Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVI

Fair Criticism

Few things can be worse for a very young woman than to want to be led by somebody, and yet find nobody fit to do it. Or at any rate, through superior quickness and the knowledge of it, to regard old friends and relatives of experience as very slow coaches, and prigs or prudes, who cannot enter into quick young feelings, but deal in old saws which grate upon them.

Not to moralise about it — for if young ladies hate anything, it is such moralising — Miss Dolly Darling was now in that uncomfortable frame of mind when advice is most needed, yet most certain to be spurned. She looked upon her loving and sensible sister as one who was fated to be an old maid, and was meant perhaps by nature for that condition, which appeared to herself the most abject in the world. And even without that conclusion about Faith she would have been loth to seek counsel from her, having always resented most unduly what she called her “superior air of wisdom.” Dolly knew that she was quicker of wit than her sister — as shallow waters run more rapidly — and she fancied that she possessed a world of lively feelings into which the slower intellect could not enter. For instance, their elder brother Frank had just published a volume of poems, very noble in their way, and glowing with ardour for freedom, democracy, and the like, as well as exhibiting fine perception of sound, and great boldness in matters beyond sounding, yet largely ungifted with knowledge of nature, whether human or superior.

“Better stick to his law-books,” the Admiral had said, after singing out some of the rhyme of it to the tune of “Billy Benbow”; “never sit on the wool-sack by spewing oakum this way.”

Faith had tried, as a matter of duty, to peruse this book to its cover; but she found it beyond even her good-will, and mild sympathy with everything, to do so. There was not the touch of nature in it which makes humble people feel, and tickles even the very highest with desire to enter into it. So Faith declared that it must be very clever, and no doubt very beautiful, but she herself was so stupid that she could not make out very clearly what it was all about.

“Well, I understand every word of it,” Miss Dolly cried, with a literary look. “I don’t see how you can help doing that, when you know all about Frank, who wrote it. Whenever it is not quite clear, it is because he wants us to think that he knows too much, or else because he is not quite certain what he wants to mean himself. And as for his talk about freedom, and all that, I don’t see why you should object to it. It is quite the fashion with all clever people now, and it stops them from doing any mischief. And nobody pays much attention to them, after the cruel things done in France when I was seven or eight years old. If I see Frank, I shall tell him that I like it.”

“And I shall tell him that I don’t,” said Faith. “It cannot do anybody any good. And what they call ‘freedom’ seems to mean making free with other people’s property.”

These poems were issued in one volume, and under one title — The Harmodiad — although there must have been some half-hundred of them, and not more than nine odes to freedom in the lot. Some were almost tolerable, and others lofty rubbish, and the critics (not knowing the author) spoke their bright opinions freely. The poet, though shy as a mouse in his preface, expected a mountain of inquiry as to the identity of this new bard, and modestly signed himself “Asteroid,” which made his own father stare and swear. Growing sore prematurely from much keelhauling — for the reviewers of the period were patriotic, and the English public anti-Gallic — Frank quitted his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, and came home to be comforted for Christmas. This was the wisest thing that he could do, though he felt that it was not Harmodian. In spite of all crotchets, he was not a bad fellow, and not likely to make a good lawyer.

As the fates would have it (being naturally hostile to poets who defy them), by the same coach to Stonnington came Master Johnny, in high feather for his Christmas holidays. Now these two brothers were as different of nature as their sisters were, or more so; and unlike the gentler pair, each of these cherished lofty disdain for the other. Frank looked down upon the school-boy as an unlicked cub without two ideas; the bodily defect he endeavoured to cure by frequent outward applications, but the mental shortcoming was beneath his efforts. Johnny meanwhile, who was as hard as nails, no sooner recovered from a thumping than he renewed and redoubled his loud contempt for a great lout over six feet high, who had never drawn a sword or pulled a trigger. And now for the winter this book would be a perpetual snowball for him to pelt his big brother with, and yet (like a critic) be scarcely fair object for a hiding. In season out of season, upstairs down-stairs, even in the breakfast and the dinner chambers, this young imp poked clumsy splinters — worse than thorns, because so dull — into the tender poetic side; and people, who laugh at the less wit the better, laughed very kindly, to please the boy, without asking whether they vexed the man. And the worst of it was that the author too must laugh.

All this might be looked down at by a soul well hoisted upon the guy-ropes of contempt; and now and then a very solid drubbing given handsomely (upon other grounds) to the chief tormentor solaced the mind of unacknowledged merit. But as the most vindictive measure to the man who has written an abusive letter is to vouchsafe him no reply, so to the poet who rebukes the age the bitterest answer it can give is none. Frank Darling could retaliate upon his brother Johnny, and did so whenever he could lay hold of him alone; but the stedfast silence of his sister Faith (to whom one of his loftiest odes was addressed), and of his lively father, irked him far more than a thousand low parodies. Dolly alone was some comfort to him, some little vindication of true insight; and he was surprised to find how quickly her intelligence (which until now he had despised) had strengthened, deepened, and enlarged itself. Still he wanted some one older, bigger, more capable of shutting up the mouth, and nodding (instead of showing such a lot of red tongue and white teeth), before he could be half as snug as a true poet should be, upon the hobs of his own fire. And happily he found his Anti–Zoilus ere long.

One day he was walking in a melancholy mood along the beach towards Pebbleridge, doubting deeply in his honest mind whether he ever should do any good, in versification, or anything else. He said to himself that he had been too sanguine, eager, self-confident, ardent, impetuous, and, if the nasty word must be faced, even too self-conceited. Only yesterday he had tried, by delicate setting of little word-traps, to lead Mr. Twemlow towards the subject, and obtain that kind-hearted man’s comforting opinion. But no; the gentle Rector would not be brought to book, or at any rate not to that book; and the author had sense enough to know without a wink that his volume had won volumes of dislike.

Parnassus could never have lived till now without two heads — one to carry on with, while the other is being thumped to pieces. While the critics demolish one peak, the poet withdraws to the other, and assures himself that the general public, the larger voice of the nation, will salute him there. But alas, Frank Darling had just discovered that even that eminence was not his, except as a desert out of human sight. For he had in his pocket a letter from his publishers, received that dreary morning, announcing a great many copies gone gratis, six sold to the trade at a frightful discount, and six to the enterprising public. All these facts combined to make him feel uncommonly sad and sore today.

A man of experience could have told him that this disappointment was for his good; but he failed to see it in that light, and did not bless the blessing. Slowly and heavily he went on, without much heed of anything, swinging his clouded cane now and then, as some slashing reviews occurred to him, yet becoming more peaceful and impartial of mind under the long monotonous cadence and quiet repetitions of the soothing sea. For now he was beyond the Haven head — the bulwark that makes the bay a pond in all common westerly weather — and waves that were worthy of the name flowed towards him, with a gentle breeze stepping over them.

The brisk air was like a fresh beverage to him, and the fall of the waves sweet music. He took off his hat, and stopped, and listened, and his eyes grew brighter. Although the waves had nothing very distinct to say in dying, yet no two (if you hearkened well), or at any rate no two in succession, died with exactly the same expression, or vanished with precisely the same farewell. Continual shifts went on among them, and momentary changes; each in proper sequence marching, and allowed its proper time, yet at any angle traversed, even in its crowning curl, not only by the wind its father, but by the penitent return and white contrition of its shattered elder brother. And if this were not enough to make a samely man take interest in perpetually flowing changes, the sun and clouds, at every look and breath, varied variety.

Frank Darling thought how small his griefs were, and how vain his vanity. Of all the bubbly clots of froth, or frayed and shattered dabs of drift, flying beside him or falling at his feet, every one was as good as his ideas, and as valuable as his labours. And of all the unreckoned waves advancing, lifting their fugitive crests, and roaring, there certainly was not one that fell with weight so futile as his own. Who cared even to hear his sound? What ear was soothed by his long rhythm, or what mind solaced by the magnitude of his rolling?

Suddenly he found that some mind was so. For when he had been standing a long while thus, chewing the salt cud of marine reflections, he seemed to hear something more intelligible than the sea. With more surprise than interest he walked towards the sound, and stood behind the corner of a jutting rock to listen. In another second his interest overpowered his surprise, for he knew every word of the lines brought to his ears, for the very simple reason that they were his own. Round the corner of that rock, so absorbed in admiration that he could hear no footstep, a very fine young man of the highest order was reading aloud in a powerful voice, and with extremely ardent gesticulation, a fine passage from that greatly undervalued poem, the Harmodiad, of and concerning the beauties of Freedom —

“No crown upon her comely head she bore,
No wreath her affluent tresses to restrain;
A smile the only ornament she wore,
Her only gem a tear for others’ pain.
Herself did not her own mishaps deplore,
Because she lives immortal as the dew,
Which falling from the stars soon mounts again;
And in this wise all space she travels through,
Beneficent as heaven, and to the earth more true.

“Her blessings all may win who seek the prize,
If only they be faithful, meek, and strong,
And crave not that which others’ right denies,
But march against the citadel of wrong.
A glorious army this, that finds allies
Wherever God hath built the heart of man
With attributes that to Himself belong;
By Him ordained to crown what He began,
And shatter despotism, which is the foul fiend’s ban.”

Frank thought that he had never heard nobler reading, sonorous, clear, well timed, well poised, and of harmonious cadence. The curved rock gave a melodious ring, and the husky waves a fine contrast to it, while the reader was so engrossed with grandeur — the grandeur of Frank’s own mind! — that his hat could evidently not contain his head, but was flung at the mercy of his feet. What a fine, expressive, and commanding face!

If Frank Darling had been a Frenchman — which he sometimes longed to be, for the sake of that fair Liberty — the scene, instead of being awkward, would have been elegant, rapturous, ennobling. But being of the clumsy English race, he was quite at a loss what to do with himself. On paper he could be effusive, ardent, eloquent, sentimental; but not a bit of that to meet the world in his own waistcoat. He gave a swing to his stick, and walked across the opening as if he were looking at sea-gulls. And on he would have walked without further notice, except a big gulp in his throat, if it had not been for a trifling accident.

Somehow or other the recitative gentleman’s hat turned over to the wind, and that active body (which never neglects any sportive opportunity) got into the crown, with the speed of an upstart, and made off with it along the stones. A costly hat it was, and comely with rich braid and satin loops, becoming also to a well-shaped head, unlike the chimney-pot of the present day, which any man must thank God for losing. However, the owner was so wrapped up in poetry that his breeches might have gone without his being any wiser.

“Sir,” said Frank Darling, after chasing the hat (which could not trundle as our pots do, combining every possible absurdity), “excuse me for interrupting you, but this appears to be your hat, and it was on its way to a pool of salt-water.”

“Hat! — my hat?” replied the other gentleman. “Oh, to be sure! I had quite forgotten. Sir, I am very much obliged to you. My hat might have gone to the devil, I believe, I was so delightfully occupied. Such a thing never happened to me before, for I am very hard indeed to please; but I was reading, sir; I was reading. Accept my thanks, sir; and I suppose I must leave off.”

“I thought that I heard a voice,” said Frank, growing bold with fear that he should know no more, for the other was closing his book with great care, and committing it to a pouch buckled over his shoulder; “and I fear that I broke in upon a pleasant moment. Perhaps I should have pleased you better if I had left this hat to drown.”

“I seem ungrateful,” the stranger answered, with a sweet but melancholy smile, as he donned his hat and then lifted it gracefully to salute its rescuer; “but it is only because I have been carried far away from all thoughts of self, by the power of a much larger mind. Such a thing may have occurred to you, sir, though it happens very seldom in one life. If so, you will know how to forgive me.”

“I scarcely dare ask — or rather I would say”— stammered the anxious poet —“that I cannot expect you to tell me the name of the fortunate writer who has moved you so.”

“Would to Heaven that I could!” exclaimed the other. “But this great poet has withheld his name — all great poets are always modest — but it cannot long remain unknown. Such grandeur of conception and force of language, combined with such gifts of melody, must produce universal demand to know the name of this benefactor. I cannot express myself as I would desire, because I have been brought up in France, where literature is so different, and people judge a work more liberally, without recourse to politics. This is a new work, only out last week; and a friend of mine, a very fine judge of literature, was so enchanted with it that he bought a score of copies at once, and as my good stars prevailed, he sent me one. You are welcome to see it, sir. It is unknown in these parts; but will soon be known all over Europe, unless these cruel wars retard it.”

With a face of deep gravity, Caryl Carne put into Frank Darling’s hand a copy of his own book, quite young, but already scored with many loving marks of admiration and keen sympathy. Frank took it, and reddened with warm delight.

“You may not understand it at first,” said the other; “though I beg your pardon for saying that. What I mean is, that I can well suppose that an Englishman, though a good judge in general, would probably have his judgment darkened by insular prejudices, and the petty feeling which calls itself patriotism, and condemns whatever is nobler and larger than itself. My friend tells me that the critics have begun to vent their little spite already. The author would treat them with calm disdain!”

“Horribly nasty fellows!” cried Frank. “They ought to be kicked; but they are below contempt. But if I could only catch them here —”

“I am delighted to find,” replied Carne, looking at him with kind surprise, “that you agree with me about that, sir. Read a few lines, and your indignation against that low lot will grow hotter.”

“It cannot grow hotter,” cried the author; “I know every word that the villains have said. Why, in that first line that I heard you reading, the wretches actually asked me whether I expected my beautiful goddess to wear her crown upon her comely tail!”

“I am quite at a loss to understand you, sir. Why, you speak as if this great work were your own!”

“So it is, every word of it,” cried Frank, hurried out of all reserve by excitement. “At least, I don’t mean that it is a great work — though others, besides your good self, have said — Are you sure that your friend bought twenty copies? My publishers will have to clear up that. Why, they say, under date of yesterday, that they have only sold six copies altogether. And it was out on Guy Fawkes’ Day, two months ago!”

Caryl Carne’s face was full of wonder. And the greatest wonder of all was its gravity. He drew back a little, in this vast surprise, and shaded his forehead with one hand, that he might think.

“I can hardly help laughing at myself,” he said, “for being so stupid and so slow of mind. But a coincidence like this is enough to excuse anything. If I could be sure that you are not jesting with me, seeing how my whole mind is taken up with this book —”

“Sir, I can feel for your surprise,” answered Frank, handing back the book, for which the other had made a sign, “because my own is even greater; for I never have been read aloud before — by anybody else I mean, of course; and the sound is very strange, and highly gratifying — at least, when done as you do it. But to prove my claim to the authorship of the little work which you so kindly esteem, I will show you the letter I spoke of.”

The single-minded poet produced from near his heart a very large letter with much sealing-wax endorsed, and the fervent admirer of his genius read:

“DEAR SIR— In answer to your favour to hand, we beg to state that your poetical work the Harmodiad, published by our firm, begins to move. Following the instructions in your last, we have already disposed of more than fifty copies. Forty-two of these have been distributed to those who will forward the interests of the book, by commending it to the Public; six have been sold to the trade at a discount of 75 per cent.; and six have been taken by private purchasers, at the full price of ten shillings. We have reason to anticipate a more rapid sale hereafter. But the political views expressed in the poems — as we frankly stated to you at first — are not likely to be popular just now, when the Country is in peril, and the Book trade incommoded, by the immediate prospect of a French invasion. We are, dear sir, your obedient servants, TICKLEBOIS, LATHERUP, BLINKERS, & Co. — To Mr. FRANK DARLING, Springhaven Hall.”

“You cannot call that much encouragement,” said Frank; “and it is a most trusty and honourable house. I cannot do what a friend of mine has done, who went to inferior publishers — denounce them as rogues, and call myself a martyr. If the book had been good, it would have sold; especially as all the poets now are writing vague national songs, full of slaughter and brag, like that ‘Billy Blue’ thing all our fishermen are humming.”

“You have nothing to do but to bide your time. In the long-run, fine work is sure to make its way. Meanwhile I must apologise for praising you to your face, in utter ignorance, of course. But it must have made you feel uncomfortable.”

“Not at all; far otherwise,” said the truthful Frank. “It has been the very greatest comfort to me. And strange to say, it came just when I wanted it most sadly. I shall never forget your most kind approval.”

“In that case I may take the liberty of introducing myself, I trust. You have told me who you are, in the most delightful way. I have no such claim upon your attention, or upon that of the world at large. I am only the last of an ill-fated race, famous for nothing except ruining themselves. I am Caryl Carne, of yonder ruin, which you, must have known from childhood.”

Frank Darling lifted his hat in reply to the other’s more graceful salutation, and then shook hands with him heartily. “I ought to have known who you are,” he said; “for I have heard of you often at Springhaven. But you have not been there since I came down, and we thought that you had left the neighbourhood. Our little village is like the ear of the tyrant, except that it carries more false than true sound. I hope you are come to remain among us, and I hope that we shall see you at my father’s house. Years ago I have heard that there used to be no especial good-will between your family and mine — petty disputes about boundaries, no doubt. How narrow and ridiculous such things are! We live in a better age than that, at any rate, although we are small enough still in many ways.”

“You are not; and you will enlarge many others,” Carne answered, as if the matter were beyond debate. “As for boundaries now, I have none, because the estates are gone, and I am all the richer. That is the surest way to liberate the mind.”

“Will you oblige me,” said Frank, to change the subject, for his mind did not seek to be liberated so, and yet wished its new admirer to remain in admiration, “by looking along the shore towards Springhaven as far as you can see, and telling me whether any one is coming? My sisters were to follow me, if the weather kept fine, as soon as they had paid a little visit at the rectory. And my sight is not good for long distances.”

“I think I can see two ladies coming, or at any rate two figures moving, about a mile or more away, where the sands are shining in a gleam of sunlight. Yes, they are ladies. I know by their walk. Good-bye. I have a way up the cliff from here. You must not be surprised if you do not see me again. I may have to be off for France. I have business there, of which I should like to talk to you. You are so far above mean prejudice. If I go, I shall carry this precious volume with me. Farewell, my friend, if I may call you so.”

“Do wait a minute,” cried the much admiring Frank; “or walk a few yards with me towards Springhaven. It would give me such pleasure to introduce you to my sisters. And I am sure they will be so glad to know you, when I tell them what I think. I very seldom get such a chance as this.”

“There is no resisting that!” replied the graceful Carne; “I have not the honour of knowing a lady in England, except my aunt Mrs. Twemlow, and my cousin Eliza — both very good, but to the last degree insular.”

“It is very hard to help being that, when people have never been out of an island. But I fear that I am taking you out of your way.”

In a few minutes these two young men drew near to the two young women, whose manners were hard put to hide surprise. When their brother introduced Mr. Carne to them, Faith bowed rather stiffly, for she had formed without reason a dark and obstinate dislike to him. But the impetuous Dolly ran up and offered him both her hands, and said, “Why, Mr. Carne saved both our lives only a few days ago.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/blackmore/rd/spring/chapter36.html

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