When you’re having to get around on crutches (as I am for, I hope, only a few days more) you remember the formidable sea-cook in Treasure Island.
I struggle to keep my balance and manage a few careful tasks, in danger of slips at any moment, on a leg and a slightly painful leg and two light modern crutches, with an evolved design that fits to the forearms instead of having to be jammed under one armpit. Long John Silver got all over the ship and the island on one leg and one heavy old wooden crutch. He came up the side “like a monkey for cleverness,” rigged strings to help him around the rolling deck in the roughest weather, wedged his crutch against a bulkhead to keep him steady while cooking thirty men’s meals, used the crutch as a missile to kill a man, tugged Jim Hawkins along on a leash “like a dancing bear,” was ready to cutlass-fight his disgruntled fellow mutineers, and outmaneuvered them around the empty treasure-pit. And at the first port on the voyage home he managed to disappear off the ship with a sack of treasure. All the time with his parrot on his shoulder. I have a problem getting a coffee cup across the kitchen. A man with one leg and one crutch has to hop – which needs errorless aim and balance and exhausting effort.
(For short distances without crutches I’ve invented a one-foot walk: you move toes then heel, go sideways, have hands free to carry things, and it makes using the shower possible.)
We wonder how he kept himself clean, whether he ever mis-stepped, and what he did when his crutch broke (as did the stick I had to use when getting out of the river), but a bit of magical improbability and oblivion to squalid detail is the prerogative of fiction.
Silver, known to his mates as “Barbecue,” is one of the outstanding characters in all of fiction (“And you may lay to that,” as he would say). It’s no wonder a seafood chain took its name from him! He is a bundle of characteristics that seem to clash yet unite inevitably, the most vivid being his power of adapting instantly, smoothly, shamelessly, and indomitably to changes of fortune.
Jim Hawkins, the boy narrator, is the hero and Long John is the “cap’n” of the villainous side. But Stevenson’s earliest title for the story was The Sea Cook, and we can suspect that his sympathy was at least partly with his pirates and with Long John in particular, rather as Homer’s with the Trojans and Hector. The luck of the struggle keeps going against the pirates, as against the Trojans; and Stevenson wrote at a time when the contempt of the upper class for the lower was still routine; but we rather wish the treasure could go to the wretches who need it instead of the already wealthy masters, and so we at least slightly forgive Silver for saying that he’ll wring Squire Trelawney’s “calf’s head off his body.”
Treasure Island is an entirely successful book (“And you may lay to that” as Silver would say, or “Says you,” as Ben Gunn would say). It is far more than the “story for boys” that Stevenson started out to write; indeed it is rather strong stuff for boys. He found his story working out so that every incident chinked perfectly into place and all the dialogue has motion and spice – “You, sir, for you cannot hold your tongue” – “By the powers, if we do that we’ll miss the morning tide!” – “First with England, then with Flint, that’s my story” – “so he done ever.” Jim derides the coxswain Israel Hands as slow-brained, yet Stevenson so enjoyed the development of this character that he gave him some of the most articulate and richly idiomatic lines: “Well, that’s unfort’nate – appears as if killing parties was a waste of time. Howsomever, sperrits don’t reckon for much, by what I’ve seen. I’ll chance it with the sperrits, Jim.” The nautical lingo in which Stevenson had apparently immersed himself makes of the seamen’s speech a sort of running metaphor for every side of life – “Silence between decks!” – “mastheaded in them hills for fear of old Ben Gunn” – “You and me will have to sign articles” – “mortal white about the cutwater” … The names of the characters are perfectly chosen, more subtly fitting them than Hardy’s celebratedly apt names: young Jim Hawkins himself and Israel Hands, Job Anderson “the big bosun,” Mr. Arrow, brave Tom who is defiant when he hears brave Alan being killed.
Note Stevenson’s genius in the choice of words: “like a monkey for cleverness.” Others even after conceiving the improbability and then the simile might have written “as nimbly as a monkey” or even “as cleverly as a monkey” and perhaps Stevenson in his mind went through those first, but by seeking a little further among the turns of English syntax he raised the phrase a notch higher; prominence shifts to the unexpected word so that its aptness makes us laugh.
By comparison the prose in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so poor, despite its strong idea, that one might think a stiffly immature Stevenson wrote it. Yet he wrote it three years after Treasure Island.