Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LVIII

In Early Morn

One Saturday morning in the month of August, an hour and a half before sunrise, Carne walked down to the big yew-tree, which stood far enough from the brink of the cliff to escape the salt, and yet near enough to command an extensive sea-view. This was the place where the young shoemaker, belonging to the race of Shanks, had been scared so sadly that he lost his sweetheart, some two years and a half ago; and this was the tree that had been loved by painters, especially the conscientious Sharples, a pupil of Romney, who studied the nicks and the tricks of the bole, and the many fantastic frets of time, with all the loving care which ensured the truth of his simple and powerful portraits. But Sharples had long been away in the West; and Carne, having taste for no art except his own, had despatched his dog Orso, the fiercer of the pair, at the only son of a brush who had lately made ready to encamp against that tree; upon which he decamped, and went over the cliff, with a loss of much personal property.

The tree looked ghostly in the shady light, and gaunt armstretch of departing darkness, going as if it had not slept its sleep out. Now was the time when the day is afraid of coming, and the night unsure of going, and a large reluctance to acknowledge any change keeps everything waiting for another thing to move. What is the use of light and shadow, the fuss of the morning, and struggle for the sun? Fair darkness has filled all the gaps between them, and why should they be sever’d into single life again? For the gladness of daybreak is not come yet, nor the pleasure of seeing the way again, the lifting of the darkness leaves heaviness beneath it, and if a rashly early bird flops down upon the grass, he cannot count his distance, but quivers like a moth.

“Pest on this abominable early work!” muttered Carne with a yawn, as he groped his way through the deep gloom of black foliage, and entered the hollow of the ancient trunk; “it is all very well for sailors, but too hard upon a quiet gentleman. Very likely that fellow won’t come for two hours. What a cursed uncomfortable maggoty place! But I’ll have put the sleep he has robbed me of.” He stretched his long form on the rough bench inside, gathered his cloak around him, and roused the dull echo of the honey-combed hollow with long loud snores.

“Awake, my vigilant commander, and behold me! Happy are the landsmen, to whom the stars bring sleep. I have not slept for three nights, and the fruits are here for you.”

It was the lively voice of Renaud Charron; and the rosy fan of the dawn, unfolded over the sea and the gray rocks, glanced with a flutter of shade into the deep-ribbed tree. Affecting a lofty indifference, Carne, who had a large sense of his own dignity, rose slowly and came out into the better light. “Sit down, my dear friend,” he said, taking the sealed packet; “there is bread and meat here, and a bottle of good Macon. You are nearly always hungry, and you must be starved now.”

Charron perceived that his mouth was offered employment at the expense of his eyes; but the kernel of the matter was his own already, and he smiled to himself at the mystery of his chief. “In this matter, I should implore the tree to crush me, if my father were an Englishman,” he thought; “but every one to his taste; it is no affair of mine.” Just as he was getting on good terms with his refreshment, Carne came back, and watched him with a patronising smile.

“You are the brother of my toil,” he said, “and I will tell you as much as it is good for you to know. A few hours now will complete our enterprise. Napoleon is at Boulogne again, and even he can scarcely restrain the rush of the spirits he has provoked. The first Division is on board already, with a week’s supplies, and a thousand horses, ready to sail when a hand is held up. The hand will be held up at my signal, and that I shall trust you to convey to-night, as soon as I have settled certain matters. Where is that sullen young Tugwell? What have you done with him?”

“Wonderfully clever is your new device, my friend,” Charron replied, after a long pull at the bottle. “To vanquish the mind by a mind superior is a glory of high reason; but to let it remain in itself and compel it to perform what is desired by the other, is a stroke of genius. And under your pharmacy he must do it — that has been proved already. The idea was grand, very noble, magnificent. It never would have shown itself to my mind.”

“Probably not. When that has been accomplished, we will hang him for a traitor. But, my dear friend, I have sad news for you, even in this hour of triumph. The lady of your adoration, the Admiral’s eldest daughter, Faith, has recovered the man for whom she has waited four years, and she means to marry him. The father has given his consent, and her pride is beyond description. She has long loved a mystery — what woman can help it? And now she has one for life, a husband eclipsed in his own hair. My Renaud, all rivalry is futile. Your hair, alas, is quite short and scanty. But this man has discovered in Africa a nut which turns a man into the husk of himself. No wonder that he came out of the sea all dry!”

“Tush! he is a pig. It is a pig that finds the nuts. I will be the butcher for that long pig, and the lady will rush into the arms of conquest. Then will I possess all the Admiral’s lands, and pursue the fine chase of the rabbits. And I will give dinners, such dinners, my faith! Ha! that is excellent said — embrace me — my Faith will sit at the right side of the table, and explain to the English company that such dinners could proceed from nobody except a French gentleman commingling all the knowledge of the joint with the loftier conception of the hash, the mince — the what you call? Ah, you have no name for it, because you do not know the proper thing. Then, in the presence of admiring Englishmen, I will lean back in my chair, the most comfortable chair that can be found —”

“Stop. You have got to get into it yet,” Carne interrupted, rudely; “and the way to do that is not to lean back in it. The fault of your system has always been that you want to enjoy everything before you get it.”

“And of yours,” retorted Charron, beginning to imbibe the pugnacity of an English landlord, “that when you have got everything, you will enjoy what? Nothing!”

“Even a man of your levity hits the nail on the head sometimes,” said Carne, “though the blow cannot be a very heavy one. Nature has not fashioned me for enjoyment, and therefore affords me very little. But some little I do expect in the great inversion coming, in the upset of the scoundrels who have fattened on my flesh, and stolen my land, to make country gentlemen — if it were possible — of themselves. It will take a large chimney to burn their title-deeds, for the robbery has lasted for a century. But I hold the great Emperor’s process signed for that; and if you come to my cookery, you will say that I am capable of enjoyment. Fighting I enjoy not, as hot men do, nor guzzling, nor swigging, nor singing of songs; for all of which you have a talent, my friend. But the triumph of quiet skill I like; and I love to turn the balance on my enemies. Of these there are plenty, and among them all who live in that fishy little hole down there.”

Carne pointed contemptuously at Springhaven, that poor little village in the valley. But the sun had just lifted his impartial face above the last highland that baulked his contemplation of the home of so many and great virtues; and in the brisk moisture of his early salute the village in the vale looked lovely. For a silvery mist was flushed with rose, like a bridal veil warmed by the blushes of the bride, and the curves of the land, like a dewy palm leaf, shone and sank alternate.

“What a rare blaze they will make!” continued Carne, as the sunlight glanced along the russet thatch, and the blue smoke arose from the earliest chimney. “Every cottage there shall be a bonfire, because it has cast off allegiance to me. The whole race of Darling will be at my mercy — the pompous old Admiral, who refused to call on me till his idiot of a son persuaded him — that wretched poetaster, who reduced me to the ignominy of reading his own rubbish to him — and the haughty young woman that worships a savage who has treated me with insult. I have them all now in the hollow of my hand, and a thorough good crumpling is prepared for them. The first house to burn shall be Zebedee Tugwell’s, that conceited old dolt of a fishing fellow, who gives me a nod of suspicion, instead of pulling off his dirty hat to me. Then we blow up the church, and old Twemlow’s house, and the Admiral’s, when we have done with it. The fishing-fleet, as they call their wretched tubs, will come home, with the usual fuss, to-night, and on Monday it shall be ashes. How like you my programme? Is it complete?”

“Too much, too much complete; too barbarous,” answered the kindly hearted Frenchman. “What harm have all the poor men done to you? And what insanity to provoke enemies of the people all around who would bring us things to eat! And worse — if the houses are consumed with fire, where will be the revenue that is designed for me, as the fair son of the Admiral? No, no; I will allow none of that. When the landing is made, you will not be my master. Soult will have charge of the subjects inferior, and he is not a man of rapine. To him will I address myself in favour of the village. Thus shall I ascend in the favour of my charming, and secure my property.”

“Captain, I am your master yet, and I will have no interference. No more talk; but obey me to the letter. There is no sign of any rough weather, I suppose? You sailors see things which we do not observe.”

“This summer has not been of fine weather, and the sky is always changing here. But there is not any token of a tempest now. Though there is a little prospect of rain always.”

“If it rains, all the better, for it obscures the sea. You have fed enough now to last even you till the evening; or if not, you can take some with you. Remain to the westward, where the cliffs are higher, and look out especially for British ships of war that may be appearing up Channel. Take this second spy-glass; it is quite strong enough. But first of all tell Perkins to stand off again with the pilot-boat, as if he was looking out for a job, and if he sees even a frigate coming eastward, to run back and let you know by a signal arranged between you. Dan Tugwell, I see, was shipped yesterday on board of Prame No. 801, a very handy vessel, which will lead the van, and five hundred will follow in her track on Sunday evening. My excellent uncle will be at the height of his eloquence just when his favourite Sunday-school boy is bringing an addition to his congregation. But the church shall not be blown up until Monday, for fear of premature excitement. By Monday night about two hundred thousand such soldiers as Britain could never produce will be able to quell any childish excitement such as Great Britain is apt to give way to.”

“But what is for me, this same Saturday night? I like very much to make polite the people, and to marry the most beautiful and the richest; but not to kill more than there is to be helped.”

“The breaking of the egg may cut the fingers that have been sucked till their skin is gone. You have plagued me all along with your English hankerings, which in your post of trust are traitorous.”

Charron was accustomed to submit to the infinitely stronger will of Carne. Moreover, his sense of discipline often checked the speed of his temper. But he had never been able to get rid of a secret contempt for his superior, as a traitor to the race to which he really belonged, at least in the Frenchman’s opinion. And that such a man should charge him with treachery was more than his honest soul could quite endure, and his quick face flushed with indignation as he spoke:

“Your position, my commander, does not excuse such words. You shall answer for them, when I am discharged from your command; which, I hope, will be the case next week. To be spoken of as a traitor by you is very grand.”

“Take it as you please,” Carne replied, with that cold contemptuous smile which the other detested. “For the present, however, you will not be grand, but carry out the orders which I give you. As soon as it is dark, you will return, keep the pilot-boat in readiness for my last despatch, with which you will meet the frigate Torche about midnight, as arranged on Thursday. All that and the signals you already understand. Wait for me by this tree, and I may go with you; but that will depend upon circumstances. I will take good care that you shall not be kept starving; for you may have to wait here three or four hours for me. But be sure that you do not go until I come.”

“But what am I to do if I have seen some British ships, or Perkins has given me token of them?”

“Observe their course, and learn where they are likely to be at nightfall. There will probably be none. All I fear is that they may intercept the Torche. Farewell, my friend, and let your sense of duty subdue the small sufferings of temper.”

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