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   Chapter 26 MEN OF WAR AND PEACE

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 28389

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The following days passed in terrible suspense for all left behind at Rye. Every morning all the points of vantage were crowded; the Ypres tower itself was never deserted day or night; and all the sharpest eyes in the town were bent continually out over that leaden rolling sea that faded into haze and storm-cloud in the direction of the French coast. But there was nothing to be seen on that waste of waters but the single boats that flew up channel or laboured down it against the squally west wind, far out at sea. Once or twice fishing-boats put in at Rye; but their reports were so contradictory and uncertain that they increased rather than allayed the suspense and misery. Now it was a French boat that reported the destruction of the Triumph; now an Englishman that swore to having seen Drake kill Medina-Sidonia with his own hand on his poop; but whatever the news might be, the unrest and excitement ran higher and higher. St. Clare's chapel in the old parish church of St. Nicholas was crowded every morning at five o'clock by an excited congregation of women, who came to beg God's protection on their dear ones struggling out there somewhere towards the dawn with those cruel Southern monsters. Especially great was the crowd on the Tuesday morning following the departure of the ships; for all day on Monday from time to time came a far-off rolling noise from the direction of Calais; which many declared to be thunder, with an angry emphasis that betrayed their real opinion.

When they came out of church that morning, and were streaming down to the quay as usual to see if any news had come in during the night, a seaman called to them from a window that a French vessel was just entering the harbour.

When the women arrived at the water's edge they found a good crowd already assembled on the quay, watching the ship beat in against the north-west wind, which had now set in; but she aroused no particular comment as she was a well-known boat plying between Boulogne and Rye; and by seven o'clock she was made fast to the quay.

There were the usual formalities, stricter than usual during war, to be gone through before the few passengers were allowed to land: but all was in order; the officers left the boat, and the passengers came up the plank, the crowd pressing forward as they came, and questioning them eagerly. No, there was no certain news, said an Englishman at last, who looked like a lawyer; it was said at Boulogne the night before that there had been an engagement further up beyond the Straits; they had all heard guns; and it was reported by the last cruiser who came in before the boat left that a Spanish galleasse had run aground and had been claimed by M. Gourdain, the governor of Calais; but probably, added the shrewd-eyed man, that was just a piece of their dirty French pride. The crowd smiled ruefully; and a French officer of the boat who was standing by the gangway scowled savagely, as the lawyer passed on with a demure face.

Then there was a pause in the little stream of passengers; and then, out of the tiny door that led below decks, walking swiftly, and carrying a long cloak over her arm, came Isabel Norris, in a grey travelling dress, followed by Anthony and a couple of servants. The crowd fell back for the lady, who passed straight up through them; but one or two of the men called out for news to Anthony. He shook his head cheerfully at them.

"I know no more than that gentleman," he said, nodding towards the lawyer; and then followed Isabel; and together they made their way up to the inn.

* * *

Anthony was a good deal changed in the last six years; his beard and moustache were well grown; and he had a new look of gravity in his brown eyes; when he had smiled and shaken his head at the eager crowd just now, showing his white regular teeth, he looked as young as ever; but the serious look fell on his face again, as he followed Isabel up the steep little cobbled slope in his buff dress and plumed hat.

There was not so much apparent change in Isabel; she was a shade graver too, her walk a little slower and more dignified, and her lips, a little thinner, had a line of strength in them that was new; and even now as she was treading English ground again for the first time for six years, the look of slight abstraction in her eyes that is often the sign of a strong inner life, was just a touch deeper than it used to be.

They went up together with scarcely a word; and asked for a private room and dinner in two hours' time; and a carriage and horses for the servants to be ready at noon. The landlord, who had met them at the door, shook his head.

"The private room, sir, and the dinner-yes, sir-but the horses--" and he spread his hands out deprecatingly. "There is not one in the stall," he added.

Anthony considered a moment.

"Well, what do you propose? We are willing to stay a day or two, if you think that by then--"

"Ah," said the landlord, "to-morrow is another matter. I expect two of my carriages home to-night, sir, from London; but the horses will not be able to travel till noon to-morrow."

"That will do," said Anthony; and he followed Isabel upstairs.

It was very strange to them both to be back in England after so long. They had settled down at Douai with the Maxwells; but, almost immediately on their arrival, Mistress Margaret was sent for by her Superior to the house of her Order at Brussels; and Lady Maxwell was left alone with Isabel in a house in the town; for Anthony was in the seminary.

Then, in '86 Lady Maxwell had died, quite suddenly. Isabel herself had found her at her prie-dieu in the morning, still in her evening dress; she was leaning partly against the wall; her wrinkled old hands were clasped tightly together on a little ivory crucifix, on the top of the desk; and her snow-white head, with the lace drooping from it like a bridal veil, was bowed below them. Isabel, who had not dared to move her, had sent instantly for a little French doctor, who had thrown up his hands in a kind of devout ecstasy at that wonderful old figure, rigid in an eternal prayer. The two tall tapers she had lighted eight hours before were still just alight beside her, and looked strange in the morning sunshine.

"Pendant ses oraisons! pendant ses oraisons!" he murmured over and over again; and then had fallen on his knees and kissed the drooping lace of her sleeve.

"Priez pour moi, madame," he whispered to the motionless figure.

And so the old Catholic who had suffered so much had gone to her rest. The fact that her son James had been living in the College during her four years' stay at Douai had been perhaps the greatest possible consolation to her for being obliged to be out of England; for she saw him almost daily; and it was he who sang her Requiem. Isabel had then gone to live with other friends in Douai, until Anthony had been ordained priest in the June of '88, and was ready to take her to England; and now the two were bound for Stanfield, where Anthony was to act as chaplain for the present, as Mr. Buxton had predicted so long before. Old Mr. Blake had died in the spring of the year, still disapproving of his patron's liberal notions, and Mr. Buxton had immediately sent a special messenger all the way to Douai to secure Anthony's services; and had insisted moreover that Isabel should accompany her brother. They intended however to call at the Dower House on the way, which had been left under the charge of old Mrs. Carroll; and renew the memories of their own dear home.

They talked little at dinner; and only of general matters, their journey, the Armada, their joy at getting home again; for they had been expressly warned by their friends abroad against any indiscreet talk even when they thought themselves alone, and especially in the seaports, where so constant a watch was kept for seminary priests. The presence of Isabel, however, was the greatest protection to Anthony; as it was almost unknown that a priest should travel with any but male companions.

Then suddenly, as they were ending dinner, a great clamour broke out in the town below them; a gun was fired somewhere; and footsteps began to rush along the narrow street outside. Anthony ran to the window and called to know what was the matter; but no one paid any attention to him; and he presently sat down again in despair, and with one or two wistful looks.

"I will go immediately," he said to Isabel, "and bring you word."

A moment after a servant burst into the room.

"It is a Spanish ship, sir," he said, "a prize-rounding Dungeness."

In the afternoon, when the first fierce excitement was over, Anthony went down to the quay. He did not particularly wish to attract attention, and so he kept himself in the background somewhat; but he had a good view of her as she lay moored just off the quay, especially when one of the town guard who had charge of the ropes that kept the crowd back, seeing a gentleman in the crowd, beckoned him through.

"Your honour will wish to see the prize?" he said, in hopes of a trifle for himself; "make way there for the gentleman."

Anthony thought it better under these circumstances to accept the invitation, so he gave the man something, and slipped through. On the quay was a pile of plunder from the ship: a dozen chests carved and steel-clamped stood together; half-a-dozen barrels of powder; the ship's bell rested amid a heap of rich clothes and hangings; a silver crucifix and a couple of lamps with their chains lay tumbled on one side; and a parson was examining a finely carved mahogany table that stood near.

He looked up at Anthony.

"For the church, sir," he said cheerfully. "I shall make application to her Grace."

Anthony smiled at him.

"A holy revenge, sir," he said.

The ship herself had once been a merchantman brig; so much Anthony could tell, though he knew little of seamanship; but she had been armed heavily with deep bulwarks of timber, pierced for a dozen guns on each broadside. Now, however, she was in a terrible condition. The solid bulwarks were rent and shattered, as indeed was her whole hull; near the waterline were nailed sheets of lead, plainly in order to keep the water from entering the shot-holes; she had only one mast; and that was splintered in more than one place; a spar had been rigged up on to the stump of the bowsprit. The high poop such as distinguished the Spanish vessels was in the same deplorable condition; as well as the figure-head, which represented a beardless man with a halo behind his head, and which bore the marks of fierce hacks as well as of shot.

Anthony read the name,-the San Juan da Cabellas.

From the high quay too he could see down on to the middle decks, and there was the most shocking sight of all, for the boards and the mast-stumps and the bulwarks and the ship's furniture were all alike splashed with blood, some of the deeper pools not even yet dry. It was evident that the San Juan had not yielded easily.

Presently Anthony saw an officer approaching, and not wishing to be led into conversation slipped away again through the crowd to take Isabel the news.

The two remained quietly upstairs the rest of the afternoon, listening to the singing and the shouting in the streets, and watching from their window the groups that swung and danced to and fro in joy at Rye's contribution to the defeat of the invaders. When the dusk fell the noise was louder than ever as the men began to drink more deep, and torches were continually tossing up and down the steep cobbled streets; the din reached its climax about half-past nine, when the main body of the revellers passed up towards the inn, and, as Anthony saw from the window, finally entered through the archway below; and then all grew tolerably quiet. Presently Isabel said that she would go to bed, but just before she left the room, the servant again came in.

"If you please, sir, Lieutenant Raxham, of the Seahorse, is telling the tale of the capture of the Spanish ship; and the landlord bid me come and tell you."

Anthony glanced at Isabel, who nodded at him.

"Yes; go," she said, "and come up and tell me the news afterwards, if it is not very late."

When Anthony came downstairs he found to his annoyance that the place of honour had been reserved for him in a tall chair next to the landlord's at the head of the table. The landlord rose to meet his guest.

"Sit here, sir," he said. "I am glad you have come. And now, Mr. Raxham--"

Anthony looked about him with some dismay at this extreme publicity. The room was full from end to end. They were chiefly soldiers who sat at the table-heavy-looking rustics from Hawkhurst, Cranbrook and Appledore, in brigantines and steel caps, who had been sent in by the magistrates to the nearest seaport to assist in the defence of the coast-a few of them wore corselets with almain rivets and carried swords, while the pike-heads of the others rose up here and there above the crowd. The rest of the room was filled with the townsmen of Rye-those who had been retained for the defence of the coast, as well as others who for any physical reason could not serve by sea or land. There was an air of extraordinary excitement in the room. The faces of the most stolid were transfigured, for they were gathered to hear of the struggle their own dear England was making; the sickening pause of those months of waiting had ended at last; the huge southern monster had risen up over the edge of the sea, and the panting little country had flown at his throat and grappled him; and now they were hearing the tale of how deep her fangs had sunk.

The crowd laughed and applauded and drew its breath sharply, as one man; and the silence now and then was startling as the young officer told his story; although he had few gifts of rhetoric, except a certain vivid vocabulary. He himself was a lad of eighteen or so, with a pleasant reckless face, now flushed with drink and excitement, and sparkling eyes; he was seated in a chair upon the further end of the table, so that all could hear his story; and he had a cup of huff-cup in his left hand as he talked, leaving

his right hand free to emphasise his points and slap his leg in a clumsy sort of oratory. His tale was full of little similes, at which his audience nodded their heads now and then, approvingly. He had apparently already begun his story, for when Anthony had taken his seat and silence had been obtained, he went straight on without any further introduction.

The landlord leaned over to Anthony. "The San Juan," he whispered behind his hot hairy hand, and nodded at him with meaning eyes.

"And every time they fired over us," went on the lieutenant, "and we fired into them; and the only damage they did us was their muskets in the tops. They killed Tom Dane like that"-there was a swift hiss of breath from the room; but the officer went straight on-"shot him through the back as he bent over his gun; and wounded old Harry and a score more; but all the while, lads, we were a-pounding at them with the broadsides as we came round, and raking them with the demi-cannon in the poop, until-well; go you and see the craft as she lies at the quay if you would know what we did. I tell you, as we came at her once towards the end, I saw that she was bleeding through her scuppers like a pig, from the middle deck. They were all packed up there together-sailors and soldiers and a priest or two; and scarce a ball could pass between the poop and the forecastle without touching flesh."

The lad stopped a moment and took a pull at his cup, and a murmur of talk broke out in the room. Anthony was surprised at his accent and manner of speaking, and heard afterwards that he was the son of the parson at one of the inland villages, and had had an education. In a moment he went on.

"Well-it would be about noon, just before the Admiral came up from Calais, that the old Seahorse was lost. We came at the dons again as we had done before, only closer than ever; and just as the captain gave the word to put her about, a ball from one of their guns which they had trained down on us, cut old Dick Kemp in half at the helm, and broke the tiller to splinters."

"Old Dick?" said a man's voice out of the reeking crowd, "Old Dick?"

There was a murmur round him, bidding him hold his tongue; and the lad went on.

"Well, we drifted nearer and nearer. There was nought to do but to bang at them; and that we did, by God-and to board her if we touched. Well, I worked my saker, and saw little else-for the smoke was like a black sea-fog; and the noise fit to crack your ears. Mine sing yet with it; the captain was bawling from the poop, and there were a dozen pikemen ready below; and then on a sudden came the crash; and I looked up and there was the Spaniards' decks above us, and the poop like a tower, with a grinning don or two looking down; and there was I looking up the muzzle of a culverin. I skipped towards the poop, shouting to the men; and the dons fired their broadside as I went.-God save us from that din! But I knew the old Seahorse was done this time-the old ship lurched and shook as the balls tore through her and broke her back; and there was such a yell as you'll never hear this side of hell. Well-I was on the poop by now, and the men after me; for you see the poop of the Seahorse was as high as the middle deck of the Spaniard, and we must board from there or not at all. Well, lads, there was the captain before me. He had fought cool till then, as cool as a parson among his roses, with never an oath from his mouth-but now he was as scarlet as a poppy, and his eyes were like blue fire, and his mouth jabbered and foamed; he was so hot, you see, at the loss of his ship. He was dancing to and fro waiting while the poop swung round on the tide; and the old craft plunged deeper in every wave that lifted her, but he cared no more for that nor for the musket-balls from the tops, nor for the brown grinning devils who shook their pikes at him from the decks, than-than a mad dog cares for a shower of leaves; but he stamped there and cursed them and damned them as they laughed at him; and then in a moment the poop touched.

"Well, lads-" and the lieutenant set his cup down on the table, clapped his hands on his knees, laughed shortly and nervously once or twice, and looked round. "Well, lads, I have never seen the like. The captain went for them like a wild cat; one step on the rail and the next among them; and was gone like a stone into water"-and the lad clapped his hand on his thigh. "I saw one face slit up from chin to eye; and another split across like an apple; and then we were after him. The men were mad, too-what was left of us; and we poured up on to the decks and left the old Seahorse to die. Well, we had our work before us-but it was no good. The dons could do nothing; I was after the captain as he went through the pack and came out just behind him; there were half a dozen of them down now; and the noise and the foreign oaths went up like smoke; and the captain himself was bleeding down one side of his face and grunting as he cut and stabbed; and I had had a knife through the arm; but he went up on to the poop; and as I followed, the Spaniards broke and threw down their arms-they saw 'twas no use, you see. When we reached the poop-stairs an officer in a blue coat came forward jabbering some jargon; but the captain would have no parley with him, but flung his dag clean into the man's face, and over he went backwards-with his damned high heels in the air."

There was a sudden murmur of laughter from the room; Anthony glanced off the lieutenant's grinning ruddy face for a moment, and saw the rows of listening faces all wrinkled with mirth.

"Well," went on the lad, "up went the captain, and I after him. Then there came across the deck, very slow and stately, the Spanish captain himself, in a fine laced coat and a plumed hat, and he was holding out his sword by the blade and bowed as we ran towards him, and began some damned foreign nonsense, with his Se?or-but the captain would have none o' that, I tell you he was like Tom o' Bedlam now-so as the Se?or grinned at him with his monkey face and bowed and wagged, the captain fetched him a slash across the cheek with his sword that cut up into his head; and that don went spinning across the poop like a morris-man and brought up against the rail, and then down he came," and the lad dashed his hand on his thigh again-"as dead as mutton."

Again came a louder gust of laughter from the room. Anthony half rose in his chair, and then sat down again.

"Well," said the lad, "and that was not all. Down he raged again to the decks and I behind him-I tell you, it was like a butcher's shop-but it was quieter now-the fighting was over-and the Spaniards were all run below, except half-a-dozen in the tops; looking down like young rooks at an archer. There had been a popish priest too with his crucifix in one hand and his god-almighty in the other, over a dying man as we came up; but as we came down there he lay in his black gown with a hole through his heart and his crucifix gone. One of the lads had got it no doubt. Well, the captain brought up at the main mast. 'God's blood,' he bawled, 'where are the brown devils got to?' Some one told him, and pointed down the hatch. Well, then I turned sick with my wound and the smell of the place and all; and I knew nothing more till I found myself sitting on a dead don, with the captain holding me up and pouring a cordial down my throat."

Then talk and laughter broke out in the audience; but the landlord held up his hand for silence.

"And what of the others?" he shouted.

"Dead meat too," said the lad-"the captain went down with a dozen or more and hunted them out and finished them. There was one, Dick told me afterwards," and the lieutenant gave a cackle of mirth, "that they hunted twice round the ship before he jumped over yelling to some popish saint to help him; but it seems he was deaf, like the old Baal that parson tells of o' Sundays. The dirty swine to run like that! Well, he's got his bellyful now of the salt water that he came so far to see. And then the captain with his own hands trained a robinet that was on the poop on to the tops; and down the birds came, one by one; for their powder up there was all shot off."

"And the Seahorse?" said the landlord again.

There fell a dead silence: all in the room knew that the ship was lost, but it was terrible to hear it again. The lad's face broke into lines of grief, and he spoke huskily.

"Gone down with the dead and wounded; and the rest of the fleet a mile away."

Then the lieutenant went on to describe how he himself had been deputed to bring the San Juan into port with the wounded on board, while the captain and the rest of the crew by Drake's orders attached themselves to various vessels that were short-handed, and how the English fleet had followed what was left of the Spaniards when the fight ended at sunset, up towards the North Sea.

When he finished his story there was a tremendous outburst of cheering and hammering upon the table, and the feet and the pike-butts thundered on the floor, and a name was cried again and again as the cups were emptied.

"God save her Grace and old England!" yelled a slim smooth-faced archer from Appledore.

"God send the dons and all her foes to hell!" roared a burly pikeman with his cup in the air. Then the room shook again as the toasts were drunk with applauding feet and hands.

Anthony turned to the landlord, who had just ceased thumping with his great red fists on the table.

"What was the captain's name?" he asked, when a slight lull came.

"Maxwell," said the crimson-faced man. "Hubert Maxwell-one of Drake's own men."

* * *

When Anthony came upstairs he heard his name called through the door, and went in to Isabel's room to find her sitting up in bed in the gloom of the summer night; the party below had broken up, and all was quiet except for the far-off shouts and hoots of cheerful laughter from the dispersing groups down among the narrow streets.

"Well?" she said, as he came in and stood in the doorway.

"It is just the story of the prize," he said, "and it seems that Hubert had the taking of it."

There was silence a moment. Anthony could see her face, a motionless pale outline, and her arms clasped round her knees as she sat up in bed.

"Hubert?" she asked in an even voice.

"Yes, Hubert."

There was silence a moment.

"Well?" she said again.

"He is safe," said Anthony, "and fought gallantly. I will tell you more to-morrow."

"Ah!" said Isabel softly; and then lay down again.

"Good-night, Anthony."

"Good-night."

But Anthony dared not tell her the details next day, after all.

* * *

There was still a difficulty about the horses; they had not arrived until the Wednesday morning, and were greatly exhausted by a long and troublesome journey; so the travellers consented to postpone their journey for yet one more day. The weather, which had been thickening, grew heavier still in the afternoon, and great banks of clouds were rising out of the west. Anthony started out about four o'clock for a walk along the coast; and, making a long round in the direction of Lydd, did not finally return until about seven. As he came in at the north-east of the town he noticed how empty the streets were, and passed on down in the direction of the quay. As he turned down the steep street into the harbour groups began to pour up past him, laughing and exclaiming; and in a moment more came Isabel walking alone. He looked at her anxiously, for he saw something had happened. Her quiet face was lit up with some interior emotion, and her mouth was trembling.

"The Armada is routed," she said; "and I have seen Hubert."

The two turned back together and walked silently up to the inn. There she told him the story. She had been told that Captain Maxwell was come in the Elizabeth, for provisions for Lord Howard Seymour's squadron, to which his new command was attached; and that he was even now in harbour. At that she had gone straight down alone.

"Oh, Anthony!" she cried, "you know how it is with me. I could not help it. I am not ashamed of it. God Almighty knows all, and is not wrath with me. So I went down and was in the crowd as he came down again with the mayor, Mr. Hamon; we all made way for them, and the men cheered themselves scarlet; but he came down cool and quiet; you know his way-with his eyes half shut; and-and-he was so brown; and he looks sad-and he had a great plaister on the left temple. And then he saw me."

Isabel sprang up, and came up to Anthony and took his hands. "Oh! Anthony; I was very happy then; because he took off his cap and bowed; and his face was all lighted; and he took my hand and kissed it-and then made Mr. Hamon known to me. The crowd laughed and said things-but I did not care; and he soon silenced them, he looked round so fiercely; and then I went on board with him-he would have it so-and he showed us everything-and we sat a little in the cabin; and he told me of his wife and child. She is the daughter of a Plymouth minister; he knew her when he was with Drake; and he told me all about her, so you see--" Isabel broke off; and sat down in the high window seat. "And then he asked me about you; and I said you were here; and that we were going to stay a little while with Mr. Buxton of Stanfield-you see I knew we could trust him; and Mr. Hamon was in the passage just then looking at the guns; and then a sailor came in to say that all was ready; and so we came away. But it was so good to see him again; and to know that he was so happy."

Anthony looked at his sister in astonishment; her quiet manner was gone, and she was talking again almost like an excited child; and so happily. It was very strange, he thought. He sat down beside her.

"Oh, Anthony!" she said, "do you understand? I love him dearly still; and his wife and child too. God bless them all and keep them!"

The mystery was still deep to him; and he feared to say what he should not; so he kissed Isabel silently; and the two sat there together and looked out over the crowding red roofs to the glowing western sky across the bay below them.

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