Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LI

Strange Craft

While his love was lapsing from him thus, and from her own true self yet more, the gallant young sailor, whose last prize had been that useful one misfortune, was dwelling continually upon her image, because he had very little else to do. English prisoners in France were treated sometimes very badly, which they took good care to proclaim to Europe; but more often with pity, and good-will, and a pleasant study of their modes of thought. For an Englishman then was a strange and ever fresh curiosity to a Frenchman, a specimen of another race of bipeds, with doubts whether marriage could make parentage between them. And a century of intercourse, good-will, and admiration has left us still inquisitive about each other.

Napoleon felt such confidence in his plans for the conquest of England that if any British officer belonging to the fleet in the narrow seas was taken (which did not happen largely), he sent for him, upon his arrival at Boulogne, and held a little talk with any one who could understand and answer. He was especially pleased at hearing of the capture of Blyth Scudamore (who had robbed him of his beloved Blonde), and at once restored Desportes to favour, which he had begun to do before, knowing as well as any man on earth the value of good officers. “Bring your prisoner here tomorrow at twelve o’clock,” was his order; “you have turned the tables upon him well.”

Scudamore felt a little nervous tingling as he passed through the sentries, with his friend before him, into the pavilion of the greatest man in Europe. But the Emperor, being in high good-humour, and pleased with the young man’s modest face and gentle demeanour, soon set him at his ease, and spoke to him as affably as if he had been his equal. For this man of almost universal mind could win every heart, when he set himself to do it. Scudamore rubbed his eyes, which was a trick of his, as if he could scarcely believe them. Napoleon looked — not insignificant (that was impossible for a man with such a countenance), but mild, and pleasing, and benevolent, as he walked to and fro, for he never could stay still, in the place which was neither a tent nor a room, but a mixture of the two, and not a happy one. His hat, looped up with a diamond and quivering with an ostrich feather, was flung anyhow upon the table. But his wonderful eyes were the brightest thing there.

“Ha! ha!” said the Emperor, a very keen judge of faces; “you expected to find me a monster, as I am portrayed by your caricaturists. Your countrymen are not kind to me, except the foremost of them — the great poets. But they will understand me better by-and-by, when justice prevails, and the blessings of peace, for which I am striving perpetually. But the English nation, if it were allowed a voice, would proclaim me its only true friend and ally. You know that, if you are one of the people, and not of the hateful House of Lords, which engrosses all the army and the navy. Are you in connection with the House of Lords?”

Scudamore shook his head and smiled. He was anxious to say that he had a cousin, not more than twice removed, now an entire viscount; but Napoleon never encouraged conversation, unless it was his own, or in answer to his questions.

“Very well. Then you can speak the truth. What do they think of all this grand army? Are they aware that, for their own good, it will very soon occupy London? Are they forming themselves to act as my allies, when I have reduced them to reason? Is it now made entirely familiar to their minds that resistance to me is as hopeless as it has been from the first unwise? If they would submit, without my crossing, it would save them some disturbance, and me a great expense. I have often hoped to hear of it.”

“You will never do that, sire,” Scudamore answered, looking calmly and firmly at the deep gray eyes, whose gaze could be met by none of the millions who dread passion; “England will not submit, even if you conquer her.”

“It is well said, and doubtless you believe it,” Napoleon continued, with a smile so slight that to smile in reply to it would have been impertinent; “but England is the same as other nations, although the most obstinate among them. When her capital is occupied, her credit ruined, her great lords unable to obtain a dinner, the government (which is not the country) will yield, and the country must follow it. I have heard that the King, and the Court, and the Parliament, talk of flying to the north, and there remaining, while the navy cuts off our communications, and the inferior classes starve us. Have you heard of any such romance as that?”

“No, sire:” Scudamore scarcely knew what to call him, but adopted this vocative for want of any better. “I have never heard of any such plan, and no one would think of packing up, until our fleet has been demolished.”

“Your fleet? Yes, yes. How many ships are now parading to and fro, and getting very tired of it?”

“Your Majesty’s officers know that best,” Scudamore answered, with his pleasant open smile. “I have been a prisoner for a month and more, and kept ten miles inland, out of sight of the sea.”

“But you have been well treated, I hope. You have no complaint to make, Monsieur Scutamour? Your name is French, and you speak the language well. We set the fair example in the treatment of brave men.”

“Sire, I have been treated,” the young officer replied, with a low bow, and eyes full of gratitude, “as a gentleman amongst gentlemen. I might say as a friend among kind friends.”

“That is as it should be. It is my wish always. Few of your English fabrications annoy me more than the falsehoods about that. It is most ungenerous, when I do my best, to charge me with strangling brave English captains. But Desportes fought well, before you took his vessel. Is it not so? Speak exactly as you think. I like to hear the enemy’s account of every action.”

“Captain Desportes, sire, fought like a hero, and so did all his crew. It was only his mishap in sticking fast upon a sand-bank that enabled us to overpower him.”

“And now he has done the like to you. You speak with a brave man’s candour. You shall be at liberty to see the sea, monsieur; for a sailor always pines for that. I will give full instructions to your friend Desportes about you. But one more question before you go — is there much anxiety in England?”

“Yes, sire, a great deal. But we hope not to allow your Majesty’s armament to enter and increase it.”

“Ah, we shall see, we shall see how that will be. Now farewell, Captain. Tell Desportes to come to me.”

“Well, my dear friend, you have made a good impression,” said the French sailor, when he rejoined Scudamore, after a few words with the Master of the State; “all you have to do is to give your word of honour to avoid our lines, and keep away from the beach, and of course to have no communication with your friends upon military subjects. I am allowed to place you for the present at Beutin, a pleasant little hamlet on the Canche, where lives an old relative of mine, a Monsieur Jalais, an ancient widower, with a large house and one servant. I shall be afloat, and shall see but little of you, which is the only sad part of the business. You will have to report yourself to your landlord at eight every morning and at eight o’clock at night, and only to leave the house between those hours, and not to wander more than six miles from home. How do these conditions approve themselves to you?”

“I call them very liberal, and very handsome,” Scudamore answered, as he well might do. “Two miles’ range is all that we allow in England to French officers upon parole. These generous terms are due to your kind friendship.”

Before very long the gentle Scuddy was as happy as a prisoner can expect to be, in his comfortable quarters at Beutin. Through friendly exchanges he had received a loving letter from his mother, with an amiable enclosure, and M. Jalais being far from wealthy, a pleasant arrangement was made between them. Scudamore took all his meals with his host, who could manage sound victuals like an Englishman, and the house-keeper, house-cleaner, and house-feeder (misdescribed by Desportes as a servant, according to our distinctions), being a widow of mark, sat down to consider her cookery upon choice occasions. Then for a long time would prevail a conscientious gravity, and reserve of judgment inwardly, everybody waiting for some other body’s sentiments; until the author of the work, as a female, might no more abide the malignant silence of male reviewers.

Scudamore, being very easily amused, as any good-natured young man is, entered with zest into all these doings, and became an authority upon appeal; and being gifted with depth of simplicity as well as high courtesy of taste, was never known to pronounce a wrong decision. That is to say, he decided always in favour of the lady, which has been the majestic course of Justice for centuries, till the appearance of Mrs. ——-, the lady who should have married the great Home–Ruler.

Thus the wily Scudamore obtained a sitting-room, with the prettiest outlook in the house, or indeed in any house in that part of the world for many leagues of seeking. For the mansion of M. Jalais stood in an elbow of the little river, and one window of this room showed the curve of tidal water widening towards the sea, while the other pleasantly gave eye to the upper reaches of the stream, where an angler of rose-coloured mind might almost hope to hook a trout. The sun glanced down the stream in the morning, and up it to see what he had done before he set; and although M. Jalais’ trees were leafless now, they had sleeved their bent arms with green velvetry of moss.

Scudamore brought his comfortable chair to the nook between these windows, and there, with a book or two belonging to his host, and the pipe whose silver clouds enthrone the gods of contemplation, many a pleasant hour was passed, seldom invaded by the sounds of war. For the course of the roads, and sands of the river, kept this happy spot aloof from bad communications. Like many other streams in northern France, the Canche had been deepened and its mouth improved, not for uses of commerce, but of warfare. Veteran soldier and raw recruit, bugler, baker, and farrier, man who came to fight and man who came to write about it, all had been turned into navvies, diggers, drivers of piles, or of horses, or wheelbarrows, by the man who turned everybody into his own teetotum. The Providence that guides the world showed mercy in sending that engine of destruction before there was a Railway for him to run upon.

Now Scudamore being of a different sort, and therefore having pleased Napoleon (who detested any one at all of his own pattern), might have been very well contented here, and certainly must have been so, if he had been without those two windows. Many a bird has lost his nest, and his eggs, and his mate, and even his own tail, by cocking his eyes to the right and left, when he should have drawn their shutters up. And why? Because the brilliance of his too projecting eyes has twinkled through the leaves upon the narrow oblong of the pupils of a spotty-eyed cat going stealthily under the comb of the hedge, with her stomach wired in, and her spinal column fluted, to look like a wrinkled blackthorn snag. But still worse is it for that poor thrush, or lintie, or robin, or warbler-wren, if he flutters in his bosom when he spies that cat, and sets up his feathers, and begins to hop about, making a sad little chirp to his mate, and appealing to the sky to protect him and his family.

Blyth Scudamore’s case was a mixture of those two. It would have been better for his comfort if he had shut his eyes; but having opened them, he should have stayed where he was, without any fluttering. However, he acted for the best; and when a man does that, can those who never do so find a word to say against him?

According to the best of his recollection, which was generally near the mark, it was upon Christmas Eve, A.D. 1804, that his curiosity was first aroused. He had made up his room to look a little bit like home, with a few sprigs of holly, and a sheaf of laurel, not placed daintily as a lady dresses them, but as sprightly as a man can make them look, and as bright as a captive Christmas could expect. The decorator shed a little sigh — if that expression may be pardoned by analogy, for he certainly neither fetched nor heaved it — and then he lit his pipe to reflect upon home blessings, and consider the free world outside, in which he had very little share at present.

Mild blue eyes, such as this young man possessed, are often short-sighted at a moderate range, and would be fitted up with glasses in these artificial times, and yet at long distance they are most efficient, and can make out objects that would puzzle keener organs. And so it was that Scudamore, with the sinking sun to help him, descried at a long distance down the tidal reach a peaceful-looking boat, which made his heart beat faster. For a sailor’s glance assured him that she was English — English in her rig and the stiff cut of her canvas, and in all those points of character to a seaman so distinctive, which apprise him of his kindred through the length of air and water, as clearly as we landsmen know a man from a woman at the measure of a furlong, or a quarter of a mile. He perceived that it was an English pilot-boat, and that she was standing towards him. At first his heart fluttered with a warm idea, that there must be good news for him on board that boat. Perhaps, without his knowledge, an exchange of prisoners might have been agreed upon; and what a grand Christmas-box for him, if the order for his release was there! But another thought showed him the absurdity of this hope, for orders of release do not come so. Nevertheless, he watched that boat with interest and wonder.

Presently, just as the sun was setting, and shadows crossed the water, the sail (which had been gleaming like a candle-flame against the haze and upon the glaze) flickered and fell, and the bows swung round, and her figure was drawn upon the tideway. She was now within half a mile of M. Jalais’ house, and Scudamore, though longing for a spy-glass, was able to make out a good deal without one. He saw that she was an English pilot-boat, undecked, but fitted with a cuddy forward, rigged luggerwise, and built for speed, yet fit to encounter almost any Channel surges. She was light in the water, and bore little except ballast. He could not be sure at that distance, but he thought that the sailors must be Englishmen, especially the man at the helm, who was beyond reasonable doubt the captain.

Then two long sweeps were manned amidship, with two sturdy fellows to tug at each; and the quiet evening air led through the soft rehearsal of the water to its banks the creak of tough ash thole-pins, and the groan of gunwale, and the splash of oars, and even a sound of human staple, such as is accepted by the civilized world as our national diapason.

The captive Scuddy, who observed all this, was thoroughly puzzled at that last turn. Though the craft was visibly English, the crew might still have been doubtful, if they had held their tongues, or kept them in submission. But that word stamped them, or at any rate the one who had been struck in the breast by the heavy timber, as of genuine British birth. Yet there was no sign that these men were prisoners, or acting by compulsion. No French boat was near them, no batteries there commanded their course, and the pilot-boat carried no prize-crew to direct reluctant labours. At the mouth of the river was a floating bridge, for the use of the forces on either side, and no boat could have passed it without permission. Therefore these could be no venturesome Britons, spying out the quarters of the enemy; either they must have been allowed to pass for some special purpose, under flag of truce, or else they were traitors, in league with the French, and despatched upon some dark errand.

In a few minutes, as the evening dusk began to deepen round her, the mysterious little craft disappeared in a hollow of the uplands on the other side of the water, where a narrow creek or inlet — such as is called a “pill” in some parts of England — formed a sheltered landing-place, overhung with clustering trees. Then Scudamore rose, and filled another pipe, to meditate upon this strange affair. “I am justly forbidden,” he thought, as it grew dark, “to visit the camp, or endeavour to learn anything done by the army of invasion. And I have pledged myself to that effect. But this is a different case altogether. When Englishmen come here as traitors to their country, and in a place well within my range, my duty is to learn the meaning of it; and if I find treachery of importance working, then I must consider about my parole, and probably withdraw it. That would be a terrible blow to me, because I should certainly be sent far inland, and kept in a French prison perhaps for years, with little chance of hearing from my friends again. And then she would give me up as lost, that faithful darling, who has put aside all her bright prospects for my sake. How I wish I had never seen that boat! and I thought it was coming to bring me such good news! I am bound to give them one day’s grace, for they might not know where to find me at once, and to-night I could not get near them, without overstaying my time to be indoors. But if I hear nothing tomorrow, and see nothing, I must go round, so as not to be seen, and learn something about her the very next morning.”

Hearing nothing and seeing no more, he spent an uncomfortable Christmas Day, disappointing his host and kind Madame Fropot, who had done all they knew to enliven him with a genuine English plum-pudding. And the next day, with a light foot but rather heavy heart, he made the long round by the bridge up-stream, and examined the creek which the English boat had entered. He approached the place very cautiously, knowing that if his suspicions were correct, they might be confirmed too decisively, and his countrymen, if they had fire-arms, would give him a warm reception. However, there was no living creature to be seen, except a poor terrified ox, who had escaped from the slaughter-houses of the distant camp, and hoped for a little rest in this dark thicket. He was worn out with his long flight and sadly wounded, for many men had shot at him, when he desired to save his life; and although his mouth was little more than the length of his tail from water, there he lay gasping with his lips stretched out, and his dry tongue quivering between his yellow teeth, and the only moisture he could get was running out instead of into his mouth.

Scudamore, seeing that the coast was clear, and no enemy in chase of this poor creature, immediately filled his hat with fresh water — for the tide was out now, and the residue was sweet — and speaking very gently in the English language, for he saw that he must have been hard-shouted at in French, was allowed without any more disturbance of the system to supply a little glad refreshment. The sorely afflicted animal licked his lips, and looked up for another hatful.

Captain Scuddy deserved a new hat for this — though very few Englishmen would not have done the like — and in the end he got it, though he must have caught a bad cold if he had gone without a hat till then.

Pursuing his search, with grateful eyes pursuing him, he soon discovered where the boat had grounded, by the impress of her keel and forefoot on the stiff retentive mud. He could even see where a hawser had been made fast to a staunch old trunk, and where the soil had been prodded with a pole in pushing her off at the turn of tide. Also deep tracks of some very large hound, or wolf, or unknown quadruped, in various places, scarred the bank. And these marks were so fresh and bright that they must have been made within the last few hours, probably when the last ebb began. If so, the mysterious craft had spent the whole of Christmas Day in that snug berth; and he blamed himself for permitting his host’s festivities to detain him. Then he took a few bearings to mark the spot, and fed the poor crippled ox with all the herbage he could gather, resolving to come with a rope tomorrow, and lead him home, if possible, as a Christmas present to M. Jalais.

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