STRIFE AND REST.* THE author of Strife and Rest has
departed from the usual path of the sensation novelists. Instead of making his story turn on impossible incidents, harrowing scenes, or terrible catastrophes, he uses the feelings as his pivot, and by exaggerating them obtains the requisite supernatural machinery. As men's ex- perience of other men's feelings is more limited than their experience of life, his story seems of course more natural than the ordinary sensation tale, and he has, moreover, more art than the ordinary manufacturers of those stories. He neither rants nor lets his characters rant, keeps down the expression of the passion which is tearing them to pieces, and makes the most outre feeling appear possible because it utters itself like one which ordinary mortals know that they could feel. There is very great power in his book, a capacity for inventing absolutely original situations, a keen eye for character, a pen fluent to describe the ways and the dialogue, and the troubles of average human life. But the fatal taint of the school, the determination to mistake exaggeration for effect, distortion for evidence of power, is on him also, spoiling what might otherwise be a most admirable work.
Ernest Heathcote is a curate of the model High Church type, "a pale St. Francis," priestly and rigid, full of self-devotion and the pride of his order, of religious feeling and determination
* Strife and Rest. By the Author of "Agnes Home." London: Tinsley.
not if he can help it to be human, with a beautiful presence, and clothed habitually we doubt not, though the fact is not we think mentioned, in M.B. waistcoats cut with careful humility and attention to the fashion. One knows the type, and Ernest Heathcote considers himself a perfect specimen of its best genus. Naturally he is surrounded by feminine admirers, naturally also he picks out the fairest, Helen Ashley, and inspires her with a passionate love for his many excellencies and indubitably clerical bearing. At the moment, however, when a proposal ought to be forthcoming Helen's father loses his wealth, and Ernest, at heart a little afraid of poverty, reconsiders his position, doubts if a priest should marry, is convinced that he should not wed under circumstances which would make the cares of life impediments to his usefulness in his office. " Was it right to marry ? Could he be so useful in God's Church burdened with the cares of a wife without fortune and a family slenderly provided for P The family living would not, in all probability be his for twenty years to come. Meantime how was he to live ? His father was an expensive man, and beyond the £300 a year that he allowed his son could do nothing for him. High thoughts of the independence of the celibate priest—of his freedom from worldly care and worldly strife — came strong upon him. His greeting to Helen was colder and more distant." And so he drew back, and Helen fell almost sick unto death, and then tried to enter one of the Protestant sisterhoods. Her sister Laura, married to Mr. Gaysford, easy-going gentlemanly member of Parliament, saw it all, and her heart burned within her with the resolve to punish the false lover. Her plan was not to ruin him, or poison him, or set bravos on him, or calumniate him—any of those schemes would be too melodramatic and unlike the nineteenth century, but to carry out a much subtler vengeance, to compel the priest to abandon his lofty isolation, to make him avow thoughts to which priestly marriage were serene virtue, to bring him, in fact, to her own feet, and then spurn him and tell him of her plan. Her machinations to secure this end form the plot of the book, and it is exceedingly well worked out, each step in Ernest's downward course following naturally on its predecessor. The state of his mind as he steps on from one temptation to another, each separate one always centring somehow in Laura, is powerfully described. The instru- ment employed was the love of flattery, and especially of woman's flattery, which is strong in every man, and especially strong in all priests,—perhaps because of a secret consciousness that their work is epicene, out of which consciousness woman's adulation lifts them,—and he gradually succumbed. Laura's image filled his mind till he first became idle, tten disturbed, then wild for rest, each of these moods being expressed among other modes by a sermon, regular pulpit sermons, all of them singularly good as literary exercises, and singularly bad in any other aspect, and finally,-
" You shall listen,' he continued, passionately and quickly, as she again tried to speak. You shall listen to the words of a despairing, God-abandoned man. You have blighted the hopes I had once formed of usefulness in this life and of happiness in another. My life for years past has been a lie—the prayers I have said have been a mockery, and worse than a mockery—the bread I have broken I have broken to my condemnation—the wine I have blessed has been a curse to me. I who have preached to others have myself become a castaway. I cannot bear this never-ending strife. For nights past I have not slept, unless with opiates. Let me live out my life in the rest of forgetfulness—forgetful of all that once made life dear to me—of my sacred profession—of Him in whose, name it was once my privilege to preach—of prayers and sacraments—of all I have -done or tried to do for His sake. And as you have been the cause of this ruin I call on you to share it with me. He paused and shuddered as he made this frenzied request, and then continued recklessly, And surely you owe me this—surely you owe me something for having east away my soul ? What, except this, can you give me in exchange for it? I do not seek this as a favour—I demand it as a right. You have, with fatal accuracy, turned the current of my life—you have taken away from me the birthright of God's grace—you have dragged me from the fancied height on which I stood, and made me as one of the beasts that perish without a hope beyond the grave. What is left to me but to live out my life as best I can, and then—' again he paused—again he shuddered; but recovering himself by a desperate effort, he continued, Laura,—temptress, traitress, sorceress—you shall share this misery with me !' "
There comes out the plague-spot. The steps of the decline are natural each by each, but the whole is as unnatural as that sensation speech. Sisters feel for each other, and one sometimes perhaps hates him who jilts the other ; but Laura is an ordinary clever woman of the world, who loves her husband a little and her position a great deal, who is almost prudish in ideas and ways, and so sensible that she makes
the subjoined capital speech. Helen has buried herself for a time in Miss Sellon's establishment, but escaped from it, and
gives her sister a vivid description of the life led in a retreat,—of the starvation, and the penances, and the crushing down of the will to the authority of the Lady Superior. She has only been there a month, yet her dreams are of good food, and when her brother-in-law calls her a woman she glances shyly at the glass to see if there is already visible reascn for not calling her a girl, one of the subtly sarcastic touches of which Strife and Rest is full.
" My poor love,' replied Laura, kissing her tenderly while the in- dignant tears welled up into her eyes, don't talk so ; you shall live with me, and be as happy as the. day is long. And now go and take off that odious gown, and ask Chase to give you one of my nice silk dresses and a crinoline. I dare say you've had no comforts situ* you went to that horrid place. Go into my bedroom and get all you want.
Come, I'll go with you—come." . . . . ... . . • .
" What's the time ?—an hour to lunch yet!' and the impetuous woman rang the bell, and, ordering some jelly to be made hot, put a glass of sherry into it and made her sister drink it. Poo• Roily !-- after her boiled rice and vegetable diet this pleasant beverage brought the colour into her cheeks and brightness to her oyes, and as Laura looked at her again she said, You shall be a countess yet !' "
Yet the-woman who cures visions of a nunnery with crinoline and sherry also frames a plan of vengeance which risks her repu- tation and her soul, and nearly destroys a man she all the while esteems,—for what ? To prove to a young clergyman that he ought to be carefulbefore he lets a girl believe he is in love with her. Would any average woman, and Laura is carefully described as an average woman, have the persistency for anything of the kind, would any woman have it? Hate is not we dare say dead ; but multifarious occupation and the many-coloured distractions of the London life of to-day are very fatal to hate of this concentrated kind, and it is this life Laura lives. Her hatred is unnatural, and as it is the motive power of the book all the effect of its cleverness, of many natural scenes, and of some most vigorous description—witness some yachting scenes—is marred or spoiled. The same exaggeration pervades the finale. Ernest repents, marries Helen, and sinks not into the ordinary active rector with a strong belief but no strong enthusiasms, as such a man would have been sure to do, but into a man of this kind. Ho prepares for a mighty dinner party :-
" Mr. Heathcote, instead of sitting quietly in the library out of the way, was everlastingly in and out, fidgeting about, meddling and inter- fering with the most trifling matters of domestic arrangement, and putting his wife and everybody in the house, himself included, out of temper."
The venison was high,—the first incision was too much :-
" Mrs. Gaysford gathered up her handkerchief, gloves, fan, and double smelling-bottle, and swept out of the room. Mr. Heathcote could scarcely stifle his vexation. The uniformity of his table was ruined, and his prettiest and most attractive guest was gone. His rage in- creased tenfoldwhen poor little Mrs. Pook, his curate's bride of six months' standing, who was sitting on his left, turned very white and said she was afraid she must go too—and go she did. The other ladies sat it out, but looked very uncomfortable. Altogether it was a complete failure. Dick gobbled down two great helps, and so did Lord Mandeville, but they both joined in abusing their host for not having dressed it earlier. And this was the end of the great venison feast that had occupied the thoughts of the Rector of Encombe for days and days."
Ernest Heathcote might by possibility have sunk into an elegant voluptuary, never into a vulgar fidget as anxious about the show of his dinner as any nouveau riche. There is exaggera- tion over the whole picture, the exaggeration which in the regular sensation novel gives us bigamy or murder, suicide or child-stealing, in every fresh volume.
For the rest Strife and Rest is good, full of little pleasant episodes,—such as the love of a wealthy baronet's son for the daughter of the secretary to a City company, a story excellently told, of vivid sketches,—there is one of a Bishop, a " modern fisherman" which Disraeli might not disdain,—of severe little
political paragraphs, which to all except their victims are very pleasant reading. It would be hard to find a writer who could give us a pleasanter novel, and it is with no critical pleasure in
carping, but a strong sense of disappointment, that we pronounce this one unpleasant because unnatural.