A FAMILY AFFAIR.*
IT is melancholy .to notice a book of considerable promise like this when the writer for whom it gave so much pro- mise has passed where this promise can never be fulfilled. A Family Affair is a story extremely clever in its con- struction, and marked by considerable humour and know- ledge of life. If it be true that the most remarkable sketch it contains is taken a little too faithfully from real life, and is more of a copy than of an imaginative conception, it wouLl not be possible to assert that A Family Affair disclosed a thoroughly original genius. For putting aside the picture of the Talberts, —a picture of admirable force and humour,—the merit of this novel consists chiefly in the vividness with which it delineates the mind of a cruelly selfish and brutal forger, and the skill with which it developes a very ingenious story. The incidental sketches, though sometimes lively, are very slight. The curate who falls in love with Beatrice, and who so drives his tricycle that he even persuades his Bishop to propel it cautiously for a brief trial, is a pleasant
• A Family Affair. By Hugh Conway. 3 vols. London : Macmillan and Co.
though a faint sketch. The pompons financier, who is in- cautiously asked to dine with the Messrs. Talbert, and who, without intending it, insults so atrociously the Jewish guest who is sitting at the same table, is equally entertaining ; and the art-critic who helps Frank Carruthers to the knowledge of the city in which the Madonna di Tempi is to be seen, is dashed off with a lively humour. But apart from the story, for con- structing which it is clear enough that Mr. Fargus had a real gift, the great interest of the book is the picture of the two Talberts, and, in a secondary way, the convict who is the evil genius of the piece. We cannot think that Mrs. Miller, the wild predestinarian whose intervention is used to get rid of that evil genius, on his picture of whom Mr. Fargns evidently relied for a good deal of the effect of the story, quite re- warded the pains he spent in delineating her. That was a picture which needed a little more of introspective genius than Mr. Fargns probably possessed. Certainly the present writer has not found the study of Mrs. Miller's religions mania at all as thrilling and effective as it is evidently meant to be. Mrs. Miller is a passably good second-rate figure, who is made use of very effectively in this tale; but no good judge, we think, would say that this sketch betrays genius of any con- siderable kind. And, again, the hero and the heroine, though passable, are certainly not living or interesting at all,—not nearly so much so as a dozen other living novelists could easily have made them. On the Talberts first, and. on the villain Hervey in the second place, the strength of this novel as a picture of character must depend.
The Talberts,—conventional in their very essence and yet good to the core,—full of the fussy household energies of women and yet not without the manliness of men,—are admirable, though if it be true that they are really a study from life, the credit of the author as a student of human nature cannot be rated nearly as highly as it otherwise would. Nothing could be happier than the way in which, while each of the brothers evades any intrusion into the other's supposed secrets, any expense which is attributed by one brother to the actions of the other, is silently placed by the elder to the younger's share of the account. When the child, whose origin appears to be so great a mystery, is introduced into the house, the elder brother suspects the younger of knowing more of the reasons why the child has been sent than he chooses to confess, and this is how he probes the other's mind :—
" The great June audit was this. We have seen how exactly just the brothers were towards one another, in the matter of pounds, shillings, and pence : so it will be easily understood that the accounts were kept with the most clerkly correctness. Horace was the pay- master, and every item of expenditure was duly entered in an account- book—his long, elegant handwriting looking quite out of place when used for such base purposes. If the accounts were not kept by the Italian system of double entry, they were couched in a form which was perfectly intelligible. After all, there must have been a strong strain of trading blood in the Talberts. If one of them kept a horse more than the other it was charged to his account. If one was ill, and a doctor's bill came in consequence, he was debited with the amount. Tradesmen's accounts were dissected and charged off to the proper parties, and, as soon as possible after the 30th of June, Horace prepared an elaborate statement of affairs, which the two men checked through, signed, and settled up, whatever amount was due from one to the other. Nothing could have been fairer. But this year, when the accounts were submitted to his inspection, Herbert Talbert opened his eyes in astonishment at one item with which he was charged. 'I don't understand this,' he said, laying his finger on one amount which stood against him. Horace, without looking, knew what it was. He had weighed the matter, carefully before he made that particular entry. 'I think I have charged it as low as in justice I could,' be said.—' But why is it charged at all ?" asked Herbert, raising his eyebrows. Now the entry was : Wages of nurse, six months, £9 ; estimated keep of nurse and child for six months, say 227 16s. Od.; total, 237 Os. Od. 'I thought,' said Horace slowly—' in fact your manner at various times gave me to understand —that it was right and just I should make this entry.' Herbert's face grew red. He was as nearly in a rage as he had ever been in his life. Yet he answered not in words. He took a quill pen, and drew a thick ink line through the entry, thereby giving Horace a morning's work in recopying his elaborate statement, and altering the totals. Nothing more was said. Herbert's manner of denial was more emphatic than words. His brother knew that he would never have disputed a sixpence which he was justly liable to pay. Horace did not apologise for his suspicion ; he felt that having allowed Herbert to blot and mutilate his fair balance-sheet without a word of protest was more than enough compensation, and no doubt Herbert thought the same, for peace was restored, and the matter never again mentioned. The consequence was that, after the June audit, even Horace was unable to frame any theory to account for the way in which the boy had appeared among them. He felt, moreover, he had been rather taken in—that his consent to the child's remaining had been won under false pretences, or, rather, because he had deceived himself. However, it was now too late to alter the coarse of events, and, to
tell the truth, Horace Talbert in his own grave, solemn way petted the child almost as mach as Beatrice did."
Not less admirable is the picture of the brothers' condition of mind when their niece leaves them unexpected]y, and they find themselves under the necessity of accounting to their household and to the world for her absence, without being really in any way able to do so :—
"At last Horace rose. Something must be done,' he said de- cisively.—' Yes,' assented Herbert, inquiringly.—' We are, it appears to me, placed in a most unfortunate position. This mysterious flight involves the most grievous consequences. We mast do something which I feel sure will be repugnant to both of us.'—' You will not employ any one to trace her ?'—' Certainly not. She is her own mistress, and can go where she chooses. I am thinking more about ourselves. Life will become intolerable if the matter gets bruited abroad.' 'How can we help it ? All the household knows that Beatrice has gone, and gone without any luggage.'—' That,' said Horace, with mild triumph, I have thought out.' He rang the bell, and asked for the parlourmaid. Jane,' he said, Miss Clausen has been called to London. Will you be good enough to get such things packed in her trunks as she is likely to want for a lengthy visit. Also pack the nurse's box and the child's things.' Jane curtseyed and withdrew. Presently she returned and asked how many dresses she had better pack. Two morning and four evening dresses,' said Horace, promptly. Herbert admired his brother's great mind, which rose so equal to the occasion. Then Jane wanted to know which dresses. The two new ones, of course. Then what ? The black silk, the black lace the high body with jet trimmings, the brocade upper skirt, or what ? For the moment even Horace was at fault. He soon recovered. We will come and assist you,' he said. So they went to Beatrice's room, and with eye-glasses fixed stood one on each side of the trunk and superintended the packing. Much as they de- lighted in odd jobs of this kind, to-day they felt no pleasure. They scarcely dared to glance at each other. They felt ashamed, as all honourable men do, who by irresistible stress of circumstances are compelled to act a lie. The packing was completed. Jane was sent to see to Mrs. Miller's and the boy's things. The selection of these our friends did not superintend. The boxes were brought down, placed in the waggonette, and Horace and Herbert drove away with them. Nothing could have been more skilfully managed. Even Whittaker was completely deceived. They took the boxes, and ware- housed them in Blaoktown. Yon see,' said Horace, as he turned the horses' heads homewards, 'Beatrice has gone to London. She means to make a lengthy stay. She must want her things. Any woman would.'—' Every word you spoke was the exact truth,' said Herbert, consolingly Yon must excuse our not having sent to meet you,' said Horace. 'The truth is the roads are dirty and we could not have bad the waggonette cleaned in time to take us ont.'— ' Where are you going ; for a drive ?'—' We are going to make a round of calls.' Frank marvelled, and thought that under the circumstances this social amenity might have been postponed. It is a painful, a most painful duty,' said Horace, but we feel it must be done. We must go round and indirectly give our friends to understand that Beatrice has left us, under every-day circumstances, to pay a long-promised visit in London. We can see no other way of arresting inquiry and scandal.' It was after hearing this that Frank understood how truly great was Horace's nature. The brothers drove off. So far as time would allow they called upon every one they could think of. They called upon Lady Bowker, who had known them from boys they called upon Mrs. Catesby, the stately, yet affable, well-flowered and better connected widow who loved artistic society ; they called upon the rector's wife; upon the Partons, upon the Fletohers, upon many aristocratic and a few simply opulent persons. Being such universal favourites with the ladies they had no scruple in continuing their calls even to the very latest moment allowed by society. Then they drove home, feeling they had done all they could to throw a curtain over Beatrice's extra- ordinary indiscretion."
The whole picture of these two old bachelors who look after their own glass, count their own linen, investigate minutely the habits of their own servants, and are at bottom so generous and good, though so devoted to the proprieties, is a picture to live.
Inferior to this, though almost as good as it can be in its own more commonplace fashion, is the study of Maurice Hervey's selfish brutality. When he wishes to impress upon his wife what it would cost her if she had to return to live with him, and deter- mines to torture her by insisting that, for a time at least, she shall return to live with him, his strategy is conceived and described with a force which seems to us to indicate a very deep insight into the evil side of human nature, as well as a very consider- able experience of the condition of life amongst this class of ruffians :—
" Maurice Hervey's approaching duel being of a peculiar nature, the preparations he made were also peculiar. They consisted of inducing the room he occupied, which, in an unmolested state, was a nice tidy apartment, to look as disreputable and dissipated as with the resources at his command it was possible. He gave no orders for his breakfast things to be cleared away, but added to the relics of the meal a bottle of whisky and a glass. He also laid a short pipe .and a tobacco-pouch on the table. With great satisfaction he found in a drawer a dirty pack of cards : these were also placed in position to carry effect. He told the servant not to attend to his bed-room jest yet ; so that by his leaving the door of communication between the two rooms open, a visitor might have the privilege of gazing on a .dishevelled sleeping apartment. Given the materials at his disposal,
he made a very fair effect with them. He kept his own appearance in sympathy with the surroundings. He wore slippers which he trod down at the heel. His clothes were too new to look shabby, bat by putting on a soiled shirt, discarding his waistcoat and cravat., he managed to get within reasonable distance of his requirements. All these preparations were inspired by an exquisite refinement of malice. Metaphorically be meant to bring Beatrice down on her knees, and his cruelty told him that to one of her type, the process would be doubly disagreeable when it took place in such a scene. Gad !' he said, as he gazed round and approved of his handiwork. I wish I had my prison snit here. I'd don it once more for your benefit, my lady.' He gave orders that if a lady called she was to be shown up-stairs at once, then he lit a cigar and lounged in the easy-chair. At five minutes to twelve, just as the man was wondering whether she would come or not, and if, in the event of her not coming, it would be well for his own interests to seek her at Hazlewood House, the door opened and Beatrice stood before him. He laughed a low mocking laugh, and without changing his lounging attitude, looked up at her. She took it all in, the disreputable look of the place and of its tenant ; he could see that by the quiver of her nostril, and the look of deepening scorn on her firm mouth. His eyes gleamed with triumph. And she, as she looked at him, the thought ran through her, how could she ever in her most foolish girlhood's days have loved this man—have loved him even for an hour ? His features were the features she had once thought so perfect—now no human creature on the earth could have inspired her with such loathing. She did not fear him, simply because she knew the worst he could do—the heaviest penalty she could be called upon to pay. Or she thought she knew."
And the conversation which follows these preparations is con- ceived with great force ;—indeed, so long as we are in company with this ruffian, we are made to know him almost as thoroughly as we are made to know Dickens's less detestable ruffians of a lower class, Sykes and Flash Toby Crackit. All this part of A Family Affair seems to us masterly.
When we come to the romantic elements of the story, we come to the weaker elements. Beatrice and Frank are a very con- ventional heroine and hero indeed. Mrs. Miller, the religious maniac, is a little better, and certainly a more original con- ception, though, as we have said, it is one worked out without that special genius for the particular sphere which is almost essential for any high success. We must add that we were a little disappointed not to find the brothers Talbert flashing up into some higher kind of chivalry at the end of the story. This we had half expected, and did not find. They remain, even when their affections are touched, the same impersonations of kindly and generous conventionality which they are in the ordinary course of their lives.; and yet we had been taught to hope for something higher from them. On the whole, however, A Family Affair is a novel of very great attractiveness, and one which every one, had its author lived, would rightly have regarded as one of large promise.