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THE OLD SALOON.
RECENT GERMAN FICTION.
ARCHEOLOGICAL romance being on the order of the day, the Old Saloon tables are encumbered with volumes in which we are summoned to take interest in the food of a Pharaoh or the foot - bath of a Cleopatra a result for which we are doubtless indebted to Dr Schlieman and some of his learned colleagues. When the illustrious German antiquarian began to rake up the dust of vanished generations, to open up unknown tombs and lay bare the site of forgotten cities, he was unconsciously evolving the forms of countless novels, good, bad, and indifferent, which ever since have been haunting us like a perfect Egyptian plague.
It could not be otherwise: the task of reconstructing those shattered temples and palaces, of fitting warm flesh on to those old brittle bones, and of replacing those glittering gems or cunning orfévrerie on fair or dusky necks and arms, was too seductive to be resisted. Many imaginations took fire, and many hands undertook the gigantic task of attempting to resuscitate a whole defunct world. But the task, though alluring, is also ungrateful; for if it be difficult faithfully to depict the living men and women we see around us, how much more so is it to invest with a semblance of probability those of whom we in reality know next to nothing? To be entirely just in our estimate of other ages is not difficult-it is impossible, says Froude; and if
we find it hard to reconstruct in
fancy the life, habits, speech, and thoughts of our great-grandfathers and mothers, how very much harder is it not to do the same for persons separated from us by a score of centuries or more?
Where all are ignorant there can be none to criticise, may have been the device of some who, with the admirable audacity of a Rider Haggard, undertook to revive the figure of Antony and Cæsar's immortal mistress. Criticism, however, may as often be based upon instinct as upon knowledge, and even a comparatively ignorant reader is able to distinguish whether the figures placed before him are illumined by the feu sacré of the true artist or by a trumpery rushlight.
Far be it from me to condemn wholesale all antiquarian romances
I would only maintain the task of constructing a successful one to be no easy matter, requiring no common combination of talents. An exceptionally ardent and powerful imagination, which is the primary condition, must here be necessarily curbed by, and made subservient to, the stern exigencies of history, while something akin to the inspiration of poetical genius is required to bridge over the vast chasm separating the author from his figures-a result achieved, in our humble opinion, neither by Mr Wallace in Ben Hur,' by Rider Haggard in 'Cleopatra,' nor by Herr Ebers in his latest Egyptian novel, 'Josua.'1
Of Rider Haggard, indeed, it
Josua: Eine Erzählung aus Biblischer zeit, von Georg Ebers. Verlags Anstalt: 1890.
would not be fair to use the word failure with regard to his work, which would imply an unsuccessful straining after unrealised ideals, whereas, unless we do him gross injustice, Mr Haggard had nothing so preposterous in view as an ideal when he set to work. He amuses himself by fooling others, but is far too clever to fool himself. Knowing his audience, he treats it accordingly, and if we have any cause to fall foul of him, it is not because he thinks too highly of his own workmanship, but too meanly of his readers, by offering them such mental food as 'She' or 'Cleopatra.'
But with Herr Ebers the case is very different. He takes himself seriously, as all Germans do, and evidently regards his work as an important service rendered to humanity. With toil and labour unspeakable as he himself informs us in the preface has he produced this latest offspring of his brain. He has pondered over reams of ancient Egyptian papyrus, deciphered hundreds of hieroglyphic inscriptions, and wandered through miles of deserted ruins, in order to collect material for his story. There can be no doubt that he has worked exceedingly hard, and we are very sorry for him; our most prominent sensation on closing the second volume being the thought of how tired the poor author must have felt on laying down his pen at the end of page 426. He has enlisted our most sincere compassion, though we are unfortunately compelled to refuse our admiration. This is a hard world, in which, whatever moralists may say, merit is rarely its own reward; and it is positively melancholy to reflect that such an amount of patient toil, conscientious research, and painfully acquired erudition, should only have resulted in a very inferior novel, which, for
dramatic effect and interest of character, stands far behind the author's previous works.
The subject, the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and their passage through the Red Sea, is a grand one, affording endless chances of success, but likewise of failure. Herr Ebers informs us that the idea of depicting in a novel the wandering forth of the Hebrews occurred to him during a journey in Egypt, apparently some twenty years ago. To this idea was subsequently joined that of representing the event from an Egyptian point of view-an aspect which he believes will be novel and surprising.
But there is, as Ben Akiba tells us, no new thing under the sun, not even the novels of a Rider Haggard or an Ebers; and, curiously enough, we were reminded of both these authors the other day when glancing through 'Le Roman de la Momie,' written about forty years ago by Théophile Gautier.
That alike the English as the German author are innocent of intentional plagiarism we are convinced; for had they chosen to cull from the leaves of an almost forgotten French novel, they might surely have done so to better purpose. The resemblance, which can only be purely accidental, is in the case of Rider Haggard confined to the opening of an old Egyptian tomb, and the discovery inside the mummy's coffin of a written scroll containing the story related by the author. The German novel challenges a closer comparison, for the Frenchman's book treats the selfsame subject, and from an almost identical point of view.
Miriam, sister of Moses, is the heroine of Herr Ebers's novel, and Josua, or Hosea (as he was first called), its hero. Miriam is betrothed to Hosea-a circumstance for which we have no Scriptural
basis; neither does there seem to be any historical authority for the statement that Hosea first served in the Egyptian army under Pharaoh, where he acquired the military knowledge which subsequently enabled him to lead his people to their promised land.
When the story opens, Hosea is returning from an expedition against the Lybian rebels, which has occupied him for a year and a half. For ten whole months he has had no news of his people, and his heart leaps up at sight of the obelisks of Tamis when he espies them in the distance. Soon he will see again his aged father Nun, to whom he clings with filial affection, and Miriam his beloved, whose image has always accompanied him in his wanderings. Miriam is not only a beautiful woman but a prophetess as well, by whose lips the God of Israel has chosen to speak to His people. Strong and serious as she was, no more fitting mate could Hosea find, and her powerful individuality had thrown into the shade another vision which formerly had captivated his imagination. Since her childhood he had loved and admired Kasana, daughter of Hornecht, the chief of Pharaoh's archers, and for a time had dreamt of making her his wife Then Kasana had wedded another, only, however, to return to her father's home within a year a young widow; and Miriam's appearance had quickly dispelled any disappointment which Hosea may have felt, when given to understand that Kasana could never have married a Hebrew.
But the news which meets the returning warrior is not joyful. He finds his father's house an empty ruin, like the other Hebrew dwellings, plundered and laid bare by the incensed Egyptians, who thus seek to revenge themselves
on the magician Moses who has caused the death of their firstborn. Old Nun has fled with the rest, conducted by Moses out of Pharaoh's reach.
Then comes to him Ephraim his nephew, and speaks as follows:
"Miriam, daughter of Amram and Jochebeth, sends greeting to the son of Nun the Ephraite. Hosea [Help] art thou called, and as the helper of thy people art thou chosen by the Lord. Josua-that is, he whose help is Jehovah shalt thou henceforth be called by His order; for through Miriam His handmaid doth the God of thy fathers, who is likewise thine, command thee to be the sword and shield of thy people. In Him is all strength, and He will fortify thine arm that it may annihilate all foes."
On hearing this message, Josua's soul is torn by a sense of conflicting duties. On one side he belonged to the Hebrew race, and the misfortunes of his people are his own. He shares the blood of Nun, of Miriam. But on the other hand has he not sworn allegiance to Pharaoh? and how can he break his oath to become the leader of a people who are now the enemies of the king he serves? As a loyal soldier he is bound to despise every deserter. How, then, can he himself be guilty of that which he has so often punished with death in his subordinates?
In Pharaoh's army he has risen to high honour and fame. Shall he now renounce these in order to command an undisciplined horde of workmen and shepherds? Shall he renounce everything, change his whole life and his very name, merely at a woman's biddingeven though she be beautiful, and he loves her?
Josua feels such resignation to be impossible, and has almost decided to abide by his allegiance to Pharaoh when he is called to an old dying man, a former slave of Nun, who has charged him with
an order for his son. This order, whose purport is identical with Miriam's summons, cannot, however, as lightly be set aside. As a son, Josua feels bound to obey his father, and henceforth his mind is made up-or he believes it to be so. He will join his people, and become their leader.
But alas for Josua's vacillating character! Scarcely has he regained his tent after the interview with the old slave, when other messengers appear. A royal chariot with fiery steeds has halted at the entrance, and in its occupants Josua has recognised the Lord Chamberlain and chief Privy Councillor of the king, come hither to summon him to his majesty's presence.
The scene in which Josua appears before Pharaoh is not without a reflection of the author's former power, and the portraits of Rui the old high priest with his rugged wrinkled face and shrewd gleaming eyes, as well as that of the queen seated by Pharaoh's side, her lap full of flowers, with which she is weaving funeral wreaths for the corpse of her first-born, are vivid and picturesque.
wooed by another suitor, Hur, a man of the ripe age of fifty, who, though with silver threads streaking his dark hair, and with children and grandchildren of his own, is yet erect, and in full possession of his manly vigour.
Miriam has just refused his offer, confessing that she loves another, when the sound of an approaching horseman is heard in the dark
Rejoiced and encouraged by the benignant reception he meets, Josua ventures to bring forward his petition of being released from his oath of allegiance. His request is granted conditionally; Pharaoh orders him to hasten after the fugitives and induce them to return. When he shall have accomplished his mission he shall be free to do as he chooses. The prospect of yet higher honour is, however, held out to him as a bait, and the queen adds her gentle voice to Pharaoh's request that Josua will take upon himself the office of mediator between Hebrews and Egyptians.
Miriam, meanwhile, has been
night, and Josua appears, having ridden fast and far in order to catch up his flying countrymen. Hur discreetly retires, leaving the lovers standing alone beneath a huge sycamore-tree, with stars shining all around them; but having detected the vacillating nature of Josua's resolve, before going, he reminds Miriam of his offer, telling her that she may always count on him should she want a protector.
The explanation between the lovers does not take a satisfactory turn, and is intensely wearisome. Josua wants to speak first, and explain why he has come, but Miriam interrupts him, and insists first on relating to him the story of her life (which we suppose he knows already), and upon analysing the nature and development of her feelings towards him. Josua grows impatient, and so does the reader. Love conquers at last. Miriam sinks into his arms, and for one brief moment the prophetess is sunk in the woman. Then comes the reaction, when Josua begins to unfold his plans for the weal of his people. Not to follow them into the wilderness has he come hither, but to lead them back into Egypt, where a new and happier life awaits them. United to her, and happy in her love, he will rise to power and dignity, and together they will preside over the welfare of their countrymen.
Miriam, who has listened to
him with growing distress, now breaks loose from his embrace, and tears her hand out of his. In words of inspired passion she upbraids him for being false to the call of the Almighty. He answers hotly, and beginning apparently to discover how very unsatisfactory and complicated a matter it is to make love to a prophetess, he accuses her of being cold and hard.
Miriam throws herself on the ground beneath the sycamore-tree and prays for guidance, while around her the camp is beginning to wake up, and dawn is breaking. When she rises again, her resolve is fixed. She can never belong to a man who is deaf to the voice of God. Josua on his side refuses to break his oath to Pharaoh. So they part in anger and bitterness; and Miriam, hurrying to meet the approaching Hur, lays her hand in his, and promises to be his wife.
Five days later, Josua, loaded with chains, is on his way to the mines on the Sinaïc peninsula. A sudden turn of fortune's wheel has brought about his downfall. The old high priest is dead; and his successor, an implacable enemy of the Hebrews, has turned Pharaoh's heart against him. Hornecht, father of Kasana, incensed by Josua's refusal to remain in Egypt and wed his daughter, has also become his enemy; and the dissolute Prince Siptah, who seeks to seduce Kasana as well as to rob Pharaoh of his crown, has his own reasons for wishing to get rid of an inconvenient rival.
Kasana, broken-hearted on learning the fate of the man she loves, sacrifices her honour in hopes of obtaining Josua's release from Siptah, when the latter shall have become King of Egypt. She becomes his mistress, and follows
VOL. CXLIX.-NO. DCCCCIII.
him to the camp with the army sent to pursue the flying Hebrews. When the Egyptian host is drowned in attempting to cross the Red Sea, the chariot containing Kasana is washed ashore almost at the very feet of Ephraim, her boy-lover, and Miriam, her former rival in Josua's love. She is still alive, but is quickly laid hold of by furious Hebrew women, one of whom inflicts a mortal wound with a dagger on the helpless Egyptian ere Ephraim has time to interfere. Kasana, though dying, has yet strength enough left to relate her story to Nun and Ephraim, and to taunt Miriam with her faithlessness to Josua. Only she, Kasana, has loved him truly, she says triumphantly, since for his sake she had sold herself to a man she hated.
Her sacrifice has, however, been a needless one, and she might have economised both honour and life as far as any advantage to Josua is derived from the proceeding. At the time she dies he is still pursuing his weary march towards the mines: the convicts have nearly reached their goal, and are traversing the last mountain that separates them from their destination, when from the valley below are heard the sounds of clanking arms and fierce war-cries. Josua pricks up his ears at the welcome sound, and presently has recognised among the combatants the venerable figure of his old father. To overpower his Egyptian guards is apparently an easy matter, and five minutes later Josua has joined his people and assumed the command of the Hebrew army, which, under his directions, gains a splendid victory over the Egyptians.
Josua is loudly welcomed by his people as their most natural and suitable leader; and even Hur, who had hitherto commanded them, is willing, now that he is