Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XVI

Fox-Hill

When it was known in this fine old village that young Squire Carne from foreign parts was come back to live in the ancient castle, there was much larger outlay (both of words and thoughts) about that than about any French invasion. “Let them land if they can,” said the able-bodied men, in discussion of the latter question; “they won’t find it so easy to get away again as they seem to put into their reckoning. But the plague of it all is the damage to the fishing.”

Not that the squadron of Captain Tugwell was shorn as yet of its number, though all the young men were under notice to hold themselves ready as “Sea–Fencibles.” The injury to their trade lay rather in the difficulty of getting to their fishing-grounds, and in the disturbance of these by cruisers, with little respect for their nets and lines. Again, as the tidings of French preparation waxed more and more outrageous, Zebedee had as much as he could do to keep all his young hands loyal. All their solid interest lay (as he told them every morning) in sticking to the Springhaven flag — a pair of soles couchant, herring salient, and mackerel regardant, all upon a bright sea-green — rather than in hankering after roll of drum and Union–Jack. What could come of these but hardship, want of victuals, wounds, and death; or else to stump about on one leg, and hold out a hat for a penny with one arm? They felt that it was true; they had seen enough of that; it had happened in all their own families.

Yet such is the love of the native land and the yearning to stand in front of it, and such is the hate of being triumphed over by fellows who kiss one another and weep, and such is the tingling of the knuckles for a blow when the body has been kicked in sore places, that the heart will at last get the better of the head — or at least it used to be so in England. Wherefore Charley Bowles was in arms already against his country’s enemies; and Harry Shanks waited for little except a clear proclamation of prize-money; and even young Daniel was tearing at his kedge like a lively craft riding in a brisk sea-way. He had seen Lord Nelson, and had spoken to Lord Nelson, and that great man would have patted him on the head — so patriotic were his sentiments — if the great man had been a little taller.

But the one thing that kept Dan Tugwell firm to his moorings at Springhaven was the deep hold of his steadfast heart in a love which it knew to be hopeless. To die for his country might become a stern duty, about which he would rather not be hurried; but to die for Miss Dolly would be a wild delight; and how could he do it unless he were at hand? And now there were so many young officers again, landing in boats, coming in post-chaises, or charging down the road on horseback, that Daniel, while touching up the finish of his boat with paint and varnish and Venetian Red, was not so happy as an artist should be who knows how to place the whole. Sometimes, with the paint stirred up and creaming, and the ooze of the brush trimmed warily, through the rushes and ragwort and sea-willow his keen, unconquerable eyes would spy the only figure that quelled them, faraway, shown against the shining water, or shadowed upon the flat mirror of the sand. But, alas! there was always another figure near it, bigger, bulkier, framed with ugly angles, jerking about with the elbow sticking out, instead of gliding gracefully. Likely enough the lovely form, brought nearer to the eyes and heart by love, would flit about beautifully for two sweet moments, filling with rapture all the flashes of the sea and calm of the evening sky beyond; and then the third moment would be hideous. For the figure of the ungainly foe would stride across the delicious vision, huge against the waves like Cyclops, and like him gesticulant, but unhappily not so single-eyed that the slippery fair might despise him. Then away would fly all sense of art and joy in the touch of perfection, and a very nasty feeling would ensue, as if nothing were worth living for, and nobody could be believed in.

That plaguesome Polypheme was Captain Stubbard, begirt with a wife, and endowed with a family almost in excess of benediction, and dancing attendance upon Miss Dolly, too stoutly for his own comfort, in the hope of procuring for his own Penates something to eat and to sit upon. Some evil genius had whispered, or rather trumpeted, into his ear — for he had but one left, and that worked very seldom, through alarm about the bullet which had carried off its fellow — that if he desired, as he did with heart and stomach, to get a clear widening by 200 pounds of his strait ways and restricted means, through Admiral Darling it might be done, and Miss Dolly was the proper one to make him do it. For the Inspectorship of Sea–Fencibles from Selsea–Bill to Dungeness was worth all that money in hard cash yearly; and the late Inspector having quitted this life — through pork boiled in a copper kettle — the situation was naturally vacant; and the Admiral being the man for whose check the Inspectorship was appointed, it is needless to say that (in the spirit of fair play) the appointment was vested in the Admiral.

The opinion of all who knew him was that Captain Stubbard was fairly entitled to look for something higher. And he shared that opinion, taking loftier aim than figures could be made to square with, till the latter prevailed, as they generally do, because they can work without victuals. For although the brave Captain had lost three ribs — or at any rate more than he could spare of them (not being a pig)— in the service of his country, he required as much as ever to put inside them; and his children, not having inherited that loss as scientifically as they should have done, were hard to bring up upon the 15 pounds yearly allowed by Great Britain for each of the gone bones. From the ear that was gone he derived no income, having rashly compounded for 25 pounds.

In the nature of things, which the names have followed, the father is the feeder; and the world is full of remarks unless he becomes a good clothier also. But everything went against this father, with nine little Stubbards running after him, and no ninepence in any of his pockets, because he was shelfed upon half-pay, on account of the depression of the times and of his ribs. But Miss Dolly Darling was resolved to see him righted, for she hated all national meanness.

“What is the use of having any influence,” she asked her good father, “unless you employ it for your own friends? I should be quite ashamed to have it said of me, or thought, that I could get a good thing for any one I was fond of, and was mean enough not to do it, for fear of paltry jealousy. Mean is much too weak a word; it is downright dishonest, and what is much worse, cowardly. What is the government meant for, unless it is to do good to people?”

“Certainly, my dear child, certainly. To the people at large, that is to say, and the higher interests of the country.”

“Can there be any people more at large than Captain Stubbard and his wife and children? Their elbows are coming out of their clothes, and they have scarcely got a bed to sleep upon. My income is not enough to stop to count, even when I get it paid punctually. But every farthing I receive shall go — that is to say, if it ever does come — into the lap of Mrs. Stubbard, anonymously and respectfully.”

“Pay your bills, first,” said the Admiral, taking the weather-gage of the discussion: “a little bird tells me that you owe a good trifle, even in Springhaven.”

“Then the little bird has got a false bill,” replied Dolly, who was not very easy to fluster. “Who is there to spend sixpence with in a little hole of this kind? I am not a customer for tea, coffee, tobacco, snuff, or pepper, nor even for whiting, soles, or conger. Old Cheeseman imports all the fashions, as he says; but I go by my own judgment. And trumpery as my income is, very little of it goes into his till. But I should like to know who told you such a wicked story, father?”

“Things are mentioned in confidence, and I put them together,” said the Admiral. “Don’t say another word, or look as if you would be happier if you had something to cry about. Your dear mother used to do it; and it beats me always. I have long had my eye upon Captain Stubbard, and I remember well that gallant action when his three ribs flew away. We called him Adam, because of his wife coming just when his middle rib went, and his name was Adam Stubbard, sure enough. Such men, in the prime of their life, should be promoted, instead of being disabled, for a scratch like that. Why, he walks every bit as well as I do, and his watch-ribbon covers it. And nine children! Lord bless my heart! I scarcely know which way to turn, with only four!”

Within a short fortnight Captain Stubbard was appointed, with an office established at the house of Widow Shanks — though his real office naturally was at the public-house — and Royal Proclamations aroused the valour of nearly everybody who could read them. Nine little Stubbards soon were rigged too smart to know themselves, as the style is of all dandies; and even Mrs. Stubbard had a new belt made to go round her, when the weather was elastic.

“These are the things that prove the eye of an All-wise Providence over us,” said the Captain to the Admiral, pointing out six pairs of short legs, galligaskined from one roll of cloth; “these are the things that make one feel the force of the words of David.”

“Certainly, yes, to be sure!” replied the gallant senior officer, all at sea as to the passage suggested. “Good legs they have got, and no mistake; like the polished corners of the temple. Let them go and dip them in the sea, while you give the benefit of your opinion here. Not here, I mean, but upon Fox-hill yonder; if Mrs. Stubbard will spare you for a couple of hours, most kindly.”

Of the heights that look down with a breezy air upon the snug nest of Springhaven, the fairest to see from a distance, and to tread with brisk foot, is Fox-hill. For the downs, which are channelled with the springs that form the brook, keep this for their own last spring into the air, before bathing in the vigorous composure of the sea. All the other hills fall back a little, to let Fox-hill have the first choice of aspect — or bear the first brunt, as itself would state the matter. And to anybody coming up, and ten times to a stranger, this resolute foreland offers more invitation to go home again, than to come visiting. For the bulge of the breast is steep, and ribbed with hoops coming up in denial, concrete with chalk, muricated with flint, and thornily crested with good stout furze. And the forefront of the head, when gained, is stiff with brambles, and stubbed with sloes, and mitred with a choice band of stanch sting-nettles.

“It would take a better Frenchman,” said the Admiral, with that brevity which is the happy result of stoutness up steep hill, “than any of ‘they flat-bottoms,’ as Swipes, my gardener, calls them, to get through these prickles, Stubbard, without Sark-blewing. Such a wonderfully thin-skinned lot they are! Did I ever tell you the story of our boatswain’s mate? But that takes a better sailing breeze than I’ve got now. You see where we are, don’t you?”

“Certainly, Admiral,” replied Captain Stubbard, disdaining to lay hand to his injured side, painfully as it yearned for pressure; “we have had a long pull, and we get a fine outlook over the country for leagues, and the Channel. How close at hand everything looks! I suppose we shall have rain, and we want it. I could thump that old castle among the trees into smash, and your church looks as if I could put a shot with a rifle-gun into the bell-chamber.”

“And so you could. What I want to show you is that very point, and the importance of it. With a battery of long twenty-fours up here, the landing, the bay, and all the roads are at our mercy. My dear old friend Nelson drew my attention to it.”

“It is plain as a pikestaff to Tom, Dick, or Harry:” Captain Stubbard was a frank, straightforward man, and much as he owed to the Admiral’s aid, not a farthing would he pay in flattery. “But why should we want to command this spot? There is nothing to protect but a few common houses, and some half-score of fishing-craft, and a schooner that trades to London, and yonder old church, and — oh yes, to be sure, your own house and property, Admiral.”

“Those must take their chance, like others. I hope I know better than to think of them in comparison with the good of the country. But if we fail to occupy this important post, the enemy might take us by surprise, and do so.”

“Possible, but most improbable. This little place lies, by the trend of the coast, quite out of their course from Boulogne to London; and what is there here to tempt them? No rich town to sack, no great commerce to rob, no valuable shipping to lay hands on.”

“No; but there’s my house and my two girls; and I don’t want my old roof burned, and my daughters put to wait on Boney. But to think of self-interest is below contempt, with our country going through such trials. Neither should we add any needless expense to a treasury already overburdened.”

“Certainly not. It would be absolutely wicked. We have a long and costly war before us, and not a shilling should be spent except in case of clear necessity.”

“I am very glad indeed to find your opinion so decided, so untainted with petty self-interest.” As Admiral Darling spoke he closed a little silver telescope, with which he had been gazing through the wooded coronet of the hill. “I thought it my duty to consult you, Stubbard, before despatching this letter, which, being backed by Nelson’s opinion, would probably have received attention. If a strong battery were thrown up here, as it would be in a fortnight from the receipt of this bit of foolscap, the appointment of commandant would rest with me, and I could appoint nobody but your good self, because of your well-known experience in earthworks. The appointment would have doubled your present pay, which, though better than nothing, is far below your merits. But your opinion settles the question otherwise, and I must burn my letter. Let us lose no more time. Mrs. Stubbard will call me a savage, for keeping you away so long.”

“Important business,” replied the Captain, “will not wait even for ladies, or, rather, they must try to wait for it, and give way to more reasonable urgency. Some time is required for considering this matter, and deciding what is most for the interest of the nation. Oblige me with your spy-glass, Admiral. There is one side on which I have neglected to look out, and that may of all be the most important. A conclusion arrived at by yourself and Nelson is not to be hastily set aside. Your knowledge of the country is so far beyond mine, though I may have had more to do with land-works. We ought to think twice, sir, if the government will pay for it, about a valuable job of this kind.”

With these words Captain Stubbard began to use the telescope carefully, forming his opinion through it, and wisely shaking his head, now and then, with a longer and longer focus. Then he closed the glass, and his own lips firmly — whereby a man announces that no other should open his against them — and sternly striding the yard exact, took measurement for the battery. The hill was crowned with a ring of Scotch firs, casting a quiet shade upon the warlike haste of the Captain. If Admiral Darling smiled, it was to the landscape and the offing, for he knew that Stubbard was of rather touchy fibre, and relished no jokes unless of home production. His slow, solid face was enough to show this, and the squareness of his outline, and the forward thrust of his knees as he walked, and the larkspur impress of his lingering heels. And he seldom said much, without something to say.

“Well,” cried the Admiral, growing tired of sitting so long upon a fallen trunk, “what conclusion do you feel inclined to come to? ’Tis a fine breezy place to clear the brain, and a briny air to sharpen the judgment.”

“Only one tree need come down — this crooked one at the southeast corner.” Captain Stubbard began to swing his arms about, like a windmill uncertain of the wind. “All gentlemen hate to have a tree cut down, all blackguards delight in the process. Admiral, we will not hurt your trees. They will add to our strength, by masking it. Six long twenty-fours of the new make, here in front, and two eighteens upon either flank, and I should like to see the whole of the Boulogne flotilla try to take yonder shore by daylight. That is to say, of course, if I commanded, with good old salts to second me. With your common artillery officers, landlubbers, smell-the-wicks, cross-the-braces sons of guns, there had better not be anything at all put up. They can’t make a fortification; and when they have made it, they can’t work it. Admiral Darling, you know that, though you have not had the bad luck to deal with them as I have. I may thank one of them for being up here on the shelf.”

“Of one thing you may be quite certain,” replied the commander of the sea defence; “if we have any battery on this Fox-hill, it shall be constructed and manned by blue-jackets. I have a large draft of them now at discretion. Every man in Springhaven will lend a hand, if paid for it. It would take at least a twelvemonth to get it done from Woolwich. A seaman does a thing before a landsman thinks about it.”

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