Dead Man's Rock by Q
I CHERISH no parental illusions about 'Dead Man's Rock.'
It is two or three years since I read a page of that blood-thirsty
romance, and my only copy of it was found, the other
day, in turning out the lumber-room at the top of the house.
Later editions have been allowed
to appear with all the
inaccuracies and crudities of
the first. On page 116, Bombay
is still situated in the Bay
of Bengal, and may continue
to adorn that shore. The
error must be amusing, since
unknown friends continue to
write and confess themselves
tickled by it; and it is stupid
to begin amending a book in
which you have lost interest.
But though this is my attitude
towards 'Dead Man's Rock,'
I can still look back on the
writing of it as on an amusing
It was begun in the late summer of 1886, and was my
first attempt at telling a story on paper. I am careful to say
'on paper,' because in childhood I was telling myself stories
from morning to night. Tens of thousands of small boys are
doing the same every day in the year; but I should be sorry
to guess how much of my time, between the ages of seven and
thirteen, must have been given up to weaving these childish
epics. They were curious jumbles; the characters (of which
I had a constant set) being drawn indiscriminately from the
'Morte d'Arthur,' 'Bunyan's Holy War,' 'Pope's Iliad,'
'Ivanhoe,' and a book of Fairy Tales by Holme Lee, as well
as from history; and the themes ranging from battles and
tournaments to cricket, wrestling, and sailing matches. Anachronisms
never troubled the story-teller. The Duke of
Wellington would cheerfully break a lance with Captain
Credence or Tristram of Lyonesse, and I rarely made up a
football fifteen without including Hardicanute (whom I loved
for his name), Hector (dear for his own sake) and Wamba
(who supplied the comic interest and scored off Thersites).
They were brave companions; but at the age of thirteen they
deserted me suddenly. Or perhaps after reading Mr. Stevenson's
'Chapter on Dreams,' I had better say it was the Piskies—the
Small People—who deserted me. They alone know
why—for their pensioner had never betrayed a single one of
their secrets—or why in these later times, when he sells their
confidences for money, they have come back to help him,
though more sparingly. Three or four of the little stories in
'Noughts and Crosses' are but translated dreams, and there
are others in my notebook; but now I never compose without
some pain, whereas in the old days I had but to sit alone in
a corner or take a solitary walk and invite them, and they did
all the work. But one summer evening I summoned them
and met with no response. Without warning the tales had
come to an end.
From my first school at Newton Abbot I went to Clifton,
and from Clifton in my nineteenth year to Oxford. It was
here that the old desire to weave stories began to come back.
Mr. Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' was the immediate cause.
I had been scribbling all through my school days; had written
a prodigious quantity of bad reflective poetry and burnt it
as soon as I really began to reflect; and was now plying the
Oxford Magazine with light verse, a large proportion of which
was lately reprinted in a thin volume, with the title of 'Green
Bays.' But I wrote little or no prose. My prose essays at
school were execrable. I had followed after false models for
a while, and when gently made aware of this by the sound
and kindly scholar who looked over our sixth-form essays
at Clifton, had turned dispirited and wrote scarcely at all.
Though reading great quantities of fiction, I had, as has been
said, no thought of telling a story, and so far as I knew, no
faculty. The desire, at least, was awakened by 'Treasure
Island,' and, in explanation of this, I can only quote the
gentleman who reviewed my first book in the AthenŠum, and
observed that 'great wits jump, and lesser wits jump with
them.' That is just the truth of it. I began as a pupil and
imitator of Mr. Stevenson, and was lucky in my choice of a
The germ of 'Dead Man's Rock' was a curious little bit
of family lore, which I may extract from my father's history of
Polperro, a small haven on the Cornish coast. The Richard
Quiller of whom he speaks is my great grandfather.
'In the old home of the Quillers, at Polperro, there was hanging
on a beam a key, which we as children regarded with respect and
awe, and never dared to touch, for Richard Quiller had put the key
of his quadrant on a nail, with strong injunctions that no one should
take it off until his return (which never happened), and there, I
believe, it still hangs. His brother John served for several years as
commander of a hired armed lugger, employed in carrying despatches
in the French war, Richard accompanying him as subordinate officer.
They were engaged in the inglorious bombardment of Flushing in
1809. Some short time after this they were taken, after a desperate
fight with a pirate, into Algiers, but were liberated on the severe remonstrances
of the British Consul. They returned to their homes in
most miserable plight, having lost their all, except their Bible, much
valued then by the unfortunate sailors, and now by a descendant in
whose possession it is. About the year 1812 these same brothers
sailed to the island of Teneriffe in an armed merchant ship, but after
leaving that place were never heard of.'
Here, then, I had the simple apparatus for a mystery; for,
of course, the key must be made to unlock something far more
uncommon than a quadrant; and I still think it a capital
apparatus, had I only possessed the wit to use it properly.
There was romance in this key—that was obvious enough,
and I puzzled over it for some weeks, by the end of which my
plot had grown to something like this: A family living in
poverty, though heirs to great wealth—this wealth buried
close to their door, and the key to unlock it hanging over their
heads from morning to night. It was soon settled, too, that
this family should be Cornish, and the scene laid on the
Cornish coast, Cornwall being the only corner of the earth
with which I had more than a superficial acquaintance.
So far, so good; but what was the treasure to be? And
what the reason that stood between its inheritors and their
enjoyment of it? As it happened, these two questions were
answered together. The small library at Trinity—a delightful
room, where Dr. Johnson spent many quiet hours at work upon
his 'Dictionary'—is fairly rich in books of old travel and discovery;
fine folios, for the most part, filling the shelves on your
left as you enter. To the study of these I gave up a good
many hours that should have been spent on ancient history
of another pattern, and more directly profitable for Greats;
and in one of them—Purchas, I think, but will not swear—first
came on the Great Ruby of Ceylon. Not long after, a note
in Yule's edition of 'Marco Polo' set my imagination fairly in
chase of this remarkable gem; and I hunted up all the accessible
authorities. The size of this ruby (as thick as a man's
arm, says Marco Polo, while Maundevile, who was an artist,
and lied with exactitude, puts it at a foot in length and five
fingers in girth), its colour, 'like unto fire,' and the mystery
and completeness of its disappearance, combined to fascinate
me. No form of riches is so romantic as a precious stone with
a heart in it and a history. I had only to endow it with a
curse proportionate to its size and beauty, and I had all that
a story-teller could possibly want.
'THE HAVEN,' FOWEY
But even a treasure hunt is a poor affair unless you have
two parties vying for the booty, and a curse can hardly be
worked effectively until you introduce the fighting element,
and make destiny strike her blows through the passions—hate,
greed, &c.—of her victims. I had shaped my story to this
point: the treasure was to be buried by a man who had slain
his comrade and only confidant in order to enjoy the booty
alone, and had afterwards become aware of the curse attached
to its possession. And the descendants of these two men were
to be rivals in the search for it, each side possessing half of the
clue. It was at this point that, like George IV., I invented a
buckle. My buckle had two clasps, and on these the secret
of the treasure was so engraved as to become intelligible only
when they were united.
My plot had now taken something like a shape; but it had
one serious defect. It would not start to walk. Coax it as I
might it would not budge. Even the worst book must have a
beginning—this reflection was no less distressing than obvious,
for mine had none. And there is no saying it would ever have
found one but for a lucky accident.
In the Long Vacation of 1885 I spent three weeks or a
month at the Lizard pollacking and reading Plato. Knowing
at that time comparatively little of this corner of the coast, I
had brought one or two guide books and local histories in the
bottom of my portmanteau. One evening, after a stiff walk
along the cliffs, I put the 'Republic' aside for a certain 'History
and Description of the Parish of Mullyon,' by its vicar, the Rev.
E. G. Harvey, and came upon a passage that immediately
shook my scraps of invention into their proper places.
The passage in question was a narrative of the wreck of
the 'Jonkheer Meester Van de Wall,' a Dutch barque, on the
night of March 25, 1867. I cannot quote at length the vicar's
description of this wreck; but in substance and in many of its
details it is the story of the 'Belle Fortune' in 'Dead Man's
Rock.' The vessel broke up in the night and drowned every
soul on board except a Greek sailor, who was found early next
morning clambering about the rocks under cliff, between
Polurrian and Poljew. This man's behaviour was mysterious
from the first, and his evidence at the inquest held on the
drowned bodies of his shipmates was, to say the least, extraordinary.
He said: 'My name is Georgio Buffani. I was
seaman on board the ship, which belonged to Dordrecht. I
joined the ship at Batavia, but I do not know the name of the
ship or the name of the captain.' Being shown, however, the
official list of Dutch East Indiamen, he pointed to one built
in 1854, the 'Kosmopoliet,' Captain K÷nig. He then told his
story of the disaster, which there was no one to contradict, and
the jury returned a verdict of 'Accidentally drowned.' The
Greek made his bow and left the neighbourhood.
MR. AND MRS. QUILLER COUCH
Just after the inquest Mr. Broad, Dutch Consul at Falmouth,
arrived, bringing with him the captains of two Dutch East
Indiamen then lying at Falmouth. One of them asked at once
'Is it Klaas Lammerts's?' Being told that the 'Kosmopoliet'
was the name of the wrecked ship, he said, 'I don't believe it.
The "Kosmopoliet" wouldn't be due for a fortnight, almost. It
must be Klaas Lammerts's vessel.' The vicar, who had now
come up, showed a scrap of flannel he had picked up, with
'6. K. L.' marked upon it. 'Ah!' said the Dutchman, 'it must
be so. It must be the "Jonkheer."' But she had been returned
'Kosmopoliet' at the inquest, so there the matter rested.
'On the Friday following, however,' pursues the vicar,
'when Mr. Broad and this Dutch captain again visited
Mullyon, the first thing handed them was a parchment which
had been picked up meanwhile, and this was none other than
the masonic diploma of Klaas van Lammerts. Here, then,
was no room for doubt. The ship was identified as the
"Jonkheer Meester van de Wall van Puttershoek," Captain
Klaas van Lammerts, 650 tons register, homeward bound from
the East Indies, with a cargo of sugar, coffee, spices, and some
Banca tin. The value of the ship and cargo would be between
40,000l. and 50,000l.' It may be added that on the afternoon
before the wreck, the vessel had been seen to miss stays more
than once in her endeavour to beat off the land, and generally
to behave as if handled by an unaccountably clumsy crew.
Altogether, folks on shore had grave suspicions that there was
mutiny or extreme disorder of some kind on board; but of
this nothing was ever certainly known.
I think this narrative was no sooner read than digested
into the scheme of my romance, now for some months
neglected and almost forgotten. But the Final School of
LiterŠ Humaniores loomed unpleasantly near, and just a year
passed before I could turn my discovery to account. The
following August found me at Petworth, in Sussex, lodging
over a clockmaker's shop that looked out upon the Market
Square. Petworth is quiet; and at that time I knew scarcely
a soul in the place; but lovely scenery lies all around it, and
on a hot afternoon you may do worse than stretch yourself
on the slopes above the weald and smoke and do nothing.
There is one small common in particular, close to the monument
at the top of the park, and just outside the park wall,
where I spent many hours looking across the blue country
to Blackdown, and lazily making up my mind about the
novel. In the end—it was some time in September—I called
on the local stationer and bought a large heap of superior
FOWEY GRAMMAR SCHOOL CREW AND MR. QUILLER COUCH
A travelling waxwork company was unpacking its caravan
in the square outside my window on the morning when I
pulled in my chair and light-heartedly wrote 'Dead Man's
Rock (a Romance), by Q.,' at the top of the first sheet of
foolscap. The initial was my old initial of the Oxford
Magazine verses, and the title had been settled on for some
time before. Staying with some friends on the Cornish coast,
I had been taken to a picnic, or some similar function, on a
beach, where they showed me a pillar-shaped rock, standing
boldly up from the sands, and veined with curious red streaks
resembling bloodstains. 'I want a story written about that
rock,' a lady of the party had said; 'something really blood-thirsty.
"Slaughter Rock" might do for the name.' But my
title was really borrowed from the Dodman, locally called
Deadman, a promontory east of Falmouth, between Veryan
and St. Austell bays.
I had covered two pages of foolscap before the brass band
of the waxwork show struck up and drove me out of doors
and along the road that leads to the railway station—the only
dull road around Petworth, and chosen now for that very
reason. A good half of that morning's work was afterwards
torn up; but I felt at the time that the enterprise was going
well. I had written slowly, but easily; and, of course, believed
that I had found my vocation, and would always be able to
write easily—most vain delusion! For in six years and a half
I have recaptured the fluency of that morning not half-a-dozen
times. Still, I continued to take a lively interest in my
story, and wrote at it very steadily, finishing Book I. before
my return to Oxford. It surprised me, though, that, for all
my interest in it, the story gave me little or no emotion.
Once only did I get a genuine thrill, and that was at the point
where young Jasper finds the sailor's cap (p. 25), and why
at this point more than another is past explaining. In later
efforts I have written several pages with a shaking pen and amid
dismal signs of grief; and, on revision, have usually had to
tear those pages up. On the whole, my short experience goes
|si vis me flere, dolendum est|
|Primum ipsi tibi.|
But if on revision an author is moved to tears or laughter
by any part of his work, then he may reckon pretty safely
upon it, no matter with how stony a gravity it was written.
Book I.—just half the tale—was finished then, and put
aside. The Oxford Michaelmas Term was beginning, and
there were lectures to be prepared; but this was not all the
reason. To tell the truth, I had wound up my story into a
very pretty coil, and how to unwind it was past my contriving.
When the book appeared, its critics agreed in pronouncing
Part I. to be a deal better than Part II., and they were right;
for Book II. is little more than a violent cutting of half-a-dozen
knots that had been tied in the gayest of spirits; and
THE OLD STUDY
it must be owned, moreover, that the long arm of coincidence
was invoked to perform a great part of the cutting. For the
time, however, the unfinished MS. lay in the drawer of my
writing-table; and I went back to Virgil and Aristophanes
and scribbled more verses for the Oxford Magazine. None of
my friends knew at that time of my excursion into fiction; but
one of them possesses the acutest eye in Oxford, and, with
just a perceptible twinkle in it, he asked me suddenly, one
evening towards the end of Term, if I had yet begun to write
a novel. The shot was excellently fired, and I surrendered my
MS. at once, the more gladly because believing in his judgment.
Next morning he asserted that he had sat up half the night
to read it. His look was of the freshest, but he came
triumphantly out of cross-examination, and urged me to finish
the story. In my elated mood I would have promised anything,
and set to work at once to think out the rest of the plot;
but it was not until the Easter Vacation that I finished the
book, in a farmhouse at the head of Wastwater.
Another friend was with me, who, in the intervals of
climbing, put all his enthusiasm into Aristotelian logic while I
hammered away at the 'immortal product,' as we termed it by
consent. It was further agreed that he should abstain from
looking at a line of it until the whole was written—a compact
which I have not heard he found any difficulty in keeping.
Indeed, there was plenty to occupy us both without the book.
Snow lay thick on the fells that spring, and the glissading was
excellent; we had found, or thought we had, a new way up
the Mickledore cliffs; and Mr. Gladstone had just introduced
his first Home Rule Bill, and made the newspapers (which
reached us a day late) very good reading. However, the MS.
was finished and read with sincere, if discriminating, approval,
on the eve of our departure.
The next step was to find a publisher. My earliest hopes
had inclined upon my friend, Mr. Arrowsmith, of Bristol, who
(I hoped) might remember me as having for a time edited the
Cliftonian; but the book was clearly too long for his 'Railway
Library,' and on this reflection I determined to try the
publishers of 'Treasure Island.' Mr. Lyttelton Gell, of the
Clarendon Press, was kind enough to provide a letter of
introduction; the MS. went to Messrs. Cassell & Co., and I
fear the end of my narrative must be even duller than the
beginning. Messrs. Cassell accepted the book, and have
published all its successors. The inference to be drawn from
this is pleasant and obvious, and I shall be glad if my readers
will draw it.
It is the rule, I find, to conclude such a confession as this
with a paragraph or so in abuse of the literary calling; to
parade one's self before the youth of merry England as the
Spartans paraded their drunken Helot; to mourn the expense
MR. AND MRS. QUILLER COUCH IN A CANADIAN CANOE
of energies that in any other profession would have fetched a
nobler pecuniary return. I cannot do this; at any rate, I
cannot do it yet. My calling ties me to no office stool, makes
me no man's slave, compels me to no action that my soul
condemns. It sets me free from town life, which I loathe, and
allows me to breathe clean air, to exercise limbs as well as
brain, to tread good turf and wake up every morning to the
sound and smell of the sea and that wide prospect which to
my eyes is the dearest on earth. All happiness must be
purchased with a price, though people seldom recognise this;
and part of the price is that, living thus, a man can never
amass a fortune. But as it is extremely unlikely that I could
have done this in any pursuit, I may claim to have the better
of the bargain.
Certain gentlemen who have preceded me in this series
have spoken of letters as of any ordinary characteristic pursuit.
Naturally, therefore, they report unfavourably; but they seem
to me to prove the obvious. Literature has her own pains,
her own rewards; and it scarcely needs demonstration that
one who can only bring to these a bagman's estimate had very
much better be a bagman than an author.