One of the dinners at the Darling Arms, and perhaps the most brilliant and exciting of the whole, because even the waiters understood the subject, was the entertainment given in the month of December, A.D. 1803, not only by the officers of two regiments quartered for the time near Stonnington, but also by all the leading people round about those parts, in celebration of the great work done by His Majesty’s 38-gun frigate Leda. Several smaller dinners had been consumed already, by way of practice, both for the cooks and the waiters and the chairman, and Mr. John Prater, who always stood behind him, with a napkin in one hand and a corkscrew in the other, and his heart in the middle, ready either to assuage or stimulate. As for the guests, it was always found that no practice had been required.
“But now, but now”— as Mr. Prater said, when his wife pretended to make nothing of it, for no other purpose than to aggravate him, because she thought that he was making too much money, in proportion to what he was giving her —“now we shall see what Springhaven can do for the good of the Country and the glory of herself. Two bottles and a half a head is the lowest that can be charged for, with the treble X outside, and the punch to follow after. His lordship is the gentleman to keep the bottle going.”
For the Lord–Lieutenant of the county, the popular Marquis of Southdown, had promised to preside at this grand dinner; and everybody knew what that meant. “Short tongue and long throat,” was his lordship’s motto in the discharge of all public business, and “Bottle to the gentleman on my left!” was the practical form of his eulogies. In a small space like this, there would be no chance for a sober-minded guest to escape his searching eye, and Blyth Scudamore (appointed to represent the officers of the Leda, and therefore the hero of the evening) felt as happy as a dog being led to be drowned, in view of this liquid ordeal. For Blyth was a temperate and moderate young man, neither such a savage as to turn his wine to poison, nor yet so Anti–Christian as to turn it into water.
Many finer places had been offered for the feast, and foremost amongst them the Admiral’s house; but the committee with sound judgment had declined them all. The great point was to have a place within easy reach of boats, and where gallant naval officers could be recalled at once, if the French should do anything outrageous, which they are apt to do at the most outrageous time. But when a partition had been knocked down, and the breach tacked over with festoons of laurel, Mr. Prater was quite justified in rubbing his red hands and declaring it as snug a box as could be for the business. There was even a dark elbow where the staircase jutted out, below the big bressemer of the partition, and made a little gallery for ladies to hear speeches, and behold the festive heroes while still fit to be beholden. And Admiral Darling, as vice-chairman, entering into facts masculine and feminine, had promised his daughters and Miss Twemlow, under charge of the rector’s wife and Mrs. Stubbard, a peep at this heroic scene, before it should become too convivial. The rescuers also of the Blonde, the flesh and bone, without which the master brain must still have lain stranded, were to have a grand supper in the covered skittle-alley, as the joints came away from their betters, this lower deck being in command of Captain Tugwell, who could rouse up his crew as fast as his lordship roused his officers.
Admiral Darling had been engaged of late in the service of his Country so continually, and kept up and down the great roads so much, or in and out of any little port where sailors grew, that his own door had nearly forgotten his shadow, and his dining-room table the reflection of his face. For, in those days, to keep a good table implied that the table must be good, as well as what was put upon it; and calico spread upon turpentine was not yet considered the proper footing for the hospitable and social glass.
“When shall Twemlow and I have a hobnob again?” the Admiral asked himself many a time. “How the dear old fellow loves to see the image of his glass upon the table, and the ruby of his port reflected! Heigho! I am getting very stiff in the back, and never a decent bit of dinner for’ard. And as for a glass of good wine — oh Lord! my timbers will be broken up, before it comes to mend them. And when I come home for even half an hour, there is all this small rubbish to attend to. I must have Frank home, to take this stuff off my hands, or else keep what I abominate, a private secretary.”
Among the pile of letters that had lain unopened was one which he left to the last, because he disliked both the look and the smell of it. A dirty, ugly scrawl it was, bulged out with clumsy folding, and dabbed with wax in the creases. With some dislike he tore it open; and the dislike became loathing, as he read:
“Hon’d Sir. These foo lines comes from a umble but arty frend to command. Rekwesting of your pardon sir, i have kep a hi same been father of good dawters on the goings on of your fammeley. Miss Faith she is a hangel sir but Miss Dolly I fere no better than she ort to be, and wonderful fond of been noticed. I see her keeping company and carryin on dreadful with a tall dark young man as meens no good and lives to Widow Shankses. Too nites running when the days was short she been up to the cornder of your grounds to meat he there ever so long. Only you hask her if you dont believe me and wash her fase same time sir. Too other peple besides me nose it. Excoose hon’d sir this trubble from your obejiant servant
“FAX AND NO MISSTAKE.”
The Admiral’s healthy face turned blue with rage and contempt, and he stamped with his heel, as if he had the writer under it. To write a stabbing letter, and to dare to deal the stab, and yet fear to show the hand that deals it, was at that time considered a low thing to do. Even now there are people who so regard it, though a still better tool for a blackguard — the anonymous post-card — is now superseding it.
All the old man’s pleasure, and cheer, and comfort, and joy in having one day at home at last, were dashed and shattered and turned into wretched anxiety by this vile scrawl. He meant to have gone down, light of heart, with a smiling daughter upon either arm, to the gallant little festival where everybody knew him, and every one admired and loved him. His two pretty daughters would sit upstairs, watching from a bow-window (though themselves unseen) all the dashing arrivals and the grand apparel. Then when the Marquis made his speech, and the King and Queen and Royal Family rode upon the clouds, and the grandeur of Great Britain was above the stars of heaven, the ladies in the gallery would venture just to show themselves, not for one moment with a dream of being looked at, but from romantic loyalty, and the fervour of great sentiments. People pretending not to know would ask, “Who are those very lovely ladies?” And he would make believe to know nothing at all about it, but his heart would know whether he knew it or not.
On the very eve of all this well-earned bliss, when it would have refreshed his fagged body and soul — which were now not so young as they used to be — to hear from some scoundrel without a name, that his pet child, the life of his life, was no better than she ought to be, which being said of a woman means that she is as bad as she can be! This fine old gentleman had never received such a cowardly back-handed blow till now, and for a moment he bent under it.
Then, greatly ashamed of himself, he arose, and with one strong word, which even Mr. Twemlow might have used under such provocation, he trod the vile stuff under foot, and pitched it with the fire-tongs into the fire. After this he felt better, and resolving most stoutly that he never would let it cross his mind again, made a light and cheerful answer to the profligate one — his young girl who came seeking him.
“Oh, father, and you ought to be dressed!” she cried. “Shall we keep His Majesty the Lord–Lieutenant waiting? Don’t let us go at all. Let us stop at home, papa. We never see you now, more than once in a month; and we don’t want to see you from a staircase hole, where we mustn’t even blow a kiss to you. I have got such a lot of things to tell you, dear father; and I could make you laugh much more than they will.”
“But, my darling — all these grand things?” said the father, gently fingering but half afraid to look at her, because of what had been in his own mind; “the sweetest Navy blue, and the brightest Army red, and little bits of silver lace so quiet in between them! I am sure I don’t know what to call a quarter of it; but the finest ship ever seen under full sail, with the sun coming through her from her royals to her courses —”
“Now, papa, don’t be so ridiculous. You know that I am not a fine ship at all, but only a small frigate, about eighteen guns at the outside, I should say — though she would be a sloop of war, wouldn’t she? — and come here at any rate for you to command her, if you are not far too lofty an Admiral.”
“Do you love your old father, my dear?” said he, being carried beyond his usual state by the joy in her eyes as she touched him.
“What a shame to ask me such a question? Oh, papa, I ought to say, ‘Do you love me?’ when you go away weeks and months almost together! Take that, papa; and be quite ashamed of yourself.”
She swept all her breast-knots away anyhow — that had taken an hour to arbitrate — and flung back her hair that would never be coiled, and with a flash of tears leaping into laughing eyes, threw both arms round her father’s neck, and pressed her cool sweet lips to his, which were not at all in the same condition.
“There, see what you’ve done for me now!” she cried. “It will take three-quarters of an hour, papa, to make me look fit to be looked at again. The fashions are growing so ridiculous now — it is a happy thing for us that we are a hundred years behind them, as Eliza Twemlow had the impudence to say; and really, for the daughter of a clergyman —”
“I don’t care that for Eliza Twemlow,” the Admiral exclaimed, with a snap of his thumb. “Let her show herself as much as there is demand for. Or rather, what I mean to say is, let Miss Twemlow be as beautiful as nature has made her, my dear; and no doubt that is very considerable. But I like you to be different; and you are. I like you to be simple, and shy, and retiring, and not to care twopence what any one thinks of you, so long as your father is contented.”
Dolly looked at her father, as if there were no other man in the world for the moment. Then her conscience made her bright eyes fall, as she whispered: “To be sure, papa. I only put these things on to please you; and if you don’t like them, away they go. Perhaps I should look nicer in my great-aunt’s shawl. And my feet would be warmer, oh ever so much! I know where it is, and if you prefer the look of it —”
“No, no!” cried the simple old father, as the girl tripped away in hot haste to seek for it; “I forbid you to make such a guy of yourself. You must not take my little banter, darling, in such a matter-of-fact way, or I must hold my tongue.”
“Thank God,” he continued to himself, as Miss Dolly ran away, to repair her damages; “the simple little soul thinks of nobody but me! How could I be such a fool as to imagine harm of her? Why, she is quite a child, a bigger child than I am. I shall enjoy my evening all the more for this.”
And truly there seemed to be no reason why all the guests at that great festival, save those who had speeches to make, should not enjoy their evening thoroughly. Great preparations had been made, and goodly presents contributed; plenty of serving-men would be there, and John Prater (now growing white-headed and portly) was becoming so skilful a caterer that if anything was suggested to him, he had always thought of it long ago. The only grief was that the hour should be so late — five o’clock, an unchristian time, as they said, for who could have manners after starving so long?
There was some sense in this; but the unreasonable lateness of the hour could not be helped, because the Lord–Lieutenant had to wait upon the King at eight o’clock that morning. That he could do so, and yet be in Springhaven by five, seemed almost impossible; for only ten years ago the journey took two days. But the war seemed to make everything go quicker, and it was no use to wonder at anything. Only if everything else went quicker, why should dinner (the most important of them all) come slower? And as yet there was nobody to answer this; though perhaps there is no one to ask it now.
All things began very beautifully. The young ladies slipped in unobserved, and the elder blessings of mankind came after, escorting themselves with dignity. Then the heroes who had fought, and the gallants who had not had the luck yet, but were eager for it, came pleasantly clanking in, well girt to demolish ox and sheep, like Ajax, in lack of loftier carnage. The rector said grace, and the Marquis amen, and in less than two minutes every elbow was up, and every mouth at business. There was very little talking for the first half hour. In those days emptiness was not allowed to make the process of filling a misery.
While these fine fellows were still in the prime of their feeding, bent over and upon it, two men with empty stomachs, and a long way between them and their victuals, stood afar regarding them. That is to say, just far enough to be quite out of sight from the windows, in the gloom of the December evening; but at the same time near enough, to their own unhappiness, to see and even smell the choice affairs across the road.
“For what, then, hast thou brought me here?” the shorter man sharply asked the tall one, both being in an uncomfortable place in a hedge, and with briars that scratched them. “Is it to see other people eat, when to eat myself is impossible? You have promised to show me a very fine thing, and leagues have I traversed to please you. Fie, then, what is it? To see eat, eat, eat, and drink, drink, drink, and have nothing for myself!”
“My friend,” said the tall man, “I have not brought you here with any desire to improve your appetite, which is always abundant, and cannot be gratified for several hours, and with poor stuff then, compared to what you are beholding. Those men are feeding well. You can see how they enjoy it. There is not a morsel in their mouths that has not a very choice flavour of its own distinguished relish. See, there is the venison just waiting to be carved, and a pheasant between every two of them. If only the wind was a little more that way, and the covers taken off the sauce-boats, and the gravy — ah, do I perceive a fine fragrance, or is it a desirous imagination?”
“Bah! you are of the cold-blood, the wicked self-command. For me it is either to rush in, or rush away. No longer can I hold my nose and mouth. And behold they have wine — grand wine — the wine of Sillery, of Medoc, of Barsac, and of Burgundy! By the bottles I can tell them, and by all the Saints —”
“Be not so excited, for you cannot smack the lips. It is too late now to envy them their solids, because they have made such speed with them. But listen, my dear friend”— and here the tall man whispered into the ear of his brisk companion, who danced with delight in the ungenial hedge, till his face was scarred with brambles.
“It is magnificent, it is droll, it is what you call in England one grand spree, though of that you understand not the signification. But, my faith, it is at the same time barbarous, and almost too malignant.”
“Too benevolent Charron,” said the tall stern man, “that shall rest upon my conscience, not on yours. The object is not to spoil their noisy revel, but to gain instruction of importance. To obtain a clear idea of the measures they adopt — ah, you see, you are as quick as lightning. This urgent message is upon official paper, which I have taken from the desk of that very stupid Stubbard. Take the horse Jerry holds at the corner, and the officer’s hat and cape provided are ample disguise for so dark a night. Take the lane behind the hills, and gallop two miles eastward, till you come to the shore again, then turn back towards the village by way of the beach, and you will meet the Coast-guard on duty, a stupid fellow called Vickers. Your horse by that time will be piping and roaring: he can go like the wind, but his own is broken. The moment you see Vickers, begin to swear at your horse. I have practised you in d — ns, for an emergency.”
“Ten thousand thunders, I can say d — n now to equal and surpass the purest born of all Britons.”
“Not so loud, my friend, until by-and-by. The Coast-guard will come to you, and you pull up with your horse hanging down his head, as if dead-beaten. Using your accomplishment again, you say: ‘Here, take this on to Admiral Darling. My nag is quite done, and I must get to Stonnington to call Colonel James. For your life, run, run. You’ll get a guinea, if you look sharp.’ Before he can think of it, turn your horse, and make back to the lane, as if for Stonnington. But instead of that, gallop back to our ruins; and we’ll go up the hill, and see what comes of it.”
“It is very good, it is magnificent. But will not the sentinel perceive my voice and accent?”
“Not he; he is a very honest and therefore stupid fellow. Give him no time, answer no questions. Be all in a rush, as you so generally are. I would do it myself, but I am too well known. Say, will you undertake it? It will be a fine joke for you.”
About half an hour after this, the Lord–Lieutenant having hammered on the table with an empty bottle, stood up to propose the chief toast of the evening — the gallant crew of the Leda, and the bold sailors of Springhaven. His lordship had scarcely had a bottle and a half, and was now in the prime of his intellect. A very large man, with a long brocaded coat of ruby-coloured cloth, and white satin breeches, a waistcoat of primrose plush emblazoned with the Union-jack (then the popular device) in gorgeous silks with a margin of bright gold, and a neckcloth pointed and plaited in with the rarest lace, worth all the rest put together — what a pity it seemed that such a man should get drunk, or at any rate try so hard to do it. There was not a pimple on his face, his cheeks were rosy and glistening, but not flushed; and his eyes were as bright and clear and deep as a couple of large sapphires.
This nobleman said a few words, without any excitement, or desire to create it, every word to the point, and the best that could be chosen not to go beyond the point. There was no attempt at eloquence, and yet the speech was eloquent, because it suggested so much more than was said. More excitable natures, overcome by half a bottle, resolved to have the other half, in honour of that toast.
Then the Marquis did a very kind and thoughtful thing, for which he deserved a bottle of the Royal Tokay, such as even Napoleon could not obtain. When the cheering was done, and every eye was fixed upon the blushing Scudamore — who felt himself, under that fixture, like an insect under a lens which the sun is turning into a burning-glass — the Chairman perceived his sad plight, and to give him more time and more spirit, rose again.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “or I would rather call you brother Englishmen at this moment, I have forgotten one thing. Before our young hero replies to his health, let us give him that spirited song ‘Billy Blue,’ which is well known to every man here, I’ll be bound. Tell the drummer down there to be ready for chorus.” Billy Blue, though almost forgotten now (because the enemy would not fight him), the blockader of Brest, the hardy, skilful, and ever watchful Admiral Cornwallis, would be known to us nearly as well as Nelson, if fame were not a lottery.
As the Lord–Lieutenant waved his hand, the company rose with one accord, and followed the lead of his strong clear voice in the popular song, called
“’Tis a terrible time for Englishmen;
All tyrants do abhor them;
Every one of them hath to fight with ten,
And the Lord alone is for them.
But the Lord hath given the strong right hand,
And the courage to face the thunder;
If a Frenchman treads this English land,
He shall find his grave thereunder.
Britannia is the Ocean–Queen, and she standeth staunch and
With Nelson for her faulchion keen, and her buckler Billy Blue.
“They are mustering on yon Gallic coasts,
You can see them from this high land,
The biggest of all the outlandish hosts
That ever devoured an island.
There are steeds that have scoured the Continent,
Ere ever one might say, ‘Whoa, there!’
And ships that would fill the Thames and Trent,
If we would let them go there.
But England is the Ocean–Queen, and it shall be hard to do;
Not a Frenchman shall skulk in between herself and her Billy
“From the smiling bays of Devonshire
To the frowning cliffs of Filey,
Leaps forth every son of an English sire,
To fight for his native isley.
He hath drawn the sword of his father now
From the rusty sheath it rattled in;
And Dobbin, who dragged the peaceful plough,
Is neighing for the battle-din.
For Albion still is Ocean–Queen, and though her sons be few,
They challenge the world with a dauntless mien, and the flag
of Billy Blue.
“Then pledge me your English palm, my lad;
Keep the knuckles for Sir Frenchman;
No slave can you be till you change your dad,
And no son of yours a henchman.
The fight is to come; and we will not brag,
Nor expect whatever we sigh for,
But stand as the rock that bears the flag
Our duty is to die for.
For Englishmen confront serene whatever them betideth;
And England shall be Ocean’s Queen as long as the world
What with the drum and the fifes of one of the regiments now at Stonnington, and the mighty bass of some sea-captains vehement in chorus, these rough and rolling lines were enough to frighten a thousand Frenchmen, while proving the vigour of British nerve, and fortitude both of heart and ear. When people have done a thing well, they know it, and applaud one another to include themselves; and even the ladies, who were meant to be unseen, forgot that and waved their handkerchiefs. Then up and spoke Blyth Scudamore, in the spirit of the moment; and all that he said was good and true, well-balanced and well-condensed, like himself. His quiet melodious voice went further than the Lord–Lieutenant’s, because it was new to the air of noise, and that fickle element loves novelty. All was silence while he spoke, and when he ceased — great uproar.
“That lad will do,” said the Marquis to his supporter on the right hand; “I was just like him at that age myself. Let me draw this cork — it is the bottle of the evening. None but my own fellows understand a cork, and they seem to have got away somewhere. What the doose are they about — why, halloa, Darling! What’s the meaning of all this, at such a time?”
“Well, my lord, you must judge for yourself,” said the Admiral, who had made his way quietly from the bottom of the table. “We know that false alarms are plentiful. But this looks like business, from the paper it is written on; and I know that old Dudgeon is as solid as myself. Vickers the Coast-guard brought it in, from an officer whose horse was blown, who had orders to get somehow to Stonnington.”
“Is Vickers a knave, or a fool who is likely to be made the victim of a very low joke? There are hundreds of jealous scoundrels eager to spoil every patriotic gathering. Ah, this looks rather serious, though, if you can vouch for the paper.”
“I can vouch for the paper, my lord, and for Vickers; but not for Dudgeon’s signature. Of that I have no knowledge — though it looks right enough, so far as I know. Shall I read it aloud, and let officers who are not under my command judge for themselves, as I shall judge for those I have the honour to command?”
The Lord–Lieutenant, with his cork just squeaking in the neck of the bottle, nodded; and the Admiral, with officers crowding round, read aloud as follows, part being in type, and part in manuscript:
“Commander of Coast-defence at Hythe, to Vice–Admiral Darling, Springhaven.
“French fleet standing in, must have slipped Cornwallis. Do all you can. Not a moment to lose.
(Signed) “BELLAMY DUDGEON.”
“Well, it may be true, or it may be a lie,” said the Marquis, pouring carefully; “my opinion is the latter; but I have nothing to do with it officially, according to the new arrangements. Every gentleman must judge for himself. And I mean to abide by my own judgment, which strongly recommends me to finish this bottle.”
“Probably you are right enough; and in your place perhaps I should do the same,” the Admiral answered, quietly; “but be the alarm either true or false, I am bound to act otherwise. All Naval Officers present will be good enough to follow me, and prepare to rejoin if ordered. We shall very soon know from the signal-point, unless fog has set in suddenly, whether we are bound to beat a general alarm.”
All the sons of the sea arose quietly, and were despatched with brief orders to the right and left, to communicate with their signal stations, while Stubbard hurried back to his battery.
“What cold blood they do display!” whispered the Frenchman, who had returned with the author of the plot to watch the issue from a point of vantage. “My faith, they march slowly for their native land! Not less than six bottles of great French wine did I anticipate to steal through the window, while they fell out precipitous. But there sits a man big enough to leave me nothing — not even a remainder of my own body. Soul of St. Denis, can it be that they question the word of a gentleman?”
“Not they!” replied Carne, who was vexed, however; “they are taking things easily, according to the custom of the nation. But two good things we have done, friend Charron; we have learned their proceedings, and we have spoiled their feasting.”
“But not at all; they are all coming back to enjoy it all the more!” cried the Frenchman. “Oh that I were an Englishman, to get such a dinner, and to be so loyal to it!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47