Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LVI

In the Thick of it

One of the greatest days in all the history of England, having no sense of its future fame, and being upon a hostile coast, was shining rather dismally. And one of England’s greatest men, the greatest of all her sons in battle — though few of them have been small at that — was out of his usual mood, and full of calm presentiment and gloomy joy. He knew that he would see the sun no more; yet his fear was not of that, but only of losing the light of duty. As long as the sun endures, he shall never see duty done more brilliantly.

The wind was dropping, to give the storm of human fury leisure; and while a sullen swell was rolling, canvas flapped and timbers creaked. Like a team of mallards in double column, plunging and lifting buoyant breasts to right and left alternately, the British fleet bore down upon the swan-like crescent of the foe. These were doing their best to fly, but failing of that luck, put helm alee, and shivered in the wind, and made fine speeches, proving that they must win the day.

“For this I have lived, and for this it would be worth my while to die, having no one left, I dare say now, in all the world to care for me.”

Thus spake the junior lieutenant of that British ship, the Victory — a young man after the heart of Nelson, and gazing now on Nelson’s face. No smarter sailor could be found in all that noble fleet than this Lieutenant Blyth, who once had been the captain of all smugglers. He had fought his way up by skill, and spirit, and patience, and good temper, and the precious gift of self-reliance, failing of which all merit fails. He had always thought well of himself, but never destroyed the good of it by saying so; and whoever praised him had to do it again, to outspeak his modesty. But without good fortune all these merits would never have been successes. One of Robin’s truest merits was that he generally earned good luck.

However, his spirits were not in their usual flow of jocundity just now, and his lively face was dashed with care. Not through fear of lead, or steel, or wooden splinter, or a knock upon the head, or any other human mode of encouraging humanity. He hoped to keep out of the way of these, as even the greatest heroes do; for how could the world get on if all its bravest men went foremost? His mind meant clearly, and with trust in proper Providence, to remain in its present bodily surroundings, with which it had no fault to find. Grief, however — so far as a man having faith in his luck admits that point — certainly was making some little hole into a heart of corky fibre. For Robin Lyth had heard last night, when a schooner joined the fleet with letters, that Mary Anerley at last was going to marry Harry Tanfield. He told himself over and over again that if it were so, the fault was his own, because he had not taken proper care about the safe dispatch of letters. Changing from ship to ship and from sea to sea for the last two years or more, he had found but few opportunities of writing, and even of those he had not made the utmost. To Mary herself he had never once written, knowing well that her father forbade it, while his letters to Flamborough had been few, and some of those few had miscarried. For the French had a very clever knack just now of catching the English dispatch-boats, in most of which they found accounts of their own thrashings, as a listener catches bad news of himself. But none of these led them to improve their conduct.

Flamborough (having felt certain that Robin could never exist without free trade, and missing many little courtesies that flowed from his liberal administration), was only too ready to lament his death, without insisting on particulars. Even as a man who has foretold a very destructive gale of wind tempers with the pride of truth the sorrow which he ought to feel for his domestic chimney-pots (as soon as he finds them upon his lawn), so Little Denmark, while bewailing, accepted the loss as a compliment to its own renowned sagacity.

But Robin knew not until last night that he was made dead at Flamborough, through the wreck of a ship which he had quitted a month before she was cast away. And now at last he only heard that news by means of his shipmate, Jack Anerley. Jack was a thorough-going sailor now, easy, and childish, and full of the present, leaving the past to cure and the future to care for itself as might be. He had promised Mr. Mordacks and Robin Cockscroft to find out Robin Lyth, and tell him all about the conviction of John Cadman; and knowing his name in the navy and that of his ship, he had done so after inand-out chase. But there for the time he had rested from his labors, and left “Davy Jones” to send back word about it; which that Pelagian Davy fails to do, unless the message is enshrined in a bottle, for which he seems to cherish true naval regard.

In this state of things the two brothers-inlaw — as they fully intended to be by-and-by — were going into this tremendous battle: Jack as a petty officer, and Robin as a junior lieutenant of Lord Nelson’s ship. Already had Jack Anerley begun to feel for Robin — or Lieutenant Blyth, as he now was called — that liking of admiration which his clear free manner, and quickness of resource, and agreeable smile in the teeth of peril, had won for him before he had the legal right to fight much. And Robin — as he shall still be called while the memory of Flamborough endures — regarded Jack Anerley with fatherly affection, and hoped to put strength into his character.

However, one necessary step toward that is to keep the character surviving; and in the world’s pell-mell now beginning, the uproar alone was enough to kill some, and the smoke sufficient to choke the rest. Many a British sailor who, by the mercy of Providence, survived that day, never could hear a word concerning any other battle (even though a son of his own delivered it down a trumpet), so furious was the concussion of the air, the din of roaring metal, and the clash of cannon-balls which met in the air, and split up into founts of iron.

No less than seven French and Spanish ships agreed with one accord to fall upon and destroy Lord Nelson’s ship. And if they had only adopted a rational mode of doing it, and shot straight, they could hardly have helped succeeding. Even as it was, they succeeded far too well; for they managed to make England rue the tidings of her greatest victory.

In the storm and whirl and flame of battle, when shot flew as close as the teeth of a hay-rake, and fire blazed into furious eyes, and then with a blow was quenched forever, and raging men flew into pieces — some of which killed their dearest friends — who was he that could do more than attend to his own business? Nelson had known that it would be so, and had twice enjoined it in his orders; and when he was carried down to die, his dying mind was still on this. Robin Lyth was close to him when he fell, and helped to bear him to his plank of death, and came back with orders not to speak, but work.

Then ensued that crowning effort of misplaced audacity — the attempt to board and carry by storm the ship that still was Nelson’s. The captain of the Redoubtable saw through an alley of light, between walls of smoke, that the quarter-deck of the Victory had plenty of corpses, but scarcely a life upon it. Also he felt (from the comfort to his feet, and the increasing firmness of his spinal column) that the heavy British guns upon the lower decks had ceased to throb and thunder into his own poor ship. With a bound of high spirits he leaped to a pleasing conclusion, and shouted, “Forward, my brave sons; we will take the vessel of war of that Nielson!”

This, however, proved to be beyond his power, partly through the inborn absurdity of the thing, and partly, no doubt, through the quick perception and former vocation of Robin Lyth. What would England have said if her greatest hero had breathed his last in French arms, and a captive to the Frenchman? Could Nelson himself have departed thus to a world in which he never could have put the matter straight? The wrong would have been redressed very smartly here, but perhaps outside his knowledge. Even to dream of it awakes a shudder; yet outrages almost as great have triumphed, and nothing is quite beyond the irony of fate.

But if free trade can not be shown as yet to have won for our country any other blessing, it has earned the last atom of our patience and fortitude by its indirect benevolence at this great time. Without free trade — in its sweeter and more innocent maidenhood of smuggling — there never could have been on board that English ship the Victory, a man, unless he were a runagate, with a mind of such laxity as to understand French. But Robin Lyth caught the French captain’s words, and with two bounds, and a holloa, called up Britons from below. By this time a swarm of brave Frenchmen was gathered in the mizzen-chains and gangways of their ship, waiting for a lift of the sea to launch them into the English outworks. And scarcely a dozen Englishmen were alive within hail to encounter them. Not even an officer, till Robin Lyth returned, was there to take command of them. The foremost and readiest there was Jack Anerley, with a boarder’s pike, and a brace of ship pistols, and his fine ruddy face screwed up as firm as his father’s, before a big sale of wheat “Come on, you froggies; we are ready for you,” he shouted, as if he had a hundred men in ambush.

They, for their part, failed to enter into the niceties of his language — which difficulty somehow used never to be felt among classic warriors — yet from his manner and position they made out that he offered let and hinderance. To remove him from their course, they began to load guns, or to look about for loaded ones, postponing their advance until he should cease to interfere, so clear at that time was the Gallic perception of an English sailor’s fortitude. Seeing this to be so, Jack (whose mind was not well balanced) threw a powder-case amongst them, and exhibited a dance. But this was cut short by a hand-grenade, and, before he had time to recover from that, the deck within a yard of his head flew open, and a stunning crash went by.

Poor Jack Anerley lay quite senseless, while ten or twelve men (who were rushing up, to repel the enemy) fell and died in a hurricane of splinters. A heavy round shot, fired up from the enemy’s main-deck, had shattered all before it; and Jack might thank the grenade that he lay on his back while the havoc swept over. Still, his peril was hot, for a volley of musketry whistled and rang around him; and at least a hundred and fifty men were watching their time to leap down on him.

Everything now looked as bad as could be, with the drifting of the smoke, and the flare of fire, and the pelting of bullets, and of grapnel from coehorns, and the screams of Frenchmen exulting vastly, with scarcely any Englishmen to stop them. It seemed as if they were to do as they pleased, level the bulwarks of English rights, and cover themselves with more glory than ever. But while they yet waited to give one more scream, a very different sound arose. Powder, and metal, and crash of timber, and even French and Spanish throats at their very highest pressure, were of no avail against the onward vigor and power of an English cheer. This cheer had a very fine effect. Out of their own mouths the foreigners at once were convicted of inferior stuff, and their two twelve-pounders crammed with grapnel, which ought to have scattered mortality, banged upward, as harmless as a pod discharging seed.

In no account of this great conflict is any precision observed concerning the pell-mell and fisticuff parts of it. The worst of it is that on such occasions almost everybody who was there enlarges his own share of it; and although reflection ought to curb this inclination, it seems to do quite the contrary. This may be the reason why nobody as yet (except Mary Anerley and Flamborough folk) seems even to have tried to assign fair importance to Robin Lyth’s share in this glorious encounter. It is now too late to strive against the tide of fortuitous clamor, whose deposit is called history. Enough that this Englishman came up, with fifty more behind him, and carried all before him, as he was bound to do.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31