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A Lesson in Fiction

Suppose that in the opening pages of the modern melodramatic
novel you find some such situation as the following, in
which is depicted the terrific combat between Gaspard de
Vaux, the boy lieutenant, and Hairy Hank, the chief of
the Italian banditti:

"The inequality of the contest was apparent. With a
mingled yell of rage and contempt, his sword brandished
above his head and his dirk between his teeth, the enormous
bandit rushed upon his intrepid opponent. De Vaux seemed
scarce more than a stripling, but he stood his ground
and faced his hitherto invincible assailant. 'Mong Dieu,'
cried De Smythe, 'he is lost!'"

Question. On which of the parties to the above contest
do you honestly feel inclined to put your money?

Answer. On De Vaux. He'll win. Hairy Hank will force him
down to one knee and with a brutal cry of "Har! har!"
will be about to dirk him, when De Vaux will make a sudden
lunge (one he had learnt at home out of a book of lunges)

Very good. You have answered correctly. Now, suppose you
find, a little later in the book, that the killing of
Hairy Hank has compelled De Vaux to flee from his native
land to the East. Are you not fearful for his safety in
the desert?

Answer. Frankly, I am not. De Vaux is all right. His name
is on the title page, and you can't kill him.

Question. Listen to this, then: "The sun of Ethiopia beat
fiercely upon the desert as De Vaux, mounted upon his
faithful elephant, pursued his lonely way. Seated in his
lofty hoo-doo, his eye scoured the waste. Suddenly a
solitary horseman appeared on the horizon, then another,
and another, and then six. In a few moments a whole crowd
of solitary horsemen swooped down upon him. There was a
fierce shout of 'Allah!' a rattle of firearms. De Vaux
sank from his hoo-doo on to the sands, while the affrighted
elephant dashed off in all directions. The bullet had
struck him in the heart."

There now, what do you think of that? Isn't De Vaux killed

Answer. I am sorry. De Vaux is not dead. True, the ball
had hit him, oh yes, it had hit him, but it had glanced
off against a family Bible, which he carried in his
waistcoat in case of illness, struck some hymns that he
had in his hip-pocket, and, glancing off again, had
flattened itself against De Vaux's diary of his life in
the desert, which was in his knapsack.

Question. But even if this doesn't kill him, you must
admit that he is near death when he is bitten in the
jungle by the deadly dongola?

Answer. That's all right. A kindly Arab will take De Vaux
to the Sheik's tent.

Question. What will De Vaux remind the Sheik of?

Answer. Too easy. Of his long-lost son, who disappeared
years ago.

Question. Was this son Hairy Hank?

Answer. Of course he was. Anyone could see that, but the Sheik
never suspects it, and heals De Vaux. He heals him with an
herb, a thing called a simple, an amazingly simple, known only
to the Sheik. Since using this herb, the Sheik has used no other.

Question. The Sheik will recognize an overcoat that De
Vaux is wearing, and complications will arise in the
matter of Hairy Hank deceased. Will this result in the
death of the boy lieutenant?

Answer. No. By this time De Vaux has realized that the
reader knows he won't die and resolves to quit the desert.
The thought of his mother keeps recurring to him, and of
his father, too, the grey, stooping old man--does he
stoop still or has he stopped stooping? At times, too,
there comes the thought of another, a fairer than his
father; she whose--but enough, De Vaux returns to the
old homestead in Piccadilly.

Question. When De Vaux returns to England, what will

Answer. This will happen: "He who left England ten years
before a raw boy, has returned a sunburnt soldierly man.
But who is this that advances smilingly to meet him? Can
the mere girl, the bright child that shared his hours of
play, can she have grown into this peerless, graceful
girl, at whose feet half the noble suitors of England
are kneeling? 'Can this be her?' he asks himself in

Question. Is it her?

Answer. Oh, it's her all right. It is her, and it is him,
and it is them. That girl hasn't waited fifty pages for

Question. You evidently guess that a love affair will
ensue between the boy lieutenant and the peerless girl
with the broad feet. Do you imagine, however, that its
course will run smoothly and leave nothing to record?

Answer. Not at all. I feel certain that the scene of the
novel having edged itself around to London, the writer
will not feel satisfied unless he introduces the following
famous scene:

"Stunned by the cruel revelation which he had received,
unconscious of whither his steps were taking him, Gaspard
de Vaux wandered on in the darkness from street to street
until he found himself upon London Bridge. He leaned over
the parapet and looked down upon the whirling stream
below. There was something in the still, swift rush of
it that seemed to beckon, to allure him. After all, why
not? What was life now that he should prize it? For a
moment De Vaux paused irresolute."

Question. Will he throw himself in?

Answer. Well, say you don't know Gaspard. He will pause
irresolute up to the limit, then, with a fierce struggle,
will recall his courage and hasten from the Bridge.

Question. This struggle not to throw oneself in must be
dreadfully difficult?

Answer. Oh! dreadfully! Most of us are so frail we should
jump in at once. But Gaspard has the knack of it. Besides
he still has some of the Sheik's herb; he chews it.

Question. What has happened to De Vaux anyway? Is it
anything he has eaten?

Answer. No, it is nothing that he has eaten. It's about her.
The blow has come. She has no use for sunburn, doesn't care
for tan; she is going to marry a duke and the boy lieutenant
is no longer in it. The real trouble is that the modern
novelist has got beyond the happy-marriage mode of ending.
He wants tragedy and a blighted life to wind up with.

Question. How will the book conclude?

Answer. Oh, De Vaux will go back to the desert, fall upon
the Sheik's neck, and swear to be a second Hairy Hank to
him. There will be a final panorama of the desert, the
Sheik and his newly found son at the door of the tent,
the sun setting behind a pyramid, and De Vaux's faithful
elephant crouched at his feet and gazing up at him with
dumb affection.

Stephen Leacock