Essays in Miniature/A By-Way in Fiction


A BY-WAY IN FICTION


NOW and then the wearied and worn novel-reader, sick unto death of books about people's beliefs and disbeliefs, their conscientious scruples and prejudices, their unique aspirations and misgivings, their cumbersome vices and virtues, is recompensed for much suffering by an hour of placid but genuine enjoyment. He picks up rather dubiously a little, unknown volume, and, behold! the writer thereof takes him gently by the hand, and leads him straightway into a fair country, where the sun is shining, and men and women smile kindly on him, and nobody talks unorthodox theology, and everybody seems disposed to allow everybody else the privilege of being happy in his own way. When to these admirable qualities are added humor and an atmosphere of appreciative cultivation, the novel-reader feels indeed that his lines have been cast in pleasant places, and he is disposed to linger along in a very contented and uncritical frame of mind.

There has come to us recently a new and beautiful edition of such a little book, published in America, but born of Italian soil and sunshine. It has for a title The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani, together with Frequent Allusions to the Prorege of Arcopia, which is rather an unmerciful string of words to describe so gay and easy-going a narrative. It is the first full-fledged literary venture of its author, Mr. Henry Fuller, also known as Stanton Page, whose New England grandfather was a cousin of Margaret Fuller's. The story, which is not really a story at all, but a series of detached episodes, rambles backward and forward in such a bewildering fashion that the chapters might be all rearranged without materially disturbing its slender thread of continuity. It is equally guiltless of plot or purpose, of dramatic incidents or realistic details. The Chevalier may be found now in Pisa, now in Venice, now in Ostia or Ravenna, never driven by the vulgar spur of necessity, always wandering of his own free and idle will. He is accompanied sometimes by his friend Hors-Concours, an Italianized Frenchman from Savoy, and sometimes by the Prorege of Arcopia, the delightful Prorege, who gives to the book its best and most distinctive flavor. At once dignified and urbane, conscious of his exalted position, and convinced that he fills it with equal grace and correctness, this superb official moves through the tale in an atmosphere of autocratic reserve, tempered with the most delicate courtesy. His ministerial views are as unalterable as the rocks, and as sound; but he listens to the democratic ravings of his young American protégé, Occident, with the good-humored indulgence one accords to a beloved and precocious child. It must be confessed that Occident fails to make his arguments very convincing, or to impress his own personality with any degree of clearness upon the reader's mind. He is at best only a convenient listener to the Prorege's delicious theories; he is of real value only because the Prorege condescends to talk to him. When he ventures upon a truly American remark about trying "to find the time" for something, his august friend reminds him, with dignity, that "the only man to be envied was the man whose time was in some degree his own, and the most pitiable object that civilization could offer was the rich man a slave to his chronometer. Too much had been said about the dignity of labor, and not enough about the preciousness of leisure. Civilization in its last outcome was heavily in the debt of leisure, and the success of any society worth considering was to be estimated largely by the use to which its fortunati had put their spare moments. He wrung from Occident the confession that, in the great land of which Shelby County may be called the centre, activity, considered of itself and quite apart from its objects and its results, was regarded as a very meritorious thing; and he learned that the bare figure of leisure, when exposed to the public gaze, was expected to be decorously draped in the garment of strenuous endeavor. People were supposed to appear busy, even if they were not. This gave the Prorege a text for a little disquisition on the difference between leisure and idleness."

In fact, a beautiul, cultivated, polished, unmarred, well-spent inactivity is the keynote of this serene little book; and to understand its charm and meaning we have but to follow the Chevalier, in the second chapter, to Pisa—to Pisa the restful, where "life is not strongly accentuated by positive happenings, where incident is unusual, and drama quite unknown." The Chevalier's windows, we are told, faced the north, and he sat and looked out of them rather more than active persons would deem pleasant or profitable. It even happened that the Prorege remarked this comfortable habit, and demanded of his friend what it was he looked at, inasmuch as there seemed to be no appreciable change from day to day. To which the Chevalier, in whom "Quietism was pretty successfully secularized; who knew how to sit still, and occasionally enjoyed doing so," replied with great acumen that what had gone on was quite as interesting to him as what was going on, and that nothing was more gratifying, from his point of view, than that very absence of change which had taken his Excellency's attention—since any change would be a change for the worse.

He is destined, as it chances, to prove the truth of his own theories, for it is in Pisa, of all places, that he is tempted to throw aside for once his rôle of contemplative philosopher, and to assume that of an active philanthropist, with very disastrous results. There is an admirable satire in the description of the two friends, Pensieri-Vani and Hors-Concours, gravely plotting to insure the success of an operatic débutante, to bring her out in the sunshine of their generous patronage, and with the direct approval of the Prorege himself, who kindly consents to sit in the front of a middle box, and to wear a round half-dozen of his most esteemed decorations. Unhappily, an Italian audience does not like to have its enthusiasm expressed for it, even by such noble and consummate critics. As each well-arranged device of flowers or love-birds in a gilded cage is handed decorously forward, the house grows colder and more quizzical, until the débutante sees herself on the extreme verge of failure, and, putting forth all her powers in one appealing effort, she triumphs by dint of sheer pluck and ability over the fatal kindness of her friends. The poor Chevalier, who has in the meantime left the theatre with many bitter self-communings, receives his lesson in a spirit of touching humility, recognizing at once his manifest limitations. "He perceived that he was less fitted to play the part of special providence than he had previously supposed; and he brought from this experience the immeasurable consolation that comes from knowing that very frequently in this sadly twisted world, things, if only left to their own courses, have a way of coming out right in the end."

The Pisan episode, the delicious journey of the Prorege and Pensieri-Vani in search of the "Madonna Incognita," a mysterious and illusive Perugino which turns out, after all, to be a Sodoma, and the memorable excursion to Ostia, are the finest and best-told incidents in the book. The story of the Iron Pot is too broadly farcical, too Pickwickian in its character, to be in harmony with the rest of the narrative; the Contessa's fête at Tusculum is so lightly sketched as to be absolutely tantalizing; and the practical jokes which that lady and the Prorege delight in playing upon one another are hardly as subtle and acute as we would like to find them. Indeed, the Prorege's conduct on board his own yacht is so deeply objectionable that I, for one, positively refuse to believe he was ever guilty of such raw rudeness. It is not kind or right in Mr. Fuller to wickedly calumniate this charming and high-bred gentleman whom he has given us for a friend. Neither is the battle of the Aldines as thrilling as might be expected, probably because it is impossible to accept the Duke of Avon and Severn upon any terms whatever. Occident, the American, is misty and ill-defined; but he does not lack proportion, only vitality. The English duke is a mistake throughout, a false note that disturbs the atmosphere of serene good temper which is the principal attraction of the book; an effort on the author's part to be severe and cynical, just when we were congratulating ourselves that severity and cynicism were things far, far remote from his tolerant and kindly spirit.

The excursion to Ostia, however, is enough to redeem the whole volume from any charge of ill-nature; for if the Contessa does seize this opportunity to play one of her dubious tricks upon the Prorege, it is not until the little group of friends have proved themselves gentle, and sympathetic, and full of fine and generous instincts. It is a delicious bit of description throughout. La Nullaniuna has been crowned the day before at her Tusculum fête as "the new Corinne," and naturally feels that her proper cue is that of "genius-blasted fragility," overpowered and shattered by her own impassioned burst of song. With her is the widowed Princess Altissimi, her cherished friend and foil, a sombre beauty of a grave and chastened demeanor, against whose dark background the Contessa, "who was fully as flighty, and capricious, and théâtrale as a woman of semi-genius usually finds it necessary to be, posed and fidgeted to her heart's content." The Prorege, sublimely affable as ever, Pensieri-Vani, and young Occident, eager and radiant, make up the party; and after the little inn has furnished them with a noonday meal of unusual profusion and elegance, they visit the adjoining church at the instigation of the Princess Altissimi, who is anxious to see what this solitary and humble temple is like. All that follows is so exquisite that I must quote it as it stands, in proof of the author's faculty for delicate and sympathetic delineation:

"They were met on the threshold by the single priest in charge, a dark and sallow young man of peasant extraction, whose lonely battle with midsummer malaria had left him wholly gaunt and enervate. He saluted them with the deference which the Church sometimes shows to the World, though he was too true an Italian to be awed, or even embarrassed by their rank; and he brightened up into something almost like eagerness as he offerred to do the honors of his charge. The Prorege indulgently praised the wretched frescoes which he exhibited so proudly, and the Contessa called up a flickering smile of pleasure in his emaciated face as she feigned an enthusiasm for the paltry fripperies of the high altar. This appreciative interest emboldened him to suggest their ascent to the gallery, where, from his manner, the great treasure of the church was to be revealed. The great treasure was a small cabinet organ, and Occident—triumphing in the ubiquity of the Western genius, yet somewhat taken back by this new illustration of the incongruities it sometimes precipitated—read upon it a name familiar to his earliest years. The priest, who evidently conceived it an impossibility for his beloved instrument to be guilty of a discord of any kind whatever, pleaded with a mute but unmistakable pathos that its long silence might now be ended; and the Princess, motioning Pensieri-Vani to the keyboard, sang this poor solitary a churchly little air, with such a noble seriousness and such a gracious simplicity as to move, not only him, but all the others too. Occident, in particular, who kept within him quite unimpaired his full share of that fund of sensibility which is one of the best products of Shelby County, and who would have given half his millions just then to have been able to sit down and play the simplest tune, implored Pensieri-Vani in looks, if not in words, to do for him what he himself was so powerless to compass; and the Cavaliere, who, like a good and true musician, preferred support from the lowest quarter to indifference in the highest, kept his place until their poor host, charmed, warmed through and through, attached again to the great body of humanity, could scarcely trust himself to voice his thanks. But the Princess whispered in the Cavaliere's ear, as his series of plain and simple little tunes came to an end, that he had not lost since she last heard him."

There is nothing finer in the story than this, perhaps nothing quite so good, though all of Pensieri-Vani's journeys are fruitful in minute incidents of a pleasant and picturesque quality. It is curious, too, to see how the Chevalier, who, except for that catlike scratching about the Aldines, is the gentlest and least hurtful of men, manifests at times a positive impatience of his own refined and peaceful civilization, a breathless envy of sterner races and of stormier days. When he discovers the tomb of the old Etrurian warrior, he is abashed and humbled at the thought of that fierce spirit summoned from thirty centuries of darkness to see the light of this invertebrate and sentimental age; requested to forget his deep draughts of blood and iron, and to contentedly "munch the dipped toast of a flabby humanitarianism, and sip the weak tea of brotherly love." When he stands in the dim cathedral of Anagni, and contemplates the tombs of the illustrious Gaetani family, and the mosaics which blazon forth their former splendors, he shrinks with sudden shame from the contrast between his feeble, forceless will and the rough daring of that mighty clan. "The stippling technique of his own day seemed immeasurably poor and paltry compared with the broad, free, sketchy touch with which these men dashed off their stirring lives; and he stood confounded before that fiery and robust intensity which, so gloriously indifferent to the subtilties of the grammarian, the niceties of the manicure, and the torments of the supersensitive self-analyst, could fix its intent upon some definite desire, and move forward unswervingly to its attainment. Poor moderns! he sighed, who with all our wishing never reach our end, and with all our thinking never know what we really think."

These unprofitable musings of the Chevalier's seem to reflect some recurring discontent, some restless, unchastened yearnings on the part of the author himself; but they find no echo in the serene breast of the Prorege. He at least is as remote from envying the hostilities of the past as he is innocent of aspiring to the progressiveness of the future. He is fully alive to the merits of his own thrice-favored land, where the evil devices of a wrong-headed generation have never been suffered to penetrate: "Arcopia, the gods be praised, was exempt from the modern curse of bigness. One chimney was not offensive; but a million made a London. One refuse-heap could be tolerated; but accumulated thousands produced a New York. A hundred weavers in their own cottages meant peaceful industry and home content; a hundred hundred, massed in one great factory, meant vice and squalor and disorder. Society had never courted failure or bid for misery more ardently than when it had accepted an urban industrialism for a basis. . . . Happily the Arcopian population, except a fraction that followed the arts and another fraction that followed the sea, was largely agricultural, and exhibited in high union the chief virtue and the chief grace of civilized society—order and picturesqueness. The disturbing and ungracious catch-word, 'Égalité,' had never crossed the Arcopian sea; if the Prorege had not been tolerably sure that his mild sway was to be undisturbed by the clangor of cantankerous boiler-makers and the bickerings of a bumptious, shopkeeping bourgeoisie, he would never have undertaken the task at all. He regarded himself as a just, humane, and sympathetic ruler, but he believed that every man should have his own proper place and fill it."

Such are the views smilingly detailed to the puzzled and outraged Occident, who, having been nourished in boyhood on the discourses of rustic theologians, and the forensics of Shelbyville advocates, finds it difficult to assimilate his own theories of life with a civilization he so imperfectly understands. He doubts his ability to take the European attitude, he doubts the propriety of the attitude when taken, and the struggle ends in the usual manner by his marrying a wife, and going back to Shelby County to be a good citizen for the rest of his days. Hors-Concours, mindful of the duties entailed on the proprietor of a small patrimony and an ancient name, espouses with becoming gravity and deliberation the Princess Altissimi. The Prorege retires to Arcopia the blessed, whither we would fain follow him if we could; and Pensieri-Vani, left desolate and alone, consoles himself with the reflection that life has many sides, and that Italy has not yet given up to him all she has to give: "Others might falter; but he was still sufficient unto himself, still master of his own time and his own actions, and enamored only of that delightful land whose beauty age cannot wither, and whose infinite variety custom can never stale."