A Rebellious Heroine by John Kendrick Bangs
Chapter VII: A Breach of Faith
"Having sworn too hard-a-keeping oath,
When I assured Harley that I should keep my hands off his heroine until he requested me to do otherwise, after my fruitless attempt to discipline her into a less refractory mood, I fully intended to keep my promise. She was his, as far as she possessed any value as literary material, and he had as clear a right to her exclusive use as if she had been copyrighted in his name--at least so far as his friends were concerned he had. Others might make use of her for literary purposes with a clear conscience if they chose to do so, but the hand of a friend must be stayed. Furthermore, my own experience with the young woman had not been successful enough to lead me to believe that I could conquer where Harley had been vanquished. Physical force I had found to be unavailing. She was too cunning to stumble into any of the pitfalls that with all my imagination I could conjure up to embarrass her; but something had to be done, and I now resolved upon a course of moral suasion, and wholly for Harley's sake. The man was actually suffering because she had so persistently defied him, and his discomfiture was all the more deplorable because it meant little short of the ruin of his life and ambitions. The problem had to be solved or his career was at an end. Harley never could do two things at once. The task he had in hand always absorbed his whole being until he was able to write the word finis on the last page of his manuscript, and until the finis to this elusive book he was now struggling with was written, I knew that he would write no other. His pot-boilers he could do, of course, and so earn a living, but pot-boilers destroy rather than make reputations, and Harley was too young a man to rest upon past achievements; neither had he done such vastly superior work that his fame could withstand much diminution by the continuous production of ephemera. It was therefore in the hope of saving him that I broke faith with him and temporarily stole his heroine. I did not dream of using her at all, as you might think, as a heroine of my own, but rather as an interesting person with ideas as to the duty of heroines--a sort of Past Grand Mistress of the Art of Heroinism--who was worth interviewing for the daily press. I flatter myself it was a good idea, worthy almost of a genius, though I am perfectly well aware that I am not a genius. I am merely a man of exceptional talent. I have talent enough for a genius, but no taste for the unconventional, and by just so much do I fall short of the realization of the hopes of my friends and fears of my enemies. There are stories I have in mind that are worthy of the most exalted French masters, for instance, and when I have the time to be careful, which I rarely do, I can write with the polished grace of a De Maupassant or a James, but I shall never write them, because I value my social position too highly to put my name to anything which it would never do to publish outside of Paris. I do not care to prove my genius at the cost of the respect of my neighbors--all of which, however, is foreign to my story, and is put in here merely because I have observed that readers are very much interested in their favorite authors, and like to know as much about them as they can.
My plan, to take up the thread of my narrative once more, was, briefly, to write an interview between myself, as a representative of a newspaper syndicate, and Miss Marguerite Andrews, the "Well-Known Heroine." It has been quite common of late years to interview the models of well-known artists, so that it did not require too great a stretch of the imagination to make my scheme a reasonable one. It must be remembered, too, that I had no intention of using this interview for my own aggrandizement. I planned it solely in the interests of my friend, hoping that I might secure from Miss Andrews some unguarded admission that might operate against her own principles, as Harley and I knew them, and that, that secured, I might induce her to follow meekly his schedule until he could bring his story to a reasonable conclusion. Failing in this, I was going to try and discover what style of man it was she admired most, what might be her ideas of the romance in which she would most like to figure, and all that, so that I could give Harley a few points which would enable him so to construct his romance that his heroine would walk through it as easily and as docilely as one could wish. Finally, all other things failing, I was going to throw Harley on her generosity, call attention to the fact that she was ruining him by her stubborn behavior, and ask her to submit to a little temporary inconvenience for his sake.
As I have already said, so must I repeat, there was genius in the idea, but I was forced to relinquish certain features of it, as will be seen shortly. I took up my pen, and with three bold strokes thereof transported myself to Newport, and going directly to the Willard Cottage, I rang the bell. Miss Andrews was still elusive. With all the resources of imagination at hand, and with not an obstacle in my way that I could not clear at a bound, she still held me at bay. She was not at home--had, in fact, departed two days previously for the White Mountains. Fortunately, however, the butler knew her address, and, without bothering about trains, luggage, or aught else, in one brief paragraph I landed myself at the Profile House, where she was spending a week with Mr. and Mrs. Rushton of Brooklyn. This change of location caused me to modify my first idea, to its advantage. I saw, when I thought the matter over, that, on the whole, the interview, as an interview for a newspaper syndicate, was likely to be nipped in the bud, since the moment I declared myself a reporter for a set of newspapers, and stated the object of my call, she would probably dismiss me with the statement that she was not a professional heroine, that her views were of no interest to the public, and that, not having the pleasure of my acquaintance, she must beg to be excused. I wonder I didn't think of this at the outset. I surely knew Harley's heroine well enough to have foreseen this possibility. I realized it, however, the moment I dropped myself into the great homelike office of the Profile House. Miss Andrews walked through the office to the dining-room as I registered, and as I turned to gaze upon her as she passed majestically on, it flashed across my mind that it would be far better to appear before her as a fellow-guest, and find out what I wanted and tell her why I had come in that guise, rather than introduce myself as one of those young men who earn their daily bread by poking their noses into other people's business.
Had this course been based upon any thing more solid than a pure bit of imagination, I should have found it difficult to accommodate myself so easily to circumstances. If it had been Harley instead of myself, it would have been impossible, for Harley would never have stooped to provide himself with a trunk containing fresh linen and evening-dress clothes and patent-leather pumps by a stroke of his pen. This I did, however, and that evening, having created another guest, who knew me of old and who also was acquainted with Miss Andrews, just as I had created my excellent wardrobe, I was presented.
The evening passed pleasantly enough, and I found Harley's heroine to be all that he had told me and a great deal more besides. In fact, so greatly did I enjoy her society that I intentionally prolonged the evening to about three times its normal length--which was a very inartistic bit of exaggeration, I admit; but then I don't pretend to be a realist, and when I sit down to write I can make my evenings as long or as short as I choose. I will say, however, that, long as my evening was, I made it go through its whole length without having recourse to such copy-making subterfuges as the description of doorknobs and chairs; and except for its unholy length, it was not at all lacking in realism. Miss Andrews fascinated me and seemed to find me rather good company, and I found myself suggesting that as the next day was Sunday she take me for a walk. From what I knew of Harley's experience with her, I judged she'd be more likely to go if I asked her to take me instead of offering to take her. It was a subtle distinction, but with some women subtle distinctions are chasms which men must not try to overleap too vaingloriously, lest disaster overtake them. My bit of subtlety worked like a charm. Miss Andrews graciously accepted my suggestion, and I retired to my couch feeling certain that during that walk to Bald Mountain, or around the Lake, or down to the Farm, or wherever else she might choose to take me, I could do much to help poor Stuart out of the predicament into which his luckless choice of Miss Andrews as his heroine had plunged him. And I wasn't far wrong, as the event transpired, although the manner in which it worked out was not exactly according to my schedule.
I dismissed the night with a few paragraphs; the morning, with its divine service in the parlor, went quickly and impressively; for it is an impressive sight to see gathered beneath those towering cliffs a hundred or more of pleasure and health seekers of different creeds worshipping heartily and simply together, as accordantly as though they knew no differences and all men were possessed of one common religion--it was too impressive, indeed, for my pen, which has been largely given over to matters of less moment, and I did not venture to touch upon it, passing hastily over to the afternoon, when Miss Andrews appeared, ready for the stroll.
I gazed at her admiringly for a moment, and then I began:
"Is that the costume you wore"--I was going to say, "when you rejected Parker?" but I fortunately caught my error in time to pass it off--"at Newport?" I finished, with a half gasp at the narrowness of my escape; for, it must be remembered, I was supposed as yet to know nothing of that episode.
"How do you know what I wore at Newport?" she asked, quickly--so quickly that I almost feared she had found me out, after all.
"Why--ah--I read about you somewhere," I stammered. "Some newspaper correspondent drew a picture of the scene on the promenade in the afternoon, and--ah--he had you down."
"Oh!" she replied, arching her eyebrows; "that was it, was it? And do you waste your valuable time reading the vulgar effusions of the society reporter?"
Wasn't I glad that I had not come as a man with a nose to project into the affairs of others--as a newspaper reporter!
"No, indeed," I rejoined, "not generally; but I happened to see this particular item, and read it and remembered it. After all," I added, as we came to the sylvan path that leads to the Lake--"after all, one might as well read that sort of stuff as most of the novels of the present day. The vulgar reporter may be ignorant or a boor, and all that is reprehensible in his methods, but he writes about real flesh and blood people; and, what is worse, he generally approximates the truth concerning them in his writing, which is more than can be said of the so-called realistic novel writers of the day. I haven't read a novel in three years in which it has seemed to me that the heroine, for instance, was anything more than a marionette, with no will of her own, and ready to do at any time any foolish thing the author wanted her to do."
Again those eyes of Miss Andrews rested on me in a manner which gave me considerable apprehension. Then she laughed, and I was at ease again.
"You are very amusing," she said, quietly. "The most amusing of them all."
The remark nettled me, and I quickly retorted:
"Then I have not lived in vain."
"You do really live, then, eh?" she asked, half chaffingly, gazing at me out of the corners of her eyes in a fashion which utterly disarmed me.
"Excuse me, Miss Andrews," I answered, "but I am afraid I don't understand you."
"I am afraid you don't," she said, the smile leaving her lips. "The fact that you are here on the errand you have charged yourself with proves that."
"I am not aware," I said, "that I have come on any particularly ridiculous errand. May I ask you what you mean by the expression 'most amusing of them all'? Am I one among many, and, if so, one what among many what?"
"Your errand is a good one," she said, gravely, "and not at all ridiculous; let me assure you that I appreciate that fact. Your question I will answer by asking another: Are you here of your own volition, or has Stuart Harley created you, as he did Messrs. Osborne, Parker, and the Professor? Are you my new hero, or what?"
The question irritated me. This woman was not content with interfering seriously with my friend's happiness: she was actually attributing me to him, casting doubts upon my existence, and placing me in the same category with herself--a mere book creature. To a man who regards himself as being the real thing, flesh and blood, and, well, eighteen-carat flesh and blood at that, to be accused of living only a figmentary existence is too much. I retorted angrily.
"If you consider me nothing more than an idea, you do not manifest your usual astuteness," I said.
Her reply laid me flat.
"I do not consider you anything of the sort. I never so much as associated you with anything resembling an idea. I merely asked a question," she said. "I repeat it. Do you or do you not exist? Are you a bit of the really real or a bit of Mr. Harley's realism? In short, are you here at Profile Lake, walking and talking with me, or are you not?"
A realizing sense of my true position crept over me. In reality I was not there talking to her, but in my den in New York writing about her. I may not be a realist, but I am truthful. I could not deceive her, so I replied, hesitatingly:
"Well, Miss Andrews, I am--no, I am not here, except in spirit."
"That's what I thought," she said, demurely. "And do you exist somewhere, or is this a 'situation' calculated to delight the American girl--with pin-money to spend on Messrs. Herring, Beemer, & Chadwick's publications?"
"I do exist," I replied, meekly; for, I must confess it, I realized more than ever that Miss Andrews was too much for me, and I heartily wished I was well out of it. "And I alone am responsible for this. Harley is off fishing at Barnegat--and do you know why?"
"I presume he has gone there to recuperate," she said.
"Precisely," said I.
"After his ungentlemanly, discourteous, and wholly uncalled-for interference with my comfort at Newport," she said, her face flushing and tears coming into her eyes, "I don't wonder he's prostrated."
"I do not know to what you refer," said I.
"I refer to the episode of the runaway horse," she said, in wrathful remembrance of the incident. "Because I refuse to follow blindly his will, he abuses his power, places me in a false and perilous situation, from which I, a defenceless woman, must rescue myself alone and unaided. It was unmanly of him--and I will pay him the compliment of saying wholly unlike him."
I stood aghast. Poor Stuart was being blamed for my act. He must be set right at once, however unpleasant it might be for me.
"He--he didn't do that," I said, slowly; "it was I. I wrote that bit of nonsense; and he--well, he was mad because I did it, and said he'd like to kill any man who ill-treated you; and he made me promise never to touch upon your life again."
"May I ask why you did that?" she asked, and I was glad to note that there was no displeasure in her voice--in fact, she seemed to cheer up wonderfully when I told her that it was I, and not Stuart, who had subjected her to the misadventure.
"Because I was angry with you," I answered. "You were ruining my friend with your continued acts of rebellion: he was successful; now he is ruined. He thinks of you day and night--he wants you for his heroine; he wants to make you happy, but he wants you to be happy in your own way; and when he thinks he has discovered your way, he works along that line, and all of a sudden, by some act wholly unforeseen, and, if I may say so, unforeseeable, you treat him and his work with contempt, draw yourself out of it--and he has to begin again."
"And why have you ventured to break your word to your friend?" she asked, calmly. "Surely you are touching upon my life now, in spite of your promise."
"Because I am willing to sacrifice my word to his welfare," I retorted; "to try to make you understand how you are blocking the path of a mighty fine-minded man by your devotion to what you call your independence. He will never ask you to do anything that he knows will be revolting to you, and until he has succeeded in pleasing you to the last page of his book he will never write again. I have done this in the hope of persuading you, at the cost even of some personal discomfort, not to rebel against his gentle leadership- -to fall in with his ideas until he can fulfil this task of his, whether it be realism or pure speculation on his part. If you do this, Stuart is saved. If you do not, literature will be called upon to mourn one who promises to be one of its brightest ornaments."
I stopped short. Miss Andrews was gazing pensively out over the mirror-like surface of the Lake. Finally she spoke.
"You may tell Mr. Harley," she said, with a sigh, "that I will trouble him no more. He can do with me as he pleases in all save one particular. He shall not marry me to a man I do not love. If he takes the man I love for my hero, then will I follow him to the death."
"And may I ask who that man is?"
"You may ask if you please," she replied, with a little smile. "But I won't answer you, except to say that it isn't you."
"And am I forgiven for my runaway story?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "You wouldn't expect me to condemn a man for loyalty to his friend, would you?"
With which understanding Miss Andrews and I continued our walk, and when we parted I found that the little interview I had started to write had turned into the suggestion of a romance, which I was in duty bound to destroy--but I began to have a glimmering of an idea as to who the man was that Marguerite Andrews wished for a hero, and I regretted also to find myself convinced of the truth of her statement that that man did not bear my name.