The Passing of Pippa
WHEN Pippa stepped out of the open door of the bookcase in my study, that evening, as she had done so many times before, I hardly knew her.
‘Why, Pippa,’ I exclaimed, ‘you look like a wilted wild rose! What on earth is the matter with you?’
‘I thought,’said she sadly, ‘that perhaps you could tell me that. You know all about us, don’t you? I have heard you talk by the hour to those college girls you introduced to me—’
‘Oh, Pippa,’ I confessed, ‘we are sometimes placed by academic necessity in an entirely false position. There is much that I do not know. — Tell me, if you please, just what has happened.’
She sat down in an armchair, sighing deeply. ‘ There it is! ’ said she. ‘ I never used to want to sit down.’
‘I know,’said I. ‘You moved like a young deer.’
‘Por months and months,’said she, ‘ I have n’t been like myself. — You know, of course, that the life of us characters of fiction consists of repeating, thousands, millions of times, — indefinitely, in fact, — precisely the same experiences? I have just been startled by discovering that I can’t do it any more.
‘ You see, I always wake at sunrise — a beautiful, bright sunrise: —
Faster and more fast,
O’er night’s brim, day boils at last!’
’Just so,’ I nodded.
‘Well, this last time,’she continued despondently, ‘it simply would n’t boil.
The weather was gray and muggy. And when I started on my walk and tried to sing, I had to sing off key. It was perfectly weird. But can you imagine what I felt when I found that my words either would n’t come at all or came absolutely wrong? ’
‘That sometimes happens to a tired teacher,’said I sympathetically. ‘It’s very alarming at first; but it soon goes over.'
Pippa looked tragic. ‘Listen to this!’ said she. (Her voice was quite unrecognizable.)
There’s no zip in the morn;
All’s at sixes and sevens
And deplorably soiled;
The shrike’s on the wing,
Sticking mice on the thorn;
There are hells, but no heavens —
All’s wrong with the world!
‘It is not only the hideous ideas — but what an awful, awful rhyme!’
‘Oh, don’t mind that!’ I soothed her. ‘It might pass for local pronunciation; and anyhow, false rhyme is now the only wear. Our best critics demand it; it produces variety and flexibility. You must call it something else — I forget what. But, Pippa!’ Suddenly a thought struck me. ‘Dear child, I believe I’ve got it! The same malign influence that has forced you to rhyme soiled with woild, against your better instinct, is also responsible for the unhappy sentiments you have expressed. You are obviously a bad case of spiritual malaria.’
I continued to expound fluently, though I had not previously considered these matters. I have noticed this tendency in myself, when exhausted at the end of a term; and have sometimes been surprised at the coherence of the product.
‘You see, Pippa dear, your existence is dependent on two factors: the mind of the author and the collective mind of the readers. Reading — though it is not generally understood — is a cooperative act. Hence the general mass of readers must understand and sympathize with the intention of the author. When such conditions are not present, a character of fiction cannot fully come to life. Present conditions in the reading world are, it seems, unfavorable; and a poisonous atmosphere produces these unfortunate results. Have you observed it in other cases?’
‘I was going to tell you,’ said Pippa. ’ I went on singing — if you call it singing — as I trudged up the hill, past the shrub house, in the customary way. And as I passed I heard Sebald and Ottima talking.’
‘Yes,’ I said expectantly, as she paused.
Pippa’s forehead was knitted like that of a puzzled child. ‘I could n’t expect such a song as I have repeated for you,’ said she, ‘to produce the usual effect, could I? Still, I was surprised when Ottima said to Sebald, just as he was faintly beginning to show his natural reaction, “Cheer up, old thing! We have the right to be happy and live our own lives, have n’t we? For pity’s sake, don’t be Victorian!” ’
‘What happened then?’ I asked.
‘I did n’t stay to see,’ answered Pippa piteously. ‘I came straight to you. And now your explanation makes it clear what is affecting us all.’
I subdued my pardonable curiosity as to the symptoms of Jules and Phene, Luigi and Monsignor. ‘With whom were you attempting to coöperate?’ I inquired.
‘It was — a young person,’ said Pippa, pressing her eyelids with her fingertips. ‘Oh, what will be the end of this?’
‘Be strong, my dear,’ said I. ‘I will pay you the compliment of frankness. You will have to recognize that most readers of to-day consider you, in your proper state of mind, too saccharine — or too roseate. Both terms are used. Now and then you must expect these seizures, as the inevitable consequence of an altered atmosphere. But as long as there remain a few gray-haired old friends like myself, you will retain a thread of your genuine life, and can occasionally — though not with any degree of certainty — feel yourself again.’
Pippa looked at me appraisingly. She seemed to calculate my age. ‘And when —?’ she faltered.
‘Yes, Pippa, when we pass, you will pass, too. But some of us are still robust. You may linger for years. As Herrick said to the blossoms, —
But you may stay yet here awhile
To blush and gently smile,
And go at last.’
I heard a little, shuddering sigh. Then I was alone. The door of the bookcase was slightly swinging. I meditated the rest of the evening on the probable future of Little Nell, Dora Copperfield, Patient Griselda, and the Lily Maid of Astolat; and projected an essay ‘On the Precarious Immortality of the Characters of Fiction.’