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Monday, 11 March 2013

Ladies on the omnibus

Wednesday, March 10th., Victoria Grove, Chelsea.

In the noon omnibuses, I notice more and more frequently the well-dressed well-bred unattended woman of from 20 to 35. She is typically and finely English; fresh, fair complexion, clear eyes, glossy hair, and (for the most part) comely - at worst - as to face; generally quite pretty. her clothes have been cut to fit exactly her neat, trim figure, and they are well made, of excellent material and quiet in style. She is bien gantee, and when she happens to lift her skirt, one sees that she is also bien chausee, and carries irreproachable lingerie. She holds her small purse easily, and selects a penny from its contents wit a most businesslike precision; she knows exactly where the bus must stop for her, and gives her orders to the conductor with all the air of a seasoned commercial traveller at a large railway terminus. In a word she knows as much about bus-riding as may be known; an escort would merely be a useless embarrassment. Sometimes she finds herself without money for the fare, and she is by no means nonplussed. Either she offers a stamp, or calmly asks the conductor to wait while she gets financial assistance from a shop where she happens to be known. I have seen this occur - and no trace of embarrassment in the lady's demeanour either. A man in such a predicament would certainly betray his perplexity.
And yet the very faces of these women, unwrinkled, unconcerned, almost childlike in comparison to the men's, indicate that they are the carefully-nurtured, sheltered, supposed-to-be fragile creatures their mothers were .... At least in essentials. I judge from the mere faces of these women that the "woman's emancipation" etc. movement has yet penetrated but slightly into the ranks of the middle class. These women are unacquainted with the realities of existence. Someone - never seen in that bus where she is, but rather in the underground railway carriage at 9.30 and 6, someone who wears a silk hat and comes home at night self-important for dinner - protects the woman in the bus apparently so free - protects her, commands her, gives her money to spend, bullies her, spoils her, perhaps ruins her happiness ...
A different style of woman is to be seen in the bus going townwards at night. As I was on my way to the first night of "Saucy Sally" at the Comedy this evening, a woman got in the bus (empty save for myself), went quickly past me and sat down at the far end, with her face carefully turned from the door. Curious, I took an opportunity to change my seat for one that enabled me to see her face. I glanced furtively at her over my newspaper. Soon she caught my eye, and returned the glance with a cold, questioning stare, as who should say: "Now, do you mean business or not?" I looked at her again, and again her eye was a half-inviting question. As other passengers arrived she edged up the bus, till she was sitting exactly opposite to me, and our eyes almost carried on a conversation. She was a woman over 30, with a face pretty enough (unless seen in profile when a long crease in the cheek cast an unpleasant shadow) and the full, only slightly accentuated bosom which many light women seem to affect. Had it not been for the cold calculation expressed occasionally in her glance, I should have judged her not much spoilt - as to disposition - by her profession. After a time she gathered that my intentions were not serious, and ignored me.
Among the other occupants of the bus were two young girls, stagily pretty, with large lustrous eyes, darkened eyebrows, and doll's mouths. They wore large waving hats and talked in crudest cockney to a man who looked like a scene-shifter. as one watched their unreserved demeanour, one instinctively contrasted them with the women who had filled that bus a few hours earlier in the day. No doubt they were chorus-girls, and without stain, but no-one had sheltered, protected them. They knew as much as most men. They knew what the woman opposite me was; they detected her instantly and furtively, whispered to each other, smiling, and then dismissing the matter.

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