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A Normal Hero and Heroine Out of Work

They sat together on a bench in the Park, far enough apart to distinguish themselves from the many other pairs who were but too obviously lovers. It could not be said quite that these two were actually lovers; but there was an air of passionate provisionality over and around them, a light such as in springtime seems to enfold the tree before it takes the positive color of bud or blossom; and, with an eye for literary material that had rarely failed him, he of the Easy Chair perceived that they were a hero and heroine of a kind which he instantly felt it a great pity he should not have met oftener in fiction of late. As he looked at them he was more and more penetrated by a delicate pathos in the fact that, such as he saw them, they belonged in their fine sort to the great host of the Unemployed. No one else might have seen it, but he saw, with that inner eye of his, which compassion suffused but did not obscure, that they were out of a job, and he was not surprised when he heard the young girl fetch a muted sigh and then say: "No, they don't want us any more. I don't understand why; it is very strange; but it is perfectly certain."

"Yes, there's no doubt of that," the young man returned, in a despair tinged with resentment.

She was very pretty and he was handsome, and they were both tastefully dressed, with a due deference to fashion, yet with a personal qualification of the cut and color of their clothes which, if it promised more than it could fulfil in some ways, implied a modest self-respect, better than the arrogance of great social success or worldly splendor. She could have been the only daughter of a widowed father in moderate circumstances; or an orphan brought up by a careful aunt, or a duteous sister in a large family of girls, with whom she shared the shelter of a wisely ordered, if somewhat crowded, home; or she could have been a serious student of any of the various arts and sciences which girls study now in an independence compatible with true beauty of behavior. He might have been a young lawyer or doctor or business man; or a painter or architect; or a professor in some college or a minister in charge of his first parish. What struck the observer in them and pleased him was that they seemed of that finer American average which is the best, and, rightly seen, the most interesting phase of civilized life yet known.

"I sometimes think," the girl resumed, in the silence of her companion, "that I made a mistake in my origin or my early education. It's a great disadvantage, in fiction nowadays, for a girl to speak grammatically, as I always do, without any trace of accent or dialect. Of course, if I had been high-born or low-born in the olden times, somewhere or other, I shouldn't have to be looking for a place now; or if I had been unhappily married, or divorced, or merely separated from my husband, the story-writers would have had some use for me. But I have tried always to be good and nice and lady-like, and I haven't been in a short story for ages."

"Is it so bad as that?" the young man asked, sadly.

"Quite. If I could only have had something askew in my heredity, I know lots of authoresses who would have jumped at me. I can't do anything wildly adventurous in the Middle Ages or the Revolutionary period, because I'm so afraid; but I know that in the course of modern life I've always been fairly equal to emergencies, and I don't believe that I should fail in case of trouble, or that if it came to poverty I should be ashamed to share the deprivations that fell to my lot. I don't think I'm very selfish; I would be willing to stay in town all summer if an author wanted me, and I know I could make it interesting for his readers. I could marry an English nobleman if it was really necessary, and, if I didn't like to live in England because I was fond of my own country, I believe I could get him to stay here half the time with me; and that would appeal to a large class. I don't know whether I would care to be rescued a great deal; it would depend upon what it was from. But I could stand a great deal of pain if need be, and I hope that if it came to anything like right or wrong I should act conscientiously. In society, I shouldn't mind any amount of dancing or dining or teaing, and I should be willing to take my part in the lighter athletics. But," she ended, as she began, with a sigh, "I'm not wanted."

"Yes, I see what you mean," the young man said, with a thoughtful knot between his brows. "I'm not wanted myself, at present, in the short stories; but in the last dozen or so where I had an engagement I certainly didn't meet you; and it is pleasant to be paired off in a story with a heroine who has the instincts and habits of a lady. Of course, a hero is only something in an author's fancy, and I've no right to be exacting; but it does go against me to love a girl who ropes cattle, or a woman who has a past, or a husband, or something of the kind. I always do my best for the author, but I can't forget that I'm a gentleman, and it's difficult to win a heroine when the very idea of her makes you shudder. I sometimes wonder how the authors would like it themselves if they had to do what they expect of us in that way. They're generally very decent fellows, good husbands and fathers, who have married lady-like girls and wouldn't think of associating with a shady or ignorant person."

"The authoresses are quite as inconsistent," the professional heroine rejoined. "They wouldn't speak to the kind of young men whom they expect a heroine to be passionately in love with. They must know how very oddly a girl feels about people who are outside of the world she's been brought up in. It isn't enough that a man should be very noble at heart and do grand things, or save your life every now and then, or be masterful and use his giant will to make you in love with him. I don't see why they can't let one have, now and then, the kind of husbands they get for themselves. For my part, I should like always to give my heart to a normal, sensible, well-bred, conscientious, agreeable man who could offer me a pleasant home—I wouldn't mind the suburbs; and I could work with him and work for him till I dropped—the kind of man that the real world seems to be so full of. I've never had a fair chance to show what was in me; I've always been placed in such a false position. Now I have no position at all, not even a false one!"

Her companion was silent for a while. Then he said: "Yes, they all seem, authors and authoresses both, to lose sight of the fact that the constitution of our society is more picturesque, more dramatic, more poetical than any in the world. We can have the play of all the passions and emotions in ordinary, innocent love-making that other peoples can have only on the worst conditions; and yet the story-writers won't avail themselves of the beauty that lies next to their hands. They go abroad for impossible circumstances, or they want to bewitch ours with the chemistry of all sorts of eccentric characters, exaggerated incentives, morbid propensities, pathological conditions, or diseased psychology. As I said before, I know I'm only a creature of the storyteller's fancy, and a creature out of work at that; but I believe I was imagined in a good moment—I'm sure you were—and I should like an engagement in an honest, wholesome situation. I think I could do creditable work in it."

"I know you could," the heroine rejoined, fervently, almost tenderly, so that it seemed to the listener there was an involuntary rapprochement of their shadowy substances on the bench where they floated in a sitting posture. "I don't want to be greedy; I believe in living and letting live. I think the abnormal has just as good a right to be in the stories as the normal; but why shut the normal out altogether? What I should like to ask the short-story writers is whether they and their readers are so bored with themselves and the people they know in the real world that they have no use for anything like its average in their fiction. It's impossible for us to change—"

"I shouldn't wish you to change," the hero said, so fondly that the witness trembled for something more demonstrative.

"Thank you! But what I mean is, couldn't they change a little? Couldn't they give us another trial? They've been using the abnormal, in some shape or other, so long that I should think they would find a hero and heroine who simply fell in love at a dance or a dinner, or in a house-party or at a picnic, and worked out their characters to each other, through the natural worry and difficulty, and pleasure and happiness, till they got married—a relief from, well, the other thing. I'm sure if they offered me the chance, I could make myself attractive to their readers, and I believe I should have the charm of novelty."

"You would have more than the charm of novelty," the hero said, and the witness trembled again for the convenances which one so often sees offended on the benches in the Park. But then he remembered that these young people were avowedly nice, and that they were morally incapable of misbehavior. "And for a time, at least, I believe you—I believe we, for I must necessarily be engaged with you—would succeed. The difficulty would be to get the notion of our employment to the authors." It was on the listener's tongue to say that he thought he could manage that, when the hero arrested him with the sad misgiving, "But they would say we were commonplace, and that would kill the chance of our ever having a run."

A tremendous longing filled the witness, a potent desire to rescue this engaging pair from the dismay into which they fell at the fatal word. "No, no!" he conjured them. "Not commonplace. A judicious paragraph anticipative of your reappearance could be arranged, in which you could be hailed as the normal hero and heroine, and greeted as a grateful relief from the hackneyed freaks and deformities of the prevalent short story, or the impassioned paper-doll pattern of the mediæval men and maidens, or the spotted and battered figures of the studies in morbid analysis which pass for fiction in the magazines. We must get that luminous word normal before the reading public at once, and you will be rightly seen in its benign ray and recognized from the start—yes! in advance of the start—for what you are: types of the loveliness of our average life, the fairest blossoms of that faith in human nature which has flourished here into the most beautiful and glorious civilization of all times. With us the average life is enchanting, the normal is the exquisite. Have patience, have courage; your time is coming again!"

It seemed to him that the gentle shapes wavered in his vehement breath, and he could not realize that in their alien realm they could not have heard a word he uttered. They remained dreamily silent, as if he had not spoken, and then the heroine said: "Perhaps we shall have to wait for a new school of short-story writers before we can get back into the magazines. Some beginner must see in us what has always pleased: the likeness to himself or herself, the truth to nature, the loyalty to the American ideal of happiness. He will find that we easily and probably end well, and that we're a consolation and refuge for readers, who can take heart from our happy dénouements, when they see a family resemblance in us, and can reasonably hope that if they follow our examples they will share our blessings. Authors can't really enjoy themselves in the company of those degenerates, as I call them. They're mostly as young and right-principled and well-behaved as ourselves, and, if they could get to know us, we should be the best of friends. They would realize that there was plenty of harmless fun, as well as love, in the world, and that there was lots of good-luck."

"Like ours, now, with no work and no prospect of it?" he returned, in his refusal to be persuaded, yet ready to be comforted.

Having set out on that road, she would not turn back; she persisted, like any woman who is contraried, no matter how far she ends from her first position: "Yes, like ours now. For this is probably the dark hour before the dawn. We must wait."

"And perish in the mean time?"

"Oh, we shall not perish," she responded, heroinically. "It's not for nothing that we are immortal," and as she spoke she passed her translucent hand through his arm, and, rising, they drifted off together and left the emissary of the Easy Chair watching them till they mixed with the mists under the trees in the perspective of the Mall.

William Dean Howells