Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLI

Listeners Hear No Good

“Not that there is anything to make one so very uneasy,” said Mr. Twemlow, “only that one has a right to know the meaning of what we are expected to put up with. Nothing is clear, except that we have not one man in the Government who knows his own mind, or at any rate dares to pronounce it. Addington is an old woman, and the rest — oh, when shall we have Pitt back again? People talk of it, and long for it; but the Country is so slow. We put up with everything, instead of demanding that the right thing shall be done at once. Here is Boney, a fellow raised up by Satan as the scourge of this island for its manifold sins; and now he is to be the Emperor forsooth — not of France, but of Europe, continental Europe. We have only one man fit to cope with him at all, and the voice of the nation has been shouting for him; but who pays any attention to it? This state of things is childish — simply childish; or perhaps I ought to say babyish. Why, even the children on the sea-shore know, when they make their little sand walls against the tide, how soon they must be swept away. But the difference is this, that they don’t live inside them, and they haven’t got all that belongs to them inside them. Nobody must suppose for a moment that a clergyman’s family would fail to know where to look for help and strength and support against all visitations; but, in common with the laity, we ask for Billy Pitt.”

“And in another fortnight you will have him,” replied Captain Stubbard, who was dining there that day. “Allow me to tell you a little thing that happened to my very own self only yesterday. You know that I am one of the last people in the world to be accused of any — what’s the proper word for it? Mrs. Stubbard, you know what I mean — Jemima, why the deuce don’t you tell them?”

“Captain Stubbard always has more meaning than he can well put into words,” said his wife; “his mind is too strong for any dictionary. Hallucination is the word he means.”

“Exactly!” cried the Captain. “That expresses the whole of what I wanted to say, but went aside of it. I am one of the last men in the world to become the victim of any — there, I’ve lost it again! But never mind. You understand now; or if you don’t, Mrs. Stubbard will repeat it. What I mean is that I see all things square, and straight, and with their own corners to them. Well, I know London pretty well; not, of course, as I know Portsmouth. Still, nobody need come along with me to go from Charing Cross to St. Paul’s Church-yard; and pretty tight I keep all my hatches battened down, and a sharp pair of eyes in the crow’s-nest — for to have them in the foretop won’t do there. It was strictly on duty that I went up — the duty of getting a fresh stock of powder, for guns are not much good without it; and I had written three times, without answer or powder. But it seems that my letters were going the rounds, and would turn up somewhere, when our guns were stormed, without a bit of stuff to make answer.”

“Ah, that’s the way they do everything now!” interrupted Mr. Twemlow. “I thought you had been very quiet lately; but I did not know what a good reason you had. We might all have been shot, and you could not have fired a salute, to inform the neighbourhood!”

“Well, never mind,” replied the Captain, calmly; “I am not complaining, for I never do so. Young men might; but not old hands, whose duty it is to keep their situation in life. Well, you must understand that the air of London always makes me hungry. There are so many thousands of people there that you can’t name a time when there is nobody eating, and this makes a man from the country long to help them. Anyhow, I smelled roast mutton at a place where a little side street comes up into the Strand; and although it was scarcely half past twelve, it reminded me of Mrs. Stubbard. So I called a halt, and stood to think upon a grating, and the scent became flavoured with baked potatoes. This is always more than I can resist, after all the heavy trials of a chequered life. So I pushed the door open, and saw a lot of little cabins, right and left of a fore and aft gangway, all rigged up alike for victualling. Jemima, I told you all about it. You describe it to the Rector and Mrs. Twemlow.”

“Don’t let us trouble Mrs. Stubbard,” said the host; “I know the sort of thing exactly, though I don’t go to that sort of place myself.”

“No, of course you don’t. And I was a little scared at first, for there was sawdust enough to soak up every drop of my blood, if they had pistolled me. Mrs. Twemlow, I beg you not to be alarmed. My wife has such nerves that I often forget that all ladies are not like her. Now don’t contradict me, Mrs. Stubbard. Well, sir, I went to the end of this cockpit — if you like to call it so — and got into the starboard berth, and shouted for a ration of what I had smelled outside. And although it was far from being equal to its smell — as the character is of everything — you might have thought it uncommon good, if you had never tasted Mrs. Stubbard’s cooking, after she had been to the butcher herself. Very well. I don’t care for kickshaws, even if I could afford them, which has never yet been my destiny. So I called for another ration of hot sheep — beg your pardon, ladies, what I mean is mutton — and half a dozen more of baked potatoes; and they reminded me of being at home so much that I called for a pint of best pine-apple rum and a brace of lemons, to know where I was — to remind me that I wasn’t where I couldn’t get them.”

“Oh, Adam!” cried Mrs. Stubbard, “what will you say next? Not on weekdays, of course, but nearly every Sunday — and the samples of his powder in his pocket, Mr. Twemlow!”

“Jemima, you are spoiling my story altogether. Well, you must understand that this room was low, scarcely higher than the cabin of a fore-and-after, with no skylights to it, or wind-sail, or port-hole that would open. And so, with the summer coming on, as it is now — though a precious long time about it — and the smell of the meat, and the thoughts of the grog, and the feeling of being at home again, what did I do but fall as fast asleep as the captain of the watch in a heavy gale of wind! My back was to the light, so far as there was any, and to make sure of the top of my head, I fetched down my hat — the soft-edged one, the same as you see me wear on fine Sundays.

“Well, I may have gone on in that way for an hour, not snoring, as Mrs. Stubbard calls it, but breathing to myself a little in my sleep, when I seemed to hear somebody calling me, not properly, but as people do in a dream —‘Stoobar — Stoobar — Stoobar,’ was the sound in my ears, like my conscience hauling me over the coals in bad English. This made me wake up, for I always have it out with that part of me when it mutinies; but I did not move more than to feel for my glass. And then I perceived that it was nothing more or less than a pair of Frenchmen talking about me in the berth next to mine, within the length of a marlin-spike from my blessed surviving ear.

“Some wiseacre says that listeners never hear good of themselves, and upon my word he was right enough this time, so far as I made out. The French language is beyond me, so far as speaking goes, for I never can lay hold of the word I want; but I can make out most of what those queer people say, from being a prisoner among them once, and twice in command of a prize crew over them. And the sound of my own name pricked me up to listen sharply with my one good ear. You must bear in mind, Rector, that I could not see them, and durst not get up to peep over the quarter-rail, for fear of scaring them. But I was wearing a short hanger, like a middy’s dirk — the one I always carry in the battery.”

“I made Adam promise, before he went to London,” Mrs. Stubbard explained to Mrs. Twemlow, “that he would never walk the streets without steel or firearms. Portsmouth is a very wicked place indeed, but a garden of Eden compared with London.”

“Well, sir,” continued Captain Stubbard,” the first thing I heard those Frenchmen say was: ‘Stoobar is a stupid beast, like the ox that takes the prize up here, except that he has no claim to good looks, but the contrary — wholly the contrary.’ Mrs. Stubbard, I beg you to preserve your temper; you have heard others say it, and you should now despise such falsehoods. ‘But the ox has his horns, and Stoobar has none. For all his great guns there is not one little cup of powder.’ The villains laughed at this, as a very fine joke, and you may well suppose that I almost boiled over. ‘You have then the command of this beast Stoobar?’ the other fellow asked him, as if I were a jackass. ‘How then have you so very well obtained it?’ ‘In a manner the most simple. Our chief has him by the head and heels: by the head, by being over him; and by the heels, because nothing can come in the rear without his knowledge. Behold! you have all.’ ‘It is very good,’ the other villain answered; ‘but when is it to be, my most admirable Charron? — how much longer? — how many months?’ ‘Behold my fingers,’ said the one who had abused me; ‘I put these into those, and then you know. It would have been already, except for the business that you have been employed upon in this black hole. Hippolyte, you have done well, though crookedly; but all is straight for the native land. You have made this Government appear more treacherous in the eyes of France and Europe than our own is, and you have given a good jump to his instep for the saddle. But all this throws us back. I am tired of tricks; I want fighting; though I find them quite a jolly people.’ ‘I don’t,’ said the other, who was clearly a low scoundrel, for his voice was enough to settle that; ‘I hate them; they are of thick head and thick hand, and would come in sabots to catch their enemy asleep. And now there is no chance to entangle any more. Their Government will be of the old brutal kind, hard knocks, and no stratagems. In less than a fortnight Pitt will be master again. I know it from the very best authority. You know what access I have.’ ‘Then that is past,’ the other fellow answered, who seemed to speak more like a gentleman, although he was the one that ran down me; ‘that is the Devil. They will have their wits again, and that very fat Stoobar will be supplied with powder. Hippolyte, it is a very grand joke. Within three miles of his head (which is empty, like his guns) we have nearly two hundred barrels of powder, which we fear to bring over in those flat-bottoms for fear of a volley among them. Ha! ha! Stoobar is one fine fat ox!’

“This was all I heard, for they began to move, having had enough sugar and water, I suppose; and they sauntered away to pay their bill at the hatch put up at the doorway. It was hopeless to attempt to follow them; but although I am not so quick in stays as I was, I slewed myself round to have a squint at them. One was a slight little active chap, with dapper legs, and jerks like a Frenchman all over. I could pardon him for calling me a great fat ox, for want of a bit of flesh upon his own bones. But he knows more about me than I do of him, for I never clapped eyes on him before, to my knowledge. The other was better built, and of some substance, but a nasty, slouchy-looking sort of cur, with high fur collars and a long grey cloak. And that was the one called Hippolyte, who knows all about our Government. And just the sort of fellow who would do so in these days, when no honest man knows what they are up to.”

“That is true,” said the Rector —“too true by half. But honest men soon will have their turn, if that vile spy was well informed. The astonishing thing is that England ever puts up with such shameful anarchy. What has been done to defend us? Nothing, except your battery, without a pinch of powder! With Pitt at the helm, would that have happened? How could we have slept in our beds, if we had known it? Fourteen guns, and not a pinch of powder!”

“But you used to sleep well enough before a gun was put there.” Mrs. Stubbard’s right to spare nobody was well established by this time. “Better have the guns, though they could not be fired, than no guns at all, if they would frighten the enemy.”

“That is true, ma’am,” replied Mr. Twemlow; “but until the guns came, we had no sense of our danger. Having taught us that, they were bound to act up to their teaching. It is not for ourselves that I have any fear. We have long since learned to rest with perfect faith in the Hand that overruleth all. And more than that — if there should be a disturbance, my nephew and my godson Joshua has a house of fourteen rooms in a Wiltshire valley, quite out of the track of invaders. He would have to fight, for he is Captain in the Yeomanry; and we would keep house for him till all was over. So that it is for my parish I fear, for my people, my schools, and my church, ma’am.”

“Needn’t be afraid, sir; no call to run away,” cried the Captain of the battery, having now well manned his own portholes with the Rector’s sound wine; “we shall have our powder in tomorrow, and the French can’t come to-night; there is too much moon. They never dare show their noses nor’ard of their sands, with the man in the moon — the John Bull in the moon — looking at them. And more than that, why, that cursed Boney —”

“Adam, in Mr. Twemlow’s house! You must please to excuse him, all good people. He has sate such a long time, without saying what he likes.”

“Jemima, I have used the right word. The parson will back me up in every letter of it, having said the same thing of him, last Sunday week. But I beg Mrs. Twemlow’s pardon, if I said it loud enough to disturb her. Well, then, this blessed Boney, if you prefer it, is a deal too full of his own dirty tricks for mounting the throne of the King they murdered, to get into a flat-bottomed boat at Boulogne, and a long sight too jealous a villain he is, to let any one command instead of him. Why, the man who set foot upon our shore, and beat us — if such a thing can be supposed — would be ten times bigger than Boney in a month, and would sit upon his crown, if he gets one.”

“Well, I don’t believe they will ever come at all,” the solid Mrs. Stubbard pronounced, with decision. “I believe it is all a sham, and what they want is to keep us from attacking them in France. However, it is a good thing on the whole, and enables poor Officers, who have fought well for their country, to keep out of the Workhouse with their families.”

“Hearken, hearken to Mrs. Stubbard!” the veteran cried, as he patted his waistcoat — a better one than he could have worn, and a larger one than he could have wanted, except for the promised invasion. “I will back my wife against any lady in the land for common-sense, and for putting it plainly. I am not ashamed to say thank God for the existence of that blessed Boney. All I hope is that he will only try to land at Springhaven — I mean, of course, when I’ve got my powder.”

“Keep it dry, Captain,” said the Rector, in good spirits. “Your confidence makes us feel comfortable; and of course you would draw all their fire from the village, and the houses standing near it, as this does. However, I pray earnestly every night that they may attempt it in some other parish. But what was it you heard that Frenchman say about two or three hundred barrels of powder almost within three miles of us? Suppose it was to blow up, where should we be?”

“Oh, I don’t believe a word of that. It must be brag and nonsense. To begin with, there is no place where they could store it. I know all the neighbourhood, and every house in it. And there are no caves on this coast in the cliff, or holes of that kind such as smugglers use. However, I shall think it my duty to get a search-order from Admiral Darling, and inspect large farm-buildings, such as Farmer Graves has got, and another man the other side of Pebbleridge. Those are the only places that could accommodate large stores of ammunition. Why, we can take only forty barrels in the fire-proof magazine we have built. We all know what liars those Frenchmen are. I have no more faith in the 200 barrels of powder than I have in the 2000 ships prepared on the opposite coast to demolish us.”

“Well, I hope you are right,” Mr. Twemlow answered. “It does seem a very unlikely tale. But the ladies are gone. Let us have a quiet pipe. A man who works as hard as you and I do is entitled to a little repose now and then.”

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