Chapter XIV. A Horrible Suggestion

"Can you guess what has brought me down here in this hurry?" Lord Nelson asked Admiral Darling, having jumped like a boy from his yellow post-chaise, and shaken his old friend's broad right hand with his slender but strenuous left one, even as a big bell is swung by a thin rope. "I have no time to spare--not a day, not an hour; but I made up my mind to see you before I start. I cannot expect to come home alive, and, except for one reason, I should not wish it."

"Nonsense!" said the Admiral, who was sauntering near his upper gate, and enjoying the world this fine spring morning; "you are always in such a confounded hurry! When you come to my time of life, you will know better. What is it this time? The Channel fleet again?"

"No, no; Billy Blue keeps that, thank God! I hate looking after a school of herring-boats. The Mediterranean for me, my friend. I received the order yesterday, and shall be at sea by the twentieth."

"I am very glad to hear it, for your sake. If ever there was a restless fellow--in the good old times we were not like that. Come up to the house and talk about it; at least they must take the horses out. They are not like you; they can't work forever."

"And they don't get knocked about like me; though one of them has lost his starboard eye, and he sails and steers all the better for it. Let them go up to the stable, Darling, while you come down to the beach with me. I want to show you something."

"What crotchet is in his too active brain now?" the elder and stronger man asked himself, as he found himself hooked by the right arm, and led down a track through the trees scarcely known to himself, and quite out of sight from the village. "Why, this is not the way to the beach! However, it is never any good to oppose him. He gets his own way so because of his fame. Or perhaps that's the way he got his fame. But to show me about over my own land! But let him go on, let him go on."

"You are wondering, I dare say, what I am about," cried Nelson, stopping suddenly, and fixing his sound eye--which was wonderfully keen, though he was always in a fright about it--upon the large and peaceful blinkers of his ancient commander; "but now I shall be able to convince you, though I am not a land-surveyor, nor even a general of land-forces. If God Almighty prolongs my life--which is not very likely--it will be that I may meet that scoundrel, Napoleon Bonaparte, on dry land. I hear that he is eager to encounter me on the waves, himself commanding a line-of-battle ship. I should send him to the devil in a quarter of an hour. And ashore I could astonish him, I think, a little, if I had a good army to back me up. Remember what I did at Bastia, in the land that produced this monster, and where I was called the Brigadier; and again, upon the coast of Italy, I showed that I understood all their dry-ground business. Tush! I can beat him, ashore and afloat; and I shall, if I live long enough. But this time the villain is in earnest, I believe, with his trumpery invasion; and as soon as he hears that I am gone, he will make sure of having his own way. We know, of course, there are fifty men as good as myself to stop him, including you, my dear Darling; but everything goes by reputation--the noise of the people--praise-puff. That's all I get; while the luckier fellows, like Cathcart, get the prize-money. But I don't want to grumble. Now what do you see?"

"Well, I see you, for one thing," the Admiral answered, at his leisure, being quite inured to his friend's quick fire, "and wearing a coat that would be a disgrace to any other man in the navy. And further on I see some land that I never shall get my rent for; and beyond that nothing but the sea, with a few fishing- craft inshore, and in the offing a sail, an outward-bound East Indiaman--some fool who wouldn't wait for convoy, with war as good as proclaimed again."

"Nothing but the sea, indeed? The sweep of the land, and the shelter of the bay, the shoaling of the shore without a rock to break it, the headland that shuts out both wind and waves; and outside the headland, off Pebbleridge, deep water for a fleet of line-of-battle ships to anchor and command the land approaches-- moreover, a stream of the purest water from deep and never-failing springs--Darling, the place of all places in England for the French to land is opposite to your front door."

"I am truly obliged to you for predicting, and to them for doing it, if ever they attempt such impudence. If they find out that you are away, they can also find out that I am here, as commander of the sea defences, from Dungeness to Selsey-Bill."

"That will make it all the more delightful to land at your front door, my friend; and all the easier to do it. My own plan is to strike with all force at the head-quarters of the enemy, because the most likely to be unprepared. About a year ago, when I was down here, a little before my dear father's death, without your commission I took command of your fishing-craft coming home for their Sunday, and showed them how to take the beach, partly to confirm my own suspicions. There is no other landing on all the south coast, this side of Hayling Island, fit to be compared with it for the use of flat-bottomed craft, such as most of Boney's are. And remember the set of the tide, which makes the fortunes of your fishermen. To be sure, he knows nothing of that himself; but he has sharp rogues about him. If they once made good their landing here, it would be difficult to dislodge them. It must all be done from the land side then, for even a 42-gun frigate could scarcely come near enough to pepper them. They love shoal water, the skulks--and that has enabled them to baffle me so often. Not that they would conquer the country--all brag--but still it would be a nasty predicament, and scare the poor cockneys like the very devil."

"But remember the distance from Boulogne, Hurry. If they cannot cross twenty-five miles of channel in the teeth of our ships, what chance would they have when the distance is nearer eighty?"

"A much better chance, if they knew how to do it. All our cruisers would be to the eastward. One afternoon perhaps, when a haze is on, they make a feint with light craft toward the Scheldt--every British ship crowds sail after them. Then, at dusk, the main body of the expedition slips with the first of the ebb to the westward; they meet the flood tide in mid-channel, and using their long sweeps are in Springhaven, or at any rate the lightest of them, by the top of that tide, just when you are shaving. You laugh at such a thought of mine. I tell you, my dear friend, that with skill and good luck it is easy; and do it they should, if they were under my command."

If anybody else had even talked of such a plan as within the bounds of likelihood, Admiral Darling would have been almost enraged. But now he looked doubtfully, first at the sea (as if it might be thick with prames already), and then at the land--which was his own--as if the rent might go into a Frenchman's pocket, and then at his old and admired friend, who had ruined his sleep for the summer.

"Happily they are not under your command, and they have no man to compare with you;" he spoke rather nervously; while Nelson smiled, for he loved the praise which he had so well earned; "and if it were possible for you to talk nonsense, I should say that you had done it now. But two things surely you have overlooked. In the first place, the French can have no idea of the special opportunities this place affords. And again, if they had, they could do nothing, without a pilot well acquainted with the spot. Though the landing is so easy, there are shoals outside, very intricate and dangerous, and known to none except the natives of the place, who are jealous to the last degree about their knowledge."

"That is true enough; and even I should want a pilot here, though I know every spit of sand eastward. But away fly both your difficulties if there should happen to be a local traitor."

"A traitor at Springhaven! Such a thing is quite impossible. You would laugh at yourself, if you only knew the character of our people. There never has been, and there never will be, a Springhaven man capable of treachery."

"That is good news, ay, and strange news too," the visitor answered, with his left hand on his sword, for he was now in full though rather shabby uniform. "There are not many traitors in England, I believe; but they are as likely to be found in one place as another, according to my experience. Well, well, I am very glad you have no such scoundrels here. I won't say a single word against your people, who are as fine a lot as any in the south of England, and as obstinate as any I could wish to see. Of an obstinate man I can always make good; with a limp one I can do nothing. But bear in mind every word you have heard me say, because I came down on purpose about it; and I generally penetrate the devices of the enemy, though they lead me on a wild-goose-chase sometimes, but only when our own folk back them up, either by lies or stupidity. Now look once more, for you are slower as well as a great deal wiser than I am. You see how this land-locked bight of Springhaven seems made by the Almighty for flat-bottomed craft, if once they can find their way into it; while the trend of the coast towards Pebbleridge is equally suited for the covering fleet, unless a gale from southwest comes on, in which case they must run for it. And you see that the landed force, by crowning the hill above your house and across the valley, might defy our noble Volunteers, and all that could be brought against them, till a hundred thousand cutthroats were established here. And Boney would make his head-quarters at the Hall, with a French cook in your kitchen, and a German butler in your cellar, and my pretty godchild to wait upon him, for the rogue loves pretty maidens."

"That will do. That is quite enough. No wonder you have written poems, Nelson, as you told us the last time you were here. If my son had only got your imagination--but perhaps you know something more than you have told me. Perhaps you have been told--"

"Never mind about that," the great sea-captain answered, turning away as if on springs; "it is high time for me to be off again, and my chaise has springs on her cables."

"Not she. I have ordered her to be docked. Dine with us you shall this day, if we have to dine two hours earlier, and though Mother Cloam rage furiously. How much longer do you suppose you can carry on at this pace? Look at me. I have double your bodily substance; but if I went on as you do--you remember the twenty-four-pounder old Hotcoppers put into the launch, and fired it, in spite of all I could say to him? Well, you are just the same. You have not got the scantling for the metal you carry and are always working. You will either blow up, or else scuttle yourself. Look here, how your seams are opening!" Here Admiral Darling thrust his thumb through the ravelled seam of his old friend's coat, which made him jump back, for he loved his old coat. "Yes, and you will go in the very same way. I wonder how any coat lasts so much as a month, with you inside it."

"This coat," said Nelson, who was most sweet-tempered with any one he loved, though hot as pepper when stirred up by strangers--"this coat is the one I wore at Copenhagen, and a sounder and kinder coat never came on a man's back. Charles Darling, you have made a bad hit this time. If I am no more worn out than this coat is, I am fit to go to sea for a number of years yet. And I hope to show it to a good many Frenchmen, and take as many ships, every time they show fight, as there are buttons on it."

"Then you will double all your captures at the Nile;" such a series of buttons had this coat, though mostly loose upon their moorings, for his guardian angel was not "domestic"; "but you may be trusted not to let them drift so. You have given me a lesson in coast- defence, and now you shall be boarded by the ladies. You possess some gifts of the tongue, my friend, as well as great gifts of hand and eye; but I will back my daughters to beat you there. Come up to the house. No turning of tail."

"I spoke very well in the House of Lords," said Nelson, in his simple way, "in reply to the speech of his Majesty, and again about the Commissioner's Bill; or at least everybody tells me so. But in the House of Ladies I hold my tongue, because there is abundance without it."

This, however, he failed to do when the matter came to the issue; for his godchild Horatia, more commonly called Dolly, happened to be in the mood for taking outrageous liberties with him. She possessed very little of that gift--most precious among women--the sense of veneration; and to her a hero was only a man heroic in acts of utility. "He shall do it," she said to Faith, when she heard that he was come again; "if I have to kiss him, he shall do it; and I don't like kissing those old men."

"Hush!" said her elder sister. "Dolly, you do say things so recklessly. One would think that you liked to kiss younger men! But I am sure that is not your meaning. I would rather kiss Lord Nelson than all the young men in the kingdom."

"Well done, Faith! All the young men in the kingdom! How recklessly you do say things! And you can't kiss him--he is my godfather. But just see how I get round him, if you have wits enough to understand it."

So these two joined in their kind endeavour to make the visitor useful, the object being so good that doubtful means might be excused for it. In different ways and for divers reasons, each of these young ladies now had taken to like Blyth Scudamore. Faith, by power of pity first, and of grief for her own misfortunes, and of admiration for his goodness to his widowed mother--which made his best breeches shine hard at the knees; and Dolly, because of his shy adoration, and dauntless defence of her against a cow (whose calf was on the road to terminate in veal), as well as his special skill with his pocket-knife in cutting out figures that could dance, and almost sing; also his great gifts, when the tide was out, of making rare creatures run after him. What avails to explore female reason precisely?--their minds were made up that he must be a captain, if Nelson had to build the ship with his one hand for him.

"After that, there is nothing more to be said," confessed the vanquished warrior; "but the daughters of an Admiral should know that no man can be posted until he has served his time as lieutenant; and this young hero of yours has never even held the King's commission yet. But as he has seen some service, and is beyond the age of a middy, in the present rush he might get appointed as junior lieutenant, if he had any stout seconders. Your father is the man, he is always at hand, and can watch his opportunity. He knows more big-wigs than I do, and he has not given offence where I have. Get your father, my dears, to attend to it."

But the ladies were not to be so put off, for they understood the difference of character. Lord Nelson was as sure to do a thing as Admiral Darling was to drop it if it grew too heavy. Hence it came to pass that Blyth Scudamore, though failing of the Victory and Amphion--which he would have chosen, if the choice were his-- received with that cheerful philosophy (which had made him so dear to the school-boys, and was largely required among them) his appointment as junior lieutenant to the 38-gun frigate Leda, attached to the Channel fleet under Cornwallis, whose business it was to deal with the French flotilla of invasion.