Sard Harker

by John Masefield. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1924. 12mo. vi+412 pp. $2.50.
THAT something which makes us run to a fire hoping it shall be a good one, which tempts us to read the report of a hold-up before that of the Reparations Commission, which attracts us to movies and melodrama and unknown members of the opposite sex, that something which has been romantically defined as ‘a love of adventure’ has been recognized, quickened, and for the moment satisfied by John Masefield in his recent novel, Sard Harker.
Santa Barbara is a small Central-American oligarchy where anything may happen — and usually did thirty years ago, when this story begins, ‘Sard’ Harker, chief mate of the Pathfinder, a famous sugar-clipper, is a lean, sardonic man (whence came his nickname) with great strength and a mysterious devotion to an unknown woman. He is a hero and has inherited all of that family’s traits: he is supremely virtuous, enduring, and resourceful.
Sard went on with his humming, but kept an eye lifting lest some other waif of the night should come. Sumecta took a half-step nearer.
‘For two pins,’ he said, ‘I ‘d bash your face in.’
Sard went on humming, but drew two pins from the lapel of his coat and offered them.
That is resource. As in real life, these many virtues are somewhat irritating to the beholder; we suspect them and hope that they may have an exhausting test. They are tested — though never exhausted — and Sard wins our admiration if not our affection. While at anchor in the harbor of Las Palomas, a port neighboring to Santa Barbara, Harker is obsessed with a startling dream which bids him search for his lady. He leaves the ship. Twenty tortuous days later he emerges from ‘the house of the last sighs’ at Santa Barbara, a proven hero and lover.
More important than Harker is the villain, ‘Sagrado,’ ‘the Holy One,’ ‘Father Cranislon,’ ‘Hirsch,’ as he is variously known. He is the dens ex machina and a diabolically ingenious mechanic. But whatever his character may be, he is no more attractive, no more natural than those puppets of R. U. R. A good villain must be attractive as well as ingenious. Hirsch has neither the greatness of Milton’s Satan, the charm of the Master of Ballantrae, nor the courage of Macbeth. He is ‘the priest of evil’ indeed, but his devilish rites suggest the need of a psychoanalyst rather than a hero. We have little pleasure and less pity when he meets his destruction.
That these forces of good and evil can be opposed with any excitement is due to the vivid scenes and characters with which they have been surrounded. Mr. Masefield’s knowledge of the sea, his talent for swift, telling description, so exquisitely apparent in Reynard the Fox and Right Royal, above all, his imagination, have never been more generously employed. The minor characters play their parts, some with the wit, others with the daring of a Mercutio; the scenes rival those of Bel Geddes in their beauty.
It. is easy to estimate the book. It is not merely a boy’s book — that is too easy. Nor is it a racial allegory, for that is too difficult. It is high melodrama, coined in the brightest words of the realm.