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A Century of Sea Stories

Edited by Rafael Sabatini


THIS is not a book for those exalted intellectuals to whom plot in a story is the sign of auctorial puerility, who deprecate invention in fiction, look askance on the romantic, and for whom no piece of writing can be distinguished if it has the temerity to be dramatic.

The dramatic may find no place in those essays in fiction which claim to fulfil the lofty purpose of leading the reader into himself. But mere story-telling, which time has proved to be the only enduring form of fiction, must still depend upon drama for its vitality, and in no form of story-telling does drama more strenuously insist upon intruding than in that which has the sea for background. This because conflict, which is the soul of drama, must always be present in narratives of seafaring life. Just as it is conspicuous in the writings of Hakluyt, of Esquemeling, of Dampier, of Cook and other chroniclers of actual maritime undertakings, so it is not to be excluded from any piece of fiction which fulfils fiction's duty of reflecting reality in greater or less degree.

All good stories of the sea, then, are stories of, what one of the authors in this collection calls "fat happenings"; stories of the conflicts that arise among men cooped within the narrow confines of the commonwealth that is represented by every vessel, of conflict between ship and ship, or of that most terrible conflict of all, the conflict between man and the awful forces of nature which, greatly daring, he has harnessed to his service.

In all forms of human activity—at least within historic times—the changes brought by the centuries are little more than changes on the surface of things, changes chiefly concerned with man's extensions of his physical powers, and by no means connoting any relative change in the methods by which his spirit addresses itself to the problems of existence. In no phase of human existence is this more marked than in the activities of those who go down to the sea in ships. In all ages, from the days when vessels were moved by the oars of sweating, tortured galley-slaves to the days of ships propelled by steam, the perils that wait upon seafaring life have moulded the natures of those who confront them, have set the glamour of gallantry about their enterprises, and have suffused with romance the narratives of their least adventurous undertakings. It is for this reason that stories of the sea have never lacked and never will lack for eager readers.

Whilst some who have written with distinction of the sea may of necessity have been omitted from this volume, yet between its covers you will find a collection representative of all that is best amongst the work of those who during the last hundred years have taken the sea for background and sea faring for subject; and this background and subject being what they are, it follows that you have here an anthology of stories quick with action, rich in romance, and profuse in instruction; stories whose authors have ranged widely for material over the seas of the earth and the variety of craft that sails upon them. With these you may go whale-fishing in Polar seas or pearl-diving in the tropics, study in detail the hard, rough life of the ocean tramp or the palatial ease of the ocean liner, listen to the purr and throb of titanic engines or the howling of the gale through the shrouds of the wind jammer, witness mutinies and high loyalties, see heroism and villainy laid stark, sail in piratical raids or take part in a naval engagement. There is scarcely an aspect of life upon the sea, present or past, which you will not find explored for you within these pages, and perhaps not one that is not presented with full knowledge and authority.

It is, and perhaps on this very account, a volume that should serve to destroy some unprofitable superstitions.

Those who so glibly assert that there are only (I think it) seven stories in the world, and that every work of fiction merely a variant of one of these, will find it difficult to class these stories within the compass of those seven groups.

To the insistence that every novelist should be no better than an elegant reporter, confining himself to subjects within his personal experience, this volume supplies a disconcerting answer. For there is abundant matter here to show that the supreme and essential gift of the story-teller is a logically inventive mind functioning in a well-ordered and well informed imagination, and that this may sit confidently and authoritatively in the place of personal experience.

If amongst the writers who contribute to this volume there are some who have gathered at first hand their lore and knowledge of the sea and of ships, some who have actually sailed before the sticks or commanded from the bridge, and who, thus, have lived at least upon the fringe of the adventures they have imagined, the majority has enjoyed no such opportunity of instruction by direct observation. Yet just as there are men today who by study have acquired a closer grasp and understanding of transactions in, say, the sixteenth or seventeenth century than was possessed by many of those who were then alive, so there are some who, landlubbers themselves, display of the seas, in their own and in earlier days, as full and intimate a knowledge as is held by those who have extensively sailed them. The love of the sea and of ships has been kindled in these writers by their vivid perception of that glamour to which I have alluded. Of this love has sprung a natural hunger for closer acquaintance with its object, which, having been acquired, has in course of distillation inspired such narratives as are here presented.

To an extent this may be regarded as the vicarious indulgence, which art permits to the spirit, of experiences which the flesh desires but is denied. But for the impulse thus supplied it is probable that the art of fiction would never have arisen. Often the very vehemence and close insistence with which a writer depicts a certain phase of experience may be taken to indicate the very phase from which he is by circumstances excluded, and which on that very account acquires in his sight all the allurement and desirability of things unattainable. Of some experiences this can more commonly be the case than of others; of none, I should imagine, is it more commonly the case than of those connected with the sea. And of this the proof lies—or so I believe—in the stories here assembled. For he will be shrewd, indeed, who from their internal evidence can discover which are written from actual sea experience and which from acquired knowledge. The flavour of salt is in them all.


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