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Wilkie Collins was in truth the prince of story-tellers and held his readers breathless from beginning to end. No one ever yet began one of his novels and threw it aside before the end came. They are not stories for a vacant half hour, to be picked up and thrown down at pleasure. Their fascination is of the deadly sort that holds the reader long after the midnight twelve has struck. For ingenuity of plot, for cleverness in handling the evolution of the plot and for power of rousing the reader's curiosity Mr. Collins stands alone. Even Dickens could not weave a chain of mysteries equal to Collins, and of course Thackeray never tried it. Collins created but very few characters whose names are remembered, but the incidents and adventures he related are so ingenious, and often so startling, that they hold our interest up to the last page. We care but little for the fate of any particular character, but we are bound to go on with the story “to see how it comes out.” Whether his works will live as literature may be doubtful, but as a writer of detective novels he has no English rival or equal, and he will consequently have at times and seasons a considerable circle of readers.
The greatest of his novels is “The Woman in White,” which is, indeed, one of the memorable novels of the nineteenth century. Count Fosco, with his white mice and canaries, his resplendent waistcoats, his passion for music and his overmastering vanity, is one of the most masterly and superb creations in all fiction. What a masterful villain he was, and how completely he tamed his impetuous English wife Even Marian Halcomb, who tells a part of the story in her diary, felt the spell of his magic influence. She thus describes him :
He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, he would have tamed the tigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes, as his wife does. I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, as she does hers.
I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages. The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him. In two short days he has made his way into my favorable estimation, and how he has worked the miracle is more than I can tell.
She goes on to analyze his character, to find the secret of his power, but can arrive at no conclusion. In time she finds him out, and in the end it is her spirit of goodness that overcomes his spirit of evil. It is a thrilling story, the secret of which is not unfolded until the last chapter is reached.
“The Moonstone” is by all odds the most popular of the novels, and it is well worth reading. It deals with the theft of a celebrated diamond known as the moonstone, a famous gem in the annals of India which once adorned the forehead of the moon god in the holy city of Benares. When that city was captured by the Mohammedans the gem passed to them, and then it passed from one lawless hand to another, until the British conquests at last brought it into the possession of Major Herncastle, an English officer. Many superstitions were connected with the ownership of this splendid diamond, and the story opens with the return of the Herncastle family to England with the diamond in their possession. Simultaneously several Indian Brahmins appear in the neighborhood of the Herncastle home. Then follow the most dramatic situations and experiences, and a struggle for the possession of
the diamond, and we hang upon the varying fortunes of the actors with the keenest interest. Most of the characters are not much more than lay figures, but the detective, Sergeant Cuff, and the old servant, Gabriel Betteridge, are very lifelike. “No Name" is also a finished story and has many charms. Captain Wragge is a confidence man of the most excellent sort, who keeps a regular book account of his rascalities. To him Magdalen Vanstone applies to obtain assistance in a scheme requiring more or less of underhand work, for which she pays him liberally. The interest of the story centers in the game, openly played, between Magdalen, assisted by the captain, and Mrs. Lecount, the housekeeper of Noel Vanstone. It is one of the most original as well as one of the most fascinating chapters in the story. Noel Vanstone, who has inherited the fortune that should have gone to Magdalen and her sister, is the prize of the contest, and Magdalen finally wins. Noel offers her marriage, and this is what she has been scheming for. But no sooner does she realize what she has done than, filled with doubts and fears, she rushes to end all by suicide. From this, too, she starts back, and finally determines that chance shall settle the
looking out upon the sea, watching a little fleet of coasting vessels sailing by. If in half an hour an even number of vessels passed she would live ; if an odd number, she would die.
With that final resolution she rested her head against the window and waited for the ships to pass. . . . . Two minutes to the end of the half-hour and seven ships. Twentynine and nothing followed in the wake of the seventh ship. The minute hand of the watch moved on halfway to thirty, and still the white, heaving sea was a misty blank. Without moving her head from the window she took the poison in one hand and raised the watch in the other. As the quick seconds counted each other out, her eyes, as quick as they, looked from the watch to the sea, from the sea to the watch—looked for the last time to the sea——and saw the eighth ship. She never moved, she never spoke. The death of thought, the death of feeling, seemed to have come to her already. She put back the poison mechanically on the ledge of the window and watched as in a dream the ship gliding smoothly on its silent way—gliding until it melted into shadow—gliding until it was lost in the mist.
This is a good specimen of Wilkie Collins' style.
“Armadale " comes next to “No Name” in interest and popular favor, while its plot is the most intricate of any of the novels. It will easily hold any reader until long past midnight, but for persons of sensitive nerves it is by no means a midnight story.