Napoleon had shown no proper dread of the valiant British volunteers, but kept his festival in August, and carried on his sea-side plans, as if there were no such fellows. Not content with that, he even flouted our blockading fleet by coming out to look at them. And if one of our frigates had shot straight, she might have saved millions of lives and billions of money, at the cost of one greatly bad life. But the poor ship knew not her opportunity, or she would rather have gone to the bottom than waste it.
Now the French made much of this affair, according to their nature; and histories of it, full of life and growth, ran swiftly along the shallow shore, and even to Paris, the navel of the earth. Frenchmen of letters — or rather of papers — declared that all England was smitten with dismay; and so she might have been, if she had heard of it. But as our neighbours went home again, as soon as the water was six fathoms deep, few Englishmen knew that they had tried to smell a little of the sea-breeze, outside the smell of their inshore powder. They were pleased to get ashore again, and talk it over, with vivid description of the things that did not happen.
“Such scenes as these tended much to agitate England,” writes a great French historian. “The British Press, arrogant and calumnious, as the Press always is in a free country, railed much at Napoleon and his preparations; but railed as one who trembles at that which he would fain exhibit as the object of his laughter.” It may have been so, but it is not to be seen in any serious journal of that time. He seems to have confounded coarse caricaturists with refined and thoughtful journalists, even as, in the account of that inshore skirmish, he turns a gun-brig into a British frigate. However, such matters are too large for us.
It was resolved at any rate to try some sort of a hit at all these very gallant Frenchmen, moored under their own batteries, and making horse-marines of themselves, whenever Neptune, the father of the horse, permitted. The jolly English tars, riding well upon the waves, sent many a broad grin through a spy-glass at Muncher Crappo tugging hard to get his nag into his gun-boat and then to get him out again, because his present set of shoes would not be worn out in England. Every sailor loves a horse, regarding him as a boat on legs, and therefore knowing more about him than any landlubber may feign to know.
But although they would have been loth to train a gun on the noble animal, who was duly kept beyond their range, all the British sailors longed to have a bout with the double tier of hostile craft moored off the shore within shelter of French batteries. Every day they could reckon at least two hundred sail of every kind of rig invented since the time of Noah, but all prepared to destroy instead of succouring the godly. It was truly grievous to see them there and not be able to get at them, for no ship of the line or even frigate could get near enough to tackle them. Then the British Admiral, Lord Keith, resolved after much consultation to try what could be done with fire-ships.
Blyth Scudamore, now in command of the Blonde, had done much excellent service, in cutting off stragglers from the French flotilla, and driving ashore near Vimereux some prames and luggers coming from Ostend. He began to know the French coast and the run of the shoals like a native pilot; for the post of the Blonde, and some other light ships, was between the blockading fleet and the blockaded, where perpetual vigilance was needed. This sharp service was the very thing required to improve his character, to stamp it with decision and self-reliance, and to burnish his quiet, contemplative vein with the very frequent friction of the tricks of mankind. These he now was strictly bound not to study, but anticipate, taking it as first postulate that every one would cheat him, if permitted. To a scrimpy and screwy man, of the type most abundant, such a position would have done a deal of harm, shutting him up into his own shell harder, and flinting its muricated horns against the world. But with the gentle Scuddy, as the boys at school had called him, the process of hardening was beneficial, as it is with pure gold, which cannot stand the wear and tear of the human race until it has been reduced by them at least to the mark of their twenty carats.
And now it was a fine thing for Scudamore — even as a man too philanthropic was strengthened in his moral tone (as his wife found out) by being compelled to discharge the least pleasant of the duties of a county sheriff — or if not a fine thing, at least it was a wholesome and durable corrective to all excess of lenience, that duty to his country and mankind compelled the gentle Scuddy to conduct the western division of this night-attack.
At this time there was in the public mind, which is quite of full feminine agility, a strong prejudice against the use of fire-ships. Red-hot cannon-balls, and shrapnel, langrage, chain-shot, and Greek-fire — these and the like were all fair warfare, and France might use them freely. But England (which never is allowed to do, without hooting and execration, what every other country does with loud applause)— England must rather burn off her right hand than send a fire-ship against the ships full of fire for her houses, her cottages, and churches. Lord Keith had the sense to laugh at all that stuff, but he had not the grand mechanical powers which have now enabled the human race, not to go, but to send one another to the stars. A clumsy affair called a catamaran, the acephalous ancestor of the torpedo, was expected to relieve the sea of some thousands of people who had no business there. This catamaran was a water-proof box about twenty feet long, and four feet wide, narrowed at the ends, like a coffin for a giant. It was filled with gunpowder, and ballasted so that its lid, or deck, was almost awash; and near its stern was a box containing clock movements that would go for about ten minutes, upon the withdrawal of a peg outside, and then would draw a trigger and explode the charge. This wondrous creature had neither oar nor sail, but demanded to be towed to the tideward of the enemy, then have the death-watch set going, and be cast adrift within hail of the enemy’s line. Then as soon as it came across their mooring cables, its duty was to slide for a little way along them in a friendly manner, lay hold of them kindly with its long tail, which consisted of a series of grappling-hooks buoyed with cork, and then bringing up smartly alongside of the gun-boats, blow itself up, and carry them up with it. How many there were of these catamarans is not quite certain, but perhaps about a score, the intention being to have ten times as many, on the next occasion, if these did well. And no doubt they would have done well, if permitted; but they failed of their purpose, like the great Guy Fawkes, because they were prevented.
For the French, by means of treacherous agents — of whom perhaps Caryl Carne was one, though his name does not appear in the despatches — knew all about this neat little scheme beforehand, and set their wits at work to defeat it. Moreover, they knew that there were four fire-ships, one of which was the Peggy of Springhaven, intended to add to the consternation and destruction wrought by the catamarans. But they did not know that, by some irony of fate, the least destructive and most gentle of mankind was ordered to take a leading part in shattering man, and horse, and even good dogs, into vapours.
Many quiet horses, and sweet-natured dogs, whose want of breeding had improved their manners, lived in this part of the great flotilla, and were satisfied to have their home where it pleased the Lord to feed them. The horses were led to feed out of the guns, that they might not be afraid of them; and they struggled against early prejudice, to like wood as well as grass, and to get sea-legs. Man put them here to suit his own ideas; of that they were quite aware, and took it kindly, accepting superior powers, and inferior use of them, without a shade of question in their eyes. To their innocent minds it was never brought home that they were tethered here, and cropping clots instead of clover, for the purpose of inspiring in their timid friends ashore the confidence a horse reposes in a brother horse, but very wisely doubts about investing in mankind. For instance, whenever a wild young animal, a new recruit for the cavalry, was haled against his judgment by a man on either side to the hollow-sounding gangway over dancing depth of peril, these veteran salts of horses would assure him, with a neigh from the billowy distance, that they were not drowned yet, but were walking on a sort of gate, and got their victuals regular. On the other hand, as to the presence of the dogs, that requires no explanation. Was there ever a time or place in which a dog grudged his sprightly and disinterested service, or failed to do his best when called upon? These French dogs, whom the mildest English mastiff would have looked upon, or rather would have shut his eyes at, as a lot of curs below contempt, were as full of fine ardour for their cause and country as any noble hound that ever sate like a statue on a marble terrace.
On the first of October all was ready for this audacious squibbing of the hornet’s nest, and the fleet of investment (which kept its distance according to the weather and the tides) stood in, not bodily so as to arouse excitement, but a ship at a time sidling in towards the coast, and traversing one another’s track, as if they were simply exchanging stations. The French pretended to take no heed, and did not call in a single scouting craft, but showed every sign of having all eyes shut. Nothing, however, was done that night, by reason perhaps of the weather; but the following night being favourable, and the British fleet brought as nigh as it durst come, the four fire-ships were despatched after dark, when the enemy was likely to be engaged with supper. The sky was conveniently overcast, with a faint light wandering here and there, from the lift of the horizon, just enough to show the rig of a vessel and her length, at a distance of about a hundred yards. Nothing could be better — thought the Englishmen; and the French were of that opinion too, especially as Nelson was not there.
Scudamore had nothing to do with the loose adventure of the fire-ships, the object of which was to huddle together this advanced part of the flotilla, so that the catamarans might sweep unseen into a goodly thicket of vessels, and shatter at least half a dozen at once.
But somehow the scheme was not well carried out, though it looked very nice upon paper. One very great drawback, to begin with, was that the enemy were quite aware of all our kind intentions; and another scarcely less fatal was the want of punctuality on our part. All the floating coffins should have come together, like a funeral of fifty from a colliery; but instead of that they dribbled in one by one, and were cast off by their tow-boats promiscuously. Scudamore did his part well enough, though the whole thing went against his grain, and the four catamarans under his direction were the only ones that did their duty. The boats of the Blonde had these in tow, and cast them off handsomely at the proper distance, and drew the plugs which set their clock-springs going. But even of these four only two exploded, although the clocks were not American, and those two made a tremendous noise, but only singed a few French beards off. Except, indeed, that a fine old horse, with a white Roman nose and a bright chestnut mane, who was living in a flat-bottomed boat, broke his halter, and rushed up to the bows, and gave vent to his amazement, as if he had been gifted with a trumpet.
Hereupon a dog, loth to be behind the times, scampered up to his side, and with his forefeet on the gunwale, contributed a howl of incalculable length and unfathomable sadness.
In the hurly of the combat and confusion of the night, with the dimness streaked with tumult, and the water gashed with fire, that horse and this dog might have gone on for ever, bewailing the nature of the sons of men, unless a special fortune had put power into their mouths. One of the fire-ships, as scandal did declare, was that very ancient tub indeed — that could not float on its bottom — the Peggy of Springhaven, bought at thrice her value, through the influence of Admiral Darling. If one has to meet every calumny that arises, and deal with it before going further, the battle that lasted for a fortnight and then turned into an earthquake would be a quick affair compared with the one now in progress. Enough that the Peggy proved by the light she gave, and her grand style of burning to the water’s edge before she blew up, that she was worth at least the hundred pounds Widow Shanks received for her. She startled the French more than any of the others, and the strong light she afforded in her last moments shone redly on the anguish of that poor horse and dog. There was no sign of any one to help them, and the flames in the background redoubled their woe.
Now this apparently deserted prame, near the centre of the line, was the Ville de Mayence; and the flag of Rear–Admiral Lacrosse was even now flying at her peak. “We must have her, my lads,” cried Scudamore, who was wondering what to do next, until he descried the horse and dog and that fine flag; “let us board her, and make off with all of them.”
The crew of his launch were delighted with that. To destroy is very good; but to capture is still better; and a dash into the midst of the enemy was the very thing they longed for. “Ay, ay, sir,” they cried, set their backs to their oars, and through the broad light that still shone upon the waves, and among the thick crowd of weltering shadows, the launch shot like a dart to the side of the foe.
“Easy all! Throw a grapple on board,” cried the young commander; and as the stern swung round he leaped from it, and over the shallow bulwarks, and stood all alone on the enemy’s fore-deck. And alone he remained, for at that moment a loud crash was heard, and the launch filled and sank, with her crew of sixteen plunging wildly in the waves.
This came to pass through no fault of their own, but a clever device of the enemy. Admiral Lacrosse, being called away, had left his first officer to see to the safety of the flag-ship and her immediate neighbours, and this brave man had obtained permission to try a little plan of his own, if assailed by any adventurous British boats in charge of the vessels explosive. In the bows of some stout but handy boats he had rigged up a mast with a long spar attached, and by means of a guy at the end of that spar, a brace of heavy chain-shot could be swung up and pitched headlong into any boat alongside. While the crew of Scudamore’s launch were intent upon boarding the prame, one of these boats came swiftly from under her stern, and with one fling swamped the enemy. Then the Frenchmen laughed heartily, and offered oars and buoys for the poor British seamen to come up as prisoners.
Scudamore saw that he was trapped beyond escape, for no other British boat was anywhere in hail. His first impulse was to jump overboard and help his own drowning men, but before he could do so an officer stood before him, and said, “Monsieur is my prisoner. His men will be safe, and I cannot permit him to risk his own life. Mon Dieu, it is my dear friend Captain Scudamore!”
“And you, my old friend, Captain Desportes! I see it is hopeless to resist”— for by this time a score of Frenchmen were round him — “I can only congratulate myself that if I must fall, it is into such good hands.”
“My dear friend, how glad I am to see you!” replied the French captain, embracing him warmly; “to you I owe more than to any man of your nation. I will not take your sword. No, no, my friend. You shall not be a prisoner, except in word. And how much you have advanced in the knowledge of our language, chiefly, I fear, at the expense of France. And now you will grow perfect, at the expense of England.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47