15 MAY 1880, Page 15


Jr is long since we have read a story in which excellence of plot and excellence of character-painting are so well combined. From the first page to the last, the reader is thoroughly interested in the story, the general nature of which is not in the least con- cealed from him all through, though the particular form in which the dAnouemmt is to come is so well kept secret that it draws you on, and interests you up to the last moment. This alone would be a great merit in a novel, if, indeed, this merit could belong to it without other merits too, which we doubt. Not all the skill which Mr. Gerard has shown, and it is very considerable, in at once frankly disclosing to the reader the general character of the secret, and carefully concealing from him the precise nature of it, would have sufficed

• Beata. By Z. D. Gerard. 8 vole. London : Blackwood.

to render the story good, without the very considerable skill shown in painting character, both male and female, and the large experience of fresh and completely nnhackneyed scenes which makes the subject-matter of the character-sketches so full of novelty and interest. There is not a single element of the novel which is intrinsically poor,—unless, perhaps, it be the attempt to paint a farcical figure in Piotr, which clearly, we think, falls short of real farce, while it is nothing if it does not reach that point ; or the still more unsuccessful, though less conspicuous, attempt to define an old lady, after the Dickensian fashion, solely by her habit of dropping her shawl.

But these are the only constituents of the book of which any good judge would say that they were below the mark. Such evenness of execution, such admirable balance between the interest of the story, the interest of the characters, and the mere interest of the local colouring itself, is very rare ; and if Mr. Gerard, of whom we know nothing, be a leginner in novel-writing, we should argue from his first success that he has a consider- able career before him. Here and there, perhaps, especially in the description of Polish society, there may be a slight tendency to prolong too much disquisitions on a theme on which the author may well expect the bulk of his readers to be both tolerably ignorant and tolerably curious.

But even if he does occasionally linger a little too long over his pictures of Polish society, they are so vivid and so

novel that we are hardly conscious of the excess. For the most part, we may say that Mr. Gerard knows where to begin, knows

where to linger, and knows where to leave off, and there are few to whom, when breaking fresh ground like that of this story, such praise can be fitly given.

One great charm of this book is the character of the heroine,

Reata, who is half of German, half of Mexican blood, and is SO painted as to make us feel this conflict of races in her character. The wild fun of her first capricious practical joke, the romantic

desire to be loved for herself alone, and not for any extraneous advantages she might possess, which gradually induces her to continue for a time in earnest the deception which had been begun in fun ; the deep personal pride, and the contempt she feels for what she begins to discern doubtfully in her lover's character, which harden this intention into a serious design, and the embarrassment she experiences when she has to con- front seriously, in European society, the results of a mad freak conceived in the solitary freedom of a Mexican forest, are all admirably painted, and so painted as to make what would otherwise seem an impossible plot perfectly natural. So also is the mixed prepossession, impressionability, and selfish- ness which make it so much easier for Reata to impose her little deceit on her cousin Otto than she had ever imagined that it could be; and that yearning of Otto's after ease and wealth which alarm Reata, and induce her to transform her practical joke into a real test of the constancy of her betrothed. All the scenes in Mexico are admirable. The picture of R,eata's indig- nation at being asked whether she is fond of flowers, which she compares to the question whether she is fond of " people,"— without any individualisation of the people,—and her invective against some flowers and panegyric on others, may serve as specimens of Reata's original and wild, but noble and ardent character :—

" You are very fond of flowers, are you not?' remarked Otto, at last, more for the sake of hearing her voice again than for any ether reason, as he deemed the question superfluous.—' You are very fond of people, are you not ?' she answered, after a second's pause, with- out lifting her eyes, and exactly imitating the tone of his question. —` Of people ?' repeated he, slightly taken aback ; why, what has that got to do with my question ? Of course I like amiable and agreeable people.'—' And I like amiable and agreeable flowers,' re- turned Reath, with such perfect gravity, that Otto could not refrain from laughing. You do not understand me,' she said, colouring im- patiently; can't you see that there is as much difference in them as in people, and that it is nonsense to talk of liking or disliking them in a body, or of caring about thein at all times ? There arc some days when I wouldn't have a flower in my room for worlds, they would disturb me; just as one does not always want society. Each flower has got its own character and its own history, just as much as we have; and of course I only select the flowers that are sympathetic to me. Just look at this little pink cactus, for instance ; did you over see such a silly, vacant expression ?' tearing it to pieces as she spoke; while its twin-sister here is as intelligent as possible.'—' And do you analyse the expression of each flower before it is deemed worthy of joining in the decorations ? It would be rather a lengthy business, I think.'—' But one sees that at a glance—one feels it in- stinctively. Don't you see now that this large white daisy is in ex- cellent spirits it is laughing.'—' How do. you make that out ?' Otto asked, staring hard at the flower she held out towards him. 'I con- fess I don't see anything.'—' But you must see,' with a gesture of impatience. 'And then look at this poor purple campanilla : what a melancholy expression it has ! it is evidently dying of a broken heart. I am afraid it is in love with a star ; and it goes on waiting hour after hour, hoping that the star will come down to it : but that hour- will never come, and it would have died of grief if it had not been. gathered. I am going to take it home to try and cheer it up a little.' —' What wild fancies this girl has !' Otto thought, as he listened..

They would sound mad coming from any one else ; but somehow- they fit her quite naturally.'—' And what about those pretty little pink-tinged convolvuluses ?' he asked; 'don't they look as innocent. as doves ?'—' Yes, they do; but they are the vilest, most deceitful little wretches on earth. I only brought them here to wring their necks,' suiting the action to the word.—' Why, what have they done r* —' They go creeping up to other plants nobler than themselves, and coax them till they allow themselves to be twined round and round, and then they strangle their benefactors, and go on smiling the whole time in that innocent, childlike manner. I could forgive them any- thing but their falseness,' and Beata crushed up a lot of the litt'e flowers in her hand, and flung them from her with a disdainful move- ment.—' Are you, then, such an enemy of deceit ?'—' Of course,' she. answered, with a passing shade of confusion ; then rapidly, as if to. change the subject, 'Do you see those scarlet bells there ? They are the greatest furies I know : at this moment they are literally shaking with passion ; I don't know exactly what it is about, but I suspect it is jealousy, because that nearest cluster of vetches has got a butterfly hovering over it, while they have none. Of course it is not right of them to show their feelings so openly ; but still, it is better to be honest, and I rather like their spirit.'—' You should' study botany,' said Otto, as you have so much opportunity of ob- serving plants, and take such an interest in them.'—' I tried to do so- once, but I shall never try again. I hate botany. What is the good of having a set of rules which divide flowers off into classes, and teach one how to analyse them ? I shouldn't care for a flower a bit better for knowing how it is constructed. Only fancy, on the very first page, the book told me to cut up an anemone. I couldn't do it —it went to my heart ; so I cut up the book instead and threw it. into the kitchen-fire. Now I have made a botany of my own, and divided off flowers into far more satisfactory classes. There is a sentimental class, a fierce class, a silly class ; then there is a silly- sentimental, a fierce-sentimental, and so on!—' I wonder you have not got tired of them ; you must know all the kinds by heart, surely, having lived all your life in this country?"

And if the picture of Reata is good, the pendent to it, in the. picture of the Polish Countess, Halka, with her subdued arti- ficial grace, and her real passion for Otto, is quite as good. Thereis a strong sense of justice in Mr. Gerard's sketches. Even the characters he intends to present as disagreeable are allowed' fair-play, and show all the good qualities which are consistent with the bad qualities. Otto is weak and selfish, but it is im- possible to dislike, though it is easy to despise him ; and the- Countess Halka is cold and selfish, but there is no weakness in her, and she is capable of a genuine passion in spite of her' coldness and selfishness. Gabrielle is excitable and silly, but. no one can help grieving for her early death. Hermine is heavy and slightly phlegmatic, but it is impossible not to admire the-. depth of her quiet, undemonstrative love. Even the Jewish solicitor, Mr. Fadenhecht, though professionally a rascal, is made- as little of a rascal as is consistent with his steady pursuit of his own interest. Mr. Gerard has no bites noircs, and it is a. great merit in a novelist not to have a bite noire.

It would be a mistake if we gave the impression that the- power of this novel rises to the highest level. It is not a novel to be compared with the best of Miss Bronto's even ; its power of painting character does not approach Miss Austen's ; the life and vigour in it are not the life and vigour of Sir Walter Scott. But of novels of the second rank, it strikes us as an admirable specimen, if only for the perfect harmony of its. execution, and the artistic finish of what we may call its poetical justice, where every deceit or shortcoming of the leading char- acters so perfectly avenges itself upon them, and that without. the smallest necessity for the distortion of the truth of nature.. The reader is not only thoroughly interested and entertained. throughout, but he gains for once—what real life in the un- finished condition in which we see it here hardly ever gives him—a complete sense of the justice of destiny, without any sense at all of the unreality or impossibility of the machinery by which that destiny is brought about.