By Young E. Allison
Let us agree at the start that no perfect hero can be entirely mortal. The nearer the element of mortality in him corresponds to the heel measure of Achilles, the better his chance as hero. The Egyptian and Greek heroes were invariably demi-gods on the paternal or maternal side. Few actual historic heroes have escaped popular scandal concerning their origin, because the savage logic in us demands lions from a lion; that Theseus shall trace to Mars; that courage shall spring from courage.
Another most excellent thing about the ideal hero is that the immortal quality enables him to go about the business of his heroism without bothering his head with the rights or wrongs of it, except as the prevailing sentiment of social honor (as distinguished from the inborn sentiment of honesty) requires at the time. Of course, there is a lower grade of measly, “moral heroes,” who (thank heaven and the innate sense of human justice!) are usually well peppered with sorrow and punishment. The hero of romance is a different stripe; Hyperion to a Satyr. He doesn’t go around groaning page after page of top-heavy debates as to the inherent justice of his cause or his moral right to thrust a tallow candle between the particular ribs behind which the heart of his enemy is to be found—balancing his pros and cons, seeking a quo for each quid, and conscientiously prowling for final authorities. When you invade the chiropodical secret of the real hero’s fine boot, or brush him in passing—if you have looked once too often at a certain lady, or have stood between him and the sun, or even twiddled your thumbs at him in an indecorous or careless manner—look to it that you be prepared to draw and mayhap to be spitted upon his sword’s point, with honor. Sdeath! A gentlemen of courage carries his life lightly at the needle end of his rapier, as that wonderful Japanese, Samsori, used to make the flimsiest feather preside in miraculous equilibration upon the tip of his handsome nose.
No hero who does more or less than is demanded by the best practical opinion of the society of his time is worth more than thirty cents as a hero. Boys are literary and dramatic critics so far above the critics formed by strained formulas of the schools that you can trust them. They have an unerring distrust of the fellow who moves around with his confounded conscientious scruples, as if the well-settled opinion of the breathing world were not good enough for him! Who the deuce has got any business setting everybody else right?
Some of these days I believe it is going to be discovered that the atmosphere and the encompassing radiance and sweetness of Heaven are composed of the dear sighs and loving aspirations of earthly motherhood. If it turns out otherwise, rest assured Heaven will not have reached its perfect point of evolution. Why is it, then, that mothers will—will—will—try, so mistakenly, to extirpate the jewel of honest, manly savagery from the breasts of their boys? I wonder if they know that when grown men see one of these “pretty-mannered boys,” cocksure as a Swiss toy new painted and directed by watch spring, they feel an unholy impulse to empty an ink-bottle over the young calf? Fauntleroy kids are a reproach to our civilization. Men, women and children, all of us, crowd around the grimy Deignan of the Merrimac crew, and shout and cheer for Bill Smith, the Rough Rider, who carried his mate out of the ruck at San Juan and twirls his hat awkwardly and explains: “Ef I hadn’t a saw him fall he would ‘a’ laid thar yit!”—and go straight home and pretend to be proud of a snug little poodle of a man who doesn’t play for fear of soiling his picture-clothes, and who says: “Yes, sir, thank you,” and “No, thank you, ma’am,” like a French doll before it has had the sawdust kicked out of it!
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Now, when a hero tries to stamp his acts with the precise quality of exact justice—why, he performs no acts. He is no better than that poor tongue-loose Hamlet, who argues you the right of everything, and then, by the great Jingo! piles in and messes it all by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time and in the wrong manner. It is permitted of course to be a great moral light and correct the errors of all the dust of earth that has been blown into life these ages; but human justice has been measured out unerringly with poetry and irony to such folk. They are admitted to be saints, but about the time they have got too good for their earthly setting, they have been tied to stakes and lighted up with oil and faggots; or a soda phosphate with a pinch of cyanide of potassium inserted has been handed to them, as in the case of our old friend, Socrates. And it’s right. When a man gets too wise and good for his fellows and is embarrassed by the healthful scent of good human nature, send him to heaven for relief, where he can have the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the company of the noble army of martyrs, and amuse himself suggesting improvements upon the vocal selections of cherubim and seraphim! Impress the idea upon these gentry with warmth—and—with—oil!
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The ideal hero of fiction, you say, is Capt. D’Artagnan, first name unknown, one time cadet in the Reserves of M. de Troisville’s company of the King’s Guards, intrusted with the care of the honor and safety of His Majesty, Louis XIV. Very well; he is a noble gentleman; the choice does honor to your heart, mind and soul; take him and hold the remembrance of his courage, loyalty, adroitness and splendid endurance with hooks of steel. For myself, while yielding to none who honor the great D’Artagnan, yet I march under the flag of the Sieur Bussy d’Amboise, a proud Clermont, of blood royal in the reign of Henry III., who shed luster upon a court that was edified by the wisdom of M. Chicot, the “King’s Brother,” the incomparable jester and philosopher, who would have himself exceeded all heroes except that he despised the actors and the audience of the world’s theater and performed valiant feats only that he might hang his cap and bells upon the achievements in ridicule.
Can it be improper to compare D’Artagnan and Bussy—when the intention is wholly respectful and the motive pure? If a single protest is heard, there will be an end to this paper now—at once. There are some comparisons that strengthen both candidates. For, we must consider the extent of the theater and the stage, the space of time covering the achievements, the varying conditions, lights and complexities. As, for instance, the very atmosphere in which these two heroes moved, the accompaniment of manner which we call the “air” of the histories, and which are markedly different. The contrast of breeding, quality and refinement between Bussy and D’Artagnan is as great as that which distinguishes Mercutio from the keen M. Chicot. Yet each was his own ideal type. Birth and the superior privileges of the haute noblesse conferred upon the Sieur Bussy the splendid air of its own sufficient prestige; the lack of these require of D’Artagnan that his intelligence, courage and loyal devotion should yet seem to yield something of their greatness in the submission that the man was compelled to pay to the master. True, this attitude was atoned for on occasion by blunt boldness, but the abased position and the lack of subtle distinction of air and mind of the noble, forbade to the Fourth Mousquetaire the last gracious touch of a Bayard of heroism. But the vulgarity was itself heroic.
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Compare the first appearance of the great Gascon at the Hotel de Troisville, or even his manner and attitude toward the King when he sought to warn that monarch against forgetfulness of loyalty proved, with the haughty insolence of indomitable spirit in which Bussy threw back to Henry the shuttle of disfavor on the night of that remarkable wedding of St. Luc with the piquant little page soubrette, Jeanne de Brissac.
D’Artagnan’s air to his King has its pathos. It seems to say: “I speak bluntly, sire, knowing that my life is yours and yet feeling that it is too obscure to provoke your vengeance.” A very hard draught for a man of fire and fearlessness to take without a gulp. But into Bussy’s manner toward his King there was this flash of lightning from Olympus: “My life, sire, is yours, as my King, to take or leave; but not even you may dare to think of taking the life of Bussy with the dust of least reproach upon it. My life you may blow out; my honor you do not dare approach to question!”
There are advantages in being a gentleman, which can not be denied. One is that it commands credit in the King’s presence as well as at the tailor’s.
It is interesting to compare both these attitudes with that of “Athos,” the Count de la Fere, toward the King. He was lacking in the irresistibly fierce insolence of Bussy and in the abasement of D’Artagnan; it was melancholy, patient, persistent and terrible in its restrained calmness. How narrowly he just escaped true greatness. I would no more cast reproaches upon that noble gentleman than I would upon my grandmother; but he—was—a—trifle—serous, wasn’t he? He was brave, prompt, resourceful, splendid, and, at need, gingerish as the best colt in the paddock. It is the deuce’s own pity for a man to be born to too much seriousness. Do you know—and as I love my country, I mean it in honest respect—that I sometimes think that the gentleness and melancholy of Athos somehow suggests a bit of distrust. One is almost terrified at times lest he may begin the Hamlet controversies. You feel that if he committed a murder by mistake you are not absolutely sure he wouldn’t take a turn with Remorse. Not so Bussy; he would throw the mistake in with good will and not create worry about it. Hang it all, if the necessary business of murder is to halt upon the shuffling accident of mistake, we may as well sell out the hero business and rent the shop. It would be down to the level of Hamlet in no time. Unless, of course, the hero took the view of it that Nero adopted. It is improbable that Nero inherited the gift of natural remorse; but he cultivated one and seemed to do well with it. He used to reflect upon his mother and his wife, both of whom he had affectionately murdered, and justified himself by declaring that a great artist, who was also the Roman Emperor, would be lacking in breadth of emotional experience and retrospective wisdom, unless he knew the melancholy of a two-pronged family remorse. And from Nero’s standpoint it was one of the best thoughts that he ever formulated into language.
To return to Bussy and D’Artagnan. In courage they were Hector and Achilles. You remember the champagne picnic before the bastion St. Gervais at the siege of St. Rochelle? What light-hearted gayety amid the flying missiles of the arquebusiers! Yet, do not forget that—ignoring the lacquey—there were four of them, and that his Eminence, the Cardinal Duke, had said the four of them were equal to a thousand men! If you have enough knowledge of human nature to understand the fine game of baseball, and have at any time scraped acquaintance with the interesting mathematical doctrine of progressive permutations, you will see, when four men equal to a thousand are under the eyes of each other, and of the garrison in the fort, that the whole arsenal of logarithms would give out before you could compute the permutative possibilities of the courage that would be refracted, reflected, compounded and concentrated by all there, each giving courage to and receiving courage from each and all the others. It makes my head ache to think of it. I feel as if I could be brave myself.
Certainly they were that day. To the bitter end of finishing the meal; and they confessed the added courage by gamboling like boys amid awful thunders of the arquebuses, which made a rumble in their time like their successors, the omnibuses, still make to this day on the granite streets of cities populated by deaf folks.
There never was more of a gay, lilting, impudent courage than those four mousquetaires displayed with such splendid coolness and spirit.
But compare it with the fight which Bussy made, single-handed, against the assassins hired by Monsereau and authorized by that effeminate fop, the Due D’Anjou. Of course you remember it. Let me pay you the affectionate compliment of presuming that you have read “La Dame de Monsereau,” often translated under the English title, “Chicot, the Jester,” that almost incomparable novel of historical romance, by M. Dumas. If, through some accident or even through lack of culture, you have failed to do so, pray do not admit it. Conceal your blemish and remedy the matter at once. At least, seem to deserve respect and confidence, and appear to be a worthy novel-reader if actually you are not. There is a novel that, I assure you on my honor, is as good as the “Three Guardsmen;” but—oh!--so—much—shorter; the pity of it, too!--oh, the pity of it! On the second reading—now, let us speak with frank conservatism—on the second reading of it, I give you my word, man to man, I dreaded to turn every page, because it brought the end nearer. If it had been granted to me to have one wish fulfilled that fine winter night, I should have said with humility: “Beneficent Power, string it out by nine more volumes, presto me here a fresh box of cigars, and the account of your kindness, and my gratitude is closed.”
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If the publisher of this series did not have such absurd sensitiveness about the value of space and such pitifully small ideas about the nobility of novels, I should like to write at least twenty pages about “Chicot.” There are books that none of us ever put down in our lists of great books, and yet which we think more of and delight more in than all the great guns. Not one of the friends I’ve loved so long and well has been President of the United States, but I wouldn’t give one of them for all the Presidents. Just across the hall at this minute I can hear the frightful din of war—shells whistling and moaning, bullets s-e-o-uing, the shrieks of the dying and wounded—Merciful Heaven! the “Don Juan of Asturia” has just blown up in Manila Bay with an awful roar—again! Again, as I’m a living man, just as she has blown up every day, and several times every day, since May 1, 1898. There are two warriors over in the play-room, drenched with imaginary gore, immersed in the tender grace of bestowing chastening death and destruction upon the Spanish foe. Don’t I know that they rank somewhat below Admiral Dewey as heroes? But do you suppose that their father would swap them for Admiral Dewey and all the rainbow glories that fine old Yankee sea-dog ever will enjoy—long may he live to enjoy them all!--do you think so? Of course not! You know perfectly well that his—wife—wouldn’t—let—him!
I would not wound the susceptibilities of any reader; but speaking for myself—“Chicot” being beloved of my heart—if there was a mean man, living in a mean street, who had the last volume of “Chicot” in existence, I would pour out my library’s last heart’s blood to get it. He could have all of Scott but “Ivanhoe,” all of Dickens but “Copperfield,” all of Hugo but “Les Miserables,” cords of Fielding, Marryat, Richardson, Reynolds, Eliot, Smollet, a whole ton of German translations—by George! he could leave me a poor old despoiled, destitute and ruined book-owner in things that folks buy in costly bindings for the sake of vanity and the deception of those who also deceive them in turn.
Brother, “Chicot” is a book you lend only to your dearest friend, and then remind him next day that he hasn’t sent it back.
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Now, as to Bussy’s great fight. He had gone to the house of Madame Diana de Monsereau. I am not au fait upon French social customs, but let us presume his being there was entirely proper, because that excellent lady was glad to see him. He was set upon by her husband, M. de Monsereau, with fifteen hired assassins. Outside, the Due D’Anjou and some others of assassins were in hiding to make sure that Monsereau killed Bussy, and that somebody killed Monsereau! There’s a “situation” for you, double-edged treachery against—love and innocence, let us say. Bussy is in the house with Madame. His friend, St. Luc, is with him; also his lacquey and body-physician, the faithful Rely. Bang! the doors are broken in, and the assassins penetrate up the stairway. The brave Bussy confides Diana to St. Luc and Rely, and, hastily throwing up a barricade of tables and chairs near the door of the apartment, draws his sword. Then, ye friends of sudden death and valorous exercise, began a surfeit of joy. Monsereau and his assassins numbered sixteen. In less than three moderate paragraphs Bessy’s sword, playing like avenging lightning, had struck fatality to seven. Even then, with every wrist going, he reflected, with sublime calculation: “I can kill five more, because I can fight with all my vigor ten minutes longer!” After that? Bessy could see no further—there spoke fate!--you feel he is to die. Once more the leaping steel point, the shrill death cry, the miraculous parry. The villain, Monsereau, draws his pistol. Bessy, who is fighting half a dozen swordsmen, can even see the cowardly purpose; he watches; he—dodges—the—bullets!--by watching the aim—
“Ye sons of France, behold the glory!”
He thrusts, parries and swings the sword as a falchion. Suddenly a pistol ball snaps the blade off six inches from the hilt. Bessy picks up the blade and in an instant splices—it—to—the—hilt—with—his— handkerchief! Oh, good sword of the good swordsman! it drinks the blood of three more before it—bends—and—loosens—under—the—strain! Bessy is shot in the thigh; Monsereau is upon him; the good Rely, lying almost lifeless from a bullet wound received at the outset, thrusts a rapier to Bessy’s grasp with a last effort. Bessy springs upon Monsereau with the great bound of a panther and pins—the—son—of—a—gun—to—the—floor --with—the—rapier—and—watches—him—die!
You can feel faint for joy at that passage for a good dozen readings, if you are appreciative. Poor Bessy, faint from wounds and blood-letting, retreats valiantly to a closet window step by step and drops out, leaving Monsereau spitted, like a black spider, dead on the floor. Here hope and expectation are drawn out in your breast like chewing gum stretched to the last shred of tenuation. At this point I firmly believed that Bessy would escape. I feel sorry for the reader who does not. You just naturally argue that the faithful Rely will surely reach him and rub him with the balsam. That balsam of Dumas! The same that D’Artagnan’s mother gave him when he rode away on the yellow horse, and which cured so many heroes hurt to the last gasp. That miraculous balsam, which would make doctors and surgeons sing small today if they had not suppressed it from the materia medica. May be they can silence their consciences by the reflection that they suppressed it to enhance the value and necessity of their own personal services. But let them look at the death rate and shudder. I had confidence in Rely and the balsam, but he could not get there in time. Then, it was forgone that Bessy must die. Like Mercutio, he was too brilliant to live. Depend upon it, these wizards of story tellers know when the knell of fate rings much sooner than we halting readers do.
Bessy drops from the closet window upon an iron fence that surrounded the park and was impaled upon the dreadful pickets! Even then for another moment you can cherish a hope that he may escape after all. Suspended there and growing weaker, he hears footsteps approaching. Is it a rescuing friend? He calls out—and a dagger stroke from the hand of D’Anjou, his Judas master, finds his heart. That’s the way Bessy died. No man is proof against the dagger stroke of treachery. Bessy was powerful and the due jealous.
Diana has been carried off safely by the trustworthy St. Luc. She must have died of grief if she had not been kept alive to be the instrument of retributive justice. (In the sequel you will find that this Queen of Hearts descended upon the ignoble due at the proper time like a thousand of brick and took the last trick of justice.)
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The extraordinary description of Bussy’s fight is beyond everything. You gallop along as if in a whirlwind, and it is only in cooler moments that you discover he killed about twelve rascals with his own good arm. It seems impossible; the scientific, careful readers have been known to declare it impossible and sneer at it with laughter. I trust every novel reader respects scientific folks as he should; but science is not everything. Our scientific friends have contended that the whale did not engulf Jonah; that the sun did not pause over the vale of Askelon; that Baron Munchausen’s horse did not hang to the steeple by his bridle; that the beanstalk could not have supported a stout lad like Jack; that General Monk was not sent to Holland in a cage; that Remus and Romulus had not a devoted lady wolf for a step-mother; in fact, that loads of things, of which the most undeniable proof exists in plain print all over the world, never were done or never happened. Bessy was killed, Rely was killed later, Diana died in performing her destiny, St. Luc was killed. Nobody left to make affidavits, except M. Dumas; in his lifetime nobody questioned it; he is now dead and unable to depose; whereupon the scientists sniff scornfully and deny. I hope I shall always continue to respect science in its true offices, but, brethren, are there not times when—science—makes—you—just—a—little—tired?
Heroes! D’Artagnan or Bessy? Choose, good friends, freely; as freely let me have my Bessy.
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