The Vicarious Career

THE applause which followed the closing period of the address made the sturdy rafters of the Opera House quake. The repeated recognition of the tribute by the Splendid One as she slowly retreated backward up the stage was in keeping with her personality. It was impressive, majestic, superb, yet. not unfeminine. For the moment, she was the young queen, and we her devoted subjects, vowing allegiance. I am ready to admit that, though a mere man and not very much of a feminist in the narrower meaning of the term, I was carried away with enthusiasm like the rest. Not that I could have recalled much of what she had said: I remembered chiefly that it was good, in its manner of presentation, if not in its substance. The spell was broken when Amelia, laying her hand upon my arm, whispered, —

‘How is that for a self-made woman? ’

I started, for she had touched me on a tender spot.

‘There is no such thing,’ I answered; and on the way home I explained myself.

One of my philosophic hobbies is that the ‘self-made’ man or woman is — I was going to say a fraud, but that implies a certain consciousness of perpetration, so I will modify the epithet — a victim of self-delusion. Many a man who craves the distinction of having made himself deserves great credit for having availed himself of his opportunities, but the opportunities came his way through the handiwork of another or others. What would an actor be without the opening made for him by the playwright, and the choice of a psychological moment by the manager? How much should we ever hear of a lawyer without clients, or a physician without patients ? Even a headsman cannot, rise to fame if his generation is too virtuous to furnish its crop of capital criminals. Every one of these agencies must be recognized in making up our estimate of the man who has attained success. The romancers appreciate the fact. Do we ever think of Robinson Crusoe without his man Friday, or of Gulliver without his Lilliputians?

‘Never mind fiction,’ remarked Amelia, cynically, ‘let’s stick to history, and talk about Lincoln and his rails, Burritt and his anvil, Hugh Miller and his rocks. I trust that if you ever write an essay on how great men are made, you will pay a suitable compliment to the wood and iron and stone that entered into the composition of their fame.’

I am used to Amelia’s satire, so I gratified her with a mild but non-committal chuckle, and proceeded. Passing from the more remote agencies to those of a man’s own household, you must have seen Dietrichstein in The Concert. Barrie, too, has hit off my idea, though somewhat broadly, in What Every Woman Knows. The poor egotist who attributed all his advance in politics to his own statesmanlike qualities, but awoke in the last act to discover how much he owed to his wife, is a type by no means extinct in real life. I half suspect that Barrie had Carlyle and Jane Welsh in mind when he wrote his play.

None of us liveth to himself, not the strongest or most gifted; somewhere we touch elbows with our neighbor and draw upon him for support, material or moral. As a result, none of us can justly be said to have made himself, or to have a wholly separate individuality. The most dominant member of the community, though he may boast of having made his own way in life without help, is really a composite product. To the public, his career appears to have been his alone; for a fact, he embodies the careers of several persons who have been so associated with him that, if any of them had dropped out of place, the result would have been, perhaps not spoiled, but at least not so complete. The Opera House is lighted by electricity. The unthinking credit the brilliancy of the illumination wholly to the great dynamo; I insist that every cog-wheel and lever and band and pin in the entire mechanism has a vicarious function in the production of the current. Let one of these break when the machinery is in full motion, and what happens?

So, let us take the case of the Splendid One. Would she have produced the effect she did on that audience if she had been an ill-nourished, anæmic, haggard, careworn dowdy,. instead of the magnificent creature who could have commanded a hearing anywhere by merely standing up and letting us look at her, whether we believed we were going to hear something worth listening to or not? And who was responsible for her appearance? Her dressmaker? In part. But the most perfect costume would have been powerless to make up for the lack of that clear skin, that glowing color, those sparkling eyes, that aura of physical soundness and energy which enveloped her so as to prepare every man and woman in the audience for something good to come. I hazarded a guess that her mother was a fine housekeeper.

‘She is,’ assented Amelia, ‘fine at everything that enters into home-making. If she were n’t —’

‘The Splendid One would go hungry sometimes,’ I suggested, ‘or all the time; or have indigestible food to eat? I ’ll make another guess — that, if the daughter is presiding at a committeemeeting, or deep in the throes of composition, or what not, when luncheon time comes, the mother sees to it that a hot and fresh tidbit shall be in waiting for her as soon as she is released. If the daughter is out late, as to-night, for instance, you may believe that the mother has an appetizing trayful of something for her to eat and drink before she goes to bed; and if she feels like sleeping over to-morrow morning, the old lady will guard the approaches to her chamber as jealously as a watchdog. What kind of a man is her father?’

‘A very ordinary person,’ answered Amelia, with just a hint of contempt in her tone, ‘very ordinary indeed. He is what would be called a plodder — the last man in the world you would expect to have been the parent of so magnificent a creature as she. He has spent his whole life over a counting-room desk. His one trait which protrudes above the level is his interest in her career. He has not been able financially to help her much, but he never put anything in the way of her doing what she had set her heart upon.’

‘I think I can picture him,’ I ventured. ‘He is somewhat colorless, and a little shy. After mousing all day over his account-books, he comes home and reads the papers. The Splendid One, with her round of public duties, has scant time to do that, so he tells her the news, and comments on it, and probably clips a few of the articles he finds, that bear on subjects within her range of thought and activity. In an unostentatious way, his good name in the community has given her a standing there which it would have taken her a long time to win for herself. When she has got a little money ahead, he advises her about taking care of it. He also gives her the benefit, when she asks him to, of his experience and observation of men and affairs through a life which is from two to three times as long as hers. And possibly there are some other members of the household?’

‘Only one, a sister, who is commonplace like the father. She’s a good girl, I suppose, but one who will never be heard of. I rarely meet her anywhere except making a call at some one’s house or in the audience on an occasion like to-night. She went behind immediately after the speech.’

‘ Just so. She was probably carrying the Splendid One’s cloak, gladly playing the part of a maid that the star of the evening might have that much less to think about. Few geniuses can endure distractions of a purely mundane order. Unless I miss my guess, the Splendid One turns over her modicum of social duties to her sister to attend to. The Sister makes the calls, answers the invitations, keeps the minor household records in which the Splendid One figures. It is the sister who takes care of the little garden, cuts the flowers, and arranges them for the table; it is she who counts, and assorts, and mends the clothes when the laundress has done her worst with them; nay, now that I am on the subject, how do you know that she does not darn the stockings which the Splendid One is too busy to keep in order, or —’

‘You need not go on,’ interrupted Amelia. ‘You have drawn the family portrait pretty true to life. Where did you learn so much about them ?’

‘They are simply an epitome of the family universal,’ said I, feeling for my latchkey as we walked up the path to the front-door. ‘We are apt to single out a certain member who is in the public glare, and say, “So-and-so has achieved a career; the rest are nobodies, or nearly so.” We rarely pause to reflect that the career of the one who stands in the spot-light is only a part of a joint career in which those dimly descried figures in the gray background are sharers. The Splendid One enjoys hers directly, the others enjoy theirs vicariously, but with not less real desert.’