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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 6 (July 1897):  14.

Old Books and New.

"Thou true land-lord, sea-lord, air-lord! Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever night and day melt in twilight, wherever the blue heavens are hung by clouds or sown with stars, wherever are forms and transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger and awe and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldst walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find one condition inopportune or ignoble." —Emerson, on The Poet.

That passage from Emerson sets forth not only the highest dignity of the makers of books, but also of the readers of them. I have always found that the men who are most broad and liberal in their judgment of their fellow-men, who are most sincerely optimistic and who persistently get the best out of life, are men who read. They indeed are not able to find in all the world "one condition inopportune or ignoble," nor one from which, some day, good will not come.

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This is the season of paper-backs, and every one is wanting to know what books to take out of town with them on their summer vacation. I would humbly suggest a few. Why not try Howell's "A Hazzard of New Fortunes" if you have not read it? It is one of his best. And then there is his "April Hopes" which reads particularly well in the summer time. Then there is that volume of Grace King's charming "Balcony Stories" in which the old South seems to live again. And if you have never happened upon Barrie's "Little Minister" now is a good time to take it in hand. Myself, I really prefer it to the "Bonnie Briar Bush" stories, and I certainly very much prefer it to Mr. Watson's later work, "Kate Carnegie," etc. Mr. Watson is writing too much and too rapidly, and he is degenerating at an alarming rate. Even gentlemen of the cloth are not exempt, it seems, from the dangers of sudden popularity and the temptation of money. If the "Bonnie Briar Bush" stories had not set the world afire, their author would have gone on writing slowly and solidly, only producing when the creative impulse was strongly upon him, and he might have done many things as admirable as his first work. But we persist in spoiling all our great men and they, alas! are so willing to be spoiled. If you care for books of the "Scottish school" Barrie's "Little Minister" will not disappoint you. By the way, why are all Scotch stories about ministers? Is the entire population of Scotland made up of clergymen?

*   *   *

Clark Russell's sea yarns are good books for a hot afternoon; "The Emigrant Ship" and "An Ocean Tragedy," etc. Then there is Charles Read's "Hard Cash," and "Foul Play," and "Put Yourself in His Place." I am still simple minded enough to enjoy Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White." On the whole Marion Crawford is the most satisfactory of all authors when the mercury is up in the 90's, and he has written enough to keep a whole boarding house full of novel-devouring ladies busy all summer. Let's see, there is "Mr. Isaacs," and "Dr. Claudius" and "Saracinesca" and "Sant' Ilario," and best of them all "Casa Braccio."

I would like to urge every one who has not done so, to read Hall Caine's novel, "The Bondman." Of course "The Manxman" was very largely read, but you seldom hear "The Bondman" spoken of, and yet it is in many respects quite as fine a book, and most people find it even more interesting. It can be had in paper for almost no price at all. The sub-title, "A Modern Saga," is the keynote of the story. Caine deals in the mysterious, the improbable and the darkly tragical, and Iceland is the proper background for him. It is a country beyond the end of the world; dark and remote, where the impossible is possible. The story of "The Bondman" is tragic and intense, from the first page to the last. The daughter of the governor of Iceland marries Stephen Orry, a handsome ruffian of a giant whom she saw displaying wonderful prowess in a wrestling match. Her father disinherits her and drives her from his house. She lives with Stephen in a hut down among the docks. He was idle and drunken, and at last, one night, beat her and ran away to sea. After he was gone his son was born and the mother christened him Jason, and that is the first we hear of Red Jason. He grew up strong and handsome, like his father, and, like him, wild and reckless, caring for nothing but hunting and swimming, and climbing about the barren cliffs of Iceland, his passionate devotion to his mother being his only redeeming trait. On her deathbed his mother sent him to find his father and avenge her desertion.

*   *   *

In the meantime Stephen Orry has gone to the Isle of Man and married a woman who bitterly avenges his first wife. She drives him to every sort of degradation. In time she has a son, Michael Sunlocks, to whom she is as cruel and neglectful as she is to his father. Stephen loved the boy as even bad men sometimes love. He fed him from his own plate and wrapped him in his fisherman's coat and took him with him to his work, because he did not dare leave him at home. At last, by a merciful though violent providence, his wife died. Stephen knew that he was no fit man to teach a child how to live, and he wanted his son's life to be better than his own. The care of the boy had brought out all the good in the man. So he gave his boy to the governor of the island and went off, broken-hearted, to fight the world alone. So Michael Sunlocks grew up in the governor's house, with the governor's little daughter, Greeba. The governor learned to love him more than all his own sons, and Greeba learned to love him too, and all things came his way, for fortune was in a good humor when Sunlocks was born and her smile went with him. At last, when Michael was a man, his father came for him and sent him back to Iceland to find the woman he had deserted there and redress her wrong. At the same time Red Jason was coming to the island to slay his father. Their ships passed each other at sea. But the hand of God was upon Stephen Orry before the hand of Red Jason could touch him, and instead of killing him, Jason tried to save him. But Stephen Orry had much to answer for and he went to his account.

*   *   *

Red Jason stayed on the island. There was hunting and fishing there and it suited him well. And in the natural course of things he loved Greeba, the old governor's daughter, and asked her to marry him. Now the old governor's son, bitterly jealous of his fondness for Sunlocks, had driven him and Greeba out of house and home, and she was hard put to it and promised to marry Jason, though all the time her heart was in Iceland with Michael Sunlocks. The next day she got a letter from Sunlocks telling her that he had been appointed governor of Iceland and asking her to come to him. She told Jason the truth and went to Sunlocks, leaving Jason to curse the curse of Esau. In time Red Jason followed her, to take his vengeance upon the fortunate brother who had taken his sweetheart's love as he had his father's, who had all the bright side of life as he had the dark. In Iceland he made a threat against the governor's life and Greeba, in terror, had him arrested and sentenced to penal servitude in the mines.

*   *   *

A few weeks later there was a revolution in Iceland and Michael Sunlocks was deposed and sent to the mines. There, in the most God-forsaken region of all that God-forsaken land, in the mines, where no man had a name, but only a number, these two men first met, and in their misery became friends. Even there fate worked itself out, and Jason, out of pity, did the work of the weaker man, until the two were chained together as a punishment. The plot of the tale goes on through many changes and countless sufferings. Jason discovered that the man whom he has cherished and guarded and loved as a brother, is his brother, indeed; his rival, his enemy. But habit was too strong then; he loved him still. Red Jason was not practical or energetic; he did not make a good citizen; but he made a good hero. When the end comes and Sunlocks is sentenced to death, Jason sends his fortunate brother back to life and love and faces the guns of the officers himself. "He took their shots into his heart, the biggest heart for good or evil that ever beat in the breast of man. * * * Sir Sigfus dug his grave himself. It was a bed of solid lava, and in that pit of old fire they laid that young heart of flame. Fate had dogged him all his days, only in one place, only in one hour could he meet and beat it." So, like the heroes of the Sagas of olden time, Red Jason met and fulfilled his doom.

*   *   *

Any one must notice that this book is slightly similar to "The Manxman," not in plot, but in types of character. Red Jason is only a Pete of the higher latitudes, a Jean Valjean of Iceland. Like "The Manxman" it is a book of fate, that is Hall Caine's element. His characters have little to do with their own destiny, good or evil is thrust upon them and they stand like grim spectators and watch their lives play themselves out for better or for worse. He sees fate as the old Northman saw it, a power personal and relentless, pursuing alike men and gods. Iceland is the proper place for such a story. It seems more probable there than it would in the world of railroads and telegraph and commonplaceness. Fate is natural enough there among the endless nights and the wintry seas and the volcanoes whose rumbling reminds the world that under us all there is still nature, uncontrolled, unsubdued, inexplicable. We have largely eliminated the element of fate from our lives, or think we have, but among the descendants of Earling the Bold it is otherwise. There is something about the book that occasionally reminds one of Hugo. Perhaps it is the inevitable horror and suffering. Then Hall Caine's mind is a little like Hugo's in its exaggerated idealism. It is the Valjean type that appeals to him.