The Man Who Did the Right Thing

by Sir Harry Johnston. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1921. 12mo, viii + 444 pp. $2.50.
FROM 1880, when Sir Harry Johnston dropped his pencil and brushes at the Royal Academy, London, to travel in North Africa, he has been known as an undaunted explorer of tropical regions, and a patient, high-minded, far-sighted worker at the rather thankless British task of making black savages into useful citizens of the Empire. He was Acting Consul, Vice-Consul, Consul-General, Special Commissioner for one African region and another. Finally, when he was about sixty, being no doubt well-worn by toil and climate, he returned to England and addressed himself to the art of fiction. The GayDomheys, Mrs. Warren’s Daughter, and The Man Who Did the Right Thing comprise his product so far. With him, as with William DeMorgan, fiction-writing is taken up after a lifetime given to other activities. But no one need on that account expect to find his work that of the lean and slippered pantaloon. This last novel has action enough in it to supply Mr. Galsworthy or Mr. Marshall with material for a score of volumes.
The heroine, daughter of an English farmer, is betrothed when the story opens to John Baines, son of a maker of temperance drinks, and himself a Dissenting preacher, just about to set forth as a missionary to Africa. The author does not mince words regarding the ignorance and bigotry of the ‘Chapel Connection’ by which the missionary enterprise is conducted. Indeed, the whole book will not commend itself to those who think that all missionaries, by virtue of their office, deal wisely and effectively with the problem of making savages into Christians. Yet the real hero of the novel writes home from Africa, ‘I mostly like the missionaries I meet out here. Even if our religious beliefs do not tally, I do admire their selfsacrifice, their energy and devotion.’
When the pretty, frail, untraveled, middleclass Lucy joins her lover in Africa, her troubles begin, and are as inescapable as the mosquitoes, fleas, rats, and cockroaches of her new environment. To make a bad matter worse, she has crossed the ocean on the same ship with Captain Roger Brent ham, and his vigorous personality has dimmed the rather pale affection she felt for her missionary lover — an affection chiefly a reflection of her desire to see ‘foreign parts,’and to make friends with ‘beautifully spotted leopards, lions roaring at night, hippopotamuses in the rivers, and antelopes on the plains.’ The contrast between this romantic dream and the awful realities of Africa is set forth by Sir Harry with thrilling vividness. Anyone who longs for African travel may well read these blazing pages.
John and Lucy, however, are married and settled in Africa, but matters are scarcely beginning to promise success for their enterprise when a raid is made by an enemy tribe, and John Baines meets a martyr’s death. Roger Brentham, now consul of the region, rescues some of the women and bears Lucy to safety and eventually marries her. Meanwhile there is a skillful development of the relations between the German and the British colonies in Africa, and an interesting discovery of great mineral wealth in a place called ‘The Happy Valley.’ Rivalry for possession of these resources begins, between British and Germans, and by way of a surprise and a delightful diversion, who shall appear as the villain of the plot but our old friend of George Meredith’s Egoist — Sir Willoughby Patterne! Egotism is the dry-rot of character, and it is perfectly natural that Sir Willoughby should have become as cruel as death, as grasping as Shvlock, and as black-hearted as any German conspirator. Presently the reader begins to glimpse the approach of war — seen through the East African situation. This is depicted with skill and justice. Sir Willoughby Patterne, after a long list of deceits and brutalities, thinks to find his opportunity for vast looting with the outbreak of the war; but Roger Brentham appears in the nick of time to put the scoundrel to flight, in which, as Sir Harry assures us ‘he perished miserably, as they used to write in pre-Wells histories.’
The Man Who Did the Right Thing has the double value of being a wholesome and edifying love-story, well wrought and convincing, and a thrilling tale of adventure in a strange land, the writer whereof is a past master in the lore of that land—its flora, fauna, history, religions, racial characteristics, — its past, present, and future. It is the book of a capital novelist, and it is the book of a born colonist — a record, from one who knows, of the highest task of the typical Englishman.