Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LXIV

Wrath and Sorrow

The two most conspicuous men of the age were saddened and cast down just now — one by the natural kindly sorrow into which all men live for others, till others live into it for them; and one by the petulant turns of fortune, twisting and breaking his best-woven web. Lord Nelson arrived at Springhaven on Monday, to show his affection for his dear old friend; and the Emperor Napoleon, at the same time, was pacing the opposite cliffs in grief and dudgeon.

He had taken his post on some high white land, about a league southward of Boulogne, and with strong field-glasses, which he pettishly exchanged in doubt of their power and truth, he was scanning all the roadways of the shore and the trackless breadths of sea. His quick brain was burning for despatches overland — whether from the coast road past Etaples, or further inland by the great route from Paris, or away to the southeast by special courier from the Austrian frontier — as well as for signals out at sea, and the movements of the British ships, to show that his own were coming. He had treated with disdain the suggestions of his faithful Admiral Decres, who had feared to put the truth too plainly, that the fleet ordered up from the west had failed, and with it the Master’s mighty scheme. Having yet to learn the lesson that his best plans might be foiled, he was furious when doubt was cast upon this pet design. Like a giant of a spider at the nucleus of his web, he watched the broad fan of radiant threads, and the hovering of filmy woof, but without the mild philosophy of that spider, who is versed in the very sad capriciousness of flies.

Just within hearing (and fain to be further, in his present state of mind) were several young officers of the staff, making little mouths at one another, for want of better pastime, but looking as grave, when the mighty man glanced round, as schoolboys do under the master’s eye. “Send Admiral Decres to me,” the Emperor shouted, as he laid down his telescope and returned to his petulant to-and-fro.

In a few minutes Admiral Decres arrived, and after a salute which was not acknowledged, walked in silence at his master’s side. The great man, talking to himself aloud, and reviling almost every one except himself, took no more notice of his comrade for some minutes than if he had been a poodle keeping pace with him. Then he turned upon him fiercely, with one hand thrown out, as if he would have liked to strike him.

“What then is the meaning of all this?” He spoke too fast for the other to catch all his words. “You have lost me three days of it. How much longer will you conceal your knowledge? Carne’s scheme has failed, through treachery — probably his own. I never liked the man. He wanted to be the master of me — of me! I can do without him; it is all the better, if my fleet will come. I have three fleets, besides these. Any one of them would do. They would do, if even half their crews were dead, so long as they disturbed the enemy. You know where Villeneuve is, but you will not tell me.”

“I told your Majesty what I thought,” M. Decres replied, with dignity, “but it did not please you to listen to me. Shall I now tell your Majesty what I know?”

“Ha! You have dared to have secret despatches! You know more of the movements of my fleets than I do! You have been screening him all along. Which of you is the worse traitor?”

“Your Majesty will regret these words. Villeneuve and myself are devoted to you. I have not heard from him. I have received no despatches. But in a private letter just received, which is here at your Majesty’s service, I find these words, which your Majesty can see. ‘From my brother on the Spanish coast I have just heard. Admiral Villeneuve has sailed for Cadiz, believing Nelson to be in chase of him. My brother saw the whole fleet crowding sail southward. No doubt it is the best thing they could do. If they came across Nelson, they would be knocked to pieces.’ Your Majesty, that is an opinion only; but it seems to be shared by M. Villeneuve.”

Napoleon’s wrath was never speechless — except upon one great occasion — and its outburst put every other in the wrong, even while he knew that he was in the right. Regarding Decres with a glare of fury, such as no other eyes could pour, or meet — a glare as of burnished steel fired from a cannon — he drove him out of every self-defence or shelter, and shattered him in the dust of his own principles. It was not the difference of rank between them, but the difference in the power of their minds, that chased like a straw before the wind the very stable senses of the man who understood things. He knew that he was right, but the right was routed, and away with it flew all capacity of reason in the pitiless torrent of passion, like a man in a barrel, and the barrel in Niagara.

M. Decres knew not head from tail, in the rush of invective poured upon him; but he took off his hat in soft search for his head, and to let in the compliments rained upon it.

“It is good,” replied the Emperor, replying to himself, as the foam of his fury began to pass; “you will understand, Decres, that I am not angry, but only lament that I have such a set of fools. You are not the worst. I have bigger fools than you. Alas that I should confess it!”

Admiral Decres put his hat upon his head, for the purpose of taking it off, to acknowledge the kindness of this compliment. It was the first polite expression he had received for half an hour. And it would have been the last, if he had dared to answer.

“Villeneuve cannot help it that he is a fool,” continued Napoleon, in a milder strain; “but he owes it to his rank that he should not be a coward. Nelson is his black beast. Nelson has reduced him to a condition of wet pulp. I shall send a braver man to supersede him. Are French fleets forever to turn tail to an inferior force of stupid English? If I were on the seas, I would sweep Nelson from them. Our men are far braver, when they learn to spread their legs. As soon as I have finished with those filthy Germans, I will take the command of the fleets myself. It will be a bad day for that bragging Nelson. Give me pen and paper, and send Daru to me. I must conquer the Continent once more, I suppose; and then I will return and deal with England.”

In a couple of hours he had shaped and finished the plan of a campaign the most triumphant that even he ever planned and accomplished. Then his mind became satisfied with good work, and he mounted his horse, and for the last time rode through the grandest encampment the sun has ever seen, distributing his calm smile, as if his nature were too large for tempests.

*

On the sacred white coast, which the greatest of Frenchmen should only approach as a prisoner, stood a man of less imperious mould, and of sweet and gentle presence — a man who was able to command himself in the keenest disappointment, because he combined a quick sense of humour with the power of prompt action, and was able to appreciate his own great qualities without concluding that there were no other. His face, at all times except those of hot battle, was filled with quiet sadness, as if he were sent into the world for some great purpose beyond his knowledge, yet surely not above his aim. Years of deep anxiety and ever urgent duty had made him look old before his time, but in no wise abated his natural force. He knew that he had duty before him still, and he felt that the only discharge was death.

But now, in the tenderness of his heart, he had forgotten all about himself, and even for the moment about his country. Nelson had taken the last fond look at the dear old friend of many changeful years, so true and so pleasant throughout every change. Though one eye had failed for the work of the brain, it still was in sympathy with his heart; and a tear shone upon either wrinkled cheek, as the uses of sadness outlast the brighter view. He held Faith by the hand, or she held by his, as they came forth, without knowing it, through nature’s demand for an open space, when the air is choked with sorrow.

“My dear, you must check it; you must leave off,” said Nelson, although he was going on himself. “It is useless for me to say a word to you, because I am almost as bad myself. But still I am older, and I feel that I ought to be able to comfort you, if I only knew the way.”

“You do comfort me, more than I can tell, although you don’t say anything. For any one to sit here, and be sorry with me, makes it come a little lighter. And when it is a man like you, Lord Nelson, I feel a sort of love that makes me feel less bitter. Mr. Twemlow drove me wild with a quantity of texts, and a great amount of talk about a better land. How would he like to go to it himself, I wonder? There is a great hole in my heart, and nothing that anybody says can fill it.”

“And nothing that any one can do, my dear,” her father’s friend answered, softly, “unless it is your own good self, with the kindness of the Lord to help you. One of the best things to begin with is to help somebody else, if you can, and lead yourself away into another person’s troubles. Is there any one here very miserable?”

“None that I can think of half so miserable as I am. There is great excitement, but no misery. Miss Twemlow has recovered her Lord Mayor — the gentleman that wore that extraordinary coat — oh, I forgot, you were not here then. And although he has had a very sad time of it, every one says that the total want of diet will be much better for him than any mere change. I am ashamed to be talking of such trifles now; but I respect that man, he was so straightforward. If my brother Frank had been at all like him, we should never have been as we are this day.”

“My dear, you must not blame poor Frank. He would not come down to the dinner because he hated warlike speeches. But he has seen the error of his ways. No more treasonable stuff for him. He thought it was large, and poetic, and all that, like giving one’s shirt to an impostor. All of us make mistakes sometimes. I have made a great many myself, and have always been the foremost to perceive them. But your own brave lover — have you forgotten him? He fought like a hero, I am told; and nothing could save his life except that he wore a new-fashioned periwig.”

“I would rather not talk of him now, Lord Nelson, although he had no periwig. I am deeply thankful that he escaped; and no doubt did his best, as he was bound to do. I try to be fair to everybody, but I cannot help blaming every one, when I come to remember how blind we have been. Captain Stubbard must have been so blind, and Mrs. Stubbard a great deal worse, and worst of all his own aunt, Mrs. Twemlow. Oh, Lord Nelson, if you had only stopped here, instead of hurrying away for more glory! You saw the whole of it; you predicted everything; you even warned us again in your last letter! And yet you must go away, and leave us to ourselves; and this is how the whole of it has ended.”

“My dear child, I will not deny that the eye of Nelson has a special gift for piercing the wiles of the scoundrelly foe. But I was under orders, and must go. The nation believed that it could not do without me, although there are other men every bit as good, and in their own opinion superior. But the enemy has never been of that opinion; and a great deal depends upon what they think. And the rule has been always to send me where there are many kicks but few coppers. I have never been known to repine. We all err; but if we do our duty as your dear father did his, the Lord will forgive us, when our enemies escape. When my time comes, as it must do soon, there will be plenty to carp at me; but I shall not care, if I have done my best. Your father did his best, and is happy.”

Faith Darling took his hand again, and her tears were for him quite as much as for herself. “Give me one of the buttons of your coat,” she said; “here is one that cannot last till you get home.”

It was hanging by a thread, and yet the hero was very loth to part with it, though if it had parted with him, the chances were ten to one against his missing it. However, he conquered himself, but not so entirely as to let her cut it off. If it must go, it should be by his own hand. He pulled out a knife and cut it off, and she kissed it when he gave it to her.

“I should like to do more than that,” he said, though he would sooner have parted with many guineas. “Is there nobody here that I can help, from my long good-will to Springhaven?”

“Oh, yes! How stupid I am!” cried Faith. “I forget everybody in my own trouble. There is a poor young man with a broken heart, who came to me this morning. He has done no harm that I know of, but he fell into the power of that wicked — but I will use no harsh words, because he is gone most dreadfully to his last account. This poor youth said that he only cared to die, after all the things that had happened here, for he has always been fond of my father. At first I refused to see him, but they told me such things that I could not help it. He is the son of our chief man here, and you said what a fine British seaman he would make.”

“I remember two or three of that description, especially young Dan Tugwell.” Nelson had an amazing memory of all who had served under him, or even had wished to do so. “I see by your eyes that it is young Tugwell. If it will be any pleasure to you, I will see him, and do what I can for him. What has he done, my dear, and what can I do for him?”

“He has fallen into black disgrace, and his only desire is to redeem it by dying for his country. His own father has refused to see him, although he was mainly the cause of it; and his mother, who was Erle Twemlow’s nurse, is almost out of her mind with grief. A braver young man never lived, and he was once the pride of Springhaven. He saved poor Dolly from drowning, when she was very young, and the boat upset. His father chastised him cruelly for falling under bad influence. Then he ran away from the village, and seems to have been in French employment. But he was kept in the dark, and had no idea that he was acting against his own country.”

“He has been a traitor,” said Lord Nelson, sternly. “I cannot help such a man, even for your sake.”

“He has not been a traitor, but betrayed,” cried Faith; “he believed that his only employment was to convey private letters for the poor French prisoners, of whom we have so many hundreds. I will not contend that he was right in that; but still it was no very great offence. Even you must have often longed to send letters to those you loved in England; and you know how hard it is in war time. But what they really wanted him for was to serve as their pilot upon this coast. And the moment he discovered that, though they offered him bags of gold to do it, he faced his death like an Englishman. They attempted to keep him in a stupid state with drugs, so that he might work like a mere machine. But he found out that, and would eat nothing but hard biscuit. They had him in one of their shallow boats, or prames, as they call them, which was to lead them in upon signal from the arch-traitor. This was on Saturday, Saturday night — that dreadful time when we were all so gay. They held a pair of pistols at poor Dan’s head, or at least a man was holding one to each of his ears, and they corded his arms, because he ventured to remonstrate. That was before they had even started, so you may suppose what they would have done to us. Poor Daniel made up his mind to die, and it would have eased his mind, he says now, if he had done so. But while they were waiting for the signal, which through dear father’s vigilance they never did receive, Dan managed to free both his hands in the dark, and as soon as he saw the men getting sleepy, he knocked them both down, and jumped overboard; for he can swim like a fish, or even better. He had very little hopes of escaping, as he says, and the French fired fifty shots after him. With great presence of mind, he gave a dreadful scream, as if he was shot through the head at least, then he flung up his legs, as if he was gone down; but he swam under water for perhaps a hundred yards, and luckily the moon went behind a black cloud. Then he came to a boat, which had broken adrift, and although he did not dare to climb into her, he held on by her, on the further side from them. She was drifting away with the tide, and at last he ventured to get on board of her, and found a pair of oars, and was picked up at daylight by a smuggling boat running for Newhaven. He was landed last night, and he heard the dreadful news, and having plenty of money, he hired a post-chaise, and never stopped until he reached Springhaven. He looks worn out now; but if his mind was easier, he would soon be as strong as ever.”

“It is a strange story, my dear,” said Nelson; “but I see that it has done you good to tell it, and I have known many still stranger. But how could he have money, after such a hard escape?”

“That shows as much as anything how brave he is. He had made up his mind that if he succeeded in knocking down both those sentinels, he would have the bag of gold which was put for his reward in case of his steering them successfully. And before he jumped overboard he snatched it up, and it helped him to dive and to swim under water. He put it in his flannel shirt by way of ballast, and he sticks to it up to the present moment.”

“My dear,” replied Lord Nelson, much impressed, “such a man deserves to be in my own crew. If he can show me that bag, and stand questions, I will send him to Portsmouth at my own expense, with a letter to my dear friend Captain Hardy.”

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