FEW people of ordinary intelligence, we are disposed to think, would be inclined to dispute that Mr. Macdonald has had bestowed -upon him that divines afflatus which for lack of a better word we call " genius ; " and though genius undoubtedly has its prerogatives, we can only regret that Mr. Macdonald's recent works should compel us to suggest that it has its responsibilities also. There are undoubtedly in the world evil and unclean beings, steeped in and saturated with iniquity like Mrs. Catanach, whose mouth is emphatically an "open sepulchre," but it is scarcely consistent with Mr. Macdonald's position as the avowed apostle of whatsoever is pure, lovely, and of good report, to lead his unwary disciples to the very edge of .an open sewer. Again, unlawful passion, unhappily, is by no means outside the pale of high art, but the idea running like a thin thread through this otherwise remarkable and admirable story, of something which we can only express by the paradoxical phrase of innocent guilt, namely, the passionate love of a man for a woman who is, though he does not know it, his own sister, is, we con- ceive, as injurious as it is unpleasant ; and we may suggest, that that unpleasantness and injuriousness will in no way be mitigated if, as we think possible, the sequel which has yet to be pub- lished should prove that the Lady Florimel was no relation after all. Mr. Macdonald's influence is so wide, especially with the young, and has been exercised so nobly, that we are compelled to make what, had we judged his work simply as a novel, might seem a severe criticism ; but it is with a sense of relief we turn to • Malcolm. By George Macdonald. London: Henry S. King and Co. 1875.
the pleasanter portion of our task, and make a brief analysis of the story before us,—a story which, with the exception of the two blots we have pointed out, is certainly one of the best we have yet had from Mr. Macdonald's pen.
The principal scenes are laid in the little sea-port town of Portlossie, a fishing village rather than a town, composed of "as irregular a gathering of small cottages as could be, found on the surface of the globe ; they faced every way, turned their backs and gables every way ; only of the roofs could you predict the position." Not far from this lowly fisher town stands the House of Lossie, with its wide acres and old legends. We are first introduced to a Miss Horn, a woman with a tender nature hidden under a hard exterior. "Na, we hear her saying, "I hae nae feelins, I'm thankfu' to say. I never kent ony guid come o' them. They're a terrible sicht the gait ; " but she defends her weakness in not pasting with a servant who had grievously wronged her by the remark, "I think it maun be that, haein' na feeling o' my am, I hae ower muckle regaird to ither fowk's, an' sae I never likit to pit her awa wi'oot doonricht provocation." Next, in strong contrast with this hard- featured but much-enduring woman we have the Lady Florimel, with her young, buoyant nature brimful of fun and mischief, very faulty, but very charming. The following little passage of arms between her and her father may serve to indicate her slightly, though the reader must remember the story is not of to-day, but of fifty years ago :— " ' Wasn't it spirited—in such poor people too ?' said Lady Florimel, the colour rising in her face, and her eyes sparkling.—' It was damned impudent,' said the marquis.—' I think it was damned dignified,' said Lady Florimel.—The marquis stared. The visitors, after a momentary silence, burst into a great laugh.—' I wanted to see,' said Lady Florimel calmly, whether I couldn't swear if I tried. I don't think it tastes nice. I shan't take to it, I think.'—' You'd better not in my presence, my lady,' said the marquis, his eyes sparkling with fun.—'I shall cer- tainly not do it out of your presence, my lord,' she returned. 'Now I think of it,' she went on, 'I know what I will do : every time you say a bad word in my presence, I shall say it after you. I shan't mind who's there—parson or magistrate. Now you'll see."
It would be far more difficult to describe Malcolm, the young Highlander, with his pride and independence, his keen sense of humour and perfect frankness, with instincts that compensate for the absence of all the world calls "cultivation," for his life is so com- pletely mingled with every page of the book, that it is impossible by any single incident to do justice to his individuality. His grand- father, the old blind piper, is just the last representative of a state of things fast passing away, the old man who, with his pipes, for many a long year had awakened the inhabitants of Portlossie at sunrise, and warned them with the same pipes at nine in the even- ing that it was time to extinguish fires and lights, and who prides himself on being really piper to the Marquis of Lossie, though the post has been a veritable sinecure, since the laird was mostly absent, and when at Lossie House could ill have borne to hear the savage sounds which only distance and imagination can render sweet to civilised ears. Once only the old man is summoned to take the ancient place in the old banqueting-hall, and then it is in order that he may be played a trick, which we have Mr. Mac- donald's authority for saying "elder readers, from their knowledge of similar actions, will readily believe." We can only say in such cases the present generation has something to be thankful for. The old man's passion for his bag-pipes was known and respected by every child in Portlossie:—
"Duncan would, I fancy, even unprotected by his blindness, have strode unabashed into the very halls of heaven. As he entered there was a hush, for his poverty-stricken age and dignity told for one brief moment ; then the buzz and laughter recommenced, an occasional oath emphasizing itself in the confused noise of the talk, the gurgle of wine, the ring of glass, and the chink of china."
At a fancied signal, old Duncan McPhail begins to play, but is abruptly stopped till the ladies rise and leave the room, when he recommences : —
"While the old man was piping as bravely as his lingering mortifica- tion would permit, the marquis interrupted his music to make him drink a largo glass of sherry ; after which he requested him to play his loudest, that the gentlemen might hear what his pipes could do. At the same time he sent Malcolm with a message to the butler about some particular wine he wanted. Malcolm went more than willingly, but lost a good deal of time from not knowing his way through the house. When he returned he found things frightfully changed. As soon as he was out of the room, and while the poor old man was blow- ing his hardest, in the fancy of rejoicing his hearers with the glorious music of the Highland hills, one of the company—it was never known which, for each merrily accused the other—took a penknife, and going softly behind him, ran the sharp blade into the bag, and made a great slit, so that the wind at once rushed out, and the tune ceased without sob or wail. Not a laugh betrayed the cause of the catastrophe : in silent enjoyment the conspirators sat watching his movements. For one moment Duncan was so astounded that he could not think ; the
next he laid the instrument across his knees, and began feeling for the cause of the sudden collapse. Tears had gathered in the eyes that
were of no use but to weep withal, and were slowly dropping. She wass afrait, my lort and chentlemans,' he said, with a quavering voice, 4 tat her pag will pe near her latter end; put she pelieved she would pe living peyond her nainsol, my chentlemans.' lie ceased abruptly, for -his fingers had found the wound, and were prosecuting an inquiry they ran along the smooth edges of tho cut, and detected treachery. He gave a cry like that of a wounded animal, flung his pipes from him, and sprang to his feet, but forgetting a step below him, staggered forward a few paces and fell heavily. That instant Malcolm entered the room. He hurried in consternation to his assistance. When he had helped him up and seated him again on the steps, the old man laid his head on his boy's bosom, threw his arms around his neck, and wept -aloud. 'Malcolm, my son,' he sobbed, Tuncan is wronged in ta halls -of ta strancher ; tey '11 haf stepped his pest friend to ta heart, and och hone ! och hone! shell pe aall too plint to take fencheance. Malcolm, eon of heroes, traw ta claymore of ta pard, and fall upon ta traitors. She'll pe singing you ta onset, for ta pibroch is no more."
The reader knows now what he has to expect from the "house of Lossie ;" but the Marquis was by no means all devil, and the struggle of the better side of his nature to assert itself, miserably as it failed, lends to the story half its interest.
As usual with Mr. Macdonald, the real charm of his tale for thoughtful readers lies not alone in the story itself, but in the conversations, or oftener the soliloquies, rich in sug- -gestion and humour which are everywhere scattered through the book. Sometimes it is merely the talk in the village school, talk such as a Scotch dominie alone could have tolerated, —as when Jacob and Esau being the theme, a child, with a child's love of justice, defends Esau, and the master with half-unconscious humour replies, "It was easier to get the sly- ness oot o' Jacob than the dullness oot o' Esau. Punishment tellt upo' Jacob like upon a thin-skinned horse, whauras Esau was mair like the minister's powny, that can hardly be made to unnerstan' that ye want him to gang on." And whilst alluding to the village school, we may remark that Mr. Macdonald's opinion of the 4‘ Shorter Catechism" is given with sufficient plainness. The work of the day, which closed the week's labours, he says, was the repetition of "a certain number of questions of the Shorter Catechism (which term, alas ! included the answers), and next to buttress them with a number of suffering caryatids, as it were— texts of Scripture, first petrified, and then dragged into the ser- vice." Then we have pages of Malcolm's musings as be walks by the sea, arguing with himself on the moral and spiritual conse- quences likely to ensue to himself from what he believes to be his evil parentage ; the man's whole nature for the moment stultified by his sense of a weight of inherited pollution, till he is able at last to say to himself,—" Thy soul, however it became known to itself, is from the pure heart of God, whose thought of thee is older than thy being,—is its first and eldest cause. Thy essence cannot be deified, for in Him it is eternal." Very unorthodox, that, but very much alive with possibilities of practical result to the mind which entertains it. There is room too, especially in this day, fora thought, for the truth of which few would be better prepared to vouch than Mr. Macdonald. He is speaking of a period of enforced idleness in Malcolm's life, of one of those in- terregnums which occur once in the lives of most, when the whole being merely "drifts ;" and he says, "Malcolm sorely missed the
ministrations of compulsion How many sighs are wasted tiver the toil of the sickly, a toil which perhaps lifts off half the weight of their sickness, elevates their inner life, and makes the outer pass with tenfold rapidity. Of those who honestly pity such, many would themselves be far less pitiable were they com- pelled to share in the toil they behold with compassion." Never- theless, the nature which sees such suffering combined with such toil, and renders no help, degrades as well at hardens itself. In the midst of the story, and lending its assistance to the elucidation of some important points in it, we have a history of a revival as it affected the inhabitants of Portlossie. Mr. Macdonald on this subject has a few things to say which may surprise some of his readers. On the whole, his account of very singular spiritual phenomena is impartial enough, but he sets his face like a ffint against professional revivalism, against the convulsive efforts of men with faith in a certain evil system of theology to rouse a galvanic life by working on the higher feelings through the electric sympathies of large assemblies, &c. The end of these things, he says, is death, for the reaction is towards spiritual hardness and a more confirmed unbelief. But we must not lead any ope to suppose that the interest of the story as such is in any way buried beneath metaphysical discussions. It is true that Mr. Macdonald never loses an opportunity to attempt at least the solution of the difficult problems with which the brain of man is daily puzzled, never passes by the chance of a striking analogy, as when he observes, "If the falling at last of long-cherished hopes did but, like that of the forest leaves, let in more of the sky," or after a really remarkable description of an ancient house finds it irresistible to remark, "The cellars are the metaphysics, the garrets the poetry of the house," but all these things (in which consists his weakness or his strength, as differing tastes may judge) are made subservient to his dramatic skill. It is impossible not to study with interest the play of human action and passion as he delineates them. Whether we watch the mad laird till, with Malcolm, we feel for him a strong and painful sympathy, discerning " this misshapen heap of man a tumulus in which lies buried a live and lovely soul ; "or trace the growing development of character, whether for good or evil, it is hard as yet to say, in the tantalising Lady Florimel ; or the by-play of complicated motive and interest, as it moves the various characters which are crowded on the stage, till we scarcely know if little Phemie Mair, or the grave schoolmaster, Mr. Graham, or the old housekeeper at the Hall, are not even better drawn than Malcolm or the Marquis, it is plain to us at least that in their united history Mr. Macdonald has given us a story which, notwithstanding the fact that we con- ceive its main plot unworthy of his pen, will yet be extensively read, and its sequel eagerly looked for.