Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVIII

Everybody’s Master

The peril of England was now growing fast; all the faster from being in the dark. The real design of the enemy escaped the penetration even of Nelson, and our Government showed more anxiety about their great adversary landing on the coast of Egypt than on that of England. Naval men laughed at his flat-bottomed boats, and declared that one frigate could sink a hundred of them; whereas it is probable that two of them, with their powerful guns and level fire, would have sunk any frigate we then possessed. But the crafty and far-seeing foe did not mean to allow any frigate, or line-of-battle ship, the chance of enquiring how that might be.

His true scheme, as everybody now knows well, was to send the English fleet upon a wild-goose chase, whether to Egypt, the west coast of Ireland, or the West Indies, as the case might be; and then, by a rapid concentration of his ships, to obtain command of the English Channel, if only for twenty-four hours at a time. Twenty-four hours of clearance from our cruisers would have seen a hundred thousand men landed on our coast, throwing up entrenchments, and covering the landing of another hundred thousand, coming close upon their heels. Who would have faced them? A few good regiments, badly found, and perhaps worse led, and a mob of militia and raw volunteers, the reward of whose courage would be carnage.

But as a chip smells like the tree, and a hair like the dog it belongs to, so Springhaven was a very fair sample of the England whereof (in its own opinion) it formed a most important part. Contempt for the body of a man leads rashly to an under-estimate of his mind; and one of the greatest men that ever grew on earth — if greatness can be without goodness — was held in low account because not of high inches, and laughed at as “little Boney.”

However, there were, as there always are, thousands of sensible Englishmen then; and rogues had not yet made a wreck of grand Institutions to scramble for what should wash up. Abuses existed, as they always must; but the greatest abuse of all (the destruction of every good usage) was undreamed of yet. And the right man was even now approaching to the rescue, the greatest Prime–Minister of any age or country.

Unwitting perhaps of the fine time afforded by the feeble delays of Mr. Addington, and absorbed in the tissue of plot and counterplot now thickening fast in Paris — the arch-plotter in all of them being himself — the First Consul had slackened awhile his hot haste to set foot upon the shore of England. His bottomless ambition for the moment had a top, and that top was the crown of France; and as soon as he had got that on his head, the head would have no rest until the crown was that of Europe.

But before any crown could be put on at all, the tender hearts of Frenchmen must be touched by the appearance of great danger — the danger which is of all the greatest, that to their nearest and dearest selves. A bloody farce was in preparation, noble lives were to be perjured away, and above all, the only great rival in the hearts of soldiers must be turned out of France. This foul job worked — as foul Radical jobs do now — for the good of England. If the French invasion had come to pass, as it was fully meant to do, in the month of February, 1804, perhaps its history must have been written in French, for us to understand it.

So, at any rate, thought Caryl Carne, who knew the resources of either side, and the difference between a fine army and a mob. He felt quite sure that his mother’s country would conquer his father’s without much trouble, and he knew that his horn would be exalted in the land, when he had guided the conqueror into it. Sure enough then he would recover his ancestral property with interest and be able to punish his enemies well, and reward his friends if they deserved it. Thinking of these things, and believing that his own preparations would soon be finished, he left Widow Shanks to proclaim his merits, while under the bold and able conduct of Captain Renaud Charron he ran the gauntlet of the English fleet, and was put ashore southward of Cape Grisnez. Here is a long reach of dreary exposure, facing the west unprofitably, with a shallow slope of brown sand, and a scour of tide, and no pleasant moorings. Jotted as the coast was all along (whereon dry batteries grinned defiance, or sands just awash smiled treachery) with shallow transports, gun-boats, prames, scows, bilanders, brigs, and schooners, row-galleys, luggers, and every sort of craft that has a mast, or gets on without one, and even a few good ships of war pondering malice in the safer roadsteads, yet here the sweep of the west wind, and the long roll from the ocean following, kept a league or two, northward of the mighty defences of Boulogne, inviolate by the petty enmities of man. Along the slight curve of the coast might be seen, beyond Ambleteuse and Wimereux, the vast extent of the French flotilla, ranged in three divisions, before the great lunette of the central camp, and hills jotted with tents thick as limpets on a rock.

Carne (whose dealings were quite unknown to all of the French authorities save one, and that the supreme one) was come by appointment to meet his commander in a quiet and secluded spot. It was early February now, and although the day was waning, and the wind, which was drawing to the north of west, delivered a cold blow from the sea, yet the breath of Spring was in the air already, and the beat of her pulse came through the ground. Almost any man, except those two concerting to shed blood and spread fire, would have looked about a little at the pleasure of the earth, and felt a touch of happiness in the goodness of the sky.

Caryl Carne waited in the shelter of a tree, scarcely deserving to be called a tree, except for its stiff tenacity. All the branches were driven by the western gales, and scourged flat in one direction — that in which they best could hold together, and try to believe that their life was their own. Like the wings of a sea bird striving with a tempest, all the sprays were frayed alike, and all the twigs hackled with the self-same pile. Whoever observes a tree like this should stop to wonder how ever it managed to make itself any sort of trunk at all, and how it was persuaded to go up just high enough to lose the chance of ever coming down again. But Carne cared for nothing of this sort, and heeded very little that did not concern himself. All he thought of was how he might persuade his master to try the great issue at once.

While he leaned heavily against the tree, with his long sea-cloak flapping round his legs, two horsemen struck out of the Ambleteuse road, and came at hand-gallop towards him. The foremost, who rode with short stirrups, and sat his horse as if he despised him, was the foremost man of the world just now, and for ten years yet to come.

Carne ran forward to show himself, and the master of France dismounted. He always looked best upon horseback, as short men generally do, if they ride well; and his face (which helped to make his fortune) appeared even more commanding at a little distance. An astonishing face, in its sculptured beauty, set aspect, and stern haughtiness, calm with the power of transcendant mind, and a will that never met its equal. Even Carne, void of much imagination, and contemptuous of all the human character he shared, was the slave of that face when in its presence, and could never meet steadily those piercing eyes. And yet, to the study of a neutral dog, or a man of abstract science, the face was as bad as it was beautiful.

Napoleon — as he was soon to be called by a cringing world — smiled affably, and offered his firm white hand, which Carne barely touched, and bent over with deference. Then the foaming horse was sent away in charge of the attendant trooper, and the master began to take short quick steps, to and fro, in front of the weather-beaten tree; for to stand still was not in his nature. Carne, being beckoned to keep at his side, lost a good deal of what he had meant to say, from the trouble he found in timing his wonted stride to the brisk pace of the other.

“You have done well — on the whole very well,” said Napoleon, whose voice was deep, yet clear and distinct as the sound of a bell. “You have kept me well informed; you are not suspected; you are enlarging your knowledge of the enemy and of his resources; every day you become more capable of conducting us to the safe landing. For what, then, this hurry, this demand to see me, this exposing of yourself to the risk of capture?”

Carne was about to answer; but the speaker, who undershot the thoughts of others before they were shaped — as the shuttle of the lightning underweaves a cloud — raised his hand to stop him, and went on:

“Because you suppose that all is ripe. Because you believe that the slow beasts of islanders will strengthen their defences more by delay than we shall strengthen our attack. Because you are afraid of incurring suspicion, if you continue to prepare. And most of all, my friend, because you are impatient to secure the end of a long enterprise. But, Captain, it must be longer yet. It is not for you, but for me, to fix the time. Behold me! I am come from a grand review. We have again rehearsed the embarkation. We have again put two thousand horses on board. The horses did it well; but not the men. They are as brave as eagles, but as clumsy as the ostrich, and as fond of the sand without water. They will all be sea-sick. It is in their countenances, though many have been practised in the mouths of rivers. Those infamous English will not permit us to proceed far enough from our native land to acquire what they call the legs of the sea. If our braves are sea-sick, how can they work the cannon, or even navigate well for the accursed island? They must have time. They must undergo more waves, and a system of diet before embarkation. Return, my trusted Captain, and continue your most esteemed services for three months. I have written these new instructions for you. You may trust me to remember this addition to your good works.”

Carne’s heart fell, and his face was gloomy, though he did his best to hide it. So well he knew the arrogance and fierce self-will of his commanding officer that he durst not put his own opposite view of the case directly before him. This arrogance grew with the growth of his power; so that in many important matters Napoleon lost the true state of the case through the terror felt by his subordinates. So great was the mastery of his presence that Carne felt himself guilty of impertinence in carrying his head above the level of the General’s plume, and stooped unconsciously — as hundreds of tall men are said to have done — to lessen this anomaly of Nature.

“All shall be done to your orders, my General,” he replied, submissively. “For my own position I have no fear. I might remain there from year to year without any suspicion arising, so stupid are the people all around, and so well is my name known among them. The only peril is in the landing of stores, and I think we should desist from that. A few people have been wondering about that, though hitherto we have been most fortunate. They have set it down so far to smuggling operations, with which in that tyrannical land all the lower orders sympathise. But it would be wiser to desist awhile, unless you, my General, have anything of moment which you still desire to send in.”

“What sort of fellow is that Sheeseman?” asked Napoleon, with his wonderful memory of details. “Is he more to be confided in as a rogue or as a fool?”

“As both, sir; but more especially as a rogue, though he has the compunctions of a fool sometimes. But he is as entirely under my thumb, as I am under that of my Commander.”

“That is very good,” answered the First Consul, smiling with the sense of his own power; “and at an hour’s notice, with fifty chosen men landed from the London Trader — ah, I love that name; it is appropriate — you could spike all the guns of that pretentious little battery, and lock the Commander of the Coast–Defence in one of his own cellars. Is it not so, my good Captain? Answer me not. That is enough. One question more, and you may return. Are you certain of the pilotage of the proud young fisherman who knows every grain of sand along his native shore? Surely you can bribe him, if he hesitates at all, or hold a pistol at his ear as he steers the leading prame into the bay! Charron would be the man for that. Between you and Charron, there should be no mistake.”

“He requires to be handled with much delicacy. He has no idea yet what he is meant to do. And if I understand his nature, neither bribes nor fear would move him. He is stubborn as a Breton, and of that simple character.”

“One can always befool a Breton; but I hate that race,” said Napoleon. “If he cannot be made useful, tie a round shot to him, throw him overheard, and get a gentler native.”

“Alas, I fear that we cannot indulge in that pleasure,” said Carne, with a smile of regret. “It cost me a large outlay of skill to catch him, and the natives of that place are all equally stubborn. But I have a plan for making him do our work without being at all aware of it. Is it your wish, my General, that I should now describe that plan?”

“Not now,” replied Napoleon, pulling out a watch of English make, “but in your next letter. I start for Paris in an hour’s time. You will hear of things soon which will add very greatly to the weight and success of this grand enterprise. We shall have perfidious Albion caught in her own noose, as you shall see. You have not heard of one Captain Wright, and the landing-place at Biville. We will have our little Biville at Springhaven. There will be too many of us to swing up by a rope. Courage, my friend! The future is with you. Our regiments are casting dice for the fairest English counties. But your native county is reserved for you. You shall possess the whole of it — I swear it by the god of war — and command the Southern army. Be brave, be wise, be vigilant, and above all things be patient.”

The great man held up his hand, as a sign that he wanted his horse, and then offered it to Caryl Carne, who touched it lightly with his lips, and bent one knee. “My Emperor!” he said, “my Emperor!”

“Wait until the proper time,” said Napoleon, gravely, and yet well pleased. “You are not the first, and you will not be the last. Observe discretion. Farewell, my friend!”

In another minute he was gone, and the place looked empty without him. Carne stood gloomily watching the horsemen as their figures grew small in the distance, the large man behind pounding heavily away, like an English dragoon, on the scanty sod, of no importance to anybody — unless he had a wife or children — the little man in front (with the white plume waving, and the well-bred horse going easily), the one whose body would affect more bodies, and certainly send more souls out of them, than any other born upon this earth as yet, and — we hope — as long as ever it endureth.

Caryl Carne cared not a jot about that. He was anything but a philanthropist; his weaknesses, if he had any, were not dispersive, but thoroughly concentric. He gathered his long cloak round his body, and went to the highest spot within his reach, about a mile from the watch-tower at Cape Grisnez, and thence he had a fine view of the vast invasive fleet and the vaster host behind it.

An Englishman who loved his Country would have turned sick at heart and faint of spirit at the sight before him. The foe was gathered together there to eat us up on every side, to get us into his net and rend us, to tear us asunder as a lamb is torn when its mother has dropped it in flight from the wolves. For forty square miles there was not an acre without a score of tents upon it, or else of huts thrown up with slabs of wood to keep the powder dry, and the steel and iron bright and sharp to go into the vitals of England. Mighty docks had been scooped out by warlike hands, and shone with ships crowded with guns and alive with men. And all along the shore for leagues, wherever any shelter lay, and great batteries protected them, hundreds of other ships tore at their moorings, to dash across the smooth narrow line, and blacken with fire and redden with blood the white cliffs of the land they loathed.

And what was there to stop them? The steam of the multitude rose in the air, and the clang of armour filled it. Numbers irresistible, and relentless power urged them. At the beck of the hand that had called the horse, the grey sea would have been black with ships, and the pale waves would have been red with fire. Carne looked at the water way touched with silver by the soft descent of the winter sun, and upon it, so far as his gaze could reach, there were but a dozen little objects moving, puny creatures in the distance — mice in front of a lion’s den. And much as he hated with his tainted heart the land of his father, the land of his birth, some reluctant pride arose that he was by right an Englishman.

“It is the dread of the English seaman, it is the fame of Nelson, it is the habit of being beaten when England meets them upon the sea — nothing else keeps this mighty host like a set of trembling captives here, when they might launch forth irresistibly. And what is a great deal worse, it will keep me still in my ruined dungeons, a spy, an intriguer, an understrapper, when I am fit to be one of the foremost. What a fool I am so to be cowed and enslaved, by a man no better endowed than myself with anything, except self-confidence! I should have looked over his head, and told him that I had had enough of it, and if he would not take advantage of my toils, I would toil for him no longer. Why, he never even thanked me, that I can remember, and my pay is no more than Charron’s! And a pretty strict account I have to render of every Republican coin he sends. He will have his own head on them within six months, unless he is assassinated. His manners are not those of a gentleman. While I was speaking to him, he actually turned his back upon me, and cleared his throat! Every one hates him as much as fears him, of all who are in the rank of gentlemen. How would it pay me to throw him over, denounce my own doings, excuse them as those of a Frenchman and a French officer, and bow the knee to Farmer George? Truly if it were not for my mother, who has sacrificed her life for me, I would take that course, and have done with it. Such all-important news would compel them to replace me in the property of my forefathers; and if neighbours looked coldly on me at first, I could very soon conquer that nonsense. I should marry little Dolly, of course, and that would go half-way towards doing it. I hate that country, but I might come to like it, if enough of it belonged to me. Aha! What would my mother say, if she dreamed that I could have such ideas? And the whole of my life belongs to her. Well, let me get back to my ruins first. It would never do to be captured by a British frigate. We had a narrow shave of it last time. And there will be a vile great moon to-night.”

With these reflections — which were upon the whole more to his credit than the wonted web of thought — Carne with his long stride struck into a path towards the beach where his boat was waiting. Although he knew where to find several officers who had once been his comrades, he kept himself gladly to his loneliness; less perhaps by reason of Napoleon’s orders than from the growing charm which Solitude has for all who begin to understand her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/blackmore/rd/spring/chapter38.html

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