Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter V

Opinion, Male and Female

The fine young parsons of the present generation are too fond of asking us why we come to church, and assigning fifty reasons out of their own heads, not one of which is to our credit or theirs; whereas their proper business is to cure the fish they have caught, instead of asking how they caught them. Mr. Twemlow had sense enough for this, and treated the largest congregation he had ever preached to as if they were come for the good of their souls, and should have it, in spite of Lord Nelson. But, alas! their bodies fared not so well, and scarcely a man got his Sunday dinner according to his liking. Never a woman would stay by the fire for the sake of a ten-pound leg of mutton, and the baker put his shutters up at half past ten against every veal pie and every loin of pork. Because in the church there would be seen this day (as the servants at the Hall told every one) the man whom no Englishman could behold without pride, and no Frenchman with it — the victor of the Nile, and of Copenhagen, and countless other conflicts. Knowing that he would be stared at well, he was equal to the occasion, and the people who saw him were so proud of the sight that they would talk of it now if they were alive.

But those who were not there would exhibit more confidence than conscience by describing every item of his raiment, which verily even of those who beheld it none could do well, except a tailor or a woman. Enough that he shone in the light of the sun (which came through a windowful of bull’s-eyes upon him, and was surprised to see stars by daylight), but the glint of his jewels and glow of his gold diverted no eye from the calm, sad face which in the day of battle could outflash them all. That sensitive, mild, complaisant face (humble, and even homely now, with scathe and scald and the lines of middle age) presented itself as a great surprise to the many who came to gaze at it. With its child-like simplicity and latent fire, it was rather the face of a dreamer and poet than of a warrior and hero.

Mrs. Cheeseman, the wife of Mr. Cheeseman, who kept the main shop in the village, put this conclusion into better English, when Mrs. Shanks (Harry’s mother) came on Monday to buy a rasher and compare opinions.

“If I could have fetched it to my mind,” she said, “that Squire Darling were a tarradiddle, and all his wenches liars — which some of them be, and no mistake — and if I could refuse my own eyes about gold-lace, and crown jewels, and arms off, happier would I sleep in my bed, ma’am, every night the Lord seeth good for it. I would sooner have found hoppers in the best ham in the shop than have gone to church so to delude myself. But there! that Cheeseman would make me do it. I did believe as we had somebody fit to do battle for us against Boney, and I laughed about all they invasion and scares. But now — why, ‘a can’t say bo to a goose! If ‘a was to come and stand this moment where you be a-standing, and say, ‘Mrs. Cheeseman, I want a fine rasher,’ not a bit of gristle would I trim out, nor put it up in paper for him, as I do for you, ma’am.”

And Widow Shanks quite agreed with her.

“Never can I tell you what my feelings was, when I seed him a-standing by the monument, ma’am. But I said to myself —‘why, my poor John, as is now in heaven, poor fellow, would ‘a took you up with one hand, my lord, stars and garters and crowns and all, and put you into his sow-west pocket.’ And so he could have done, Mrs. Cheeseman.”

But the opinion of the men was different, because they knew a bee from a bull’s foot.

“He may not be so very big,” they said, “nor so outrageous thunderin’, as the missus looked out for from what she have read. They always goes by their own opinions, and wrong a score of times out of twenty. But any one with a fork to his leg can see the sort of stuff he is made of. He ‘tended his duty in the house of the Lord, and he wouldn’t look after the women; but he kept his live eye upon every young chap as were fit for a man-of-war’s-man — Dan Tugwell especial, and young Harry Shanks. You see if he don’t have both of they afore ever the war comes on again!”

Conscious of filling the public eye, with the privilege of being upon private view, Lord Nelson had faced the position without flinching, and drawn all the fire of the enemy. After that he began to make reprisals, according to his manner, taking no trouble to regard the women — which debarred them from thinking much of him — but settling with a steady gaze at each sea-faring man, whether he was made of good stuff or of pie-crust. And to the credit of the place it must be said that he found very little of that soft material, but plenty of good stuff, slow, perhaps, and heavy, but needing only such a soul as his to rouse it.

“What a fine set of fellows you have in your village!” he said to Miss Darling after dinner, as she sat at the head of her father’s table, for the Admiral had long been a widower. “The finest I have seen on the south coast anywhere. And they look as if they had been under some training. I suppose your father had most of them in the Fencibles, last summer?”

“Not one of them,” Faith answered, with a sweet smile of pride. “They have their own opinions, and nothing will disturb them. Nobody could get them to believe for a moment that there was any danger of invasion. And they carried on all their fishing business almost as calmly as they do now. For that, of course, they may thank you, Lord Nelson; but they have not the smallest sense of the obligation.”

“I am used to that, as your father knows; but more among the noble than the simple. For the best thing I ever did I got no praise, or at any rate very little. As to the Boulogne affair, Springhaven was quite right. There was never much danger of invasion. I only wish the villains would have tried it. Horatia, would you like to see your godfather at work? I hope not. Young ladies should be peaceful.”

“Then I am not peaceful at all,” cried Dolly, who was sitting by the maimed side of her “Flapfin,” as her young brother Johnny had nicknamed him. “Why, if there was always peace, what on earth would any but very low people find to do? There could scarcely be an admiral, or a general, or even a captain, or — well, a boy to beat the drums.”

“But no drum would want to be beaten, Horatia,” her elder sister Faith replied, with the superior mind of twenty-one; “and the admirals and the generals would have to be —”

“Doctors, or clergymen, or something of that sort, or perhaps even worse — nasty lawyers.” Then Dolly (whose name was “Horatia” only in presence of her great godfather) blushed, as befitted the age of seventeen, at her daring, and looked at her father.

“That last cut was meant for me,” Frank Darling, the eldest of the family, explained from the opposite side of the table. “Your lordship, though so well known to us, can hardly be expected to know or remember all the little particulars of our race. We are four, as you know; and the elder two are peaceful, while the younger pair are warlike. And I am to be the ‘nasty lawyer,’ called to the bar in the fullness of time — which means after dining sufficiently — to the great disgust of your little godchild, whose desire from her babyhood has been to get me shot.”

“LITTLE, indeed! What a word to use about me! You told a great story. But now you’ll make it true.”

“To wit — as we say at Lincoln’s Inn — she has not longed always for my death in battle, but henceforth will do so; but I never shall afford her that gratification. I shall keep out of danger as zealously as your lordship rushes into it.”

“Franky going on, I suppose, with some of his usual nonsense,” Admiral Darling, who was rather deaf, called out from the bottom of the table. “Nobody pays much attention to him, because he does not mean a word of it. He belongs to the peace — peace — peace-at-any-price lot. But when a man wanted to rob him last winter, he knocked him down, and took him by the throat, and very nearly killed him.”

“That’s the only game to play,” exclaimed Lord Nelson, who had been looking at Frank Darling with undisguised disgust. “My young friend, you are not such a fool after all. And why should you try to be one?”

“My brother,” said the sweet-tempered Faith, “never tries to be a fool, Lord Nelson; he only tries to be a poet.”

This made people laugh; and Nelson, feeling that he had been rude to a youth who could not fairly answer him, jumped from his chair with the lightness of a boy, and went round to Frank Darling, with his thin figure leaning forward, and his gray unpowdered hair tossed about, and upon his wrinkled face that smile which none could ever resist, because it was so warm and yet so sad.

“Shake hands, my dear young friend,” he cried, “though I can not offer the right one. I was wrong to call you a fool because you don’t look at things as I do. Poets are almost as good as sailors, and a great deal better than soldiers. I have felt a gift that way myself, and turned out some very tidy lines. But I believe they were mainly about myself, and I never had time to go on with them.”

Such little touches of simplicity and kindness, from a man who never knew the fear of men, helped largely to produce that love of Nelson which England felt, and will always feel.

“My lord,” replied the young man, bending low — for he was half a cubit higher than the mighty captain —“it is good for the world that you have no right arm, when you disarm it so with your left one.”

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