The Pessimistic Pose
“I WOULD like to open a shop,” said my cousin Augustina.
I stared at her.
“A shop,” she repeated firmly, “for the sale of cakes and ale.”
“Cakes and ale,” said my cousin Augustina. “I would sell these articles, not for the sake of the filthy lucre which might be obtained by the transaction, but for the benefit of the community in general, and a certain story-teller in particular.”
“Why not try pre-digested food?” suggested I.
Augustina consigned me to oblivion with a wave of her hand.
“ There has lately been a revival of the cult of the Misunderstood,” she said, “the ancient cult of the Pessimistic Pose.”
“What especial story-teller have you in mind ? ” I asked shrilly.
“Several,” said Augustina.
“These authors put into each of their stories one man or one woman, sometimes more, who staggers along under the rôle of the Disappointed, the Flower that wastes its sweetness on the desert air. Their particular grievance looms large on the horizon. They produce it if you but look at them. The consequence is,” said Augustina gloomily, “I have spent the last few weeks of my existence in dodging the confidences of dark-eyed husbands with Ideals, or thin little spinsters with Hearts.”
“I understand,” said I.
“They begin it young,” said Augustina. — “At the mature age of nine, Geoffrey discovers that his glass marbles possess fewer stripes than those of Oliver, his chum; and instead of kicking the latter and getting possession of them like a man and a brother, he stands aloof in a corner and broods.”
“ I once read a book called Louie’s Last Term at St. Mary’s,” said I tentatively. “It was about a girl that nobody ever found out.”
“She must have been a sneak,” said Augustina.
“She belonged to your list of the Misunderstood,” I said with dignity. “Nobody took the trouble to understand her, not even the bishop. I believe she died.”
“I’m sure she did,” said Augustina, “between a bishop and her particular variety of marble, I see there was nothing else to do.”
“ Jane Eyre — ” began I —
“Was one of the first,” said Augustina. “And don’t you remember Ellen Montgomery in the Wide Wide World? I actually grew sloppy over that book. For a good long while life appeared to me nothing better than a bleak New England country-side. Sometimes I think this cult must have been originated or else re-vivified by Byron. When the whole of England, and the rest of Europe can tack itself to a wide shirt collar and a gloomy eye,” said Augustina, “and begin to wear both, do you call that a fashion, a passion, or a disease ?”
“I don’t know,” I said uneasily, for Augustina’s eye was piercing me like a gimlet.
“Byron was a lineal descendant of the Smelling-Salts period in English fiction,” said Augustina. “I mean the period of the early novels. I never poke my nose into one of them without getting a whiff of some medicinal liquid. All around I see women in swoons and hysterics — Clarissa going into a faint, and Pamela just coming out of one. And these were the maternal ancestresses of the Misunderstood. For what other kind of sons and daughters can you expect from an anæmic breed but these?”
I dared an interruption. “Becky Sharp does n’t belong amongst them.”
“Of course she doesn’t,” returned Augustina. “Any woman muscular enough to shy a dictionary out of a fourwheeler is in no immediate need of cakes and ale. Becky’s sharp gray eyes saw the world plain and saw it whole. Becky was no Brooder.”
“We have had the Smelling-Salts period,” said Augustina, counting on her fingers, “and the Shirt Collar, and the Athletic periods.” She stopped. “Do you recollect those awful athletic novels ? ”
“Themen in them sworelike troopers,” said Augustina thoughtfully, and resumed her counting; “and now we have come again to the Period of the Misunderstood, a harking back to the Byronic days. The shirt collar has disappeared, but the gloomy eye still remains. Wherever I turn, I see it. For wherever I turn I see long processions of Martyrs clothed in gray and walking two by two.”
“Uniforms and processions,” said Augustina, “are dear to the human heart. The average man or woman likes to have his feelings worked upon. He deals in emotions, not in ideas. To tell you the truth, the average man would n’t know what to do with an idea. Rather than have one he would take to Greenland’s icy mountains, or to India’s coral strand. So it happens that the Misunderstood flourish like the green bay tree. They walk about clothed in gray, and the average man takes them to his heart and sniffles over them. They are so different, he thinks, and so he keeps on sniffling, and the processions keep on growing.”
“Well, Augustina — ”
“I read a book the other day,” said Augustina, getting high and mighty again, “and it contained no fewer than five of these dear, dilapidated creatures, male and female, all cut out of the same cloth, and fashioned after the same pattern. There was Isabel. She had a father who was fond of flowered waistcoats and rocking-chairs, He was so artistic indeed and so lazy, that Isabel was obliged to earn not only her own living, but that of her family. She marries, and after marriage becomes acquainted with a famous tenor-singer. And from that time forth she joins the procession of the gloomy-eyed. What is life without a tenorsinger ? ”
“Well, Augustina —”
“There is Elvira Jane,” continued Augustina, “who goes into a remote part of the country, and lives an uneventful life. Once, she comes back to her native city, and happens to be invited to a concert, After that, although an honest, decent sort of woman, she plays the part of the Aloof, the Put Upon. What is life without a flute and a bass-fiddle?”
“There is Daniel, brought up in poverty and the shorter Catechism. His good folks sit out on the stoop on Sunday afternoons and discuss the morning’s sermon. But Daniel has yearnings for something more vivid than sermons and John Calvin. He haunts the lobbies of the theatres. At last he commits suicide. What is life without footlights, bouquets, and the shouts of the multitude?”
“But, Augustina,” I screeched, “there are people in the wrong places in life.”
“I am through with the book,” said Augustina. “It left a bad taste in my mouth. But the processions are still growing. Who is that little creature that I see at the very end, in short frocks, and tails down her back ? ”
“Rebecca Mary?” I returned faintly.
“Rebecca Mary!” said Augustina.
“I could spank her every time I think of her. The only cheerful member of that family is the rooster.”
“But her aunt was hard on her, Augustina.”
“Then she should have banged the doors, or broken the teacups, or told one good, round, honest, rousing lie!” “O-h!”
“I have searched the Plummer family with a microscopic eye,” said my cousin Augustina,” and in spite of all their vaunted blood, I have not been able to discover one ounce of Plummer sense.
“Uniforms and processions, I repeat, enrapture the public. Only whine loud enough, or long enough, or, better still, look as if you want to, and you can bring the community to your feet. Single yourself out and put on an air, — and here you go past with the glorious army of Martyrs, with the great and growing order of Brethren Gray, and all the amalgamated Clubs of the Nincompoops.”
“But there are people who are out of their places, Augustina.”
“There are, and there are misunderstood people, too. Indeed, each of us is that. So was Job. Do you remember his friends Eliphaz, and Bildad, and Zophar, and Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite ? Poor Job! Our nearest and our dearest are miles away from us, and we from them. It is a part of our complex, common nature, and it is a law of that nature that we cannot be everywhere at the same time, or get everything all at once. Well, the best of us go straight ahead, a step at a time, with courageous hearts. Our breeding, or some prod from some half-forgotten catechism, or perhaps only some general principle that it would be mean to do otherwise, keeps us from crying out. And the public never gives us even one sniffle as we go by!”
I sighed dismally.
“The average reader and the average novelist of to-day are suffering from a sort of spiritual anæmia. Their view of life is the attitude of Geoffrey toward the marbles of Oliver. But life,” said Augustina, with a sweep of her hand, which included the earth, the sea, and all that therein is, “is a homely and a comely thing, the bare living of which is a privilege. And it rouses my wrath,” she cried, with another sweep, “to see it pictured as the dreary, half-lighted, monotonous desert of the Pessimists.”
“Then why don’t you—”
“I am going to open a shop for the sale of cakes and ale,” said Augustina, “and then I shall divide my friends — the sensible ones” — with a glance at me — “into police committees to spy out and arrest and hale to the afore-mentioned shop all authors guilty of creating characters of the Isabel — Elvira Jane — Daniel type. I shall take away from them all their stock in trade, frilled collars, gray habits, gloomy eyes, aloof manners, and a general air of after us the deluge. I shall then direct their attention to’ a suggestive legend in a gilt frame upon the walls: ‘All sniffling to cease; no Martyrs Allowed on These Premises.’”
I began to chuckle.
“And then,” said Augustina, “I shall turn them loose on the cakes and ale. ”