Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXIV

According to Contract

When the Blonde had been on the White Pig for a week, in spite of all the science of Scudamore, ready money of the Admiral, and efforts of the natives, there began to be signs of a change in the weather. The sea was as smooth, and the sky as bright, and the land as brown as ever; but the feel of the air was not the same, and the sounds that came through it were different. “Rain afore Friday,” said Captain Zeb, “and a blow from sowwest afore Sunday. ’Twill break up the Blunder, I reckon, my lads.”

With various aspects they looked at him, all holding sweet converse at the Darling Arms, after the manifold struggles of the day. The eyes of the younger men were filled with disappointment and anger, as at a sure seer of evil; the elder, to whom cash was more important, gazed with anxiety and dismay; while a pair, old enough to be sires of Zebedee, nodded approval, and looked at one another, expecting to receive, but too discreet to give, a wink. Then a lively discourse arose and throve among the younger; and the elders let them hold it, while they talked of something else.

On the following morning two dialogues were held upon different parts of Springhaven shore, but each of great import to the beautiful captive still fast aground in the offing. The first was between Captain Zebedee Tugwell and Lieutenant Scudamore. The gentle Scuddy, still hoping against hope, had stuck fast to his charge, upon whose fortunes so much of his own depended. If he could only succeed in floating and carrying her into Portsmouth, his mark would be made, his position secured far quicker than by ten gallant actions; and that which he cared for a hundredfold, the comfort of his widowed mother, would be advanced and established. For, upon the valuation of the prizes, a considerable sum would fall to him, and every farthing of it would be sent to her. Bright with youthful hope, and trustful in the rising spring of tide, which had all but released them yesterday, according to his firm belief, he ran from the Hall through the Admiral’s grounds, to meet the boat which was waiting for him, while he was having breakfast and council with his chief. Between the Round-house and the old white gate he heard a low whistle from a clump of shrubs, and turning that way, met Tugwell. With that prince of fishermen he shook hands, according to the manner of Springhaven, for he had learned to admire the brave habit of the man, his strong mind, and frank taciturnity. And Tugwell on his part had taken a liking to the simple and cheerful young officer, who received his suggestions, was kind to all hands, and so manfully bore the daily disappointment.

“Nobody in there?” asked Zeb, with one finger pointing to the Round-house; “then sit down on this bit of bank, sir, a minute. Less chance to be shot at by any French ship.”

The bit of bank really was a bit of hollow, where no one could see them from the beach, or lane, or even from the Round-house. Scudamore, who understood his man, obeyed; and Tugwell came to his bearings on a clump of fern before him.

“How much will Government pay the chaps as fetches her out of that snug little berth? For division to self and partners, how much? For division to self and family, how much?”

“I have thought about that,” the lieutenant answered, with little surprise at the question, but much at the secrecy thrown around it; “and I think it would be very unsafe to count upon getting a penny beyond the Admiral’s terms — double pay for the day that we float her.”

Captain Zebedee shook his head, and the golden sheaf of his Olympian beard ruffled and crisped, as to an adverse wind.

“Can’t a’most believe it,” he replied, with his bright eyes steadily settled on Scudamore’s; “the English country, as I belongs to, can’t quite ‘a coom to that yet!”

“I fear that it has indeed,” Blyth answered, very gravely; “at least I am sure of this, Master Tugwell, that you must not look forward to any bounty, bonus, or premium, or whatever it is called, from the Authorities who should provide it. But for myself, and the difference it will make to me whether we succeed or fail, I shall be happy, and will give my word, to send you 50 pounds, to be divided at your discretion among the smacks. I mean, of course, as soon as I get paid.”

Scudamore was frightened by the size of his own promise; for he had never yet owned 50 pounds in the solid. And then he was scared at the wholesale loss of so large a sum to his mother.

“Never fear, lad,” honest Tugwell replied, for the young man’s face was fair to read; “we’ll not take a farden of thy hard airnings, not a brass farden, so help me Bob! Gentlefolks has so much call for money, as none of us know nothing of. And thou hast helped to save all the lot of us from Frenchies, and been the most forwardest, as I hear tell. But if us could ‘a got 50 pounds out of Government, why so much more for us, and none the less for they. But a Englishman must do his duty, in reason, and when ‘a don’t hurt his self by the same. There’s a change in the weather, as forbids more sport. You shall have the Blunder off tomorrow, lad. Wouldn’t do to be too sudden like.”

“I fear I am very stupid, Master Tugwell. But I don’t see how you can manage it so surely, after labouring nine days all in vain.”

Zebedee hesitated half a moment, betwixt discretion and the pride of knowledge. Then the latter vanquished and relieved his mind.

“I trust in your honour, sir, of course, to keep me clear. I might have brought ‘e off the Pig, first day, or second to the latest, if it were sound business. But with winter time coming, and the week’s fishing lost, our duty to our families and this place was to pull ‘e on harder, sir, to pull ‘e aground firmer; and with the help of the Lord we have a-doed it well. We wasn’t a-going to kill the goose as laid the golden eggs. No offence to you, sir; it wasn’t you as was the goose.”

Master Tugwell rubbed his pockets with a very pleasant smile, and then put his elbows on his great square knees, and complacently studied the lieutenant’s smaller mind.

“I can understand how you could do such a thing,” said Scudamore, after he had rubbed his eyes, and then looked away for fear of laughing, “but I cannot understand by what power on earth you are enabled to look at me and tell me this. For nine days you have been paid every night, and paid pretty well, as you yourself acknowledge, to haul a ship off a shoal; and all the time you have been hauling her harder upon it!”

“Young man,” replied Tugwell, with just indignation, “a hofficer should be above such words. But I forgive ‘e, and hope the Lord will do the same, with allowance for youth and ill-convenience. I might ‘a knowed no better, at your age and training.”

“But what were you paid for, just answer me that, unless it was to pull the Blonde off the sand-bank? And how can you pretend that you have done an honest thing by pulling her further upon the bank?”

“I won’t ask ‘e, sir, to beg my pardon for saying what never man said to me, without reading the words of the contraction;” Zeb pulled out a paper from his hat, and spread it, and laid a stone at every corner; “this contraction was signed by yourself and Squire Darling, for and on behalf of the kingdom; and the words are for us to give our services, to pull, haul, tow, warp, or otherwise as directed, release, relieve, set free, and rescue the aforesaid ship, or bark, or vessel, craft, or —”

“Please not to read all that,” cried Scuddy, “or a gale of wind may come before you are half-way through. It was Admiral Darling’s lawyer, Mr. Furkettle, who prepared it, to prevent any chance of misunderstanding.”

“Provided always,” continued Tugwell, slowly, “and the meaning, condition, purport, object, sense, and intention of this agreement is, that the aforesaid Zebedee Tugwell shall submit in everything to the orders, commands, instructions, counsel, directions, injunctions, authority, or discretion, whether in writing or otherwise, of the aforesaid —”

“I would not interrupt you if I could help it”— Scudamore had a large stock of patience (enhanced by laborious practice at Stonnington), but who might abide, when time was precious, to see Zebedee feeling his way with his fingers along the bottom and to the end of every word, and then stopping to congratulate himself at the conquest of every one over two syllables? “But excuse me for saying that I know all these conditions; and the tide will be lost, if we stop here.”

“Very good, sir; then you see how it standeth. Who hath broken them? Not us! We was paid for to haul; and haul we did, according to superior orders. She grounded from the south, with the tide making upp’ard, somewhere about three-quarter flow; and the Squire, and you, and all the rest of ‘e, without no knowledge of the Pig whatsomever, fastens all your pulley-haulies by the starn, and says, ‘now pull!’ And pull we did, to the tune of sixteen guineas a day for the good of Springhaven.”

“And you knew all the time that it was wrong! Well, I never came across such people. But surely some one of you would have had the honesty — I beg pardon, I mean the good-will — to tell us. I can scarcely imagine some forty men and boys preserving such a secret for nine whole days, hauling for their lives in the wrong direction, and never even by a wink or smile —”

“Springhaven is like that,” said Master Tugwell, proudly; “we does a thing one and all together, even if us reasons consarning it. And over and above that, sir, there is but two men in Springhaven as understands the White Pig, barring my own self. The young ‘uns might ‘a smelt a rat, but they knew better than to say so. Where the Blunder grounded — and she hath airned her name, for the good of the dwellers in this village — is the chine of the Pig; and he hath a double back, with the outer side higher than the inner one. She came through a narrow nick in his outer back, and then plumped, stem on, upon the inner one. You may haul at her forever by the starn, and there she’ll ‘bide, or lay up again on the other back. But bring her weight forrard, and tackle her by the head, and off she comes, the very next fair tide; for she hath berthed herself over the biggest of it, and there bain’t but a basketful under her forefoot.”

“Then, Master Tugwell, let us lose no time, but have at her at once, and be done with it.” Scudamore jumped up, to give action to his words; but Tugwell sate aground still, as firmly as the Blonde.

“Begging of your pardon, sir, I would invite of you not to be in no sart of hurry hasting forwardly. Us must come off gradual, after holding on so long there, and better to have Squire Darling round the corner first, sir. Not that he knoweth much about it, but ‘a might make believe to do so. And when ‘a hath seen us pull wrong ways, a hundred and twenty guineas’ worth, a’ might grudge us the reward for pulling right ways. I’ve a-knowed ’un get into that state of mind, although it was his own tenants.”

The lieutenant was at length compelled to laugh, though for many reasons loth to do so. But the quiet contempt for the Admiral’s skill, and the brief hint about his character, touched his sense of the ludicrous more softly than the explanation of his own mishaps. Then the Captain of Springhaven smiled almost imperceptibly; for he was a serious man, and his smiles were accustomed to be interior.

“I did hear tell,” he said, stroking his beard, for fear of having discomposed it, “that the Squire were under compulsion to go a bit westward again tomorrow. And when he cometh back he would be glad to find us had managed the job without him. No fear of the weather breaking up afore Friday, and her can’t take no harm for a tide or two. If you thinks well, sir, let us heave at her today, as afore, by superior orders. Then it come into your mind to try t’other end a bit, and you shift all the guns and heavy lumber forrard to give weight to the bows and lift the starn, and off her will glide at the first tug tomorrow, so sure as my name is Zebedee. But mind one thing, sir, that you keep her, when you’ve got her. She hath too many furriner natives aboard of her, to be any way to my liking.”

“Oh, there need be no doubt about them,” replied Blyth; “we treat them like ourselves, and they are all upon their honour, which no Frenchman ever thinks of breaking. But my men will be tired of waiting for me. I shall leave you to your plans, Tugwell.”

“Ah, I know the natur’ of they young men,” Captain Zebedee mused, as he sate in his hollow, till Scudamore’s boat was far away; “they be full of scruples for themselves and faith in other fellows. He’ll never tell Squire, nor no one else here, what I laid him under, and the laugh would go again’ him, if he did. We shall get today’s money, I reckon, as well as double pay tomorrow, and airn it. Well, it might ‘a been better, and it might be wuss.”

About two miles westward of the brook, some rocks marked the end of the fine Springhaven sands and the beginning of a far more rugged beach, the shingles and flint shelves of Pebbleridge. Here the chalk of the Sussex backbone (which has been plumped over and sleeked by the flesh of the valley) juts forth, like the scrags of a skeleton, and crumbles in low but rugged cliffs into the flat domain of sea. Here the landing is bad, and the anchorage worse, for a slippery shale rejects the fluke, and the water is usually kept in a fidget between the orders of the west wind and scurry of the tide.

This very quiet morning, with the wind off shore, and scarcely enough of it to comb the sea, four smart-looking Frenchmen, with red caps on their heads, were barely holding way upon the light gig of the Blonde, while their Captain was keeping an appointment with a stranger, not far from the weed-strewn line of waves. In a deep rocky channel where a land-spring rose (which was still-born except at low water), and laver and dilsk and claw-coral showed that the sea had more dominion there than the sky, two men stood facing each other; and their words, though belonging to the most polite of tongues, were not so courteous as might be. Each man stood with his back to a rock — not touching it, however, because it was too wet — one was as cold and as firm as the rock, the other like the sea, tumultuous. The passionate man was Captain Desportes, and the cold one Caryl Carne.

“Then you wish me to conclude, monsieur,” Carne spoke as one offering repentance, “that you will not do your duty to your country, in the subject set before you? I pray you to deliberate, because your position hangs upon it.”

“Never! Never! Once more, Captain, with all thanks for your consideration, I refuse. My duty to my own honour has first place. After that my duty to my country. Speak of it no more, sir; it quite is to insult me.”

“No, Captain Desportes, it is nothing of that kind, or I should not be here to propose it. Your parole is given only as long as your ship continues upon the sand. The moment she floats, you are liberated. Then is the time for a noble stroke of fortune. Is it not so, my dear friend?”

“No, sir. This affair is impossible. My honour has been pledged, not until the ship is floating, but until I am myself set free in France. I am sorry not to see things as you see them for me; but the question is for my own consideration.”

Captain Desportes had resented, as an honest man must do, especially when more advanced in years, the other’s calm settlement, without invitation, of matters which concerned his own conscience. And as most mankind — if at all perceptive — like or dislike one another at a glance, Desportes, being very quick and warm of nature, had felt at first sight a strong repulsion from the cold and arrogant man who faced him. His age was at least twice that of Carne, he had seen much service in the better days of France, and had risen slowly by his own skill and valour; he knew that his future in the service depended upon his decision in this matter, and he had a large family to maintain. But his honour was pledged, and he held fast by it.

“There is one consideration,” Carne replied, with rancour slowly kindling in his great black eyes, “which precedes all others, even that of honour, in the mind of a trusted officer. It is not that of patriotism — which has not its usual weight with monsieur — but it is that of obedience, discipline, loyalty, faith, towards those who have placed faith in him. Captain Desportes, as commander of a ship, is entrusted with property; and that confidence is the first debt upon his honour.”

To Desportes, as to most men of action, the right was plainer than the reason. He knew that this final plea was unsound, but he did not see how to contest it. So he came back to fact, which was easier for him.

“How am I to know, monsieur, what would be the wishes of those who have entrusted me with my position? You are placed in authority by some means here, in your own country, but against it. That much you have proved to me, by papers. But your credentials are general only. They do not apply to this especial case. If the Chief of the State knew my position, he would wish me to act as I mean to act, for the honour and credit of our nation.”

“Are you then acquainted with his signature? If so, perhaps you will verify this, even if you are resolved to reject it.”

Carne drew a letter from an inner pocket, and carefully unfolded it. There were many words and minute directions upon various subjects, written by the hand of the most minute, and yet most comprehensive, of mankind.

“There is nothing in this that concerns you,” he said, after showing the date, only four days old, “except these few words at the end, which perhaps you may like to read, before you make final decision. The signature of the Chief is clear.”

Captain Desportes read aloud —“It is of the utmost importance to me, that the Blonde should not be captured by the enemy, as the Ville d’Anvers has been. You tell me that it is ashore near you, and the Captain and crew upon parole, to be liberated if they assist in the extrication of the vessel. This must not be. In the service of the State, I demand that they consider not at all their parole. The well-known speed and light draught of that vessel have rendered her almost indispensable to me. When the vessel is free, they must rise upon the enemy, and make for the nearest of our ports without delay. Upon this I insist, and place confidence in your established courage and management, to accomplish it to my satisfaction.”

“Your orders are clear enough,” said Caryl Carne. “What reason can you give, as an officer of the Republic, for disobeying them?”

Desportes looked at his ship in the distance, and then at the sea and the sky, with a groan, as if he were bidding farewell to them. Carne felt sure that he had prevailed, and a smile shed light, but not a soft light, on his hard pale countenance.

“Be in no rash haste,” said the French sea-captain, and he could not have found words more annoying to the cold proud man before him; “I do not recognise in this mandate the voice of my country, of the honourable France, which would never say, ‘Let my sons break their word of honour!’ This man speaks, not as Chief of a grand State, not as leader of noble gentlemen, but as Emperor of a society of serfs. France is no empire; she is a grand nation of spirit, of valour, above all, of honour. The English have treated me, as I would treat them, with kindness, with largeness, with confidence. In the name of fair France, I will not do this thing.”

Carne was naturally pale, but now he grew white with rage, and his black eyes flashed.

“France will be an empire within six months; and your honour will be put upon prison diet, while your family starve for the sake of it.”

“If I ever meet you under other circumstances,” replied the brave Frenchman, now equally pale, “I shall demand reparation, sir.”

“With great pleasure,” replied Carne, contemptuously; “meanwhile monsieur will have enough to do to repair his broken fortunes.”

Captain Desportes turned his back, and gave a whistle for his crew, then stepped with much dignity into his boat. “To the Blonde, lads,” he cried, “to the unsullied Blonde!” Then he sate, looking at her, and stroked his grizzled beard, into which there came trickling a bitter tear or two, as he thought of his wife and family. He had acted well; but, according to the measure of the present world, unwisely.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/blackmore/rd/spring/chapter24.html

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