The Dark Frigate: Wherein Is Told the Story of Philip Marsham Who Lived in the Time of King Charles and Was Bred a Sailor but Came Home to England After Many Hazards by Sea and Land and Fought for the King at Newbury and Lost a Great Inheritance And..
THE seventeenth-century title does not make it altogether clear that The Dark Frigate is not an historical novel, but is an adventure story concerned with mutineers, pirates, and other ‘hazards by sea and land.’ History plays a small part, except in the final chapters; and yet one feels that a good deal of historical study went to the writing, for the general effect of the book is like that of an excerpt from Hakluyt’s Voyages. Philip Marsham’s experiences are terrifying enough, but are well within the range of possibility — no more unusual, in fact, than those of many an Elizabethan or Jacobean seaman. In telling them, the author has given no rosy picture of piracy. We see clearly that his outlaws, so truculent and loud-mouthed, are mostly cowards at heart, and that for one bucaneering expedition that succeeded there must have been many that miserably failed. The voyage of the dark frigate, the Rose of Devon, was diverted from honest trade in salt fish to a cruise after doubloons and pieces of eight; but it ended, for most of the crew, on Execution Dock. Even the sinister leader, the Old One, though he excites some admiration in the end, is the chief example of the futility of his code. Indeed, few books could more effectually discourage a boy reader who might be thinking of piracy as a vocation.
In the Mutineers, the Great Quest, and this — it is sad to reflect— his last novel, Mr. Hawes carried on with skill and devotion a tradition in story-telling which, though it is the oldest in the world, never has many practitioners of his ability. He not only believed that the main aim in story-telling should be to tell a good story, but he believed whole-heartedly that a good story deserved to be told in good English. It is significant that one of his very last bits of writing was a commendation of John Erskine’s The Literary Discipline and what he called ‘the stern, indeed the absolute, laws which determine the writer’s success or failure.’ Throughout The Dark Frigate one detects not only the believer in romance, but the believer in the rich, authentic, old English idiom; and it is this, rather than his ability to spin first-rate yarns, that groups him, if not with Stevenson, with whom he was inevitably compared, then at least with John Buchan, and H. DeVere Stackpoole, and the few others now carrying on the Stevenson tradition of conscientious writing of romance.
The Dark Frigate is a good story, so good that it could well have been twice as long. If it lacks some of the excitement and spontaneity of the earlier books, it shows the same skill in choosing incident and detail, in rapid narration, and in flashing a character in a sentence or two. One episode, the meeting with the ketch, Porcupine, is so full of ironical humor that one wishes the author had seen fit to make it the centre of his story. It suggests a grim farce of dog eat dog, or sea dog eat sea dog. But perhaps the author thought it sufficient to record it incidentally and let the reader dream over its possibilities.
R. M. GAY.