MY cousin Augustina held up a novel she had just been reading. “It is high time,”said she, “ that something should be done toward the prolongation of the lives of our heroes and heroines.”
“ God bless you ! ” I cried, with fervor. Augustina rushed ahead : “ There really seem to be only three kinds of people left in modern fiction, — those that are dying, those that want to die, and those that are dead.”
I preserved an impressive silence.
“ Now, in this story,” she continued, “ all the decent folk go down to their tombs in the flower of their youth. I began it expecting to find some good and jocund reading; for the title promised well, and I did not hear the Reformer anywhere around. But, glory be ! I escaped the sword of the strenuous novelist to fall upon the spear of the lachrymose one. I want but little here below,” wailed Augustina, “ but I do want it unsalted with tears ! ”
“ Well ? ”
“ To the old-fashioned novel,” said Augustina, “ we go for the love affairs of two or more persons, and to the newfashioned one,” and here she gave me a whimsical look, “ we go for history, or theology, or ultramontanism, or slums, or cooking schools. But old and new alike agree in one particular, and that is, the summary dispatch of the hero. Kingdoms cease and systems decay,” said my cousin, “ but your true novelist still pursues the work of butchery.”
“ In real life our heroes sometimes die,” said I timidly.
“ Then they should be ashamed of themselves,” returned Augustina. “ Every reasonable being should spend at least the last twenty-five years of his life in proclaiming that the country is going to the dogs. I take it a man begins to do this at fifty, and so every reasonable being should reach the age of five-and-seventy.”
“ Go on.”
“ Rather than read the Early Fathers,” said Augustina, “ most of us would take to the woods. And therefore we go to certain novels for our theology.” Here she again gave me that whimsical look. “ I took up one of them the other day, and before I was halfway through, the leading character had flung himself over a precipice, and the mother and the other female relatives of the heroine were trying their best to prevent her from doing the same. Now, I can readily see the connection between the Early Fathers and an early death,” said Augustina, “ but why the precipice ? And why the heroine’s demise in the last chapter ? She was the only sane person in the book, and she should have lived to prove it.”
“ When I consider the innumerable company of spirits wandering around in a limbo to which the authors of their being have consigned them, and for no reason except that they no longer know what to do with them, I could weep my heart out,” said Augustina.
“ There is The Heir of Redclyffe,” I began.
“ That is the first funeral procession I remember,” said my cousin ; “ and then came little Nell’s, and Colonel Newcome’s, and Daisy Miller’s, and another, and another. Laura Fountain flung herself into the river, and Tommy Sandys impaled himself upon a fence, and Eleanor Burgoyne is the last to swell the list.”
“ Well,” I said, “ I am glad about Tommy.”
“ No, if he had to expire, — which I deny, — it should have been in his bed, of some common disease, not too painful, but just aggravating. But now he hangs suspended between earth and heaven, and year after year pathos and mystery gather about him, and by the time Grizel is an old woman she will actually believe that he lost his life in a vain attempt to save somebody else’s.”
“ Well ? ”
“Am I to whip out my handkerchief every time I open a novel ? ” asked Augustina. “ Am I to hush my breath, and tread softly, and compose messages of condolence to the surviving relatives and epitaphs on the honored departed ? Is there no chance for the development of character outside of the grave ? ”
“ I am confident there will soon be a scarcity of heroes sound in mind and body and old enough to vote. As for the heroines, there are not enough to make a mothers’ meeting.”
“ And what do you propose doing ? ”
“ I propose to limit each novelist to a certain number of those whom I shall call the Selected to Die, — five, and no more, one victim to each book. Every novelist will be required to write a preface, and therein state for which character we are to provide the burial meats, in order that if we wish we may absent ourselves from the ceremonies. Any author failing to comply with these conditions shall be tried for entering into a conspiracy to defraud innocent persons of their natural span of years, — for premeditated slaughter ! ” cried Augustina.
“ But first you will have to get your novelists together,” I said meekly ; “ and do you really expect they will condescend ” —
“For premeditated slaughter!” repeated Augustina fiercely.