As ill-luck would have it, the next night she went to hear Lewis in Gledsmuir, when that young gentleman was at his worst. She went unattended, being a fearless young woman, and consequently found herself in the very back of the hall crowded among some vehement politicians. The audience, to begin with, was not unkind. Lewis was greeted with applause, and at the first heard with patience. But his speech was vague, incoherent, and tactless. To her unquiet eyes he seemed to be afraid of the men before him. Every phrase was guarded with a proviso, and “possiblys” bristled in every sentence. The politicians at the back grew restless, and Alice was compelled to listen to their short, scathing criticisms. Soon the meeting was hopelessly out of hand. Men rose and rudely marched to the door. Catcalls were frequent from the corners, and the back of the hall became aggressive. The girl had sat with white, pained face, understanding little save that Lewis was talking nonsense and losing all grip on his hearers. In spite of herself she was contrasting this fiasco with the pithy words of Mr. Stocks. When the meeting became unruly she looked for some display of character, some proof of power. Mr. Stocks would have fiercely cowed the opposition, or at least have spoken the last word in any quarrel. Lewis’s conduct was different. He shrugged his shoulders, made some laughing remark to a friend on the platform, and with all the nonchalance in the world asked the meeting if they wished to hear any more. A claque of his supporters replied with feigned enthusiasm, but a malcontent at Alice’s side rose and stamped to the door. “I came to hear sense,” he cried, “and no this bairn’s-blethers!”
The poor girl was in despair. She had fancied him a man of power and ambition, a doer, a man of action. But he was no more than a creature of words and sentiment, graceful manners, and an engaging appearance. The despised Mr. Stocks was the real worker. She had laughed at his incessant solemnity as the badge of a fool, and adored Lewis’s light-heartedness as the true air of the great. But she had been mistaken. Things were what they seemed. The light-hearted was the half-hearted, “the wandering dilettante,” Mr. Stocks had called him, “the worst type of the pseudo-culture of our universities.” She told herself she hated the whole affectation of breeding and chivalry. Those men—Lewis and his friends—were always kind and soft-spoken to her and her sex. Her soul hated it; she cried aloud for equal treatment, for a share of the iron and rigour of life. Their manners were a mere cloak for contempt. If they could only be rude to a woman, it would be a welcome relief from this facile condescension. What had she or any woman with brains to do in that galley? They despised her kind, with the scorn of sultans who chose their women-folk for looks and graces. The thought was degrading, and a bitterness filled her heart against the whole clique of easy aristocrats. Mr. Stocks was her true ally. To him she was a woman, an equal; to them she was an engaging child, a delicate toy.