Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLIV

Down Among the Dead Men

That grand review at Shotbury was declared by all who took part in it, or at all understood the subject, to have been a most remarkable and quite unparalleled success. Not only did it show what noble stuff there is in Englishmen, and how naturally they take to arms, but also it inspired with martial feeling and happy faith the wives and mothers of all the gallant warriors there. It would make the blood-stained despot cower upon his throne of murder, and teach him the madness of invading any land so fortified.

However, Napoleon failed to see the matter in that wholesome light, and smiled a grim and unkind smile as he read Caryl Carne’s report of those “left-handed and uncouth manoeuvres.” “One of your Majesty’s feeblest regiments would send the whole of those louts to the devil; and I am bound to impress once more, with all deference to your infallible judgment, the vast importance of carrying out your grand designs at the first moment. All is prepared on my part. One day’s notice is all I need.”

So wrote Carne; and perhaps the truth, as usual, lay about half-way between the two opinions. Even Carne was not admitted to a perfect knowledge of his master’s schemes. But to keep things moving and men alert, the Emperor came to the coast at once, busy as he was in Paris, and occupied for several weeks, with short intervals of absence, the house prepared for him near Boulogne, whence he watched and quickened the ripening of his mighty plans against us.

Now Carne himself, while working with new vigour and fresh enterprise, had a narrow escape from invasion. Captain Stubbard, stirred up now and again by Mr. Twemlow, had thoroughly searched all covered places, likely to harbour gunpowder, within at least six miles of his fort, that is to say, all likely places, save and except the right one. By doing this he had done for himself — as regards sweet hospitality — among all the leading farmers, maltsters, tanners, and millers for miles around. Even those whose premises were not entered, as if they had been Frenchmen, had a brother-inlaw, or at least a cousin, whose wooden bars had been knocked up. And the most atrocious thing of all, if there could be anything worse than worst, was that the Captain dined one day, at a market-ordinary, with Farmer, or you might say Squire Hanger — for the best part of his land followed to him from his father — and had rum and water with him, and spoke his health, and tucked Mrs. Hanger up into the shay, and rode alongside to guarantee them; and then the next day, on the very same horse, up he comes at Hanger-dene, and overhauls every tub on the premises, with a parchment as big as a malt-shovel! Such a man was not fit to lay a knife and fork by.

Some sense of the harm he had done to himself, without a bit of good to any one, dwelt heavily in the Captain’s mind, as he rode up slowly upon the most amiable of the battery-horses — for all sailors can ride, from long practice on the waves — and struck a stern stroke, with a stick like a linstock, upon the old shutter that served for a door and the front entrance to Carne Castle. There used to be a fine old piece of workmanship in solid and bold oak here, a door divided in the middle — else no man might swing it back — and even so pierced with a wicket, for small people to get through. That mighty door was not worn out, for it was not three hundred years old yet, and therefore scarcely in middle life; but the mortgagees who had sacked the place of all that was worth a sack to hold it, these had a very fine offer for that door, from a rich man come out of a dust-bin. And this was one of the many little things that made Caryl Carne unpleasant.

“I do not require production of your warrant. The whole place is open to your inspection,” said Carne, who had long been prepared for this visit; “open to all the winds and rains, and the lower part sometimes filled with water. The upper rooms, or rather the few that remain of them, are scarcely safe for a person of any weight to walk in, but you are most welcome to try them, if you like; and this gentleman, I think, might not fall through. Here are my quarters; not quite so snug as my little room at the widow’s; but I can offer you some bread and cheese, and a glass of country cider. The vaults or cellars have held good wine in their time, but only empty casks and broken bottles now.”

Captain Stubbard had known for many years the silent woes of poverty, and now he observed with some good-will the young man’s sad but haughty smile. Then he ordered his young subaltern, his battery-mate, as he called him, to ascend the broad crumbling staircase, and glance into the dismantled chambers, while himself with the third of the party — a trusty old gunner — should inspect the cellarage.

“We will not keep you long, sir,” he said to Carne; “and if you are kind enough to show us the way, which is easily lost in a place of this kind, we shall be all the quicker. Wilkins, when you have done up there, wait here for us. Shall we want a light, sir?”

“In the winter, you could hardly do without one, but at this time of year, I think you may. At any rate I will bring a lantern, and we can light it if wanted. But the truth is that I know next to nothing of those sepulchral places. They would not be very tempting, even without a ghost, which they are said to have.”

“A ghost!” cried the Captain; “I don’t like that. Not that I have much faith in them; although one never can be sure. But at this time of day — What is it like?”

“I have never seen her, and am quite content without it. It is said to be an ancestress of mine, a Lady Cordelia Carne, who was murdered, when her husband was away, and buried down there, after being thrown into the moat. The old people say that whenever her ghost is walking, the water of the moat bursts in and covers the floor of the vaults, that she may flit along it, as she used to do. But of course one must not listen to that sort of fable.”

“Perhaps you will go in front, sir, because you know the way. It is my duty to inspect these places; and I am devilish sorry for it; but my duty must be done.”

“You shall see every hole and corner, including the stone that was put up to commemorate her murder and keep her quiet. But I should explain that these vaults extend for the entire length of the building, except just in the middle, where we now stand. For a few yards the centre of the building seems to have never been excavated, as to which you will convince yourself. You may call the cellars east and west, or right and left, or north and south, or uphill and downhill, or anything else, for really they are so much alike, and partitioned into cells so much alike, that I scarcely know which is which myself, coming suddenly from the daylight. But you understand those things much better. A sailor always knows his bearings. This leads to the entrance of one set.”

Carne led the Captain and old Gunner Bob — as he was called in the battery — along a dark and narrow passage, whose mouth was browed with ivy. Half-way through, they found an archway on the right-hand side, opening at right angles into long and badly lighted vaults. In this arch there was no door; but a black step-ladder (made of oak, no doubt), very steep and rather rickety, was planted to tempt any venturesome foot.

“Are you sure this ladder is safe?”— the Captain was by no means in love with the look of it. “My weight has increased remarkably in the fine air of Springhaven. If the bottom is rotten, the top won’t help us.”

“Let me go first. It is my duty, as the owner; and I have no family dependent on me. My neck is of no value, compared to yours, Captain.”

“How I have mistaken this young man!” thought the brave yet prudent Stubbard. “I called him a Frenchified fool, whereas he is a downright Englishman! I shall ask him to dinner next week, if Jemima can get a new leg for the dripping-pan.”

Following warily, with Gunner Bob behind him, and not disdaining the strong arm of the owner, the Captain of Foxhill was landed in the vault, and being there, made a strict examination. He even poked his short sword into the bung-holes of three or four empty barrels, that Bob might be satisfied also in his conscience. “Matter of form,” he said, “matter of form, sir, when we know who people are; but you might have to do it yourself, sir, if you were in the service of your King. You ought to be that, Mr. Carne; and it is not too late, in such days as these are, to begin. Take my advice — such a fine young man!”

“Alas, my dear sir, I cannot afford it. What officer can live upon his pay for a generation?”

“Gospel truth!” cried the Captain, warmly; “Gospel truth! and more than that — he must be the last of his generation, or else send his young ‘uns to the workhouse. What things I could tell you, Mr. Carne! But here we are at the end of the vaults; all empty, as I can certify; and I hope, my dear sir, that you may live to see them filled with good wine, as they used to be.”

“Thank you, but there is no hope of that. Shall we take the vaults of the other end next, or examine the chapel, and the outer buildings — outer ruins, I should say?”

“Oh, a little open air first, for goodness sake!” said the Captain, going heavily up the old steps; “I am pretty nearly choked with all this mildew. A little fresh air, before we undertake the other lot.”

As soon as the echo of their steps was dead, Charron, old Jerry, and another man jumped down from a loop-hole into the vault they had left, piled up a hoarding at the entrance, and with a crowbar swung back a heavy oak hatch in the footings of the outer wall. A volume of water poured in from the moat, or rather from the stream which had once supplied it. Seeing this, they disappeared with a soft and pleasant chuckle.

The owner kept Stubbard such a time among the ruins, telling him some fine old legends, and otherwise leading him in and out, that when a bit of food and a glass of old Cognac was proposed by way of interlude, the Captain heartily embraced the offer. Then Carne conducted his three visitors, for Wilkins had now rejoined them, into a low room poorly furnished, and regaled them beyond his promise. “Rare stuff!” exclaimed Stubbard, with a wink at Carne. “Ah, I see that free-trade still exists. No concern of mine, except to enjoy its benefits. Here’s to your very good health, sir, and I am proud to have made your acquaintance.”

“Have another drop; it can hurt no one,” Carne declared, and the Captain acquiesced.

“Well, I suppose we must finish our job,” the official visitor at length pronounced; “a matter of form, sir, and no offence; but we are bound to carry out our duty. There is nothing left, except the other lot of vaults; but the light begins to fail us, for underground work. I hope they are not so dark as those we have been through.”

“Just about the same. You would hardly know one set from the other, as I told you, except for the stone that records the murder. Perhaps we had better light the lantern now?”

“By all means. I don’t half like that story of the lady that walks on the water. It does seem so gashly and unchristian altogether. Not that I have any fear of ghosts — not likely, for I have never even seen one.”

“I have,” said Gunner Bob, in a deep voice, which made them all glance through the ivy. “I have, and a fearful one it were.”

“Don’t be a fool, Bob,” the Captain whispered; “we don’t want to hear about that now. Allow me to carry the lantern, Mr. Carne; it throws such shadows from the way you hold it. Why, surely, this is where we were before!”

“You might easily fancy so,” Carne answered, smiling, “especially with a mind at all excited —”

“My mind is not excited, sir; not at all excited; but as calm as it ever was in all its life.”

“Then two things will show you that these are the other vaults. The arch is on your left hand, instead of on your right”— he had brought them in now from the other end of the passage —“and this entrance, as you see, has a door in it, which the other had not. Perhaps the door is to keep the ghost in”— his laugh sounded hollow, and like a mocking challenge along the dark roof —“for this is the part she is supposed to walk in. But so much for the door! The money-lenders have not left us a door that will stand a good kick. You may find our old doors in Wardour Street.”

As he spoke, he set foot against the makeshift door, and away it went, as he had predicted. Crashing on the steps as it fell, it turned over, and a great splash arose at the bottom.

“Why, bless my heart, there is a flood of water there!” cried Stubbard, peeping timidly down the steps, on which (if the light had been clear, and that of his mind in the same condition) he might have seen the marks of his own boots. “A flood of water, perhaps six feet deep! I could scarcely have believed, but for that and the door, that these were not the very vaults that we have examined. But what business has the water there?”

“No business at all, any more than we have,” Carne answered, with some rudeness, for it did not suit him to encourage too warmly the friendship of Captain Stubbard; “but I told you that the place becomes covered with water whenever the ghost intends to walk. Probably there is not more than a foot of water”— there was in fact about three inches —“and as you are bound to carry out your duty —”

“My dear sir, I am satisfied, perfectly satisfied. Who could keep gunpowder under water, or even in a flooded cellar? I shall have the greatest pleasure in reporting that I searched Carne Castle — not of course suspiciously, but narrowly, as we are bound to do, in execution of our warrant —”

“If you would not mind looking in this direction,” whispered Carne, who could never be contented, “I think I could show you, just beyond the murder-stone — yes, and it seems to be coming towards us, as white as a winding-sheet; do come and look.”

“No, sir, no; it is not my duty”— the Captain turned away, with his hair upon the rise. “I was sent here to look for saltpetre, not spectres. No officer in His Majesty’s service can be expected — Bob, and Wilkins, are you there?”

“Yes, sir, yes — we have had quite enough of this; and unless you give the orders —”

“Here she comes, I do declare!” whispered Carne, with extraordinary calmness.

“Bob, and Wilkins, give me one arm each. Make for daylight in close order. You may be glad to see your grandmother, young man; but I decline to have anything to say to her. Bob, and Wilkins, bear a hand; I feel a little shaky in my lower timbers. Run for your lives, but don’t leave me behind. Run, lads, like the very devil!” For a groan of sepulchral depth, and big enough to lift a granite tombstone, issued from the vault, and wailed along the sombre archway. All the Artillerymen fled, as if the muzzle of their biggest gun was slewed upon them, and very soon the sound of horses’ heels, urged at a perilous pace down the hill, rang back as the echo of that grand groan.

“I think I did that pretty well, my Captain,” cried Charron, ascending from the vault with dripping boots; “I deserve a glass of Cognac, if they have left me any. Happy is Stoobar that he was contented, without breaking his neck at the inspector’s step.”

“He has satisfied his conscience,” Carne answered, grimly; “yet it cannot be blameless, to make him run so fast. I am glad we have been saved from killing them. It would have been hard to know what to do next. But he will never trouble us here again.”

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