The Vanity of Romance
ON the whole I thought I did not care for a husband. It seemed a more desirable thing, even at a distant view, to leave the chances of life open. There was a finality about a husband that seemed to do away with other possibilities, and define inalterably the road of the future.
And that road of the future — what a way it was! No one could tell yet where it might go, or what might happen on it. Sometimes I could hardly wait, to see, and sometimes I was glad to wait, and in the meantime wonder and wonder, and plan and plan. But the trouble is, one cannot read about any kind of life or hear of any kind of experience without wanting to try it. Everything in the world seems worth doing, for a while at least. That makes it a most irksome limitation to be only one person. Had I been five, four others and myself, we could amongst us have compassed everything worth while. But to be only one person, hampered by sex-conventions besides — it is a pitifully meagre fate. That is why I early decided against matrimony as a career. It did n’t seem to offer either excitement or celebrity, and at the same time it seemed to close the doors to all other experiences. I considered the matter once and settled it. Who had ever heard of a person celebrated as a successful wife? Nor could a married person be a heroine; in my reading, at least, there was no precedent for it. That is the same as saying that my stories were not very modern. So far as I knew, married people just lived and kept house — the last thing in the world to do.
But this point settled, the choice of all the world lay before me. Daily I dreamed; I called it making up stories. At night, after I went to bed, in long afternoons in the orchard, behind my geography at school, I composed my never-ending tales. In them I walked a path of splendor. Romance marked my way. For they were always about the great things the future was to bring me. It is a rich time, before your fancy is hampered by any knowledge of practical conditions or probabilities, and is guided by desire and that alone. Sometimes I was to be a poet, sometimes a novelist or singer or scholar, sometimes rich, and beautiful beyond even Tennyson’s telling, sometimes a heroine with fine deeds to my credit, anon a mere philanthropist, modestly earning untold gratitude — but always I was to be great and celebrated, somehow, somewhere. The fact that I was unmusical, unpoetical, unscholarly, unbeautiful, and not clever, was a matter of present grief, but it in no wise curbed my imagination. I was to be different in the future. For each career chosen. I elaborately planned out every item, with a care and precision worthy of a novelist. Little Ellie herself could not outdo me in faithful detail — only I put in no lover as yet, and I could see no point in Ellie and her foolish swan’s nest.
The constant element in all these variables was success, glorified success, the admiration of all observers, and the astonishment and humble approval of my family. They were the ones it seemed most worth while to impress. To be sure, there were scattered seasons when family authority or lack of appreciation irked me, and I decided to get even by being merely a humble, devoted, dutiful soul, whose merit was discovered when it was too late, to the poignant regret of her unappreciative friends. I dwelt more on the poignant regret than on the devotion and duty.
The too open respectability of our family record seemed to preclude mystery or romance, and at times drove me to the luscious fancy that I was adopted! Some one — the Queen of England preferably — might come up our drive almost any day to claim me and take me away to my true sphere. I would be very gracious and really affectionate in taking leave of my humble foster-family, and send them a thousand dollars by return mail. Of course, when the next day I had decided to become a novelist and make a large fortune by my own absolutely unaided efforts, I was rather glad the Queen had not come for me. But for the moment, whatever dream lay in my small mind was as real as reality, and I went to sleep nightly wondering when things were going to begin to happen. Sometimes they seemed unbearably slow.
There was one great day in my mental history. Up to that time I had thought quiet and some degree of solitude necessary for the carrying on of my stories. I could do it at school, when I ought to be studying, but the chance was better on the road to and from school, when I lagged behind the other children, or out in the orchard under the Red June tree, or on long drives with the grown-ups, when they talked away and paid no attention to me. The best time was after I was in bed and Maldy had taken the light away and told me to go straight to sleep. To go straight, to sleep was rank waste; sleeping was the very last thing to consider doing, unless one were sure of dreaming. But sleep-dreams were very unsatisfactory, because one forgot them, or they broke off at the wrong point, or were too illogical to be probable, even to my mind. It was better to make one’s self stay awake as long as possible. What I did was to turn my face to the window, where a maple tree made a lattice for the stars to shine through, snuggle down and begin on my story where I had left off last — unless some reading or happening of the day set me on a new trail.
But on the Great Day, I learned something. In our well-disciplined, Calvinist ic family, the working theory was that duty was the moral bread of life, and that no child was too small to have duties in proportion, and to be required to do them. It was a most irksome theory. The Stern Lawgiver stalked unwelcome among us younglings and hampered us at undesired moments. But as for me, I wore her shackles lightly after this important day when, called at a most exciting moment of a story to finish some shirked towel-hemming, I discovered that I could carry on my absorbing fiction while my reluctant hands were toiling prosaically. What did it matter if my hands were in Iowa and my needle was sticky, and if my thread knotted and became embarrassingly grimy? My real me was far away, doing tremendous things. No wonder it was a great day. From that time on, neither the presence of people, nor occupation to which I should have been giving my mind, hindered me from weaving my airy fabric of the things to be desired. The moment current matters ceased to be interesting, I was off on the path of the experiences I hoped would come to pass.
The effect of this on my practical education was disastrous. No future heroine ever brought on herself more present obloquy and reprimand. How can one remember what she was sent to the cellar for, when she is enjoying a vision of herself receiving the plaudits and roses of thousands, on the opera stage? How can she remember which are young pansy plants and which are weeds, when she is planning what she would do if she found a robber in her room in the night? How can she take care to make little stitches and keep the right distance from the edge and not pucker, when she is at the very critical moment of saving a train, like Kate Shelley, about whom poems had been written in the newspapers?
In such a scheme of life virtue was less a thing to be yearned for than was fame. Any one could be good — if not, why was every one told to be good? — or at least one could be good when one could not be anything else. Still, I was not sure that I ought to fabricate my stories on Sunday: it seemed too worldly an amusement, although the long church service did furnish an enticing opportunity. Then I thought of a way: I would make the story fit the occasion. So on Sundays, in the meagre-looking, white-plastered, little prairie church, while the dim old minister was preaching away into his whiskers, I saw myself as a missionary in heathen lands, as the pious subject of a little Sundayschool book, as a faithful little mother to my orphaned brothers and sisters. That idea would have interested John and Mary. Well, it is something to covet goodness even on Sundays. Sometimes the impulse comes less often than once a week.
Then I wanted a companion in this absorbing inner life, or else I wanted to show off my inventive ability, I don’t know which. Anyway, I tried to induct little Mary into my own joys. But Mary did not prove worthy. She wanted everything accounted for on a practical basis. She was so unimaginative as to ask where the old gentleman was coming from who was going to leave me a million dollars, or where were the signs of the artistic talent by which I was to leap to sudden fame. No one could tell a confidential ambition to such incredulous ears. I gave her up.
Then I tried Henry, in one of his more pliant moods. There was no questioning his imagination. He followed me promptly, he suggested new details, we found a place for him in the scheme and moved hand in hand to fame; the structure grew nobly. But alas for the rarity of masculine faithfulness under the sun! That very night, with the story warm in our minds, Henry crassly, insensately, referred to it before the whole family. And then, when idly questioned, he, as if insensible to the delicate exotic quality of t he thing he was handling and the intimate nature of the revelation, told it, jocularly crediting the whole thing to me. No conduct could have been baser, more uncomradelike. To this hour I hope he will be punished for it. Could I have passed away at that moment, with all those surreptitiously smiling ones about me, I should willingly have foregone all the coming true of all the dreams. But it taught me a bitter lesson. There is a point beyond which no man can go. You may trust your friends with your money or your past, but with your ambitions and your dreams, no one.
After that, like the pampered soul in the Palace of Art, I held my solemn mirth alone. Like the same soul, I sucked dry the orange of experience. I sampled all phases of life that looked interesting, from being cast away on a desert island, where I out-crusoed Crusoe in prodigies of timely ingenuity, to conducting a temperance campaign and convincing besotted but reasonable thousands that they should hate the bowl. There were no unhappy limits to possibility. I never had to look wistfully over the confining fence at an experience that I had blindly failed to choose. If any experience looked desirable, I promptly appropriated it, at least until I had worn the details of it trite. Then I easily changed to another. No wonder I hesitated to limit my roving fancy to any such fixed condition as matrimony.
As for the trifling factor that preceded or brought about the married state, that, or he, was quite negligible. No lover rode across the mirror of my inventions. That was the one thing that belonged strictly to a book, though everything else was transferable. I had not seen one in real life, nor vet conceived of one outside of print. Indeed I had not paid much attention to that element, even in fiction. Pure love-stories were carefully excluded from our reading, so far as might be, and romantic affection I had found a rather vague feature in the stories I had read. I was used, of course, to having heroes and heroines want to get married, just as they wanted money or an inheritance, or the punishment of their enemies. There were only two objects in a story, so far as I had observed. One was that the hero should get what he wanted, whatever that might be; and the other that the villain should be adequately and satisfactorily punished. If the hero wanted to get married, — as I summed up the yearnings of the lover’s passion, — why, let him. I could follow the story of his impassioned strivings with faithful sympathy, since it was all in the story; though why Ivanhoe, for example, was possessed with a desire to settle down uneventfully with Rowena, when he could have gone on and had further exciting adventures, I really could n’f see. But the concrete rewards of love seemed to be as definite an objective point as taking a castle or fighting in a tournament, and I was for success for the right man, whatever he might want.
We had tried, it is true, to work this element into the inventions of our endless games, but without much success. Mary was quite too small and too practical to take the rôle of heroine, and I was too unadaptable. I always insisted on the same form of proposal: ‘Will you be mine?’ Henry and John acknowledged that to be an orthodox form, but they thought something should be left to individual taste and personality. So the game always broke up at this point, and we entered on house-keeping relations in the playhouse, without benefit of clergy.
Our vagueness on the subject of the divine passion was only natural, after all. Scott is no instructor in such a matter, and even Dickens lacks definition. He scants his love-scenes shamefully, any one will acknowledge. Practical sources of romantic information were few. We had never seen a wedding. Wedding-cards came from the east sometimes, and we handled them curiously, as the sign of something very remote, both in circumstance and in idea. But the actual committing of matrimony lay outside of our knowledge. We regarded it as the t hing that happened in a story after all the real excitement was over, and there was nothing more to expect. If we could have seen a live pair of lovers in actual operation, that department of life might have been illuminated for us. But all the grown-up people we knew were already sorted out into married couples, and ordinary married couples bore little trace now of past romantic excitement in their accomplishment of matrimony. They might have been born married, so far as we could tell. Our father and mother, for instance, — they seemed distinctly fond of each other, and yet we could n’t conceive of a time when they did n’t have us. And we certainly would have been an impediment to courtship. Such was the status of romance with me until a certain June afternoon that marked a new emotional epoch.
I had just finished the Legree section of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the third time. The last comfortable shiver had died away up my spine, and, still lying under the box-elder tree, with my elbows in the grass and my chin in my hands, I was wondering what to do next. It was then that I happened to see Ellen.
There are vivid moments in one’s acquaintance with people, even with members of one’s own family, when their characters are suddenly illuminated with new light. So, as I say, I saw Ellen. I dropped my idly waving toes in the grass and sat up, to bring my mind to an earnest contemplation of something I had never seen in her before. Ellen was my oldest sister. For two years she had been back east in boarding-school, and she had now returned, a young lady, and I was adjusting myself to her as a new element in the family. At this moment she sat on the side of the hammock, and a Young Man stood in front of her. Young men, I had begun to notice, had become rather frequent occurrences at our house of late, and they always fell to Ellen to entertain. As I idly watched them, I became aware of the thing that made me sit up.
To begin with, it broke upon me for the first time that Ellen was pretty. Even to the unprepossessed eye of a younger sister, that was now apparent. It had never occurred to me before, for a very simple and logical reason. There had been nothing in my reading to suggest that beauty was anything less than an absolute quality. A young lady was absolutely beautiful and fit to figure in a novel, like Rowena and Rebecca, or she was not beautiful and no heroine at all. Now it dawned on me that there were degrees of beauty and that Ellen had one of them, if not more.
This afternoon she wore a pretty pink dress, one that had come from the east with her, and had an airiness and ruffliness unknown to my useful frocks. She sat with her knees crossed, — I was not allowed to do that,—and the attitude brought the tip of a shiny slipper into view, especially when she gave a little push to set the hammock in motion. Her chin was tilted a bit sidewise. Anon she looked up at the young man and then dropped her eyelashes and looked at the rosette on her slipper, and gave a little kick — at least if I had done it, it would have been a kick, if ever so little — that set her ruffles fluttering. When the wind blew her fluffy hair about her face she let it stay for a moment and then put it back, not too securely, with an airy motion that brought her bare elbow into view for a slow minute. No wonder I looked at her. When she combed my hair in the morning, a process entered upon with reluctance on both sides, she did n’t tip her chin or flutter her eyelashes or look up with a sudden half-smile. A truth abruptly took my breath away: Ellen was coquetting.
I had not dreamed of such a literary possibility as this within my own family. I slowly pushed myself backward until I reached the box-elder for support, and contemplatively gathered up my knees under my chin. At a bound Ellen had passed from being a mere member of the family, with a big sister’s unwarranted assumption of authority and troublesome notions as to my deportment, to the dignity of a young lady, and one who could make a young man look like that. My gaze wandered to the veranda where my father and mother were sitting. Their attitude and manner indicated distinctly amicable relations, but they certainly differed from those of Ellen and the young man. It slowly came to me that possibly there was something very enjoyable in this situation of Ellen’s. Maybe there was more in the whole matter than I had supposed.
Presently, as no new phenomena seemed to promise at the hammock, I arose and walked meditatively to the house. I slipped into Ellen’s room, she being safely engaged for the moment, and looked at myself in her glass, the glass of young-ladyhood. I did n’t need its evidence to tell me that I was not beautiful, but what I was looking for was not actuality but promise. With the aid of Ellen’s grown-up hairpins I secured my hair on top of my head — my poor, straight, slippery hair that lost so many hair-ribbons. The result certainly was an improvement. Ellen’s perfectly beautiful summer hat, all drooping and pink and flowery, lay on the bed. I put it on. Then I looked about me, and a drawer partly open beckoned. Vanity lay within it, in the shape of a lacy, fluffy boa-thing, which I promptly clapped about my undeniably skinny neck. Then I looked in the glass again, with optimistic eye and hopeful forecast of the years. Even I, unbiased though generously sympathetic, thought I saw a far-away promise. Perhaps when I was a young lady! — who could tell?
That night I introduced an entirely novel element into my story: a — lover. I wish I could write it in small type. He was a very nebulous creation at first, and even my own attitude and action wanted definition. The whole relation was tentative, awaiting fuller information. And that information was not so easy to come by as one might suppose. I kept a careful eye on Ellen. But Ellen never seemed to go beyond the most elementary conduct. She did n’t do anything but look sidewise and upwise and downwise and say little saucy things that left a heavy burden of response on the young men. I cast about for further illustrations, but no one in sight was in a position to furnish them. I wanted a real lovescene, rich in detail and lavish in phrase.
I fell back on novels, where one ought to be able to learn anything about life. But it was surprising how they had slighted the love-scenes. Jane Austen was so modest in her shy syncopating of them; and Scott never seemed to have time for them, because he had to hurry off to start another fight; and Thackeray gave only little samples, expecting you to know the rest; and Jane Eyre was too intellectual for me. As for the mild juvenile books given us by relatives, they confined themselves to didactic issues, with a bare hint of future romance thrown in at the end as a sort of apology for previous dullness. Our reading was entirely too well-guarded. Why had no one introduced us to the current Chambers or Hichens of the time, whoever he was? Family discipline, even personal honor, will not stand everything. I looked at the shelves of the Forbidden Books once too often, and then I fell. The Forbidden Books make a whole chapter, which cannot be given here. They proved my tree of good and evil — and indifferent. But I learned why they were forbidden and I learned other things. Chiefly I learned what I wanted to know.
So far as may lie in the ten-year-old, I applied it. The romance throve apace. I soon passed Ellen, wondering why she contented herself with her pointless, incipient affairs when she might have a real, full-flavored one. Mere amusement was a slight object. I sighed for dramatic results. Never had the resources about me seemed so limited.
But at last arrived the real chance, the opportunity of the seeker for romance. There came out of the east a young lady cousin to visit, and then presently a young man she was engaged to marry, obligingly invited to spend a few days at the Plantation. To be married was a small thing, but to be engaged — that was romantic. I should have preferred to have them just at the point of getting engaged, but this would do. All the small imagination of me sat up, to watch. Something crept through the atmosphere of the house, a mingled amusement and sympathy, and an alertness to guard against surprises and awkward situations.
For me, I forgot my own affair in my excitement over this. Think of having a novel brought and put down under your very nose! Ellen faded into unimportance. My own admirer held to a thread of existence, but an attenuated one. When I really found out new details, I could revive him. Frequently chidden though I was, politeness was almost beyond possibility. I wanted to stare and strain my ears to listen. Unless under strict orders, I hung always in the near distance, shy but eager. If I could only see them when there was no one around! There must be interesting moments that were practically lost to the world.
Then, beyond my wildest hopes, a chance came. I was up in the biggest Maiden’s Blush tree, eating an apple, when I saw them coming. I always called them the lovers to myself. I can’t tell what an element it put into life, to know that at any hour of the day I might walk into one of the everyday rooms of the house, never so hallowed before, and find a pair of lovers. At this moment they were — well, I won’t say what they were doing, but at the time I noted it as an item. It was what I had searched for in Miss Austen and failed to find. But that was not all. They came right up to the tree, not like normal people to look for apples, but to sit down in the soft branchy grass, right beneath me. There never was a more awkward or more delightful situation. Of course I knew I should go away, but what could I do? I leave it to any one if I was to blame. There was no moment from the time they came in sight when I could have made my presence known without mortification on both sides. It seemed to be distinctly the part of a lady to keep still when she was up a tree, and it would embarrass the people below to know she was there. Anyway, I am not telling even now, and I should not if I were asked, what they said — still less what they did.
But there were drawbacks in the situation. No one need think I was enjoying it in full comfort, in spite of the dramatic intensity of the moment. They came upon me just as I was changing my position in the tree, and the Samothracian Niké herself is not more tired than I was before I had a chance to move. I held my unfinished apple in one hand. I dared not eat it, I had no pocket, and for the moment no lap. With my other hand I had to cling to a branch above my head. There was room for only one foot in the crotch where I was supporting myself, and of course I could not change.
How would you like to cling with one hand to a branch of an apple-tree, while you listened to the platitudes of affection — addressed to some one else? Would it give you any thrills to learn the real evincements of passion, while your right foot was being pinched in a crotch and your other hung at large, heavy and unsupported, and your thumb was being slowly paralyzed as it clutched the slippery core of an apple? Would n’t such unfitting circumstances affect any one’s sympathetic appreciation?
Anyway, it was apparent to me now that I had overestimated the literary and dramatic value of such a scene as was going on below me. The language was far below my expectations. I could think of better myself. There was a good deal of repetition of phrasing and what I took for lack of originality. In fact, as my arm began to ache, I thought it all sounded rather silly — the worse the ache, the more foolish the dialogue. I had n’t thought much of ‘ownest own,’ even when I found it in Maud, and I thought less of it when I heard it said. As for the action — well, I was a little like Jane Austen myself. I looked the other way most of the time. I should n’t have cared to be either of them. The whole situation had evidently been distinctly overrated.
They seemed to have been there a week. My arm ached, my thumb was tired, my foot was cramped, my other foot was numb — I almost wanted to cry. Things below me were getting duller and duller. I was wondering how it would do to get down deliberately and walk away in a dignified manner. Then, all at once, everything happened. Henry and a bumble-bee precipitated the tragic result.
The bumble-bee nearly destroyed my already doubtful poise by buzzing viciously around my head. Then he lighted on the rapidly-browning surface of my apple and remained there in ominous quiet, approaching his fuzzy black-and-yellow self steadily nearer the tip of my thumb. I watched him in awful fear. When he touched my thumb I should scream, I knew. While this horror was pending, Henry appeared on the scene, at the other end of the vista enclosed by apple-trees. He saw me on my perch, but not the absorbed lovers beneath, and emitted a shrill brotherly ‘Hi!' by way of salutation. At the very same moment the bee reached out a scraggly leg for a feeler, secured footing, and deliberately drew himself over on my thumb. I did scream — who could have helped it? Moreover I flung the apple and slid precipitately and recklessly from the tree, landing at the very feet of the lovers, who had sprung up at Henry’s call. There, a mass of aches and jar and mortification, I remained a moment. They looked at me, I looked at their feet; Henry, a happy outsider, looked at us all. Then I rose and walked away. But you know how your back feels when you are walking away.
If it had not been for Henry, the affair would not have mattered, for I know the lovers would not have mentioned it. But Henry, again to his sex’s shame, told. First, he followed me to the house, pestering me all the way with questions and surmises and deridings. I took refuge in hauteur. There is nothing else to do when one seems to be in the wrong. If I had gratified Henry’s masculine curiosity, he would probably have entered into league with me, and there, except for the lasting effects of disillusionment, the matter might have ended. But my haughty silence drove him into virtuous indignation at my breach of hospitality, and for the honor of the family he mentioned the occurrence to Them. Then followed a series of mentionings. Everybody mentioned it to me. My mother mentioned it reluctantly, my father jocularly, a visiting grandparent solemnly, Ellen with spicy indignation. She thought that I ought to apologize, but my mother said no. I don’t know where the lovers spent the rest of the afternoon, for no one saw them again until supper-time. I did n’t think I wanted any supper, hut I was sent for and brought in, with lagging steps and painful shame on my brow. I think the shame was chiefly for a lost ideal, however, for I certainly was in the tree first. But everybody talked about Mark Twain all through the meal.
That night I said a reluctant but irrevocable farewell to the attenuated lover. He was very passionate and woe-begone, and he did credit to his kind by using beautiful language. He might have used more, but I went to sleep in the midst of it. The next morning, while weeding the verbena-bed, I entered on a new career as a rancher in the far west. I would run a large ranch — with great profit — all alone, and I would have about thirty men, and boss them all myself.