Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LXV

Trafalgar

Lord Nelson sailed from Portsmouth on the 15th of September, in his favourite ship the Victory, to take his last command. He knew that he never should come home, except as a corpse for burial, but he fastened his mind on the work before him, and neglected nothing. “A fair fight, and no favour,” was the only thing he longed for.

And this he did obtain at last. The French commander-inchief came forth, with all his mighty armament, not of his own desire, but goaded by imperious sneers, and stings that made his manhood tingle. He spread the sea-power of two nations in a stately crescent, double-lined (as the moon is doubled when beheld through fine plate-glass)— a noble sight, a paramount temptation for the British tow-rope.

“What a lot for we to take to Spithead!” was the British tar’s remark, as forty ships of the line and frigates showed their glossy sides, and canvas bosomed with the gentle air and veined with gliding sunlight. A grander spectacle never was of laborious man’s creation; and the work of the Lord combined to show it to the best advantage — dark headlands in the distance standing as a massive background, long pellucid billows lifting bulk Titanic, and lace-like maze, sweet air wandering from heaven, early sun come fresh from dew, all the good-will of the world inspiring men to merriness.

Nelson was not fierce of nature, but as gentle as a lamb. His great desire, as he always proved, was never to destroy his enemies by the number of one man spareable. He had always been led by the force of education, confirmed by that of experience, to know that the duty of an Englishman is to lessen the stock of Frenchmen; yet he never was free from regret when compelled to act up to his conscience, upon a large scale.

It is an old saying that nature has provided for every disease its remedy, and challenges men to find it out, which they are clever enough not to do. For that deadly disease Napoleon, the remedy was Nelson; and as soon as he should be consumed, another would appear in Wellington. Such is the fortune of Britannia, because she never boasts, but grumbles always. The boaster soon exhausts his subject; the grumbler has matter that lasts for ever.

Nelson had much of this national virtue. “Half of them will get away,” he said to Captain Blackwood, of the Euryalus, who was come for his latest orders, “because of that rascally port to leeward. If the wind had held as it was last night, we should have had every one of them. It does seem hard, after waiting so long. And the sky looks like a gale of wind. It will blow to-night, though I shall not hear it. A gale of wind with disabled ships means terrible destruction. Do all you can to save those poor fellows. When they are beaten, we must consider their lives even more than our own, you know, because we have been the cause of it. You know my wishes as well as I do. Remember this one especially.”

“Good-bye, my lord, till the fight is over.” Captain Blackwood loved his chief with even more than the warm affection felt by all the fleet for him. “When we have got them, I shall come back, and find you safe and glorious.”

“God bless you, Blackwood!” Lord Nelson answered, looking at him with a cheerful smile. “But you will never see me alive again.”

The hero of a hundred fights, who knew that this would be his last, put on his favourite ancient coat, threadbare through many a conflict with hard time and harder enemies. Its beauty, like his own, had suffered in the cause of duty; the gold embroidery had taken leave of absence in some places, and in others showed more fray of silk than gleam of yellow glory; and the four stars fastened on the left breast wanted a little plate-powder sadly. But Nelson was quite contented with them, and like a child — for he always kept in his heart the childhood’s freshness — he gazed at the star he was proudest of, the Star of the Bath, and through a fond smile sighed. Through the rays of that star his death was coming, ere a quarter of a day should be added to his life.

With less pretension and air of greatness than the captain of a penny steamer now displays, Nelson went from deck to deck, and visited every man at quarters, as if the battle hung on every one. There was scarcely a man whom he did not know, as well as a farmer knows his winter hands; and loud cheers rang from gun to gun when his order had been answered. His order was, “Reserve your fire until you are sure of every shot.” Then he took his stand upon the quarter-deck, assured of victory, and assured that his last bequest to the British nation would be honoured sacredly — about which the less we say the better.

In this great battle, which crushed the naval power of France, and saved our land from further threat of inroad, Blyth Scudamore was not engaged, being still attached to the Channel fleet; but young Dan Tugwell bore a share, and no small share by his own account and that of his native village, which received him proudly when he came home. Placed at a gun on the upper deck, on the starboard side near the mizzen-mast, he fought like a Briton, though dazed at first by the roar, and the smoke, and the crash of timber. Lord Nelson had noticed him more than once, as one of the smartest of his crew, and had said to him that very morning, “For the honour of Springhaven, Dan, behave well in your first action.” And the youth had never forgotten that, when the sulphurous fog enveloped him, and the rush of death lifted his curly hair, and his feet were sodden and his stockings hot with the blood of shattered messmates.

In the wildest of the wild pell-mell, as the Victory lay like a pelted log, rolling to the storm of shot, with three ships at close quarters hurling all their metal at her, and a fourth alongside clutched so close that muzzle was tompion for muzzle, while the cannon-balls so thickly flew that many sailors with good eyes saw them meet in the air and shatter one another, an order was issued for the starboard guns on the upper deck to cease firing. An eager-minded Frenchman, adapting his desires as a spring-board to his conclusions, was actually able to believe that Nelson’s own ship had surrendered! He must have been off his head; and his inductive process was soon amended by the logic of facts, for his head was off him. The reason for silencing those guns was good — they were likely to do more damage to an English ship which lay beyond than to the foe at the portholes. The men who had served those guns were ordered below, to take the place of men who never should fire a gun again. Dan Tugwell, as he turned to obey the order, cast a glance at the Admiral, who gave him a little nod, meaning, “Well done, Dan.”

Lord Nelson had just made a little joke, such as he often indulged in, not from any carelessness about the scene around him — which was truly awful — but simply to keep up his spirits, and those of his brave and beloved companion. Captain Hardy, a tall and portly man, clad in bright uniform, and advancing with a martial stride, cast into shade the mighty hero quietly walking at his left side. And Nelson was covered with dust from the quarter-gallery of a pounded ship, which he had not stopped to brush away.

“Thank God,” thought Dan, “if those fellows in the tops, who are picking us off so, shoot at either of them, they will be sure to hit the big man first.”

In the very instant of his thought, he saw Lord Nelson give a sudden start, and then reel, and fall upon both knees, striving for a moment to support himself with his one hand on the deck. Then his hand gave way, and he fell on his left side, while Hardy, who was just before him, turned at the cabin ladderway, and stooped with a loud cry over him. Dan ran up, and placed his bare arms under the wounded shoulder, and helped to raise and set him on his staggering legs.

“I hope you are not much hurt, my lord?” said the Captain, doing his best to smile.

“They have done for me at last,” the hero gasped. “Hardy, my backbone is shot through.”

Through the roar of battle, sobs of dear love sounded along the blood-stained deck, as Dan and another seaman took the pride of our nation tenderly, and carried him down to the orlop-deck. Yet even so, in the deadly pang and draining of the life-blood, the sense of duty never failed, and the love of country conquered death. With his feeble hand he contrived to reach the handkerchief in his pocket, and spread it over his face and breast, lest the crew should be disheartened.

“I know who fired that shot,” cried Dan, when he saw that he could help no more. “He never shall live to boast of it, if I have to board the French ship to fetch him.”

He ran back quickly to the quarterdeck, and there found three or four others eager to give their lives for Nelson’s death. The mizzen-top of the Redoutable, whence the fatal shot had come, was scarcely so much as fifty feet from the starboard rail of the Victory. The men who were stationed in that top, although they had no brass cohorn there, such as those in the main and fore tops plied, had taken many English lives, while the thick smoke surged around them.

For some time they had worked unheeded in the louder roar of cannon, and when at last they were observed, it was hard to get a fair shot at them, not only from the rolling of the entangled ships, and clouds of blinding vapour, but because they retired out of sight to load, and only came forward to catch their aim. However, by the exertions of our marines — who should have been at them long ago — these sharp-shooters from the coign of vantage were now reduced to three brave fellows. They had only done their duty, and perhaps had no idea how completely they had done it; but naturally enough our men looked at them as if they were “too bad for hanging.” Smoky as the air was, the three men saw that a very strong feeling was aroused against them, and that none of their own side was at hand to back them up. And the language of the English — though they could not understand it — was clearly that of bitter condemnation.

The least resolute of them became depressed by this, being doubtless a Radical who had been taught that Vox populi is Vox Dei. He endeavoured, therefore, to slide down the rigging, but was shot through the heart, and dead before he had time to know it. At the very same moment the most desperate villain of the three — as we should call him — or the most heroic of these patriots (as the French historians describe him) popped forward and shot a worthy Englishman, who was shaking his fist instead of pointing his gun.

Then an old quartermaster, who was standing on the poop, with his legs spread out as comfortably as if he had his Sunday dinner on the spit before him, shouted —“That’s him, boys — that glazed hat beggar! Have at him all together, next time he comes forrard.” As he spoke, he fell dead, with his teeth in his throat, from the fire of the other Frenchman. But the carbine dropped from the man who had fired, and his body fell dead as the one he had destroyed, for a sharp little Middy, behind the quartermaster, sent a bullet through the head, as the hand drew trigger. The slayer of Nelson remained alone, and he kept back warily, where none could see him.

“All of you fire, quick one after other,” cried Dan, who had picked up a loaded musket, and was kneeling in the embrasure of a gun; “fire so that he may tell the shots; that will fetch him out again. Sing out first, ‘There he is!’ as if you saw him.”

The men on the quarter-deck and poop did so, and the Frenchman, who was watching through a hole, came forward for a safe shot while they were loading. He pointed the long gun which had killed Nelson at the smart young officer on the poop, but the muzzle flew up ere he pulled the trigger, and leaning forward he fell dead, with his legs and arms spread, like a jack for oiling axles. Dan had gone through some small-arm drill in the fortnight he spent at Portsmouth, and his eyes were too keen for the bull’s-eye. With a rest for his muzzle he laid it truly for the spot where the Frenchman would reappear; with extreme punctuality he shot him in the throat; and the gallant man who deprived the world of Nelson was thus despatched to a better one, three hours in front of his victim.

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