Springhaven by R. D. Blackmore
Chapter XXXII. The Trials of Faith
He following day, the 27th of October, was a dark one in the calendar of a fair and good young lady. Two years would then have passed since Faith Darling, at the age of twenty, had received sad tidings, which would make the rest of her life flow on in shadow. So at least she thought, forgetful (or rather perhaps unconscious, for she had not yet learned the facts of life) that time and the tide of years submerge the loftiest youthful sorrow. To a warm and stedfast heart like hers, and a nature strong but self-controlled, no casual change, or light diversion, or sudden interest in other matters, could take the place of the motive lost. Therefore, being of a deep true faith, and staunch in the belief of a great God, good to all who seek His goodness, she never went away from what she meant, that faith and hope should feed each other.
This saved her from being a trouble to any one, or damping anybody's cheerfulness, or diminishing the gaiety around her. She took a lively interest in the affairs of other people, which a "blighted being" declines to do; and their pleasures ministered to her own good cheer without, or at any rate beyond, her knowledge. Therefore she was liked by everybody, and beloved by all who had any heart for a brave and pitiful story. Thus a sweet flower, half closed by the storm, continues to breathe forth its sweetness.
However, there were times when even Faith was lost in sad remembrance, and her bright young spirit became depressed by the hope deferred that maketh sick the heart. As time grew longer, hope grew less; and even the cheerful Admiral, well versed in perils of the deep, and acquainted with many a wandering story, had made up his mind that Erle Twemlow was dead, and would never more be heard of. The rector also, the young man's father, could hold out no longer against that conclusion; and even the mother, disdaining the mention, yet understood the meaning, of despair. And so among those to whom the subject was the most interesting in the world, it was now the strict rule to avoid it with the lips, though the eyes were often filled with it.
Faith Darling at first scorned this hard law. "It does seem so unkind," she used to say, "that even his name should be interdicted, as if he had disgraced himself. If he is dead, he has died with honour. None who ever saw him can doubt that. But he is not dead. He will come back to us, perhaps next week, perhaps to-morrow, perhaps even while we are afraid to speak of him. If it is for my sake that you behave thus, I am not quite so weak as to require it."
The peculiar circumstances of the case had not only baffled enquiry, but from the very beginning precluded it. The man with the keenest eyes, sharpest nose, biggest ears, and longest head, of all the many sneaks who now conduct what they call "special enquiries," could have done nothing with a case like this, because there was no beginning it. Even now, in fair peace, and with large knowledge added, the matter would not have been easy; but in war universal, and blank ignorance, there was nothing to be done but to sit down and think. And the story invited a good deal of thinking, because of its disappointing turn.
During the negotiations for peace in 1801, and before any articles were signed, orders were sent to the Cape of Good Hope for the return of a regiment of the line, which had not been more than three months there. But the Cape was likely to be restored to Holland, and two empty transports returning from India were to call under convoy, and bring home these troops. One of the officers was Captain Erle Twemlow, then about twenty-five years of age, and under probation, by the Admiral's decree, for the hand of the maiden whose heart had been his from a time to itself immemorial. After tiresome days of impatience, the transports arrived under conduct of a frigate; and after another week, the soldiers embarked with fine readiness for their native land.
But before they had cleared the Bay, they met a brig-of-war direct from Portsmouth, carrying despatches for the officer in command of the troops, as well as for the captain of the frigate. Some barbarous tribes on the coast of Guinea, the part that is called the Ivory Coast, had plundered and burnt a British trading station within a few miles of Cape Palmas, and had killed and devoured the traders. These natives must be punished, and a stern example made, and a negro monarch of the name of Hunko Jum must have his palace burned, if he possessed one; while his rival, the king of the Crumbo tribe, whose name was Bandeliah, who had striven to protect the traders, must be rewarded, and have a treaty made with him, if he could be brought to understand it. Both sailors and soldiers were ready enough to undertake this little spree, as they called it, expecting to have a pleasant run ashore, a fine bit of sport with the negroes, and perhaps a few noserings of gold to take home to their wives and sweethearts.
But, alas! the reality was not so fine. The negroes who had done all the mischief made off, carrying most of their houses with them; and the palace of Hunko Jum, if he possessed one, was always a little way further on. The Colonel was a stubborn man, and so was the sea-captain--good Tories both, and not desirous to skulk out of scrapes, and leave better men to pick up their clumsy breakages. Blue and red vied with one another to scour the country, and punish the natives--if only they could catch them--and to vindicate, with much strong language, the dignity of Great Britain, and to make an eternal example.
But white bones are what the white man makes, under that slimy sunshine and putrefying moon. Weary, slack-jointed, low-hearted as they were, the deadly coast-fever fell upon them, and they shivered, and burned, and groaned, and raved, and leaped into holes, or rolled into camp fires. The Colonel died early, and the Naval Captain followed him; none stood upon the order of their going; but man followed man, as in a funeral, to the grave, until there was no grave to go to. The hand of the Lord was stretched out against them; and never would one have come back to England, out of more than five hundred who landed, except for the manhood and vigour of a seaman, Captain Southcombe, of the transport Gwalior.
This brave and sensible man had been left with his ship lying off to be signalled for, in case of mishap, while his consort and the frigate were despatched in advance to a creek, about twenty leagues westward, where the land-force triumphant was to join them. Captain Southcombe, with every hand he could muster, traced the unfortunate party inland, and found them led many leagues in the wrong direction, lost among quagmires breathing death, worn out with vermin, venom, and despair, and hemmed in by savages lurking for the night, to rush in upon and make an end of them. What need of many words? This man, and his comrades, did more than any other men on the face of this earth could have done without British blood in them. They buried the many who had died without hope of the decent concealment which our life has had, and therefore our death longs for; they took on their shoulders, or on cane wattles, the many who had made up their minds to die, and were in much doubt about having done it, and they roused up and worked up by the scruff of their loose places the few who could get along on their own legs. And so, with great spirit, and still greater patience, they managed to save quite as many as deserved it.
Because, when they came within signal of the Gwalior, Captain Southcombe, marching slowly with his long limp burdens, found ready on the sand the little barrel, about as big as a kilderkin, of true and unsullied Stockholm pitch, which he had taken, as his brother took Madeira, for ripeness and for betterance, by right of change of climate. With a little of this given choicely and carefully at the back of every sick man's tongue, and a little more spread across the hollow of his stomach, he found them so enabled in the afternoon that they were glad to sit up in the bottom of a boat, and resign themselves to an All-wise Providence.
Many survived, and blessed Captain Southcombe, not at first cordially--for the man yet remains to be discovered who is grateful to his doctor--but gradually more and more, and with that healthy action of the human bosom which is called expectoration, whenever grateful memories were rekindled by the smell of tar. But this is a trifle; many useful lives were saved, and the Nation should have thanked Captain Southcombe, but did not.
After these sad incidents, when sorrow for old friends was tempered by the friendly warmth afforded by their shoes, a muster was held by the Major in command, and there was only one officer who could neither assert himself alive, nor be certified as dead. That one was Erle Twemlow, and the regiment would rather have lost any other two officers. Urgent as it was, for the safety of the rest, to fly with every feather from this pestilential coast, sails were handed, boats despatched, and dealings tried with Hunko Jum, who had reappeared with promptitude, the moment he was not wanted. From this noble monarch, and his chiefs, and all his nation, it was hard to get any clear intelligence, because their own was absorbed in absorbing. They had found upon the sands a cask of Admiralty rum, as well as a stout residue of unadulterated pitch. Noses, and tongues, and historical romance--for a cask had been washed ashore five generations since, and set up for a god, when the last drop was licked--induced this brave nation to begin upon the rum; and fashion (as powerful with them as with us) compelled them to drink the tar likewise, because they had seen the white men doing it. This would have made it hard to understand them, even if they had been English scholars, which their ignorance of rum proved them not to be; and our sailors very nearly went their way, after sadly ascertaining nothing, except that the cask was empty.
But luckily, just as they were pushing off, a very large, black head appeared from behind a vegetable-ivory tree, less than a quarter of a mile away, and they knew that this belonged to Bandeliah, the revered king of the Crumbos, who had evidently smelled rum far inland. With him they were enabled to hold discourse, partly by signs, and partly by means of an old and highly polished negro, who had been the rat-catcher at the factory now consumed; and the conclusion, or perhaps the confusion, arrived at from signs, grunts, grins, nods, waggings of fingers and twistings of toes, translated grandiloquently into broken English, was not far from being to the following effect:
To wit, that two great kings reigned inland, either of them able to eat up Hunko Jum and Bandeliah at a mouthful, but both of them too proud to set foot upon land that was flat, or in water that was salt. They ruled over two great nations called the Houlas, and the Quackwas, going out of sight among great rivers and lands with clear water standing over them. And if the white men could not understand this, it was because they drank salt-water.
Moreover, they said that of these two kings, the king of the Houlas was a woman, the most beautiful ever seen in all the world, and able to jump over any man's head. But the king of the Quackwas was a man, and although he had more than two thousand wives, and was taller by a joint of a bamboo than Bandeliah--whose stature was at least six feet four--yet nothing would be of any use to him, unless he could come to an agreement with Mabonga, the queen of the Houlas, to split a durra straw with him. But Mabonga was coy, and understanding men, as well as jumping over them, would grant them no other favour than the acceptance of their presents. However, the other great king was determined to have her for his wife, if he abolished all the rest, and for this reason he had caught and kept the lost Englishman as a medicine-man; and it was not likely that he would kill him, until he failed or succeeded.
To further enquiries Bandeliah answered that to rescue the prisoner was impossible. If it had been his own newest wife, he would not push out a toe for her. The great king Golo lived up in high places that overlooked the ground, as he would these white men, and his armies went like wind and spread like fire. None of his warriors ate white man's flesh; they were afraid it would make them cowardly.
A brave heart is generally tender in the middle, to make up for being so firm outside, even as the Durian fruit is. Captain Southcombe had walked the poop-deck of the Gwalior many a time, in the cool of the night, with Erle Twemlow for his companion, and had taken a very warm liking to him. So that when the survivors of the regiment were landed at Portsmouth, this brave sailor travelled at his own cost to Springhaven, and told the Rector the whole sad story, making it clear to him beyond all doubt, that nothing whatever could be done to rescue the poor young man from those savages, or even to ascertain his fate. For the Quackwas were an inland tribe, inhabiting vast regions wholly unknown to any European, and believed to extend to some mighty rivers, and lakes resembling inland seas.
Therefore Mr. Twemlow, in a deep quiet voice, asked Captain Southcombe one question only--whether he might keep any hope of ever having, by the mercy of the Lord, his only son restored to him. And the sailor said--yes; the mistake would be ever to abandon such a hope, for at the moment he least expected it, his son might stand before him. He pretended to no experience of the western coast of Africa, and niggers he knew were a very queer lot, acting according to their own lights, which differed according to their natures. But he was free to say, that in such a condition he never would think of despairing, though it might become very hard not to do so, as time went on without bringing any news. He himself had been in sad peril more than once, and once it appeared quite hopeless; but he thought of his wife and his children at home, and the Lord had been pleased to deliver him.
The parson was rebuked by this brave man's faith, who made no pretence whatever to piety; and when they said Goodbye, their eyes were bright with the goodwill and pity of the human race, who know trouble not inflicted as yet upon monkeys. Mr. Twemlow's heart fell when the sailor was gone, quite as if he had lost his own mainstay; but he braced himself up to the heavy duty of imparting sad news to his wife and daughter, and worst of all to Faith Darling. But the latter surprised him by the way in which she bore it; for while she made no pretence to hide her tears, she was speaking as if they were needless. And the strangest thing of all, in Mr. Twemlow's opinion, was her curious persistence about Queen Mabonga. Could any black woman--and she supposed she must be that-- be considered by white people to be beautiful? Had Captain Southcombe ever even seen her; and if not, how could he be in such raptures about her attractions? She did not like to say a word, because he had been so kind and so faithful to those poor soldiers, whom it was his duty to bring home safe; but if it had not been for that, she might have thought that with so many children and a wife at Limehouse, he should not have allowed his mind to dwell so fondly on the personal appearance of a negress!
The Rector was astonished at this injustice, and began to revise his opinion about Faith as the fairest and sweetest girl in all the world; but Mrs. Twemlow smiled, when she had left off crying, and said that she liked the dear child all the better for concluding that Ponga--or whatever her name was--must of necessity and at the first glance fall desperately in love with her own Erle. Then the Rector cried, "Oh, to be sure, that explained it! But he never could have thought of that, without his wife's assistance."
Two years now, two years of quiet patience, of busy cheerfulness now and then, and of kindness to others always, had made of Faith Darling a lady to be loved for a hundred years, and for ever. The sense of her sorrow was never far from her, yet never brought near to any other by herself; and her smile was as warm, and her eyes as bright, as if there had never been a shadow on her youth. To be greeted by her, and to receive her hand, and one sweet glance of her large goodwill, was enough to make an old man feel that he must have been good at some time, and a young man hope that he should be so by-and-by; though the tendency was generally contented with the hope.