Of Noble Warriors And Maidens Chaste

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Such a plethora of heroes would seem to require at least two or three villains, but there is only one, Fenwick. More malignant than Shakespeare’s Richard in, he is an all-round, multipurpose villain—seducer, blackmailer, forger. And that is not all. The war having ended when Cooke wrote his book, the author probably hoped to appeal to many northern readers, and he assigned to Fenwick evil tasks that, in other pro-Confederate books, were performed by Yankees. This protean scoundrel is thus a renegade southerner turned Union spy. With the possible exception of Sherlock Holmes’s enemy, Professor Moriarty, Fenwick may be the most durable villain in literature. As early as Chapter vi he is shot in a duel by his sworn enemy, Mordaunt:

If the bullet of his adversary had passed the one-thousandth part of an inch nearer to the femoral artery, the wound would have instantly proved fatal.

But he recovers, later to cross swords by the light of the moon with Mordaunt, who backs him up against a gigantic oak:

Rushing upon him, with his sabre at tierce point, Mordaunt drove the keen weapon through his breast, and the point was buried in the tree beyond.

Again Fenwick survives to go about his dirty work, grinding his teeth and shaking his fists the while.

The nineteenth-century ladies who filled their parlors with massive, ornate furniture and fancy bric-a-brac wanted their novels to be equally crammed with plot, and Cooke was not the man to disappoint them. As the story opens, Philip Surry receives his commission as a captain, falls in love with May Beverley, and observes the first duel between Mordaunt and Fenwick. May, pledged to marry the wastrel Baskerville though she does not love him, is the kind of heroine every lady reader would have liked to be, unassailably virtuous and peerlessly beautiful. Surry first sees her in Richmond:

 

Fancy a maiden of about nineteen, with a figure rounded, slender, and as flexible as the stem of a river-flag—waving hair of a deep chestnut, twisted up into a shining braid on the snowy neck; and eyes—ah, those eyes! —they were languishing, brilliant, and of an intense and dazzling violet—that tint which the summer sky wears when the purple of the sunset dashes against the blue. … As she stood there in the moonlight, keeping time with her slipper to the strains of the “Mocking Bird,” I thought she was some fairy—not a girl of flesh and blood!

Mordaunt has sworn vengeance against his erstwhile friend, Fenwick, who had earlier abducted Mordaunt’s wife. Fenwick had kept his captive at Elm Cottage in the wilderness; there she had borne Mordaunt’s son, who was promptly spirited away by Fenwick, and there she lived in madness for many years. She was cared for by her “keeper,” Mrs. Parkins, and at the last, just before her death, by her beautiful young cousin, Violet Grafton —Heroine Number Two. Surry begins to learn the tragic story when he stumbles on the cottage and seeks shelter for the night. Mordaunt is determined to avenge his wife and to protect Violet from the foul clutches of the evil Fenwick.

As if this were not enough to keep everyone busy, Surry and Mordaunt also find time to pursue their military careers, fighting in the battles of First Manassas and Chancellorsville, receiving rapid promotions, and covering themselves with glory.

The plots unfold in a manner that must have gratified the lady readers. May and Philip are united when Baskerville releases her from her promise. With the sound of artillery fire in the distance, the lovers pledge their devotion fervently, but with Victorian propriety:

Yet who shall dare to laugh at the spectacle of a proud and beautiful girl, long fettered by a hateful contract, shuddering at a loathsome union with a man she despises—who shall laugh when she gives way to her heart, and, falling weak and overcome into the arms of one who has loved her long and dearly, murmurs, “Take charge of my poor life—direct my fate—I have loved, and love you only!”

Later, Mordaunt is reunited with his long-lost son, who appears from the blue. Learning that Fenwick now holds the lovely Violet prisoner, Mordaunt pursues him to Elm Cottage, where his wife had died long before. One would expect that Mordaunt has earned the right to do Fenwick in, but that unworthy dies in an even more melodramatic way. Achmed, Mordaunt’s handsome young Arab servant, who has cherished a hopeless passion for Violet, dashes in and stabs Fenwick to the heart, an organ one would not have thought he possessed. In his dying throes, shouting words of implacable hate, Fenwick fires his pistol, wounds Achmed, clutches the air, foams at the mouth, and falls dead. The scene’s finale must have caused the readers’ tears to fall like rain:

Dragging himself along, Achmed reached her [Violet’s] feet, and, taking one of her hands, pressed it closely to his lips, murmuring some faint words … in his native tongue.

“He says he is happy for he dies for you!” exclaimed the deep voice of Mordaunt, as he stood with arms folded across his heaving bosom.