Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LIV

In a Sad Plight

“How shall I get out of this parole? Or shall I break it, instead of getting out? Which shall I think of first, my honour, or my country? The safety of millions, or the pride of one? An old Roman would have settled it very simply. But a Christian cannot do things so. Thank God there is no hurry, for a few days yet! But I must send a letter to Desportes this very night. Then I must consider about waiting for a week.”

Scudamore, unable to think out his case as yet — especially after running as if his wind could turn a vane — was sitting on the bank, to let the river-bed get darker, before he put his legs into the mud to get across. For the tide was out, and the old boat high and dry, and a very weak water remained to be crossed (though, like nearly all things that are weak, it was muddy), but the channel had a moist gleam in the dry spring air, and anybody moving would be magnified afar. He felt that it would never do for him, with such a secret, to be caught, and brought to book, or even to awake suspicion of his having it. The ancient Roman of whom he had thought would have broken parole for his country’s sake, and then fallen on his sword for his own sake; but although such behaviour should be much admired, it is nicer to read of such things than to do them. Captain Scuddy was of large and steady nature, and nothing came to him with a jerk or jump — perhaps because he was such a jumper — and he wore his hat well on the back of his head, because he had no fear of losing it. But for all that he found himself in a sad quandary now.

To begin with, his parole was not an ordinary leave, afforded by his captors to save themselves trouble; but a special grace, issuing from friendship, and therefore requiring to be treated in a friendly vein. The liberality of these terms had enabled him to dwell as a friend among friends, and to overhear all that he had heard. In the balance of perplexities, this weighed heavily against his first impulse to cast away all except paramount duty to his country. In the next place, he knew that private feeling urged him as hotly as public duty to cast away all thought of honour, and make off. For what he had heard about the “fair secretary” was rankling bitterly in his deep heart. He recalled at this moment the admirable precept of an ancient sage, that in such a conflict of duties the doubter should incline to the course least agreeable to himself, inasmuch as the reasons against it are sure to be urged the most feebly in self-council. Upon the whole, the question was a nice one for a casuist; and if there had not been a day to spare, duty to his country must have overridden private faith.

However, as there was time to spare, he resolved to reconcile private honour with the sense of public duty; and returning to his room, wrote a careful letter (of which he kept a copy) to his friend Desportes, now on board, and commanding the flagship of one division of the flotilla. He simply said, without giving his reason, that his parole must expire in eight days after date, allowing one day for delivery of his letter. Then he told M. Jalais what he had done, and much sorrow was felt in the household. When the time had expired without any answer from Captain Desportes, who meant to come and see him but was unable to do so, Scudamore packed up a few things needful, expecting to be placed in custody, and resolved to escape from it, at any risk of life. Then he walked to Etaples, a few miles down the river, and surrendered himself to the commandant there. This was a rough man — as Desportes had said — and with more work to do than he could manage. With very little ceremony he placed the English prisoner in charge of a veteran corporal, with orders to take him to the lock-up in the barracks, and there await further instructions. And then the commandant, in the hurry of his duties, forgot all about him.

Captain Scuddy now found himself in quarters and under treatment very trying to his philosophy. Not that the men who had him in charge were purposely unkind to him, only they were careless about his comfort, and having more important work to see to, fed him at their leisure, which did not always coincide with his appetite. Much of his food was watery and dirty, and seemed to be growing its own vegetables, and sometimes to have overripened them. Therefore he began to lose substance, and his cheeks became strangers to the buxom gloss which had been the delight of Madame Fropot. But although they did not feed him well, they took good care of him in other ways, affording no chance of exit.

But sour fruit often contains good pips. Scudamore’s food was not worth saying grace for, and yet a true blessing attended it: forasmuch as the Frenchmen diminished the width of their prisoner, but not of the window. Falling away very rapidly, for his mind was faring as badly as his body (having nothing but regrets to feed upon, which are no better diet than daisy soup), the gentle Scuddy, who must have become a good wrangler if he had stopped at Cambridge, began to frame a table of cubic measure, and consider the ratio of his body to that window, or rather the aperture thereof. One night, when his supper had been quite forgotten by everybody except himself, he lay awake thinking for hours and hours about his fair Dolly and the wicked Carne, and all the lies he must have told about her — for not a single syllable would Scudamore believe — and the next day he found himself become so soft and limp, as well as reduced to his lowest dimension, that he knew, by that just measure which a man takes of himself when he has but a shred of it left, that now he was small enough to go between the bars. And now it was high time to feel that assurance, for the morning brought news that the order for his removal to a great prison far inland was come, and would be carried out the next day. “Now or never” was the only chance before him.

Having made up his mind, he felt refreshed, and took his food with gratitude. Then, as soon as the night was dark and quiet, and the mighty host for leagues and leagues launched into the realms of slumber, springing with both feet well together, as he sprang from the tub at Stonnington, Scuddy laid hold of the iron bars which spanned the window vertically, opened the lattice softly, and peeped out in quest of sentinels. There were none on duty very near him, though he heard one pacing in the distance. Then flinging himself on his side, he managed, with some pain to his well-rounded chest, to squeeze it through the narrow slit, and hanging from the bar, dropped gently. The drop was deep, and in spite of all precautions he rolled to the bottom of a grassy ditch. There he lay quiet to rest his bruises, and watch whether any alarm was raised. Luckily for him, the moon was down, and no one had observed his venture. Crawling on all fours along a hollow place, he passed the outposts, and was free.

Free in mind as well as body, acquitted from all claims of honour, and able without a taint upon his name to bear most important news to England, if he could only get away from France. This would be difficult, as he was well aware; but his plan had been thoroughly considered in his prison, and he set forth to make the best of it. Before his escape had been discovered, he was under M. Jalais’ roof once more, and found his good friends resolved never to betray him. “But I must not expose you to the risk,” said he, “of heavy fine and imprisonment. I shall have to say good-bye to all your goodness in an hour. And I shall not even allow you to know what road I take, lest you should be blamed for sending my pursuers on the wrong one. But search my room in three days’ time, and you will find a packet to pay for something which I must steal for the present. I pray you, ask nothing, for your own sake.”

They fed him well, and he took three loaves, and a little keg of cider, as well as the bag he had packed before he surrendered himself at Etaples. Madame Fropot wept and kissed him, because he reminded her of her lost son; and M. Jalais embraced him, because he was not at all like any son of his. With hearty good wishes, and sweet regret, and promises never to forget them, the Englishman quitted this kind French house, and became at once a lawful and a likely mark for bullets.

The year was now filled with the flurry of Spring, the quick nick of time when a man is astonished at the power of Nature’s memory. A great many things had been left behind, mainly for their own good, no doubt — some of the animal, some of the vegetable, some of the mineral kingdom even — yet none of them started for anarchy. All were content to be picked up and brought on according to the power of the world, making allowance for the pinches of hard times, and the blows of east winds that had blown themselves out. Even the prime grumbler of the earth — a biped, who looks up to heaven for that purpose mainly — was as nearly content with the present state of things as he can be with anything, until it is the past. Scudamore only met one man, but that one declared it was a lovely night; and perhaps he was easier to please because he had only one leg left.

The stars had appeared, and the young leaves turned the freshness of their freedom towards them, whether from the crisp impulse of night, or the buoyant influence of kindness in the air. There was very little wind, and it was laden with no sound, except the distant voice of an indefatigable dog; but Scudamore perceived that when the tide set downwards, a gentle breeze would follow down the funnel of the river. Then he drew the ancient boat which he had used before to the mossy bank, and having placed his goods on board, fetched a pair of oars and the short mast and brown sail from the shed where they were kept, and at the top of a full tide launched forth alone upon his desperate enterprise.

There was faint light in the channel, but the banks looked very dark; and just as he cast loose he heard the big clock at Montreuil, a great way up the valley, slowly striking midnight. And he took it for good omen, as he swiftly passed the orchard, that his old friend the ox trotted down to the corner, and showed his white forehead under a sprawling apple-tree, and gave him a salute, though he scarcely could have known him. By this time the breeze was freshening nicely, and Scudamore, ceasing to row, stepped the mast, and hoisting the brown sail, glided along at a merry pace and with a hopeful heart. Passing the mouth of the creek, he saw no sign of the traitorous pilot-boat, neither did he meet any other craft in channel, although he saw many moored at either bank. But nobody challenged him, as he kept in mid-stream, and braced up his courage for the two great perils still before him ere he gained the open sea. The first of these would be the outposts on either side at Etaples, not far from the barracks where he had been jailed, and here no doubt the sentinels would call him to account. But a far greater danger would be near the river’s mouth, where a bridge of boats, with a broad gangway for troops, spanned the tidal opening.

There was no bridge across the river yet near the town itself, but, upon challenge from a sentry, Scudamore stood up and waved his hat, and shouted in fine nasal and provincial French, “The fisherman, Auguste Baudry, of Montreuil!” and the man withdrew his musket, and wished him good success. Then he passed a sandy island with some men asleep upon it, and began to fear the daybreak as he neared the bridge of boats. This crossed the estuary at a narrow part, and having to bear much heavy traffic, was as solid as a floating bridge can be. A double row of barges was lashed and chained together, between piles driven deep into the river’s bed; along them a road of heavy planks was laid, rising and falling as they rose and fell with tide, and a drawbridge near the middle of about eight yards’ span must suffice for the traffic of the little river. This fabric was protected from the heavy western surges by the shoals of the bar, and from any English dash by a strong shore battery at either end. At first sight it looked like a black wall across the river.

The darkness of night is supposed to be deepest just before dawn — but that depends upon the weather — and the sleep of weary men is often in its prime at that time. Scudamore (although his life, and all that life hangs on from heaven, were quivering at the puff of every breeze) was enabled to derive some satisfaction from a yawn, such as goes the round of a good company sometimes, like the smell of the supper of sleep that is to come. Then he saw the dark line of the military bridge, and lowered his sail, and unstepped his little mast. The strength of the tide was almost spent, so that he could deal with this barrier at his leisure, instead of being hurled against it.

Unshipping the rudder and laying one oar astern, Scudamore fetched along the inner row of piles, for he durst not pass under the drawbridge, steering his boat to an inch while he sat with his face to the oar, working noiselessly. Then he spied a narrow opening between two barges, and drove his boat under the chain that joined them, and after some fending and groping with his hands in the darkness under the planks of the bridge, contrived to get out, when he almost despaired of it, through the lower tier of the supporters. He was quit of that formidable barrier now, but a faint flush of dawn and of reflection from the sea compelled him to be very crafty. Instead of pushing straightway for the bar and hoisting sail — which might have brought a charge of grape-shot after him — he kept in the gloom of the piles nearly into the left bank, and then hugged the shadow it afforded. Nothing but the desolate sands surveyed him, and the piles of wrack cast up by gales from the west. Then with a stout heart he stepped his little mast, and the breeze, which freshened towards the rising of the sun, carried him briskly through the tumble of the bar.

The young man knelt and said his morning prayer, with one hand still upon the tiller; for, like most men who have fought well for England, he had staunch faith in the Power that has made and guides the nations, until they rebel against it. So far his success had been more than his own unaided hand might work, or his brain with the utmost of its labours second. Of himself he cast all thoughts away, for his love seemed lost, and his delight was gone; the shores of his country, if he ever reached them, would contain no pleasure for him; but the happiness of millions might depend upon his life, and first of all that of his mother.

All by himself in this frail old tub, he could scarcely hope to cross the Channel, even in the best of weather, and if he should escape the enemy, while his scanty supplies held out. He had nothing to subsist on but three small loaves, and a little keg of cider, and an old tar tub which he had filled with brackish water, upon which the oily curdle of the tar was floating. But, for all that, he trusted that he might hold out, and retain his wits long enough to do good service.

The French coast, trending here for leagues and leagues nearly due north and south, is exposed to the long accumulating power of a western gale, and the mountain roll of billows that have known no check. If even a smart breeze from the west sprang up, his rickety little craft, intended only for inland navigation, would have small chance of living through the tumult. But his first care was to give a wide berth to the land and the many French vessels that were moored or moving, whether belonging to the great flotilla, or hastening to supply its wants. Many a time he would have stood forth boldly, as fast as the breeze and tide permitted; but no sooner had he shaped a course for the open sea than some hostile sail appeared ahead and forced him to bear away until she was far onward. Thus, after a long day of vigilance and care, he was not more than five miles from land when the sun set, and probably further from the English coast than when he set forth in the morning; because he had stood towards the south of west all day, to keep out of sight of the left wing of the enemy; and as the straight outline of the coast began to fade, he supposed himself to be about half-way between the mouth of the Canche and that of the little Authie.

Watching with the eyes of one accustomed to the air the last communication of the sun, and his postscript (which, like a lady’s, is the gist of what he means), Scudamore perceived that a change of weather might come shortly, and must come ere long. There was nothing very angry in the sky, nor even threatening; only a general uncertainty and wavering; “I wish you well all round,” instead of “Here’s a guinea apiece for you.” Scuddy understood it, and resolved to carry on.

Having no compass, and small knowledge of the coast — which lay out of range of the British investment — he had made up his mind to lie by for the night, or at any rate to move no more than he could help, for fear of going altogether in the wrong direction. He could steer by the stars — as great mariners did, when the world was all discovery — so long as the stars held their skirts up; but, on the other hand, those stars might lead him into the thick of the enemy. Of this, however, he must now take his chance, rather than wait and let the wind turn against him. For his main hope was to get into the track where British frigates, and ships of light draught like his own dear Blonde, were upon patrol, inside of the course of the great war chariots, the ships of the line, that drave heavily. Revolving much grist in the mill of his mind, as the sage Ulysses used to do, he found it essential to supply the motive power bodily. One of Madame Fropot’s loaves was very soon disposed of, and a good draught of sound cider helped to renew his flagging energy.

Throughout that night he kept wide-awake, and managed to make fair progress, steering, as well as he could judge, a little to the west of north. But before sunrise the arrears of sleep increased at compound interest, and he lowered his sail, and discharged a part of the heavy sum scored against him. But when he awoke, and glanced around him with eyes that resented scanty measure, even a sleepy glance sufficed to show much more than he wished to see. Both sky and sea were overcast with doubt, and alarm, and evil foreboding. A dim streak lay where the land had been, and a white gleam quivered from the sunrise on the waves, as if he were spreading water-lilies instead of scattering roses. As the earth has its dew that foretells a bright day — whenever the dew is of the proper sort, for three kinds are established now — so the sea has a flit of bloom in the early morning (neither a colour, nor a sparkle, nor a vapour) which indicates peace and content for the day. But now there was no such fair token upon it, but a heavy and surly and treacherous look, with lumps here and there; as a man who intends to abuse us thrusts his tongue to get sharp in his cheek.

Scudamore saw that his poor old boat, scarcely sound enough for the men of Gotham, was already complaining of the uncouth manners of the strange place to which she had been carried in the dark. That is to say, she was beginning to groan, at a very quiet slap in the cheeks, or even a thoroughly well-meaning push in the rear.

“You are welcome to groan, if you don’t strain,” exclaimed the heartless Captain Scuddy.

Even as he spoke he beheld a trickle of water glistening down the forward bends, and then a little rill, and then a spurt, as if a serious leak was sprung. He found the source of this, and contrived to caulk it with a strand of tarred rope for the present; but the sinking of his knife into the forward timber showed him that a great part of the bows was rotten. If a head-sea arose, the crazy old frame would be prone to break in bodily, whereas if he attempted to run before the sea, already beginning to rise heavily from the west, there was nothing to save the frail craft from being pooped. On every side it was a bad lookout, there was every sign of a gale impending, which he could not even hope to weather, and the only chance of rescue lay in the prompt appearance of some British ship.

Even in this sad plight his courage and love of native land prevailed against the acceptance of aid from Frenchmen, if any should approach to offer it. Rather would he lie at the bottom of the Channel, or drift about among contending fishes, than become again a prisoner with his secret in his mind, and no chance of sending it to save his country. As a forlorn hope, he pulled out a stump of pencil, and wrote on the back of a letter from his mother a brief memorandum of what he had heard, and of the urgency of the matter. Then taking a last draught of his tarry water, he emptied the little tub, and fixed the head in, after he had enclosed his letter. Then he fastened the tub to an oar, to improve the chance of its being observed, and laid the oar so that it would float off, in case of the frail boat foundering. The other oar he kept at hand to steer with, as long as the boat should live, and to help him to float, when she should have disappeared.

This being done, he felt easier in his mind, as a man who has prepared for the worst should do. He renewed his vigour, which had begun to flag under constant labour and long solitude, by consuming another of his loaves, and taking almost the last draught of his cider, and after that he battled throughout the dreary day against the increase of bad weather. Towards the afternoon he saw several ships, one of which he took to be a British frigate; but none of them espied his poor labouring craft, or at any rate showed signs of doing so. Then a pilot-boat ran by him, standing probably for Boulogne, and at one time less than a league away. She appeared to be English, and he was just about to make signal for aid, when a patch in her foresail almost convinced him that she was the traitor of the Canche returning. She was probably out of her proper course in order to avoid the investing fleet, and she would run inside it when the darkness fell. Better to go to the bottom than invoke such aid; and he dropped the oar with his neckerchief upon it, and faced the angry sea again and the lonely despair of impending night.

What followed was wiped from his memory for years, and the loss was not much to be regretted. When he tried to think about it, he found nothing but a roaring of wind and of waves in his ears, a numbness of arms as he laboured with the oar tholed abaft to keep her heavy head up, a prickly chill in his legs as the brine in the wallowing boat ran up them, and then a great wallop and gollop of the element too abundant round him.

But at last, when long years should have brought more wisdom, he went poaching for supper upon Welsh rabbits. That night all the ghastly time came back, and stood minute by minute before him. Every swing of his body, and sway of his head, and swell of his heart, was repeated, the buffet of the billows when the planks were gone, the numb grasp of the slippery oar, the sucking down of legs which seemed turning into sea-weed, the dashing of dollops of surf into mouth and nose closed ever so carefully, and then the last sense of having fought a good fight, but fallen away from human arms, into “Oh Lord, receive my spirit!”

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