Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLVIII

Mother Scudamore

If we want to know how a tree or flower has borne the gale that flogged last night, or the frost that stung the morning, the only sure plan is to go and see. And the only way to understand how a friend has taken affliction is to go — if it may be done without intrusion — and let him tell you, if he likes.

Admiral Darling was so much vexed when he heard of Blyth Scudamore’s capture by the French, and duty compelled him to inform the mother, that he would rather have ridden a thousand miles upon barley-bread than face her. He knew how the whole of her life was now bound up with the fortunes of her son, and he longed to send Faith with the bad news, as he had sent her with the good before; but he feared that it might seem unkind. So he went himself, with the hope of putting the best complexion upon it, yet fully expecting sad distress, and perhaps a burst of weeping. But the lady received his tidings in a manner that surprised him. At first she indulged in a tear or two, but they only introduced a smile.

“In some ways it is a sad thing,” she said, “and will be a terrible blow to him, just when he was rising so fast in the service. But we must not rebel more than we can help, against the will of the Lord, Sir Charles.”

“How philosophical, and how commonplace!” thought the Admiral; but he only bowed, and paid her some compliment upon her common-sense.

“Perhaps you scarcely understand my views, and perhaps I am wrong in having them,” Lady Scudamore continued, quietly. “My son’s advancement is very dear to me, and this will of course retard it. But I care most of all for his life, and now that will be safe for a long while. They never kill their prisoners, do they?”

“No, ma’am, no. They behave very well to them; better, I’m afraid, than we do to ours. They treat them quite as guests, when they fall into good hands. Though Napoleon himself is not too mild in that way.”

“My son has fallen into very good hands, as you yourself assure me — that Captain Desportes, a gallant officer and kind gentleman, as I know from your daughter’s description. Blyth is quite equal to Lord Nelson in personal daring, and possibly not behind him in abilities. Consider how shockingly poor Nelson has been injured, and he feels convinced himself that they will have his life at last. No officer can be a hero without getting very sad wounds, and perhaps losing his life. Every one who does his duty must at least be wounded.”

The Admiral, who had never received a scratch, was not at all charmed with this view of naval duty; but he was too polite to enter protest, and only made one of his old-fashioned scrapes.

“I am sure every time I have heard a gun coming from the sea, and especially after dark,” the lady resumed, without thinking of him, “it has made me miserable to know that probably Blyth was rushing into some deadly conflict. But now I shall feel that he cannot do that; and I hope they will keep him until the fighting grows milder. He used to send me all his money, poor dear boy! And now I shall try to send him some of mine, if it can be arranged about bank-notes. And now I can do it very easily, thanks to your kindness, Sir Charles, his father’s best friend, and his own, and mine.”

Lady Scudamore shed another tear or two, not of sorrow, but of pride, while she put her hand into her pocket, as if to begin the remittance at once. “You owe me no thanks, ma’am,” said the Admiral, smiling; “if any thanks are due, they are due to the King, for remembering at last what he should have done before.”

“Would he ever have thought of me, but for you? It is useless to talk in that way, Sir Charles; it only increases the obligation, which I must entreat you not to do. How I wish I could help you in anything!”

“Every day you are helping me,” he replied, with truth; “although I am away too often to know all about it, or even to thank you. I hope my dear Faith has persuaded you not to leave us for the winter, as you threatened.”

“Faith can persuade me to anything she pleases. She possesses the power of her name,” replied the lady; “but the power is not called for, when the persuasion is so pleasant. For a month, I must be away to visit my dear mother, as I always have done at this time of year; and then, but for one thing, I would return most gladly. For I am very selfish, you must know, Sir Charles — I have a better chance of hearing of my dear son at these head-quarters of the defence of England, than I should have even in London.”

“Certainly,” cried the Admiral, who magnified his office; “such a number of despatches pass through my hands; and if I can’t make them out, why, my daughter Dolly can. I don’t suppose, Lady Scudamore, that even when you lived in the midst of the world you ever saw any girl half so clever as my Dolly. I don’t let her know it — that would never do, of course — but she always gets the best of me, upon almost any question.”

Sir Charles, for the moment, forgot his best manners, and spread his coat so that one might see between his legs. “I stand like this,” he said, “and she stands there; and I take her to task for not paying her bills — for some of those fellows have had to come to me, which is not as it should be in a country place, where people don’t understand the fashionable system. She stands there, ma’am, and I feel as sure as if I were an English twenty-four bearing down upon a Frenchman of fifty guns, that she can only haul her colours down and rig out gangway ladders — when, bless me and keep me! I am carried by surprise, and driven under hatchways, and if there is a guinea in my hold, it flies into the enemy’s locker! If it happened only once, I should think nothing of it. But when I know exactly what is coming, and have double-shotted every gun, and set up hammock-nettings, and taken uncommon care to have the weather-gage, ’tis the Devil, Lady Scudamore — excuse me, madam —’tis the Devil to a ditty-bag that I have her at my mercy. And yet it always comes to money out of pocket, madam!”

“She certainly has a great power over gentlemen”— Blyth’s mother smiled demurely, as if she were sorry to confess it; “but she is exceedingly young, Sir Charles, and every allowance must be made for her.”

“And by the Lord Harry, she gets it, madam. She takes uncommonly good care of that. But what is the one thing you mentioned that would prevent you from coming back to us with pleasure?”

“I scarcely like to speak of it. But it is about that self-same Dolly. She is not fond of advice, and she knows how quick she is, and that makes her resent a word from slower people. She has taken it into her head, I fear, that I am here as a restraint upon her; a sort of lady spy, a duenna, a dictatress, all combined in one, and all unpleasant. This often makes me fancy that I have no right to be here. And then your sweet Faith comes, and all is smooth again.”

“Dolly has the least little possible touch of the vixen about her. I have found it out lately,” said the Admiral, as if he were half doubtful still; “Nelson told me so, and I was angry with him. But I believe he was right, as he generally is. His one eye sees more than a score of mine would. But, my dear madam, if that is your only objection to coming back to us, or rather to my daughters, I beg you not to let it weigh a feather’s weight with you. Or, at any rate, enhance the obligation to us, by putting it entirely on one side. Dolly has the very finest heart in all the world; not so steady perhaps as Faith’s, nor quite so fair to other people, but wonderfully warm, ma’am, and as sound as — as a roach.”

Lady Scudamore could not help laughing a little, and she hoped for her son’s sake that this account was true. Her gratitude and good-will to the Admiral, as well as her duty to her son, made her give the promise sought for; and she began to prepare for her journey at once, that she might be back in good time for the winter. But she felt very doubtful, at leaving the Hall, whether she had done quite right in keeping her suspicions of Dolly from Dolly’s father. For with eyes which were sharpened by jealousy for the interests, or at least the affections, of her son, she had long perceived that his lady-love was playing a dangerous game with Caryl Carne. Sometimes she believed that she ought to speak of this, for the good of the family; because she felt the deepest mistrust and dislike of Carne, who strictly avoided her whenever he could; but on the other hand she found the subject most delicate and difficult to handle. For she had taken good care at the outset not to be here upon any false pretences. At the very first interview with her host she had spoken of Blyth’s attachment to his younger daughter, of which the Admiral had heard already from that youthful sailor. And the Admiral had simply said, as in Captain Twemlow’s case: “Let us leave them to themselves. I admire the young man. If she likes him, I shall make no objection, when they are old enough, and things are favourable.” And now if she told him of the other love-affair, it would look like jealousy of a rival. Perhaps a hundred times a day, as her love for gentle Faith grew faster than her liking for the sprightly Dolly, she would sigh that her son did not see things like herself; but bitter affliction had taught her that the course of this life follows our own wishes about as much as another man’s dog heeds our whistle. But, for all that, this good lady hoped some day to see things come round as she would like to bring them.

“No wonder that we like her son so much,” said Faith when they had done waving handkerchiefs at the great yellow coach going slowly up the hill, with its vast wicker basket behind, and the guard perched over it with his blunderbus; “he takes after his mother in so many ways. They are both so simple and unsuspicious, and they make the best of every one.”

“Including themselves, I suppose,” answered Dolly. “Well I like people who have something on their minds, and make the worst of everybody. They have so much more to talk about.”

“You should never try to be sarcastic, dear. And you know that you don’t mean it. I am sure you don’t like to have the worst made of yourself.”

“Oh, I have long been used to that. And I never care about it, when I know it is not true. I am sure that Mother Scudamore runs me down, when I am out of hearing. I never did like those perfect people.”

“Mother Scudamore, indeed! You are getting into a low way of talking, which is not at all pretty in a girl. And I never heard her say an unkind word about you. Though she may not have found you quite so perfect as she hoped.”

“I tell you, Miss Darling,” cried Dolly, with her bright colour deepened, and her grey eyes flashing, “that I don’t care a — something that papa often says — what she thinks about me, or you either. I know that she has come here to spy out all my ways.”

“You should not have any to be spied out, Dolly,” Faith answered, with some sternness, and a keen look at her sister, whose eyes fell beneath her gaze. “You will be sorry, when you think of what you said to me, who have done nothing whatever to offend you. But that is a trifle compared with acting unfairly to our father. Father is the kindest man that ever lived; but he can be stern in great matters, I warn you. If he ever believes that you have deceived him, you will never be again to him what you have always been.”

They had sent the carriage home that they might walk across the fields, and this little scene between the sisters took place upon a foot-path which led back to their grounds. Dolly knew that she was in the wrong, and that increased her anger.

“So you are another spy upon me, I suppose. ’Tis a pretty thing to have one’s sister for an old duenna. Pray who gave you authority to lord it over me?”

“You know as well as I do”— Faith spoke with a smile of superior calmness, as Dolly tossed her head —“that I am about the last person in the world to be a spy. Neither do I ever lord it over you. If anything, that matter is very much the other way. But being so much older, and your principal companion, it would be very odd of me, and as I think most unkind, if I did not take an interest in all your goings on.”

“My goings on! What a lady-like expression! Who has got into a low way of talking now? Well, if you please, madam, what have you found out?”

“I have found out nothing, and made no attempt to do so. But I see that you are altered very much from what you used to be; and I am sure that there is something on your mind. Why not tell me all about it? I would promise to let it go no further, and I would not pretend to advise, unless you wished. I am your only sister, and we have always been together. It would make you so much more comfortable, I am certain of that, in your own mind, darling. And you know when we were little girls, dear mother on her death-bed put her hands upon our heads and said, ‘Be loving sisters always, and never let anything come between you.’ And for father’s sake, too, you should try to do it. Put aside all nonsense about spies and domineering, and trust me as your sister, that’s my own darling Dolly.”

“How can I resist you? I will make a clean breast of it;” Dolly sighed deeply, but a wicked smile lay ambushed in her bright eyes and upon her rosy lips. “The sad truth is that my heart has been quite sore since I heard the shocking tidings about poor old Daddy Stokes. He went to bed the other night with his best hat on, both his arms in an old muff he found in the ditch, and his leathern breeches turned inside out.”

“Then the poor old man had a cleaner breast than yours,” cried Faith, who had prepared her heart and eyes for tears of sympathy; “he goes upon his knees every night, stiff as they are, and his granddaughter has to help him up. But as for you, you are the most unfeeling, mocking, godless, unnatural creature that ever never cared what became of anybody. Here we are at the corner where the path divides. You go home that way, and I’ll go home by this.”

“Well, I’m so glad! I really did believe that it was quite impossible to put you in a rage. Now don’t be in a hurry, dear, to beg my pardon.”

“Of that you may be quite sure,” cried Faith across the corner of the meadow where the paths diverged; “I never was less in a passion in my life; and it will be your place to apologise.”

Dolly sent a merry laugh across the widening interval; and Faith, who was just beginning to fear that she had been in a passion, was convinced by that laugh that she had not. But the weight lifted from her conscience fell more heavily upon her heart.

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