Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIII


“Her condition was very bad, as bad as could be, without going straight to the bottom,” the Admiral said to the Rector that night, as they smoked a pipe together; “and to the bottom she must have gone, if the sea had got up, before we thrummed her. Honyman wanted to have her brought inside the Head; but even if we could have got there, she would ground at low water and fill with the tide. And what could we do with all those prisoners? With our fresh hands at the pumps, we very soon fetched the water out of her, and made her as tight as we could; and I think they will manage to take her to Portsmouth. She has beautiful lines. I never saw a smarter ship. How she came to the wind, with all that water in her! The wind is all right for Portsmouth, and she will be a fine addition to the Navy.”

“But what is become of the other vessel, craft, corvette, or whatever you call her? You say that she is scarcely hurt at all. And if she gets off the White Pig’s back in the night, she may come up and bombard us. Not that I am afraid; but my wife is nervous, and the Rectory faces the sea so much. If you have ordered away the Leda, which seems to have conquered both of them, the least you can do is to keep Captain Stubbard under arms all night in his battery.”

“I have a great mind to do so; it would be a good idea, for he was very much inclined to cut up rough today. But he never would forgive me, he is such a hog at hammock — as we used to say, until we grew too elegant. And he knows that the Blonde has hauled down her colours, and Scudamore is now prize-captain. I have sent away most of her crew in the Leda, and I am not at all sure that we ought not to blow her up. In the end, we shall have to do so, no doubt; for nothing larger than a smack has ever got off that sand, and floated. But let our young friend try; let him have a fair trial. He has the stuff of a very fine seaman in him. And if he should succeed, it would be scored with a long leg for him. Halloa! Why, I thought the girls were fast asleep long ago!”

“As if we could sleep, papa, with this upon our minds!” Dolly waved an open letter in the air, and then presented it. “Perhaps Faith might, but I am sure I never could. You defied us to make out this, which is on the other leaf; and then, without giving us fair play, you took it to the desk in your Oak-room, and there you left it. Well, I took the liberty of going there for it, for there can’t be any secret about a thing that will be printed; and how are they to print it, if they can’t contrive to read it? How much will you pay me for interpreting, papa? Mr. Twemlow, I think I ought to have a guinea. Can you read it, now, with all your learning, and knowledge of dead languages?”

“My dear, it is not my duty to read it, and not at all my business. It seems to be written with the end of a stick, by a boy who was learning his letters. If you can interpret it, you must be almost a Daniel.”

“Do you hear that, papa, you who think I am so stupid? Faith gave it up; she has no perseverance, or perhaps no curiosity. And I was very nearly beaten too, till a very fine idea came into my head, and I have made out every word except three, and perhaps even those three, if Captain Honyman is not very particular in his spelling. Can you tell me anything about that, papa?”

“Yes, Dolly, just what you have heard from me before. Honyman is a good officer; a very good one, as he has just proved. No good officer ever spells well, whether in the army or the navy. Look at Nelson’s letters. I am inclined to ascribe my own slow promotion to the unnatural accuracy of my spelling, which offended my lords, because it puzzled them.”

“Then all is straight sailing, as you say, papa. But I must tell you first how I found it out, or perhaps you won’t believe me. I knew that Captain Honyman wrote this postscript, or whatever it is, with his left hand, so I took a pen in my own left hand, and practised all the letters, and the way they join, which is quite different from the other hand. And here is the copy of the words, as my left hand taught my right to put them down, after inking ever so many fingers:

“‘We never could have done it without Scudamore. He jumped a most wonderful jump from our jib-boom into her mizzen chains, when our grapples had slipped, and we could get no nearer, and there he made fast, though the enemy came at him with cutlasses, pikes, and muskets. By this means we borded and carried the ship, with a loss as above reported. When I grew faint from a trifling wound, Luff Scudamore led the borders with a cool courage that discomfited the fo.’”

“Robert Honyman all over!” cried the Admiral, with delight. “I could swear that he wrote it, if it was written with his toes. ’Twas an old joke against him, when he was lieutenant, that he never could spell his own title; and he never would put an e after an o in any word. He is far too straightforward a man to spell well; and now the loss of three fingers will cut his words shorter than ever, and be a fine excuse for him. He was faint again, when I boarded the Leda, partly no doubt through strong medical measures; for the doctor, who is an ornament to his profession, had cauterised his stumps with a marlinspike, for fear of inflammation. And I heard that he had singed the other finger off. But I hope that may prove incorrect. At any rate, I could not bear to disturb him, but left written orders with Scudamore; for the senior was on board the prize. Dolly, be off to bed, this moment.”

“Well, now,” said the Rector, drawing near, and filling another deliberative pipe, “I have no right to ask what your orders were, and perhaps you have no right to tell me. But as to the ship that remains in my parish, or at any rate on its borders, if you can tell me anything, I shall be very grateful, both as a question of parochial duty, and also because of the many questions I am sure to have to answer from my wife and daughter.”

“There is no cause for secrecy; I will tell you everything:” the Admiral hated mystery. “Why, the London papers will publish the whole of it, and a great deal more than that, in three days’ time. I have sent off the Leda with her prize to Portsmouth. With this easterly breeze and smooth water, they will get there, crippled as they are, in some twenty-four hours. There the wounded will be cared for, and the prisoners drafted off. The Blonde, the corvette which is aground, surrendered, as you know, when she found herself helpless, and within range of our new battery. Stubbard’s men longed to have a few shots at her; but of course we stopped any such outrage. Nearly all her officers and most of her crew are on board the Leda, having given their parole to attempt no rising; and Frenchmen are always honourable, unless they have some very wicked leader. But we left in the corvette her captain, an exceedingly fine fellow, and about a score of hands who volunteered to stay to help to work the ship, upon condition that if we can float her, they shall have their freedom. And we put a prize crew from the Leda on board her, only eight-and-twenty hands, which was all that could be spared, and in command of them our friend Blyth Scudamore. I sent him to ask Robert Honyman about it, when he managed to survive the doctor, for a captain is the master of his own luffs; and he answered that it was exactly what he wished. Our gallant frigate lost three lieutenants in this very spirited action, two killed and one heavily wounded. And the first is in charge of the Ville d’Anvers, so there was nobody for this enterprise except the gentle Scuddy, as they call him. He is very young for such a business, and we must do all we can to help him.”

“I have confidence in that young man,” said Mr. Twemlow, as if it were a question of theology; “he has very sound views, and his principles are high; and he would have taken holy orders, I believe, if his father’s assets had permitted it. He perceives all the rapidly growing dangers with which the Church is surrounded, and when I was in doubt about a line of Horace, he showed the finest diffidence, and yet proved that I was right. The ‘White Pig,’ as the name of a submarine bank, is most clearly of classic origin. We find it in Homer, and in Virgil too; and probably the Romans, who undoubtedly had a naval station in Springhaven, and exterminated the oyster, as they always did —”

“Come, come, Twemlow,” said the Admiral, with a smile which smoothed the breach of interruption, “you carry me out of my depth so far that I long to be stranded on my pillow. When your great book comes out, we shall have in perfect form all the pile of your discoveries, which you break up into little bits too liberally. The Blonde on the Pig is like Beauty and the Beast. If gentle Scuddy rescues her, it won’t be by Homer, or Horace, or even holy orders, but by hard tugs and stout seamanship.”

“With the blessing of the Lord, it shall be done,” said the Rector, knocking his pipe out; “and I trust that Providence may see fit to have it done very speedily; for I dread the effect which so many gallant strangers, all working hard and apparently in peril, may produce upon the females of this parish.”

But the Admiral laughed, and said, “Pooh, pooh!” for he had faith in the maids of Springhaven.

For these there was a fine time now in store — young men up and down everywhere, people running in and out with some new news, before they could get their hats on, the kettle to boil half a dozen times a day, and almost as much to see as they could talk of. At every high-water that came by daylight — and sometimes there were two of them — every maid in the parish was bound to run to the top of a sand-hill high enough to see over the neck of the Head, and there to be up among the rushes all together, and repulse disdainfully the society of lads. These took the matter in a very different light, and thought it quite a pity and a piece of fickle-mindedness, that they might go the round of crab-pots, or of inshore lug-lines, without anybody to watch them off, or come down with a basket to meet them.

For be it understood that the great fishing fleet had not launched forth upon its labours. Their narrow escape from the two French cruisers would last them a long time to think over, and to say the same thing to each other about it that each other had said to them every time they met. And they knew that they could not do this so well as to make a new credit of it every time, when once they were in the same craft together, and could not go asunder more than ten yards and a half. And better, far better, than all these reasons for staying at home and enjoying themselves, was the great fact that they could make more money by leisure than by labour, in this nobly golden time.

Luck fostered skill in this great affair, which deserves to be recorded for the good of any village gifted with like opportunity. It appears that the British Admiralty had long been eager for the capture of the Blonde, because of her speed and strength and beauty, and the mischief she had done to English trade. To destroy her would be a great comfort, but to employ her aright would be glorious; and her proper employment was to serve as a model for English frigates first, and then to fight against her native land. Therefore, no sooner did their lordships hear what had happened at Springhaven than they sent down a rider express, to say that the ship must be saved at any price. And as nothing could be spared from the blockading force, or the fleet in the Downs, or the cruising squadron, the Commander of the coast-defence was instructed to enrol, impress, or adapt somehow all the men and the matter available. Something was said about free use of money in the service of His Majesty, but not a penny was sent to begin upon. But Admiral Darling carried out his orders, as if he had received them framed in gold. “They are pretty sure to pay me in the end,” he said; “and if they don’t, it won’t break me. I would give 500 pounds on my own account, to carry that corvette to Spithead. And it would be the making of Scudamore, who reminds me of his father more and more, every time I come across him.”

The fleet under Captain Tugwell had quite lately fallen off from seven to five, through the fierce patriotism of some younger members, and their sanguine belief in bounty-money. Captain Zeb had presented them with his experience in a long harangue — nearly fifty words long — and they looked as if they were convinced by it. However, in the morning they were gone, having mostly had tiffs with their sweethearts — which are fervent incentives to patriotism — and they chartered themselves, and their boats were numbered for the service of their Country. They had done their work well, because they had none to do, except to draw small wages, and they found themselves qualified now for more money, and came home at the earliest chance of it.

Two guineas a day for each smack and four hands, were the terms offered by the Admiral, whose hard-working conscience was twitched into herring-bones by the strife between native land and native spot. “I have had many tussles with uncertainty before,” he told Dolly, going down one evening, “but never such vexation of the mind as now. All our people expect to get more for a day, than a month of fine fishing would bring them; while the Government goes by the worst time they make, and expects them to throw in their boats for nothing. ‘The same as our breeches,’ Tugwell said to me; ‘whenever we works, we throws in they, and we ought to do the very same with our boats.’ This makes it very hard for me.”

But by doing his best, he got over the hardship, as people generally do. He settled the daily wages as above, with a bonus of double that amount for the day that saw the Blonde upon her legs again. Indignation prevailed, or pretended to do so; but common-sense conquered, and all set to work. Hawsers, and chains, and buoys, and all other needful gear and tackle were provided by the Admiralty from the store-house built not long ago for the Fencibles. And Zebedee Tugwell, by right of position, and without a word said for it — because who could say a word against it? — became the commander of the Rescue fleet, and drew double pay naturally for himself and family.

“I does it,” he said, “if you ask me why I does it, without any intention of bettering myself, for the Lord hath placed me above need of that; but mainly for the sake of discipline, and the respectability of things. Suppose I was under you, sir, and knew you was getting no more than I was, why, my stomach would fly every time that you gave me an order without a ‘Please, Zebedee!’ But as soon as I feels that you pocket a shilling, in the time I take pocketing twopence, the value of your brain ariseth plain before me; and instead of thinking what you says, I does it.”


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