A Rebellious Heroine by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter V: An Experiment
"And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor.
"What would have happened if she had behaved differently, Stuart?" I asked, after I had read the pages he had so kindly placed at my disposal.
"Oh, nothing in particular to which she could reasonably object," returned Harley. "The incidents of a truly realistic novel are rarely objectionable, except to people of a captious nature. I intended to have Bonetti dance attendance upon Miss Andrews for the balance of the season, that's all, hoping thereby to present a good picture of life at Newport in July and part of August. About the middle of August I was going to transport the whole cast to Bar Harbor, for variety's sake. That would have been another opportunity to get a good deal of the American summer atmosphere into the book. I wish I could afford the kind of summer I contemplated giving her."
"You didn't intend that she should fall in love with Bonetti?" I asked.
"Not to any serious extent," said Harley, deprecatingly. "Even if she had a little, she'd have come out of it all right as soon as the hero turned up, and she had a chance to see the difference between a manly man of her own country and a little titled fortune hunter from the land of macaroni. Bonetti wasn't to be a bad fellow at all. He was merely an Italian, which he couldn't help, being born so, and therefore, as she said, of an acquisitive nature. There is no villany in that, however--that is, no reprehensible villany. He was after a rich marriage because he was fond of a life of ease. She'd have found him amusing, at any rate."
"But he was bogus!" I suggested.
"Not at all," said Harley, impatiently. "That's what vexes me more than anything else. She made a very bad mistake there. As a Count, Bonetti was quite as real as his financial necessities."
"It was a beastly awkward situation, that conservatory scene," said I. "Especially for Willard. The Count might have challenged him. What became of the Count when it was over?"
"I don't know," said Harley. "I left him to get out of his predicament as best he could. Possibly he did challenge Willard. I haven't taken the trouble to find out. If, as I think, however, he's a living person, he'll extricate himself from his difficulty all right; if he's not, and I have unwittingly allowed myself to conjure him up in my fancy, there's no great harm done. If he's nothing more than a marionette, let him fall on the floor, and stay there until I find some imaginative writer who will take him off my hands--you, for instance. You can have Bonetti for a Christmas present, with my compliments. I'm through with him; but as for Miss Andrews, she has been so confoundedly elusive that she has aroused my deepest interest, and I couldn't give her up if I wanted to. I never encountered a heroine like her in all my life before, and the one object of my future career will be to catch her finally in the meshes of a romance. Romance will come into her life some time. She is not at all of an unsentimental nature--only fractious--new-womanish, perhaps; but none the less lovable, and Cupid will have a shot at her when she least expects it; and when it does come, I'll be on hand to report the attempted assassination for the delectation of the Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick public."
"I should think you would try a little persuasion, just for larks," I suggested.
"You forget I am a realist," he replied, as he went out.
Now I sincerely admired Stuart Harley, and I wished to the bottom of my heart to help him if I could. It seemed to me that, however admirable Miss Andrews had shown herself to be generally as a woman, she had been an altogether unsatisfactory person in the role of a heroine. I respected her scruples about marrying men she did not care for, and, as I have already said, no one could deny her the right to her own convictions; but it seemed to me that in the Bonetti incident she might and truly ought to have acted differently when the time came for the presentation. There is no doubt in my mind that her little speech to Willard, in which she stated that the Count was a fraud and might not be presented, was a deliberately planned rebuff, and therefore not in any sense excusable. She could have avoided it by telling Willard before leaving home that she did not care to meet the Count. To make a scene at Mrs. Howlett's was not a thing which a sober-minded, self-contained woman would have done; it was bad form to behave so rudely to one of Mrs. Howlett's guests, and was so inconsiderate of Willard and unreasonable in other ways that I blamed her unreservedly.
"She deserves to be punished," I thought to myself, as Harley went dejectedly out of the room. "And there is no kind of punishment for a woman like that so galling to her soul as to find herself in the hands of a relentless despot who forces her this way and that, according to his whim. I'd like to play Petrucio to her Katherine for five minutes. She'd soon find out that I'm not a realist bound by a creed to which I must adhere. Whatever I choose to do I can do without violating my conscientious scruples, because I haven't any conscientious scruples in literature. And, by Jove, I'll do it! I'll take Miss Marguerite Andrews in hand myself this very afternoon, and I'll put her through a course of training that will make her rue the day she ever trifled with Stuart Harley--and when he takes her up again she'll be as meek as Moses."
Strong in my belief that I could bring the young woman to terms, I went to my desk and tried my hand at a story, with Miss Andrews as its heroine, and I was not particular about being realistic either. Neither did I go off into any trances in search of heroes and villains. I did what Harley could not do. I brought the New York back to port that very day, and despatched Robert Osborne, the despised lover of the first tale, to Newport.
"She shall have him whether she likes him or not," said I, gritting my teeth determinedly; "and she won't know whether she loves him or Count Bonetti best; and she'll promise to marry both of them; and she shall go to Venice in August, despite her uncompromising refusal to do so for Harley; and she shall meet Balderstone there, and, no matter what her opinion of him or of his literary work, she shall be fascinated by the story I'll have him write, and under the spell of that fascination she shall promise to marry him also; whereupon the Willards will turn up and take her to Heidelberg, where I'll have her meet the hero she couldn't wait for at the Howlett dance, the despised Professor, and she shall promise to be his wife likewise; and finally I'll put her on board a steamer at Southampton, bound for New York, with Mrs. Corwin and the twins; and the second day out, when she is feeling her very worst, all four of her fiances will turn up at the same time beside her chair. Then I shall leave her to get out of her trouble the best way she can. I imagine, after she has had a taste of my literary regimen, she'll quite fall in love with the Harley method, and behave herself as a heroine should."
I sat down all aglow with the idea of being able to tame Harley's heroine and place her in a mood more suited for his purposes. The more I thought of how his failures were weighing on his mind, the more viciously ready was I to play the tyrant with Marguerite, and-- well, I might as well confess it at once, with all my righteous indignation against her, I could not do it. Five times I started, and as many times did I destroy what I wrote. On the sixth trial I did haul the New York relentlessly back into port, never for an instant considering the inconvenience of the passengers, or the protests of the officers, crew, or postal authorities. This done, I seized upon the unfortunate Osborne, spirited his luggage through the Custom-house, and sent the ship to sea again. That part was easy. I have written a great deal for the comic papers, and acrobatic nonsense of that sort comes almost without an effort on my part. With equal ease I got Osborne to Newport--how, I do not recollect. It is just possible that I took him through from New York without a train, by the mere say-so of my pen. At any rate, I got him there, and I fully intended to have him meet Miss Andrews at a dance at the Ocean House the day after his arrival. I even progressed so far as to get up the dance. I described the room, the decorations, and the band. I had Osborne dressed and waiting, with Bonetti also dressed and waiting on the other side of the room, Scylla and Charybdis all over again, but by no possibility could I force Miss Andrews to appear. Why it was, I do not pretend to be able to say--she may have known that Bonetti was there, she may have realized that I was trying to force Osborne upon her; but whatever it was that enabled her to do so, she resisted me successfully--or my pen did; for that situation upon which I had based the opening scene of my story of compulsion I found beyond my ability to depict; and as Harley had done before me, so was I now forced to do--to change my plan.
"I'll have her run away with!" I cried, growing vicious in my wrath; "and both Bonetti and Osborne shall place her under eternal obligations by rushing out to stop the horse, one from either side of the street. She'll have to meet Bonetti then," I added, with a chuckle.
And I tried that plan. As docile as a lamb she entered the phaeton, which I conjured up out of my ink-pot, and like a veteran Jehu did she seize the reins. I could not help admiring her as I wrote of it- -she was so like a goddess; but I did not relent. Run away with she must be, and run away with she was. But again did this extraordinary woman assert herself to my discomfiture; for the moment she saw Bonetti rushing out to rescue her from the east, she jerked the left rein so violently that the horse swerved to one side, toppled over on Osborne, who had sprung gallantly to the rescue from the west; and Bonetti, missing his aim as the horse turned, fell all in a heap in the roadway two yards back of the phaeton. Miss Andrews was not hurt, but my story was, for she had not even observed the unhappy Osborne; and as for Bonetti, he cut so ridiculous a figure that, Italian though he was, even he seemed aware of it, and he shrank dejectedly out of sight. Again had this supernaturally elusive heroine upset the plans of one who had essayed to embalm her virtues in a literary mould. I could not bring her into contact with either of my heroes.
I threw my pen down in disgust, slammed to the cover of my ink-well, and for two hours paced madly through the maze-like walks of the Central Park, angry and depressed; and from that moment until I undertook the narration of this pathetic story I gave Harley's heroine up as unavailable material for my purposes. She was worse, if anything, in imaginative work than in realism, because she absolutely defied the imagination, while the realist she would be glad to help so long as his realism was kept in strict accord with her ideas of what the real really was.
It was some days before I saw Harley again, and I thought he looked tired and anxious--so anxious, indeed, that I was afraid he might possibly be in financial straits, for I knew that for three weeks he had not turned out any of his usual pot-boilers, having been too busy trying to write the story for Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick. It happened, oddly enough, that I had two or three uncashed checks in my pocket; so, feeling like a millionaire, I broached the subject to him.
"What's the matter, old fellow?" I said. "You seem in a blue funk. Has the mint stopped? If it has, command me. I'm overburdened with checks this week."
"Not at all; thanks just the same," he said, wearily. "My Tiffin royalties came in Wednesday, and I'm all right for a while, anyhow."
"What's up, then, Stuart?" I asked. "You look worried. I've just offered to share my prosperity with you, you might share your grief with me. Lend me a peck of trouble overnight, will you?"
"Oh, it's nothing much," he said. "It's that rebellious heroine of mine. She's weighing on my mind, that's all. She's very real to me, that woman; and, by Jove! I've been as jealous as a lover for two days over a fancy that came into my head. You'll laugh when I tell you, but I've been half afraid somebody else would take her up and-- well, treat her badly. There is something that tells me that she has been forced into some brutal situation by somebody, somewhere, within the past two or three days. I believe I'd want to kill a man who did that."
I didn't laugh at him. I was the man who was in a fair way to get killed for "doing that," and I thought laughter would be a little bit misplaced; but I am not a coward, and I didn't flinch. I confessed. I tried to ease his mind by telling him what I had attempted to do.
"It was a mistake," he said, shortly, when I had finished. "And you must promise me one thing," he added, very seriously.
"I'll promise anything," I said, meekly.
"Don't ever try anything of the sort again," he went on, gravely. "If you had succeeded in writing that story, and subjected her to all that horror, I should never have spoken to you again. As it is, I realize that what you did was out of the kindness of your heart, prompted by a desire to be of service to me, and I'm just as much obliged as I can be, only I don't want any assistance."
"Until you ask me to, Stuart," I replied, "I'll never write another line about her; but you'd better keep very mum about her yourself, or get her copyrighted. The way she upset that horse on Osborne, completely obliterating him, and at the same time getting out of the way of that little simian Count, in spite of all I could do to place her under obligations to both of them, was what the ancients would have called a caution. She has made a slave of me forever, and I venture to predict that if you don't hurry up and get her into a book, somebody else will; and whoever does will make a name for himself alongside of which that of Smith will sink into oblivion."
"Count on me for that," said he. "'Faint heart never won fair lady,' and I don't intend to stop climbing just because I fear a few more falls."