Nothing new--nothing new since a thousand years. By George, that is true! We invent nothing, nothing!"
"Take the eternal triangle," said Quinny hurriedly, not to surrender his advantage, while Rankin and De Gollyer in a bored way continued to gaze dreamily at a vagrant star or two. "Two men and a woman, or two women and a man. Obviously it should be cla.s.sified as the first of the great original parent themes. Its variations extend into the thousands. By the way, Rankin, excellent opportunity, eh, for some of our modern, painstaking, unemployed jacka.s.ses to a.n.a.lyze and cla.s.sify."
"Quite right," said Rankin without perceiving the satirical note. "Now there's De Maupa.s.sant's Fort comma la Mort--quite the most interesting variation--shows the turn a genius can give. There the triangle is the man of middle age, the mother he has loved in his youth and the daughter he comes to love. It forms, you might say, the head of a whole subdivision of modern continental literature."
"Quite wrong, Rankin, quite wrong," said Quinny, who would have stated the other side quite as imperiously. "What you cite is a variation of quite another theme, the Faust theme--old age longing for youth, the man who has loved longing for the love of his youth, which is youth itself.
The triangle is the theme of jealousy, the most destructive and, therefore, the most dramatic of human pa.s.sions. The Faust theme is the most fundamental and inevitable of all human experiences, the tragedy of life itself. Quite a different thing."
Rankin, who never agreed with Quinny unless Quinny maliciously took advantage of his prior announcement to agree with him, continued to combat this idea.
"You believe then," said De Gollyer after a certain moment had been consumed in hair splitting, "that the origin of all dramatic themes is simply the expression of some human emotion. In other words, there can exist no more parent themes than there are human emotions."
"I thank you, sir, very well put," said Quinny with a generous wave of his hand. "Why is the Three Musketeers a basic theme? Simply the interpretation of comradeship, the emotion one man feels for another, vital because it is the one peculiarly masculine emotion. Look at Du Maurier and Trilby, Kipling in Soldiers Three--simply the Three Musketeers."
"The Vie de Boheme?" suggested Steingall.
"In the real Vie de Boheme, yes," said Quinny viciously. "Not in the concocted sentimentalities that we now have served up to us by athletic tenors and consumptive elephants!"
Rankin, who had been silently deliberating on what had been left behind, now said cunningly and with evident purpose:
"All the same, I don't agree with you men at all. I believe there are situations, original situations, that are independent of your human emotions, that exist just because they are situations, accidental and nothing else."
"As for instance?" said Quinny, preparing to attack.
"Well, I'll just cite an ordinary one that happens to come to my mind,"
said Rankin, who had carefully selected his test. "In a group of seven or eight, such as we are here, a theft takes place; one man is the thief--which one? I'd like to know what emotion that interprets, and yet it certainly is an original theme, at the bottom of a whole literature."
This challenge was like a bomb.
"Not the same thing."
"Detective stories, bah!"
"Oh, I say, Rankin, that's literary melodrama."
Rankin, satisfied, smiled and winked victoriously over to Tommers, who was listening from an adjacent table.
"Of course your suggestion is out of order, my dear man, to this extent," said Quinny, who never surrendered, "in that I am talking of fundamentals and you are citing details. Nevertheless, I could answer that the situation you give, as well as the whole school it belongs to, can be traced back to the commonest of human emotions, curiosity; and that the story of Bluebeard and the Moonstone are to all purposes identically the same."
At this Steingall, who had waited hopefully, gasped and made as though to leave the table.
"I shall take up your contention," said Quinny without pause for breath, "first, because you have opened up one of my pet topics, and, second, because it gives me a chance to talk." He gave a sidelong glance at Steingall and winked at De Gollyer. "What is the peculiar fascination that the detective problem exercises over the human mind? You will say curiosity. Yes and no. Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. Any one can do it. I can do it. Steingall even can do it. The solution doesn't count. It is usually ba.n.a.l; it should be prohibited. What interests us is, can we guess it? Just as an able-minded man will sit down for hours and fiddle over the puzzle column in a Sunday balderdash. Same idea. There you have it, the problem--the detective story. Now why the fascination? I'll tell you. It appeals to our curiosity, yes--but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place--who's the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness--see?
That's all--that's all there is to it."
"Out of all of which," said De Gollyer, "the interesting thing is that Rankin has supplied the reason why the supply of detective fiction is inexhaustible. It does all come down to the simplest terms. Seven possibilities, one answer. It is a formula, ludicrously simple, mechanical, and yet we will always pursue it to the end. The marvel is that writers should seek for any other formula when here is one so safe, that can never fail. By George, I could start up a factory on it."
"The reason is," said Rankin, "that the situation does constantly occur.
It's a situation that any of us might get into any time. As a matter of fact, now, I personally know two such occasions when I was of the party; and devilish uncomfortable it was too."
"What happened?" said Steingall.
"Why, there is no story to it particularly. Once a mistake had been made and the other time the real thief was detected by accident a year later.
In both cases only one or two of us knew what had happened."
De Gollyer had a similar incident to recall. Steingall, after reflection, related another that had happened to a friend.
"Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen," said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long, "you are glorifying commonplaces. Every crime, I tell you, expresses itself in the terms of the picture puzzle that you feed to your six-year-old. It's only the variation that is interesting. Now quite the most remarkable turn of the complexities that can be developed is, of course, the well-known instance of the visitor at a club and the rare coin. Of course every one knows that? What?"
Rankin smiled in a bored, superior way, but the others protested their ignorance.
"Why, it's very well known," said Quinny lightly.
"A distinguished visitor is brought into a club--dozen men, say, present, at dinner, long table. Conversation finally veers around to curiosities and relics. One of the members present then takes from his pocket what he announces as one of the rarest coins in existence--pa.s.ses it around the table. Coin travels back and forth, every one examining it, and the conversation goes to another topic, say the influence of the automobile on domestic infelicity, or some other such asininely intellectual club topic--you know? All at once the owner calls for his coin.
"The coin is nowhere to be found. Every one looks at every one else.
First they suspect a joke. Then it becomes serious--the coin is immensely valuable. Who has taken it?
"The owner is a gentleman--does the gentlemanly idiotic thing of course, laughs, says he knows some one is playing a practical joke on him and that the coin will be returned to-morrow. The others refuse to leave the situation so. One man proposes that they all submit to a search. Every one gives his a.s.sent until it comes to the stranger. He refuses, curtly, roughly, without giving any reason. Uncomfortable silence--the man is a guest. No one knows him particularly well--but still he is a guest. One member tries to make him understand that no offense is offered, that the suggestion was simply to clear the atmosphere, and all that sort of bally rot, you know.
"'I refuse to allow my person to be searched,' says the stranger, very firm, very proud, very English, you know, 'and I refuse to give my reason for my action.'
"Another silence. The men eye him and then glance at one another. What's to be done? Nothing. There is etiquette--that magnificent inflated balloon. The visitor evidently has the coin--but he is their guest and etiquette protects him. Nice situation, eh?
"The table is cleared. A waiter removes a dish of fruit and there under the ledge of the plate where it had been pushed--is the coin. Ba.n.a.l explanation, eh? Of course. Solutions always should be. At once every one in profuse apologies! Whereupon the visitor rises and says:
"'Now I can give you the reason for my refusal to be searched. There are only two known specimens of the coin in existence, and the second happens to be here in my waistcoat pocket.'"
"Of course," said Quinny with a shrug of his shoulders, "the story is well invented, but the turn to it is very nice--very nice indeed."
"I did know the story," said Steingall, to be disagreeable; "the ending, though, is too obvious to be invented. The visitor should have had on him not another coin, but something absolutely different, something destructive, say, of a woman's reputation, and a great tragedy should have been threatened by the casual misplacing of the coin."
"I have heard the same story told in a dozen different ways," said Rankin.
"It has happened a hundred times. It must be continually happening,"
"I know one extraordinary instance," said Peters, who up to the present, secure in his climax, had waited with a professional smile until the big guns had been silenced. "In fact, the most extraordinary instance of this sort I have ever heard."
"Peters, you little rascal," said Quinny with a sidelong glance, "I perceive you have quietly been letting us dress the stage for you."
"It is not a story that will please every one," said Peters, to whet their appet.i.te.
"Because you will want to know what no one can ever know."
"It has no conclusion then?"
"Yes and no. As far as it concerns a woman, quite the most remarkable woman I have ever met, the story is complete. As for the rest, it is what it is, because it is one example where literature can do nothing better than record."
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