Some Recent Novels

THERE have been coming to us piecemeal, during the past year, two very notable tales: The Right of Way,1 by the accomplished author of The Seats of the Mighty and The Battle of the Strong, and Rudyard Kipling’s exhilarating story of Kim.2 The former takes precedence as the more complete and symmetrical drama no less than by its remarkable moral earnestness. It is a tale of manly action, and yet it is curiously grave and provocative of sombre questioning, — a searching, unflinching, although ever compassionate study of human frailty. It is marked by deep reverence for the Christian faith in its oldest and most humane form, and yet it embodies the essence of all heresy in that it is a story of regeneration and redemption through the atoning sacrifice of the sinner himself.

But even those who consider the lesson of Charley Steele’s career least edifying will be fascinated by his history, in which events of the strangest follow one another in a smooth, simple, and apparently necessary sequence. The hero of The Right of Way is, to all intents and purposes, a new figure upon a stage where we are sometimes tempted to think that every possible part has been acted over and over again, to the very satiety of the idle playgoer. A brilliant but dissipated young lawyer, of good social position, having easily at his feet the beau monde of that animated “little city ” of the north which we soon recognize for Montreal, is believed to have been hilled in a drunken brawl, at an obscure suburban tavern. He is thrust out of his old world, at all events, as completely as if he had so perished ; and coming back to life and memory in a remote French-Canadian hamlet, after some days of cataleptic trance and many months of almost complete oblivion, he elects to stay there among the country folk, working for his daily bread ; working out his own salvation, also, literally — so it proved in the end — “ as by fire.” He had had a wife in his former existence, who thanked God for her unexpected release from him, and promptly accepted and espoused an earlier suitor. It is for her sake primarily that he takes the resolve to remain hidden, since her marriage had taken place before he recovered consciousness, and his resurrection would have meant yet more of shame and anguish to her than to himself. It was inevitable, however, that such a man should come eventually to love another woman, in the clean and simple new life; and where in fiction, early or late, shall we find the peer of Rosalie Evanturel, with her fine grain, her ineffable sweetness, her fibre heroic as that of Steele himself, her ample and adorable womanhood ? She never dreamed how tragically her “ right of way ” to homely happiness was barred ; and here, at last, we have the true significance of the not altogether felicitous title of the book. Would this exquisitely tempered and disciplined Rosalie—need she, even for art’s unpitying sake — have become the mistress of Steele ? Above all, being what she was, could she ever, under any stress of circumstance or howso unwittingly, have offered her generous lover the temptation to which his “ honor rooted in dishonor ” almost compelled him to yield ? Might not the sad coil of the story have unwound itself just as effectually, and even more fairly, without this last and direst complication ? Readers of The Right of Way will ask themselves these questions, feeling all the while that they are both impertinent and futile. The irresistible catastrophe moves on and is consummated with a terrible suitability; but the sympathetic reader is left with an obstinate heartache. No balm of confession and absolution, no imaginary harvest of future profit to the humble folk of Chaudière parish, can console him. It seems ungrateful to find fault with what is, after its fashion, so noble ; but the simple truth is that The Right of Way is too harrowing and fatalistic for a parable. It misses its mark by confusing those very moral perceptions which it assumes to quicken, and crushes the spirit of the reader as effectually as the blackest specimen of the Russian romance : as Dostoievsky’s Crime et Châtiment, for example, or A Lear of the Steppe, or Anna Karenine. Such an argument as Mr. Parker’s may be bracing to a spiritual athlete, though I have my doubts ; but assuredly it is not entirely wholesome for the small, average human sinner. It sends one back, at all events, to the homely advice of brave old Sydney Smith to “ a friend suffering from low spirits : ” “ Avoid poetry, dramatic representations except comedy, music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything tending to excite emotion not ending in active benevolence.”

There is a fine antidote to all manner of morbidness in the brilliant pages of Kim. Mr. Kipling’s last work is, to my mind, his best, and not easily comparable with the work of any other man ; for it is of its own kind and of a novel kind, and fairly amazes one by the proof it affords of the author’s magnificent versatility. 舠 Not much of a story ” may perhaps be the verdict of the ruthless boy reader who revels in the Jungle Book and Captains Courageous, and derives an unholy gratification from Stalky & Co. Kim is, in fact and upon the surface, but an insignificant fragment of human history ; a bit out of the biography of a little vagabond of Irish parentage, orphaned when a baby, and left to shift for himself in infinite India. But the subtlety of the East and the 舠 faculty ” of the West are blended in this terrœ filius, this tricksy foundling of earth’s oldest earth. His adventures are many and enthralling. He joins himself, as scout and general provider, — incidentally, also, as chela, or disciple, — to a saintly old lama from Thibet, 舠 bound to the Wheel of Things,” and roaming India in search of the Stream of Immortality. The pious people of the country are permitted to 舠 acquire merit ” by feeding and lodging these two, between whom there grows up an odd but very beautiful affection. Kim is presently recognized upon his travels, reclaimed and adopted by the Irish regiment of which his father had been color sergeant, and given a genteel sufficiency of education in a Catholic college. He endures the thralldom of St. Xavier’s, however, only upon condition of being allowed still to tramp the continent in the long vacation with his beloved old Buddhist priest. Before he is done with school his remarkable fitness for employment in the secret Indian service of the English government is discovered by our old friend Colonel Creighton, and he is placed under the tuition of sundry wonderful native proficients to learn the first principles of the Great Game. The result is that he distinguishes himself, while yet a stripling, by capturing in the high Himalayas the credentials and dispatches of a formidable Russian spy, and — this is all. We have to part from Kim in the flush of his first victory, when the down is barely sprouted upon his shapely lip, and the women, one and all, who soften to his beauty, are summarily dismissed from his consciousness as those who 舠 eternally pester ” him ! We long to know more, but feel that it would be greedy to ask it; for, bald as this outline of a plot may seem, the little book, like the country where the scene of it passes, is infinite. It contains the whole of India, — incalculably rich, unspeakably poor: with its teeming cities, barbaric, uralt ; its forgotten temples crumbling to decay in the dusk of " caverns measureless to man ; ” its ravenous holy rivers and heart-breaking stretches of burning plain, and the overpowering grandeur of that mountain barrier upon the north, which dwarfs all the other highlands of the globe into practicable hills. It contains the human soul, also, of that Orient which we have all now become bound to study, — a cunning, piercing, elusive soul, patient and proud ; stayed in supernatural quiet on the sanctions of a secular faith. All this vast vision of things material and immaterial may be discerned between two thin book covers by those who read aright, as the crystal-gazer sees past and future events in the lucid globe he can hold in the hollow of his hand. Only in the one case, as in the other, — or so the faithful say, — the eye must have been anointed beforehand and the heart prepared. He who has been thus predestined will salute in Kim a work of positive genius, as radiant all over with intellectual light as the sky of a frosty night with stars ; the most truly spirituel production, in the proper sense of the term, of this or many seasons. He will find something upon every page which he desires to quote, but will stay his hand, as I do, by the reflection that illustration is wasted on those who cannot see. A word may be said, however, for the actual and very original pictorial illustrations in basso-relievo, which are by Mr. Kipling’s father, and for the brilliant captions which the fitful poetic Muse of the author has bidden him put to a few of his chapters, and of which both the wittiest and the naughtiest is the reactionary explosion of the Prodigal Son : —

“ Here I am, with my own again !
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And sib to flesh of my flesh !
The fatted calf has been dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I’m off to the sties afresh ! ”

It may seem a little tame to turn from such a feast as this to the autumn exhibit of home products in fiction, but we need no more to reanimate us than the announcement of a new book by Mr. Cable, bearing the suggestive title of The Cavalier.3 The regular machine - made novel of our time, whether dealing with contemporary or (supposed) ancestral manners, is often very admirable in its way, — learnedly designed, accurately studied, and sometimes beautifully finished. But the stories of Mr. Cable are of a different order, — not made, but born. They are living organisms, which take on the image of their creator as they grow. We have had but one supreme master of imaginative romance among us, as yet; but I know of no one fitter to stand — quocumque intervallo — in the place next Hawthorne’s than the author of Posson Jone’ and The Grandissimes. The latter is indeed one of the very few American stories which can be read more than once or twice, and seem fuller and finer at each reperusal. The obscurities of the narrative become clear, the crowding characters fall into natural and noble groups ; the various Creole dialects, which give the page, at first sight, so discouraging an aspect, become things of pure delight when we realize with what marvelous ingenuity the oddest vocables have been employed to express a singularly dulcet and caressing variety of human speech ; finally, the incomparable climax of the main love story — “ Mock me no more, Aurore Nancanou ! ” — lingers upon the ear as one of the most deliciously combined and entirely satisfactory of concluding chords.

That the new novel is quite equal to The Grandissimes one cannot pretend ; but it has more of the witchery of that favorite story than anything which Mr. Cable has written for a long time. There is a fire, a dash, and a general exaltation of feeling about these memoirs of the Southern Confederacy in its brief hour of highest hope which continually suggest youth in the annalist, and incline one to fancy that the book may have been written some time ago, and wisely, if not compulsorily, withheld from publication while the passions born of civil strife were still running high. Yet the tale is not flagrantly partisan. The types upon either hand are rather highly idealized, — the superb Yankee captain hardly less than the patrician stripling, Master Richard Thorndyke Smith, who is the titular hero of the book, and the all-daring, all-beguiling Confederate spy, who is its chief heroine. An acid critic might describe The Cavalier as a “jingo” book, in that it extols, without distinction of caste or cause, the fine old military virtues, — pluck, resource, gayety in hardship and pain, simple and unquestioning self-surrender. No doubt the writer’s inveterate faults are here in plenty. His plot is excessively intricate, his narrative hurried and elliptical; he has a tendency to weaken by oversentimentalizing the sadder scenes of his drama. Nevertheless, The Cavalier is good reading for a dull, materialistic day. It quickens the slack pulses like an episode out of Froissart, or the nerve-twanging notes of one “ singing of death, and of honor that cannot die.” It makes its gallant appeal, moreover, to a reconciled and united nation, with a common tradition of chivalrous deeds; and whenever the tale may have been written, it appears fitly now, when the heart of the whole country is melted by a common sorrow ; when, too, so much has been reclaimed by the vanquished, and restored by the victors, of what was thought, for a time, to have been lost and won in the great fight of forty years ago.

The moment seems opportune, also, for inviting the suffrages of a new generation on the truly remarkable, though never very widely read novels of Mrs. Elizabeth Stoddard.4 How much favor they will find with readers who have been fed fat upon a stodgy realism remains to be seen ; but there can be no question whatever that those three strange and powerful books, The Morgesons, Temple House, and Two Men, have an historic as well as an intrinsic value. In this case, the art of the author was obviously and confessedly learned at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s feet; and, in her degree, she apprehended the more morbid and mysterious aspects of the grave New England world before the war flood, exactly as did the author of The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance. Mrs. Stoddard’s first work was contemporary with Hawthorne’s last, and she quotes with a thrill of natural pride, in the very interesting preface to this new edition, his opinion, written to herself, of The Morgesons, the only one of the three novels which he lived to read: “ It seemed to me as genuine and lifelike as anything that pen and ink can do.” “ Genuine ” and “lifelike” may strike the Philistine critic as terms almost ludicrously inapplicable to these high-wrought and rather lurid sketches; but given the transcendental point of view, “ the consecration and the poet’s dream,” and they are all right. The same sort of concession must be made to the Brontë sisters and their work; to Villette, the most mature and temperate, as well as to Wuthering Heights, the maddest and the greatest production that came out of Haworth parsonage. It seems to me that Mrs. Stoddard’s books, along with Hawthorne’s own masterpieces, Judd’s Margaret and Richard Edney, and it may be some few others, of which the names are already forgotten, should properly be regarded as constituting the outcome in fiction of the grand revolt against Calvinism, and the so - called philosophic revival in Concord. I believe that Mr. Barrett Wendell, in his Literary History of America, propounds a similar view, and that he even dignifies the strictly local movement in question with the high-sounding name of a Renaissance. It took a strong head, certainly, to stand quite unshaken that large and sudden “ draught of intellectual day : ” wherefore, order, temperance, and probability are the last things to be looked for in the productions of the Concord school. But sincerity is in them, and a genuine if sombre poetry, an honest scorn of the more vulgar literary conventions, and a spirit of abounding tolerance, not to say deference, toward those blameless animal instincts and natural passions of our kind which had been too summarily and unmercifully repressed under the Puritan régime. There is also a deep - seated loyalty to the soil, and all its quaint, indigenous types, and a love, not far short of passion, for the bleak northern landscape, with its rare interludes, in either half season, of almost more than earthly beauty.

Of Mrs. Stoddard’s three books, The Morgesons, which Hawthorne admired, is at once the most affluent and the most faulty. The other two show a decided gain in constructive power ; and this is especially the case with Two Men, which is very strong in parts, and rounds, after a sufficiently erratic course, to a serene and satisfactory conclusion. One has no choice but to consider the trio collectively, for the books are all written in the same key, and composed, quite frankly, out of almost identical material. In each we have a decaying seaport, an old wooden mansion standing apart from the tangle of mean streets in a kind of sullen dignity, and the evolution within its colorless walls of a homely patrician legend, and a domestic life too exclusive and concentrated for true health, whether of mind or body. Marriage among such folk, of overaccentuated family traits and overstrained family affection, is ever a mine of tragedy; and it is one which Mrs. Stoddard knows how to work in a most impressive manner. These gnarled old family trees, dwarfed and distorted by inclement gales, do certainly bear blossoms of ethereal beauty sometimes, like Veronica Morgeson and Virginia Brande ; but occasionally, also, they produce monsters like Brande père, and oftener than either, especially where there has been much intermarriage, wistful, unhappy, and apparently soulless freaks, like Angus and Tempe. Whoever is familiar with the old coast towns of New England knows well that such beings exist, or, at least, that they once existed ; and equally faithful is the delineation in these books of that wonderful suite of cynical and shrewd-spoken dependents, who defiantly dogged the footsteps of the “ Squire ” and his offspring, — the Elsa Bowens, Mat Sutcliffes, and Temperance Tinkhams, — ready for the uttermost abandonment of self-denying service, and almost equally so to commit murder on whoever should dare call them servants. An awesome generation they were, indeed, — master and mistress, son and daughter, maid and man : sincere in their piety, and yet profoundly pagan ; virtuous as a rule, but occasionally surpassing in crime ; liable amid their habitual austerities to sudden earthquakes of elemental passion and fierce reactions of sensual desire. Their names may be read upon the leaning slabs — corroded by salt spray and streaked with yellow lichen — of many a wind-swept graveyard ; and the record of their more picturesque emportements would so ill befit the decorum of conventional history that we seek and find it gratefully in the untrammeled pages of the thoroughgoing romanticist. Very similar moral and social anomalies, it will be remembered, have been observed by Thomas Hardy among the rustic folk of immemorial Dorsetshire and portrayed with his own inimitable power. Mrs. Stoddard’s is a more primitive instrument than his, but she too plays upon her few strings with astonishing variety ; and it may be noted, as a mark of her strong dramatic instinct and confidence in the vitality of her own characters, that her conversations are usually thrown into the baldest dialogue form, and burdened with no descriptive adverbial clauses or clumsy mechanism of “ said he ” and “ she replied.” She does not always resist the temptation of making her people talk too cleverly, but one seldom doubts who is speaking. Her descriptive passages are rare, but curiously faithful, and often very striking, like this : —

“ As for him, there was something in the atmosphere that made his spirits rise ; something more with every mile that made them equable, fair, and full. The vast white clouds that moved in the

blue sky, and let fall darting shadows over the still and solitary landscape ; the mild sea wind rustling the faded corn leaves on their dry stalks ; the grasshoppers singing their last songs in the warm turf; the purple and yellow flowers and red grasses in the ditch; the low, level fields dipping to the shore, beyond which he caught glimpses of the sea; the tranquil twilight of an old pine wood whose needles filled up the sandy ruts, whose tops of vital green covered a gray, skeleton army of trunks; the maples whose leaves are the couriers of the frost; the flickering birches dropping pale yellow leaves; the tri-edged shining grass of the salt marshes ; the whir of the brown birds ; the amber - colored brooks with their borders of cool sand, — one and all belonged to the pleasant condition of his mind.”

  1. The Right of Way. By GILBERT PARKER. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1901.
  2. Kim. By RUDYARD KIPLING. New York : Doubleday & Page. 1901.
  3. The Cavalier. By G. W. CABLE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1901.
  4. The Morgesons. Two Men. Temple House. By ELIZABETH STODDARD. New Uniform Edition. Philadelphia : H. W. Coates & Co. 1901.