Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LX

No Danger, Gentlemen

The little dinner at Springhaven Hall, appointed for that same Saturday, had now grown into a large one. Carne had refused Dolly’s offer to get him an invitation, and for many reasons he was not invited. He ought to have been glad of this, because he did not want to be there; but his nature, like a saw’s, was full of teeth, and however he was used, he grated. But without any aid of his teeth, a good dinner, well planned and well served, bade fair in due course to be well digested also by forty at least of the forty-two people who sat down to consider it. For as yet the use of tongue was understood, and it was not allowed to obstruct by perpetual motion the duties of the palate. And now every person in the parish of high culture — which seems to be akin to the Latin for a knife, though a fork expels nature more forcibly — as well as many others of locality less favoured, joined in this muster of good people and good things. At the outset, the Admiral had intended nothing more than a quiet recognition of the goodness of the Lord in bringing home a husband for the daughter of the house; but what Englishman can forbear the pleasure of killing two birds with one stone?

It was Stubbard who first suggested this, and Sir Charles at once saw the force of it, especially with the Marquis of Southdown coming. Captain Stubbard had never admired anybody, not even himself — without which there is no happiness — much less Mr. Pitt, or Lord Nelson, or the King, until justice was done to the race of Stubbard, and their hands were plunged into the Revenue. But now, ever since the return of the war to its proper home in England, this Captain had been paid well for doing the very best thing that a man can do, i. e., nothing. He could not help desiring to celebrate this, and as soon as he received his invitation, he went to the host and put it clearly. The Admiral soon entered into his views, and as guests were not farmed by the head as yet at tables entertaining self-respect, he perceived the advantage of a good dinner scored to his credit with forty at the cost of twenty; and Stubbard’s proposal seemed thoroughly well timed, so long was it now since the leaders of Defence had celebrated their own vigilance. Twenty-two, allowing for the ladies needful, were thus added to the score of chairs intended, and the founder of the feast could scarcely tell whether the toast of the evening was to be the return of the traveller, or the discomfiture of Boney. That would mainly depend upon the wishes of the Marquis, and these again were likely to be guided by the treatment he had met with from the government lately and the commanders of his Division.

This nobleman was of a character not uncommon eighty years ago, but now very rare among public men, because a more flexible fibre has choked it. Steadfast, honourable, simple, and straightforward, able to laugh without bitterness at the arrogant ignorance of mobs, but never to smile at the rogues who led them, scorning all shuffle of words, foul haze, and snaky maze of evasion, and refusing to believe at first sight that his country must be in the wrong and her enemies in the right, he added to all these exterminated foibles a leisurely dignity now equally extinct. Trimmers, time-servers, and hypocrites feared him, as thieves fear an honourable dog; and none could quote his words against one another. This would have made him unpopular now, when perjury means popularity. For the present, however, self-respect existed, and no one thought any the worse of his lordship for not having found him a liar. Especially with ladies, who insist on truth in men as a pleasant proof of their sex, Lord Southdown had always been a prime favourite, and an authority largely misquoted. And to add to his influence, he possessed a quick turn of temper, which rendered it very agreeable to agree with him.

Lord Southdown was thinking, as he led Miss Darling to her chair at the head of the table, that he never had seen a more pleasing young woman, though he grieved at her taste in preferring the brown young man on her left to his elegant friend Lord Dashville. Also he marvelled at hearing so much, among the young officers of his acquaintance, concerning the beauty of the younger sister, and so little about this far sweeter young person — at least in his opinion. For verily Dolly was not at her best; her beautiful colour was gone, her neck had lost its sprightly turn, and her gray eyes moved heavily instead of sparkling. “That girl has some burden upon her mind,” he thought as he watched her with interest and pity; “she has put on her dress anyhow, and she does not even look to see who is looking at her!”

For the “Belle of all Sussex,” as the young sparks entitled her, was ill at ease with herself, and ready to quarrel with every one except herself. She had conscience enough to confess, whenever she could not get away from it, that for weeks and months she had been slipping far and further from the true and honest course. Sometimes, with a pain like a stitch in the side, the truth would spring upon her; and perhaps for a moment she would wonder at herself, and hate the man misleading her. But this happened chiefly when he was present, and said or did something to vex her; and then he soon set it to rights again, and made everything feel delightful. And this way of having her misgivings eased made them easier when they came again with no one to appease them. For she began to think of what he had done, and how kind and considerate his mind must be, and how hard it must seem to mistrust him.

Another thing that urged her to keep on now, without making any fuss about it, was the wonderful style her sister Faith had shown since that hairy monster came back again. It was manifest that the world contained only one man of any high qualities, and nobody must dare to think even twice about any conclusion he laid down. He had said to her, with a penetrating glance — and it must have been that to get through such a thicket — that dangerous people were about, and no girl possessing any self-respect must think of wandering on the shore alone. The more she was spied upon and admonished, the more she would do what she thought right; and a man who had lived among savages for years must be a queer judge of propriety. But, in spite of all these defiant thoughts, her heart was very low, and her mind in a sad flutter, and she could not even smile as she met her father’s gaze. Supposing that she was frightened at the number of the guests, and the noise of many tongues, and the grandeur of the people, the gentle old man made a little signal to her to come and have a whisper with him, as a child might do, under courtesy of the good company. But Dolly feigned not to understand, at the penalty of many a heart-pang.

The dinner went on with a very merry sound, and a genuine strength of enjoyment, such as hearty folk have who know one another, and are met together not to cut capers of wit, but refresh their goodwill and fine principles. And if any dinner party can be so arranged that only five per cent. has any trouble on its mind, the gentleman who whips away the plates, at a guinea a mouth, will have to go home with a face of willow pattern.

The other whose mind was away from her food, and reckless of its own nourishment, was Blyth Scudamore’s mother, as gentle a lady as ever tried never to think of herself. In spite of all goodness, and faith in the like, she had enough to make her very miserable now, whenever she allowed herself to think about it, and that was fifty-nine minutes out of sixty. For a brief account of her son’s escape from Etaples had reached her, through the kindness of Captain Desportes, who found means to get a letter delivered to the Admiral. That brave French officer spoke most highly of the honourable conduct of his English friend, but had very small hope of his safety. For he added the result of his own inquiries to the statement of M. Jalais, and from these it was clear that poor Scuddy had set forth alone in a rickety boat, ill found and ill fitted to meet even moderate weather in the open Channel. Another young Englishman had done the like, after lurking in the forest of Hardelot, but he had been recaptured by the French at the outset of his hopeless voyage. Scudamore had not been so retaken; and the Captain (who had not received his letter until it was too late to interfere, by reason of his own despatch to Dieppe) had encountered a sharp summer gale just then, which must have proved fatal to the poor old boat. The only chance was that some English ship might have picked up the wanderer, and if so the highly respected Admiral would have heard of it before he received this letter. As no such tidings had been received, there could be little doubt about the issue in any reasonable mind. But the heart of a woman is not a mind, or the man that is born of her might as well forego the honour.

However, as forty people were quite happy, the wisest course is to rejoin them. The ladies were resolved upon this occasion to storm the laws of usage which required their withdrawal before the toasts began; and so many gentle voices challenged the garrison of men behind their bottles that terms of unusual scope were arranged. It was known that the Marquis would make a fine speech — short, and therefore all the finer — in proposing the toast of the evening, to wit, “Our King, and our Country.” Under the vigorous lead of Mrs. Stubbard, the ladies demanded to hear every word; after which they would go, and discuss their own affairs, or possibly those of their neighbours. But the gentlemen must endure their presence till his lordship had spoken, and the Admiral replied. Faith was against this arrangement, because she foresaw that it would make them very late; but she yielded to the wishes of so many of her guests, consoled with the thought that she would be supported by some one on her left hand, who would be her support for life.

When all had done well, except the two aforesaid, and good-will born of good deeds was crowning comfort with jocund pleasure, and the long oak table, rich of grain and dark with the friction of a hundred years, shone in the wavering flow of dusk with the gleam of purple and golden fruit, the glance of brilliant glass that puzzles the light with its claim to shadow, and the glow of amber and amethyst wine decanted to settle that question — then the bold Admiral, standing up, said, “Bring in the lights, that we may see his lordship.”

“I like to speak to some intelligence,” said the guest, who was shrewd at an answer. And Dolly, being quick at occasion, seized it, and in the shifting of chairs left her own for some one else.

The curtains were drawn across the western window, to close the conflict between God’s light and man’s, and then this well-known gentleman, having placed his bottle handily — for he never “put wine into two whites,” to use his own expression — arose with his solid frame as tranquil as a rock, and his full-fronted head like a piece of it. Every gentleman bowed to his bow, and waited with silent respect for his words, because they would be true and simple.

“My friends, I will take it for granted that we all love our country, and hate its enemies. We may like and respect them personally, for they are as good as we are; but we are bound to hate them collectively, as men who would ruin all we love. For the stuff that is talked about freedom, democracy, march of intellect, and so forth, I have nothing to say, except to bid you look at the result among themselves. Is there a man in France whose body is his own if he can carry arms, or his soul if it ventures to seek its own good? As for mind — there is only the mind of one man; a large one in many ways; in others a small one, because it considers its owner alone.

“But we of England have refused to be stripped of all that we hold dear, at the will of a foreign upstart. We have fought for years, and we still are fighting, without any brag or dream of glory, for the rights of ourselves and of all mankind. There have been among us weak-minded fellows, babblers of abstract nonsense, and even, I grieve to say — traitors. But, on the whole, we have stood together, and therefore have not been trodden on. How it may end is within the knowledge of the Almighty only; but already there are signs that we shall be helped, if we continue to help ourselves.

“And now for the occasion of our meeting here. We rejoice most heartily with our good host, the vigilant Defender of these shores, at the restoration to his arms — or rather, to a still more delightful embrace — of a British officer, who has proved a truth we knew already, that nothing stops a British officer. I see a gentleman struck so keenly with the force of that remark, because he himself has proved it, that I must beg his next neighbour to fill up his glass, and allow nothing to stop him from tossing it off. And as I am getting astray from my text, I will clear my poor head with what you can see through.”

The Marquis of Southdown filled his glass from a bottle of grand old Chambertin — six of which had been laid most softly in a cupboard of the wainscote for his use — and then he had it filled again, and saw his meaning brilliantly.

“Our second point is the defeat of the French, and of this we may now assure ourselves. They have not been defeated, for the very good reason that they never would come out to fight; but it comes to the same thing, because they are giving it over as a hopeless job. I have seen too many ups and downs to say that we are out of danger yet; but when our fleets have been chasing theirs all over the world, are they likely to come and meet us in our own waters? Nelson has anchored at Spithead, and is rushing up to London, as our host has heard today, with his usual impetuosity. Every man must stick to his own business, even the mighty Nelson; and he might not meddle with Billy Blue, or anybody else up Channel. Still, Nelson is not the sort of man to jump into a chaise at Portsmouth if there was the very smallest chance of the French coming over to devour us.

“Well, my friends, we have done our best, and have some right to be proud of it; but we should depart from our nature if we even exercised that right. The nature of an Englishman is this — to be afraid of nothing but his own renown. Feeling this great truth, I will avoid offence by hiding as a crime my admiration of the glorious soldiers and sailors here, yet beg them for once to remember themselves, as having enabled me to propose, and all present to pledge, the welfare of our King and Country.”

The Marquis waved his glass above his head, without spilling a single drop, although it was a bumper, then drained it at a draught, inverted it, and cleverly snapped it in twain upon the table, with his other hand laid on his heart, and a long low reverence to the company. Thereupon up stood squires and dames, and repeating the good toast, pledged it, with a deep bow to the proposer; and as many of the gentlemen as understood the art, without peril to fair neighbours, snapped the glass.

His lordship was delighted, and in the spirit of the moment held up his hand, which meant, “Silence, silence, till we all sing the National Anthem!” In a clear loud voice he led off the strain, Erle Twemlow from his hairy depths struck in, then every man, following as he might, and with all his might, sustained it, and the ladies, according to their wont, gave proof of the heights they can scale upon rapture.

The Admiral, standing, and beating time now and then with his heel — though all the time deserved incessant beating — enjoyed the performance a great deal more than if it had been much better, and joined in the main roar as loudly as he thought his position as host permitted. For although he was nearing the haven now of threescore years and ten, his throat and heart were so sea-worthy that he could very sweetly have outroared them all. But while he was preparing just to prove this, if encouraged, and smiling very pleasantly at a friend who said, “Strike up, Admiral,” he was called from the room, and in the climax of the roar slipped away for a moment, unheeded, and meaning to make due apology to his guests as soon as he came back.

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