Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXVII

Fair in Theory

One Saturday evening, when the dusk was just beginning to smoothe the break of billow and to blunt the edge of rock, young Dan Tugwell swung his axe upon his shoulder, with the flag basket hanging from it in which his food had been, and in a rather crusty state of mind set forth upon his long walk home to Springhaven. As Harry Shanks had said, and almost everybody knew, an ancient foot-path, little used, but never yet obstructed, cut off a large bend of the shore, and saved half a mile of plodding over rock and shingle. This path was very lonesome, and infested with dark places, as well as waylaid with a very piteous ghost, who never would keep to the spot where he was murdered, but might appear at any shady stretch or woody corner. Dan Tugwell knew three courageous men who had seen this ghost, and would take good care to avoid any further interview, and his own faith in ghosts was as stanch as in gold; yet such was his mood this evening that he determined to go that way and chance it, not for the saving of distance, but simply because he had been told in the yard that day that the foot-path was stopped by the landowner. “We’ll see about that,” said Dan; and now he was going to see about it.

For the first field or two there was no impediment, except the usual stile or gate; but when he had crossed a little woodland hollow, where the fence of the castle grounds ran down to the brow of the cliff, he found entrance barred. Three stout oak rails had been nailed across from tree to tree, and on a board above them was roughly painted: “No thoroughfare. Tresspassers will be prosecuted.” For a moment the young man hesitated, his dread of the law being virtuously deep, and his mind well assured that his father would not back him up against settled authorities. But the shame of turning back, and the quick sense of wrong, which had long been demanding some outlet, conquered his calmer judgment, and he cast the basket from his back. Then swinging his favourite axe, he rushed at the oaken bars, and with a few strokes sent them rolling down the steep bank-side.

“That for your stoppage of a right of way!” he cried; “and now perhaps you’ll want to know who done it.”

To gratify this natural curiosity he drew a piece of chalk from his pocket, and wrote on the notice-board in large round hand, “Daniel Tugwell, son of Zebedee Tugwell, of Springhaven.” But suddenly his smile of satisfaction fled, and his face turned as white as the chalk in his hand. At the next turn of the path, a few yards before him, in the gray gloom cast by an ivy-mantled tree, stood a tall dark figure, with the right arm raised. The face was indistinct, but (as Dan’s conscience told him) hostile and unforgiving; there was nothing to reflect a ray of light, and there seemed to be a rustle of some departure, like the spirit fleeing.

The ghost! What could it be but the ghost? Ghosts ought to be white; but terror scorns all prejudice. Probably this murdered one was buried in his breeches. Dan’s heart beat quicker than his axe had struck; and his feet were off to beat the ground still quicker. But no Springhaven lad ever left his baggage. Dan leaped aside first to catch up his basket, and while he stooped for it, he heard a clear strong voice.

“Who are you, that have dared to come and cut my fence down?”

No ghost could speak like that, even if he could put a fence up. The inborn courage of the youth revived, and the shame of his fright made him hardier. He stepped forward again, catching breath as he spoke, and eager to meet any man in the flesh.

“I am Daniel Tugwell, of Springhaven. And no living man shall deny me of my rights. I have a right to pass here, and I mean to do it.”

Caryl Carne, looking stately in his suit of black velvet, drew sword and stood behind the shattered barrier. “Are you ready to run against this?” he asked. “Poor peasant, go back; what are your rights worth?”

“I could smash that skewer at a blow,” said Daniel, flourishing his axe as if to do it; “but my rights, as you say, are not worth the hazard. What has a poor man to do with rights? Would you stop a man of your own rank, Squire Carne?”

“Ah, that would be a different thing indeed! Justice wears a sword, because she is of gentle birth. Work-people with axes must not prate of rights, or a prison will be their next one. Your right is to be disdained, young man, because you were not born a gentleman; and your duty is to receive scorn with your hat off. You like it, probably, because your father did. But come in, Daniel; I will not deny you of the only right an English peasant has — the right of the foot to plod in his father’s footsteps. The right of the hand, and the tongue, and the stomach — even the right of the eye is denied him; but by some freak of law he has some little right of foot, doubtless to enable him to go and serve his master.”

Dan was amazed, and his better sense aroused. Why should this gentleman step out of the rank of his birth, to talk in this way? Now and then Dan himself had indulged in such ideas, but always with a doubt that they were wicked, and not long enough to make them seem good in his eyes. He knew that some fellows at “the Club” talked thus; but they were a lot of idle strangers, who came there chiefly to corrupt the natives, and work the fish trade out of their hands. These wholesome reflections made him doubt about accepting Squire Carne’s invitation; and it would have been good for him if that doubt had prevailed, though he trudged a thousand miles for it.

“What! Break down a fence, and then be afraid to enter! That is the style of your race, friend Daniel. That is why you never get your rights, even when you dare to talk of them. I thought you were made of different stuff. Go home and boast that you shattered my fence, and then feared to come through it, when I asked you.” Carne smiled at his antagonist, and waved his hand.

Dan leaped in a moment through the hanging splinters, and stood before the other, with a frown upon his face. “Then mind one thing, sir,” he said, with a look of defiance, while touching his hat from force of habit, “I pass here, not with your permission, but of right.”

“Very well. Let us not split words,” said Carne, who had now quite recovered his native language. “I am glad to find a man that dares to claim his rights, in the present state of England. I am going towards Springhaven. Give me the pleasure of your company, and the benefit of your opinion upon politics. I have heard the highest praise of your abilities, my friend. Speak to me just as you would to one of your brother fishermen. By the accident of birth I am placed differently from you; and in this country that makes all the difference between a man and a dog, in our value. Though you may be, and probably are, the better man — more truthful, more courageous, more generous, more true-hearted, and certain to be the more humble of the two. I have been brought up where all men are equal, and the things I see here make a new world to me. Very likely these are right, and all the rest of the world quite wrong. Englishmen always are certain of that; and as I belong to the privileged classes, my great desire is to believe it. Only I want to know how the lower orders — the dregs, the scum, the dirt under our feet, the slaves that do all the work and get starved for it — how these trampled wretches regard the question. If they are happy, submissive, contented, delighted to lick the boots of their betters, my conscience will be clear to accept their homage, and their money for any stick of mine they look at. But you have amazed me by a most outrageous act. Because the lower orders have owned a path here for some centuries, you think it wrong that they should lose their right. Explain to me, Daniel, these extraordinary sentiments.”

“If you please, sir,” said Dan, who was following in the track, though invited to walk by the side, of Caryl Carne, “I can hardly tell you how the lower orders feel, because father and me don’t belong to them. Our family have always owned their own boat, and worked for their own hand, this two hundred years, and, for all we know, ever since the Romans was here. We call them the lower orders, as come round to pick up jobs, and have no settlement in our village.”

“A sound and very excellent distinction, Dan. But as against those who make the laws, and take good care to enforce them, even you (though of the upper rank here) must be counted of the lower order. For instance, can you look at a pheasant, or a hare, without being put into prison? Can you dine in the same room with Admiral Darling, or ask how his gout is, without being stared at?”

“No, sir. He would think it a great impertinence, even if I dared to do such a thing. But my father might do it, as a tenant and old neighbour. Though he never gets the gout, when he rides about so much.”

“What a matter-of-fact youth it is! But to come to things every man has a right to. If you saved the life of one of the Admiral’s daughters, and she fell in love with you, as young people will, would you dare even lift your eyes to her? Would you not be kicked out of the house and the parish, if you dared to indulge the right of every honest heart? Would you dare to look upon her as a human being, of the same order of creation as yourself, who might one day be your wife, if you were true and honest, and helped to break down the absurd distinctions built up by vile tyranny between you? In a word, are you a man — as every man is on the Continent — or only an English slave, of the lower classes?”

The hot flush of wrath, and the soft glow of shame, met and deepened each other on the fair cheeks of this “slave”; while his mind would not come to him to make a fit reply. That his passion for Dolly, his hopeless passion, should thus be discovered by a man of her own rank, but not scorned or ridiculed, only pitied, because of his want of manly spirit; that he should be called a “slave” because of honest modesty, and even encouraged in his wild hopes by a gentleman, who had seen all the world, and looked down from a lofty distance on it; that in his true estimate of things there should be nothing but prejudice, low and selfish prejudice, between — Well, he could not think it out; that would take him many hours; let this large-minded man begin again. It was so dark now, that if he turned round on him, unless he was a cat, he would be no wiser.

“You do well to take these things with some doubt,” continued Carne, too sagacious to set up argument, which inures even young men in their own opinions; “if I were in your place, I should do the same. Centuries of oppression have stamped out the plain light of truth in those who are not allowed it. To me, as an individual, it is better so. Chance has ordained that I should belong to the order of those who profit by it. It is against my interest to speak as I have done. Am I likely to desire that my fences should be broken, my property invaded, the distinction so pleasing to me set aside, simply because I consider it a false one? No, no, friend Daniel; it is not for me to move. The present state of things is entirely in my favour. And I never give expression to my sense of right and wrong, unless it is surprised from me by circumstances. Your bold and entirely just proceedings have forced me to explain why I feel no resentment, but rather admiration, at a thing which any other land-owner in England would not rest in his bed until he had avenged. He would drag you before a bench of magistrates and fine you. Your father, if I know him, would refuse to pay the fine; and to prison you would go, with the taint of it to lie upon your good name forever. The penalty would be wrong, outrageous, ruinous; no rich man would submit to it, but a poor man must. Is this the truth, Daniel, or is it what it ought to be — a scandalous misdescription of the laws of England?”

“No, sir; it is true enough, and too true, I am afraid. I never thought of consequences, when I used my axe. I only thought of what was right, and fair, and honest, as between a man who has a right, and one who takes it from him.”

“That is the natural way to look at things, but never permitted in this country. You are fortunate in having to deal with one who has been brought up in a juster land, where all mankind are equal. But one thing I insist upon; and remember it is the condition of my forbearance. Not a single word to any one about your dashing exploit. No gentleman in the county would ever speak to me again, if I were known to have put up with it.”

“I am sure, sir,” said Daniel, in a truly contrite tone, “I never should have done such an impudent thing against you, if I had only known what a nice gentleman you are. I took you for nothing but a haughty land-owner, without a word to fling at a poor fisherman. And now you go ever so far beyond what the Club doth, in speaking of the right that every poor man hasn’t. I could listen to you by the hour, sir, and learn the difference between us and abroad.”

“Tugwell, I could tell you things that would make a real man of you. But why should I? You are better as you are; and so are we who get all the good out of you. And besides, I have no time for politics at present. All my time is occupied with stern business — collecting the ruins of my property.”

“But, sir — but you come down here sometimes from the castle in the evening; and if I might cross, without claiming right of way, sometimes I might have the luck to meet you.”

“Certainly you may pass, as often as you please, and so may anybody who sets value on his rights. And if I should meet you again, I shall be glad of it. You can open my eyes, doubtless, quite as much as I can yours. Good-night, my friend, and better fortunes to you!”

“It was worth my while to nail up those rails,” Carne said to himself, as he went home to his ruins. “I have hooked that clod, as firm as ever he hooked a cod. But, thousand thunders! what does he mean, by going away without touching his hat to me?”

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