to be taken care of. But all military experience shows that the passive condition is least favorable to courage. The severest test of soldiers is to keep still under fire when they themselves can do nothing; the mere order to march or shoot is an immense relief to the nervous tension. Then as to the certainty of being taken care of, that is the very thing that never looks quite sure to the person most concerned, especially where, as on the Oregon, women see the firemen taking possession of boats and running away with them before their eyes. Still, it is fair to remember that a good deal of the apparent excitement and confusion among men in a shipwreck, as at a fire, comes from the fact that they feel called upon as men to bustle about and see if they can find something to do — a necessity under which women do not labor.

When it comes to the test of the mouse, I fancy that we really pass beyond the domain of physical courage, and enter that of nervous excitability. I was once told by a very courageous woman that men also, if they wore long skirts, would probably scream and jump upon chairs whenever a mouse showed itself. The feeling is not properly to be called fear, any more than is the shriek of a girl when her wicked brother puts a caterpillar on her neck; she does not seriously think that the little woolly thing will hurt her, but it makes her “crawl.” Great men [145] and warriors have had similar nervous loathings for some particular animal. Shylock says,

Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,

and he adds that “there is no firm reason to be rendered” for these shrinking. So the mouse and the caterpillar do not decide the question, while the general fact doubtless is that the outlets of tears and terrors are made easier in the case of women, without thereby prejudicing their capacity for great endurance. The woman who weeps over a little disappointment may be the same woman who watches without sleep for night after night over her sick husband. She who shuts her eyes and screams at the lightning may yet go in the path of rifle-bullets to save her child. Apparently there is a difference of sex, in this respect, that runs through all nature. The lion with his mighty mane is the natural protector of the lioness; but hunters say that his mate, when in charge of her young, is the more formidable. In what may be called aggressive courage, man is doubtless the superior; but woman's courage is more the creature of self-devotion, and woman's cowardice more purely a matter of nerves.

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