Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LVII

Below the Line

Of the British Admirals then on duty, Collingwood alone, so far as now appears, had any suspicion of Napoleon’s real plan.

“I have always had an idea that Ireland alone was the object they have in view,” he wrote in July, 1805, “and still believe that to be their ultimate destination — that they [i. e., the Toulon fleet] will now liberate the Ferrol squadron from Calder, make the round of the bay, and taking the Rochefort people with them, appear off Ushant, perhaps with 34 sail, there to be joined by 20 more. Cornwallis collecting his out-squadrons may have 30 and upwards. This appears to be a probable plan; for unless it is to bring their great fleets and armies to some point of service — some rash attempt at conquest — they have been only subjecting them to chance of loss; which I do not believe the Corsican would do, without the hope of an adequate reward. This summer is big with events.”

This was written to Lord Nelson upon his return to Europe, after chasing that Toulon fleet to the West Indies and back again. And a day or two later, the same Vice–Admiral wrote to his friend very clearly, as before:

“Truly glad will I be to see you, and to give you my best opinion on the present state of affairs, which are in the highest degree intricate. But reasoning on the policy of the present French government, who never aim at little things while great objects are in view, I have considered the invasion of Ireland as the real mark and butt of all their operations. The flight to the West Indies was to take off the naval force, which is the great impediment to their undertaking. The Rochefort squadron’s return confirmed me. I think they will now collect their force at Ferrol — which Calder tells me are in motion — pick up those at Rochefort, who, I am told, are equally ready, and will make them above thirty sail; and then, without going near Ushant or the Channel fleet, proceed to Ireland. Detachments must go from the Channel fleet to succour Ireland, when the Brest fleet — 21 I believe of them — will sail, either to another part of Ireland, or up the Channel — a sort of force that has not been seen in those seas, perhaps ever.”

Lord Nelson just lately had suffered so much from the disadvantage of not “following his own head, and so being much more correct in judgment than following the opinion of others,” that his head was not at all in a receptive state; and like all who have doubted about being right, and found the doubt wrong, he was hardened into the merits of his own conclusion. “Why have I gone on a goose-chase?” he asked; “because I have twice as many ears as eyes.”

This being so, he stuck fast to the conviction which he had nourished all along, that the scheme of invasion was a sham, intended to keep the British fleet at home, while the enemy ravaged our commerce and colonies afar. And by this time the country, grown heartily tired of groundless alarms and suspended menace, was beginning to view with contempt a camp that was wearing out its own encampment. Little was it dreamed in the sweet rose gardens of England, or the fragrant hay-fields, that the curl of blue smoke while the dinner was cooking, the call of milkmaids, the haymaker’s laugh, or the whinny of Dobbin between his mouthfuls, might be turned (ere a man of good appetite was full) into foreign shouts, and shriek of English maiden, crackling homestead, and blazing stack-yard, blare of trumpets, and roar of artillery, cold flash of steel, and the soft warm trickle of a father’s or a husband’s blood.

But the chance of this hung upon a hair just now. One hundred and sixty thousand soldiers — the finest sons of Mars that demon has ever yet begotten — fifteen thousand warlike horses, ready to devour all the oats of England, cannons that never could be counted (because it was not always safe to go near them), and ships that no reckoner could get to the end of, because he was always beginning again.

Who was there now to meet all these? Admiral Darling, and Captain Stubbard, and Zebedee Tugwell (if he found them intrusive), and Erle Twemlow, as soon as he got his things from London. There might be a few more to come forward, as soon as they saw the necessity; but Mr. John Prater could not be relied on — because of the trade he might expect to drive; Mr. Shargeloes had never turned up again; and as for poor Cheeseman, he had lost himself so entirely now that he made up the weight of a pound of sausages, in the broad summer light, with a tallow candle. Like others concerned in this history, he had jumped at the stars, and cracked his head against a beam, in manner to be recorded.

The country being destitute thus of defenders — for even Stubbard’s battery was not half manned, because it had never been wanted — the plan of invasion was thriving well, in all but one particular. The fleet under Villeneuve was at large, so was that under Lallemand, who had superseded Missiessy, so was the force of Gravina and another Spanish admiral; but Ganteaume had failed to elude the vigilance of that hero of storms, Cornwallis. Napoleon arrived at Boulogne on the 3rd of August, and reviewed his troops, in a line on the beach some eight miles long. A finer sight he had never seen, and he wrote in his pride: “The English know not what is hanging over their ears. If we are masters of the passage for twelve hours, England is conquered.” But all depended on Villeneuve, and happily he could not depend upon his nerves.

Meanwhile the young man who was charged with a message which he would gladly have died to discharge was far away, eating out his heart in silence, or vainly relieving it with unknown words. At the last gasp, or after he ceased to gasp for the time, and was drifting insensible, but happily with his honest face still upward, a Dutchman, keeping a sharp lookout for English cruisers, espied him. He was taken on board of a fine bark bound from Rotterdam for Java, with orders to choose the track least infested by that ravenous shark Britannia. Scudamore was treated with the warmest kindness and the most gentle attention, for the captain’s wife was on board, and her tender heart was moved with compassion. Yet even so, three days passed by with no more knowledge of time on his part than the face of a clock has of its hands; and more than a week was gone before both body and mind were in tone and tune again. By that time the stout Dutch bark, having given a wide berth to the wakes of war, was forty leagues west of Cape Finisterre, under orders to touch no land short of the Cape, except for fresh water at St. Jago.

Blyth Scudamore was blest with that natural feeling of preference for one’s own kin and country which the much larger minds of the present period flout, and scout as barbarous. Happily our periodical blight is expiring, like cuckoo-spit, in its own bubbles; and the time is returning when the bottle-blister will not be accepted as the good ripe peach. Scudamore was of the times that have been (and perhaps may be coming again, in the teeth and the jaw of universal suffrage), of resolute, vigorous, loyal people, holding fast all that God gives them, and declining to be led by the tail, by a gentleman who tacked their tail on as his handle.

This certainty of belonging still to a firm and substantial race of men (whose extinction would leave the world nothing to breed from) made the gallant Scudamore so anxious to do his duty, that he could not do it. Why do we whistle to a horse overburdened with a heavy load uphill? That his mind may grow tranquil, and his ears train forward, his eyes lose their nervous contraction, and a fine sense of leisure pervade him. But if he has a long hill to surmount, with none to restrain his ardour, the sense of duty grows stronger than any consideration of his own good, and the best man has not the conscience needful to understand half his emotions.

Thus the sense of duty kept Blyth Scudamore full of misery. Every day carried him further from the all-important issues; and the chance of returning in time grew faint, and fainter at every sunset. The kindly Dutchman and his wife were aware of some burden on his mind, because of its many groaning sallies while astray from judgment. But as soon as his wits were clear again, and his body fit to second them, Blyth saw that he could not crave their help, against the present interests of their own land. Holland was at enmity with England, not of its own accord, but under the pressure of the man who worked so hard the great European mangle. Captain Van Oort had picked up some English, and his wife could use tongue and ears in French, while Scudamore afforded himself and them some little diversion by attempts in Dutch. Being of a wonderfully happy nature — for happiness is the greatest wonder in this world — he could not help many a wholesome laugh, in spite of all the projects of Napoleon.

Little things seldom jump into bigness, till a man sets his microscope at them. According to the everlasting harmonies, Blyth had not got a penny, because he had not got a pocket to put it in. A pocketful of money would have sent him to the bottom of the sea, that breezy April night, when he drifted for hours, with eyes full of salt, twinkling feeble answer to the twinkle of the stars. But he had made himself light of his little cash left, in his preparation for a slow decease, and perhaps the fish had paid tribute with it to the Caesar of this Millennium. Captain Van Oort was a man of his inches in length, but in breadth about one-third more, being thickened and spread by the years that do this to a body containing a Christian mind. “You will never get out of them,” said Mrs. Van Oort, when he got into her husband’s large smallclothes; but he who had often jumped out of a tub felt no despair about jumping out of two. In every way Scudamore hoped for the best — which is the only right course for a man who has done his own best, and is helpless.

Keeping out of the usual track of commerce, because of the privateers and other pests of war waylaying it, they met no sail of either friend or foe until they cast anchor at St. Jago. Here there was no ship bound for England, and little chance of finding one, for weeks or perhaps for months to come. The best chance of getting home lay clearly in going yet further away from home, and so he stuck to the good ship still, and they weighed for the Cape on the 12th of May. Everything set against poor Scuddy — wind, and wave, and the power of man. It had been the 16th of April when he was rescued from the devouring sea; some days had been spent by the leisurely Dutchman in providing fresh supplies, and the stout bark’s favourite maxim seemed to be, “the more haste the less speed.” Baffling winds and a dead calm helped to second this philosophy, and the first week of June was past before they swung to their moorings in Table Bay.

“What chance is there now of my doing any good?” the young Englishman asked himself, bitterly. “This place is again in the hands of the Dutch, and the English ships stand clear of it, or only receive supplies by stealth. I am friendless here, I am penniless; and worst of all, if I even get a passage home, there will be no home left. Too late! too late! What use is there in striving?”

Tears stood in his blue eyes, which were gentle as a lady’s; and his forehead (usually calm and smooth and ready for the flicker of a very pleasant smile) was as grave and determined as the brow of Caryl Carne. Captain Van Oort would have lent him 500 guilders with the greatest pleasure, but Scudamore would not take more than fifty, to support him until he could obtain a ship. Then with hearty good-will, and life-long faith in each other, the two men parted, and Scudamore’s heart was uncommonly low — for a substance that was not a “Jack-inthe-box”— as he watched from the shore the slow fading into dream-land of the Katterina.

Nothing except patriotic feeling may justify a man, who has done no harm, in long-continued misery. The sense of violent bodily pain, or of perpetual misfortune, or of the baseness of all in whom he trusted, and other steady influx of many-fountained sorrow, may wear him for a time, and even fetch his spirit lower than the more vicarious woe can do. But the firm conviction that the family of man to which one belongs, and is proud of belonging, has fallen into the hands of traitors, eloquent liars, and vile hypocrites, and cannot escape without crawling in the dust — this produces a large deep gloom, and a crushing sense of doom beyond philosophy. Scudamore could have endured the loss and the disillusion of his love — pure and strong as that power had been — but the ruin of his native land would turn his lively heart into a lump of stone.

For two or three days he roved about among the people of the water-side — boatmen, pilots, shipping agents, store-keepers, stevedores, crimps, or any others likely to know anything to help him. Some of these could speak a little English, and many had some knowledge of French; but all shook their heads at his eagerness to get to England. “You may wait weeks, or you may wait months,” said the one who knew most of the subject; “we are very jealous of the English ships. That country swallows up the sea so. It has been forbidden to supply the English ships; but for plenty money it is done sometimes; but the finger must be placed upon the nose, and upon the two eyes what you call the guinea; and in six hours where are they? Swallowed up by the mist from the mountain. No, sir! If you have the great money, it is very difficult. But if you have not that, it is impossible.”

“I have not the great money; and the little money also has escaped from a quicksand in the bottom of my pocket.”

“Then you will never get to England, sir,” this gentleman answered, pleasantly; “and unless I have been told things too severely, the best man that lives had better not go there, without a rock of gold in his pocket grand enough to fill a thousand quicksands.”

Scudamore lifted the relics of his hat, and went in search of some other Job’s comforter. Instead of a passage to England, he saw in a straight line before him the only journey which a mortal may take without paying his fare.

To save himself from this gratuitous tour, he earned a little money in a porter’s gang, till his quick step roused the indignation of the rest. With the loftiest perception of the rights of man, they turned him out of that employment (for the one “sacred principle of labour” is to play), and he, understanding now the nature, of democracy, perceived that of all the many short-cuts to starvation, the one with the fewest elbows to it is — to work.

While he was meditating upon these points — which persons of big words love to call “questions of political economy”— his hat, now become a patent ventilator, sat according to custom on the back of his head, exposing his large calm forehead, and the kind honesty of his countenance. Then he started a little, for his nerves were not quite as strong as when they had good feeding, at the sudden sense of being scrutinized by the most piercing gaze he had ever encountered.

The stranger was an old man of tall spare frame, wearing a shovel-hat and long black gown drawn in with a belt, and around his bare neck was a steel chain supporting an ebony cross. With a smile, which displayed the firm angles of his face, he addressed the young man in a language which Scudamore could not understand, but believed to be Portuguese.

“Thy words I am not able to understand. But the Latin tongue, as it is pronounced in England, I am able to interpret, and to speak, not too abundantly.” Scudamore spoke the best Latin he could muster at a moment’s notice, for he saw that this gentleman was a Catholic priest, and probably therefore of good education.

“Art thou, then, an Englishman, my son?” the stranger replied, in the same good tongue. “From thy countenance and walk, that opinion stood fast in my mind at first sight of thee. Every Englishman is to me beloved, and every Frenchman unfriendly — as many, at least, as now govern the state. Father Bartholomew is my name, and though most men here are heretical, among the faithful I avail sufficiently. What saith the great Venusian? ‘In straitened fortunes quit thyself as a man of spirit and of mettle.’ I find thee in straitened fortunes, and would gladly enlarge thee, if that which thou art doing is pleasing to the God omnipotent.”

After a few more words, he led the hapless and hungry Englishman to a quiet little cot which overlooked the noble bay, and itself was overlooked by a tall flag-staff bearing the colours of Portugal. Here in the first place he regaled his guest with the flank of a kid served with cucumber, and fruit gathered early, and some native wine, scarcely good enough for the Venusian bard, but as rich as ambrosia to Scudamore. Then he supplied him with the finest tobacco that ever ascended in spiral incense to the cloud-compelling Jove. At every soft puff, away flew the blue-devils, pagan, or Christian, or even scientific; and the brightness of the sleep-forbidden eyes returned, and the sweetness of the smile so long gone hence in dread of trespass. Father Bartholomew, neither eating, drinking, nor smoking, till the sun should set — for this was one of his fast-days — was heartily pleased with his guest’s good cheer, and smiled with the large benevolence which a lean face expresses with more decision than a plump and jolly one. “And now, my son,” he began again, in Latin more fluent and classical than the sailor could compass after Cicero thrown by, “thou hast returned thanks to Almighty God, for which I the more esteem thee. Oblige me, therefore, if it irk thee not, among smoke of the genial Nicotium, by telling thy tale, and explaining what hard necessity hath driven thee to these distant shores. Fear not, for thou seest a lover of England, and hater of France the infidel.”

Then Scudamore, sometimes hesitating and laughing at his own bad Latin, told as much of his story as was needful, striving especially to make clear the importance of his swift return, and his fear that even so it would be too late.

“Man may believe himself too late, but the Lord ariseth early,” the good priest answered, with a smile of courage refreshing the heart of the Englishman. “Behold how the hand of the Lord is steadfast over those who serve him! To-morrow I might have been far away; today I am in time to help thee. Whilst thou wert feeding, I received the signal of a swift ship for Lisbon, whose captain is my friend, and would neglect nothing to serve me. This night he will arrive, and with favourable breezes, which have set in this morning, he shall spread his sails again tomorrow, though he meant to linger perhaps for three days. Be of good cheer, my son; thou shalt sail tomorrow. I will supply thee with all that is needful, and thank God for a privilege so great. Thou shalt have money as well for the passage from Lisbon to England, which is not long. Remember in thy prayers — for thou art devout — that old man, Father Bartholomew.”

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