Chapter XXI. A Gracious Mercy

As a matter of course, every gunner at the fort was ready to make oath by every colour of the rainbow, that never shot, shell, wad, sponge, or even powder-flake could by any possibility have fallen on the beach. And before they had time to grow much more than doubly positive--that is to say, within three days' time--the sound of guns fired in earnest drowned all questions of bad practice.

For the following Sunday beheld Springhaven in a state of excitement beyond the memory of the very oldest inhabitant, or the imagination of the youngest. Excitement is a crop that, to be large, must grow--though it thrives all the better without much root--and in this particular field it began to grow before noon of Saturday. For the men who were too old to go to sea, and the boys who were too young, and the women who were never of the proper age, all these kept looking from the best lookouts, but nothing could they see to enable them to say when the kettle, or the frying-pan, or gridiron, would be wanted. They rubbed their eyes grievously, and spun round three times, if time had brought or left them the power so to spin; and they pulled an Irish halfpenny, with the harp on, from their pockets, and moistened it with saliva--which in English means spat on it--and then threw it into the pocket on the other side of body. But none of these accredited appeals to heaven put a speck upon the sea where the boats ought to have been, or cast upon the clouds a shade of any sail approaching. Uneasily wondering, the grannies, wives, and little ones went home, when the nightfall quenched all eyesight, and told one another ancient tales of woe.

Yet there is a salve for every sore, a bung for every bunghole. Upon the Sunday morning, when the tide was coming in, and a golden haze hung upon the peaceful sea, and the seven bells of the old grey church were speaking of the service cheerfully, suddenly a deep boom moved the bosom of distance, and palpitated all along the shore. Six or seven hale old gaffers (not too stiff to walk, with the help of a staff, a little further than the rest) were coming to hear parson by the path below the warren, where a smack of salt would season them for doctrine. They knew from long experience, the grandmother of science, that the mist of the sea, coming on at breakfast-time, in the month of August (with the wind where it was and the tides as they were), would be sure to hold fast until dinner-time. Else, good as they were, and preparing punctually once a week for a better world, the hind buttons of their Sunday coats would have been towards the church, and the front ones to the headland. For the bodies of their sons were dearer to them, substantially dearer, than their own old souls.

They were all beginning to be deaf, or rather going on with it very agreeably, losing thereby a great deal of disturbance, and gaining great room for reflection. And now when the sound of a gun from the sea hung shaking in the web of vapour, each of these wise men gazed steadfastly at the rest, to see his own conclusion reflected, or concluded. A gun it was indeed--a big well-shotted gun, and no deafness could throw any doubt on it. There might not be anything to see, but still there would be plenty to hear at the headland--a sound more arousing than the parson's voice, a roar beyond that of all the gallery. "'Tis a battle!" said one, and his neighbour cried, "A rare one!" They turned to the parish church the quarters of farewell, and those of salutation to the battle out at sea.

It was all over the village, in the time it takes to put a hat on, that the British and the French fleets were hammer and tongs at it, within the distance you may throw an apple off Springhaven headland.

Even the young women knew that this was quite impossible, because there was no water there for a collier-brig to anchor; nevertheless, in the hurry and scare, the thoughts of that new battery and Lord Nelson, and above all in the fog, they believed it. So that there was scarcely any room to stand, at the Watch-point, inside the Shag-rock; while in church there was no one who could help being there, by force of holy office, or example.

These latter were not in a devout frame of mind, and (but for the look of it) would have done more good by joining the other congregation. For the sound of cannon-shot came into their ears, like balls of unadulterated pepper, and every report made them look at one another, and whisper--"Ah! there goes some poor fellow's head." For the sacred building was constructed so that the sounds outside of it had more power than the good things offered in the inside.

However, as many, or as few, as did their duty, by joining the good company of the minister, found themselves all the better for it, and more fresh for a start than the runagates. Inasmuch as these latter had nearly got enough of listening without seeing anything, while the steady church-goers had refreshed the entire system by looking about without listening. And to show the truant people where their duty should have bound them, the haze had been thickening all over the sea, while the sun kept the time on the old church dial. This was spoken of for many years, throughout the village, as a Scriptural token of the proper thing to do.

"Well, and what have 'e seen?" asked the senior church-warden--not Cheeseman, who was only the junior, and had neither been at church nor on the headland--but Farmer Graves, the tenant of the Glebe and of Up-farm, the Admiral's best holding; "what have 'e seen, good people all, to leave parson to prache to hisself a'most a sarmon as he's hathn't prached for five year, to my knowledge? Have 'e seen fat bulls of Basan?"

"Naw; but us have heer'd un roar," replied one who was sure to say something. "Wust of it is, there be no making out what language un do roar in."

"One Englishman, I tell 'e, and two Frenchmen," said an ancient tar who had served under Keppel; "by the ring of the guns I could swear to that much. And they loads them so different, that they do."

Before the others had well finished laughing at him, it became his turn to laugh at them. The wind was in the east, and the weather set fair, and but for the sea-mist the power of the sun would have been enough to dazzle all beholders. Already this vapour was beginning to clear off, coiling up in fleecy wisps above the glistening water, but clinging still to any bluff or cliff it could lay hold on.

"Halloa, Jem! Where be going of now?" shouted one or two voices from the Oar-stone point, the furthest outlook of the Havenhead hill.

"To see them Frenchy hoppers get a jolly hiding," Jem Prater replied, without easing his sculls. He was John Prater's nephew, of the "Darling Arms," and had stopped behind the fishing to see his uncle's monthly beer in. "You can't see up there, I reckon, the same as I do here. One English ship have got a job to tackle two Crappos. But, by George! she'll do it, mates. Good bye, and the Lord defend you!"

He had nobody but his little brother Sam, who was holding the tiller, to help him, and his uncle's boat (which he had taken without leave) was neither stout nor handy. But the stir of the battle had fetched him forth, and he meant to see the whole of it without taking harm. Every Englishman had a full right to do this, in a case of such French audacity, and the English sea and air began to give him fair occasion. For now the sun had swept the mist with a besom of gold wire, widening every sweep, and throwing brilliant prospect down it. The gentle heave of the sea flashed forth with the white birds hovering over it, and the curdles of fugitive vapour glowed like pillars of fire as they floated off. Then out of the drift appeared three ships, partly shrouded in their own fog.

The wind was too light for manoeuvring much, and the combatants swung to their broadsides, having taken the breath of the air away by the fury of their fire. All three were standing to the north- north-west, under easy sail, and on the starboard tack, but scarcely holding steerage-way, and taking little heed of it. Close quarters, closer and closer still, muzzle to muzzle, and beard to beard, clinched teeth, and hard pounding, were the order of the day, with the crash of shattered timber and the cries of dying men. And still the ships came onward, forgetting where they were, heaving too much iron to have thought of heaving lead, ready to be shipwrecks, if they could but wreck the enemy.

Between the bulky curls of smoke could be seen the scars of furious battle, splintered masts and shivered yards, tattered sails and yawning bulwarks, and great gaps even of the solid side; and above the ruck of smoke appeared the tricolor flag upon the right hand and the left, and the Union-jack in the middle.

"She've a'got more than she can do, I reckon," said an old man famous in the lobster line; "other a one of they is as big as she be, and two to one seemeth onfair odds. Wish her well out of it-- that's all as can be done."

"Kelks, you're a fool," replied the ancient navyman, steadying his spy-glass upon a ledge of rock. "In my time we made very little of that; and the breed may be slacked off a little, but not quite so bad as that would be. Ah! you should a' heard what old Keppel--on the twenty-seventh day of July it was, in the year of our Lord 1778. Talk about Nelson! to my mind old Keppel could have boxed his compass backward. Not but what these men know how to fight quite as well as need be nowadays. Why, if I was aboard of that there frigate, I couldn't do much more than she have done. She'll have one of them, you see if she don't, though she look to have the worst of it, till you comes to understand. The Leader her name is, of thirty-eight guns, and she'll lead one of they into Portsmouth, to refit."

It was hard to understand the matter, in its present aspect, at all as the ancient sailor did; for the fire of the Leda ceased suddenly, and she fell behind the others, as if hampered with her canvas. A thrill of pain ran through all the gazing Britons.

"How now, old Navy-Mike?" cried the lobster man. "Strike is the word, and no mistake. And small blame to her either. She hathn't got a sound thread to draw, I do believe. Who is the fool now, Mike? Though vexed I be to ask it."

"Wait a bit, old lobster-pot. Ah, there now, she breezes! Whistle for a wind, lads, whistle, whistle. Sure as I'm a sinner, yes! She's laying her course to board the Frenchman on the weather quarter. With a slant of wind she'll do it, too, if it only holds two minutes. Whistle on your nails, my boys, for the glory of old England."

In reply to their shrill appeal--for even the women tried to whistle--or perhaps in compulsory sequence of the sun, the wind freshened briskly from the sunny side of east. The tattered sails of the brave ship filled, with the light falling through them upon one another, the head swung round at the command of helm, the pennons flew gaily and the ensign flapped, and she bore down smoothly on the outer and therefore unwounded side of the enemy.

"That's what I call judgmatical," old Mike shouted, with a voice that rivalled cannon; "whoever thought of that deserves three epulets, one on each shoulder and one upon his head. Doubt if old Keppel would have thought of that, now. You see, mates, the other Crappo can't fire at her without first hitting of her own consort. And better than that--ever so much better--the tilt of the charge will throw her over on her wounds. Master Muncher hath two great holes 'twixt wind and water on his larboard side, and won't they suck the briny, with the weight of our bows upon the starboard beam? 'Twill take fifty hands to stop leaks, instead of stopping boarders."

The smoke was drifting off, and the sun shone bravely. The battle had been gliding toward the feet of the spectators; and now from the height of the cliff they could descry the decks, the guns, the coils of rope, the turmoil, and dark rush of men to their fate. Small fights, man to man, demanded still the power of a telescope, and distance made the trenchant arms of heroes, working right and left, appear like the nippers of an earwig. The only thing certain was that men were being killed, and glory was being manufactured largely.

"She've a doed it, she've a doed it rarely. There's not a d----d froggy left to go to heaven; or if there be so he's a' battened down below," old Mike shouted, flourishing his spy-glass, which rattled in its joints as much as he did; "down comes the blood, froth, and blue blazes, as they call the Republican emrods, and up goes the Union-jack, my hearties. Three cheers! three cheers! Again! again! again!"

From the sea far below, and far away, came also the volume of a noble English shout, as the flag began to flutter in the quickening breeze, and the sea arose and danced with sunshine. No one, who had got all his blood left in him, could think of anything but glory.

"My certy, they had better mind their soundings, though!" said the old navy-man, with a stitch in his side and a lump in his throat, from loud utterance; "five fathoms is every inch of it where they be now, and the tide making strong, and precious little wind to claw off with. Jem Prater! Jem Prater! Oar up, and give signal. Ah, he's too far off to do any good. In five minutes more they'll be on the White Pig, where no ship ever got off again. Oh, thank the Lord, mates, thank the Lord, for his mercy endureth forever! The other froggy is stuck hard and fast, and our lads will just fetch out in time."

Old Navy-Mike had made no mistake. The consort of the captured frigate, a corvette of twenty-four guns, had boldly stood on with the intention of rounding to the wind, crossing the bows of the other twain, and retrieving the fortunes of the day perhaps, by a broadside into the shattered upper works of the terribly hampered British ship. The idea was clever and spirited, and had a very fair chance of success; but the land below the sea forefended it. Full of fine ardour and the noble thirst for fame, speeding on for the palm of high enterprise and the glory of the native land, alas, they stuck fast in a soft bit of English sand! It was in their power now to swear by all they disbelieved in, and in everything visible and too tangible; but their power was limited strictly to that; and the faster they swore, the faster they were bound to stick.

Springhaven dined well, with its enemy so placed, and a message from the Leda by Jem Prater, that the fishing fleet was rescued, and would be home to early supper, and so much to be talked about all dinner-time, that for once in his life nearly everybody found it more expedient to eat with his fork than his knife. Then all who could be spared from washing up, and getting ready for further cookery, went duly to church in the afternoon, to hear the good rector return humble thanks for a Gracious Mercy to the British arms, and to see a young man, who had landed with despatches, put a face full of gunpowder in at window, to learn whether Admiral Darling was there.