Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XII

At the Yew-Tree

All the common-sense of England, more abundant in those days than now, felt that the war had not been fought out, and the way to the lap of peace could only be won by vigorous use of the arms. Some few there were even then, as now there is a cackling multitude, besotted enough to believe that facts can be undone by blinking them. But our forefathers on the whole were wise, and knew that nothing is trampled more basely than right that will not right itself.

Therefore they set their faces hard, and toughened their hearts like knotted oak, against all that man could do to them. There were no magnificent proclamations, no big vaunts of victory at the buckling on of armour, but the quiet strength of steadfast wills, and the stern resolve to strike when stricken, and try to last the longest. And so their mother-land became the mother of men and freedom.

In November, 1802, the speech from the throne apprised the world that England was preparing. The widest, longest, and deadliest war, since the date of gunpowder, was lowering; and the hearts of all who loved their kin were heavy, but found no help for it.

The sermon which Mr. Twemlow preached in Springhaven church was magnificent. Some parishioners, keeping memory more alert than conscience, declared that they had received it all nine, or it might be ten, years since, when the fighting first was called for. If so, that proved it none the worse, but themselves, for again requiring it. Their Rector told them that they thought too much of their own flesh-pots and fish-kettles, and their country might go to the bottom of the sea, if it left them their own fishing-grounds. And he said that they would wake up some day and find themselves turned into Frenchmen, for all things were possible with the Lord; and then they might smite their breasts, but must confess that they had deserved it. Neither would years of prayer and fasting fetch them back into decent Englishmen; the abomination of desolation would be set up over their doorways, and the scarlet woman of Babylon would revel in their sanctuaries.

“Now don’t let none of us be in no hurry,” Captain Tugwell said, after dwelling and sleeping upon this form of doctrine; “a man knoweth his own trade the best, the very same way as the parson doth. And I never knew no good to come of any hurry. Our lives are given us by the Lord. And He never would ‘a made ’em threescore and ten, or for men of any strength fourscore, if His will had been to jerk us over them. Never did I see no Frenchman as could be turned to an Englishman, not if he was to fast and pray all day, and cut himself with knives at the going down of the sun. My opinion is that Parson Twemlow were touched up by his own conscience for having a nephew more French than English; and ‘Caryl Carne’ is the name thereof, with more French than English sound to it.”

“Why, he have been gone for years and years,” said the landlord of the Darling Arms, where the village was holding council; “he have never been seen in these parts since the death of the last Squire Carne, to my knowledge.”

“And what did the old Squire die of, John Prater? Not that he were to be called old — younger, I dare say, than I be now. What did he die of, but marrying with a long outlandish ‘ooman? A femmel as couldn’t speak a word of English, to be anyhow sure of her meaning! Ah, them was bad times at Carne Castle; and as nice a place as need be then, until they dipped the property. Six grey horses they were used to go with to London Parliament every year, before the last Squire come of age, as I have heered my father say scores of times, and no lie ever come from his mouth, no more than it could from mine, almost. Then they dropped to four, and then to two, and pretended that the roads were easier.”

“When I was down the coast, last week, so far as Littlehampton,” said a stout young man in the corner, “a very coorous thing happened me, leastways by my own opinion, and glad shall I be to have the judgment of Cappen Zeb consarning it. There come in there a queer-rigged craft of some sixty ton from Halvers, desiring to set up trade again, or to do some smoogling, or spying perhaps. Her name was the Doctor Humm, which seem a great favorite with they Crappos, and her skipper had a queer name too, as if he was two men in one, for he called himself ‘Jacks’; a fellow about forty year old, as I hauled out of the sea with a boat-hook one night on the Varners. Well, he seemed to think a good deal of that, though contrary to their nature, and nothing would do but I must go to be fated with him everywhere, if the folk would change his money. He had picked up a decent bit of talk from shipping in the oyster line before the war; and I put his lingo into order for him, for which he was very thankful.”

“And so he was bound to be. But you had no call to do it, Charley Bowles.” Captain Tugwell spoke severely, and the young man felt that he was wrong, for the elders shook their heads at him, as a traitor to the English language.

“Well, main likely, I went amiss. But he seemed to take it so uncommon kind of me hitching him with a boat-hook, that we got on together wonderful, and he called me ‘Friar Sharley,’ and he tried to take up with our manners and customs; but his head was outlandish for English grog. One night he was three sheets in the wind, at a snug little crib by the river, and he took to the brag as is born with them. ‘All dis contray in one year now,’ says he, nodding over his glass at me, ‘shall be of the grand nashong, and I will make a great man of you, Friar Sharley. Do you know what prawns are, my good friend?’ Well, I said I had caught a good many in my time; but he laughed and said, ‘Prawns will catch you this time. One tousand prawns, all with two hondred men inside him, and the leetle prawns will come to land at your house, Sharley. Bootiful place, quiet sea, no bad rocks. You look out in the morning, and the white coast is made black with them.’ Now what do you say to that, Cappen Tugwell?”

“I’ve a-heered that style of talk many times afore,” Master Tugwell answered, solidly; “and all I can say is that I should have punched his head. And you deserve the same thing, Charley Bowles, unless you’ve got more than that to tell us.”

“So I might, Cappen, and I won’t deny you there. But the discourse were consarning Squire Carne now just, and the troubles he fell into, before I was come to my judgment yet. Why, an uncle of mine served footman there — Jeremiah Bowles, known to every one, until he was no more heard of.”

Nods of assent to the fame of Jeremiah encouraged the stout young man in his tale, and a wedge of tobacco rekindled him.

“Yes, it were a coorous thing indeed, and coorous for me to hear of it, out of all mast-head of Springhaven. Says Moosoo Jacks to me, that night when I boused him up unpretending: ‘You keep your feather eye open, my tear,’ for such was his way of pronouncing it, ‘and you shall arrive to laglore, laglore — and what is still nobler, de monnay. In one two tree month, you shall see a young captain returned to his contray dominion, and then you will go to his side and say Jacks, and he will make present to you a sack of silver.’ Well, I hailed the chance of this pretty smart, you may suppose, and I asked him what the sailor’s name would be, and surprised I was when he answered Carne, or Carny, for he gave it in two syllables. Next morning’s tide, the Doctor Humm cleared out, and I had no other chance of discourse with Moosoo Jacks. But I want to know what you think, Cappen Zeb.”

“So you shall,” said the captain of Springhaven, sternly. “I think you had better call your Moosoo Jacks ‘Master Jackass,’ or ‘Master Jackanapes,’ and put your own name on the back of him. You been with a Frenchman hob and nobbing, and you don’t even know how they pronounce themselves, unchristian as it is to do so. ‘Jarks’ were his name, the very same as Navy beef, and a common one in that country. But to speak of any Carne coming nigh us with French plottings, and of prawns landing here at Springhaven —’tis as likely as I should drop French money into the till of this baccy-box. And you can see that I be not going to play such a trick as that, John Prater.”

“Why to my mind there never was bigger stuff talked,” the landlord spoke out, without fear of offence, for there was no other sign-board within three miles, “than to carry on in that way, Charley. What they may do at Littlehampton is beyond my knowledge, never having kept a snug crib there, as you was pleased to call it. But at Springhaven ‘twould be the wrong place for hatching of French treacheries. We all know one another a deal too well for that, I hope.”

“Prater, you are right,” exclaimed Mr. Cheeseman, owner of the main shop in the village, and universally respected. “Bowles, you must have an imagination the same as your uncle Jerry had. And to speak of the Carnes in a light way of talking, after all their misfortunes, is terrible. Why, I passed the old castle one night last week, with the moon to one side of it, and only me in my one-horse shay to the other, and none but a man with a first-rate conscience would have had the stomach to do so. However, I seed no ghosts that time, though I did hear some noises as made me use the whip; and the swing of the ivy was black as a hearse. A little drop more of my own rum, John: it gives me quite a chill to think of it.”

“I don’t take much account of what people say,” Harry Shanks, who had a deep clear voice, observed, “without it is in my own family. But my own cousin Bob was coming home one night from a bit of sweethearting at Pebbleridge, when, to save the risk of rabbit-holes in the dark, for he put out his knee-cap one time, what does he do but take the path inland through the wood below Carne Castle — the opposite side to where you was, Master Cheeseman, and the same side as the moon would be, only she wasn’t up that night. Well, he had some misgivings, as anybody must; still he pushed along, whistling and swinging his stick, and saying to himself that there was no such thing as cowardice in our family; till just at the corner where the big yew-tree is, that we sometimes starboard helm by when the tide is making with a nor’west wind; there Bob seed a sight as made his hair crawl. But I won’t say another word about it now, and have to go home in the dark by myself arter’ards.”

“Come, now, Harry!” “Oh, we can’t stand that!” “We’ll see you to your door, lad, if you out with it, fair and forcible.”

Of these and other exhortations Harry took no notice, but folded his arms across his breast, and gazed at something which his mind presented.

“Harry Shanks, you will have the manners”— Captain Tugwell spoke impressively, not for his own sake, for he knew the tale, and had been consulted about it, but from sense of public dignity —“to finish the story which you began. To begin a yarn of your own accord, and then drop it all of a heap, is not respectful to present company. Springhaven never did allow such tricks, and will not put up with them from any young fellow. If your meaning was to drop it, you should never have begun.”

Glasses and even pipes rang sharply upon the old oak table in applause of this British sentiment, and the young man, with a sheepish look, submitted to the voice of the public.

“Well, then, all of you know where the big yew-tree stands, at the break of the hill about half a mile inland, and how black it looms among the other stuff. But Bob, with his sweetheart in his head, no doubt, was that full of courage that he forgot all about the old tree, and the murder done inside it a hundred and twenty years ago, they say, until there it was, over his head a’most, with the gaps in it staring like ribs at him. ‘Bout ship was the word, pretty sharp, you may be sure, when he come to his wits consarning it, and the purse of his lips, as was whistling a jig, went as dry as a bag with the bottom out. Through the grey of the night there was sounds coming to him, such as had no right to be in the air, and a sort of a shiver laid hold of his heart, like a cold hand flung over his shoulder. As hard as he could lay foot to the ground, away he went down hill, forgetting of his kneecap, for such was the condition of his mind and body.

“You must understand, mates, that he hadn’t seen nothing to skeer him, but only heard sounds, which come into his ears to make his hair rise; and his mind might have put into them more than there was, for the want of intarpreting. Perhaps this come across him, as soon as he felt at a better distance with his wind short; anyhow, he brought up again’ a piece of rock-stuff in a hollow of the ground, and begun to look skeerily backward. For a bit of a while there was nothing to distemper him, only the dark of the hill and the trees, and the grey light a-coming from the sea in front. But just as he were beginning for to call himself a fool, and to pick himself onto his legs for trudging home, he seed a thing as skeered him worse than ever, and fetched him flat upon his lower end.

“From the black of the yew-tree there burst a big light, brighter than a lighthouse or a blue thunder-bolt, and flying with a long streak down the hollow, just as if all the world was a-blazing. Three times it come, with three different colours, first blue, and then white, and then red as new blood; and poor Bob was in a condition of mind must be seen before saying more of it. If he had been brought up to follow the sea, instead of the shoemaking, maybe his wits would have been more about him, and the narves of his symptom more ship-shape. But it never was borne into his mind whatever, to keep a lookout upon the offing, nor even to lie snug in the ferns and watch the yew-tree. All he was up for was to make all sail, the moment his sticks would carry it; and he feared to go nigh his sweetheart any more, till she took up with another fellow.”

“And sarve him quite right,” was the judgment of the room, in high fettle with hot rum and water; “to be skeered of his life by a smuggler’s signal! Eh, Cappen Zebedee, you know that were it?”

But the captain of Springhaven shook his head.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31