The Green Hand: Adventures of a Naval Lieutenant (by George Cupples, 1856).
Philosophers have observed, as Sir Archibald Alison would say, that men have a natural propensity to read novels. To this we may add the further observation, that landsmen have an especial propensity to read nautical novels. Such works possess not only the obvious charm of strange adventure, but the great advantage of a machinery by which the most unexpected results may be brought about without shocking the reader by any violent improbability. To a person who knows nothing about the sea, it is easy enough, by a proper use of technicalities, to make it seem the most natural thing in the world that a brig should take a line-of-battle ship, or go to the bottom and come up again, or sail straight upon a rocky coast and get no harm, or do anything else which might at first sight seem strange. When, for example, we read that “she was topping the heavy seas as they rose with a long floating cleave, that carried her counter fairly free of the after-run, though nearly right before the wind,” while “the mainboom had been guyed over to the lee quarter,” &c. &c., we feel as if we were listening to a magical incantation. For aught we know, it may be perfectly right that, after much other cunning of the same kind, the schooner in question should (as far as we can understand) turn over on one side—that the naval lieutenant should, “as if by instinct,” walk along the other, outside the bulwarks, to “cut the lanyards of the shrouds and let the mainmast go,” whilst the Byronic Jones “eases the helm down to leeward;” and we participate, without much understanding it, in the delight of the whole party when “the main staysail blows inway to leeward out of the bolt ropes,” and everything comes right again as if by miracle. The occasional glimpses of a meaning sustain our interest, whilst the long intervals of obscurity afford an excuse for our easy acquiescence in improbabilities.
It is a long time since we have seen a more pleasantly prepared mess of this kind than the Green Hand. It is, in our judgment, as good in its own way as almost any of Fenimore Cooper's novels, and not much inferior to the best of Captain Marryat's. We say “in its own way,” for a book of mere amusement is not, of course, to be tried by a very high standard. The machinery of the story is common-place enough, but it is very lively and amusing, and something to the following effect. One Lieutenant Collins, like the famous Billy Taylor, was a brisk young fellow, and fell in love at first sight with a maiden more fair than free, of the name of Violet Hyde. She was the daughter of Sir Charles Hyde, an Indian judge, who had a great objection to lively young lieutenants in general, and had been somewhat insolent to Mr. Collins in particular. As the Hydes were, moreover, on the point of going back to India, Mr. Collins's chances were not encouraging. It so happened however, that the Peace of 1815 had turned Mr. Collins adrift, with money in his pocket and nothing to do; so he thought that he could not do better than ship himself in the Seringapatam, disguised as a landsman to avoid suspicion, on the chance of being thrown in the lady's way during the voyage. Of course the chief officer of the Indiaman was a lubber and a coxcomb; of course he admired Violet Hyde, and wanted to show off before her; and, equally of course, he nearly drowned her by the clumsy manner in which he steered a boat near the Line, which naturally gave Mr. Collins an opportunity to display his quickness with the boat's tiller, and to replace Miss Hyde on the Indiaman's deck by the help of “a whip and basket from the boom end”—the basket consisting of “a studding-sail and three capstan bars dangling from the spanker-boom.” Nor did Mr. Collins's victories over the mate stop here; for did he not shout out in a voice of thunder to the crew, in the midst of a squall, to “show the head of the foretopmast staysail,” and thereby save the Seringapatam from being run down by a frigate near St. Helena? Is it not written, moreover, that he hid himself in some impossible place, whence he overhearda “foremastman,” called Ugly Harry, relate his atrocious experiences as pirate, slave trader, and sham nigger, and drop dark hints as to his intention to run away with the ship and cargo? Are we not told how, in the midst of a fearful tornado, he steered the ship into a river in Western Africa, grappled with Ugly Harry, with wild elephants, with suspicious Frenchmen, and ferocious savages, one of whom he intercepted in the act of murdering the lovely Violet, by “twisting the hatchet from his grip, and sending the edge of it with all my force clean down into his brain”? And did he not, just in the flush of glory thus ' resign his prospects, owing to an unfortunate mistake and to devoted friendship, and go aboard a frigate ordered to cruise round St. Helena to prevent Napoleon from escaping? Thereby he got an opportunity of coming across the suspicious Frenchmen for the second time, and of rather illegally running off with a schooner belonging to them, which brought him acquainted with a gentleman calling himself Jack—but strongly suspected to be Davy-Jones, who had a way of emitting sounds “more like a dog than a human being,” muttering at odd times, “Hellish, Hellish,” and other kindred sentiments, glaring with his eyes, pointing at nothing with his fingers, and otherwise demeaning himself in the manner usual with that peculiar class of persons who have dark eyes, spare but muscular frames, curly black hair, and bad consciences. As might have been expected, the mysterious Jones pilots the gallant Collins to a haunted island, polluted by fearful crimes, and containing a mysterious well, which “I had an unaccountable reluctance to drink from;” nor are we much surprised at finding that the atrocious Ugly Harry contrives to bring the Seringapatam thither at the same time, whilst the lubberly mate runs her on to a reef. Under these circumstances, Ugly Harry cannot do less than split the skull of his officer. Lieutenant Collins, after a terrific combat on two, has the satisfaction of getting under Ugly Harry's guard, and giving him a thrust which sends him, a bleeding corpse, headlong into the mysterious well, and Mr. Jones records his conviction that “it is fate.” The scene is filled up by a good deal of mutiny, not a little piracy, a mysterious appearance on the sea, and a ghastly dog who had been somehow connected with Jones and the first instalment of crimes committed at “Whitewater Island,” and had cowered about there, howling at intervals ever since.
To such a story there can, of course, be but one termination, which we may leave to our readers' experience. If they want to find out what was the mystery of the wonderful history — who Ugly Harry was — why Mr. Jones remarked, “lying old Bluewater, you can't wash it out”—why Mr. Collins was called the Green Hand-or why, when you have a mad captain, lubberly officers, a semi-mutinous crew, and a barbarous coast to leeward, with the barometer suddenly fallen to 27°, and “ox-eye” “high over toward the ship's larboard bow,” and a tornado obviously coming on, you are to take the helm, and tell a man in whom you have confidence to “go and manage to get a pull taken on the starboard brace”—if they wish to learn the key to these and other pleasant riddles, we can only recommend them to expend eighteenpence on the Green Hand the next time they take a railway journey. It is not a work of genius, but it is much the best sea story we have seen of late. The tale, as our readers will see, is not one which pretends to be anything more than a vehicle for an immense deal of adventure,
Saturday Review, October 4, 1856.