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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And of diablerie even more than reason


_Tristan le Roux._]

Few things could be more different from each other than _Tristan le Roux_--another early book of Dumas _fils_--is from _La Dame aux Camelias_. Indeed it is a good, if not an absolutely certain, sign that so young a man should have tried styles in novel-writing so far apart from each other. _Tristan_ is a fifteenth-century story of the later part of the Hundred Years' War, and of Gilles de Retz, and of Joan of Arc, and of _diablerie_, and so forth. I first heard approval of it from a person whose name may be unexpected by some readers--the late Professor Robertson Smith. But the sometime editor of the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_ was exceptionally well qualified for the literary side of his office, and could talk about French quite as knowledgeably as he could about Arabic and Hebrew.[361] He was rather enthusiastic about the book, an enthusiasm which, when I myself came to read it, for a considerable time puzzled me a little. It opens pretty well, but already with a good deal of the "possible-improbable" about it; for when some twenty wolves have once pulled a horse down and a man off it, his chance of escaping (especially without revolvers) seems small, even though two rescuers come up, one of whom has a knack of shooting these creatures[362] and the other of throttling them. It is on these rescuers that the central interest of the story turns. Olivier de Karnak and Tristan le Roux are, though they do not at the time know it,

brothers by the same mother, the guiltless Countess of Karnak having been drugged, violated, and made a mother by Gilles de Retz's father. They are also rivals for the love of their cousin Alix, and as she prefers Olivier, this sends Tristan literally "to the Devil." The compact is effected by means of a Breton sorceress, who has been concerned in the earlier crime, and is an accomplice of Gilles himself. That eminent patriot performs,[363] for Tristan's benefit or ruin, one of his black masses, with a murdered child's blood for wine. Further _diablerie_ opens a great tomb near Poitiers, where, seven hundred years earlier, in Charles Martel's victory, an ancestor of the Karnaks has been buried alive, with the Saracen Emir he had just slain, by the latter's followers; and where the two have beguiled the time by continuous ghostly fighting. The Saracen, when the tomb is opened, evades, seen by no one but Tristan, and becomes the apostate's by no means guardian devil. Then we have the introduction of the Maid (whom Tristan is specially set by his master to catch), the siege of Orleans and the rest of it, to the tragedy of Rouen.

Up to this point--that is to say, for some seven-eighths of the book--I confess that I did not, and do not, think much of it. I am very fond of fighting in novels; and of _diablerie_ even "more than reason"; and of the Middle Ages; and of many other things connected with the work. But it does not seem to me well managed or well told. One never can make out whether the "Sarrazin" is, as he is actually sometimes called, Satan himself, or not. If he is not, why call him so? If he is, why was there so little evidence of his being constantly employed in fighting with M. de Karnak between the Battle of Poitiers (not ours, but the other) and the Siege of Orleans? I love my Dark and Middle Ages; but I should say that there was considerable diabolic activity in them, outside tombs. Or was the Princedom of the Air "in commission" all that time? Minor improbabilities constantly jar, and there are numerous small blunders of fact[364] of the unintentional kind, which irritate more than intentional ones of some importance.

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