Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XIX

In the Line of Fire

No wonder there had been a great deal of talking in the village all that evening, for the following notice had appeared in a dozen conspicuous places, beginning with the gate of the church-yard, and ending with two of the biggest mooring-posts, and not even sparing the Admiral’s white gate, where it flapped between the two upper rails. It was not printed, but written in round hand, with a liberal supply of capitals, on a stiff sheet of official paper, stamped with the Royal Arms at the top. And those who were in the secret knew that Master Bob Stubbard, the Captain’s eldest son, had accomplished this great literary feat at a guerdon of one shilling from the public service funds every time he sucked his pen at the end of it.

“By order of His Majesty King George III. To-morrow being Wednesday, and the fishing-boats at sea, Artillery practice from Fox-hill fort will be carried on from twelve at noon until three P.M. at a mark-boat moored half a mile from the shore. Therefore His Majesty’s loyal subjects are warned to avoid the beach westward of the brook between the white flagstaffs, as well as the sea in front of it, and not to cross the line of fire below the village but at their own risk and peril.

“(Signed) ADAM JACKSON STUBBARD, R.N., commanding Fox-hill Battery.”

Some indignation was aroused by this; for Mrs. Caper junior (who was Mrs. Prater’s cousin) had been confined, out of proper calculation, and for the very first time, the moment the boats were gone on Monday; and her house, being nearest to the fort, and in a hollow where the noise would be certain to keep going round and round, the effect upon her head, not to mention the dear baby’s, was more than any one dared to think of, with the poor father so far away. And if Squire Darling had only been at home, not a woman who could walk would have thought twice about it, but gone all together to insist upon it that he should stop this wicked bombardment. And this was most unselfish of all of them, they were sure, because they had so long looked forward to putting cotton-wool in their ears, and seeing how all the enemies of England would be demolished. But Mrs. Caper junior, and Caper, natu minimus, fell fast asleep together, as things turned out, and heard not a single bang of it.

And so it turned out, in another line of life, with things against all calculation, resenting to be reckoned as they always do, like the countless children of Israel. For Admiral Darling was gone far away inspecting, leaving his daughters to inspect themselves.

“You may just say exactly what you consider right, dear,” said Miss Dolly Darling to her sister Faith; “and I dare say it makes you more comfortable. But you know as well as I do, that there is no reason in it. Father is a darling; but he must be wrong sometimes. And how can he tell whether he is wrong or right, when he goes away fifty miles to attend to other people? Of course I would never disobey his orders, anymore than you would. But facts change according to circumstances, and I feel convinced that if he were here he would say, ‘Go down and see it, Dolly.’”

“We have no right to speculate as to what he might say,” replied Faith, who was very clear-headed. “His orders were definite: ‘Keep within the grounds, when notice is given of artillery practice.’ And those orders I mean to obey.”

“And so do I; but not to misunderstand them. The beach is a part of our grounds, as I have heard him say fifty times in argument, when people tried to come encroaching. And I mean to go on that part of his grounds, because I can’t see well from the other part. That is clearly what he meant; and he would laugh at us, if we could tell him nothing when he comes home. Why, he promised to take us as far as Portsmouth to see some artillery practice.”

“That is a different thing altogether, because we should be under his control. If you disobey him, it is at your own risk, and I shall not let one of the servants go with you, for I am mistress of the household, if not of you.”

“What trumpery airs you do give yourself! One would think you were fifty years old at least. Stay at home, if you are such a coward! I am sure dear daddy would be quite ashamed of you. They are popping already, and I mean to watch them.”

“You won’t go so very far, I am quite sure of that,” answered Faith, who understood her sister. “You know your own value, darling Dolly, and you would not go at all, if you had not been forbidden.”

“When people talk like that, it goads me up to almost anything. I intend to go, and stand, as near as can be, in the middle of the space that is marked off ‘dangerous.’”

“Do, that’s a dear. I will lend you my shell-silk that measures twenty yards, that you may be sure of being hit, dear.”

“Inhuman, selfish, wicked creature!” cried Dolly, and it was almost crying; “you shall see what comes of your cold-bloodedness! I shall pace to and fro in the direct line of fire, and hang on my back the king’s proclamation, inside out, and written on it in large letters —‘By order of my sister I do this.’ Then what will be said of you, if they only kill me? My feelings might be very sad, but I should not envy yours, Faith.”

“Kiss me, at any rate, before you perish, in token of forgiveness;” and Dolly (who dearly loved her sister at the keenest height of rebellion) ran up and kissed Faith, with a smile for her, and a tear for her own self-sacrifice. “I shall put on my shell-pink,” she said, “and they won’t have the heart to fire shells at it.”

The dress of the ladies of the present passing period had been largely affected by the recent peace, which allowed the “French babies”— as the milliners’ dolls were called — to come in as quickly as they were conceived. In war time scores of these “doxy-dummies”— as the rough tars called them — were tossed overboard from captured vessels or set up as a mark for tobacco-juice, while sweet eyes in London wept for want of them. And even Mr. Cheeseman had failed to bring any type genuinely French from the wholesale house in St. Mary’s Axe, which was famed for canonical issue. But blessed are the patient, if their patience lasts long enough. The ladies of England were now in full enjoyment of all the new French discoveries, which proved to be the right name, inasmuch as they banished all reputable forms of covering. At least, so Mrs. Twemlow said; and the Rector went further than she did, obtaining for his sympathy a recommendation to attend to his own business. But when he showed the Admiral his wife’s last book of patterns — from a drawer which he had no right to go to — great laughter was held between the twain, with some glancing over shoulders, and much dread of bad example. “Whatever you do, don’t let my girls see it; I’ll be bound you won’t let your Eliza,” said the Admiral, after a pinch of snuff to restore the true balance of his principles; “Faith would pitch it straight into the fire; but I am not quite so sure that my Dolly would. She loves a bit of finery, and she looks well in it.”

“Tonnish females,” as the magazine of fashion called the higher class of popinjays, would have stared with contempt at both Faith and Dolly Darling in their simple walking-dress that day. Dowdies would have been the name for them, or frumps, or frights, or country gawks, because their attire was not statuesque or classic, as it should have been, which means that they were not half naked.

Faith, the eldest sister, had meant to let young Dolly take the course of her own stubbornness; but no sooner did she see her go forth alone than she threw on cloak and hat, and followed. The day was unsuited for classic apparel, as English days are apt to be, and a lady of fashion would have looked more foolish, and even more indecent, than usual. A brisk and rather crisp east wind had arisen, which had no respect for persons, and even Faith and Dolly in their high-necked country dresses had to handle their tackle warily.

Dolly had a good start, and growing much excited with the petulance of the wind and with her own audacity, crossed the mouth of the brook at a very fine pace, with the easterly gusts to second her. She could see the little mark-boat well out in the offing, with a red flag flaring merrily, defying all the efforts of the gunners on the hill to plunge it into the bright dance of the waves. And now and then she heard what she knew to be the rush of a round shot far above her head, and following the sound saw a little silver fountain leap up into the sunshine and skim before the breeze; then glancing up the hill she saw the gray puff drifting, and presently felt the dull rumble of the air. At the root of the smoke-puffs, once or twice, she descried a stocky figure moving leisurely, and in spite of the distance and huddle of vapour could declare that it was Captain Stubbard. Then a dense mass of smoke was brought down by an eddy of wind, and set her coughing.

“Come away, come away this very moment, Dolly,” cried Faith, who had hurried up and seized her hand; “you are past the danger-post, and I met a man back there who says they are going to fire shells, and they have got two short guns on purpose. He says it will be very dangerous till they get the range, and he begged me most earnestly not to come on here. If I were anybody else, he said, he would lay hands on me and hold me back.”

“Some old fisherman, no doubt. What do they know about gun practice? I can see Captain Stubbard up there; he would rather shoot himself than me, he said yesterday.”

While Dolly was repeating this assurance, the following words were being exchanged upon the smoky parapet: “If you please, sir, I can see two women on the beach, half-way between the posts a’most.” “Can’t help it — wouldn’t stop for all the petticoats in the kingdom. If they choose to go there, they must take their chance. A bit more up, and to you, my good man. Are you sure you put in twenty-three? Steady! so, so — that’s beautiful.”

“What a noisy thing! What does it come here for? I never saw it fall. There must be some mistake. I hope there’s nothing nasty inside it. Run for your life, Faith; it means to burst, I do believe.”

“Down on your faces!” cried a loud, stern voice; and Dolly obeyed in an instant. But Faith stood calmly, and said to the man who rushed past her, “I trust in the Lord, sir.”

There was no time to answer. The shell had left off rolling, and sputtered more fiercely as the fuse thickened. The man laid hold of this, and tried to pull it out, but could not, and jumped with both feet on it; while Faith, who quite expected to be blown to pieces, said to herself, “What pretty boots he has!”

“A fine bit of gunnery!” said the young man, stooping over it, after treading the last spark into the springy sand. “The little artillery man is wanted here. Ladies, you may safely stay here now. They will not make two hits in proximity to each other.”

“You shall not go,” said Faith, as he was hurrying away, “until we know who has been so reckless of his life, to save the lives of others. Both your hands are burned — very seriously, I fear.”

“And your clothes, sir,” cried Dolly, running up in hot terror, as soon as the danger was over; “your clothes are spoiled sadly. Oh, how good it was of you! And the whole fault was mine — or at least Captain Stubbard’s. He will never dare to face me again, I should hope.”

“Young ladies, if I have been of any service to you,” said the stranger, with a smile at their excitement, “I beg you to be silent to the Captain Stubbard concerning my share in this occasion. He would not be gratified by the interest I feel in his beautiful little bombardments, especially that of fair ladies. Ha, there goes another shell! They will make better aim now; but you must not delay. I beseech you to hasten home, if you would do me kindness.”

The fair daughters of the Admiral had enjoyed enough of warfare to last them till the end of their honeymoon, and they could not reject the entreaty of a man who had risked his life to save them. Trembling and bewildered, they made off at the quickest step permitted by maiden dignity, with one or two kindly turns of neck, to show that he was meant to follow them. But another sulphurous cloud rushed down from the indefatigable Stubbard, and when it had passed them, they looked back vainly for the gentleman who had spoiled his boots.

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