Hervé Riel

by ROBERT BROWNING (1812-1889)

On the sea and at the Hogue, sixteen hundred ninety-two,
Did the English fight the French,— woe to France!
And, the thirty-first of May, helter-skelter through the blue,
Like a crowd of frightened porpoises a shoal of sharks pursue,
Came crowding ship on ship to Saint Malo on the Rance,
With the English fleet in view.
’Twas the squadron that escaped, with the victor in full chase;
First and foremost of the drove, in his great ship, Damfreville;
Close on him fled, great and small, twenty-two good ships in all;
And they signalled to the place “Help the winners of a race!
Get us guidance, give us harbor, take us quick — or, quicker still,
Here’s the English can and will!”
Then the pilots of the place put out brisk and leapt on board;
“Why, what hope or chance have ships like these to pass?” laughed they:
“Rocks to starboard, rocks to port, all the passage scarred and scored,
Shall the Formidable here with her twelve and eighty guns
Think to make the river-mouth by the single narrow way,
Trust to enter where ’tis ticklish for a craft of twenty tons,
And with flow at full beside?
Now, ’tis slackest ebb of tide.
Reach the mooring? Rather say,
While rock stands or water runs,
Not a ship will leave the bay!
Then was called a council straight.
Brief and bitter the debate:
“Here’s the English at our heels; would you have them take in tow
All that’s left us of the fleet, linked together stern and bow,
For a prize to Plymouth Sound?
Better run the ships aground!”
(Ended Damfreville his speech).
“Not a minute more to wait!
Let the Captains all and each
Shove ashore, then blow up, burn the vessels on the beach!
France must undergo her fate.
“Give the word!” But no such word
Was ever spoke or heard;
For up stood, for out stepped, for in struck amid all these
— A Captain? A Lieutenant? A Mate— first, second, third?
No such man of mark, and meet
With his betters to compete!
But a simple Breton sailor pressed by Tourville for the fleet,
A poor coasting-pilot he, Hervé Riel the Croisickese.
And “What mockery or malice have we here?” cries Hervé Riel:
“Are you mad, you Malouins? Are you cowards, fools, or rogues?
Talk to me of rocks and shoals, me who took the soundings, tell
On my fingers every bank, every shallow, every swell
Twixt the offing here and Grève where the river disembogues?
Are you bought by English gold? Is it love the lying’s for?
Morn and eve, night and day,
Have I piloted your bay,
Entered free and anchored fast at the foot of Solidor.
Burn the fleet and ruin France? There were worse than fifty Hogues!
Sirs, they know I speak the truth! Sirs, believe me there’s a way!
Only let me lead the line,
Have the biggest ship to steer,
Get this Formidable clear,
Make the others follow mine,
And I lead them, most and least, by a passage I know well,
Right to Solidor past Grève,
And there lay them safe and sound;
And if one ship misbehave,
— Keel so much as grate the ground,
Why, I’ve nothing but my life,— here’s my head!” cries Hervé Riel.

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