Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXV

No Concern of Ours

The very next morning it was known to the faithful of Springhaven that the glory of the place would be trebled that day, and its income increased desirably. That day, the fair stranger (which had so long awakened the admiration of the women, and the jealousy of the men) would by the consummate skill of Captain Zeb — who had triumphed over all the officers of the British Navy — float forth magnificently from her narrow bed, hoist her white sails, and under British ensign salute the new fort, and shape a course for Portsmouth. That she had stuck fast and in danger so long was simply because the cocked hats were too proud to give ear to the wisdom in an old otter-skin. Now Admiral Darling was baffled and gone; and Captain Tugwell would show the world what he could do, and what stuff his men were made of, if they only had their way. From old Daddy Stakes, the bald father of the village, to Mrs. Caper junior’s baby — equally bald, but with a crop as sure of coming as mustard and cress beneath his flannel — some in arms, some on legs, some upon brave crutches, all were abroad in the soft air from the west, which had stolen up under the stiff steel skirt of the east wind, exactly as wise Captain Zeb predicted.

“My dear,” said Mrs. Twemlow to the solid Mrs. Stubbard, for a very sweet friendship had sprung up between these ladies, and would last until their interests should happen to diverge, “this will be a great day for my dear husband’s parish. Perhaps there is no other parish in the kingdom capable of acting as Springhaven has, so obedient, so disciplined, so faithful to their contract! I am told that they even pulled the vessel more aground, in preference to setting up their own opinions. I am told that as soon as the Admiral was gone — for between you and me he is a little overbearing, with the very best intentions in the world, but too confident in his own sagacity — then that clever but exceedingly modest young man, Lieutenant Scudamore, was allowed at last to listen to our great man Tugwell, who has long been the oracle of the neighbourhood about the sea, and the weather, and all questions of that kind. And between you and me, my dear, the poor old Admiral seems a little bit jealous of his reputation. And what do you think he said before he went, which shows his high opinion of his own abilities? Tugwell said something in his rough and ready way, which, I suppose, put his mightiness upon the high ropes, for he shouted out in everybody’s hearing, ‘I’ll tell you what it is, my man, if you can get her off, by any of your’— something I must not repeat —‘devices, I’ll give you fifty guineas, five-and-twenty for yourself, and the rest to be divided among these other fellows.’ Then Zebedee pulled out a Testament from his pocket, for he is a man of deep religious convictions, and can read almost all the easy places, though he thinks most of the hard ones, and he made his son Dan (who is a great scholar, as they say, and a very fine-looking youth as well) put down at the end what the Admiral had said. Now, what do you think of that, dear Mrs. Stubbard?”

“I think,” replied that strong-minded lady, “that Tugwell is an arrant old fox; and if he gets the fifty guineas, he will put every farthing into his own pocket.”

“Oh, no! He is honest as the day itself. He will take his own twenty-five, and then leave the rest to settle whether he should share in their twenty-five. But we must be quick, or we shall lose the sight. Quite a number of people are come from inland. How wonderfully quickly these things spread! They came the first day, and then made up their minds that nothing could be done, and so they stopped at home. But now, here they are again, as if by magic! If the ship gets off, it will be known halfway to London before nightfall. But I see Captain Stubbard going up the hill to your charming battery. That shows implicit faith in Tugwell, to return the salute of the fair captive! It is indeed a proud day for Springhaven!”

“But it isn’t done yet. And perhaps it won’t be done. I would rather trust officers of the navy than people who catch crabs and oysters. I would go up to the battery, to laugh at my husband, but for the tricks the children play me. My authority is gone, at the very first puff of smoke. How children do delight in that vile gunpowder!”

“So they ought, in the present state of our country, with five hundred thousand of Frenchmen coming. My dear Mrs. Stubbard, how thankful we should be to have children who love gunpowder!”

“But not when they blow up their mother, ma’am.”

“Oh, here comes Eliza!” cried Mrs. Twemlow. “I am so glad, because she knows everything. I thought we had missed her. My dear child, where are Faith and Dolly Darling gone? There are so many strangers about today that the better class should keep together.”

“Here are three of us at any rate,” replied the young lady, who considered her mother old-fashioned: “enough to secure one another’s sanctity from the lower orders. Faith has gone on to the headland, with that heroic mannikin, Johnny. Dolly was to follow, with that Shanks maid to protect her, as soon as her hat was trimmed, or some such era. But I’ll answer for it that she loses herself in the crowd, or some fib of that sort.”

“Eliza!” said her mother, and very severely, because Mrs. Stubbard was present, “I am quite astonished at your talking so. You might do the greatest injury to a very lively and harmless, but not over-prudent girl, if any one heard you who would repeat it. We all know that the Admiral is so wrapped up in Dolly that he lets her do many things which a mother would forbid. But that is no concern of ours; and once for all, if such things must be said, I beg that they may not be said by you.”

In the present age, Mrs. Twemlow would have got sharp answer. But her daughter only looked aggrieved, and glanced at Mrs. Stubbard, as if to say, “Well, time will show whether I deserve it.” And then they hastened on, among the worse class, to the headland.

Not only all the fishing-smacks, and Captain Stubbard’s galley, but every boat half as sound as a hat, might now be seen near the grounded vessel, preparing to labour or look on. And though the White Pig was allowed to be three-quarters of a mile from the nearest point, the mighty voice of Captain Zeb rode over the flickering breadth of sea, and through the soft babble of the waves ashore. The wind was light from southwest, and the warp being nearly in the same direction now, the Blonde began to set her courses, to catch a lift of air, when the tide should come busily working under her. And this would be the best tide since she took the ground, last Sunday week, when the springs were going off. As soon as the hawsers were made fast, and the shouts of Zebedee redoubled with great strength (both of sound and of language), and the long ropes lifted with a flash of splashes, and a creak of heavy wood, and the cry was, “With a will! with a will, my gay lads!” every body having a sound eye in it was gazing intently, and every heart was fluttering, except the loveliest eyes and quickest heart in all Springhaven.

Miss Dolly had made up her mind to go, and would have had warm words ready for any one rash enough to try to prevent her. But a very short note which was put into her hand about 10 A.M. distracted her.

“If you wish to do me a real service, according to your kind words of Saturday, be in the upper shrubbery at half past eleven; but tell no one except the bearer. You will see all that happens better there than on the beach, and I will bring a telescope.”

Dolly knew at once who had written this, and admired it all the more because it was followed by no signature. For years she had longed for a bit of romance; and the common-sense of all the world irked her. She knew as well as possible that what she ought to do was to take this letter to her sister Faith, and be guided by her advice about it. Faith was her elder by three years or more, and as steadfast as a rock, yet as tender as young moss. There was no fear that Faith would ride the high horse with her, or lay down the law severely; she was much more likely to be too indulgent, though certain not to play with wrong.

All this the younger sister knew, and therefore resolved to eschew that knowledge. She liked her own way, and she meant to have it, in a harmless sort of way; her own high spirit should be her guide, and she was old enough now to be her own judge. Mr. Carne had saved her sister’s life, when she stood up in that senseless way; and if Faith had no gratitude, Dolly must feel, and endeavour to express it for her.

Reasoning thus, and much better than this, she was very particular about her hat, and French pelerine of fluted lawn, and frock of pale violet trimmed on either side with gathered muslin. Her little heart fluttered at being drawn in, when it should have been plumped up to her neck, and very nearly displayed to the public; but her father was stern upon some points, and never would hear of the classic discoveries. She had not even Grecian sandals, nor a “surprise fan” to flutter from her wrist, nor hair oiled into flat Lesbian coils, but freedom of rich young tresses, and of graceful figure, and taper limbs. There was no one who could say her nay, of the lovers of maiden nature.

However, maidens must be discreet, even when most adventurous; and so she took another maid to help her, of respected but not romantic name — Jenny Shanks, who had brought her that letter. Jenny was much prettier than her name, and the ground she trod on was worshipped by many, even when her shoes were down at heel. Especially in this track remained the finer part of Charley Bowles’s heart (while the coarser was up against the Frenchmen), as well as a good deal of Mr. Prater’s nephew’s, and of several other sole-fishers. This enabled Jenny to enter kindly into tender questions. And she fetched her Sunday bonnet down the trap-ladder where she kept it — because the other maids were so nasty — as soon as her letter was delivered.

“Your place, Jenny, is to go behind,” Miss Dolly said, with no small dignity, as this zealous attendant kept step for step with her, and swung her red arm against the lady’s fair one. “I am come upon important business, Jenny, such as you cannot understand, but may stay at a proper distance.”

“Lor, miss, I am sure I begs your pardon. I thought it was a kind of coorting-match, and you might be glad of my experience.”

“Such things I never do, and have no idea what you mean. I shall be much obliged to you, Jenny, if you will hold your tongue.”

“Oh yes, miss; no fear of my telling anybody. Wild horses would never pull a syllable out of me. The young men is so aggravating that I keep my proper distance from them. But the mind must be made up, at one time or other.”

Dolly looked down at her with vast contempt, which she would not lower herself by expressing, even with favour of time and place. Then turning a corner of the grassy walk, between ground-ash and young larches, they came upon an opening planted round with ilex, arbutus, juniper, and laurel, and backed by one of the rocks which form the outworks of the valley. From a niche in this rock, like the port-hole of a ship, a rill of sparkling water poured, and beginning to make a noise already, cut corner’s — of its own production — short, in its hurry to be a brook, and then to help the sea. And across its exit from the rock (like a measure of its insignificance) a very comfortable seat was fixed, so that any gentleman — or even a lady with divided skirts — might freely sit with one foot on either bank of this menacing but not yet very formidable stream. So that on the whole this nook of shelter under the coronet of rock was a favourite place for a sage cock-pheasant, or even a woodcock in wintry weather.

Upon that bench (where the Admiral loved to sit, in the afternoon of peace and leisure, observing with a spy-glass the manoeuvres of his tranquil fishing fleet) Caryl Carne was sitting now, with his long and strong legs well spread out, his shoulders comfortably settled back, and his head cast a little on one side, as if he were trying to compute his property. Then, as Dolly came into the opening, he arose, made a bow beyond the compass of any true Briton, and swinging his hat, came to meet her. Dolly made a curtsey in the style impressed upon her by her last governess but one — a French lady of exceedingly high ancestry and manners — and Carne recognised it as a fine thing out of date.

“Jenny, get away!” said Dolly — words not meant for him to hear, but he had grave command of countenance.

“This lays me under one more obligation:” Carne spoke in a low voice, and with a smile of diffidence which reminded her of Scudamore, though the two smiles were as different as night and day. “I have taken a great liberty in asking you to come, and that multiplies my gratitude for your good-will. For my own sake alone I would not have dared to sue this great favour from you, though I put it so, in terror of alarming you. But it is for my own sake also, since anything evil to you would be terrible to me.”

“No one can wish to hurt me,” she answered, looking up at him bravely, and yet frightened by his gaze, “because I have never harmed any one. And I assure you, sir, that I have many to defend me, even when my father is gone from home.”

“It is beyond doubt. Who would not rush to do so? But it is from those who are least suspected that the danger comes the worst. The most modest of all gentlemen, who blushes like a damsel, or the gallant officer devoted to his wife and children, or the simple veteran with his stars, and scars, and downright speech — these are the people that do the wrong, because no one believes it is in them.”

“Then which of the three is to carry me off from home, and friends, and family — Lieutenant Scudamore, Captain Stubbard, or my own godfather, Lord Nelson?”

This young man nourished a large contempt for the intellect of women, and was therefore surprised at the quickness and spirit of the girl whom he wished to terrify. A sterner tone must be used with her.

“I never deal in jokes,” he said, with a smile of sad sympathy for those who do; “my life is one perpetual peril, and that restrains facetiousness. But I can make allowance for those who like it.”

Miss Dolly, the pet child of the house, and all the people round it — except the gardener, Mr. Swipes, who found her too inquisitive — quick as she was, could not realise at once the possibility of being looked down upon.

“I am sorry that you have to be so grave,” she said, “because it prevents all enjoyment. But why should you be in such continual danger? You promised to explain it, on Saturday, only you had no time then. We are all in danger from the French, of course, if they ever should succeed in landing. But you mean something more than that; and it seems so hard, after all your losses, that you should not be safe from harm.”

With all her many faults — many more than she dreamed of — fair Dolly had a warm and gentle heart, which filled her eyes with tender loveliness, whenever it obtained command of them. Carne, who was watching them steadfastly for his own purpose, forgot that purpose, and dropped his dark eyes, and lost the way to tell a lie.

“If I may ask you,” he said, almost stammering, and longing without knowledge for the blessing of her touch, “to — to allow me just to lead you to this seat, I may perhaps be able — I will not take the liberty of sitting at your side — but I may perhaps be able to explain as much of my affairs as you can wish to hear of them, and a great deal more, I fear, a great deal more, Miss Darling.”

Dolly blushed at the rich tone in which he pronounced her name, almost as if it were an adjective; but she allowed him to take her hand, and lead her to the bench beneath the rock. Then, regardless of his breeches, although of fine padusoy, and his coat, though of purple velvet, he sate down on the bank of the rill at her feet, and waited for her to say something. The young lady loved mainly to take the lead, but would liefer have followed suit just now.

“You have promised to tell me,” she said, very softly, and with an unusual timidity, which added to her face and manner almost the only charm they lacked, “some things which I do not understand, and which I have no right to ask you of, except for your own offer. Why should you, without injuring any one, but only having suffered loss of all your family property, and of all your rights and comforts, and living in that lonely place which used to be full of company — why should you be in danger now, when you have nothing more to be robbed of? I beg your pardon — I mean when all your enemies must have done their worst.”

“You are too young yet to understand the world,” he answered, with a well-drawn sigh; “and I hope most truly that you may never do so. In your gentle presence I cannot speak with bitterness, even if I could feel it. I will not speak harshly of any one, however I may have been treated. But you will understand that my life alone remains betwixt the plunderers and their prey, and that my errand here prevents them from legally swallowing up the spoil.”

Miss Dolly’s idea of the law, in common with that of most young ladies, suggested a horrible monster ravening to devour the fallen. And the fall of the Carnes had long been a subject of romantic interest to her.

“Oh, I see!” she exclaimed, with a look of deep wisdom. “I can quite understand a thing like that, from what I have heard about witnesses. I hope you will be very careful. My sister owes so much to you, and so do I.”

“You must never speak of that again, unless you wish to grieve me. I know that I have said too much about myself; but you alone care to know anything about me; and that beguiles one out — out of one’s wits. If I speak bad English, you will forgive me. I have passed so many years on the Continent, and am picking up the language of my childhood very slowly. You will pardon me, when I am misled by — by my own signification.”

“Well done!” cried the innocent Dolly. “Now that is the very first piece of bad English you have used, to the best of my belief, and I am rather quick in that. But you have not yet explained to me my own danger, though you asked me to come here for that purpose, I believe.”

“But you shall not be so; you shall not be in danger. My life shall be given for your defence. What imports my peril compared with yours? I am not of cold blood. I will sacrifice all. Have faith in me purely, and all shall be done.”

“All what?” Dolly asked, with a turn of common-sense, which is the most provoking of all things sometimes; and she looked at him steadily, to follow up her question.

“You cannot be persuaded that you are in any danger. It is possible that I have been too anxious. Do you speak the French language easily? Do you comprehend it, when spoken quickly?”

“Not a word of it. I have had to learn, of course, and can pronounce very well, my last mistress said; but I cannot make it out at all in the way the French people pronounce it, when one comes to talk with them.”

“It is very wrong of them, and the loss is theirs. They expect us to copy them even in their language, because we do it in everything else. Pardon me — one moment. May I look at the great enterprise which is to glorify Springhaven? It is more than kind of you to be here instead of there. But this, as I ventured to say, is a far better place to observe the operation. Your words reminded me of Captain Desportes, who has been, I think, your father’s guest. A very gallant sailor, and famed for the most unexpected exploits. Without doubt, he would have captured all three ships, if he had not contrived to run his own aground.”

“How could he capture his own ship? I thought that you never dealt in jokes. But if you dislike them, you seem to be fond of a little mystery. I like the French captain very much, and he took the trouble to speak slowly for me. My father says that he bears his misfortune nobly, and like a perfect gentleman. Mr. Scudamore admires him, and they are great friends. And yet, sir, you seem inclined to hint that I am in danger from Captain Desportes!”

“Ha! she is afloat! They have succeeded. I thought that they had so arranged it. The brave ship spreads her pinions. How clever the people of Springhaven are! If you will condescend to look through this glass, you will see much embracing of the Saxon and the Gaul, or rather, I should say, of the Saxon by the Gaul. Old Tugwell is not fond to be embraced.”

“Oh, let me see that! I must see that!” cried Dolly, with all reserve and caution flown; “to see Capp’en Zeb in the arms of a Frenchman — yes, I declare, two have got him, if not three, and he puts his great back against the mast to disentangle it. Oh, what will he do next? He has knocked down two, in reply to excessive cordiality. What wonderful creatures Frenchmen are! How kind it is of you to show me this! But excuse me, Mr. Carne; there will be twenty people coming to the house before I can get back almost. And the ship will salute the battery, and the battery will return it. Look! there goes a great puff of smoke already. They can see me up here, when they get to that corner.”

“But this spot is not private? I trust that I have not intruded. Your father allows a sort of foot-path through this upper end of his grounds?”

“Yes, to all the villagers, and you are almost one of them; there is no right of way at all; and they very seldom come this way, because it leads to nowhere. Faith is fond of sitting here, to watch the sea, and think of things. And so am I— sometimes, I mean.”

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