Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLVII

Enter and Exit

The summer having been fine upon the whole, and a very fair quantity of fish brought in, Miss Twemlow had picked up a sweetheart, as the unromantic mothers of the place expressed it. And the circumstances were of such a nature that very large interest was aroused at once, and not only so, but was fed well and grew fast.

The most complete of chronicles is no better than a sponge of inferior texture and with many mouths shut. Parts that are full of suctive power get no chance of sucking; other parts have a flood of juice bubbling at them, but are waterproof. This is the only excuse — except one — for the shameful neglect of the family of Blocks, in any little treatise pretending to give the dullest of glimpses at Springhaven.

The other excuse — if self-accusation does not poke a finger through it — is that the Blockses were mainly of the dry land, and never went to sea when they could help it. If they had lived beyond the two trees and the stile that marked the parish boundary upon the hill towards London, they might have been spotless, and grand, and even honest, yet must have been the depth of the hills below contempt. But they dwelt in the village for more generations than would go upon any woman’s fingers, and they did a little business with the fish caught by the others, which enabled it to look after three days’ journey as if it swam into town upon its own fins. The inventions for wronging mankind pay a great deal better than those for righting them.

Now the news came from John Prater’s first, that a gentleman of great renown was coming down from London city to live on fish fresh out of the sea. His doctors had ordered him to leave off butcher’s meat, and baker’s bread, and tea-grocer’s tea, and almost every kind of inland victuals, because of the state of his — something big, which even Springhaven could not pronounce. He must keep himself up, for at least three months, upon nothing but breezes of the sea, and malt-liquor, and farm-house bread and milk and new-laid eggs, and anything he fancied that came out of the sea, shelly, or scaly, or jellified, or weedy. News from a public-house grows fast — as seeds come up quicker for soaking — and a strong competition for this gentleman arose; but he knew what he was doing, and brought down his cook and house-maid, and disliking the noise at the Darling Arms, took no less than five rooms at the house of Matthew Blocks, on the rise of the hill, where he could see the fish come in.

He was called at once Sir Parsley Sugarloaf, for his name was Percival Shargeloes; and his cook rebuked his housemaid sternly, for meddling with matters beyond her sphere, when she told Mrs. Blocks that he was not Sir Percival, but only Percival Shargeloes, Esquire, very high up in the Corporation, but too young to be Lord Mayor of London for some years. He appeared to be well on the right side of forty; and every young lady on the wrong side of thirty possessing a pony, or even a donkey, with legs enough to come down the hill, immediately began to take a rose-coloured view of the many beauties of Springhaven.

If Mr. Shargeloes had any ambition for title, it lay rather in a military direction. He had joined a regiment of City Volunteers, and must have been a Captain, if he could have stood the drill. But this, though not arduous, had outgone his ambition, nature having gifted him with a remarkable power of extracting nourishment from food, which is now called assimilation. He was not a great feeder — people so blessed seldom are — but nothing short of painful starvation would keep him lean. He had consulted all the foremost physicians about this, and one said, “take acids,” another said, “walk twenty miles every day with two Witney blankets on,” a third said, “thank God for it, and drink before you eat,” and a fourth (a man of wide experience) bade him marry the worst-tempered woman he knew. Then they all gave him pills to upset his stomach; but such was its power that it assimilated them. Despairing of these, he consulted a Quack, and received the directions which brought him to Springhaven. And a lucky day for him it was, as he confessed for the rest of his life, whenever any ladies asked him.

Because Miss Twemlow was intended for him by the nicest adjustment of nature. How can two round things fit together, except superficially? And in that case one must be upper and the other under; which is not the proper thing in matrimony, though generally the prevailing one. But take a full-moon and a half-moon, or even a square and a tidy triangle — with manners enough to have one right angle — and when you have put them into one another’s arms, there they stick, all the firmer for friction. Jack Spratt and his wife are a case in point; and how much more pointed the case becomes when the question is not about what is on the plate, but the gentleman is in his own body fat, and the lady in her elegant person lean!

Mr. Sugarloaf — which he could not bear to be called — being an ardent admirer of the Church, and aware that her ministers know what is good, returned with great speed the Rector’s call, having earnest hopes of some heart-felt words upon the difference between a right and left handed sole. One of these is ever so much better than the other — according to our evolutionists, because when he was a cod, a few milliards of years back, he chose the right side to begin lying down on, that his descendants in the thirty-millionth generation might get flat. His wife, from sheer perversity, lay down upon the other side, and this explains how some of their descendants pulled their eyes through their heads to one side, and some (though comparatively few) to the other. And the worst of it is that the fittest for the frying-pan did not survive this well-intended involution, except at a very long figure in the market.

As it fell out upon that day, Miss Twemlow was sitting in the drawing-room alone, waiting till her mother’s hair was quite done up, her own abundant locks being not done up at all, for she had lately taken to set her face against all foreign fashions. “I have not been introduced to the King,” she said, “nor even to the Queen, like those forward Darlings, and I shall do my hair to please myself.” When her father objected, she quenched him with St. Paul; and even her mother, though shocked, began to think that Eliza knew what she was about. The release of her fine hair, which fell in natural waves about her stately neck, made her look nearly ten years younger than she was, for by this time she must have been eight-and-twenty. The ladies of the Carne race, as their pictures showed (until they were sold to be the grandmothers of dry-salters), had always been endowed with shapely necks, fit columns for their small round heads. And this young lady’s hair, with no constraint but that of a narrow band across the forehead, clustered and gleamed like a bower of acanthus round that Parian column.

Mr. Shargeloes, having obeyed his orders always to dine early, was thrilled with a vision of poetry and romance, as he crossed the first square of the carpet. The lady sat just where the light fell best from a filtered sunbeam to illumine her, without entering into the shady parts; and the poetry of her attitude was inspired by some very fine poetry upon her lap. “I don’t care what the doctors say, I shall marry that girl,” said Mr. Shargeloes to himself.

He was a man who knew his own mind, and a man with that gift makes others know it. Miss Twemlow clenched in the coat upon his back the nail she had driven through his heart, by calling him, at every other breath, “Colonel Shargeloes.” He said he was not that; but she felt that he was, as indeed every patriotic man must be. Her contempt for every man who forsook his country in this bitter, bitter strait was at once so ruthless and so bewitching that he was quite surprised into confessing that he had given 10,000 pounds, all in solid gold, for the comfort of the Royal Volunteers, as soon as the autumnal damps came on. He could not tell such an elegant creature that what he had paid for was flannel drawers, though she had so much strength of mind that he was enabled to tell her before very long.

A great deal of nonsense is talked about ladies who are getting the better of their first youth, as if they then hung themselves out as old slates for any man to write his name on. The truth is that they have better judgment then, less trouble in their hearts about a gentleman’s appearance, and more enquiry in their minds as to his temper, tastes, and principles, not to mention his prospects of supporting them. And even as concerns appearance, Mr. Shargeloes was very good. Nature had given him a fine stout frame, and a very pleasant countenance; and his life in the busy world had added that quickness of decision and immediate sense of right which a clever woman knows to be the very things she wants. Moreover, his dress, which goes a very long way into the heart of a lady, was most correct and particular. For his coat was of the latest Bond Street fashion, the “Jean de Brie,” improved and beautified by suggestions from the Prince of Wales himself. Bright claret was the colour, and the buttons were of gold, bright enough to show the road before him as he walked. The shoulders were padded, as if a jam pot stood there, and the waist buttoned tight, too tight for any happiness, to show the bright laticlave of brocaded waistcoat. Then followed breeches of rich purple padusoy, having white satin bows at the knee, among which the little silver bells of the Hessian boots jingled.

Miss Twemlow was superior to all small feeling, but had great breadth of sympathy with the sterling truth in fashion. The volume of love, like a pattern-book, fell open, and this well-dressed gentleman was engraved upon her heart. The most captious young chit, such as Dolly herself, could scarcely have called him either corpulent or old. Every day he could be seen to be growing younger, with the aid of fresh fish as a totally novel ingredient in his system; his muscle increased with the growth of brain-power, and the shoemaker was punching a fresh hole in his belt, an inch further back, every week he stopped there. After buckling up three holes, he proposed. Miss Twemlow referred him to her dear papa; and the Rector took a week to enquire and meditate. “Take a month, if you like,” said Mr. Shargeloes.

This reply increased the speed. Mr. Twemlow had the deepest respect for the Corporation, and to live to be the father of a Lord Mayor of London became a new ambition to lead on his waning years. “Come and dine with us on Saturday, and we will tell you all about it,” he said, with a pleasant smile, and warm shake of the hand; and Shargeloes knew that the neck and the curls would bend over the broad gold chain some day.

How grievous it is to throw a big stone into a pool which has plenty of depth and length and width for the rings to travel pleasantly, yet not to make one ring, because of wind upon the water! In the days that were not more than two years old, Springhaven could have taken all this news, with a swiftly expanding and smoothly fluent circle, with a lift of self-importance at the centre of the movement, and a heave of gentle interest in the far reflective corners. Even now, with a tumult of things to consider, and a tempest of judgment to do it in, people contrived to be positive about a quantity of things still pending. Sir Parsley Sugarloaf had bought Miss Twemlow for 50,000 pounds, they said, and he made her let her curls down so outrageous, because she was to be married at Guildhall, with a guinea at the end of every hair. Miss Faith would be dirt-cheap at all that money; but as for Miss Eliza, they wished him better knowledge, which was sure to come, when it was no good to him.

“What a corner of the world this is for gossip!” Mr. Shargeloes said, pleasantly, to his Eliza, having heard from his cook, who desired no new mistress, some few of the things said about him. “I am not such a fool as to care what they say. But I am greatly surprised at one thing. You know that I am a thorough Englishman; may I tell you what I think, without offending you? It is a delicate matter, because it concerns a relative of your own, my dear.”

“I know what you mean. You will not offend me. Percival, I know how straightforward you are, and how keen of perception. I have expected this.”

“And yet it seems presumptuous of me to say that you are all blind here, from the highest to the lowest. Except indeed yourself, as I now perceive. I will tell you my suspicions, or more than suspicions — my firm belief — about your cousin, Mr. Carne. I can trust you to keep this even from your father. Caryl Carne is a spy, in the pay of the French.”

“I have long thought something, though not quite so bad as that,” Miss Twemlow answered, calmly; “because he has behaved to us so very strangely. My mother is his own father’s sister, as you know, and yet he has never dined with us more than once, and then he scarcely said a word to any one. And he never yet has asked us to visit him at the castle; though for that we can make all allowance, of course, because of its sad condition. Then everybody thought he had taken to smuggling, and after all his losses, no one blamed him, especially as all the Carnes had done it, even when they were the owners of the land. But ever since poor Mr. Cheeseman, our church-warden, tried to destroy himself with his own rope, all the parish began to doubt about the smuggling, because it pays so well and makes the people very cheerful. But from something he had seen, my father felt quite certain that the true explanation was smuggling.”

“Indeed! Do you know at all what it was he saw, and when, and under what circumstances?” Mr. Shargeloes put these questions with more urgency than Miss Twemlow liked.

“Really I cannot tell you all those things; they are scarcely of general interest. My dear father said little about it: all knowledge is denied in this good world to women. But no doubt he would tell you, if you asked him, when there were no ladies present.”

“I will,” said Mr. Shargeloes. “He is most judicious; he knows when to speak, and when to hold his tongue. And I think that you combine with beauty one of those two gifts — which is the utmost to be expected.”

“Percival, you put things very nicely, which is all that could be expected of a man. But do take my advice in this matter, and say no more about it.”

Mr. Shargeloes feigned to comply, and perhaps at the moment meant to do so. But unluckily he was in an enterprising temper, proud of recovered activity, and determined to act up to the phosphate supplied by fish diet. Therefore when the Rector, rejoicing in an outlet for his long pent-up discoveries, and regarding this sage man as one of his family, repeated the whole of his adventure at Carne Castle, Mr. Shargeloes said, briefly, “It must be seen to.”

“Stubbard has been there,” replied Mr. Twemlow, repenting perhaps of his confidence; “Stubbard has made an official inspection, which relieves us of all concern with it.”

“Captain Stubbard is an ass. It is a burning shame that important affairs should be entrusted to such fellows. The country is in peril, deadly peril; and every Englishman is bound to act as if he were an officer.”

That very same evening Carne rode back to his ruins in a very grim state of mind. He had received from the Emperor a curt and haughty answer to his last appeal for immediate action, and the prospect of another gloomy winter here, with dangers thickening round him, and no motion to enliven them, was almost more than he could endure. The nights were drawing in, and a damp fog from the sea had drizzled the trees, and the ivy, and even his own moustache with cold misery.

“Bring me a lantern,” he said to old Jerry, as he swung his stiff legs from the back of the jaded horse, “and the little flask of oil with the feather in it. It is high time to put the Inspector’s step in order.”

Jerry Bowles, whose back and knees were bent with rheumatism and dull service, trotted (like a horse who has become too stiff to walk) for the things commanded, and came back with them. Then his master, without a word, strode towards the passage giving entry to the vaults which Stubbard had not seen — the vaults containing all the powder, and the weapons for arming the peasantry of England, whom Napoleon fondly expected to rise in his favour at the sight of his eagles.

“How does it work? Quite stiff with rust. I thought so. Nothing is ever in order, unless I see to it myself. Give me the lantern. Now oil the bearings thoroughly. Put the feather into the socket, and work the pin in and out, that the oil may go all round. Now pour in some oil from the lip of the flask; but not upon the treadle, you old blockhead. Now do the other end the same. Ah, now it would go with the weight of a mouse! I have a great mind to make you try it.”

“What would you do, sir, if my neck was broken? Who would do your work, as I do?”

They were under an arch of mouldy stone, opening into the deep dark vaults, where the faint light of the lantern glanced on burnished leather, brass, and steel, or fell without flash upon dull round bulk. The old man, kneeling on the round chalk-flints set in lime for the flooring of the passage, was handling the first step of narrow step-ladder leading to the cellar-depth. This top step had been taken out of the old oak mortice, and cut shorter, and then replaced in the frame, with an iron pin working in an iron collar, just as the gudgeon of a wheelbarrow revolves. Any one stepping upon it unawares would go down without the aid of any other step.

“Goes like spittle now, sir,” said old Jerry; “but I don’t want no more harm in this crick of life. The Lord be pleased to keep all them Examiners at home. Might have none to find their corpusses until next leap-year. I hope with all my heart they won’t come poking their long noses here.”

“Well, I rather hope they will. They want a lesson in this neighbourhood,” muttered Carne, who was shivering, and hungry, and unsweetened.

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