Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XVII

Sea-Side Lodgings

To set a dog barking is easier than to stop him by the soundest reasoning. Even if the roof above his honest head, growing loose on its nails, is being mended, he comes out to ask about the matter, and in strong terms proclaims his opinion to the distance.

After this kind behaved the people about to be protected by this battery. They had dreamed of no danger till they saw their houses beginning to be protected, and for this — though it added to their importance — they were not truly thankful. They took it in various ways, according to their rich variety of reflection; but the way in which nobody took it was that of gratitude and humility.

“Everything upside down,” they said, “everything gone clean topsy-turvy! And the deep meaning of it is to rob our fishing, under pretence of the Nationals. It may bring a good bit of money to the place, for the lining of one or two pockets, such as John Prater’s and Cheeseman’s; but I never did hold so much with money, when shattery ways comes along of it. No daughter of mine stirs out-of-doors after sundown, I can tell them.”

Thus were the minds of the men disturbed, or at any rate those of the elder ones; while the women, on the whole, were pleased, although they pretended to be contemptuous. “I’ll tell you what I think, ma’am,” Mrs. Cheeseman said to Widow Shanks quite early, “if you take a farthing less than half a guinea a week for your dimity-parlour, with the window up the hill, and the little door under the big sweet-briar, I shall think that you are not as you used to be.”

“And right you would be, ma’am, and too right there;” Mrs. Shanks sighed deeply as she thought of it. “There is nobody but you can understand it, and I don’t mind saying it on that account to you. Whenever I have wanted for a little bit of money, as the nature of lone widows generally does, it has always been out of your power, Mrs. Cheeseman, to oblige me, and quite right of you. But I have a good son, thank the Lord, by the name of Harry, to provide for me; and a guinea a week is the agreement now for the dimity-parlour, and the three leg’d bed, and cold dinner to be paid for extra, such as I might send for to your good shop, with the money ready in the hand of my little girl, and jug below her apron for refreshment from the Darling.”

“Well, I never! My dear soul, you have taken all my breath away. Why, it must be the captain of all the gunners. How gunpowder do pay, to be sure!”

“Lor, ma’am, why, don’t you know,” replied Mrs. Shanks, with some contempt, “that the man with three ribs is the captain of the gunners — the man in my back sitting-room? No dimity-parlour for him with his family, not for a guinea and a half a week. But if I was to tell you who the gentleman is, and one of the highest all round these parts, truthful as you know me, Mrs. Cheeseman, you would say to yourself, what a liar she is!”

“Mrs. Shanks, I never use coarse expressions, even to myself in private. And perhaps I could tell you a thing or two would astonish you more than me, ma’am. Suppose I should tell you, to begin with, who your guinea lodger is?”

“That you could never do, Mrs. Cheeseman, with all your time a-counting changes. He is not of the rank for a twopenny rasher, or a wedge of cheese packed in old petticoat.”

These two ladies now looked at one another. They had not had a quarrel for almost three months, and a large arrear of little pricks on either side was pending. Sooner or later it would have to be fought out (like a feud between two nations), with a houseful of loss and woe to either side, but a thimbleful of pride and glory. Yet so much wiser were these women than the most sagacious nations that they put off to a cheaper time their grudge against each other.

“His rank may be royal,” said the wife of Mr. Cheeseman, “though a going-downhill kind of royalty, perhaps, and yet he might be glad, Mrs. Shanks, to come where the butter has the milk spots, and none is in the cheese, ma’am.”

“If such should be his wish, ma’am, for supper or for breakfast, or even for dinner on a Sunday when the rain comes through the Castle, you may trust me to know where to send him, but not to guarantee him at all of his money.”

“They high ones is very apt to slip in that,” Mrs. Cheeseman answered, thoughtfully; “they seem to be less particular in paying for a thing than they was to have it good. But a burnt child dreads the fire, as they say; and a young man with a castleful of owls and rats, by reason of going for these hundred years on credit, will have it brought home to him to pay ready money. But the Lord be over us! if I don’t see him a-going your way already! Good-by, my dear soul — good-by, and preserve you; and if at any time short of table or bed linen, a loan from an old friend, and coming back well washed, and it sha’n’t be, as the children sing, ‘A friend with a loan has the pick of your bone, and he won’t let you very long alone.’”

“Many thanks to you for friendly meaning, ma’am,” said the widow, as she took up her basket to go home, “and glad I may be to profit by it, with the time commanding. But as yet I have had neither sleepers or feeders in my little house, but the children. Though both of them reserves the right to do it, if nature should so compel them — the three-ribbed gentleman with one ear, at five shillings a week, in the sitting-room, and the young man up over him. Their meaning is for business, and studying, and keeping of accounts, and having of a quiet place in bad weather, though feed they must, sooner or later, I depend; and then who is there but Mr. Cheeseman?”

“How grand he do look upon that black horse, quite as solid as if he was glued to it!” the lady of the shop replied, as she put away the money; “and to do that without victuals is beyond a young man’s power. He looks like what they used to call a knight upon an errand, in the picture-books, when I was romantic, only for the hair that comes under his nose. Ah! his errand will be to break the hearts of the young ladies that goes down upon the sands in their blue gowns, I’m afraid, if they can only manage with the hair below his nose.”

“And do them good, some of them, and be a judgment from the Lord, for the French style in their skirts is a shocking thing to see. What should we have said when you and I were young, my dear? But quick step is the word for me, for I expect my Jenny home on her day out from the Admiral, and no Harry in the house to look after her. Ah! dimity-parlours is a thing as may happen to cut both ways, Mrs. Cheeseman.”

Widow Shanks had good cause to be proud of her cottage, which was the prettiest in Springhaven, and one of the most commodious. She had fought a hard fight, when her widowhood began, and the children were too young to help her, rather than give up the home of her love-time, and the cradle of her little ones. Some of her neighbours (who wanted the house) were sadly pained at her stubbornness, and even dishonesty, as they put it, when she knew that she never could pay her rent. But “never is a long time,” according to the proverb; and with the forbearance of the Admiral, the kindness of his daughters, and the growth of her own children, she stood clear of all debt now, except the sweet one of gratitude.

And now she could listen to the moaning of the sea (which used to make her weep all night) with a milder sense of the cruel woe that it had drowned her husband, and a lull of sorrow that was almost hope; until the dark visions of wrecks and corpses melted into sweet dreams of her son upon the waters, finishing his supper, and getting ready for his pipe. For Harry was making his own track well in the wake of his dear father.

Now if she had gone inland to dwell, from the stroke of her great calamity — as most people told her to make haste and do — not only the sympathy of the sea, but many of the little cares, which are the ants that bury heavy grief, would have been wholly lost to her. And amongst these cares the foremost always, and the most distracting, was that of keeping her husband’s cottage — as she still would call it — tidy, comfortable, bright, and snug, as if he were coming on Saturday.

Where the brook runs into the first hearing of the sea, to defer its own extinction it takes a lively turn inland, leaving a pleasant breadth of green between itself and its destiny. At the breath of salt the larger trees hang back, and turn their boughs up; but plenty of pretty shrubs come forth, and shade the cottage garden. Neither have the cottage walls any lack of leafy mantle, where the summer sun works his own defeat by fostering cool obstruction. For here are the tamarisk, and jasmin, and the old-fashioned corchorus flowering all the summer through, as well as the myrtle that loves the shore, with a thicket of stiff young sprigs arising, slow of growth, but hiding yearly the havoc made in its head and body by the frost of 1795, when the mark of every wave upon the sands was ice. And a vine, that seems to have been evolved from a miller, or to have prejected him, clambers with grey silver pointrels through the more glossy and darker green. And over these you behold the thatch, thick and long and parti-coloured, eaved with little windows, where a bird may nest for ever.

But it was not for this outward beauty that Widow Shanks, stuck to her house, and paid the rent at intervals. To her steadfast and well-managed mind, the number of rooms, and the separate staircase which a solvent lodger might enjoy, were the choicest grant of the household gods. The times were bad — as they always are when conscientious people think of them — and poor Mrs. Shanks was desirous of paying her rent, by the payment of somebody. Every now and then some well-fed family, hungering (after long carnage) for fish, would come from village pastures or town shambles, to gaze at the sea, and to taste its contents. For in those days fish were still in their duty, to fry well, to boil well, and to go into the mouth well, instead of being dissolute — as nowadays the best is — with dirty ice, and flabby with arrested fermentation. In the pleasant dimity-parlour then, commanding a fair view of the lively sea and the stream that sparkled into it, were noble dinners of sole, and mackerel, and smelt that smelled of cucumber, and dainty dory, and pearl-buttoned turbot, and sometimes even the crisp sand-lance, happily for himself, unhappily for whitebait, still unknown in London. Then, after long rovings ashore or afloat, these diners came back with a new light shed upon them — that of the moon outside the house, of the supper candles inside. There was sure to be a crab or lobster ready, and a dish of prawns sprigged with parsley; if the sea were beginning to get cool again, a keg of philanthropic oysters; or if these were not hospitably on their hinges yet, certainly there would be choice-bodied creatures, dried with a dash of salt upon the sunny shingle, and lacking of perfection nothing more than to be warmed through upon a toasting-fork.

By none, however, of these delights was the newly won lodger tempted. All that he wanted was peace and quiet, time to go through a great trunk full of papers and parchments, which he brought with him, and a breath of fresh air from the downs on the north, and the sea to the south, to enliven him. And in good truth he wanted to be enlivened, as Widow Shanks said to her daughter Jenny; for his eyes were gloomy, and his face was stern, and he seldom said anything good-natured. He seemed to avoid all company, and to be wrapped up wholly in his own concerns, and to take little pleasure in anything. As yet he had not used the bed at his lodgings, nor broken his fast there to her knowledge, though he rode down early every morning and put up his horse at Cheeseman’s, and never rode away again until the dark had fallen. Neither had he cared to make the acquaintance of Captain Stubbarb, who occupied the room beneath his for a Royal Office — as the landlady proudly entitled it; nor had he received, to the best of her knowledge, so much as a single visitor, though such might come by his private entrance among the shrubs unnoticed. All these things stirred with deep interest and wonder the enquiring mind of the widow.

“And what do they say of him up at the Hall?” she asked her daughter Jenny, who was come to spend holiday at home. “What do they say of my new gentleman, young Squire Carne from the Castle? The Carnes and the Darlings was never great friends, as every one knows in Springhaven. Still, it do seem hard and unchristianlike to keep up them old enmities; most of all, when the one side is down in the world, with the owls and the bats and the coneys.”

“No, mother, no. They are not a bit like that,” replied Jenny — a maid of good loyalty; “it is only that he has not called upon them. All gentlefolks have their proper rules of behaviour. You can’t be expected to understand them, mother.”

“But why should he go to them more than they should come to him, particular with young ladies there? And him with only one horse to their seven or eight. I am right, you may depend upon it, Jenny; and my mother, your grandmother, was a lady’s-maid in a higher family than Darling — it depends upon them to come and look him up first, and he have no call to knock at their door without it. Why, it stands to reason, poor young man! And not a bit hath he eaten from Monday.”

“Well, I believe I am right, but I’ll ask Miss Dolly. She is that sharp, she knows everything, and I don’t mind what I say to her, when she thinks that she looks handsome. And it takes a very bad dress, I can tell you, to put her out of that opinion.”

“She is right enough there:” Mrs. Shanks shook her head at her daughter for speaking in this way. “The ugliest frock as ever came from France couldn’t make her any but a booty. And the Lord knows the quality have come to queer shapes now. Undecent would be the name for it in our ranks of women. Why, the last of her frocks she gave you, Jenny, how much did I put on, at top and bottom, and you three inches shorter than she is! And the slips they ties round them — oh dear! oh dear! as if that was to hold them up and buckle them together! Won’t they have the groanings by the time they come to my age?”

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