Once upon a time there was an editor of a magazine who had certain ideas concerning short stories. This is not wonderful, for editors have such ideas; and when they find a short story which corresponds, they accept it with joy and pay good sums for it. This particular editor believed that a short story should be realistic. "Let us have things as they are!" he was accustomed to cry to his best friend, or the printer's devil, or the office cat, whichever happened to be the handiest. "Life is great enough to say things for itself, without having to be helped out by the mawkish sentimentality of an idiot! Permit us to see actual people, living actual lives, in actual houses, and I should hope we have common-sense enough to draw our own morals!" He usually made these chaotic exclamations after reading through several pages of very neat manuscript in which the sentences were long and involved, and in which were employed polysyllabic adjectives of a poetic connotation. This editor liked short, crisp sentences. He wanted his adjectives served hot. He despised poetic connotation. Being only an editor, his name was Brown. If he had been a writer, he would have had three names, beginning with successive letters of the alphabet.
Now, one day, it happened that there appeared before this editor, Brown, a young man bearing a roll of manuscript. How he had gotten by the office boy Brown could not conceive, and rolled manuscript usually gave him spasms. The youth, however, presented a letter of introduction from Brown's best friend. He said he had a story to submit, and he said it with a certain appearance of breathlessness at the end of the sentence, which showed Brown that it was his first story. Brown frowned inwardly, and smiled outwardly. He begged the youth to take a seat. As all the seats were filled with unopened papers and unbound books, the youth said he preferred to stand.
Brown asked the youth questions, in a perfunctory manner, not because he cared to know anything about him, but because he liked the man who had written the letter. The youth's name proved to be Severne, and he was the most serious-minded youth who had ever stepped from college into writing. He spoke of ideals. Brown concluded that the youth's story probably dealt with the time of the Chaldaean astronomers, and contained a deep symbolical truth, couched in language of the school of Bulwer Lytton or Marie Corelli. So, after the youth had gone, he seized the roll of manuscript, for the purpose of glancing through it. If he had imagined the story of any merit, he would not have been in such haste; but as his best friend had introduced the writer, he thought he would like to get a disagreeable task over at once.
He glanced the story through. Then he read it carefully. Then he slammed it down hard on his desk--to the vast confusion of some hundreds of loose memoranda, which didn't matter much, anyway--and uttered a big, bad word. The sentences in the story were short and crisp. The adjectives were served very hot indeed. There was not a single bit of poetic connotation. It described life as it really was.
Brown, the editor, published the story, and paid a good price for it. Severne, the author, wrote more stories, and sold them to Brown. The two men got to be very good friends, and Severne heard exactly how Brown liked short stories and why, and how his, Severne's, stories were just that kind.
All this would have been quite an ideal condition of affairs, and an object-lesson to a harsh world and other editors, were it not that Severne was serious-minded. He had absolutely no sense of humour. Perspectives there were none for him, and due proportions did not exist. He took life hard. He looked upon himself gravely as a serious proposition, like the Nebular Hypothesis or Phonetic Reform. The immediate consequence was that, having achieved his success through realism, he placed realism on a pedestal and worshipped it as the only true (literary) god. Severne became a realist of realists. He ran it into the ground. He would not describe a single incident that he had not viewed from start to finish with his own eyes. He did not have much to do with feelings direct, but such as were necessary to his story he insisted on experiencing in his own person; otherwise the story remained unwritten. And as for emotions--such as anger, or religion, or fear--he would attempt none whose savour he had not tasted for himself. Unkind and envious rivals--not realists--insisted that once Severne had deliberately gotten very drunk on Bowery whiskey in order that he might describe the sensations of one of his minor characters in such a condition. Certain it is, he soon gained the reputation among the unintelligent of being a crazy individual, who paid people remarkably well to do strange and meaningless things for him. He was always experimenting on himself and others.
This was ridiculous enough, but it would hardly have affected anyone but crusty old cranks who delight in talking about "young fools," were it not for the fact that Severne was in love. And that brings us to the point of our story.
Of course he was in love in a most serious-minded fashion. He did not get much fun out of it. He brooded most of the time over lovers' duties to each other and mankind. He had likewise an exalted conception of the sacred, holy, and lofty character of love itself. This is commendable, but handicaps a man seriously. Girls do not care for that kind of love as a steady thing. Far be it from me to insinuate that those quite angelic creatures ever actually want to be kissed; but if, by any purely accidental chance, circumstances bring it about that, without their consent or suspicion, a brute of a man might surprise them awfully--well, said brute does not gain much by not springing the surprise. Being adored on a pedestal is nice--in public. So you must see that Severne's status in ordinary circumstances would be precarious. Conceive his fearful despair at finding his heart irrevocably committed to a young lady as serious-minded as himself, equally lacking in humour, and devoted mind and soul to the romantic or idealistic school of fiction! They often discussed the point seriously and heatedly. Each tried conscientiously to convert the other. As usual, the attempt, after a dozen protracted interviews, ended in the girl's losing her temper. This made Severne angry. Girls are so unreasonable!
"What do you suppose I care how your foolish imaginary people brush their teeth and button their suspenders and black their boots? I know how old man Smith opposite does, and that is more than enough for me!" she cried.
"The insight into human nature expresses itself thus," he argued, gloomily.
"Rubbish!" she rejoined. "The idea of a man's wasting the talents heaven has given him in describing as minutely and accurately as he can all the nasty, little, petty occurrences of everyday life! It is sordid!"
"The beautiful shines through the dreariness, as it does in the real life people live," he objected, stubbornly.
"The beautiful is in the imagination," she cried, with some heat; "and the imagination is God-given; it is the only direct manifestation of the divine on earth. Without imagination no writing can have life."
As this bordered on sentiment, abhorred of realism, Severne muttered something that sounded like "fiddlesticks." They discussed the relation of imagination to literature on this latter basis. At the conclusion of the discussion, Miss Melville, for that was her name, delivered the following ultimatum:
"Well, I tell you right now, Robert Severne, that I'll never marry a man who has not more soul in him than that. I am very much disappointed in you. I had thought you possessed of more nobility of character!"
"Don't say that, Lucy," he begged, in genuine alarm. Serious-minded youths never know enough not to believe what a girl says.
"I will say that, and I mean it! I never want to see you again!"
"Does that mean that our engagement is broken?" he stammered, not daring to believe his ears.
"I should think, sir, that a stronger hint would be unnecessary."
He bowed his head miserably. "Isn't there anything I can do, Lucy? I don't want to be sent off like this. I do love you!"
She considered. "Yes, there is," she said, after a moment. "You can write a romantic story and publish it in a magazine. Then, and not until then, will I forgive you."
She turned coldly, and began to examine a photograph on the mantelpiece. After an apparently interminable period, receiving no reply, she turned sharply.
"Well!" she demanded.
Now, in the interval, Severne had been engaged in building a hasty but interesting mental pose. He had recalled to mind numerous historical and fictitious instances in which the man has been tempted by the woman to depart from his heaven-born principles. In some of these instances, when the woman had tempted successfully, the man had dwelt thenceforth in misery and died in torment, amid the execrations of mankind. In others, having resisted the siren, he had glowed with a high and exalted happiness, and finally had ascended to upper regions between applauding ranks of angels--which was not realism in the least. Art, said Severne to himself, is an enduring truth. Human passions are misleading. Self-sacrifice is noble. He resolved on the spot to become a martyr to his art.
"I will never do it!" he answered, and stalked majestically from the room.
Severne took his trouble henceforward in a becomingly serious-minded manner. For many years he was about to live shrouded in gloom--a gloom in whose twilight could be dimly discerned the shattered wreck of his life. After a long period, from the debris of said wreck, he would build the structure of a great literary work of art, which all mankind would look upon with awe, but which he, standing apart, would eye with indifference, all joy being stricken dead by his memories of the past. But that was in the future. Just now he was in the gloom business. So, being a wealthy youth, he decided to go far, far away. This was necessary in order that he might bury his grief.
He rather fancied battle-fields and carnage, but there were no wars. It would add to the picture if he could return bronzed and battle-scarred, but as that was impossible, he resolved to return bronzed, at any rate. So he bought a ticket to a small town in Wyoming. There he and his steamer-trunk boarded Thompson's stage, and journeyed to Placer Creek, where the two of them, he and the trunk, took up their quarters in a little board-ceiled room in the Prairie Dog Hotel.
The place was admirably adapted for glooming. It was a ramshackle affair of four streets and sixteen saloons. Some of the houses, and all of the saloons, had once been painted. In front were hitching-rails. To the hitching-rails, at all times of the day, were tied ponies patiently turning their tails to the Wyoming breezes. Wyoming breezes are always going somewhere at the rate of from thirty to sixty miles an hour. Beyond the town, in one direction, were some low mountains, well supplied with dark gorges, narrow canons, murmuring water-falls, dashing brooks, and precipitous descents. Beyond the town, in the other direction, lay a broad, rolling country, on which cattle and cowboys dwelt amid profanity and dust. Severne arose in a cold room, washed his face in hard water, and descended to breakfast. The breakfast could not have been better adapted to beginning a day of gloom. It started out with sticky oatmeal, and ended with clammy cakes, between which was much horror. After breakfast, he wandered in the dark gorges, narrow canons, et cetera, and contemplated with melancholy but approving interest his noble sacrifice and the wreck of his life. Thence he returned to town.
In town, various incomprehensible individuals with a misguided sense of humour did things to him, the reason of which he could not understand in the least, mainly because he had himself no sense of humour, misguided or otherwise. The things they did frightened and bewildered him. But he examined them gravely through his shortsighted spectacles, noting just how they were done, just how their perpetrators looked and acted, and just how he felt.
After some days his literary instincts perforce awoke. In spite of his gloom, he caught himself sifting and assorting and placing things in their relative values. In fine, he began to conceive a Western story. Shortly after, he cleaned his fountain pen, by inserting a thin card between the gold and the rubber feeder, and sat down to write. As he wrote he grew more and more pleased with the result. The sentences became crisper and crisper. The adjectives fairly sizzled. Poetic connotation faded as a mountain mist. And he remembered and described just how Alkali Ike spit through his mustache--which was disgusting, but real. It was his masterpiece. He wrote on excitedly. Never was such a short story!
But then there came a pause. He had successfully mounted his hero, and started him in full flight down the dark gorge or narrow canon--I forget which--pursued by the avenging band. There interposed here a frightful difficulty. He did not know how a man felt when pursued by an avenging band. He had never been pursued by an avenging band himself. What was he to do? To be sure, he could imagine with tolerable distinctness the sensations to be experienced in such a crisis. He could have put them on paper with every appearance of realism. But he had no touchstone by which to test their truth. He might be unconsciously false to his art, to which he had vowed allegiance at such cost! It would never do.
So, naturally, he did the obvious thing--that is to say, the obvious thing to a serious-minded writer with no sense of humour. He went forth and sought an acquaintance named Colorado Jim, and made to him a proposition. It took Severne just two hours and six drinks to persuade Colorado Jim. At the end of that time Colorado Jim, in his turn, went forth, shaking his head doubtfully, and emitting from time to time cavernous chuckles which bubbled up from his interior after the well-known manner of the "Old Faithful" geyser. He hunted out six partners of his own--"pards," he called them--to whom he spoke at length. The six pards stared at Colorado Jim in gasping silence for some time. Then the seven went into a committee of the whole. The decision of the committee was that the tenderfoot was undoubtedly crazy, harmless, and to be humoured--at a price. Besides, the humouring would be fun. After a number of drinks, Colorado Jim and the pards concluded that it would be lots of fun!
Early the next morning, they rode out of town in the direction of the hills. At the entrance to the dark gorge--or deep canon--they met Severne, also mounted. After greetings, the latter distributed certain small articles.
"Now," said he, most gravely, "I will ride ahead about as far as that rock there, and when I get ready to start, I will wave my hand. You're to chase me just as you'd chase a real horse-thief, and I'll try to keep ahead of you. You keep shooting with the blank cartridges as fast as you can. Understand?"
They said they did. They did not. But it was fun.
Severne rode to the bowlder in the dark gorge--I am sure it was the dark gorge--and turned. The pards were lined up in eagerness for the start. They had made side bets as to who would get there first. He waved his hand, and struck spurs to his horse. The pursuit began.
The horse on which Severne was mounted was a good one. The way he climbed up through that dark gorge was a caution to thoroughbreds. Behind whooped the joyous seven, and the cracking of pistols was a delight to the ear. The outfit swept up the gulch like a whirlwind.
Severne became quite excited. The swift motion was exhilarating. He mentally noted at least a hundred and ten most realistic minor details. He felt that his money had not been wasted. And then he noticed that he was gradually drawing ahead of his pursuit. Better and better! He would not only experience pursuit, but he would achieve in his own person a genuine escape, for he knew that, whatever the mythical character of the bullets, the Westerners had a real enough intention of racing each other and him to the top of the ridge. He plied his quirt, and looked back. The pursuers were actually dropping behind. Even to his inexperienced eye their animals showed signs of distress.
At this place the narrow gulch divided. Severne turned to the left, as being more nearly level. Down from the right-hand bisection came the boys of the Triangle X outfit.
To the boys of the Triangle X outfit but one course was open. Here were Colorado Jim and the pards on foundered horses, pursuing a rapid individual who was escaping only too easily. Never desert a comrade. The Triangle X boys uttered whoops, and joined the game at speed. Not gaining as rapidly as they wished, they produced long revolvers--and began to shoot. It is a little difficult to hit anything from a running horse. Severne heard the reports, and congratulated himself on the realistic qualities of his little drama. Then suddenly his hat went spinning from his head. At the same instant a bullet ploughed through the leather on his pommel. Zip! zip! went other bullets past his ears. The boys of Triangle X outfit were beginning to get the range.
He looked back. To his horror he discovered that Colorado Jim and the pards had disappeared, and that their places had been taken by a number of maniacs on jumping little ponies. The maniacs were yelling "Yip! Yip! Yip!" and shooting at him. He could not understand it in the least; but the bullets were mighty convincing. He used his quirt and spurs.
If Severne really wished to experience the feelings of a man pursued, he attained his desire. It is not pleasant to be shot at. Severne entertained sensations of varied coherence, but one and all of a vividness which was of the greatest literary value. Only he was not in a mood to appreciate literary values. He attended strictly to business, which was to lift the excellent animal on which he was mounted as rapidly as possible over the ground. In this he attained a moderate success. Venturing a backward glance, after a few moments, he noted with pleasure that the distance between himself and the maniacs had sensibly increased. Then one of those zipping bullets passed between his body and his arm, cut off three heavy locks of the horse's mane, and entered the base of the poor animal's skull. Severne suddenly found himself in the road. The maniacs swept up at speed, reining in suddenly at the distance of three feet, in such a manner as to scatter much gravel over him. Severne sat up.
The maniacs, with commendable promptness, jerked Severne to his feet. Several more bent over his horse.
"Jess's I thought!" shouted one of these. "Jess's I thought! He's stole this cayuse. This is Hank Smith's bronc. I'd know him any-whar!"
"That's right! Bar O brand!" cried several.
Then men who held him yanked Severne here and there. "End of yore rope this trip! Steal hosses, will ye!" said they.
"I didn't steal the horse!" cried poor Severne; "I hired him from Smith."
A roar of laughter greeted this statement.
"Hired Colorado and the boys to chase you, too, didn't ye!" suggested one, with heavy sarcasm.
"Yes, I did," answered Severne, sincerely.
They laughed again. "Nerve!" said they.
Near the fallen horse several began discussing the affair. "I tell you I know I done it!" argued one. "I ketched him between the sights, jest's fair as could be."
"G'wan, he flummuxed jest's I cut loose!"
"Well, boys," called the leader, impatiently, "get along!"
A man came forward, and silently threw a loop about Severne's neck. In Wyoming they hang horse-thieves. Severne realised this, and told them all about everything. They listened to him, and laughed delightedly. Never had they hanged such a funny horse-thief. They appreciated his efforts to amuse them, and assured him often that he was a peach. When he paused, they encouraged him to say some more. At every new disclosure they chuckled with admiration, as though at a tremendous but splendid lie. Severne was getting more realistic experience in ten minutes than he had had in all his previous life; but realistic experience does not do one much good at the end of a rope on top of a Wyoming mountain. Then, after a little, they deftly threw the coil of rope over the limb of a tree, and hung him up, and left him. They did not shoot him full of holes, as is the usual custom. He had been a funny horse-thief, so in return they were lenient. Severne kicked. "Dancin' good," they observed, as they turned the corner.
Around the corner they met the frantic James. They cut Severne down, and worked over him for some time. Then they carried him down to Placer Creek, and worked over him a lot more. The Triangle X boys were distinctly aggrieved. They had applauded those splendid lies, and now they turned out not to be lies at all, but merely an extremely crazy sort of truth. They relieved their feelings by getting very drunk and shooting out the lights.
It took Severne a week to get over it. Ten days after that he returned East. He had finished a masterpiece. The flight down the canon was pictured so vividly that you could almost hear the crack of the pistols, and the hero's sentiments were so well described that in reading about them you became excited yourself. Severne read it three times, and he thought it as good the third time as the first. Then he copied it all out on the typewriter. This is the severest test a writer can give his work. The most sparkling tale loses its freshness when run through the machine, especially if the unfortunate author cannot make the thing go very fast. It seemed as good even after this ordeal.
"Behold," said he, congratulating himself, "this is the best story I ever wrote! Blamed if it isn't one of the best stories I ever read! Your romanticists claim that the realistic story has no charm, nor excitement, nor psychical thrill. This'll show them!"
So he hurried to deliver it to Brown. Then he posed industriously to himself, and tried hard to do some more glooming, but it was difficult work. Someway he felt his cause not hopeless. This masterpiece would go far to convince her that he was right after all.
Three days later he received a note from Brown asking him to call. He did so. The editor handed him back his story, more in sorrow than in anger, and spoke reprovingly about deserting one's principles. Brown was conscientious. He believed that the past counted nothing in face of the present. Severne pressed for an explanation. Then said Brown:
"Severne, I have used much of your stuff, and I have liked it. The sentences have been crisp. The adjectives have been served hot. You have eschewed poetic connotation. And, above all, you have shown men and life as they are. I am sorry to see that you have departed from that noble ideal."
"But," cried Severne, in expostulation, "do not these qualities appear in my story?"
"At first they do," responded Brown, "but later--ah!" He sighed.
"What do you mean?"
"The ride down the canon," he explained. "The sentences are crisp and the adjectives hot. But, alas! there is much poetic connotation, and, so far from representing real life, it seems to me only the perperoid lucubrations of a disordered imagination."
"Why, that part is the most realistic in the whole thing!" cried the unhappy author, in distress.
"No," replied the editor, firmly, "it is not. It is not realism at all. Even if there were nothing objectionable about the incident, the man's feelings are frightfully overdrawn. No man ever was such an everlasting coward as you make out your hero! I should be glad to see something else of yours--but that, no!"
Somewhat damped, Severne took his manuscript home with him. There he re-read it. All his old enthusiasm returned. It was exactly true. Realism could have had no more accurate exposition of its principles. He cursed Brown, and inclosed stamps to the Decade. After a time he received a check and a flattering letter. Realism stood vindicated!
In due course the story appeared. During the interim Severne had found that his glooming was becoming altogether too realistic for his peace of mind. As time went on and he saw nothing of Lucy Melville, he began to realise that perhaps, after all, he was making a mistake somewhere. At certain recklessly immoral moments he even thought a very little of proving false to art. To such depths can the human soul descend!
The evening after the appearance of his story in the Decade, he was sitting in front of his open fire in very much that mood. The lamps had not been lighted. To him came Mortimer, his man. "A leddy to see you, sir; no name," he announced, solemnly.
Severne arose in some surprise. "Light the lamp, and show her up," he commanded, wondering who she could be.
At the sound of his voice, the visitor pushed into the room past Mortimer.
"Never mind the lamp," cried Lucy Melville. The faithful Mortimer left the room, and--officially--heard no more.
"Why, Lucy!" cried Severne.
In the dim light he could see that her cheeks were glowing with excitement. She crossed the room swiftly, and put her hands on his shoulders. "Bob," she said, gravely, with tears in her eyes, "I know I ought not to be here, but I just couldn't help it! After you were so noble! And it won't matter, for I'm going in just a minute."
Severne cast his mind back in review of his noble acts. "What is it, Lucy?" he inquired.
"As if you could ask!" she cried. "I never knew of a man's doing so tactful and graceful and beautiful a thing in my life! And I don't care a bit, and I believe you were right, after all."
"Right about what?" he begged, getting more and more bewildered.
"About the realism, of course."
She looked up at him again, pointing out her chin in the most adorable fashion. Even serious-minded men have moments of lucidity. Severne had one now.
"Oh, no, you mustn't, Bob--dear!" she cried, blushing.
"But really, Bob," she went on, after a moment, "even if realism is all right, you must admit that your last story is the best thing you ever wrote."
"Why, yes, I do think so," he agreed, wondering what that had to do with it.
"I'm so glad you do. Do you know, Bob," she continued, happily, "I read it all through before I noticed whose it was. And I kept saying to myself, 'I do wish Bob could see this story. I'm sure it would convince him that imagination is better than realism'; for really, Bob," she cried, with enthusiasm, "it is the best imaginative story I ever read. And when I got to the end, and saw the signature, and realised that you had deserted your literary principles just for my sake, and had actually gone to work and written such a splendid imaginative story after all you had said; and then, too, when I realised what a delicate way you had taken to let me know--because, of course, I never read that magazine of Brown's--oh, Bob!" she concluded, quite out of breath.
Severne hesitated for almost a minute. He saw his duty plainly; he was serious-minded; he had no sense of humour. Then she looked up at him as before, pointing her chin out in the most adorable fashion.
"Oh, Bob! Again! I really don't think you ought to!"
And Art; oh, where was it?
Return to the Stewart Edward White library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Scaler