Chapter XXII. A Special Urgency

Admiral Darling was not in church. His duty to his country kept him up the hill, and in close consultation with Captain Stubbard, who was burning to fire his battery.

"I never knew such bad luck in all my life. The devil has been appointed First Lord of the weather ever since I came to Springhaven." As Stubbard declared these great truths he strode about in his little fortress, delivering a kick at the heels of things which had no right to be lumbering there. "To think that I should never have seen those beggars, when but for the fog I could have smashed them right and left. Admiral, these things make a Christian an infidel."

"Nonsense, sir!" said the Admiral, sternly, for a man of his kind nature; "you forget that without the fog, or rather the mist--for it was only that--those fellows would never have come within range. We have very great blessings to be thankful for, though the credit falls not to our battery. The Frenchmen fought wonderfully well, as well as the best Englishman could have done, and to capture them both is a miracle of luck, if indeed we can manage to secure them. My friend, young Honyman, of the Leda, has proved himself just what I said he would be; and has performed a very gallant exploit, though I fear he is severely wounded. But we shall know more now, for I see a young fellow jumping up the hill, like a kangaroo, and probably he comes for orders. One thing we have learned, Stubbard, and must take the hint to-morrow--put a hut on the Haven head, and keep a watchman there. Why, bless my heart, it is Blyth Scudamore that's coming! There is nobody else that can skip like that."

The young lieutenant entered between two guns--the gunners were dismissed in great disgust to dinner--with his pleasant face still a little grimed with gunpowder, and flushed by his hurry up the steep hill-side.

"This for you, sir," he said, saluting the Admiral, presenting his letter, and then drawing back; "and I am to wait your convenience for reply."

"What next will the service come to," asked the Admiral of Captain Stubbard, "when a young man just commissioned gives himself such mighty airs? Shake hands, Blyth, and promise you will come and dine with us, unless you are ordered to return on board at once. How is your good captain? I knew him when he wore Nankins. Jem Prater brought word that he was wounded. I hope it is not serious."

"No, sir; not much to speak of. He has only lost three fingers. That was why I wrote this letter--or report, I ought to call it, if anybody else had written it. Oh, sir! I cannot bear to think of it! I was fifth luff when the fight began, and now there is only one left above me, and he is in command of our biggest prize, the Ville d'Anvers. But, Admiral, here you will find it all, as I wrote it, from the lips, when they tied up the fingers, of Captain Honyman."

"How could you tie them up when they were gone?" Captain Stubbard enquired, with a sneer at such a youth. He had got on very slowly in his early days, and could not bear to see a young man with such vacancies before him. "Why, you are the luckiest lad I ever saw! Sure to go up at least three steps. How well you must have kept out of it! And how happy you must feel, Lieutenant Scudamore!"

"I am not at all happy at losing dear friends," the young man answered, gently, as he turned away and patted the breech of a gun, upon which there was a little rust next day; "that feeling comes later in life, I suppose."

The Admiral was not attending to them now, but absorbed in the brief account of the conflict, begun by Captain Honyman in his own handwriting, and finished by his voice, but not his pen. Any one desirous to read this may do so in the proper place. For the present purpose it is enough to say that the modesty of the language was scarcely surpassed by the brilliancy of the exploit. And if anything were needed to commend the writer to the deepest good will of the reader, it was found in the fact that this enterprise sprang from warm zeal for the commerce of Springhaven. The Leda had been ordered on Friday last to protect the peaceful little fishing fleet from a crafty design for their capture, and this she had done with good effect, having justice on her side, and fortune. The particulars of the combat were not so clear, after the captain's three fingers were gone; but if one made proper allowance for that, there was not very much to complain of. The Admiral considered it a very good report; and then put on his spectacles, and thought it still better.

"Why! why! why!" he said--for without affectation many officers had caught the style of His then Gracious Majesty--"What's this? what's this? Something on the other side, in a different man's handwriting, and mighty difficult to read, in my opinion. Stubbard, did you ever see such a scrawl? Make it out for me. You have good eyes, like a hawk, or the man who saw through a milestone. Scudamore, what was his name? You know."

"Three fingers at five pounds apiece per annum as long as he lives!" Captain Stubbard computed on his own: "fifteen pounds a year perhaps for forty years, as you seem to say how young he is; that comes to just 600 pounds, and his hand as good as ever"-- ("I'll be hanged if it is, if he wrote this!" the Admiral interjected)--"and better, I must say, from a selfish point of view, because of only two nails left to clean, and his other hand increased in value; why, the scale is disgraceful, iniquitous, boobyish, and made without any knowledge of the human frame, and the comparative value of its members. Lieutenant Scudamore, look at me. Here you see me without an ear, damaged in the fore-hatch, and with the larboard bow stove in--and how much do I get, though so much older?"

"Well, if you won't help me, Stubbard," said the Admiral, who knew how long his friend would carry on upon that tack, "I must even get Scudamore to read it, though it seems to have been written on purpose to elude him. Blyth, my dear boy, can you explain it?"

"It was--it was only something, sir"--the lieutenant blushed, and hesitated, and looked away unmanfully--"which I asked Captain Honyman to leave out, because--because it had nothing to do with it. I mean, because it was of no importance, even if he happened to have that opinion. His hand was tied up so, that I did not like to say too much, and I thought that he would go to sleep, because the doctor had made him drink a poppy head boiled down with pigtail. But it seems as if he had got up after that--for he always will have his own way--while I was gone to put this coat on; and perhaps he wrote that with his left hand, sir. But it is no part of the business."

"Then we will leave it," said Admiral Darling, "for younger eyes than mine to read. Nelson wrote better with his left hand than ever he did with his right, to my thinking, the very first time that he tried it. But we can't expect everybody to do that. There is no sign of any change of weather, is there, Stubbard? My orders will depend very much upon that. I must go home and look at the quicksilver before I know what is best to do. You had better come with me, Scudamore."

Admiral Darling was quite right in this. Everything depended upon the weather; and although the rough autumn was not come yet, the prime of the hopeful year was past. The summer had not been a grand one, such as we get about once in a decade, but of loose and uncertain character, such as an Englishman has to make the best of. It might be taking up for a golden autumn, ripening corn, and fruit, and tree, or it might break up into shower and tempest, sodden earth, and weltering sky.

"Your captain refers to me for orders," said Admiral Darling to Scudamore, while they were hastening to the Hall, "as Commander of the Coast Defence, because he has been brought too far inshore, and one of the Frenchmen is stranded. The frigate you boarded and carried is the Ville d'Anvers, of forty guns. The corvette that took the ground, so luckily for you, when half of your hands were aboard the prize, is the Blonde, teak-built, and only launched last year. We must try to have her, whatever happens. She won't hurt where she is, unless it comes on to blow. Our sands hold fast without nipping, as you know, like a well-bred sheep-dog, and the White Pig is the toughest of all of them. She may stay there till the equinox, without much mischief, if the present light airs continue. But the worst job will be with the prisoners; they are the plague of all these affairs, and we can't imitate Boney by poisoning them. On the whole, it had better not have happened, perhaps. Though you must not tell Honyman that I said so. It was a very gallant action, very skilful, very beautiful; and I hope he will get a fine lift for it; and you too, my dear Blyth, for you must have fought well."

"But, Admiral, surely you would have been grieved if so many of your tenants, and their boats as well, had been swept away into a French harbour. What would Springhaven be without its Captain Zebedee?"

"You are right, Blyth; I forgot that for the moment. There would have been weeping and wailing indeed, even in our own household. But they could not have kept them long, though the loss of their boats would have been most terrible. But I cannot make out why the French should have wanted to catch a few harmless fishing-smacks. Aquila non captat muscas, as you taught the boys at Stonnington. And two ships despatched upon a paltry job of that sort! Either Captain Honyman was strangely misinformed, or there is something in the background, entirely beyond our knowledge. Pay attention to this matter, and let me know what you hear of it--as a friend, Blyth, as a friend, I mean. But here we are! You must want feeding. Mrs. Cloam will take care of you, and find all that is needful for a warrior's cleanup. I must look at the barometer, and consider my despatches. Let us have dinner, Mrs. Cloam, in twenty minutes, if possible. For we stand in real need of it."

Concerning that there could be no doubt. Glory, as all English officers know, is no durable stay for the stomach. The urgency of mankind for victuals may roughly be gauged by the length of the jaw. Captain Stubbard had jaws of tremendous length, and always carried a bag of captain's biscuits, to which he was obliged to have recourse in the height of the hottest engagement. Scudamore had short jaws, well set up, and powerful, without rapacity. But even these, after twelve hours of fasting, demanded something better than gunpowder. He could not help thinking that his host was regarding the condition of affairs very calmly, until he remembered that the day was Sunday, when no Briton has any call to be disturbed by any but sacred insistency. At any rate, he was under orders now, and those orders were entirely to his liking. So he freshened up his cheerful and simple-minded face, put his sailor-knot neckcloth askew, as usual, and with some trepidation went down to dinner.

The young ladies would not have been young women if they had not received him warmly. Kind Faith, who loved him as a sister might-- for she had long discovered his good qualities--had tears in her beautiful eyes, as she gave him both hands, and smiled sweetly at his bashfulness. And even the critical Dolly, who looked so sharply at the outside of everything, allowed her fair hand to stay well in his, and said something which was melody to him. Then Johnny, who was of a warlike cast, and hoped soon to destroy the French nation, shook hands with this public benefactor already employed in that great work.

"I shall scarcely have time for a bit of dinner," said Admiral Darling, as they sat down. "I have sent word to have the Protector launched, and to give little Billy a feed of corn. All you young people may take your leisure. Youth is the time that commands time and space. But for my part, if I can only manage this plate of soup, and a slice of that fish, and then one help of mutton, and just an apple-fritter, or some trifle of that sort, I shall be quite as lucky as I can hope to be. Duty perpetually spoils my dinner, and I must get some clever fellow to invent a plate that will keep as hot as duty is in these volcanic times. But I never complain; I am so used to it. Eat your dinners, children, and don't think of mine."

Having scarcely afforded himself an hour, the Admiral, in full uniform, embarked upon little Billy, a gentle-minded pony from the west country, who conducted his own digestion while he consulted that of his rider. At the haven they found the Protector ready, a ten-oared galley manned by Captain Stubbard's men, good samples of Sea-Fencibles. And the Captain himself was there, to take the tiller, and do any fighting if the chance should arise, for he had been disappointed all the morning. The boat which brought Scudamore had been recalled by signal from the Leda, and that active young officer having sought her vainly, and thereby missed the Protector, followed steadily in Mr. Prater's boat, with the nephew, Jem, pulling the other oar, and Johnny Darling, who raged at the thought of being left behind, steering vaguely. And just as they rounded the harbour-head, the long glassy sweep of the palpitating sea bore inward and homeward the peaceful squadron, so wistfully watched for and so dearly welcome.