Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XVIII

French and English

Admiral Darling was now so busy, and so continually called from home by the duties of his commandership, that he could not fairly be expected to call upon Mr. Caryl Carne. Yet that gentleman, being rather sensitive — which sometimes means very spiteful — resented as a personal slight this failure; although, if the overture had been made, he would have ascribed it to intrusive curiosity, and a low desire to behold him in his ruins. But truly in the old man’s kindly heart there was no sour corner for ill blood to lurk in, and no dull fibre for ill-will to feed on. He kept on meaning to go and call on Caryl Carne, and he had quite made up his mind to do it, but something always happened to prevent him.

Neither did he care a groat for his old friend Twemlow’s advice upon that subject. “Don’t go near him,” said the Rector, taking care that his wife was quite safe out of hearing; “it would ill become me to say a word against my dear wife’s own nephew, and the representative of her family. And, to the utmost of my knowledge, there is nothing to be said against him. But I can’t get on with him at all. I don’t know why. He has only honored us with a visit twice, and he would not even come to dinner. Nice manners they learn on the Continent! But none of us wept when he declined; not even his good aunt, my wife. Though he must have got a good deal to tell us, and an extraordinary knowledge of foreign ways. But instead of doing that, he seems to sneer at us. I can look at a question from every point of view, and I defy anybody to call me narrow-minded. But still, one must draw the line somewhere, or throw overboard all principles; and I draw it, my dear Admiral, against infidels and against Frenchmen.”

“No rational person can do otherwise”— the Admiral’s opinion was decisive —“but this young man is of good English birth, and one can’t help feeling sorry for his circumstances. And I assure you, Twemlow, that I feel respect as well for the courage that he shows, and the perseverance, in coming home and facing those vile usurers. And your own wife’s nephew! Why, you ought to take his part through thick and thin, whatever you may think of him. From all I hear he must be a young man of exceedingly high principle; and I shall make a point of calling upon him the first half-hour I get to spare. To-morrow, if possible; or if not, the day after, at the very latest.”

But the needful half-hour had not yet been found; and Carne, who was wont to think the worst of everybody, concluded that the Darling race still cherished the old grudge, which had always been on his own side. For this he cared little, and perhaps was rather glad of it. For the old dwelling-place of his family (the Carne Castle besieged by the Roundheads a hundred and sixty years agone) now threatened to tumble about the ears of any one knocking at the gate too hard. Or rather the remnants of its walls did so; the greater part, having already fallen, lay harmless, and produced fine blackberries.

As a castle, it had been well respected in its day, though not of mighty bulwarks or impregnable position. Standing on a knoll, between the ramp of high land and the slope of shore, it would still have been conspicuous to traveller and to voyager but for the tall trees around it. These hid the moat, and the relics of the drawbridge, the groined archway, and cloven tower of the keep — which had twice been struck by lightning — as well as the windows of the armoury, and the chapel hushed with ivy. The banqueting hall was in better repair, for the Carnes had been hospitable to the last; but the windows kept no wind off, neither did the roof repulse the rain. In short, all the front was in a pretty state of ruin, very nice to look at, very nasty to live in, except for toads, and bats, and owls, and rats, and efts, and brindled slugs with yellow stripes; or on a summer eve the cockroach and the carrion-beetle.

At the back, however, and above the road which Cheeseman travelled in his pony-chaise, was a range of rooms still fit to dwell in, though poorly furnished, and floored with stone. In better times these had been the domain of the house-keeper and the butler, the cook and the other upper servants, who had minded their duty and heeded their comfort more truly than the master and mistress did. For the downfall of this family, as of very many others, had been chiefly caused by unwise marriage. Instead of choosing sensible and active wives to look after their home affairs and regulate the household, the Carnes for several generations now had wedded flighty ladies of good birth and pretty manners, none of whom brought them a pipkinful of money, while all helped to spend a potful. Therefore their descendant was now living in the kitchens, and had no idea how to make use of them, in spite of his French education; of comfort also he had not much idea, which was all the better for him; and he scarcely knew what it was to earn and enjoy soft quietude.

One night, when the summer was in full prime, and the weather almost blameless, this young Squire Carne rode slowly back from Springhaven to his worn-out castle. The beauty of the night had kept him back, for he hated to meet people on the road. The lingering gossips, the tired fagot-bearers, the youths going home from the hay-rick, the man with a gun who knows where the hares play, and beyond them all the truant sweethearts, who cannot have enough of one another, and wish “good-night” at every corner of the lane, till they tumble over one another’s cottage steps — all these to Caryl Carne were a smell to be avoided, an eyesore to shut the eyes at. He let them get home and pull their boots off, and set the frying-pan a-bubbling — for they ended the day with a bit of bacon, whenever they could cash or credit it — and then he set forth upon his lonely ride, striking fear into the heart of any bad child that lay awake.

“Almost as good as France is this,” he muttered in French, though for once enjoying the pleasure of good English air; “and better than France would it be, if only it were not cut short so suddenly. There will come a cold wind by-and-by, or a chilly black cloud from the east, and then all is shivers and rawness. But if it only remained like this, I could forgive it for producing me. After all, it is my native land; and I saw the loveliest girl today that ever I set eyes on. None of their made-up and highly finished demoiselles is fit to look at her — such simple beauty, such charms of nature, such enchanting innocence! Ah, that is where those French girls fail — they are always studying how they look, instead of leaving us to think of it. Bah! What odds to me? I have higher stakes to play for. But according to old Twemlow’s description, she must be the daughter of that old bear Darling, with whom I shall have to pick a bone some day. Ha! How amusing is that battery to me! How little John Bull knows the nature of French troops! To-morrow we are to have a grand practice-day; and I hope they won’t shoot me in my new lodgings. Nothing is impossible to such an idiot as Stubbard. What a set of imbeciles I have found to do with! They have scarcely wit enough to amuse oneself with. Pest of my soul! Is that you, Charron? Again you have broken my orders.”

“Names should be avoided in the open air,” answered the man, who was swinging on a gate with the simple delight of a Picard. “The climate is of France so much to-night that I found it my duty to encourage it. For what reason shall not I do that? It is not so often that I have occasion. My dear friend, scold not, but accept the compliment very seldom truthful to your native land. There are none of your clod-pates about to-night.”

“Come in at once. The mere sound of your breath is enough to set the neighbourhood wondering. Could I ever have been burdened with a more French Frenchman, though you speak as good English as I do?”

“It was all of that miserable Cheray,” the French gentleman said, when they sat in the kitchen, and Jerry Bowles was feeding the fine black horse. “Fruit is a thing that my mouth prepares for, directly there is any warmth in the sun. It puts itself up, it is elevated, it will not have meat, or any substance coarse. Wine of the softest and fruit of the finest is what it must then have, or unmouth itself. That miserable Cheray, his maledictioned name put me forth to be on fire for the good thing he designs. Cherays you call them, and for cherays I despatched him, suspended between the leaves in the good sun. Bah! there is nothing ever fit to eat in England. The cherays look very fine, very fine indeed; and so many did I consume that to travel on a gate was the only palliation. Would you have me stay all day in this long cellar? No diversion, no solace, no change, no conversation! Old Cheray may sit with his hands upon his knees, but to Renaud Charron that is not sufficient. How much longer before I sally forth to do the things, to fight, to conquer the nations? Where is even my little ship of despatch?”

“Captain,” answered Caryl Carne, preparing calmly for his frugal supper, “you are placed under my command, and another such speech will despatch you to Dunkirk, bound hand and foot, in the hold of the Little Corporal, with which I am now in communication. Unless by the time I have severed this bone you hand me your sword in submission, my supper will have to be postponed, while I march you to the yew-tree, signal for a boat, and lay you strapped beneath the oarsmen.”

Captain Charron, who had held the command of a French corvette, stared furiously at this man, younger than himself, so strongly established over him. Carne was not concerned to look at him; all he cared about was to divide the joint of a wing-rib of cold roast beef, where some good pickings lurked in the hollow. Then the French man, whose chance would have been very small in a personal encounter with his chief, arose and took a naval sword, short but rather heavy, from a hook which in better days had held a big dish-cover, and making a salute rather graceful than gracious, presented the fringed handle to the carver.

“This behaviour is sensible, my friend, and worthy of your distinguished abilities.” Carne’s resolute face seldom yielded to a smile, but the smile when it came was a sweet one. “Pardon me for speaking strongly, but my instructions must be the law to you. If you were my commander (as, but for local knowledge, and questions of position here, you would be), do you think then that you would allow me to rebel, to grumble, to wander, to demand my own pleasure, when you knew that it would ruin things?”

“Bravo! It is well spoken. My captain, I embrace you. In you lives the spirit of the Grand Army, which we of the sea and of the ships admire always, and always desire to emulate. Ah, if England possessed many Englishmen like you, she would be hard to conquer.”

The owner of this old English castle shot a glance at the Frenchman for any sign of irony in his words. Seeing none, he continued, in the friendly vein:

“Our business here demands the greatest caution, skill, reserve, and self-denial. We are fortunate in having no man of any keen penetration in the neighbourhood, at least of those in authority and concerned with public matters. As one of an ancient family, possessing the land for centuries, I have every right to be here, and to pursue my private business in privacy. But if it once gets talked about that a French officer is with me, these stupid people will awake their suspicions more strongly by their own stupidity. In this queer island you may do what you like till the neighbourhood turns against you; and then, if you revolve upon a pin, you cannot suit them. You understand? You have heard me before. It is this that I never can knock into you.”

Renaud Charron, who considered himself — as all Frenchmen did then, and perhaps do now — far swifter of intellect than any Englishman, found himself not well pleased at this, and desired to know more about it.

“Nothing can be simpler,” the Englishman replied; “and therefore nothing surer. You know the old proverb —‘Everything in turn, except scandal, whose turn is always.’ And again another saying of our own land —‘The second side of the bread takes less time to toast.’ We must not let the first side of ours be toasted; we will shun all the fire of suspicion. And to do this, you must not be seen, my dear friend. I may go abroad freely; you must hide your gallant head until matters are ripe for action. You know that you may trust me not to keep you in the dark a day longer than is needful. I have got the old shopkeeper under my thumb, and can do what I please with his trading-ship. But before I place you in command I must change some more of the crew, and do it warily. There is an obstinate Cornishman to get rid of, who sticks to the planks like a limpet. If we throw him overboard, we shall alarm the others; if we discharge him without showing cause, he will go to the old Admiral and tell all his suspicions. He must be got rid of in London with skill, and then we ship three or four Americans, first-rate seamen, afraid of nothing, who will pass here as fellows from Lancashire. After that we may run among the cruisers as we like, with the boldness and skill of a certain Captain Charron, who must be ill in his cabin when his ship is boarded.”

“It is famous, it is very good, my friend. The patience I will have, and the obedience, and the courage; and so much the more readily because my pay is good, and keeps itself going on dry land as well as sea.”

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