A Speed Limit for Love

I OFTEN wonder what the loving parents of our land would do in the way of lamentation if facts could be adduced in their own families to prove the reasonableness of fiction. In modern magazine literature the short-story form, which was never intended to trace the rough and tortuous course of love, is consecrated wholly to that difficult service. The result is — if I may refer without malice to the plots of a few late stories — that all our love-making arises suddenly out of nowhere, and runs to its consummation at marvelous speed. A lady of family, and presumably of sense, is stranded in mid-desert by her extinct automobile. Whereupon (the author allows himself one brave touch of naturalism) she sits down to weep. The form of a solitary man appears out of the waste. They walk together toward the settlements for the matter of two days, saying little, but thinking much, — though we are not let into the matter of their thought, — as subsequent events go to prove. Arrived within sight of habitation, the rescuer submits to the fate reserved for all heroes in fiction, and makes the inevitable proposal. She accedes with an alacrity that would be expressed outside a sentimental piece only by the boys’ exclamation, “You bet!”

The movement of the story ends here, and with it our intoxication. Reason begins to clamor. And so we are told in a final sentence that the man is not a tramp of the desert, but, like the woman he has won, the flower of fashion, and the pole of an enormous system of wealth.

In short, fiction would have us believe not only that love springs into full bloom at first sight, but that marriage usually follows before dew-fall. And since our heroes and heroines are always men and women of quality, — wealthy, cultured, self-possessed, — the dangerous and unseemly haste represented by their actions must be the prevalent style of courtship in the very best circles of our society. How then, oh how, must it be with the chambermaid and the serving-man ? Biddy, the cook, is precipitately wooed, won, and married, all in the course of a minute! Were I a father, and thought such things could be, and if my children had only a modest endowment of discretion, I know I should keep them under surveillance day and night; and like Tristram Shandy’s father, pass my natural lifetime composing a system of education for them.

The trouble begins, as I said, with the misuse of the short-story form. It reminds me of the mediæval painting, which knew not the use of perspective, and so represented a scene that in nature would occupy three dimensions, by images which, frown and squint as you will, can be seen only as in two. Now love, as I understand it (though I confess it is one poor weak intelligence against the many), is a thing of three dimensions, and a fourth, and many others subtly felt, and needing to be subtly indicated by the artist. Instead of being rendered flat, in a panel, it should be let loose in space and be bathed round with air, — to use the painter’s terms, — or, in terms of narrative, be subject to the free circulation of time. The art does, indeed, provide a simple medium for this in the introductory paragraph, which aims to include what is there at the beginning of the story. But readers are impatient of these delays and require that they be held down to a minimum. In consequence, the product is an enormity from the standpoint of truth, but a grand success judged from its result, — excitement. Like mediæval saints, we gaze and adore, our imagination supplying all that lacks. And so we shall, I suppose, until the coming of the new renaissance, when old things shall pass away, and the short story shall be reformed.

It occurs to me that life must be a sad and dismal discipline alike for the writers who create this kind of love-affair, and for the folk who take their ideas of the tender passion from such masters. I myself confess to a feeling of tedium in the perusal of a three-volume novel. But I would willingly resort to one for the treat of a good old-fashioned courtship as they are said actually to have occurred when our grandmothers were of marriageable age; and as they did — if personal bias must come out at last — when I went a-sparkin’. Then John would “drop in” from the neighboring farm and sit with the family on the front porch, talking of crops and markets, births, deaths, and marriages, until a late bedtime; although the new polish on his boots made all disguise of no avail, and proclaimed that he had come for a very different purpose.

At last all would retire but Katie. And then John’s boots, that had erst been tucked somewhat awkwardly beneath his chair, would produce themselves, dramatically, and begin to flash in the moonlight. They two would then withdraw to the front gate, so convenient to lean upon, or to the kitchen : and what they said only the moon heard, or the cat, yawning beneath the stove.

Perhaps they were so dull in the business that what they said was not worth hearing, — nothing at all to the point. Indeed it would seem so, for the same performance, so far as we can follow it (to the coup d’amour, when the boots began to flash, and they sauntered toward the gate), was repeated night after night for a year; until, sometimes, only the advances of a rival would occasion a perceptible change in their relations, and bring behind it the long-expected announcement. Be it so. They had the ampler opportunity to think. At all events, we may be sure they did nothing hasty and rash. And if the modern lover who, according to the stories, finishes the whole experience in a day, is still unable to see the advantage of this protraction, let him recall the thoughts of his one day, and reflect how it would be to enjoy such thoughts for a year!

I think I should protest with the loudest against old-fogyism. But if our shortstory literature of love is a true transcription of the love of real life, then I am happy to be ranked among the ancients, knowing that my superannuation insures me against this dreadful kind of mortality, — the crowding of years into a day, and of all the joys we have worth remembering into an hour.