Mr. Davis's Soldiers of Fortune

The cause for the success of Mr. Richard Harding Davis’s Soldiers of Fortune is not far to seek. It is a story of brave action, performed by persons at once beautiful and young. To prove that they are beautiful, we have Mr. Davis’s word and our own opinion, but chiefly Mr. Gibson’s most suitable illustrations. That they are young, there can be no doubt upon any ground. It were pitiful if these two qualities of youth and beauty did not touch at least forty thousand of the great public. To all this it must be added that Mr. Davis has an excellent gift of narrative, and speaks a language which is especially grateful to many ears, whether by custom or through curiosity, for it is the language of the world of which Mr. Davis’s own Van Bibber is the recognized type.

How strong this appeal must be one realizes when the book’s elements of weakness, through unreality and a failure to convince, are considered even for a moment. It is needful only to look at the central figure, a hero such as “ never was on sea or land.” He is defined as “ a tall broad-shouldered youth,” and surely he cannot be far beyond thirty at the utmost. At sixteen he embarked at New Orleans as a sailor before the mast. From the diamond fields of South Africa, where he landed from his first voyage, he went on to Madagascar, Egypt, and Algiers. It must have been in this period of his life that he was an officer in the English army, “ when they were short of officers ” in the Soudan, received a medal from the Sultan of Zanzibar, since “ he was out of cigars the day I called,” and won the Legion of Honor while fighting as a Chasseur d’Afrique against the Arabs. It was presumably later that he built a harbor fort at Rio, and, because it was successfully reproduced on the Baltic, was created a German baron. In a later year, possibly, he was president of an International Congress of Engineers at Madrid ; but in his casual accounts of himself it is a little difficult to keep track of the years, and to know just where he had time for his visits to Chili and Peru, and incidentally for his experiences as a cowboy on our own plains, and as the builder of the Jalisco and Mexican Railroad. When a youth has done all these things, there is no reason why he should not take the further steps, in which we follow him, as the head of an enormous mining enterprise in South America, the temporary, and of course successful, commander in a revolution at Olancho, and the perfectly “ turned out ” man of the world, who soon discovers the superiority of his employer’s younger daughter, and wins her hand without having to ask for it.

It should be said in justice to this Admirable Crichton that he defines some of his own actions as “gallery plays.” In like manner, when the cloud of the revolution is about to burst, the heroine appears on the scene, protesting, “ I always ride over to polo alone at Newport, at least with James ; ” her brother says, “ It reminds me of a football match, when the teams run on the field ; ” and the hero himself likens it to a scene in a play. When a revolution begins on this wise, with such participants, one is well prepared to see it go forward somewhat like a performance of amateur theatricals, in which the players enjoy themselves exceedingly, but make very timid andincipient approaches to reality. Indeed, for all of Mr. Davis’s brave and familiar habit of speech, as if from the very core of things, the real scene of the revolution seems to be the author’s study-table, and the merit of the book grows sensibly less as the fight proceeds.

The inherent elements of its structure, already mentioned, go far to redeem the book. But not only by their means has Mr. Davis shown his strength. In the sisters, Alice and Hope Langham, he has made two excellent types of the girl spoiled and unspoiled by the world. In MacWilliams, with his “ barber-shop chords ” and his good vulgarity, he has drawn a picture admirably true to life. In the vivid reproduction of scenes, in none more notably than that of the killing of Stuart and the leaving of his dead body in the empty room, he has sometimes shown the hand almost of a master in description.

It is no disheartening sign of the times that such a book is read, for youth and beauty and prowess march across its pages, and behind them one feels the creator’s honest sympathy with these things.