Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LIII

Time and Place

In a matter like that French invasion, which had been threatened for such a time, and kept so long impending, “the cry of wolf” grows stale at last, and then the real danger comes. Napoleon had reckoned upon this, as he always did upon everything, and for that good reason he had not grudged the time devoted to his home affairs. These being settled according to his will, and mob turned into pomp as gaily as grub turns into butterfly, a strong desire for a little more glory arose in his mighty but ill-regulated mind. If he could only conquer England, or even without that fetch her down on her knees and make her lick her own dust off the feet of Frenchmen, from that day forth all the nations of the earth must bow down before him. Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain, though they might have had the power, never would have plucked the spirit up, to resist him hand in hand, any more than skittle-pins can back one another up against the well-aimed ball.

The balance of to-be or not-to-be, as concerned our country (which many now despise, as the mother of such disloyal children), after all that long suspension, hung in the clouds of that great year; and a very cloudy year it was, and thick with storms on land and sea. Storm was what the Frenchmen longed for, to disperse the British ships; though storm made many an Englishman, pulling up the counterpane as the window rattled, thank the Father of the weather for keeping the enemy ashore and in a fright. But the greatest peril of all would be in the case of fog succeeding storm, when the mighty flotilla might sweep across before our ships could resume blockade, or even a frigate intercept.

One of the strangest points in all this period of wonders, to us who after the event are wise, is that even far-sighted Nelson and his watchful colleagues seem to have had no inkling of the enemy’s main project. Nelson believed Napoleon to be especially intent on Egypt; Collingwood expected a sudden dash on Ireland; others were sure that his object was Jamaica; and many maintained that he would step ashore in India. And these last came nearest to the mark upon the whole, for a great historian (who declares, like Caryl Carne, that a French invasion is a blessing to any country) shows that, for at least a month in the spring of 1805, his hero was revolving a mighty scheme for robbing poor England of blissful ravage, and transferring it to India.

However, the master of the world — as he was called already, and meant soon to be — suddenly returned to his earlier design, and fixed the vast power of his mind upon it. He pushed with new vigour his preparations, which had been slackened awhile, he added 30,000 well-trained soldiers to his force already so enormous, and he breathed the quick spirit of enterprise into the mighty mass he moved. Then, to clear off all obstacles, and ensure clear speed of passage, he sent sharp orders to his Admirals to elude and delude the British fleets, and resolved to enhance that delusion by his own brief absence from the scene.

Meanwhile a man of no importance to the world, and of very moderate ambition, was passing a pleasant time in a quiet spot, content to be scarcely a spectator even of the drama in rehearsal around him. Scudamore still abode with M. Jalais, and had won his hearty friendship, as well as the warm good-will of that important personage Madame Fropot. Neither of these could believe at first that any Englishman was kind and gentle, playful in manner, and light-hearted, easily pleased, and therefore truly pleasing. But as soon as they saw the poor wounded ox brought home by a ford, and settled happily in the orchard, and received him as a free gift from their guest, national prejudices dwindled very fast, and domestic good feeling grew faster. M. Jalais, although a sound Frenchman, hated the Empire and all that led up to it; and as for Madame Fropot, her choicest piece of cookery might turn into cinders, if anybody mentioned conscription in her presence. For she had lost her only son, the entire hope of her old days, as well as her only daughter’s lover, in that lottery of murder.

Nine out of ten of the people in the village were of the same way of thinking. A great army cannot be quartered anywhere, even for a week, without scattering brands of ill-will all around it. The swagger of the troops, their warlike airs, and loud contempt of the undrilled swain, the dash of a coin on the counter when they deign to pay for anything, the insolent wink at every modest girl, and the coarse joke running along apish mouths — even before dark crime begins, native antipathy is sown and thrives. And now for nearly four years this coast had never been free from the arrogant strut, the clanking spur, and the loud guffaw, which in every age and every clime have been considered the stamp of valour by plough-boys at the paps of Bellona. So weary was the neighbourhood of this race, new conscripts always keeping up the pest, that even the good M. Jalais longed to hear that the armament lay at the bottom of the Channel. And Scudamore would have been followed by the good wishes of every house in the village, if he had lifted his hat and said, “Good-bye, my dear friends; I am breaking my parole.”

For this, though encouraged by the popular voice, he was not sufficiently liberal, but stayed within bounds of space and time more carefully than if he had been watched. Captain Desportes, who had been in every way a true friend to him, came to see him now and then, being now in command of a division of the prames, and naturally anxious for the signal to unmoor. Much discourse was held, without brag on either side, but with equal certainty on both sides of success. And in one of these talks the Englishman in the simplest manner told the Frenchman all that he had seen on Christmas Eve, and his own suspicions about it.

“Understand this well,” continued Scudamore; “if I discover any treachery on the part of my own countrymen, I shall not be able to stop here on the terms that have been allowed me. Whatever the plan may be, I shall feel as if I were a party to it, if I accepted my free range and swallowed my suspicions. With your proceedings I do not meddle, according to fair compact, and the liberal conditions offered. But to see my own countrymen playing my country false is more than I could stand. You know more of such things than I do. But if you were an Englishman, could you endure to stand by and hide treachery, for the sake of your own comfort?”

“Beyond a doubt, no,” Captain Desportes answered, spreading his hand with decision: “in such a case I should throw up my parole. But a mere suspicion does not justify an act so ungracious to the commander, and personally so unkind to me. I hoped that bright eyes might persuade you to forego hard knocks, and wear none but gentle chains among us. Nature intended you for a Frenchman. You have the gay heart, and the easy manner, and the grand philosophy of our great nation. Your name is Blyth, and I know what that intends.”

Scudamore blushed, for he knew that Madame Fropot was doing her best to commit him with a lovely young lady not far off, who had felt a tender interest in the cheerful English captive. But after trying to express once more the deep gratitude he felt towards those who had been so wonderfully kind and friendly, he asked with a smile, and a little sigh behind it, what he must do, if compelled by duty to resign his present privileges.

“My faith! I scarcely know,” replied Desportes; “I have never had such a case before. But I think you must give me a written notice, signed by yourself and by M. Jalais, and allow a week to pass, and then, unless you have heard from me, present yourself to the commandant of the nearest post, which must be, I suppose, at Etaples. Rather a rough man he is; and I fear you will have reason for regret. The duty will then remain with him. But I beg you, my dear friend, to continue as you are. Tush, it is nothing but some smuggler’s work.”

Scudamore hoped that he might be right, and for some little time was not disturbed by any appearance to the contrary. But early in the afternoon one day, when the month of March was near its close, he left his books for a little fresh air, and strolled into the orchard, where his friend the ox was dwelling. This worthy animal, endowed with a virtue denied to none except the human race, approached him lovingly, and begged to draw attention to the gratifying difference betwixt wounds and scars. He offered his broad brow to the hand, and his charitable ears to be tickled, and breathed a quick issue of good feeling and fine feeding, from the sensitive tucks of his nostrils, as a large-hearted smoker makes the air go up with gratitude.

But as a burnt child dreads the fire, the seriously perforated animal kept one eye vigilant of the northern aspect, and the other studious of the south. And the gentle Scuddy (who was finding all things happy, which is the only way to make them so) was startled by a sharp jerk of his dear friend’s head. Following the clue of gaze, there he saw, coming up the river with a rollicking self-trust, a craft uncommonly like that craft which had mounted every sort of rig and flag, and carried every kind of crew, in his many dreams about her. This made him run back to his room at once, not only in fear of being seen upon the bank, but also that he might command a better view, with the help of his landlord’s old spy-glass.

Using this, which he had cleaned from the dust of ages, he could clearly see the faces of the men on board. Of these there were six, of whom five at least were Englishmen, or of English breed. As the pilot-boat drew nearer, and the sunlight fell upon her, to his great surprise he became convinced that the young man at the tiller was Dan Tugwell, the son of the captain of Springhaven. Four of the others were unknown to him, though he fancied that he had seen two of them before, but could not remember when or where. But he watched with special interest the tall man lounging against the little door of the cuddy in the bows, whose profile only was presented to him. Then the boat canted round towards the entrance of the creek, and having his glass upon the full face of the man, he recognised him as Caryl Carne, whom he had met more than once at Springhaven.

His darkest suspicions were at once redoubled, and a gush of latent jealousy was added to them. In happier days, when he was near his lady-love, some whispers had reached him about this fellow, whose countenance had always been repulsive to him, arrogant, moody, and mysterious. His good mother also, though most careful not to harass him, had mentioned that Carne in her latest letter, and by no means in a manner to remove his old misgivings. As a matter now of duty to his country and himself, the young sailor resolved to discover, at any risk, what traitorous scheme had brought this dark man over here.

To escape the long circuit by the upper bridge, he had obtained leave, through M. Jalais, to use an old boat which was kept in a bend of the river about a mile above the house. And now, after seeing that English boat make for the creek where she had been berthed on Christmas Eve, he begged Madame Fropot to tell his host not to be uneasy about him, and taking no weapon but a ground-ash stick, set forth to play spy upon traitors. As surely as one foot came after the other, he knew that every step was towards his grave, if he made a mistake, or even met bad luck; but he twirled his light stick in his broad brown hand, and gently invaded the French trees around with an old English song of the days when still an Englishman could compose a song. But this made him think of that old-fashioned place Springhaven; and sadness fell upon him, that the son of its captain should be a traitor.

Instead of pulling across the river, to avoid the splash of oars he sculled with a single oar astern, not standing up and wallowing in the boat, but sitting and cutting the figure of 8 with less noise than a skater makes. The tide being just at slack-water, this gave him quite as much way as he wanted, and he steered into a little bight of the southern bank, and made fast to a stump, and looked about; for he durst not approach the creek until the light should fade and the men have stowed tackle and begun to feed. The vale of the stream afforded shelter to a very decent company of trees, which could not have put up with the tyranny of the west wind upon the bare brow of the coast. Most of these trees stood back a little from the margin of high tide, reluctant to see themselves in the water, for fear of the fate of Narcissus. But where that clandestine boat had glided into gloom and greyness, a fosse of Nature’s digging, deeply lined with wood and thicket, offered snug harbourage to craft and fraud.

Scudamore had taken care to learn the ups and downs of the riverside ere this, and knew them now as well as a native, for he had paid many visits to the wounded ox, whom he could not lead home quite as soon as he had hoped, and he had found a firm place of the little river, easy to cross when the tide was out. With the help of this knowledge he made his way to the creek, without much risk of being observed, and then, as he came to the crest of the thicket, he lay down and watched the interlopers.

There was the boat, now imbedded in the mud, for the little creek was nearly dry by this time. Her crew had all landed, and kindled a fire, over which hung a kettle full of something good, which they seemed to regard with tender interest; while upon a grassy slope some few yards to the right a trooper’s horse was tethered. Carne was not with them, but had crossed the creek, as the marks of his boots in the mud declared; and creeping some little way along the thicket, Scudamore descried him walking to and fro impatiently in a little hollow place, where the sailors could not see him. This was on Scudamore’s side of the creek, and scarcely fifty yards below him. “He is waiting for an interview with somebody,” thought Scuddy: “if I could only get down to that little shanty, perhaps I should hear some fine treason. The wind is the right way to bring me every word he says.”

Keeping in shelter when the traitor walked towards him, and stealing on silently when his back was turned, the young sailor managed to ensconce himself unseen in the rough little wattle shed made by his own hands for the shelter of his patient, when a snow-storm had visited the valley of the Canche last winter. Nothing could be better fitted for his present purpose, inasmuch as his lurking-place could scarcely be descried from below, being sheltered by two large trees and a screen of drooping ivy, betwixt and below which it looked no more than a casual meeting of bushes; while on the other hand the open space beneath it was curved like a human ear, to catch the voice and forward it.

While Scudamore was waiting here and keenly watching everything, the light began to falter, and the latest gleam of sunset trembled with the breath of Spring among the buds and catkins. But the tall man continued his long, firm stride, as if the watch in his pocket were the only thing worth heeding. Until, as the shadows lost their lines and flowed into the general depth, Carne sprang forward, and a horse and rider burst into the silence of the grass and moss and trees.

Carne made a low obeisance, retired a little, and stood hat in hand, until it should please the other man to speak. And Scudamore saw, with a start of surprise, that the other man was Napoleon.

This great man appeared, to the mild English eyes that were watching him so intently, of a very different mood and visage from those of their last view of him. Then the face, which combined the beauty of Athens with the strength of Rome, was calm, and gentle, and even sweet, with the rare indulgence of a kindly turn. But now, though not disturbed with wrath, nor troubled by disappointment, that face (which had helped to make his fortune, more than any woman’s had ever done for her) was cast, even if the mould could be the same, in a very different metal. Stern force and triumphant vigour shone in every lineament, and the hard bright eyes were intent with purpose that would have no denial.

Refusing Carne’s aid, he remained on his horse, and stroked his mane for a moment, for he loved any creature that served him well, and was tender of heart when he could afford it; which added to his power with mankind.

“Are all your men well out of earshot?” he asked; and receiving assurance from Carne, went on. “Now you will be satisfied at length. You have long been impatient. It is useless to deny it. All is arranged, and all comes to a head within three months, and perhaps within two. Only four men will know it besides yourself, and three of those four are commanders of my fleet. A short time will be occupied in misleading those British ships that beleaguer us; then we concentrate ours, and command the Channel; if only for three days, that will be enough. I depart for Italy in three days or in four, to increase the security of the enemy. But I shall return, without a word to any one, and as fast as horses can lay belly to the ground, when I hear that our ships have broken out. I shall command the invasion, and it will be for England to find a man to set against me.”

“England will have difficulty, sire, in doing that,” Carne answered, with a grim smile, for he shared the contempt of English Generals then prevalent. “If the Continent cannot do it, how can the poor England? Once let your Majesty land, and all is over. But what are your Majesty’s orders for me? And where do you propose to make the landing?”

“Never ask more than one question at a time,” Napoleon answered, with his usual curtness; “my orders to you are to return at once. Prepare your supplies for a moment’s notice. Through private influence of some fair lady, you have command of the despatches of that officer at Springport, who has the control of the naval forces there. Ha! what was that? I heard a sound up yonder. Hasten up, and see if there is any listener. It seemed to be there, where the wood grows thick.”

Blyth Scudamore, forgetful of himself, had moved, and a dry stick cracked beneath his foot. Carne, at the Emperor’s glance and signal, sprang up the bank, with the help of some bushes, drew his sword and passed it between the wattles, then parted them and rushed through, but saw no sign of any one. For Scuddy had slipped away, as lightly as a shadow, and keeping in a mossy trough, had gained another shelter. Here he was obliged to slink in the smallest possible compass, kneeling upon both knees, and shrugging in both shoulders. Peering very sharply through an intertwist of suckers (for his shelter was a stool of hazel, thrown up to repair the loss of stem), he perceived that the Emperor had moved his horse a little when Carne rejoined and reassured him. And this prevented Scudamore from being half so certain as he would have liked to be, about further particulars of this fine arrangement.

“No,” was the next thing he heard Napoleon say whose power of saying “no” had made his “yes” invincible; “no, it is not to be done like that. You will await your instructions, and not move until you receive them from my own hand. Make no attempt to surprise anybody or anything, until I have ten thousand men ashore. Ten thousand will in six hours attain to fifty thousand, if the shore proves to be as you describe; so great is the merit of flat-bottomed boats. Your duty will be to leave the right surprise to us, and create a false one among the enemy. This you must do in the distance of the West, as if my Brest fleet were ravaging there, and perhaps destroying Plymouth. You are sure that you can command the signals for this?”

“Sire, I know everything as if I sat among it. I can do as I please with the fair secretary; and her father is an ancient fool.”

“Then success is more easy than I wish to have it, because it will not make good esteem. If Nelson comes at all, he will be too late, as he generally is too early. London will be in our hands by the middle of July at the latest, probably much earlier, and then Captain Carne shall name his own reward. Meanwhile forget not any word of what I said. Make the passage no more. You will not be wanted here. Your services are far more important where you are. You may risk the brave Charron, but not yourself. Send over by the 20th of May a letter to me, under care of Decres, to be opened by no hand but mine, upon my return from Italy, and let the messengers wait for my reply. Among them must be the young man who knows the coast, and we will detain him for pilot. My reply will fix the exact date of our landing, and then you will despatch, through the means at your command, any English force that might oppose our landing, to the West, where we shall create a false alarm. Is all this clear to you? You are not stupid. The great point is to do all at the right time, having consideration of the weather.”

“All is clear, and shall be carried out clearly, to the best of your Majesty’s humble servant’s power.”

Napoleon offered his beautiful white hand, which Carne raised to his lips, and then the Emperor was gone. Carne returned slowly to the boat, with triumph written prematurely on his dark stern face; while Scudamore’s brisk and ruddy features were drawn out to a wholly unwonted length, as he quietly made his way out of the covert.

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