Springhaven, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LXI

Discharged from Duty

While loyalty thus rejoiced and throve in the warmth of its own geniality, a man who was loyal to himself alone, and had no geniality about him, was watching with contempt these British doings. Carne had tethered his stout black horse, who deserved a better master, in a dusky dell of dark-winged trees at the back of the eastern shrubbery. Here the good horse might rest unseen, and consider the mysterious ways of men; for the main approach was by the western road, and the shades of evening stretched their arms to the peaceful yawn of sunset. And here he found good stuff spread by nature, more worthy of his attention, and tucking back his forelegs, fared as well as the iron between his teeth permitted.

Then the master drew his green riding-coat of thin velvet closer round him, and buttoned the lappet in front, because he had heavy weight in the pockets. Keeping warily along the lines of shadow, he gained a place of vantage in the shrubbery, a spot of thick shelter having loops of outlook. Above and around him hung a curtain of many-pointed ilex, and before him a barberry bush, whose coral clusters caught the waning light. In this snug nook he rested calmly, leaning against the ilex trunk, and finished his little preparations for anything adverse to his plans. In a belt which was hidden by his velvet coat he wore a short dagger in a sheath of shagreen, and he fixed it so that he could draw it in a moment, without unfastening the riding-coat. Then from the pockets on either side he drew a pair of pistols, primed them well from a little flask, and replaced them with the butts beneath the lappets. “Death for at least three men,” he muttered, “if they are fools enough to meddle with me. My faith, these Darlings are grown very grand, on the strength of the land that belongs to us!”

For he heard the popping of champagne corks, and the clink of abundant silver, and tuning of instruments by the band, and he saw the flash of lights, and the dash of serving-men, and the rush of hot hospitality; and although he had not enough true fibre in his stomach to yearn for a taste of the good things going round, there can be little doubt, from what he did thereafter, that his gastric juices must have turned to gall.

With all these sounds and sights and scents of things that he had no right to despise, his patience was tried for an hour and a half, or at any rate he believed so. The beautiful glow in the west died out, where the sun had been ripening his harvest-field of sheafy gold and awny cloud; and the pulse of quivering dusk beat slowly, so that a man might seem to count it, or rather a child, who sees such things, which later men lose sight of. The forms of the deepening distances against the departure of light grew faint, and prominent points became obscure, and lines retired into masses, while Carne maintained his dreary watch, with his mood becoming darker. As the sound of joyful voices, and of good-will doubled by good fare, came to his unfed vigil from the open windows of the dining-room, his heart was not enlarged at all, and the only solace for his lips was to swear at British revelry. For the dining-room was at the western end, some fifty yards away from him, and its principal window faced the sunset, but his lurking-place afforded a view of the southern casements obliquely. Through these he had seen that the lamps were brought, and heard the increase of merry noise, the clapping of hands, and the jovial cheers at the rising of the popular Marquis.

At last he saw a white kerchief waved at the window nearest to him, the window of the Admiral’s little study, which opened like a double door upon the eastern grass-plat. With an ill-conditioned mind, and body stiff and lacking nourishment, he crossed the grass in a few long strides, and was admitted without a word.

“What a time you have been! I was giving it up,” he whispered to the trembling Dolly. “Where are the candles? I must strike a light. Surely you might have brought one. Bolt the door, while I make a light, and close the curtains quietly, but leave the window open. Don’t shake, like a child that is going to be whipped. Too late now for nonsense. What are you afraid of? Silly child!”

As he spoke he was striking a light in a little French box containing a cube of jade, and with very little noise he lit two candles standing on the high oak desk. Dolly drew a curtain across the window, and then went softly to the door, which opened opposite the corner of a narrow passage, and made pretence to bolt it, but shot the bolt outside the socket.

“Come and let me look at you,” said Carne, for he knew that he had been rough with her, and she was not of the kind that submits to that. “Beauty, how pale you look, and yet how perfectly lovely in this evening gown! I should like to kill the two gentlemen who sat next to you at dinner. Darling, you know that whatever I do is only for your own sweet sake.”

“If you please not to touch me, it will be better,” said the lady, not in a whisper, but a firm and quiet voice, although her hands were trembling; “you are come upon business, and you should do it.”

If Carne had but caught her in his arms, and held her to his heart, and vowed that all business might go to the devil while he held his angel so, possibly the glow of nobler feelings might have been lost in the fire of passion. But he kept his selfish end alone in view, and neglected the womanly road to it.

“A despatch from London arrived today; I must see it,” he said, shortly; “as well as the copy of the answer sent. And then my beauty must insert a NOT in the order to be issued in the morning, or otherwise invert its meaning, simply to save useless bloodshed. The key for a moment, the key, my darling, of this fine old piece of furniture!”

“Is it likely that I would give you the key? My father always keeps it. What right have you with his private desk? I never promised anything so bad as that.”

“I am not to be trifled with,” he whispered, sternly. “Do you think that I came here for kissing? The key I must have, or break it open; and how will you explain that away?”

His rudeness settled her growing purpose. The misery of indecision vanished; she would do what was right, if it cost her life. Her face was as white as her satin dress, but her dark eyes flashed with menace.

“There is a key that opens it,” she said, as she pointed to the bookcase; “but I forbid you to touch it, sir.”

Carne’s only reply was to snatch the key from the upper glass door of the book-shelves, which fitted the lock of the Admiral’s desk, though the owner was not aware of it. In a moment the intruder had unlocked the high and massive standing-desk, thrown back the cover, and placed one candlestick among the documents. Many of them he brushed aside, as useless for his purpose, and became bewildered among the rest, for the Commander of the Coast-defence was not a man of order. He never knew where to put a thing, nor even where it might have put itself, but found a casual home for any paper that deserved it. This lack of method has one compensation, like other human defects, to wit, that it puzzles a clandestine searcher more deeply than cypher or cryptogram. Carne had the Admiral’s desk as wide as an oyster thrown back on his valve, and just being undertucked with the knife, to make him go down easily. Yet so great was the power of disorder that nothing could be made out of anything. “Watch at the door,” he had said to Dolly; and this suited her intention.

For while he was thus absorbed, with his back towards her, she opened the door a little, and presently saw the trusty Charles come hurrying by, as if England hung upon his labours. “Tell my father to come here this moment; go softly, and say that I sent you.” As she finished her whisper she closed the door, without any sound, and stood patiently.

“Show me where it is; come and find it for me. Everything here is in the vilest mess,” cried Carne, growing reckless with wrath and hurry. “I want the despatch of this morning, and I find tailors’ bills, way to make water-proof blacking, a list of old women, and a stump of old pipe! Come here, this instant, and show me where it is.”

“If you forget your good manners,” answered Dolly, still keeping in the dark near the door, “I shall have to leave you. Surely you have practice enough in spying, to find what you want, with two candles.”

Carne turned for a moment, and stared at her. Her attitude surprised him, but he could not believe in her courage to rebel. She stood with her back to the door, and met his gaze without a sign of fear.

“There are no official papers here,” he said, after another short ransack; “there must have been some, if this desk is the one. Have you dared to delude me by showing the wrong desk?”

Dolly met his gaze still, and then walked towards him. The band had struck up, and the company were singing with a fine patriotic roar, which rang very nobly in the distance —“Britannia, rule the waves!” Dolly felt like a Briton as the words rolled through her, and the melody lifted her proud heart.

“You have deluded yourself,” she said, standing proudly before the baffled spy; “you have ransacked my father’s private desk, which I allowed you to do, because my father has no secrets. He leaves it open half the time, because he is a man of honour. He is not a man of plots, and wiles, and trickery upon women. And you have deluded yourself, in dreaming that a daughter of his would betray her Country.”

“By the God that made me, I will have your life!” cried Carne in French, as he dashed his hand under his coat to draw his dagger; but the pressure of the desk had displaced that, so that he could not find it. She thought that her time was come, and shrieked — for she was not at all heroic, and loved life very dearly — but she could not take her eyes from his, nor turn to fly from the spell of them; all she could do was to step back; and she did so into her father’s arms.

“Ho!” cried the Admiral, who had entered with the smile of good cheer and good company glowing on his fine old countenance; “my Dolly and a stranger at my private desk! Mr. Carne! I have had a glass or two of wine, but my eyes must be playing me extraordinary tricks. A gentleman searching my desk, and apparently threatening my dear daughter! Have the kindness to explain, before you attempt to leave us.”

If the curtain had not been drawn across the window, Carne would have made his escape, and left the situation to explain itself. But the stuff was thick, and it got between his legs; and before he could slip away, the stout old Admiral had him by the collar with a sturdy grasp, attesting the substance of the passing generation. And a twinkle of good-humour was in the old eyes still — such a wonder was his Dolly that he might be doing wrong in laying hands of force upon a visitor of hers. Things as strange as this had been within his knowledge, and proved to be of little harm — with forbearance. But his eyes grew stern, as Carne tried to dash his hand off.

“If you value your life, you will let me go,” said the young man to the old one.

“I will not let you go, sir, till you clear up this. A gentleman must see that he is bound to do so. If I prove to be wrong, I will apologise. What! Are you going to fire at me? You would never be such a coward!”

He dropped upon the floor, with a bullet in his brain, and his course of duty ended. Carne dashed aside the curtain, and was nearly through the window, when two white arms were cast round his waist. He threw himself forward with all his might, and wrenched at the little hands clasped around him, but they held together like clenched iron. “Will you force me to kill you?” “You may, if you like”— was the dialogue of these lovers.

The strength of a fit was in her despair. She set her bent knees against the window-frame, and a shower of glass fell between them; but she flinched not from her convulsive grasp. “Let me come back, that I may shoot myself,” Carne panted, for his breath was straitened; “what is life to me after losing you?” She made no answer, but took good care not to release so fond a lover. Then he threw himself back with all his weight, and she fell on the floor beneath him. Her clasp relaxed, and he was free; for her eyes had encountered her father’s blood, and she swooned away, and lay as dead.

Carne arose quickly, and bolted the door. His breath was short, and his body trembling, but the wits of the traitor were active still. “I must have something to show for all this,” he thought as he glanced at the bodies on the floor. “Those revellers may not have heard this noise. I know where it is now, and I will get it.”

But the sound of the pistol, and shriek of the girl, had rung through the guests, when the wine was at their lips, and all were nodding to one another. Faith sprang up, and then fell back trembling, and several men ran towards the door. Charles, the footman, met them there, with his face whiter than his napkin, and held up his hands, but could not speak. Erle Twemlow dashed past him and down the passage; and Lord Southdown said: “Gentlemen, see to the ladies. There has been some little mishap, I fear. Bob, and Arthur, come with me.”

Twemlow was first at the study door, and finding it fastened, struck with all his force, and shouted, at the very moment when Carne stood before the true desk of office. “Good door, and good bolt,” muttered Carne; “my rule is never to be hurried by noises. Dolly will be quiet for a quarter of an hour, and the old gentleman forever. All I want is about two minutes.”

Twemlow stepped back a few yards, and then with a good start delivered a rushing kick; but the only result was a jar of his leg through the sole of his thin dress sandal.

“The window!” cried the Marquis. “We’ll stop here; you know the house; take the shortest cut to the window. Whoever is there, we shall have him so. I am too slow. Boy Bob, go with him.”

“What a fool I was not to think of that!” shouted Twemlow, as he set off for the nearest house door, and unluckily Carne heard him. He had struck up the ledge of the desk with the butt of the pistol he had fired, and pocketing a roll of fresh despatches, he strode across the body of the Admiral, and with a glance at Dolly — whose eyes were wide open, but her face drawn aside, like a peach with a split stone — out he went. He smiled as he heard the thundering of full-bodied gentlemen against the study door, and their oaths, as they damaged their knuckles and knee-caps. Then he set off hot-foot, but was stopped by a figure advancing from the corner of the house.

This was not a graceful figure, as of gentle maiden, nor venerable and slow of foot, as that of an ancient mariner, but a man in the prime of strength, and largely endowed with that blessing — the mate of truth. Carne perceived that he had met his equal, and perhaps his better, in a bout of muscle, and he tried to escape by superior mind.

“Twemlow, how glad I am that I have met you! You are the very man I wanted. There has been a sad accident in there with one of the Admiral’s pistols, and the dear old man is badly wounded. I am off for a doctor, for my horse is at hand. For God’s sake run in, and hold his head up, and try to staunch the bleeding. I shall be back in half an hour with the man that lives at Pebbleridge. Don’t lose a moment. Particulars hereafter.”

“Particulars now!” replied Twemlow, sternly, as he planted himself before his cousin. “For years I have lived among liars, and they called a lie Crom, and worshipped it. If this is not Crom, why did you bolt the door?”

“You shall answer for this, when time allows. If the door was bolted, he must have done it. Let me pass; the last chance depends on my speed.”

Carne made a rush to pass, but Twemlow caught him by the breast, and held him. “Come back,” he said, fiercely, “and prove your words. Without that, you go no further.”

Carne seized him by the throat, but his mighty beard, like a collar of hemp, protected him, and he brought his big brown fist like a hammer upon the traitor’s forehead. Carne wrenched at his dagger, but failed to draw it, and the two strong men rolled on the grass, fighting like two bull-dogs. Reason, and thought, and even sense of pain were lost in brutal fury, as they writhed, and clutched, and dug at one another, gashing their knuckles, and gnashing their teeth, frothing with one another’s blood, for Carne bit like a tiger. At length tough condition and power of endurance got the mastery, and Twemlow planted his knee upon the gasping breast of Carne.

“Surrend,” he said, for his short breath could not fetch up the third syllable; and Carne with a sign of surrender lay on his back, and put his chin up, and shut his eyes as if he had fainted. Twemlow with self-congratulation waited a little to recover breath, still keeping his knee in the post of triumph, and pinning the foe’s right arm to his side. But the foe’s left hand was free, and with the eyes still shut, and a continuance of gasping, that left hand stole its way to the left pocket, quietly drew forth the second pistol, pressed back the hammer on the grass, and with a flash (both of eyes and of flint) fired into the victor’s forehead. The triumphant knee rolled off the chest, the body swung over, as a log is rolled by the woodman’s crowbar, and Twemlow’s back was on the grass, and his eyes were closed to the moonlight.

Carne scrambled up and shook himself, to be sure that all his limbs were sound. “Ho, ho, ho!” he chuckled; “it is not so easy to beat me. Why, who are you? Down with you, then!”

Lord Robert Chancton, a lad of about sixteen, the eldest son of the Marquis, had lost his way inside the house, in trying to find a short-cut to the door, and coming up after the pistol was fired, made a very gallant rush at the enemy. With a blow of the butt Carne sent him sprawling; then dashing among the shrubs and trees, in another minute was in the saddle, and galloping towards the ancestral ruins.

As he struck into the main road through the grounds, Carne passed and just missed by a turn of the bridle another horseman ascending the hill, and urging a weary animal. The faces of the men shot past each other within a short yard, and gaze met gaze; but neither in the dark flash knew the other, for a big tree barred the moonlight. But Carne, in another moment, thought that the man who had passed must be Scudamore, probably fraught with hot tidings. And the thought was confirmed, as he met two troopers riding as hard as ride they might; and then saw the beacon on the headland flare. From point to point, and from height to height, like a sprinkle of blood, the red lights ran; and the roar of guns from the moon-lit sea made echo that they were ready. Then the rub-a-dub-dub of the drum arose, and the thrilling blare of trumpet; the great deep of the night was heaved and broken with the stir of human storm; and the staunchest and strongest piece of earth — our England — was ready to defend herself.

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