THE “Helmet of Navarre ” was a remarkable book for many reasons, but the fact that its author was little over twenty years of age was not the most remarkable. Bryant had written Thanatopsis ” before he had reached that age, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps composed ” The Gates Ajar” at nineteen. The most interesting fact about the production of ” The Helmet of Navarre” is, that its author has never even caught a glimpse of the shores of France; indeed, she has seldom been beyond the boundaries of New York State. The castles in which royalty here disported were true castles in the air. In considering the book, there-fore, we view what may be accomplished by long-distance flights of the imagination.
Miss Bertha Runkle is a product of the literary atmosphere of New York combined with the healthy and muscle-giving proper-ties of golf and of tennis; thus disproving the oft-quoted and quite prevalent theory that literary minds and frail bodies are inseparably linked together. Although the State of New Jersey is associated in the minds of most of us with sand-flats, mosquitoes and malaria, it has the honor of claiming the birthplace of the newest addition to American expounders of historical romance. The mind of Miss Bertha Runkle was first stimulated to literary expression at Berkeley Heights, New Jersey ; a small place, a quiet place, and a distinctly suburban place; but in 1888 she and her mother moved to New York, where association with a more swiftly moving environment than that of a back country town, did much to brighten an intellect which already showed signs of a brilliancy quite out of the ordinary. Her love of the good things in literature indeed comes honestly, for her father, Cornelius A. Runkle, who died when she was a young girl, was a well-known New York lawyer and for many years counsel for the New York Tribune, and her mother was, previous to her marriage, an editorial writer on the same paper; the first American woman, in fact, to be on the staff of a great metropolitan daily.
When a very small child the author of “The Helmet of Navarre” showed distinct signs of romantic promise, for, while other infants were cooing sweet words of wisdom and of pseudo-love to dolls of paper and of wax, she was amusing herself by compiling stories and by beginning to write them down.
With true Celtic genius, however, she would tire of them about the third chapter, and begin another one. Again, note the early expression of the real, artistic nature.
Such education as it was her pleasure to be subjected to was first received at home and then at a fashionable New York boarding-school, where yellow-backed novels were more popular than the works of Thackeray and Carlyle. This story-writing trick of hers, however, still remained, and in some way offset the moral degeneracy into which such dissipations as an over-indulgence in five-pound boxes of Huyler’s or Mallard’s, and in the matinee, threatened to plunge her. In 1893 her mother purchased a small piece of land at Onteora, Tannersville, N. Y., and upon it built a house where she and her daughter have lived every summer. It is here that Miss Runkle has followed the life of the typical American girl one sees in the centre pages in Life, and learned not only how to write a successful novel, but also how to swing a golf club, ride a wheel, drive a cart, and, in spite of endless skirts, play an excellent game of tennis. The virility which infused the pages of her first book was but the virility of her own nature. Spencer has said, “The book is the man himself.” Here is an excellent proof of the saying—only this time it is a woman.
When Miss Runkle received a letter saying that her story would first be published in The Century Magazine and enclosing a check for serial rights, a smile of intense satisfaction passed over her face, as she held out the check for her mother to see; and the subsequent developments which the manuscript evolved when it appeared in printed form, have left that smile in possession of her features.
One of the first things she did with her newly-acquired wealth was to purchase a pony and cart. The pony was “a very little one,” but she made him extremely well acquainted with the mountain roads, and when the summer was over and it grew cold in Onteora, too cold, in fact, for comfort, she drove her mother all the way to New York. It took three whole days and they both enjoyed it. The pony’s name is ” Peggy,” short for Pegasus.
There is nothing of the blue-stocking, the Chautauquan assembly camp-stooler, the W. C. T. U. woman, or the intellectual hyena about Miss Runkle. In her own words, she says she “dislikes extremely being looked at as a literary freak.” If you should see her driving around Onteora in a short skirt, with her hair hanging down her back in two thick braids, you would never suspect that she is the author of one of the most popular novels of the past year, nor would you suspect it if you saw her dancing at one of the Inn’s informal hops. She is as simple, as wholesome, as genuine, as any American girl. She has always been extremely fond of history, biography, memoirs, and the like, so the study of ” The Helmet of Navarre ” was part of the fun. She had the story in her mind for two years or so, and the actual writing took about four months ; but she didn’t put all her time upon it the mornings only ; the afternoons were spent out of doors.
The title of ” The Helmet of Navarre ” was taken from a passage in Lord Macaulay’s ” Ivry,” which its author adopted as a motto :
Press where ye see my white plume shine amidst the ranks of war, And be your oriflamme today, the helmet of Navarre.
The book came out with a great shouting, a banging of drums, blaring of trumpets, and tons of advertising, and it was not a book that one could easily ignore, for great black letters heralding its power, its beauty, and its great worth stared at one from the pages of every newspaper and magazine. In fact, a line in large letters upon the paper wrapper of the very book itself, quoted a contemporary to the effect that “any writer of any age might rejoice in its equal.” For this reason many read it who would not have otherwise done so, and the effect, on the whole, was very agreeable.
The reader began with expectation of immediately seeing the king, or at least catching a glimpse of his plume, or his horse’s heels, but such was not the case. The author’s restraint in not at once hurling this fiery meteor among the lesser constellations, inspired gratitude. Fictional kings are extremely difficult things to manage. Like the queen in “Alice in Wonderland,” they are either continually in the way, or else are always thundering
Off with his, or her, head!” For this reason Miss Runkle showed judicious fore-sight and a sense of the artistic that was very commendable, but his cause was at the bottom of the events which were primarily introduced. The power of the League and of Monsieur de Mayenne was dying and Henry was about to ascend the throne, when the story began. The great Duc de St. Quentin was Henry’s staunch partisan and had come up to Paris to flaunt his loyalty in the face of Mayenne. Felix Broux, servitor of the aforesaid, was the hero of the tale, and came to Paris at the same time, and immediately became involved in a number of plots, counterplots, escapades, fights and brawls, that have happened to the innumerable fictional heroes of the France of that period, from the famous musketeers of Dumas to the rollicking blades of Stanley Weyman. The intrigue in which the youthful hero be-came implicated, was as complicated as the windings of the maze, from the looking-glass intricacies of which the gullible visitor pays a delicate sum to be extracted. The Duc de St. Quentin and his son, the Comte de Mar, had become estranged through the villainies of one Lucas, who was employed as the Duke’s secretary, but was in reality a nephew of Mayenne and a spy of the League. Felix Broux and the Comte de Mar became warm friends and moved from one peril to another with a cheerful indifference to sudden death that gladdened the heart. The former was the means of bringing about a reconciliation and understanding between father and son, and of exposing the evil machinations of Lucas, and thereafter served de Mar with unfailing loyalty and unswerving purpose. Lucas, who was the evil genius of the tale, time and time again wove plot after plot with trigonometrical precision, but the St. Quentins, who were ever upon the brink of destruction, always managed to extricate themselves with the dexterity of a Sherlock Holmes.
The love episodes were furnished by the Comte de Mar and a ward of the Duc de Mayenne, Lorance de Montluc. Lorance eventually escaped from her guardian’s house, and made a journey on foot to her lover in the camp of the Bearnais at St. Denis, and the book ended with the customary union of two fond and loving hearts. There were the usual number of snares, secret passages, mysterious inns, and rascally landlords, and, of course, many sparks from whizzing swords. The fact that the author eschewed the local color that is generally supposed to exist in turns of speech, in ” characteristic ” oaths and exclamations, such as, ” By the second little finger of the Knight of Saint Madrid,” ” Ventre Saint Gris,” etc., was decidedly a point in her favor. The few that were used had no taint of artifice, and the merit was everywhere in evidence.
Considered, then, as an entity, ” The Helmet of Navarre ” was not ” the most remarkable work of present-day fiction,” as its publishers would have us believe, but a very creditable bit of writing, especially for an author who had not yet reached the quarter-century mark ; and one which was read by a great many people simply from the fact of its having been vigorously brought to their attention. But the fact that it was the product of the American girl that we are so proud of, the American girl who can fish, and shoot, and do and dare, is its greatest merit. Vive la femme Americaine!