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"Romance" from Saturday Evening Post

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Saturday Evening Post
by Ellis Parker Butler

We must have romance. Human nature demands it. Even in the future, when our world fixers have fixed the world so neatly that brainpans will be opened at birth and all brains beyond a certain size trimmed down to the legal state standard, we shall have romance. Even when the state -- all wise, as states always are -- arranges to have every newborn child face rammed into a steel mold and kept there until it resembles all other faces, when all hair is decreed by law to be of a certain shade, and when eyes that sparkle more than the legal limit are dimmed by the deputy supervisor of optics, there will be romance.

The state may do away with booze, tobacco, tea, coffee, dimples, neat ankles and brains; but it can never do away with romance -- not, at least, unless it can arrange to have us all born at the age of fifty years.

At twenty-two Billy Bell was a poet. But it was his misfortune not to know that he was.

An immortal -- like Washington, Mike Angelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven -- is given to the world but once in a blue moon. Only one-tenth as often -- once in centuries -- is a human being born without romance in the heart. There is a legend among the Copper River Eskimos of Victoria Land that a man named Akatatigitik, absolutely free from and impervious to romance, was born in that tribe in the days when there was no ice and no snow north of Hudson Bay, winter or summer. But Susie Berkow was born at Potsville, Iowa, June 6, 1885.

I have read, I imagine, something like eight hundred and seventy-two thousand love stories in books, magazines and newspapers, and eight hundred and seventy-one thousand of them were stories of the struggles of two men for a girl, or two girls for one man. The love life of the world, judged by the love stories of the world, would seem to be one big burning battle of infuriated and infatuated males struggling in pairs for the same girl; or of clever brilliant females moving heaven and earth for the same man. Getting a wife would seem to be a regular set battle. One would think the first thing necessary was for a lover to hunt up a rival, so the two might do battle for the hand of the dear palpitating creature.

The battles vary, but they are always tense struggles. There are seven hundred and twenty-two ways in which rival lovers battle -- in love stories; but battle they must. They fight with wits, swords, coupling pins, pistols and -- in the movies -- custard pies. They speak haughtily, slap on the cheek, bite each other on the neck, strangle each other, murder, undermine, defame, and have a dickens of a time generally.

I should like to see Potsville, Iowa, on a spring day, when the young men's fancies were turning lightly to love, if all this was as true as gospel. That sleepy dead-and-alive Main Street, with its street car every half hour, would be a scene of carnage that would make Petrograd at the moment of a Bolshevik uprising look like an afternoon nap. Lungs and livers of demolished male lovers would hang from every projection, and the length of Main Street would be filled with mad-eyed males, in pairs, killing each other.

That is not a bit like Main Street, Potsville, even in the balmiest spring days. So far as I have been able to learn, no lover there ever killed a rival lover, let alone dismembering one. Once in a long period there are rumors that two young fellows are "stuck" on the same girl. For a week both young men send the girl boxes of chocolate creams. One of them asks her to go to a party, but she has already accepted the invitation of the other. Nothing happens. The disappointed lover asks some other girl to go to the party with him.

You see, there are so many girls in Potsville -- and in the world -- and they are all such suitable girls! There are always enough girls to go round and a few perfectly dear ones left over. There is no reason why Benny Wright, wishing a sweetheart, should load a thirty-two automatic and go forth and slaughter Sam Curtis, the haberdasher's clerk, in order to secure the smiles of Bessie Dilbrow, when Mamie Stack has an equally sweet smile and is ready to be mighty pleasant to Benny because no one took her to the last oyster supper of the Methodist Episcopal Ladies' Aid.

The murder and destruction thing simply is not done. George Castrow, who has not thought of love, is weighing out granulated sugar in Durbin & Sweet's Grocery, when Mrs. Stanbury comes bustling in and talks him into buying two tickets for the Strawberry Festival. George tucks them into his vest pocket and says: "Fifty cents more gone to the dickens!"

A week later Eddie Ryan says he is going to the Strawberry Festival. He is going to take Mamie Little. He coaxes George to go along.

"Ah! I ain't got no girl," says George.

"Whyn't you take May Deemer? She'd go with you," Eddie says. "Come along, anyhow."

So George turns to the telephone. He joshes May more or less, and then plays safe to save his face.

"Say, May; you don't want to go to the Strawberry Festival, do you?" he asks her.

A couple of months later it is rumored that George Castrow and May Deemer are engaged. They don't really know whether they are or are not. So they make it formal. They become engaged. Sooner or later they get married.

It is all so simple and tame and uninteresting -- from the love-story writer's point of view -- that it might have been arranged by card system. No murders; no stranglings or burning-eyed rivals. They just kept company for a while, and then got engaged, and then got married. That is how hundreds of thousands of matings come about all over the world every year.

No romance? Listen! It is all absolutely soggy and dripping with romance. Those gentle, inconspicuous, seemingly tame and uninteresting couples simply wallow in romance. They bathe in it, splash in it, go down in it, and come up gasping and strangling and burning and smothered. Even a watchmaker's helper, like Billy Bell, with a sweetheart as void of romance as Susie Berkow, is swept to and fro, tossed and tumbled, and beaten and bruised, by the wild sea of romance.

At twenty-two Billy Bell was a poet; but it was his misfortune not to know that he was anything more than a watchmaker's helper. He had never put two rhymed lines together. In both these particulars he was like ninety-nine out of every hundred young men of Potsville, and of the world since time began. All young men are poets -- romantic poets. Fate does not happen to drive spigots in many of them; so not many spout forth poetry. I figure there are six mute inglorious Miltons to every square mile in the United States.

On the other hand, Susie Berkow was not a poet. There are far fewer female poets than male poets, mute or otherwise. The proportion is perhaps one to one thousand; and Sue Berkow was not one of the rare few. Sue was plain simple prose. She was extremely simple prose. She was such simple prose that a child could read her. She was a primer -- "I see the cat. Does the cat see me? The cat sees the dog." Anyone could understand Sue Berkow. She was the least mysterious of young females.

Sue Berkow was a fair sweet girl, just a little plump and just a little motherly. She had graduated fifth or sixth in a class of twenty at the high school. She confidently expected to be married in due time; and meantime she loved chocolate creams, ice-cream soda, food in general, church, buggy rides and new dresses. She loved romances -- the printed kind; but she did not draw analogies between the adventures of the heroines and her own life. She was a warm-hearted, matter-of-fact girl.

Billy Bell began going with Sue Berkow when she was notably unattached. Several boys went with her, taking her to the ice-cream socials and to parties. There were Ranee Carter, James Long, Sam Oberwitzel, Ed McCall and Billy Bell; but they were not rivals. They were a "crowd"; and there were five or six girls in the crowd besides Sue. Sometimes one boy took one girl and sometimes he took another.

As soon as the other young men saw that Billy was Sue's beau they left Sue alone. The girls put Billy in his proper place when he threatened to stray from it.

"Oh, you take Sue," they would say when he asked one of them to go anywhere with him. "I guess Ed is going to ask me. I guess Sue sort of expects you to, don't she?"

Neither Sue nor Billy had any particular choice in the matter. There was no violent love-at-first-sight business. Probably there happened to be a time when he asked her three times in succession to go with him on some of the crowd's goings, with the result that the others thought perhaps he and Sue might like going together.

It would have been equally satisfactory to Sue had it been Ranee or Sara or James or Ed. Billy would have been as well satisfied had it been May or Laura or Ina or Kate. It was the merest bit of chance that Sue did not find herself engaged to one of the four other boys, and only a slightly greater chance that her fiance was not one of several hundred other young men in town. The same with Billy. It might have been any other girl.

Once engaged -- in Potsville you are tacitly engaged long before the formal words are spoken -- Billy became immediately and violently pro-Sue. Sue became a hundred per cent solidly, faithfully and -- barring accidents -- eternally pro-Billy. She was Billy's "for keeps," as they say in Potsville. And Billy was hers for keeps. She understood that. She never doubted it a moment.

The night Billy learned from Sue's own lips -- in a couple of ways -- that she loved him was a wonderful night for Billy. As a matter of cold fact, he need not have been surprised at all. Everyone in the crowd had known it for weeks. Sue's father and mother knew it. Even Billy knew it. But right then romance stepped in and Billy entered a new world. He had won a kiss and a confession, and he was transfigured and raised to a place among the lesser gods. He walked on air as he went home. He did a hop-step of happiness.

In front of Miller's big lawn he rested his head against the cool iron fence and shed a few tears of joy. He swore an oath that he would always be kind and gentle and true to Sue, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk and holding his hand above his head. "I swear it!" he said solemnly -- and then put his hand in his pocket quickly and pretended he had been humming a song when he saw a belated pedestrian unexpectedly emerge from the dark.

Before he went to bed that night he wrote Sue a letter:

"Oh, Sue; if you only knew how I love you and how happy I am now! I can't seem to tell you when I am with you, but I love you more than anything in the world!"

He posted the letter as he went to work the next morning, still walking on air, as if he had pneumatic feet -- though he was going to see Sue that evening. By the most mysterious of chances she happened to pass the watchmaker's and tapped on the window, and they had ice-cream sodas together at Groll's, holding hands under the small round table.

For a week or two this high peak of happiness glowed under Billy's feet. His head was among the reverberating stars and the sun and moon were his playthings. He had battled with the world and had wrested Sue from it in triumph. He had laid siege to Sue's heart and had torn her from the dread heights of intended celibacy, in which she had sought to hide herself. He was a heroic conqueror!

It made no difference to Billy that the world had not lifted a little finger to battle back. Romance camouflaged that. It made no difference that Sue was so humanly ready and willing to descend from the dread heights of a celibacy she meant to be only temporary that when Billy smiled she couldn't have been kept on the dread heights with a brick wall and a barbed-wire entanglement. That had nothing to do with it. Romance came in and brought a new set of scenery.

As illustrations for Billy's calm and sedate courtship, romance brought pictures of all the immortal lovers and threw them on the screen of his brain. For a while Billy was a completely unbalanced lunatic. He went as crazy as a bug. Romance simply drove him loco for a while. It is the way romance affects the young male along about then.

One of the first things that attacked Billy was a deep, an unutterably deep and dire sadness. Sue did not truly love him!

Of course there was not the slightest basis in fact for this. Sue did love him. Sue never changed. She liked Billy and she meant to marry him. Sue never changed at all. It would have been with the greatest possible difficulty that any human being could have seen in Sue anything but the most whole-souled faithful love for Billy. Her father said several times:

"For Heaven's sake, Mary, let me know when that fellow is coming to the house! The way Sue behaves when he is round makes me teetotally sick. What's got into the girl?"

Her love was so entire and complete that it was almost like New Orleans molasses or glue -- it was so clingingly sweet and sticky.

"The way she slobbers all over that big rawboned nuisance!" her father complained. "Worst case I ever saw!"

The deep melancholy that came upon Billy overnight in the full career of his triumphant joyousness puzzled Sue at first. She was frightened when he hid his face in his hands and really wept. She coaxed him to tell her what was the matter; and that made him worse. Anything would have made him worse, because the time had come for it and he had to be melancholy. He told her, with no little agony, spurning her a little, that he did not believe she really, truly loved him.

"Why, Billy Bell!" she exclaimed.

"I can see it now," he said. "I did not see it before. You don't love me the way I love you. I can't help it. I can't make you love me! I can't help it if you don't."

"Well, the idea!" she cried. "Billy, what's the matter? What did I do? Well -- I don't know how else I can make you think I love you."

"Make! That's just it. You want to make me think you love me; but you don't love. You don't love me the way I love you."

He had called that night at eight-thirty and this sort of thing kept up until eleven o'clock -- two hours and a half of it. He was all right when he went home. He sang as he walked home. He had forgotten entirely that he had ever been sad. He was riotously joyous.

Sue went up to her room rather thoughtfully. She could not understand it at all. She knew she had given him no reason to feel that way; and if he had felt that way when he came there was no reason for his changing so suddenly. She stood before the mirror a long while, trying to imagine what had been the matter with Billy; but it only puzzled her. She gave it up. She supposed men were that way. They probably had worse trouble in their insides when they ate things that did not agree with them -- such as mince pie or cheese.

When she spoke of it to her girl friends they agreed that all the young men -- nearly all -- had funny fits like that.

"When they have them you've just got to let them have them," Laura told her. "It don't mean anything. They get over them. Has Billy got mad at you yet?"

"At me! What for?"

"Well, not for anything. Just at you. Just because."

"No. Goodness! Do you think he will."

"Yes; he's pretty sure to, I guess. They all do. He hasn't said he guessed he'd kill himself, has he -- yet?"

"You mean Billy would say that? Why should he --"

"Oh, there isn't any why. They just say it. I thought maybe Billy had said that when he had the weepy fit; but some say it when they have the jealous fits."

"Well, that's one thing Billy won't have," Sue said. "He won't have a jealous fit, because I won't give him anything to be jealous about."

Laura laughed.

"That don't have anything to do with it," she said. "You wait and see!"

Sue did not have to wait long. It came that very evening. Billy had been a regular evening visitor now for some weeks and he had not missed a Sunday afternoon. He had gone to church with Sue every Sunday morning. One or two weekday afternoons he had taken her rowing on the river.

This evening, when approaching the house, he saw the shadow of a male on the parlor window shade; and he knew the profile. It was the silhouette of Sam Oberwitzel, who had come to ask Mrs. Berkow whether she wanted the ice cream for the next day's Sunday school picnic in bricks or in bulk.

It made no difference to Billy why Sam was there. He was there, and that was enough. If he had not been there it would have been just the same. The time had come in his romance for him to be jealous; so he was jealous.

He turned away from the house and went home and up to his room. He threw himself on his bed and bit the pillow, while his fingernails clawed the counterpane. He exhausted himself in jealous anger.

About half past nine he got up, brushed his hair, changed his collar and tie, and walked to Sue's home. He rang the bell angrily and faced the door with a hard look.

"Well!" he exclaimed when Sue had opened the door.

Sue had been ready to scold him affectionately for being so tardy; but the moment she saw his face she knew something was the matter. He was white and haggard. The most intensely bitter hatred gleamed in his eyes -- gleamed coldly. She half expected he would strike her across the face and then go away forever. Instead of that, he went in and stayed until a quarter after eleven.

It was an awful time! He accused her of unfaithfulness, deceit, fickleness, infidelity, betrayal, light-mindedness, pettiness, treason, disloyalty, aiding and abetting the enemy, being in love with Sam Oberwitzel, caring nothing for her sworn promises, hard-heartedness, and general depravity. Toward the end of the evening -- about the time her father began to rap on the floor above with his shoe -- Sue wept. She protested. She asked to be forgiven. She begged.

It was of no use. Billy went away just after her father called down to know when that "young fool" was going -- if he was ever going -- without kissing her and without saying good night.

The next morning before breakfast a small boy brought her a note. It began: "Dearest, dearest Sue: Please -- please forgive me!" About three o'clock in the afternoon one of the drivers from Dorman's Livery arrived at the picnic grounds with a two-pound box of chocolates. Inside was a note. It said: "I love you more than anything in the world! -- BILLY."

That evening when Billy went to the house he did not say a word about Sam or jealousy or unfaithfulness. It was an entirely blissful evening.

After two or three months of this sort of thing Sue should have been acclimated, so to speak; but she was only dazed. She had never imagined that a courtship was anything like this. She had thought it would be a calm happy period, a little quieter than anything she had known.

Instead of that, Billy, who had been known as "such a steady young fellow," was like a surprise package. She never knew whether he would be a dynamite bomb, a chunk of maple sugar or a tear fountain. She might get a honeyed love note on the six-o'clock mail delivery; and at eight-thirty Billy would show up and, after a whole torrent of denunciation, swear he should never see her again. And the next morning, on his way to work, he would stop to invite her to the Elks' entertainment that evening.

From eight-thirty in the morning, when Billy was pretty sure to be safe at work at the watchmaker's, until eight-thirty in the evening, when he was pretty sure to call, Sue was happy and placid.

A few minutes before eight-thirty in the evening she would begin to wonder how Billy would be that evening. She always hoped he would be "nice"; but she never knew. Even after months of this sort of thing, she always went to the door smiling. She never knew, when the bell rang, what sort of Billy would face her when she opened the door. She never got so she expected the angry Billy, or the jealous Billy, or the coldly sarcastic Billy.

Once or twice, when he was "mad at her" -- as she called it -- but when -- as he said -- he had "given her up forever," she ventured to wash her hair, thinking he would stay away a couple of evenings at least; but she quit that. She could not depend on his "mads." He came back the following night after a mad and he came back the next night when he wasn't mad. He always came. Her father said he was the worst he had ever heard of or seen.

If the girls had not told her that the other boys behaved in the same weird way Sue would have thought she had hooked on to some sort of lunatic. She could not understand why Billy acted in such a crazy way. How could she know that in Billy, fated to live in an unromantic town, to choose a mate unromantically and to court her unromantically, all the romance of the ages was struggling for a brief life before Billy married and settled down into an unromantic married life?

In Potsville there are no giants to slay, no dragons from whose claws the fair one must be rescued, no wily villains seeking to steal the ladyloves of others; no romance! I do not blame the young chaps for taking their one mad whirl of it, building it out of their own brains; imagining vain things; going crazy over rivals that do not exist; going melancholy over infidelities that are as impossible as a blue moon; creating heartaches and angers and terrible tempests in teacups.

Billy Bell endured every pang and agony and hope and fear and ecstasy that the greatest lovers of history endured, and never missed a day's work at the shop! He renounced, renewed, cast off, and went from the urge of suicide to the heights of bliss; and no one but Sue ever suspected it in the least. And Sue thought he was only "sort of funny."

It was fortunate that Sue was not equally furnished for romance. If she had been there would have been some terrible scenes; but she bore it patiently, like a mother who is patient with a naughty child. She did hope Billy would not keep on being funny after they were married.

The actual engagement was short. As soon as it was announced Billy changed. The announcement was a notification to the world that he had destroyed all rivals, won -- by his gallantry -- the entire love of his beloved, and conquered all obstacles. Romance was satisfied.

The night before the wedding day Sue would not let him stay late; but they sat together in the hammock in the side yard until ten. Sue was very happy. Billy was very happy too, but just a little disturbed, because he had had to figure pretty close to cover the wedding journey with his meager funds; and he did hope he had enough to last until they got home.

He was a little worried, too, about his salary -- whether they could really keep house on it, as he had bragged they could. He did think a great deal about love that evening, but nothing about romance. Not a thought!

Only one thing troubled Sue: She wondered whether she had not better speak to Billy, before it was too late, about his jealous fits, and his angry fits, and the various fits he had permitted to rule him during their courtship. This was about the last chance, she felt, and the best chance to get him to promise to try to "not be that way" after they were married. She felt that they had had, because of him, a very tempestuous courtship.

"Billy!" she said.

"Yes, Sue!"

"You know, all this time -- since you picked me out for sure -- you remember all the evenings you've come to the house --"

"Indeed I do!" he exclaimed. "I'll bet no two were ever so happy as we were, Sue. Never! It seems just wonderful! Why, we never had a cross word or a quarrel -- or anything! We were both just happy all the time."

For a long moment Sue was silent; and romance, satisfied that the brief day of her sway was over, departed gently.

"You may kiss me once more, and then you've got to go, Billy," Sue said. "If we're going to be married tomorrow we ought not to stay up so late tonight."



Saturday, October 07 at 1:20:54am USA Central
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