THE MAID OF SKER.*
THE reader who takes up Guy Manneriag for the first time in mature age will have misgivings at the introduction. Ha sees that Ellangowan's son is to be the hero of the tale, and therefore that even if he marries immediately on attaining his majority, after the manner of novelists' heroes, either there must be a solution of continuity, or the story must run over a course of years which it may tax even the author of 1Vaverley to render interesting. A similar doubt pervades us on being introduced to the Maid of Sker at the early age of two. We feel certain that the young lady is to be married somewhere in the third volume, and therefore that even supposing her guardian to be a reasonably judicious person, at least sixteen years have to be got through in some fashion or other before the climax is reached. This period our author on the present occasion passes on foreign cruises under Nelson and other great commanders, and no one ought to grumble at being brought into such good company with Mr. Blackmore for master of the ceremonies, more especially when we are treated to a most graphic description of the battle of the Nile ; but this scheme of a novel running over a couple of decades has the further disadvantage that while it brings up the hero and heroine to marriageable years, it also carries the other personages of the tale a good deal beyond that point. When the book opens, the "second heroine" is an interesting damsel of eighteen or so, but by the time her fortunes are disposed of she had bloomed into a young thing of six-and- thirty, and even a strong natural sense of gallantry is insufficient to sustain our interest in her up to this point.
Mr. Blackmore starts off with another difficulty, in that he has not only cast his tale in the autobiographical form, but has endeavoured to invest the narrator, a selfish old rascal of a pen- sioned man-of-warsman, with a halo of interest, besides making him the mouthpiece of his own exuberant humour. The character of this old scoundrel, thoroughly selfish, and yet with a romantic generosity for others ; who combines a passion for travelling by sea and land with a romantic love for the beauties of nature ; per- fectly illiterate, and yet with a poet's power of description ; altogether a most repulsive old vagabond, and yet fascinating everybody, including the heroine, who comes in contact with him ; such a character of course is perfectly impossible. It is the best praise we can give Mr. Blackmore's book to say that notwithstanding this wilful overloading, it is yet in our opinion a genuine success, one of the few good novels that has been written for many years,. and one which will live. This success is to be accounted for by the great descriptive power exhibited, but still more by the humour which overflows at every point. Landscape and 7'he Maid of Ater. By B. D. Blackmon. In 3 vols. London and Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons. certain effects of nature, as well as more animate scenes, are described with great beauty and fidelity, albeit the descriptions as well as the plot are sometimes a little difficult to follow, and however impossible a character the narrator of the tale may be, the other personages are all real flesh and blood. We feel that the young ladies were pretty and fascinating, that the sailors (all the heroes belong to the Royal Navy) were true British tars, as well as proper gentlemen, and that the villains were the thunder- ing blackguards they are intended to be, albeit not without a certain grim power of fascination of their own, derived, no doubt, from the prince of darkness, their ancestor. But it is in humour that Mr. Blackmore shines most. Here is an extract taken at
random, but which requires no explanation '
" When I heard of this obvious consequence, I began to call to mind, too late, what the chaplain of the Spitfire-32-gun razy —al ways used to say to us ; and a finer fellow to stand to his guns, whenever it came to close quarters, I never saw before or since. 'Go down, parson, go down,' we said; 'Sir, this is is no place for your cloth.'—' Sneaking schismatics may skulk,' be answered, with the powder-mop in his hand, for we had impressed a Methody, who bolted below at exceeding long range, but if my cloth is out of its place, I'll fight the devil naked.' This won over to the side of the Church every man of our crow that was gifted with any perception of reasoning."
Mr. Blackmore is always at home in Devonshire. As our hero, now (during one of the downs of his eventful life) mate of a fifty- ton ketch, is entering Barnstaple harbour :—
" This ignorant boy [the cabin-boy, whose name was Bang,' because everybody banged him] had the insolence to give roe a clumsy nudge, and inquire,—' Du'e knew thiccy peart over yanner? Them down-plasses, and them zandy backs ? '= My boy,' I replied, have not the honour of knowing anything about them. Very likely you think a good deal of them.'—' Whoi, thee must be a born yule. Them be Braunton Burrussee ! "
Or, again, when paying a first visit to Barnstaple Market, he sees two powerful-looking gentlemen walking down the street, whona everyone seems to hold in great awe, as to whom,—
" But now, as the nearest horse must have drifted the length of two jolly-boats away, this little sailor Came up and spoke—' Can*e show the laikes of they two in Taffy-land, old Taffy, now ? ' = Plenty, I should hope,' said I (though proud in the end to say 'not one') ; 'but what a fuss you make! Who are they ?'—' As if thee didn't know!' cried Ikey, staring with indignation at me.—' How should I know, when I never clapped eyes on either of them till this moment?'
Thou host crossed the water for something, then, Davy. Them be the two Passons!'—' Two Passons!' I could not say it exactly as he sounded it. I never heard of two Passons:—"A wants to draive me mad, 'a dootb,' said Ikey, in self-commune ; 'did'e never hoar tell of Passon Chown° and Passon Jack, man alive now?"
The "two Passons" here referred to, although thrown back eighty years in this tale, were well known characters in Devonshire at a much later time than that. The naked wild men also, so graphically described here, are also historic beings of more modern growth, although perhaps a trifle less savage in actuality. The real hero of the tale, we may remark, is recovered from these wild men, and although accustomed always to go naked before, takes kindly to clothes and the catechism and other appurtenances of civilisation, in a manner that would have upset some of the late Archbishop Whately's theories on the subject.
The following description of a sailor's first ride may be taken as a specimen of the humorous power that rune through the book
"Therefore, arising betimes, I hired a very fine horse, and manning him bravely, laid his head east and by south, as near as might be, according to our binnacle. But though the wind was abaft the beam, and tide and all in his favour, and a brave commander upon his poop, what did he do, but house his stem, and run out his spanker-driver, and up with his taff rail, as if I was wearing him in a thundering heavy sea. I resolved to get the upper hand of this uncalled-for mutiny, and the more so because all our crew were gazing, and at the fair I bad laid down the law very strictly concerning horses. I slipped my feet out of the chains, for fear of any sudden capsize, and then I rapped him over the cat-heads, where his anchor ought to hang.. He, however, instead of doing at all what I expected, up with his bolt-sprit and down with his quarter, as if struck by a whale under his fore-foot. This was so far from truo seamanship, and proved him to be so unbuilt for sailing, that I was content to disembark over his stern, and with slight concussions. 'Never say die,' bas always been my motto, and always will be ; nailing my colours to the mast, I embarked upon another bores of less than half the tonnage of that one who would not answer helm. And this craft, being broken-backed, with a strange sound at her portholes, could not under press of sail bowl along more than four knots an hour. And we adjusted matters between us so that when she was tired I also was sore, and therefore disembarked and towed her until we wore both fit for sea again. Therefore it must have been good meridian when I met Parson Chown° near his house."
But the Maid of Sker is, after all, not a book to do justice to by extracts. The humour lies, as all good humour does, in the subtle comparison of incongruous ideas that crops out unexpectedly at every turn, and in the appropriateness of the thoughts and their expression to the personages represented, all which can only be appreciated by reading the book. As for plot and tale, when we say that the heroine appears on the scene drifting to shore in a blaze of
stmset in a boat, from whence cannot be traced, herself of too tender years to explain the mystery ; that the hero is found naked and unkempt, living among a set of savages on the wilds of Exmoor ; that the second hero, a gallant post-captain, is under suspicion of having made away with the children of his elder brother, and heirs to the family property, and that his marriage with the charming second heroine is deferred in consequence for some fifteen years, until the mystery is cleared up ; that a parson of demoniac wickedness and csaft works his will for many years in the north of Devon, defying God, man, and the law, till fate overtakes him in the third volume ; that the auto- biographer, old David Llewellyn, holding the skeins of the mystery in his hand, gradually sets matters right, although for so shrewd a hand as the old rascal is represented to be in all other things, he is a monstrous long time in finding out what is perfectly clear to the reader all along ; when we have in addi- tion various moving scenes by flood and field, including a very graphic account of the battle of the Nile ; those who read for story only may find enough to satisfy them.
Notable, however, as the book is, it yet gives us the impression of being an illustration of power not yet developed to its highest point, and that the author is capable of still higher flights. Mr. Blackmore would do well in his next book to make greater allow- ance for the general stupidity of readers, and the superficial way in which novels are usually read. The Maid of Sker, it must be confessed, is here and there just a little difficult to follow, while it would certainly have gained in vraisemblance if the tale had been thrown into the third person, and old Davy Llewellyn introduced as one of the secondary personages of the story.