A Rebellious Heroine by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter I: Stuart Harley: Realist
"--if a word could save me, and that word were not the Truth, nay, if it did but swerve a hair's-breadth from the Truth, I would not say it!"--LONGFELLOW.
Stuart Harley, despite his authorship of many novels, still considered himself a realist. He affected to say that he did not write his books; that he merely transcribed them from life as he saw it, and he insisted always that he saw life as it was.
"The mission of the novelist, my dear Professor," he had once been heard to say at his club, "is not to amuse merely; his work is that of an historian, and he should be quite as careful to write truthfully as is the historian. How is the future to know what manner of lives we nineteenth century people have lived unless our novelists tell the truth?"
"Possibly the historians will tell them," observed the Professor of Mathematics. "Historians sometimes do tell us interesting things."
"True," said Harley. "Very true; but then what historian ever let you into the secret of the every-day life of the people of whom he writes? What historian ever so vitalized Louis the Fourteenth as Dumas has vitalized him? Truly, in reading mere history I have seemed to be reading of lay figures, not of men; but when the novelist has taken hold properly--ah, then we get the men."
"Then," objected the Professor, "the novelist is never to create a great character?"
"The humorist or the mere romancer may, but as for the novelist with a true ideal of his mission in life he would better leave creation to nature. It is blasphemy for a purely mortal being to pretend that he can create a more interesting character or set of characters than the Almighty has already provided for the use of himself and his brothers in literature; that he can involve these creations in a more dramatic series of events than it has occurred to an all-wise Providence to put into the lives of His creatures; that, by the exercise of that misleading faculty which the writer styles his imagination, he can portray phases of life which shall prove of more absorbing interest or of greater moral value to his readers than those to be met with in the every-day life of man as he is."
"Then," said the Professor, with a dexterous jab of his cue at the pool-balls--"then, in your estimation, an author is a thing to be led about by the nose by the beings he selects for use in his books?"
"You put it in a rather homely fashion," returned Harley; "but, on the whole, that is about the size of it."
"And all a man needs, then, to be an author is an eye and a type- writing machine?" asked the Professor.
"And a regiment of detectives," drawled Dr. Kelly, the young surgeon, "to follow his characters about."
Harley sighed. Surely these men were unsympathetic.
"I can't expect you to grasp the idea exactly," he said, "and I can't explain it to you, because you'd become irreverent if I tried."
"No, we won't," said Kelly. "Go on and explain it to us--I'm bored, and want to be amused."
So Harley went on and tried to explain how the true realist must be an inspired sort of person, who can rise above purely physical limitations; whose eye shall be able to pierce the most impenetrable of veils; to whom nothing in the way of obtaining information as to the doings of such specimens of mankind as he has selected for his pages is an insurmountable obstacle.
"Your author, then, is to be a mixture of a New York newspaper reporter and the Recording Angel?" suggested Kelly.
"I told you you'd become irreverent," said Harley; "nevertheless, even in your irreverence, you have expressed the idea. The writer must be omniscient as far as the characters of his stories are concerned--he must have an eye which shall see all that they do, a mind sufficiently analytical to discern what their motives are, and the courage to put it all down truthfully, neither adding nor subtracting, coloring only where color is needed to make the moral lesson he is trying to teach stand out the more vividly."
"In short, you'd have him become a photographer," said the Professor.
"More truly a soulscape-painter," retorted Harley, with enthusiasm.
"Heavens!" cried the Doctor, dropping his cue with a loud clatter to the floor. "Soulscape! Here's a man talking about not creating, and then throws out an invention like soulscape! Harley, you ought to write a dictionary. With a word like soulscape to start with, it would sweep the earth!"
Harley laughed. He was a good-natured man, and he was strong enough in his convictions not to weaken for the mere reason that somebody else had ridiculed them. In fact, everybody else might have ridiculed them, and Harley would still have stood true, once he was convinced that he was right.
"You go on sawing people's legs off, Billy," he said, good-naturedly. "That's a thing you know about; and as for the Professor, he can go on showing you and the rest of mankind just why the shortest distance between two points is in a straight line. I'll take your collective and separate words for anything on the subject of surgery or mathematics, but when it comes to my work I wouldn't bank on your theories if they were endorsed by the Rothschilds."
"He'll never write a decent book in his life if he clings to that theory," said Kelly, after Harley had departed. "There's precious little in the way of the dramatic nowadays in the lives of people one cares to read about."
Nevertheless, Harley had written interesting books, books which had brought him reputation, and what is termed genteel poverty--that is to say, his fame was great, considering his age, and his compensation was just large enough to make life painful to him. His income enabled him to live well enough to make a good appearance among, and share somewhat at their expense in the life of, others of far greater means; but it was too small to bring him many of the things which, while not absolutely necessities, could not well be termed luxuries, considering his tastes and his temperament. A little more was all he needed.
"If I could afford to write only when I feel like it," he said, "how happy I should be! But these orders--they make me a driver of men, and not their historian."
In fact, Harley was in that unfortunate, and at the same time happy, position where he had many orders for the product of his pen, and such financial necessities that he could not afford to decline one of them.
And it was this very situation which made his rebellious heroine of whom I have essayed to write so sore a trial to the struggling young author.
It was early in May, 1895, that Harley had received a note from Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick, the publishers, asking for a story from his pen for their popular "Blue and Silver Series."
"The success of your Tiffin-Talk," they wrote, "has been such that we are prepared to offer you our highest terms for a short story of 30,000 words, or thereabouts, to be published in our 'Blue and Silver Series.' We should like to have it a love-story, if possible; but whatever it is, it must be characteristic, and ready for publication in November. We shall need to have the manuscript by September 1st at the latest. If you can let us have the first few chapters in August, we can send them at once to Mr. Chromely, whom it is our intention to have illustrate the story, provided he can be got to do it."
The letter closed with a few formalities of an unimportant and stereotyped nature, and Harley immediately called at the office of Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick, where, after learning that their best terms were no more unsatisfactory than publishers' best terms generally are, he accepted the commission.
And then, returning to his apartment, he went into what Kelly called one of his trances.
"He goes into one of his trances," Kelly had said, "hoists himself up to his little elevation, and peeps into the private life of hoi polloi until he strikes something worth putting down and the result he calls literature."
"Yes, and the people buy it, and read it, and call for more," said the Professor.
"Possibly because they love notoriety," said Kelly, "and they think if they call for more often enough, he will finally peep in at their key-holes and write them up. If he ever puts me into one of his books I'll waylay him at night and amputate his writing-hand."
"He won't," said the Professor. "I asked him once why he didn't, and he said you'd never do in one of his books, because you don't belong to real life at all. He thinks you are some new experiment of an enterprising Providence, and he doesn't want to use you until he sees how you turn out."
"He could put me down as I go," suggested the Doctor.
"That's so," replied the other. "I told him so, but he said he had no desire to write a lot of burlesque sketches containing no coherent idea."
"Oh, he said that, did he?" observed the Doctor, with a smile. "Well--wait till Stuart Harley comes to me for a prescription. I'll get even with him. I'll give him a pill, and he'll disappear--for ten days."
Whether it was as Kelly said or not, that Harley went into a trance and poked his nose into the private life of the people he wrote about, it was a fact that while meditating upon the possible output of his pen our author was as deaf to his surroundings as though he had departed into another world, and it rarely happened that his mind emerged from that condition without bringing along with it something of value to him in his work.
So it was upon this May morning. For an hour or two Harley lay quiescent, apparently gazing out of his flat window over the uninspiring chimney-pots of the City of New York, at the equally uninspiring Long Island station on the far side of the East River. It was well for him that his eye was able to see, and yet not see: forgetfulness of those smoking chimney-pots, the red-zincked roofs, the flapping under-clothing of the poorer than he, hung out to dry on the tenement tops, was essential to the construction of such a story as Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick had in mind; and Harley successfully forgot them, and, coming back to consciousness, brought with him the dramatis personae of his story--and, taken as a whole, they were an interesting lot. The hero was like most of those gentlemen who live their little lives in the novels of the day, only Harley had modified his accomplishments in certain directions. Robert Osborne--such was his name--was not the sort of man to do impossible things for his heroine. He was not reckless. He was not a D'Artagnan lifted from the time of Louis the Fourteenth to the dull, prosaic days of President Faure. He was not even a Frenchman, but an essentially American American, who desires to know, before he does anything, why he does it, and what are his chances of success. I am not sure that if he had happened to see her struggling in the ocean he would have jumped in to rescue the young woman to whom his hand was plighted--I do not speak of his heart, for I am not Harley, and I do not know whether or not Harley intended that Osborne should be afflicted with so inconvenient an organ--I am not sure, I say, that if he had seen his best-beloved struggling in the ocean Osborne would have jumped in to rescue her without first stopping to remove such of his garments as might impede his progress back to land again. In short, he was not one of those impetuous heroes that we read about so often and see so seldom; but, taken altogether, he was sufficiently attractive to please the American girl who might be expected to read Harley's book; for that was one of the stipulations of Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick when they made their verbal agreement with Harley.
"Make it go with the girls, Harley," Mr. Chadwick had said. "Men haven't time to read anything but the newspapers in this country. Hit the girls, and your fortune is made."
Harley didn't exactly see how his fortune was going to be made on the best terms of Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick, even if he hit the girls with all the force of a battering-ram, but he promised to keep the idea in mind, and remained in his trance a trifle longer than might otherwise have been necessary, endeavoring to select the unquestionably correct hero for his story, and Osborne was the result. Osborne was moderately witty. His repartee smacked somewhat of the refined comic paper--that is to say, it was smart and cynical, and not always suited to the picture; but it wasn't vulgar or dull, and his personal appearance was calculated to arouse the liveliest interest. He was clean shaven and clean cut. He looked more like a modern ideal of infallible genius than Byron, and had probably played football and the banjo in college--Harley did not go back that far with him--all of which, it must be admitted, was pretty well calculated to assure the fulfilment of Harley's promise that the man should please the American girl. Of course the story was provided with a villain also, but he was a villain of a mild type. Mild villany was an essential part of Harley's literary creed, and this particular person was not conceived in heresy. His name was to have been Horace Balderstone, and with him Harley intended to introduce a lively satire on the employment, by certain contemporary writers, of the supernatural to produce dramatic effects. Balderstone was of course to be the rival of Osborne. In this respect Harley was commonplace; to his mind the villain always had to be the rival of the hero, just as in opera the tenor is always virtuous at heart if not otherwise, and the baritone a scoundrel, which in real life is not an invariable rule by any means. Indeed, there have been many instances in real life where the villain and the hero have been on excellent terms, and to the great benefit of the hero too. But in this case Balderstone was to follow in the rut, and become the rival of Osborne for the hand of Marguerite Andrews--the heroine. Balderstone was to write a book, which for a time should so fascinate Miss Andrews that she would be blind to the desirability of Osborne as a husband-elect; a book full of the weird and thrilling, dealing with theosophy and spiritualism, and all other "Tommyrotisms," as Harley called them, all of which, of course, was to be the making and the undoing of Balderstone; for equally of course, in the end, he would become crazed by the use of opium--the inevitable end of writers of that stamp. Osborne would rescue Marguerite from his fatal influence, and the last chapter would end with Marguerite lying pale and wan upon her sick-bed, recovering from the mental prostration which the influence over hers of a mind like Balderstone's was sure to produce, holding Osborne's hand in hers, and "smiling a sweet recognition at the lover to whose virtues she had so long been blind." Osborne would murmur, "At last!" and the book would close with a "first kiss," followed closely by six or eight pages of advertisements of other publications of Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick. I mention the latter to show how thoroughly realistic Harley was. He thought out his books so truly and so fully before he sat down to write them that he seemed to see each written, printed, made and bound before him, a concrete thing from cover to cover.
Besides Osborne and Balderstone and Miss Andrews--of whom I shall at this time not speak at length, since the balance of this little narrative is to be devoted to the setting forth of her peculiarities and charms--there were a number of minor characters, not so necessary to the story perhaps as they might have been, but interesting enough in their way, and very well calculated to provide the material needed for the filling out of the required number of pages. Furthermore, they completed the picture.
"I don't want to put in three vivid figures, and leave the reader to imagine that the rest of the world has been wiped out of existence," said Harley, as he talked it over with me. "That is not art. There should be three types of character in every book--the positive, the average, and the negative. In that way you grade your story off into the rest of the world, and your reader feels that while he may never have met the positive characters, he has met the average or the negative, or both, and is therefore by one of these links connected with the others, and that gives him a personal interest in the story; and it's the reader's personal interest that the writer is after."
So Miss Andrews was provided with a very conventional aunt--the kind of woman you meet with everywhere; most frequently in church squabbles and hotel parlors, however. Mrs. Corwin was this lady's name, and she was to enact the role of chaperon to Miss Andrews. With Mrs. Corwin, by force of circumstances, came a pair of twin children, like those in the Heavenly Twins, only more real, and not so Sarah Grandiose in their manners and wit.
These persons Harley booked for the steamship New York, sailing from New York City for Southampton on the third day of July, 1895. The action was to open at that time, and Marguerite Andrews was to meet Horace Balderstone on that vessel on the evening of the second day out, with which incident the interest of Harley's story was to begin. But Harley had counted without his heroine. The rest of his cast were safely stowed away on ship-board and ready for action at the appointed hour, but the heroine missed the steamer by three minutes, and it was all Harley's own fault.