Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XV

Ordeal of Audit

England saw the growing danger, and prepared, with an even mind and well-girt body, to confront it. As yet stood up no other country to help or even comfort her, so cowed was all the Continent by the lash, and spur of an upstart. Alone, encumbered with the pack of Ireland, pinched with hunger and dearth of victuals, and cramped with the colic of Whiggery, she set her strong shoulder to the wheel of fortune, and so kept it till the hill was behind her. Some nations (which owe their existence to her) have forgotten these things conveniently; an Englishman hates to speak of them, through his unjust abhorrence of self-praise; and so does a Frenchman, by virtue of motives equally respectable.

But now the especial danger lay in the special strength of England. Scarcely any man along the coast, who had ever come across a Frenchman, could be led (by quotations from history or even from newspapers) to believe that there was any sense in this menace of his to come and conquer us. Even if he landed, which was not likely — for none of them could box the compass — the only thing he took would be a jolly good thrashing, and a few pills of lead for his garlic. This lofty contempt on the part of the seafaring men had been enhanced by Nelson, and throve with stoutest vigour in the enlightened breasts of Springhaven.

Yet military men thought otherwise, and so did the owners of crops and ricks, and so did the dealers in bacon and eggs and crockery, and even hardware. Mr. Cheeseman, for instance, who left nothing unsold that he could turn a penny by, was anything but easy in his mind, and dreamed such dreams as he could not impart to his wife — on account of her tendency to hysterics — but told with much power to his daughter Polly, now the recognised belle of Springhaven. This vigilant grocer and butterman, tea, coffee, tobacco, and snuffman, hosier also, and general provider for the outer as well as the inner man, had much of that enterprise in his nature which the country believes to come from London. His possession of this was ascribed by all persons of a thoughtful turn to his ownership of that well-built schooner the London Trader. Sailing as she did, when the weather was fine, nearly every other week, for London, and returning with equal frequency, to the women who had never been ten miles from home she was a mystery and a watchword. Not one of them would allow lad of hers to join this romantic galleon, and tempt the black cloud of the distance; neither did Mr. Cheeseman yearn (for reasons of his own about city prices) to navigate this good ship with natives. Moreover, it was absurd, as he said, with a keen sense of his own cheapness, to suppose that he could find the funds to buy and ply such a ship as that!

Truth is a fugitive creature, even when she deigns to be visible, or even to exist. The truth of Mr. Cheeseman’s statement had existed, but was long since flown. Such was his worth that he could now afford to buy the London Trader three times over, and pay ready money every time. But when he first invested hard cash in her — against the solid tears of his prudent wife — true enough it was that he could only scrape together one quarter of the sum required. Mrs. Cheeseman, who was then in a condition of absorbing interest with Polly, made it her last request in this world — for she never expected to get over it — that Jemmy should not run in debt on a goose-chase, and fetch her poor spirit from its grave again. James Cheeseman was compelled — as the noblest man may be — to dissemble and even deny his intentions until the blessed period of caudle-cup, when, the weather being pleasant and the wind along the shore, he found himself encouraged to put up the window gently. The tide was coming in with a long seesaw, and upon it, like the baby in the cradle full of sleep, lay rocking another little stranger, or rather a very big one, to the lady’s conception.

Let bygones be bygones. There were some reproaches; but the weaker vessel, Mrs. Cheeseman, at last struck flag, without sinking, as she threatened to do. And when little Polly went for her first airing, the London Trader had accomplished her first voyage, and was sailing in triumphantly with a box of “tops and bottoms” from the ancient firm in Threadneedle Street, which has saved so many infants from the power that cuts the thread. After that, everything went as it should go, including this addition to the commercial strength of Britain, which the lady was enabled soon to talk of as “our ship,” and to cite when any question rose of the latest London fashion. But even now, when a score of years, save one, had made their score and gone, Mrs. Cheeseman only guessed and doubted as to the purchase of her ship. James Cheeseman knew the value of his own counsel, and so kept it; and was patted on both shoulders by the world, while he patted his own butter.

He wore an apron of the purest white, with shoulder-straps of linen tape, and upon his counter he had a desk, with a carved oak rail in front of it and returned at either end. The joy of his life was here to stand, with goodly shirt sleeves shining, his bright cheeks also shining in the sun, unless it were hot enough to hurt his goods. He was not a great man, but a good one — in the opinion of all who owed him nothing, and even in his own estimate, though he owed so much to himself. It was enough to make any one who possessed a shilling hungry to see him so clean, so ready, and ruddy among the many good things which his looks and manner, as well as his words, commended. And as soon as he began to smack his rosy lips, which nature had fitted up on purpose, over a rasher, or a cut of gammon, or a keg of best Aylesbury, or a fine red herring, no customer having a penny in his pocket might struggle hard enough to keep it there. For the half-hearted policy of fingering one’s money, and asking a price theoretically, would recoil upon the constitution of the strongest man, unless he could detach from all cooperation the congenial researches of his eyes and nose. When the weather was cool and the air full of appetite, and a fine smack of salt from the sea was sparkling on the margin of the plate of expectation, there was Mr. Cheeseman, with a knife and fork, amid a presence of hungrifying goods that beat the weak efforts of imagination. Hams of the first rank and highest education, springs of pork sweeter than the purest spring of poetry, pats of butter fragrant as the most delicious flattery, chicks with breast too ample to require to be broken, and sometimes prawns from round the headland, fresh enough to saw one another’s heads off, but for being boiled already.

Memory fails to record one-tenth of all the good things gathered there. And why? Because hope was the power aroused, and how seldom can memory endorse it! Even in the case of Mr. Cheeseman’s wares there were people who said, after making short work with them, that short weight had enabled them to do so. And every one living in the village was surprised to find his own scales require balancing again every time he sent his little girl to Cheeseman’s.

This upright tradesman was attending to his business one cold day in May, 1803, soon after Nelson sailed from Portsmouth, and he stood with his beloved pounds of farm-house butter, bladders of lard, and new-laid eggs, and squares of cream-cheese behind him, with a broad butter-spathe of white wood in his hand, a long goose-pen tucked over his left ear, and the great copper scales hanging handy. So strict was his style, though he was not above a joke, that only his own hands might serve forth an ounce of best butter to the public. And whenever this was weighed, and the beam adjusted handsomely to the satisfaction of the purchaser, down went the butter to be packed upon a shelf uninvaded by the public eye. Persons too scantily endowed with the greatest of all Christian virtues had the hardihood to say that Mr. Cheeseman here indulged in a process of high art discovered by himself. Discoursing of the weather, or the crops, or perhaps the war, and mourning the dishonesty of statesmen nowadays, by dexterous undersweep of keen steel blade, from the bottom of the round, or pat, or roll, he would have away a thin slice, and with that motion jerk it into the barrel which he kept beneath his desk.

“Is this, then, the establishment of the illustrious Mr. Cheeseman?” The time was yet early, and the gentleman who put this question was in riding dress. The worthy tradesman looked at him, and the rosy hue upon his cheeks was marbled with a paler tint.

“This is the shop of the ‘umble James Cheeseman,” he answered, but not with the alacrity of business. “All things good that are in season, and nothing kept unseasonable. With what can I have the honor of serving you, sir?”

“With a little talk.” The stranger’s manner was not unpleasantly contemptuous, but lofty, and such as the English shopman loves, and calls “aristocratic.”

“To talk with a gentleman is a pleasure as well as an honour,” said Cheeseman.

“But not in this public establishment.” The visitor waved both hands as he spoke, in a style not then common with Englishmen — though they are learning eloquent gesticulation now. “It is fine, Mr. Cheeseman; but it is not — bah, I forget your English words.”

“It is fine, sir, as you are good enough to observe”— the humble James Cheeseman was proud of his shop —“but not, as you remarked, altogether private. That can hardly be expected, where business is conducted to suit universal requirements. Polly, my dear, if your mother can spare you, come and take my place at the desk a few minutes. I have business inside with this gentleman. You may sell almost anything, except butter. If any one wants that, they must wait till I come back.”

A very pretty damsel, with a cap of foreign lace both adorning and adorned by her beautiful bright hair, came shyly from a little door behind the counter, receiving with a quick blush the stranger’s earnest gaze, and returning with a curtsey the courteous flourish of his looped-up riding-hat. “What a handsome gentleman!” said Polly to herself; “but there is something very sad and very wild in his appearance.” Her father’s conclusion was the same, and his heart misgave him as he led in this unexpected guest.

“There is no cause for apologies. This place is a very good one,” the stranger replied, laying down his heavy whip on the table of a stone-floored room, to which he had been shown. “You are a man of business, and I am come upon dry business. You can conjecture — is it not so? — who I am by this time, although I am told that I do not bear any strong resemblance to my father.”

He took off his hat as he spoke, shook back his long black hair, and fixed his jet-black eyes upon Cheeseman. That upright dealer had not recovered his usual self-possession yet, but managed to look up — for he was shorter by a head than his visitor — with a doubtful and enquiring smile.

“I am Caryl Carne, of Carne Castle, as you are pleased to call it. I have not been in England these many years; from the death of my father I have been afar; and now, for causes of my own, I am returned, with hope of collecting the fragments of the property of my ancestors. It appears to have been their custom to scatter, but not gather up again. My intention is to make a sheaf of the relics spread by squanderers, and snapped up by scoundrels.”

“To be sure, to be sure,” cried the general dealer; “this is vastly to your credit, sir, and I wish you all success, sir, and so will all who have so long respected your ancient and honourable family, sir. Take a chair, sir — please to take a chair.”

“I find very little to my credit,” Mr. Carne said, dryly, as he took the offered chair, but kept his eyes still upon Cheeseman’s; “but among that little is a bond from you, given nearly twenty years agone, and of which you will retain, no doubt, a vivid recollection.”

“A bond, sir — a bond!” exclaimed the other, with his bright eyes twinkling, as in some business enterprise. “I never signed a bond in all my life, sir. Why, a bond requires sureties, and nobody ever went surety for me.”

“Bond may not be the proper legal term. It is possible. I know nothing of the English law. But a document it is, under hand and seal, and your signature is witnessed, Mr. Cheeseman.”

“Ah well! Let me consider. I begin to remember something. But my memory is not as it used to be, and twenty years makes a great hole in it. Will you kindly allow me to see this paper, if you have it with you, sir?”

“It is not a paper; it is written upon parchment, and I have not brought it with me. But I have written down the intention of it, and it is as follows:

“‘This indenture made between James Cheeseman (with a long description), of the one part, and Montagu Carne (treated likewise), of the other part, after a long account of some arrangement made between them, witnesseth that in consideration of the sum of 300 pounds well and truly paid by the said Montagu Carne to Cheeseman, he, the said Cheeseman, doth assign, transfer, set over, and so on, to the said Carne, etc., one equal undivided moiety and one half part of the other moiety of and in a certain vessel, ship, trading-craft, and so forth, known or thenceforth to be known as the London Trader, of Springhaven, in the county of Sussex, by way of security for the interest at the rate of five per cent. per annum, payable half-yearly, as well as for the principal sum of 300 pounds, so advanced as aforesaid.’”

“If it should prove, sir, that money is owing,” Mr. Cheeseman said, with that exalted candour which made a weak customer condemn his own eyes and nose, “no effort on my part shall be wanting, bad as the times are, to procure it and discharge it. In every commercial transaction I have found, and my experience is now considerable, that confidence, as between man and man, is the only true footing to go upon. And how can true confidence exist, unless —”

“Unless a man shows some honesty. And a man who keeps books such as these,” pursued the visitor, suggesting a small kick to a pile of ledgers, “can hardly help knowing whether he owes a large sum or whether he has paid it. But that is not the only question now. In continuation of that document I find a condition, a clause provisional, that it shall be at the option of the aforesaid Montagu Carne, and his representatives, either to receive the interest at the rate before mentioned and thereby secured, or, if he or they should so prefer, to take for their own benefit absolutely three-fourths of the net profits, proceeds, or other increment realised by the trading ventures, or other employment from time to time, of the said London Trader. Also there is a covenant for the insurance of the said vessel, and a power of sale, and some other provisions about access to trading books, etc., with which you have, no doubt, a good acquaintance, Mr. Cheeseman.”

That enterprising merchant, importer of commodities, and wholesale and retail dealer was fond of assuring his numerous friends that “nothing ever came amiss to him.” But some of them now would have doubted about this if they had watched his face as carefully as Caryl Carne was watching it. Mr. Cheeseman could look a hundred people in the face, and with great vigour too, when a small account was running. But the sad, contemptuous, and piercing gaze — as if he were hardly worth penetrating — and the twirl of the black tuft above the lip, and the firm conviction on the broad white forehead that it was confronting a rogue too common and shallow to be worth frowning at — all these, and the facts that were under them, came amiss to the true James Cheeseman.

“I scarcely see how to take this,” he said, being clever enough to suppose that a dash of candour might sweeten the embroilment. “I will not deny that I was under obligation to your highly respected father, who was greatly beloved for his good-will to his neighbours. ‘Cheeseman,’ he used to say, ‘I will stand by you. You are the only man of enterprise in these here parts. Whatever you do is for the good of Springhaven, which belonged to my family for centuries before those new-fangled Darlings came. And, Cheeseman, you may trust to the honour of the Carnes not to grind down a poor man who has his way to make.’ Them were his words, sir; how well I recollect them!”

“Too well almost,” replied the young man, coldly, “considering how scanty was your memory just now. But it may save time, and painful efforts of your memory, if I tell you at once that I am not concerned in any way with the sentiments of my father. I owe him very little, as you must be well aware; and the matter betwixt you and me is strictly one of business. The position in which I am left is such that I must press every legal claim to the extremest. And having the option under this good document, I have determined to insist upon three-quarters of the clear proceeds of this trading-ship, from the date of the purchase until the present day, as well as the capital sum invested on this security.”

“Very well, sir, if you do, there is only one course left me — to go into the Court of Bankruptcy, see all my little stock in trade sold up, and start in life again at the age of fifty-seven, with a curse upon all old families.”

“Your curse, my good friend, will not add sixpence to your credit. And the heat you exhibit is not well adapted for calculations commercial. There is one other course which I am able to propose, though I will not give a promise yet to do so — a course which would relieve me from taking possession of this noble ship which has made your fortune, and perhaps from enforcing the strict examination of your trading-books, to which I am entitled. But before I propose any such concession, which will be a grand abdication of rights, one or two things become necessary. For example, I must have some acquaintance with your character, some certitude that you can keep your own counsel, and not divulge everything that arrives within your knowledge; also that you have some courage, some freedom of mind from small insular sentiments, some desire to promote the true interests of mankind, and the destruction of national prejudices.”

“Certainly, sir; all of those I can approve of. They are very glorious things,” cried Cheeseman — a man of fine liberal vein, whenever two half-crowns were as good as a crown. “We are cramped and trampled and down-trodden by the airs big people give themselves, and the longing of such of us as thinks is to speak our minds about it. Upon that point of freedom, sir, I can heartily go with you, and every stick upon my premises is well insured.”

“Including, I hope, the London Trader, according to your covenant. And that reminds me of another question — is it well-found, well-manned, and a good rapid ship to make the voyage? No falsehood, if you please, about this matter.”

“She is the fastest sailer on the English coast, built at Dunkirk, and as sound as a bell. She could show her taffrail, in light weather, to any British cruiser in the Channel. She could run a fine cargo of French cognac and foreign laces any day.”

“It is not my desire,” Caryl Carne replied, “to cheat the British Revenue. For that purpose exist already plenty of British tradesmen. For the present I impress upon you one thing only, that you shall observe silence, a sacred silence, regarding this conversation. For your own sake you will be inclined to do so, and that is the only sake a man pays much attention to. But how much for your own sake you are obliged to keep your counsel, you will very soon find out if you betray it.”

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