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? — -V ? — JESS. By H. Eider Haggard. London : Smith, Elder, and Co. 1887. Tub writer of this tragic story is familiar to most of our readers as the author of ' King Solomon's Mines ' and other excellent and interesting
lomances Dy which he has achieved his present deservedly high reputation. As a porfcrayer of African life, the author ha3 already received the commendation of Andrew Lang in a dedicatory tributo wherein the latter writes, ' Of all the modern heroes of romance, the dearest to me is your faithful Zulu, and I own I cried when he bade farewell to his English master in the Witch's Head.' The scene of this tragedy is laid in the Wakker stroom district of the Transvaal in Africa, and the plot was being unravelled during the period of the struggles for mastery between the British and the Boers which eventuated in Eorke's Drift and Majuba Hill. The author displays the familiarity of a resident with the geography of the country, and is thoroughly conversant with the customs and manners of the inhabitants. 1'he narrative is vigorously written, though weakened by the too frequent introduction of thrilling incidents, hairbreadth escapes, plots and murders. We are, however, extricated from the mazes of speculation and allegory m which the reader of « She' finds himself involved ; but if we are not bewildered by unrealities, neither are we
charmed by the flow of the choice diction and tho majesty of the periods which mark tho journey through the visionary realms of Kor. Charles Lamb was of opinion that ' books of quick interest, that hurry on for incidents, arc for the eye to glide over only.' Jess belongs to this class. Its essence is in its plot, aud when the denouement is disclosed all interest ceases ; a reperusal would render it vapid. Such a brief summary a3 we purpose to give will not bo unfair to the reader. Silas Croft, an Eng lishman, on attaining his twentieth year wa3 pre sented by his father, whose resources were scanty, with thirty sovereigns and a passage to the Cape of Good Hope, whither he sailed. He wandered about Africa prospecting, and finally crossed the Vaal and established himself at Mooifontoin, where he be came the owner of 6000 acres by paying ,£10 down and a bottle of gin, reminding us of the land transactions in the early history of New South 'Wales. Some twenty years after Silas's de parture, his venerable parent contracted a second marriage, and in due time a half-brother arrived to Silas. This younger brother married, and sadly neglected hi3 wife, who, to protect her two daughters from ill-treatment conceived the des perate project of escaping- to Natal, aud throwing herself on the protection of Silas. The hardships of tho voyage proved too much for her, and the orphans under the guidance of some Boers found their way to Mooifontein. Croft's neighbours were all Boers with the ex ception of Frank Muller. He was of mixed parentage. His Dutch extraction and vast estates secured him gireat influence with tho Boers. To his English mother he owed his brains, and as ho was utterly destitute of principle, his criminal intellect was occupied in plots and murders. He denied the existence of a Creator, and recog nized no law but that -which his own savage nature suggested. Twenty-five years after Silas had settled in his African home, an officer of the English army arrived at Mooifontein. Captain John Niel, after some years of a soldiering career, found his income too scanty to maintain him in the army. He heard o£ Croft's desire to dispose of an interest in the farm, and set out thither with a view to purchase. By this time the orphan outcasts had developed into the heroines of the romance ; the younger, Bessie, a handsome, vivacious, but superficial maiden of 20; the elder, the godmother of tho book. Three years marked the disparity of their ages, but there was a strong dissimilarity in their appearances and dispositions. As Bessie ex pressed it to Niel, ' You see in this establish ment I represent labour, and Jess represents intellect. There is a mistake somewhere. She got all the brains.' Jess was a small, thin, pale-visaged young woman with beautiful dark eyes whose penetrating glances revealed a will and an intellect of raro power. Impassive and unemotional she usually appeared, but when moved she displayed a courage and a zeal to effect her purpose which repeated failures could not subdue, and which the attainment o*' the object proposed could alono moderate. It will not be a matter of surprise that the soldier was soon vanquished by the charms of the younger sister. Jess was much attracted towards Niel, and was about to harbour the tender passion when the revelation of her sister's attachment impelled her to the opposite course. She left home to make an absolute sacrifice of herself to secure Bessie's happiness. The Boer war then broke out, and we are told how Muller, the rejected suitor of the younger sister and the declared enemy of Mel and the Crofts, sought to revenge himself upon them. The chapters entitled the ' Drift of the Vaal' and the cc Shadow of Death' arc painfully sen sational. From Wilkie Collins such trick3 might be expected. A master of romance, we thought, would have disdained such artifices. From one proved capable of such self-abnegation as that displayed by the heroine it would not be extravagant to demand consistence. Had she been guided by a sense of honour she would never have made those disclosures which a presenti ment of impending death, in her opinion, justi fied. Her judgment was warpod and wrung from an honest purpose ; her life wa3 a series of mis fortunes, of lofty aims, and heroic purposes alter nating with dishonourable results. She was tortured by mental agony and physical sufferings ; goaded by revenge until passion made her in human ; and she died with the brand of an assassin on her brow. Perhaps the author seeks to ex tenuate the murder by the exigencies of the case . Judith was not a self-appointed avenger. The only justification for a book of such an unhealthy complexion as ' Jess ' may be found in the fol lowing quotation from Euskin : — ' There is some excuse, indeed, for tho patho logic labour of the modern novelist in the fact that he cannot easily in a city population find a healthy mind to vivisect ; but the greater part of such amateur surgery is tho struggle, in an epoch of wild literary competition to obtain novelty of material. The varieties of aspect and colour in healthy fruit, be it sweet or sour, may be within certain limits described ex haustively. Not so the blotches of its conceivablo blight ; and while tho symmetries of integral human character can only bo traced by har monious aud tender skill, liko the branches of a living tree, the faults and gaps of one gnawed away by corroding accident can bo shuffled into senseless change like the wards of a Chubb lock.'