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[Illustration: "I loved thee so, boy Jack."]
THE SPLENDID SPUR
BEING MEMOIRS OF THE ADVENTURES OF MR. JOHN MARVEL, A SERVANT OF HIS LATE MAJESTY KING CHARLES I., IN THE YEARS 1642-3: WRITTEN BY HIMSELF:
Edited in Modern English by
Q (ARTHUR T. QUILLER COUCH)
EDWARD GWYNNE EARDLEY-WILMOT.
_MY DEAR EDDIE,
Whatever view a story-teller may take of his business, 'tis happy when he can think, "This book of mine will please such and such a friend," and may set that friend's name after the title page. For even if to please (as some are beginning to hold) should be no part of his aim, at least 'twill always be a reward: and (in unworthier moods) next to a Writer I would choose to be a Lamplighter, as the only other that gets so cordial a "God bless him!" in the long winter evenings.
To win such a welcome at such a time from a new friend or two would be the happiest fortune for my tale. But to you I could wish it to speak particularly, seeing that under the coat of_ JACK MARVEL _beats the heart of your friend_
_Torquay, August 22d_, 1889.
A year or two ago it was observed that three writers were using the curiously popular signature "Q." This was hardly less confusing than that one writer should use three signatures (Grant Allen, Arbuthnot Wilson, and Anon), but as none of the three was willing to try another letter, they had to leave it to the public (whose decision in such matters is final) to say who is Q to it. The public said, Let him wear this proud letter who can win it, and for the present at least it is in the possession of the author of "The Splendid Spur" and "The Blue Pavilions." It would seem, too, as if it were his "to keep," for "Q" is like the competition cups that are only yours for a season, unless you manage to carry them three times in succession. Mr. Quiller-Couch has been champion Q since 1890.
The interesting question is not so much, What has he done to be the only prominent Q of these years, as Is he to be the Q of all time? If so, he will do better work than he has yet done, though several of his latest sketches--and one in particular--are of very uncommon merit. Mr. Quiller-Couch is so unlike Mr. Kipling that one immediately wants to compare them. They are both young, and they have both shown such promise that it will be almost sad if neither can write a book to live--as, of course, neither has done as yet. Mr. Kipling is the more audacious, which is probably a matter of training. He was brought up in India, where one's beard grows much quicker than at Oxford, and where you not only become a man (and a cynic) in a hurry, but see and hear strange things (and print them) such as the youth of Oxford miss, or, becoming acquainted with, would not dare insert in the local magazine of the moment. So Mr. Kipling's first work betokened a knowledge of the world that is by no means to be found in "Dead Man's Rock," the first book published by Mr. Quiller-Couch. On the other hand, it cannot truly be said that Mr. Kipling's latest work is stronger than his first, while the other writer's growth is the most remarkable thing about him. It is precisely the same Mr. Kipling who is now in the magazines that was writing some years ago in India (and a rare good Mr. Kipling too), but the Mr. Quiller-Couch of to-day is the Quiller-Couch of "Dead Man's Rock" grown out of recognition. To compare their styles is really to compare the men. Mr. Kipling's is the more startling, the stronger (as yet), and the more mannered. Mark Twain, it appears, said he reads Mr. Kipling for his style, which is really the same thing as saying you read him for his books, though the American seems only to have meant that he eats the beef because he likes the salt. It is a journalistic style, aiming too constantly at sharp effects, always succeeding in getting them. Sometimes this is contrived at the expense of grammar, as when (a common trick with the author) he ends a story with such a paragraph as "Which is manifestly unfair." Mr. Quiller-Couch has never sinned in this way, but his first style was somewhat turgid, even melodramatic, and, compared with Mr. Kipling's, lacked distinction. From the beginning Mr. Kipling had the genius for using the right word twice in three times (Mr. Stevenson only misses it about once in twelve), while Mr. Quiller-Couch not only used the wrong word, but weighted it with adjectives. The charge, however, cannot be brought against him to-day, for having begun by writing like a Mr. Haggard not quite sure of himself (if one can imagine such a Mr. Haggard), and changing to an obvious imitation of Mr. Stevenson, he seems now to have made a style for himself. It is clear and careful, but not as yet strong winged. Its distinctive feature is that it is curiously musical.
"Dead Man's Rock" is a capital sensational story to be read and at once forgotten. It was followed by "The Astonishing History of Troy Town," which was humorous, and proved that the author owed a debt to Dickens. But it was not sufficiently humorous to be remarkable for its humor, and it will go hand in hand with "Dead Man's Rock" to oblivion. Until "The Splendid Spur" appeared Mr. Quiller-Couch had done little to suggest that an artist had joined the ranks of the story-tellers. It is not in anyway a great work, but it was among the best dozen novels of its year, and as the production of a new writer it was one of the most notable. About the same time was published another historical romance of the second class (for to nothing short of Sir Walter shall we give a first-class in this department), "Micah Clarke," by Mr. Conan Doyle. It was as inevitable that the two books should be compared as that he who enjoyed the one should enjoy the other. In one respect "Micah Clarke" is the better story. It contains one character, a soldier of fortune, who is more memorable than any single figure in "The Splendid Spur." This, however, is effected at a cost, for this man is the book. It contains, indeed, two young fellows, one of them a John Ridd, but no Diana Vernon would blow a kiss to either. Both stories are weak in pathos, despite Joan, but there are a score of humorous situations in "The Splendid Spur" that one could not forget if he would--which he would not--as, for instance, where hero and heroine are hidden in barrels in a ship, and hero cries through his bunghole, "Wilt marry me, sweetheart?" to which heroine replies, "Must get out of this cask first." Better still is the scene in which Captain Billy expatiates, with a mop and a bucket, on the merits of his crew. But the passages are for reading, not for hearing about. Of the characters, this same Captain Billy is not the worst, but perhaps the best is Joan, Mr. Quiller-Couch's first successful picture of a girl. A capital eccentric figure is killed (some good things are squandered in this book) just when we are beginning to find him a genuine novelty. Anything that is ready to leap into danger seems to be thought good enough for the hero of a fighting romance, so that Jack Marvel will pass (though Delia, as is right and proper, is worth two of him, despite her coming-on disposition). The villain is a failure, and the plot poor. Nevertheless there are some ingenious complications in it. Jack's escape by means of the hangman's rope, which was to send him out of the world in a few hours, is a fine rollicking bit of sensation. Where Mr. Quiller-Couch and Mr. Conan Doyle both fail as compared with the great master of romance is in the introduction of historical figures and episodes. Scott would have been a great man if he had written no novel but "The Abbott" (one of his second best), and no part of "The Abbott" but the scene in which Mary signs away her crown. Mr. Quiller-Couch almost entirely avoids such attempts, and even Mr. Conan Doyle only dips into them timidly. There is, one has been told, a theory that the romancist has no right to picture history in this way. But he makes his rights when he does it as Scott did it.
Since "The Splendid Spur," Mr. Quiller-Couch has published nothing in book form which can be considered an advance on his best novel, but there have appeared by him a number of short Cornish sketches, which are perhaps best considered as experiments. They are perilously slight, and where they are successful one remembers them as sweet dreams or like a bar of music. All aim at this effect, so that many should not be taken at a time, and some (as was to be expected with such delicate work) miss their mark. It might be said that in several of these melodies Mr. Quiller-Couch has been writing the same thing again and again, determined to succeed absolutely, if not this time then the next, and if not the next time then the time after. In one case he has succeeded absolutely. "The Small People," is a prose "Song of the Shirt." To my mind this is a rare piece of work, and the biggest thing for its size that has been done in English fiction for some years.
These sketches have been called experiments. They show (as his books scarcely show) that Mr. Quiller-Couch can feel. They suggest that he may be able to do for Cornwall what Mr. Hardy has done for Dorset-- though the methods of the two writers are as unlike as their counties. But that can only be if in filling his notebook with these little comedies and tragedies Mr. Quiller-Couch is preparing for more sustained efforts.
"Our hope and heart is with thee We will stand and mark."
J. M. BARRIE.
I. THE BOWLING-GREEN OF THE "CROWN"
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