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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 7 (September 1897):  14.

Old Books and New.

"The Seine divides old Paris still, And half is your's and half is mine; And, whip in hand, at every inn Spurred chevaliers still quaff their wine. "The old chateaux are built again, And beauties grace that revelry, Brought radiant from the under-world To shine to-night for you and me. "And gallants gay with powdered hair Press stately women in the dance, And all those hearts shall beat again; Those sad, mad, glad hearts of old France!" —Inscription on the fly-leaf of an old romance.

As I have said before, I like the books of action; books of the times when men did things instead of thinking so everlastingly many things. It seems to me that life must have been worth living indeed in those days when conduct was less complex, and when the whole duty of man scarcely went beyond the Persian's idea of education, "to ride, to draw the bow and to speak the truth." Last year, just about this time, perhaps a little earlier, there appeared a novel of adventure which was destined to be one of the leading books of the year, "The Seats of the Mighty: A Romance of Old Quebec." The author was Mr. Gilbert Parker, already famuous for his vivid stories of old Canadian life. I once heard Mr. Seth Low, President of Columbia College, say that Canada had no literature because it had no national life; that it was like a plant whose roots drew their nourishment from the other side of the Atlantic, and they lost most of it under the sea. Until very recently this has been true. But there is a generation of young men who are making the most of Canada's literary possibilities.

*   *   *

Any story of the capture of Quebec must be of interest to Americans, and Mr. Parker has told his story well. Captain Robert Moray, an English prisoner, is held in Quebec by Monsieur Doltaire, a French diplomat, who wishes to force from him some letters for Madame Pompadour. The letters are very important to Madame, as they will effect her standing with the King, and she will spare no pains to get them. Captain Moray considers himself in honor bound to conceal the documents and is imprisoned in the Citadel. During his confinement at the house of M. Duvarney in Quebec, he has won the heart of Alixe Duvarney, the Seigneur's daughter, who several times visits him in prison and more than once saved his life. After several years of captivity Moray breaks jail, escapes on a raft down the St. Lawrence and joins General Wolfe's forces. He assists in the siege of Quebec and it is through his superior knowledge of the river and fortifications that Wolfe at last enters the city. Such is the cold outline of the plot. But as with all really good stories, the plot is a secondary matter. And especially in these historical romances the incidental touches are of prime importance: the ring of the swords in a duel, the shimmer of the wine glasses in the light of the tapers at a banquet, the flutter of the lace on some fair lady's breast. Those are the things that give the story reality, as the costumes do to a historical play.

*   *   *

There is one scene in the book which I should like to mention—the most brilliant of them all, I think—and that is the one in which Alixe Duvarney dances before the Intendant to save her lover's life. It was this way: The Intendant was to have a great feast in his palace, and when the mirth was at its height Captain Moray was to be brought in and set to fight for his life with a common criminal for the amusement of the guests. Alixe Duvarney heard nothing of this until the evening on which it was to take place. She instantly dispatched a messenger for General Montcalm, knowing that when he arrived he would allow no such barbarism. The problem was to save Moray until the General should arrive. Now there was then in Quebec one Madame Jamond, the most famous dancer of Paris, who had been exiled because she had displeased the King—or one of those who ruled the King. She had refused all invitations and entreaties to dance in Quebec, and the public curiosity concerning her was great. Alixe had taken lessons of her and had become her fast friend. If only she could pursuade Jamond to dance for the Intendant and his guests and divert them until Montcalmn should come! She hurried to the dancer's house, but Jamond had sprained her hip and could not have danced to save her own lover. "I sank on the floor beside her, sick and dazed. She put her hand pitifully under my chin and lifted up my head. Looking into her eyes I read a thought there, and I got to my feet with a spring. 'I myself will go,' said I; 'I will dance there till the General comes.'" So Alixe Duvarney arrayed herself in the gorgeous dress which Jamond had worn when she last danced before the King of France, and put on a mask and wig and went to the Intendant's palace. She entered the Chamber of Joy where the Intendant and his guests were revelling and danced—danced until she forgot what weariness was and "came to her second wind" as runners do, danced on and on and on, for a man's life and her own happiness.

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Decidedly the most interesting character in the book is the graceful and accomplished villian, Monsieur Doltaire. Has it ever occurred to you what farces most historical romances would be without these smiling villains? The heroes are usually so good and so stupid that their adventures would make dull reading unless relieved by the sprightly pranks of the villains. Poor M. Doltaire, son of a king and a peasant, made up of those warring elements which two generations later rent France asunder; who had so much and yet lacked all; so skilled in love, only to love what he could not have; so gay a figure at court, only to perish miserably in a foreign land; peace be with him!

*   *   *

I am reading with great relish Mr. Benson's story of the Grecian-Turkish war, "The Vintage," now running in "Harper's Weekly." It has made the barbarism of the Turks more vivid to me than have all the wails of the missionaries and the Red Cross devotees. I think the picture Mr. Benson draws of modern Greek life must be a good one. And it's not so different from the ancient Greek life either, save that the strength and glory of it is gone.

"A Tale of Two Cities" stands out in fiction as a thing quite by itself, and it holds quite as unique a place among Dickens' books as it does in generaI literature. Some people say that it is not Dickens at all; that is, that the theme was not in his province, that it is not told in his manner, that he was trespassing upon ground where he had no right to be. Certainly the book must have surprised the author's friends and admirers when it first appeared. They must have missed the warm domestic atmosphere in which Dickens became most genial and out of which he was never truly himself; missed, too, those friendly chats about everything in general with which he fills whole pages of "Bleak House" and "Copperfield." Most of all, they must have missed the quaint characters that Dickens loved to pick up from the countryside or from the streets of London, the innumerable minor characters with which he brightened and sometimes encumbered the pages of his novels. Here was a story different in tone from all the rest; shorter, more terse, dealing with larger incidents, with more impassioned people. A story that did not stop to chat pleasantly by the wayside, but hurried toward its awful end, vibrant with the awesome note of tragedy. It is one of the few of Dickens' novels that this busy generation has time to read. It runs quickly, as though the author wrote rapidly from his own emotion.

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I suppose everyone who reads "A Tale of Two Cities" reads it chiefly for the sake of one character, Sidney Carton. No man holds a more honored place in the world's great gallery of failures. And every one who has read the book has wondered in turn just why Carton made so little of his life. He was indolent, indeed, but that was not all the trouble. He drank, but that was not half the trouble. He could work well enough for other men, he was a staunch friend to other men. Indeed, he was the friend of every man but Sidney Carton. He tells himself how, when he was a boy at school, he was always doing everyone's lessons but his own. I remember seeing once, when I was a child, a picture of Hamlet which I thought looked as Carton must have looked. It would almost seem that his apparent purposelessness was only a conservation of energy for that last crisis; as though the energy and resolution which most men expend in their living he saved, unconsciously, for his dying. He was not much of a hand at living, but he could die well enough. His firmness of purpose, his swiftness and boldness of execution in rescuing Charles Darnay were quite achievement enough for one lifetime. And how like Carton it was to comfort and help the poor timid little seamstress when they were both on their way to the Guillotine! There must have been many strange words of comfort spoken and many a strange friendship formed in that cart as it rattled from the prison to the place of execution. Death would be a bit easier for any of us with such a man as Carton by. And after the little seamstress had gone up the steps to meet the knife, then Sidney Carton went up slowly, almost gladly, to the most worthy action of his life. "They said of him, about the city that night, that his was the peacefullest man's face ever beheld there." After life's fitful fever, had come the peace which passeth understanding. Of all Dickens' great characters, next to Copperfield I like Carton best. Like him because he cared for himself so little and for others so much. In judging just such characters God will show how much kinder and wiser he is than man.