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.
THE WAY OUT OF IT
"My father! my father! I must see my father. Who are you, that dare to keep me out? Let me know the worst, and try to bear it. What are any of you to him?"
"But, my dear child," Lord Southdown answered, holding the door against poor Faith, as she strove to enter the room of death, "wait just one minute, until we have lifted him to the sofa, and let us bring your poor sister out."
"I have no sister. She has killed my father, and the best thing she can do is to die. I feel that I could shoot her, if I had a pistol. Let me see him, where he lies."
"But, my poor dear, you must think of others. Your dear father is beyond all help. Your gallant lover lies on the grass. They hope to bring him round, God willing! Go where you can be of use."
"How cruel you are! You must want to drive me mad. Let his father and mother see to him, while I see to my own father. If you had a daughter, you would understand. Am I crying? Do I even tremble?"
The Marquis offered his arm, and she took it in fear of falling, though she did not tremble; so he led her to her father's last repose. The poor Admiral lay by the open window, with his head upon a stool which Faith had worked. The ghastly wound was in his broad smooth forehead, and his fair round cheeks were white with death. But the heart had not quite ceased to beat, and some remnant of the mind still hovered somewhere in the lacerated brain. Stubbard, sobbing like a child, was lifting and clumsily chafing one numb hand; while his wife, who had sponged the wound, was making the white curls wave with a fan she had shaped from a long official paper found upon the floor.
Dolly was recovering from her swoon, and sat upon a stool by the bookcase, faintly wondering what had happened, but afraid to ask or think. The corner of the bookcase, and the burly form of Stubbard, concealed the window from her, and the torpid oppression which ensues upon a fit lay between her and her agony. Faith, as she passed, darted one glance at her, not of pity, not of love, but of cold contempt and satisfaction at her misery.
Then Faith, the quiet and gentle maid, the tranquil and the self-controlled (whom every one had charged with want of heart, because she had borne her own grief so well), stood with the body of her father at her feet, and uttered an exceeding bitter cry. The others had seen enough of grief, as every human being must, but nothing half so sad as this. They feared to look at her face, and durst not open lips to comfort her.
"Don't speak. Don't look at him. You have no right here. When he comes to himself, he will want none but me. I have always done everything for him since dear mother died; and I shall get him to sit up. He will be so much better when he sits up. I can get him to do it, if you will only go. Oh, father, father, it is your own Faith come to make you well, dear, if you will only look at me!"
As she took his cold limp hand and kissed it, and wiped a red splash from his soft white hair, the dying man felt, by nature's feeling, that he was being touched by a child of his. A faint gleam flitted through the dimness of his eyes, which he had not the power to close, and the longing to say "farewell" contended with the drooping of the underlip. She was sure that he whispered, "Bless you, darling!" though nobody else could have made it out; but a sudden rush of tears improved her hearing, as rain brings higher voices down.
"Dolly too!" he seemed to whisper next; and Faith made a sign to Mrs. Stubbard. Then Dolly was brought, and fell upon her knees, at the other side of her father, and did not know how to lament as yet, and was scarcely sure of having anything to mourn. But she spread out her hands, as if for somebody to take them, and bowed her pale face, and closed her lips, that she might be rebuked without answering.
Her father knew her; and his yearning was not to rebuke, but to bless and comfort her. He had forgotten everything, except that he was dying, with a daughter at each side of him. This appeared to make him very happy, about everything, except those two. He could not be expected to have much mind left; but the last of it was busy for his children's good. Once more he tried to see them both, and whispered his last message to them—"Forgive and love each other."
Faith bowed her head, as his fell back, and silently offered to kiss her sister; but Dolly neither moved nor looked at her. "As you please," said Faith; "and perhaps you would like to see a little more of your handiwork."
For even as she spoke, her lover's body was carried past the window, with his father and mother on either side, supporting his limp arms and sobbing. Then Dolly arose, and with one hand grasping the selvage of the curtain, fixed one long gaze upon her father's corpse. There were no tears in her eyes, no sign of anguish in her face, no proof that she knew or felt what she had done. And without a word she left the room.
"Hard to the last, even hard to you!" cried Faith, as her tears fell upon the cold forehead. "Oh, darling, how could you have loved her so?"
"It is not hardness; it is madness. Follow your sister," Lord Southdown said. "We have had calamities enough."
But Faith was fighting with all her strength against an attack of hysterics, and fetching long gasps to control herself. "I will go," replied Mrs. Stubbard; "this poor child is quite unfit. What on earth is become of Lady Scudamore? A doctor's widow might have done some good."
The doctor's widow was doing good elsewhere. In the first rush from the dining-room, Lady Scudamore had been pushed back by no less a person than Mrs. Stubbard; when at last she reached the study door she found it closed against her, and entering the next room, saw the flash of the pistol fired at Twemlow. Bravely hurrying to the spot by the nearest outlet she could find, she became at once entirely occupied with this new disaster. For two men who ran up with a carriage lamp declared that the gentleman was as dead as a door-nail, and hastened to make good their words by swinging him up heels over head. But the lady made them set him down and support his head, while she bathed the wound, and sent to the house for his father and mother, and when he could be safely brought in-doors, helped with her soft hands beneath his hair, and then became so engrossed with him that the arrival of her long-lost son was for several hours unknown to her.
For so many things coming all at once were enough to upset any one. Urgent despatches came hot for the hand that now was cold for ever; not a moment to lose, when time had ceased for the man who was to urge it. There were plenty of officers there, but no one clearly entitled to take command. Moreover, the public service clashed with the personal rage of the moment. Some were for rushing to the stables, mounting every horse that could be found, and scouring the country, sword in hand, for that infernal murderer. Some, having just descried the flash of beacon from the headland, and heard the alarm-guns from shore and sea, were for hurrying to their regiments, or ships, or homes and families (according to the head-quarters of their life), while others put their coats on to ride for all the doctors in the county, who should fetch back the Admiral to this world, that he might tell everybody what to do. Scudamore stood with his urgent despatches in the large well-candled hall, and vainly desired to deliver them. "Send for the Marquis," suggested some one.
Lord Southdown came, without being sent for. "I shall take this duty upon myself," he said, "as Lord-Lieutenant of the county. Captain Stubbard, as commander of the nearest post, will come with me and read these orders. Gentlemen, see that your horses are ready, and have all of the Admiral's saddled. Captain Scudamore, you have discharged your trust, and doubtless ridden far and hard. My orders to you are a bottle of wine and a sirloin of roast beef at once."
For the sailor was now in very low condition, weary, and worried, and in want of food. Riding express, and changing horses twice, not once had he recruited the inner man, who was therefore quite unfit to wrestle with the power of sudden grief. When he heard of the Admiral's death, he staggered as if a horse had stumbled under him, and his legs being stiff from hard sticking to saddle, had as much as they could do to hold him up. Yet he felt that he could not do the right thing now, he could not go and deal with the expedient victuals, neither might he dare intrude upon the ladies now; so he went out to comfort himself by attending to the troubles of his foundered horse, and by shedding unseen among the trees the tears which had gathered in his gentle eyes.
According to the surest law of nature, that broken-down animal had been forgotten as soon as he was done with. He would have given his four legs—if he could legally dispose of them—for a single draught of sweet delicious rapturous ecstatic water; but his bloodshot eyes sought vainly, and his welted tongue found nothing wet, except the flakes of his own salt foam. Until, with the help of the moon, a sparkle (worth more to his mind than all the diamonds he could draw)—a sparkle of the purest water gleamed into his dim eyes from the distance. Recalling to his mind's eyes the grand date of his existence when he was a colt, and had a meadow to himself, with a sparkling river at the end of it, he set forth in good faith, and, although his legs were weary, "negotiated"—as the sporting writers say—the distance between him and the object of his desire. He had not the least idea that this had cost ten guineas—as much as his own good self was worth; for it happened to be the first dahlia seen in that part of the country. That gaudy flower at its first appearance made such a stir among gardeners that Mr. Swipes gave the Admiral no peace until he allowed him to order one. And so great was this gardener's pride in his profession that he would not take an order for a rooted slip or cutting, from the richest man in the neighbourhood, for less than half a guinea. Therefore Mr. Swipes was attending to the plant with the diligence of a wet-nurse, and the weather being dry, he had soaked it overhead, even before he did that duty to himself.
A man of no teeth can take his nourishment in soup; and nature, inverting her manifold devices—which she would much rather do than be beaten—has provided that a horse can chew his solids into liquids, if there is a drop of juice in their composition, when his artificial life has failed to supply him with the bucket. This horse, being very dry, laid his tongue to the water-drops that sparkled on the foliage. He found them delicious, and he longed for more, and very soon his ready mind suggested that the wet must have come out of the leaves, and there must be more there. Proceeding on this argument, he found it quite correct, and ten guineas' worth of dahlia was gone into his stomach by the time that Captain Scudamore came courteously to look after him.
Blyth, in equal ignorance of his sumptuous repast, gave him a pat of approval, and was turning his head towards the stable yard, when he saw a white figure gliding swiftly through the trees beyond the belt of shrubbery. Weary and melancholy as he was, and bewildered with the tumult of disasters, his heart bounded hotly as he perceived that the figure was that of his Dolly—Dolly, the one love of his life, stealing forth, probably to mourn alone the loss of her beloved father. As yet he knew nothing of her share in that sad tale, and therefore felt no anxiety at first about her purpose. He would not intrude upon her grief; he had no right to be her comforter; but still she should have some one to look after her, at that time of night, and with so much excitement and danger in the air. So the poor horse was again abandoned to his own resources, and being well used to such treatment, gazed as wistfully and delicately after the young man Scudamore as that young man gazed after his lady-love.
To follow a person stealthily is not conducive to one's self-respect, but something in the lady's walk and gesture impelled the young sailor to follow her. She appeared to be hastening, with some set purpose, and without any heed of circumstance, towards a part of the grounds where no house was, no living creature for company, nor even a bench to rest upon. There was no foot-path in that direction, nor anything to go to, but the inland cliff that screened the Hall from northeastern winds, and at its foot a dark pool having no good name in the legends of the neighbourhood. Even Parson Twemlow would not go near it later than the afternoon milking of the cows, and Captain Zeb would much rather face a whole gale of wind in a twelve-foot boat than give one glance at its dead calm face when the moon like a ghost stood over it.
"She is going towards Corpse-walk pit," thought Scuddy—"a cheerful place at this time of night! She might even fall into it unawares, in her present state of distraction. I am absolutely bound to follow her."
Duty fell in with his wishes, as it has a knack of doing. Forgetting his weariness, he followed, and became more anxious at every step. For the maiden walked as in a dream, without regard of anything, herself more like a vision than a good substantial being. To escape Mrs. Stubbard she had gone upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom, and then slipped out without changing dress, but throwing a dark mantle over it. This had fallen off, and she had not cared to stop or think about it, but went on to her death exactly as she went in to dinner. Her dress of white silk took the moonlight with a soft gleam like itself, and her clustering curls (released from fashion by the power of passion) fell, like the shadows, on her sweet white neck. But she never even asked herself how she looked; she never turned round to admire her shadow: tomorrow she would throw no shade, but be one; and how she looked, or what she was, would matter, to the world she used to think so much of, never more.
Suddenly she passed from the moonlight into the blackness of a lonely thicket, and forced her way through it, without heed of bruise or rent. At the bottom of the steep lay the long dark pit, and she stood upon the brink and gazed into it. To a sane mind nothing could look less inviting. All above was air and light, freedom of the wind and play of moon with summer foliage; all below was gloom and horror, cold eternal stillness, and oblivion everlasting. Even the new white frock awoke no flutter upon that sullen breast.
Dolly heaved a sigh and shuddered, but she did not hesitate. Her mind was wandering, but her heart was fixed to make atonement, to give its life for the life destroyed, and to lie too deep for shame or sorrow. Suddenly a faint gleam caught her eyes. The sob of self-pity from her fair young breast had brought into view her cherished treasures, bright keepsakes of the girlish days when many a lover worshipped her. Taking from her neck the silken braid, she kissed them, and laid them on the bank. "They were all too good for me," she thought; "they shall not perish with me."
Then, with one long sigh, she called up all her fleeting courage, and sprang upon a fallen trunk which overhung the water. "There will be no Dan to save me now," she said as she reached the end of it. "Poor Dan! He will be sorry for me. This is the way out of it."
Her white satin shoes for a moment shone upon the black bark of the tree, and, with one despairing prayer to Heaven, she leaped into the liquid grave.
Dan was afar, but another was near, who loved her even more than Dan. Blyth Scudamore heard the plunge, and rushed to the brink of the pit, and tore his coat off. For a moment he saw nothing but black water heaving silently; then something white appeared, and moved, and a faint cry arose, and a hopeless struggle with engulfing death began.
"Keep still, don't struggle, only spread your arms, and throw your head back as far as you can," he cried, as he swam with long strokes towards her. But if she heard, she could not heed, as the lights of the deep sky came and went, and the choking water flashed between, and gurgled into her ears and mouth, and smothered her face with her own long hair. She dashed her poor helpless form about, and flung out her feet for something solid, and grasped in dim agony at the waves herself had made. Then her dress became heavily bagged with water, and the love of life was quenched, and the night of death enveloped her. Without a murmur, down she went, and the bubbles of her breath came up.
Scudamore uttered a bitter cry, for his heart was almost broken—within an arm's-length of his love, and she was gone for ever! For the moment he did not perceive that the clasp of despair must have drowned them both. Pointing his hands and throwing up his heels, he made one vain dive after her, then he knew that the pit was too deep for the bottom to be reached in that way. He swam to the trunk from which Dolly had leaped, and judging the distance by the sullen ripple, dashed in with a dive like a terrified frog. Like a bullet he sank to the bottom, and groped with three fathoms of water above him. Just as his lungs were giving out, he felt something soft and limp and round. Grasping this by the trailing hair, he struck mightily up for the surface, and drew a long breath, and sustained above water the head that fell back upon his panting breast.
Some three hours later, Dolly Darling lay in her own little bed, as pale as death, but sleeping the sleep of the world that sees the sun; while her only sister knelt by her side, weeping the tears of a higher world than that. "How could I be so brutal, and so hard?" sobbed Faith. "If father has seen it, will he ever forgive me? His last words were—'forgive, and love.'"
THE FATAL STEP
As Carne rode up the hill that night towards his ruined castle, the flush of fierce excitement and triumphant struggle died away, and self-reproach and miserable doubt struck into him like ague. For the death of Twemlow—as he supposed—he felt no remorse whatever. Him he had shot in furious combat, and as a last necessity; the fellow had twice insulted him, and then insolently collared him. And Faith, who had thwarted him with Dolly, and been from the first his enemy, now would have to weep and wail, and waste her youth in constancy. All that was good; but he could not regard with equal satisfaction the death of the ancient Admiral. The old man had brought it upon himself by his stupid stubbornness; and looking fairly upon that matter, Carne scarcely saw how to blame himself. Still, it was a most unlucky thing, and must lead to a quantity of mischief. To-morrow, or at the latest Monday, was to have crowned with grand success his years of toil and danger. There still might be the landing, and he would sail that night to hasten it, instead of arranging all ashore; but it could no longer be a triumph of crafty management. The country was up, the Admiral's death would spread the alarm and treble it; and worst of all, in the hot pursuit of himself, which was sure to follow when people's wits came back to them, all the stores and ammunition, brought together by so much skill and patience and hardihood, must of necessity be discovered and fall into the hands of the enemy. Farewell to his long-cherished hope of specially neat retribution, to wit, that the ruins of his family should be the ruin of the land which had rejected him! Then a fierce thought crossed his mind, and became at once a stern resolve. If he could never restore Carne Castle, and dwell there in prosperity, neither should any of his oppressors. The only trace of his ancestral home should be a vast black hole in earth.
For even if the landing still succeeded, and the country were subdued, he could never make his home there, after what he had done to-night. Dolly was lost to him for ever; and although he had loved her with all the ardor he could spare from his higher purposes, he must make up his mind to do without her, and perhaps it was all the better for him. If he had married her, no doubt he could soon have taught her her proper place; but no one could tell how she might fly out, through her self-will and long indulgence. He would marry a French woman; that would be the best; perhaps one connected with the Empress Josephine. As soon as he had made up his mind to this, his conscience ceased to trouble him.
From the crest of the hill at the eastern gate many a bend of shore was clear, and many a league of summer sea lay wavering in the moonlight. Along the beach red torches flared, as men of the Coast-Defence pushed forth, and yellow flash of cannon inland signalled for the Volunteers, while the lights gleamed (like windows opened from the depth) where sloop and gun-boat, frigate and ship of the line, were crowding sail to rescue England. For the semaphore, and when day was out the beacon-lights, had glowed along the backbone of the English hills, and England called every Englishman to show what he was made of.
"That will do. Enough of that, John Bull!" Defying his native land, Carne shook his fist in the native manner. "Stupid old savage, I shall live to make you howl. This country has become too hot to hold me, and I'll make it hotter before I have done. Here, Orso and Leo, good dogs, good dogs! You can kill a hundred British bull-dogs. Mount guard for an hour, till I call you down the hill. You can pull down a score of Volunteers apiece, if they dare to come after me. I have an hour to spare, and I know how to employ it. Jerry, old Jerry Bowles, stir your crooked shanks. What are you rubbing your blear eyes at?"
The huge boar-hounds, who obeyed no voice but his, took post upon the rugged road (which had never been repaired since the Carnes were a power in the land), and sat side by side beneath the crumbling arch, with their long fangs glistening and red eyes rolling in the silver moonlight, while their deep chests panted for the chance of good fresh human victuals. Then Carne gave his horse to ancient Jerry, saying, "Feed him, and take him with his saddle on to the old yew-tree in half an hour. Wait there for Captain Charron, and for me. You are not to go away till I come to you. Who is in the old place now? Think well before you answer me."
"No one now in the place but her"—the old man lifted his elbow, as a coachman does in passing—"and him down in the yellow jug. All the French sailors are at sea. Only she won't go away; and she moaneth worse than all the owls and ghosts. Ah, your honour should never 'a done that—respectable folk to Springhaven too!"
"It was a slight error of judgment, Jerry. What a mealy lot these English are, to make such a fuss about a trifle! But I am too soft-hearted to blow her up. Tell her to meet me in half an hour by the broken dial, and to bring the brat, and all her affairs in a bundle such as she can carry, or kick down the hill before her. In half an hour, do you understand? And if you care for your stiff old bones, get out of the way by that time."
In that half-hour Carne gathered in small compass, and strapped up in a little "mail"—as such light baggage then was called—all his important documents, despatches, letters, and papers of every kind, and the cash he was entrusted with, which he used to think safer at Springhaven. Then he took from a desk which was fixed to the wall a locket bright with diamonds, and kissed it, and fastened it beneath his neck-cloth. The wisp of hair inside it came not from any young or lovely head, but from the resolute brow of his mother, the woman who hated England. He should have put something better to his mouth; for instance, a good beef sandwich. But one great token of his perversion was that he never did feed well—a sure proof of the unrighteous man, as suggested by the holy Psalmist, and more distinctly put by Livy in the character he gives Hannibal.
Regarding as a light thing his poor unfurnished stomach, Carne mounted the broken staircase, in a style which might else have been difficult. He had made up his mind to have one last look at the broad lands of his ancestors, from the last that ever should be seen of the walls they had reared and ruined. He stood upon the highest vantage-point that he could attain with safety, where a shaggy gnarl of the all-pervading ivy served as a friendly stay. To the right and left and far behind him all had once been their domain—every tree, and meadow, and rock that faced the moon, had belonged to his ancestors. "Is it a wonder that I am fierce?" he cried, with unwonted self-inspection; "who, that has been robbed as I have, would not try to rob in turn? The only thing amazing is my patience and my justice. But I will come back yet, and have my revenge."
Descending to his hyena den—as Charron always called it—he caught up his packet, and took a lantern, and a coil of tow which had been prepared, and strode forth for the last time into the sloping court behind the walls. Passing towards the eastern vaults, he saw the form of some one by the broken dial, above the hedge of brambles, which had once been of roses and sweetbriar. "Oh, that woman! I had forgotten that affair!" he muttered, with annoyance, as he pushed through the thorns to meet her.
Polly Cheeseman, the former belle of Springhaven, was leaning against the wrecked dial, with a child in her arms and a bundle at her feet. Her pride and gaiety had left her now, and she looked very wan through frequent weeping, and very thin from nursing. Her beauty (like her friends) had proved unfaithful under shame and sorrow, and little of it now remained except the long brown tresses and the large blue eyes. Those eyes she fixed upon Carne with more of terror than of love in them; although the fear was such as turns with a very little kindness to adoring love.
Carne left her to begin, for he really was not without shame in this matter; and Polly was far better suited than Dolly for a scornful and arrogant will like his. Deeply despising all the female race—as the Greek tragedian calls them—save only the one who had given him to the world, he might have been a God to Polly if he had but behaved as a man to her. She looked at him now with an imploring gaze, from the gentleness of her ill-used heart.
Their child, a fine boy about ten months old, broke the silence by saying "booh, booh," very well, and holding out little hands to his father, who had often been scornfully kind to him.
"Oh, Caryl, Caryl, you will never forsake him!" cried the young mother, holding him up with rapture, and supporting his fat arms in that position; "he is the very image of you, and he seems to know it. Baby, say 'Da-da.' There, he has put his mouth up, and his memory is so wonderful! Oh, Caryl, what do you think of that—and the first time of trying it by moonlight?"
"There is no time for this nonsense, Polly. He is a wonderful baby, I dare say; and so is every baby, till he gets too old. You must obey orders, and be off with him."
"Oh no! You are come to take us with you. There, I have covered his face up, that he may not suppose you look cross at me. Oh, Caryl, you would never leave him behind, even if you could do that to me. We are not grand people, and you can put us anywhere, and now I am nearly as well as ever. I have put up all his little things; it does not matter about my own. I was never brought up to be idle, and I can earn my own living anywhere; and it might be a real comfort for you, with the great people going against you, to have somebody, not very grand, of course, but as true to you as yourself, and belonging altogether to you. I know many people who would give their eyes for such a baby."
"There is no time for this," Carne answered, sternly; "my arrangements are made, and I cannot take you. I have no fault to find with you, but argument is useless."
"Yes, I know that, Caryl; and I am sure that I never would attempt to argue with you. You should have everything your own way, and I could attend to so many things that no man ever does properly. I will be a slave to you, and this little darling love you, and then you will feel that you have two to love you, wherever you go, and whatever you do. And if I spoke crossly when first I found out that—that I went away for nothing with you, you must have forgiven me by this time, and I never will remind you again of it; if I do, send me back to the place I belong to. I belong to you now, Caryl, and so does he; and when we are away from the people who know me, I shall be pleasant and cheerful again. I was only two-and-twenty the day the boats came home last week, and they used to say the young men jumped into the water as soon as they caught sight of me. Try to be kind to me, and I shall be so happy that I shall look almost as I used to do, when you said that the great ladies might be grander, but none of them fit to look into my looking-glass. Dear Caryl, I am ready; I don't care where it is, or what I may have to put up with, so long as you will make room for your Polly, and your baby."
"I am not at all a hard man," said Carne, retreating as the impulsive Polly offered him the baby, "but once for all, no more of this. I have quite forgiven any strong expressions you may have made use of when your head was light; and if all goes well, I shall provide for you and the child, according to your rank in life. But now you must run down the hill, if you wish to save your life and his."
"I have run down the hill already. I care not a pin for my own life; and hard as you are you would never have the heart to destroy your own little Caryl. He may be called Caryl—you will not deny him that, although he has no right to be called Carne. Oh, Caryl, Caryl, you can be so good, when you think there is something to gain by it. Only be good to us now, and God will bless you for it, darling. I have given up all the world for you, and you cannot have the heart to cast me off."
"What a fool the woman is! Have you ever known me change my mind? If you scorn your own life, through your own folly, you must care for the brat's. If you stop here ten minutes, you will both be blown to pieces."
"Through my own folly! Oh, God in heaven, that you should speak so of my love for you! Squire Carne, you are the worst man that ever lived; and it serves me right for trusting you. But where am I to go? Who will take me and support me, and my poor abandoned child?"
"Your parents, of course, are your natural supporters. You are hurting your child by this low abuse of me. Now put aside excitement, and run home, like a sensible woman, before your good father goes to bed."
She had watched his face all the time, as if she could scarcely believe that he was in earnest, but he proved it by leaving her with a wave of his hat, and hastening back to his lantern. Then taking up that, and the coil of tow, but leaving his package against the wall, he disappeared in the narrow passage leading to the powder vaults. Polly stood still by the broken dial, with her eyes upon the moon, and her arms around the baby, and a pang in her heart which prevented her from speaking, or moving, or even knowing where she was.
Then Carne, stepping warily, unlocked the heavy oak door at the entrance of the cellarage, held down his lantern, and fixed with a wedge the top step of the ladder, which had been made to revolve with a pin and collar at either end, as before described. After trying the step with his hand, to be sure that it was now wedged safely, he flung his coil into the vault and followed. Some recollection made him smile as he was going down the steps: it was that of a stout man lying at the bottom, shaken in every bone, yet sound as a grape ensconced in jelly. As he touched the bottom he heard a little noise as of some small substance falling, but seeing a piece of old mortar dislodged, he did not turn round to examine the place. If he had done so he would have found behind the ladder the wedge he had just inserted to secure the level of the "Inspector's step."
Unwinding his coil of tow, which had been steeped in saltpetre to make a long fuse, with a toss of his long legs he crossed the barricade of solid oak rails about six feet high securely fastened across the vault, for the enclosure of the dangerous storage. Inside it was a passage, between chests of arms, dismounted cannon, and cases from every department of supply, to the explosive part of the magazine, the devourer of the human race, the pulp of the marrow of the Furies—gunpowder.
Of this there was now collected here, and stored in tiers that reached the roof, enough to blow up half the people of England, or lay them all low with a bullet before it; yet not enough, not a millionth part enough, to move for the breadth of a hair the barrier betwixt right and wrong, which a very few barrels are enough to do with a man who has sapped the foundations. Treading softly for fear of a spark from his boots, and guarding the lantern well, Carne approached one of the casks in the lower tier, and lifted the tarpaulin. Then he slipped the wooden slide in the groove, and allowed some five or six pounds to run out upon the floor, from which the cask was raised by timber baulks. Leaving the slide partly open, he spread one end of his coil like a broad lamp-wick in the pile of powder which had run out, and put a brick upon the tow to keep it from shifting. Then he paid out the rest of the coil on the floor like a snake some thirty feet long, with the tail about a yard inside the barricade. With a very steady hand he took the candle from inside the horn, and kindled that tail of the fuse; and then replacing his light, he recrossed the open timber-work, and swiftly remounted the ladder of escape. "Twenty minutes' or half an hour's grace," he thought, "and long before that I shall be at the yew-tree."
But, as he planted his right foot sharply upon the top step of the ladder, that step swung back, and cast him heavily backwards to the bottom. The wedge had dropped out, and the step revolved like the treadle of a fox-trap.
For a minute or two he lay stunned and senseless, with the lantern before him on its side, and the candle burning a hole in the bubbly horn. Slowly recovering his wits, he strove to rise, as the deadly peril was borne in upon him. But instead of rising, he fell back again with a curse, and then a long-drawn groan; for pain (like the thrills of a man on the rack) had got hold of him and meant to keep him. His right arm was snapped at the elbow, and his left leg just above the knee, and the jar of his spine made him feel as if his core had been split out of him. He had no fat, like Shargeloes, to protect him, and no sheath of hair like Twemlow's.
Writhing with anguish, he heard a sound which did not improve his condition. It was the spluttering of the fuse, eating its merry way towards the five hundred casks of gunpowder. In the fury of peril he contrived to rise, and stood on his right foot with the other hanging limp, while he stayed himself with his left hand upon the ladder. Even if he could crawl up this, it would benefit him nothing. Before he could drag himself ten yards, the explosion would overtake him. His only chance was to quench the fuse, or draw it away from the priming. With a hobble of agony he reached the barricade, and strove to lift his crippled frame over it. It was hopeless; the power of his back was gone, and his limbs were unable to obey his brain. Then he tried to crawl through at the bottom, but the opening of the rails would not admit his body, and the train of ductile fire had left only ash for him to grasp at.
Quivering with terror, and mad with pain, he returned to the foot of the steps, and clung till a gasp of breath came back. Then he shouted, with all his remaining power, "Polly, oh, Polly, my own Polly!"
Polly had been standing, like a statue of despair, beside the broken dial. To her it mattered little whether earth should open and swallow her, or fire cast her up to heaven. But his shout aroused her from this trance, and her heart leaped up with the fond belief that he had relented, and was calling her and the child to share his fortunes. There she stood in the archway and looked down, and the terror of the scene overwhelmed her. Through a broken arch beyond the barricade pale moonbeams crossed the darkness, like the bars of some soft melody; in the middle the serpent coil was hissing with the deadly nitre; at the foot of the steps was her false lover—husband he had called himself—with his hat off, and his white face turned in the last supplication towards her, as hers had been turned towards him just now. Should a woman be as pitiless as a man?
"Come down, for God's sake, and climb that cursed wood, and pull back the fuse, pull it back from the powder. Oh, Polly! and then we will go away together."
"It is too late. I will not risk my baby. You have made me so weak that I could never climb that fence. You are blowing up the castle which you promised to my baby; but you shall not blow up him. You told me to run away, and run I must. Good-bye; I am going to my natural supporters."
Carne heard her steps as she fled, and he fancied that he heard therewith a mocking laugh, but it was a sob, a hysterical sob. She would have helped him, if she dared; but her wits were gone in panic. She knew not of his shattered limbs and horrible plight; and it flashed across her that this was another trick of his—to destroy her and the baby, while he fled. She had proved that all his vows were lies.
Then Carne made his mind up to die like a man, for he saw that escape was impossible. Limping back to the fatal barrier, he raised himself to his full height, and stood proudly to see, as he put it, the last of himself. Not a quiver of his haughty features showed the bodily pain that racked him, nor a flinch of his deep eyes confessed the tumult moving in his mind and soul. He pulled out his watch and laid it on the top rail of the old oak fence: there was not enough light to read the time, but he could count the ticks he had to live. Suddenly hope flashed through his heart, like the crack of a gun, like a lightning fork—a big rat was biting an elbow of the yarn where some tallow had fallen upon it. Would he cut it, would he drag it away to his hole? would he pull it a little from its fatal end? He was strong enough to do it, if he only understood. The fizz of saltpetre disturbed the rat, and he hoisted his tail and skipped back to his home.
The last thoughts of this unhappy man went back upon his early days; and things, which he had passed without thinking of, stood before him like his tombstone. None of his recent crimes came now to his memory to disturb it—there was time enough after the body for them—but trifles which had first depraved the mind, and slips whose repetition had made slippery the soul, like the alphabet of death, grew plain to him. Then he thought of his mother, and crossed himself, and said a little prayer to the Virgin.
* * * * *
Charron was waiting by the old yew-tree, and Jerry sat trembling, with his eyes upon the castle, while the black horse, roped to a branch, was mourning the scarcity of oats and the abundance of gnats.
"Pest and the devil, but the coast is all alive!" cried the Frenchman, soothing anxiety with solid and liquid comforts. "Something has gone wrong behind the tail of everything. And there goes that big Stoobar, blazing with his sordid battery! Arouse thee, old Cheray! The time too late is over. Those lights thrice accursed will display our little boat, and John Bull is rushing with a thousand sails. The Commander is mad. They will have him, and us too. Shall I dance by a rope? It is the only dancing probable for me in England."
"I have never expected any good to come," the old man answered, without moving. "The curse of the house is upon the young Squire. I saw it in his eyes this morning, the same as I saw in his father's eyes, when the sun was going down the very night he died. I shall never see him more, sir, nor you either, nor any other man that bides to the right side of his coffin."
"Bah! what a set you are of funerals, you Englishmen! But if I thought he was in risk, I would stay to see the end of it."
"Here comes the end of it!" the old man cried, leaping up and catching at a rugged cord of trunk, with his other hand pointing up the hill. From the base of the castle a broad blaze rushed, showing window and battlement, arch and tower, as in a flicker of the Northern lights. Then up went all the length of fabric, as a wanton child tosses his Noah's ark. Keep and buttress, tower and arch, mullioned window and battlement, in a fiery furnace leaped on high, like the outburst of a volcano. Then, with a roar that rocked the earth, they broke into a storm of ruin, sweeping the heavens with a flood of fire, and spreading the sea with a mantle of blood. Following slowly in stately spires, and calmly swallowing everything, a fountain of dun smoke arose, and solemn silence filled the night.
"All over now, thank the angels and the saints! My faith, but I made up my mind to join them," cried Charron, who had fallen, or been felled by the concussion. "Cheray, art thou still alive? The smoke is in my neck. I cannot liberate my words, but the lumps must be all come down by this time, without adding to the weight of our poor brains. Something fell in this old tree, a long way up, as high as where the crows build. It was like a long body, with one leg and one arm. I hope it was not the Commander; but one thing is certain—he is gone to heaven. Let us pray that he may stop there, if St. Peter admits a man who was selling the keys of his country to the enemy. But we must do duty to ourselves, my Cheray. Let us hasten to the sea, and give the signal for the boat. La Torche will be a weak light after this."
"I will not go. I will abide my time." The old man staggered to a broken column of the ancient gateway which had fallen near them, and flung his arms around it. "I remember this since I first could toddle. The ways of the Lord are wonderful."
"Come away, you old fool," cried the Frenchman; "I hear the tramp of soldiers in the valley. If they catch you here, it will be drum-head work, and you will swing before morning in the ruins."
"I am very old. My time is short. I would liefer hang from an English beam than deal any more with your outlandish lot."
"Farewell to thee, then! Thou art a faithful clod. Here are five guineas for thee, of English stamp. I doubt if napoleons shall ever be coined in England."
He was off while he might—a gallant Frenchman, and an honest enemy; such as our country has respected always, and often endeavoured to turn into fast friends. But the old man stood and watched the long gap, where for centuries the castle of the Carnes had towered. And his sturdy faith was rewarded.
"I am starving"—these words came feebly from a gaunt, ragged figure that approached him. "For three days my food has been forgotten; and bad as it was, I missed it. There came a great rumble, and my walls fell down. Ancient Jerry, I can go no further. I am empty as a shank bone when the marrow-toast is serving. Your duty was to feed me, with inferior stuff at any rate."
"No, sir, no;" the old servitor was roused by the charge of neglected duty. "Sir Parsley, it was no fault of mine whatever. Squire undertook to see to all of it himself. Don't blame me, sir; don't blame me."
"Never mind the blame, but make it good," Mr. Shargeloes answered, meagrely, for he felt as if he could never be fat again. "What do I see there? It is like a crust of bread, but I am too weak to stoop for it."
"Come inside the tree, sir." The old man led him, as a grandsire leads a famished child. "What a shame to starve you, and you so hearty! But the Squire clean forgotten it, I doubt, with his foreign tricks coming to this great blow-up. Here, sir, here; please to sit down a moment, while I light a candle. They French chaps are so wasteful always, and always grumbling at good English victual. Here's enough to feed a family Captain Charron has throwed by—bread, and good mutton, and pretty near half a ham, and a bottle or so of thin nasty foreign wine. Eat away, Sir Parsley; why, it does me good to see you. You feeds something like an Englishman. But you know, sir, it were all your own fault at bottom, for coming among them foreigners a-meddling."
"You are a fine fellow. You shall be my head butler," Percival Shargeloes replied, while he made such a meal as he never made before, and never should make again, even when he came to be the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of London.
WRATH AND SORROW
The two most conspicuous men of the age were saddened and cast down just now—one by the natural kindly sorrow into which all men live for others, till others live into it for them; and one by the petulant turns of fortune, twisting and breaking his best-woven web. Lord Nelson arrived at Springhaven on Monday, to show his affection for his dear old friend; and the Emperor Napoleon, at the same time, was pacing the opposite cliffs in grief and dudgeon.
He had taken his post on some high white land, about a league southward of Boulogne, and with strong field-glasses, which he pettishly exchanged in doubt of their power and truth, he was scanning all the roadways of the shore and the trackless breadths of sea. His quick brain was burning for despatches overland—whether from the coast road past Etaples, or further inland by the great route from Paris, or away to the southeast by special courier from the Austrian frontier—as well as for signals out at sea, and the movements of the British ships, to show that his own were coming. He had treated with disdain the suggestions of his faithful Admiral Decres, who had feared to put the truth too plainly, that the fleet ordered up from the west had failed, and with it the Master's mighty scheme. Having yet to learn the lesson that his best plans might be foiled, he was furious when doubt was cast upon this pet design. Like a giant of a spider at the nucleus of his web, he watched the broad fan of radiant threads, and the hovering of filmy woof, but without the mild philosophy of that spider, who is versed in the very sad capriciousness of flies.
Just within hearing (and fain to be further, in his present state of mind) were several young officers of the staff, making little mouths at one another, for want of better pastime, but looking as grave, when the mighty man glanced round, as schoolboys do under the master's eye. "Send Admiral Decres to me," the Emperor shouted, as he laid down his telescope and returned to his petulant to-and-fro.
In a few minutes Admiral Decres arrived, and after a salute which was not acknowledged, walked in silence at his master's side. The great man, talking to himself aloud, and reviling almost every one except himself, took no more notice of his comrade for some minutes than if he had been a poodle keeping pace with him. Then he turned upon him fiercely, with one hand thrown out, as if he would have liked to strike him.
"What then is the meaning of all this?" He spoke too fast for the other to catch all his words. "You have lost me three days of it. How much longer will you conceal your knowledge? Carne's scheme has failed, through treachery—probably his own. I never liked the man. He wanted to be the master of me—of me! I can do without him; it is all the better, if my fleet will come. I have three fleets, besides these. Any one of them would do. They would do, if even half their crews were dead, so long as they disturbed the enemy. You know where Villeneuve is, but you will not tell me."
"I told your Majesty what I thought," M. Decres replied, with dignity, "but it did not please you to listen to me. Shall I now tell your Majesty what I know?"
"Ha! You have dared to have secret despatches! You know more of the movements of my fleets than I do! You have been screening him all along. Which of you is the worse traitor?"
"Your Majesty will regret these words. Villeneuve and myself are devoted to you. I have not heard from him. I have received no despatches. But in a private letter just received, which is here at your Majesty's service, I find these words, which your Majesty can see. 'From my brother on the Spanish coast I have just heard. Admiral Villeneuve has sailed for Cadiz, believing Nelson to be in chase of him. My brother saw the whole fleet crowding sail southward. No doubt it is the best thing they could do. If they came across Nelson, they would be knocked to pieces.' Your Majesty, that is an opinion only; but it seems to be shared by M. Villeneuve."
Napoleon's wrath was never speechless—except upon one great occasion—and its outburst put every other in the wrong, even while he knew that he was in the right. Regarding Decres with a glare of fury, such as no other eyes could pour, or meet—a glare as of burnished steel fired from a cannon—he drove him out of every self-defence or shelter, and shattered him in the dust of his own principles. It was not the difference of rank between them, but the difference in the power of their minds, that chased like a straw before the wind the very stable senses of the man who understood things. He knew that he was right, but the right was routed, and away with it flew all capacity of reason in the pitiless torrent of passion, like a man in a barrel, and the barrel in Niagara.
M. Decres knew not head from tail, in the rush of invective poured upon him; but he took off his hat in soft search for his head, and to let in the compliments rained upon it.
"It is good," replied the Emperor, replying to himself, as the foam of his fury began to pass; "you will understand, Decres, that I am not angry, but only lament that I have such a set of fools. You are not the worst. I have bigger fools than you. Alas that I should confess it!"
Admiral Decres put his hat upon his head, for the purpose of taking it off, to acknowledge the kindness of this compliment. It was the first polite expression he had received for half an hour. And it would have been the last, if he had dared to answer.
"Villeneuve cannot help it that he is a fool," continued Napoleon, in a milder strain; "but he owes it to his rank that he should not be a coward. Nelson is his black beast. Nelson has reduced him to a condition of wet pulp. I shall send a braver man to supersede him. Are French fleets forever to turn tail to an inferior force of stupid English? If I were on the seas, I would sweep Nelson from them. Our men are far braver, when they learn to spread their legs. As soon as I have finished with those filthy Germans, I will take the command of the fleets myself. It will be a bad day for that bragging Nelson. Give me pen and paper, and send Daru to me. I must conquer the Continent once more, I suppose; and then I will return and deal with England."
In a couple of hours he had shaped and finished the plan of a campaign the most triumphant that even he ever planned and accomplished. Then his mind became satisfied with good work, and he mounted his horse, and for the last time rode through the grandest encampment the sun has ever seen, distributing his calm smile, as if his nature were too large for tempests.
* * * * *
On the sacred white coast, which the greatest of Frenchmen should only approach as a prisoner, stood a man of less imperious mould, and of sweet and gentle presence—a man who was able to command himself in the keenest disappointment, because he combined a quick sense of humour with the power of prompt action, and was able to appreciate his own great qualities without concluding that there were no other. His face, at all times except those of hot battle, was filled with quiet sadness, as if he were sent into the world for some great purpose beyond his knowledge, yet surely not above his aim. Years of deep anxiety and ever urgent duty had made him look old before his time, but in no wise abated his natural force. He knew that he had duty before him still, and he felt that the only discharge was death.
But now, in the tenderness of his heart, he had forgotten all about himself, and even for the moment about his country. Nelson had taken the last fond look at the dear old friend of many changeful years, so true and so pleasant throughout every change. Though one eye had failed for the work of the brain, it still was in sympathy with his heart; and a tear shone upon either wrinkled cheek, as the uses of sadness outlast the brighter view. He held Faith by the hand, or she held by his, as they came forth, without knowing it, through nature's demand for an open space, when the air is choked with sorrow.
"My dear, you must check it; you must leave off," said Nelson, although he was going on himself. "It is useless for me to say a word to you, because I am almost as bad myself. But still I am older, and I feel that I ought to be able to comfort you, if I only knew the way."
"You do comfort me, more than I can tell, although you don't say anything. For any one to sit here, and be sorry with me, makes it come a little lighter. And when it is a man like you, Lord Nelson, I feel a sort of love that makes me feel less bitter. Mr. Twemlow drove me wild with a quantity of texts, and a great amount of talk about a better land. How would he like to go to it himself, I wonder? There is a great hole in my heart, and nothing that anybody says can fill it."
"And nothing that any one can do, my dear," her father's friend answered, softly, "unless it is your own good self, with the kindness of the Lord to help you. One of the best things to begin with is to help somebody else, if you can, and lead yourself away into another person's troubles. Is there any one here very miserable?"
"None that I can think of half so miserable as I am. There is great excitement, but no misery. Miss Twemlow has recovered her Lord Mayor—the gentleman that wore that extraordinary coat—oh, I forgot, you were not here then. And although he has had a very sad time of it, every one says that the total want of diet will be much better for him than any mere change. I am ashamed to be talking of such trifles now; but I respect that man, he was so straightforward. If my brother Frank had been at all like him, we should never have been as we are this day."
"My dear, you must not blame poor Frank. He would not come down to the dinner because he hated warlike speeches. But he has seen the error of his ways. No more treasonable stuff for him. He thought it was large, and poetic, and all that, like giving one's shirt to an impostor. All of us make mistakes sometimes. I have made a great many myself, and have always been the foremost to perceive them. But your own brave lover—have you forgotten him? He fought like a hero, I am told; and nothing could save his life except that he wore a new-fashioned periwig."
"I would rather not talk of him now, Lord Nelson, although he had no periwig. I am deeply thankful that he escaped; and no doubt did his best, as he was bound to do. I try to be fair to everybody, but I cannot help blaming every one, when I come to remember how blind we have been. Captain Stubbard must have been so blind, and Mrs. Stubbard a great deal worse, and worst of all his own aunt, Mrs. Twemlow. Oh, Lord Nelson, if you had only stopped here, instead of hurrying away for more glory! You saw the whole of it; you predicted everything; you even warned us again in your last letter! And yet you must go away, and leave us to ourselves; and this is how the whole of it has ended."
"My dear child, I will not deny that the eye of Nelson has a special gift for piercing the wiles of the scoundrelly foe. But I was under orders, and must go. The nation believed that it could not do without me, although there are other men every bit as good, and in their own opinion superior. But the enemy has never been of that opinion; and a great deal depends upon what they think. And the rule has been always to send me where there are many kicks but few coppers. I have never been known to repine. We all err; but if we do our duty as your dear father did his, the Lord will forgive us, when our enemies escape. When my time comes, as it must do soon, there will be plenty to carp at me; but I shall not care, if I have done my best. Your father did his best, and is happy."
Faith Darling took his hand again, and her tears were for him quite as much as for herself. "Give me one of the buttons of your coat," she said; "here is one that cannot last till you get home."
It was hanging by a thread, and yet the hero was very loth to part with it, though if it had parted with him, the chances were ten to one against his missing it. However, he conquered himself, but not so entirely as to let her cut it off. If it must go, it should be by his own hand. He pulled out a knife and cut it off, and she kissed it when he gave it to her.
"I should like to do more than that," he said, though he would sooner have parted with many guineas. "Is there nobody here that I can help, from my long good-will to Springhaven?"
"Oh, yes! How stupid I am!" cried Faith. "I forget everybody in my own trouble. There is a poor young man with a broken heart, who came to me this morning. He has done no harm that I know of, but he fell into the power of that wicked—but I will use no harsh words, because he is gone most dreadfully to his last account. This poor youth said that he only cared to die, after all the things that had happened here, for he has always been fond of my father. At first I refused to see him, but they told me such things that I could not help it. He is the son of our chief man here, and you said what a fine British seaman he would make."
"I remember two or three of that description, especially young Dan Tugwell." Nelson had an amazing memory of all who had served under him, or even had wished to do so. "I see by your eyes that it is young Tugwell. If it will be any pleasure to you, I will see him, and do what I can for him. What has he done, my dear, and what can I do for him?"
"He has fallen into black disgrace, and his only desire is to redeem it by dying for his country. His own father has refused to see him, although he was mainly the cause of it; and his mother, who was Erle Twemlow's nurse, is almost out of her mind with grief. A braver young man never lived, and he was once the pride of Springhaven. He saved poor Dolly from drowning, when she was very young, and the boat upset. His father chastised him cruelly for falling under bad influence. Then he ran away from the village, and seems to have been in French employment. But he was kept in the dark, and had no idea that he was acting against his own country."
"He has been a traitor," said Lord Nelson, sternly. "I cannot help such a man, even for your sake."
"He has not been a traitor, but betrayed," cried Faith; "he believed that his only employment was to convey private letters for the poor French prisoners, of whom we have so many hundreds. I will not contend that he was right in that; but still it was no very great offence. Even you must have often longed to send letters to those you loved in England; and you know how hard it is in war time. But what they really wanted him for was to serve as their pilot upon this coast. And the moment he discovered that, though they offered him bags of gold to do it, he faced his death like an Englishman. They attempted to keep him in a stupid state with drugs, so that he might work like a mere machine. But he found out that, and would eat nothing but hard biscuit. They had him in one of their shallow boats, or prames, as they call them, which was to lead them in upon signal from the arch-traitor. This was on Saturday, Saturday night—that dreadful time when we were all so gay. They held a pair of pistols at poor Dan's head, or at least a man was holding one to each of his ears, and they corded his arms, because he ventured to remonstrate. That was before they had even started, so you may suppose what they would have done to us. Poor Daniel made up his mind to die, and it would have eased his mind, he says now, if he had done so. But while they were waiting for the signal, which through dear father's vigilance they never did receive, Dan managed to free both his hands in the dark, and as soon as he saw the men getting sleepy, he knocked them both down, and jumped overboard; for he can swim like a fish, or even better. He had very little hopes of escaping, as he says, and the French fired fifty shots after him. With great presence of mind, he gave a dreadful scream, as if he was shot through the head at least, then he flung up his legs, as if he was gone down; but he swam under water for perhaps a hundred yards, and luckily the moon went behind a black cloud. Then he came to a boat, which had broken adrift, and although he did not dare to climb into her, he held on by her, on the further side from them. She was drifting away with the tide, and at last he ventured to get on board of her, and found a pair of oars, and was picked up at daylight by a smuggling boat running for Newhaven. He was landed last night, and he heard the dreadful news, and having plenty of money, he hired a post-chaise, and never stopped until he reached Springhaven. He looks worn out now; but if his mind was easier, he would soon be as strong as ever."
"It is a strange story, my dear," said Nelson; "but I see that it has done you good to tell it, and I have known many still stranger. But how could he have money, after such a hard escape?"
"That shows as much as anything how brave he is. He had made up his mind that if he succeeded in knocking down both those sentinels, he would have the bag of gold which was put for his reward in case of his steering them successfully. And before he jumped overboard he snatched it up, and it helped him to dive and to swim under water. He put it in his flannel shirt by way of ballast, and he sticks to it up to the present moment."
"My dear," replied Lord Nelson, much impressed, "such a man deserves to be in my own crew. If he can show me that bag, and stand questions, I will send him to Portsmouth at my own expense, with a letter to my dear friend Captain Hardy."
Lord Nelson sailed from Portsmouth on the 15th of September, in his favourite ship the Victory, to take his last command. He knew that he never should come home, except as a corpse for burial, but he fastened his mind on the work before him, and neglected nothing. "A fair fight, and no favour," was the only thing he longed for.
And this he did obtain at last. The French commander-in-chief came forth, with all his mighty armament, not of his own desire, but goaded by imperious sneers, and stings that made his manhood tingle. He spread the sea-power of two nations in a stately crescent, double-lined (as the moon is doubled when beheld through fine plate-glass)—a noble sight, a paramount temptation for the British tow-rope.
"What a lot for we to take to Spithead!" was the British tar's remark, as forty ships of the line and frigates showed their glossy sides, and canvas bosomed with the gentle air and veined with gliding sunlight. A grander spectacle never was of laborious man's creation; and the work of the Lord combined to show it to the best advantage—dark headlands in the distance standing as a massive background, long pellucid billows lifting bulk Titanic, and lace-like maze, sweet air wandering from heaven, early sun come fresh from dew, all the good-will of the world inspiring men to merriness.
Nelson was not fierce of nature, but as gentle as a lamb. His great desire, as he always proved, was never to destroy his enemies by the number of one man spareable. He had always been led by the force of education, confirmed by that of experience, to know that the duty of an Englishman is to lessen the stock of Frenchmen; yet he never was free from regret when compelled to act up to his conscience, upon a large scale.
It is an old saying that nature has provided for every disease its remedy, and challenges men to find it out, which they are clever enough not to do. For that deadly disease Napoleon, the remedy was Nelson; and as soon as he should be consumed, another would appear in Wellington. Such is the fortune of Britannia, because she never boasts, but grumbles always. The boaster soon exhausts his subject; the grumbler has matter that lasts for ever.
Nelson had much of this national virtue. "Half of them will get away," he said to Captain Blackwood, of the Euryalus, who was come for his latest orders, "because of that rascally port to leeward. If the wind had held as it was last night, we should have had every one of them. It does seem hard, after waiting so long. And the sky looks like a gale of wind. It will blow to-night, though I shall not hear it. A gale of wind with disabled ships means terrible destruction. Do all you can to save those poor fellows. When they are beaten, we must consider their lives even more than our own, you know, because we have been the cause of it. You know my wishes as well as I do. Remember this one especially."
"Good-bye, my lord, till the fight is over." Captain Blackwood loved his chief with even more than the warm affection felt by all the fleet for him. "When we have got them, I shall come back, and find you safe and glorious."
"God bless you, Blackwood!" Lord Nelson answered, looking at him with a cheerful smile. "But you will never see me alive again."
The hero of a hundred fights, who knew that this would be his last, put on his favourite ancient coat, threadbare through many a conflict with hard time and harder enemies. Its beauty, like his own, had suffered in the cause of duty; the gold embroidery had taken leave of absence in some places, and in others showed more fray of silk than gleam of yellow glory; and the four stars fastened on the left breast wanted a little plate-powder sadly. But Nelson was quite contented with them, and like a child—for he always kept in his heart the childhood's freshness—he gazed at the star he was proudest of, the Star of the Bath, and through a fond smile sighed. Through the rays of that star his death was coming, ere a quarter of a day should be added to his life.
With less pretension and air of greatness than the captain of a penny steamer now displays, Nelson went from deck to deck, and visited every man at quarters, as if the battle hung on every one. There was scarcely a man whom he did not know, as well as a farmer knows his winter hands; and loud cheers rang from gun to gun when his order had been answered. His order was, "Reserve your fire until you are sure of every shot." Then he took his stand upon the quarter-deck, assured of victory, and assured that his last bequest to the British nation would be honoured sacredly—about which the less we say the better.
In this great battle, which crushed the naval power of France, and saved our land from further threat of inroad, Blyth Scudamore was not engaged, being still attached to the Channel fleet; but young Dan Tugwell bore a share, and no small share by his own account and that of his native village, which received him proudly when he came home. Placed at a gun on the upper deck, on the starboard side near the mizzen-mast, he fought like a Briton, though dazed at first by the roar, and the smoke, and the crash of timber. Lord Nelson had noticed him more than once, as one of the smartest of his crew, and had said to him that very morning, "For the honour of Springhaven, Dan, behave well in your first action." And the youth had never forgotten that, when the sulphurous fog enveloped him, and the rush of death lifted his curly hair, and his feet were sodden and his stockings hot with the blood of shattered messmates.
In the wildest of the wild pell-mell, as the Victory lay like a pelted log, rolling to the storm of shot, with three ships at close quarters hurling all their metal at her, and a fourth alongside clutched so close that muzzle was tompion for muzzle, while the cannon-balls so thickly flew that many sailors with good eyes saw them meet in the air and shatter one another, an order was issued for the starboard guns on the upper deck to cease firing. An eager-minded Frenchman, adapting his desires as a spring-board to his conclusions, was actually able to believe that Nelson's own ship had surrendered! He must have been off his head; and his inductive process was soon amended by the logic of facts, for his head was off him. The reason for silencing those guns was good—they were likely to do more damage to an English ship which lay beyond than to the foe at the portholes. The men who had served those guns were ordered below, to take the place of men who never should fire a gun again. Dan Tugwell, as he turned to obey the order, cast a glance at the Admiral, who gave him a little nod, meaning, "Well done, Dan."
Lord Nelson had just made a little joke, such as he often indulged in, not from any carelessness about the scene around him—which was truly awful—but simply to keep up his spirits, and those of his brave and beloved companion. Captain Hardy, a tall and portly man, clad in bright uniform, and advancing with a martial stride, cast into shade the mighty hero quietly walking at his left side. And Nelson was covered with dust from the quarter-gallery of a pounded ship, which he had not stopped to brush away.
"Thank God," thought Dan, "if those fellows in the tops, who are picking us off so, shoot at either of them, they will be sure to hit the big man first."
In the very instant of his thought, he saw Lord Nelson give a sudden start, and then reel, and fall upon both knees, striving for a moment to support himself with his one hand on the deck. Then his hand gave way, and he fell on his left side, while Hardy, who was just before him, turned at the cabin ladderway, and stooped with a loud cry over him. Dan ran up, and placed his bare arms under the wounded shoulder, and helped to raise and set him on his staggering legs.
"I hope you are not much hurt, my lord?" said the Captain, doing his best to smile.
"They have done for me at last," the hero gasped. "Hardy, my backbone is shot through."
Through the roar of battle, sobs of dear love sounded along the blood-stained deck, as Dan and another seaman took the pride of our nation tenderly, and carried him down to the orlop-deck. Yet even so, in the deadly pang and draining of the life-blood, the sense of duty never failed, and the love of country conquered death. With his feeble hand he contrived to reach the handkerchief in his pocket, and spread it over his face and breast, lest the crew should be disheartened.
"I know who fired that shot," cried Dan, when he saw that he could help no more. "He never shall live to boast of it, if I have to board the French ship to fetch him."
He ran back quickly to the quarterdeck, and there found three or four others eager to give their lives for Nelson's death. The mizzen-top of the Redoutable, whence the fatal shot had come, was scarcely so much as fifty feet from the starboard rail of the Victory. The men who were stationed in that top, although they had no brass cohorn there, such as those in the main and fore tops plied, had taken many English lives, while the thick smoke surged around them.
For some time they had worked unheeded in the louder roar of cannon, and when at last they were observed, it was hard to get a fair shot at them, not only from the rolling of the entangled ships, and clouds of blinding vapour, but because they retired out of sight to load, and only came forward to catch their aim. However, by the exertions of our marines—who should have been at them long ago—these sharp-shooters from the coign of vantage were now reduced to three brave fellows. They had only done their duty, and perhaps had no idea how completely they had done it; but naturally enough our men looked at them as if they were "too bad for hanging." Smoky as the air was, the three men saw that a very strong feeling was aroused against them, and that none of their own side was at hand to back them up. And the language of the English—though they could not understand it—was clearly that of bitter condemnation.
The least resolute of them became depressed by this, being doubtless a Radical who had been taught that Vox populi is Vox Dei. He endeavoured, therefore, to slide down the rigging, but was shot through the heart, and dead before he had time to know it. At the very same moment the most desperate villain of the three—as we should call him—or the most heroic of these patriots (as the French historians describe him) popped forward and shot a worthy Englishman, who was shaking his fist instead of pointing his gun.
Then an old quartermaster, who was standing on the poop, with his legs spread out as comfortably as if he had his Sunday dinner on the spit before him, shouted—"That's him, boys—that glazed hat beggar! Have at him all together, next time he comes forrard." As he spoke, he fell dead, with his teeth in his throat, from the fire of the other Frenchman. But the carbine dropped from the man who had fired, and his body fell dead as the one he had destroyed, for a sharp little Middy, behind the quartermaster, sent a bullet through the head, as the hand drew trigger. The slayer of Nelson remained alone, and he kept back warily, where none could see him.
"All of you fire, quick one after other," cried Dan, who had picked up a loaded musket, and was kneeling in the embrasure of a gun; "fire so that he may tell the shots; that will fetch him out again. Sing out first, 'There he is!' as if you saw him."
The men on the quarter-deck and poop did so, and the Frenchman, who was watching through a hole, came forward for a safe shot while they were loading. He pointed the long gun which had killed Nelson at the smart young officer on the poop, but the muzzle flew up ere he pulled the trigger, and leaning forward he fell dead, with his legs and arms spread, like a jack for oiling axles. Dan had gone through some small-arm drill in the fortnight he spent at Portsmouth, and his eyes were too keen for the bull's-eye. With a rest for his muzzle he laid it truly for the spot where the Frenchman would reappear; with extreme punctuality he shot him in the throat; and the gallant man who deprived the world of Nelson was thus despatched to a better one, three hours in front of his victim.
THE LAST BULLETIN
To Britannia this was but feeble comfort, even if she heard of it. She had lost her pet hero, the simplest and dearest of all the thousands she has borne and nursed, and for every penny she had grudged him in the flesh, she would lay a thousand pounds upon his bones. To put it more poetically, her smiles were turned to tears—which cost her something—and the laurel drooped in the cypress shade. The hostile fleet was destroyed; brave France would never more come out of harbour to contend with England; the foggy fear of invasion was like a morning fog dispersed; and yet the funds (the pulse of England) fell at the loss of that one defender.
It was a gloomy evening, and come time for good people to be in-doors, when the big news reached Springhaven. Since the Admiral slept in the green churchyard, with no despatch to receive or send, the importance of Springhaven had declined in all opinion except its own, and even Captain Stubbard could not keep it up. When the Squire was shot, and Master Erle as well, and Carne Castle went higher than a lark could soar, and folk were fools enough to believe that Boney would dare put his foot down there, John Prater had done a most wonderful trade, and never a man who could lay his tongue justly with the pens that came spluttering from London had any call for a fortnight together to go to bed sober at his own expense. But this bright season ended quite as suddenly as it had begun; and when these great "hungers"—as those veterans were entitled who dealt most freely with the marvellous—had laid their heads together to produce and confirm another guinea's worth of fiction, the London press would have none of it. Public interest had rushed into another channel; and the men who had thriven for a fortnight on their tongues were driven to employ them on their hands again.
But now, on the sixth of November, a new excitement was in store for them. The calm obscurity of night flowed in, through the trees that belonged to Sir Francis now, and along his misty meadows; and the only sound in the village lane was the murmur of the brook beside it, or the gentle sigh of the retiring seas. Boys of age enough to make much noise, or at least to prolong it after nightfall, were away in the fishing-boats, receiving whacks almost as often as they needed them; for those times (unlike these) were equal to their fundamental duties. In the winding lane outside the grounds of the Hall, and shaping its convenience naturally by that of the more urgent brook, a man—to show what the times were come to—had lately set up a shoeing forge. He had done it on the strength of the troopers' horses coming down the hill so fast, and often with their cogs worn out, yet going as hard as if they had no knees, or at least none belonging to their riders. And although he was not a Springhaven man, he had been allowed to marry a Springhaven woman, one of the Capers up the hill; and John Prater (who was akin to him by marriage, and perhaps had an eye to the inevitable ailment of a man whose horse is ailing) backed up his daring scheme so strongly that the Admiral, anxious for the public good, had allowed this smithy to be set up here.
John Keatch was the man who established this, of the very same family (still thriving in West Middlesex) which for the service of the state supplied an official whose mantle it is now found hard to fill; and the blacksmith was known as "Jack Ketch" in the village, while his forge was becoming the centre of news. Captain Stubbard employed him for battery uses, and finding his swing-shutters larger than those of Widow Shanks, and more cheaply lit up by the glow of the forge, was now beginning, in spite of her remonstrance, to post all his very big proclamations there.
"Rouse up your fire, Ketch," he said that evening, as he stood at the door of the smithy, with half a dozen of his children at his heels. "Bring a dozen clout-nails; here's a tremendous piece of news!"
The blacksmith made a blaze with a few strokes of his bellows, and swung his shutter forward, so that all might read.
"GREAT AND GLORIOUS VICTORY. Twenty line-of-battle ships destroyed or captured. Lord Nelson shot dead. God save the King!"
"Keep your fire up. I'll pay a shilling for the coal," cried the Captain, in the flush of excitement. "Bring out your cow's horn, and go and blow it at the corner. And that drum you had to mend, my boy and girl will beat it. Jack, run up to the battery, and tell them to blaze away for their very lives."
In less than five minutes all the village was there, with the readers put foremost, all reading together at the top of their voices, for the benefit of the rest. Behind them stood Polly Cheeseman, peeping, with the glare of the fire on her sad pale face and the ruddy cheeks of her infant. "Make way for Widow Carne, and the young Squire Carne," the loud voice of Captain Zeb commanded; "any man as stands afront of her will have me upon him. Now, ma'am, stand forth, and let them look at you."
This was a sudden thought of Captain Tugwell's; but it fixed her rank among them, as the order of the King might. The strong sense of justice, always ready in Springhaven, backed up her right to be what she had believed herself, and would have been, but for foul deceit and falsehood. And if the proud spirit of Carne ever wandered around the ancestral property, it would have received in the next generation a righteous shock at descrying in large letters, well picked out with shade: "Caryl Carne, Grocer and Butterman, Cheese-monger, Dealer in Bacon and Sausages. Licensed to sell Tea, Coffee, Snuff, Pepper, and Tobacco."
For Cheeseman raised his head again, with the spirit of a true British tradesman, as soon as the nightmare of traitorous plots and contraband imports was over. Captain Tugwell on his behalf led the fishing fleet against that renegade La Liberte, and casting the foreigners overboard, they restored her integrity as the London Trader. Mr. Cheeseman shed a tear, and put on a new apron, and entirely reformed his political views, which had been loose and Whiggish. Uprightness of the most sensitive order—that which has slipped and strained its tendons—stamped all his dealings, even in the butter line; and facts having furnished a creditable motive for his rash reliance upon his own cord, he turned amid applause to the pleasant pastimes of a smug church-warden. And when he was wafted to a still sublimer sphere, his grandson carried on the business well.
Having spread the great news in this striking manner, Captain Stubbard—though growing very bulky now with good living, ever since his pay was doubled—set off at a conscientious pace against the stomach of the hill, lest haply the Hall should feel aggrieved at hearing all this noise and having to wonder what the reason was. He knew, and was grateful at knowing, that Carne's black crime and devilish plot had wrought an entire revulsion in the candid but naturally too soft mind of the author of the Harmodiad. Sir Francis was still of a liberal mind, and still admired his own works. But forgetting that nobody read them, he feared the extensive harm they might produce, although he was now resolved to write even better in the opposite direction. On the impulse of literary conscience, he held a council with the gardener Swipes, as to the best composition of bonfire for the consumption of poetry. Mr. Swipes recommended dead pea-haulm, with the sticks left in it to ensure a draught. Then the poet in the garden with a long bean-stick administered fire to the whole edition, not only of the Harmodiad, but also of the Theiodemos, his later and even grander work. Persons incapable of lofty thought attributed this—the most sage and practical of all forms of palinode—to no higher source than the pretty face and figure, and sweet patriotism, of Lady Alice, the youngest sister of Lord Dashville. And subsequent facts, to some extent, confirmed this interpretation.
The old house looked gloomy and dull of brow, with only three windows showing light, as stout Captain Stubbard, with his short sword swinging from the bulky position where his waist had been, strode along the winding of the hill towards the door. At a sharp corner, under some trees, he came almost shoulder to shoulder with a tall man striking into the road from a foot-path. The Captain drew his sword, for his nerves had been flurried ever since the great explosion, which laid him on his back among his own cannon.
"A friend," cried the other, "and a great admirer of your valour, Captain, but not a worthy object for its display."
"My dear friend Shargeloes!" replied the Captain, a little ashamed of his own vigilance. "How are you, my dear sir? and how is the system?"
"The system will never recover from the tricks that infernal Carne has played with it. But never mind that, if the intellect survives; we all owe a debt to our country. I have met you in the very nick of time. Yesterday was Guy Fawkes' Day, and I wanted to be married then; but the people were not ready. I intend to have it now on New-Year's Day, because then I shall always remember the date. I am going up here to make a strange request, and I want you to say that it is right and proper. An opinion from a distinguished sailor will go a long way with the daughters of an Admiral. I want the young ladies to be my bridesmaids—and then for the little ones, your Maggy and your Kitty. I am bound to go to London for a month to-morrow, and then I could order all the bracelets and the brooches, if I were only certain who the blessed four would be."
"I never had any bridesmaids myself, and I don't know anything about them. I thought that the ladies were the people to settle that."
"The ladies are glad to be relieved of the expense, and I wish to start well," replied Shargeloes. "Why are ninety-nine men out of a hundred henpecked?"
"I am sure I don't know, except that they can't help it. But have you heard the great news of this evening?"
"The reason is," continued the member of the Corporation, "that they begin with being nobodies. They leave the whole management of their weddings to the women, and they never recover the reins. Miss Twemlow is one of the most charming of her sex; but she has a decided character, which properly guided will be admirable. But to give it the lead at the outset would be fatal to future happiness. Therefore I take this affair upon myself. I pay for it all, and I mean to do it all."
"What things you do learn in London!" the Captain answered, with a sigh. "Oh, if I had only had the money—but it is too late to talk of that. Once more, have you heard the news?"
"About the great battle, and the death of Nelson? Yes, I heard of all that this morning. But I left it to come in proper course from you. Now here we are; mind you back me up. The Lord Mayor is coming to be my best man."
The two sisters, dressed in the deepest mourning, and pale with long sorrow and loneliness, looked wholly unfit for festive scenes; and as soon as they heard of this new distress—the loss of their father's dearest friend, and their own beloved hero—they left the room, to have a good cry together, while their brother entertained the visitors. "It can't be done now," Mr. Shargeloes confessed; "and after all, Eliza is the proper person. I must leave that to her, but nothing else that I can think of. There can't be much harm in my letting her do that."
It was done by a gentleman after all, for the worthy Rector did it. The bride would liefer have dispensed with bridesmaids so much fairer than herself, and although unable to advance that reason, found fifty others against asking them. But her father had set his mind upon it, and together with his wife so pressed the matter that Faith and Dolly, much against their will, consented to come out of mourning for a day, but not into gay habiliments.
The bride was attired wonderfully, stunningly, carnageously—as Johnny, just gifted with his commission, and thereby with much slang, described her; and in truth she carried her bunting well, as Captain Stubbard told his wife, and Captain Tugwell confirmed it. But the eyes of everybody with half an eye followed the two forms in silver-grey. That was the nearest approach to brightness those lovers of their father allowed themselves, within five months of his tragic death; though if the old Admiral could have looked down from the main-top, probably he would have shouted, "No flags at half-mast for me, my pets!"
Two young men with melancholy glances followed these fair bridesmaids, being tantalized by these nuptial rites, because they knew no better. One of them hoped that his time would come, when he had pushed his great discovery; and if the art of photography had been known, his face would have been his fortune. For he bore at the very top of it the seal and stamp of his patent—the manifest impact of a bullet, diffracted by the power of Pong. The roots of his hair—the terminus of blushes, according to all good novelists—had served an even more useful purpose, by enabling him to blush again. Strengthened by Pong, they had defied the lead, and deflected it into a shallow channel, already beginning to be overgrown by the aid of that same potent drug. Erle Twemlow looked little the worse for his wound; to a lady perhaps, to a man of science certainly, more interesting than he had been before. As he gazed at the bride all bespangled with gold, he felt that he had in his trunk the means of bespangling his bride with diamonds. But the worst of it was that he must wait, and fight, and perhaps get killed, before he could settle in life and make his fortune. As an officer of a marching regiment, ordered to rejoin immediately, he must flesh his sword in lather first—for he had found no razor strong enough—and postpone the day of riches till the golden date of peace.
The other young man had no solace of wealth, even in the blue distance, to whisper to his troubled heart. Although he was a real "Captain Scuddy" now, being posted to the Danae, 42-gun frigate, the capacity of his cocked hat would be tried by no shower of gold impending. For mighty dread of the Union-jack had fallen upon the tricolor; that gallant flag perceived at last that its proper flight was upon dry land, where as yet there was none to flout it. Trafalgar had reduced by 50 per cent. the British sailor's chance of prize-money.
Such computations were not, however, the chief distress of Scudamore. The happiness of his fair round face was less pronounced than usual, because he had vainly striven for an interview with his loved one. With all her faults he loved her still, and longed to make them all his own. He could not help being sadly shocked by her fatal coquetry with the traitor Carne, and slippery conduct to his own poor self. But love in his faithful heart maintained that she had already atoned for that too bitterly and too deeply; and the settled sorrow of her face, and listless submission of her movements, showed that she was now a very different Dolly. Faith, who had always been grave enough, seemed gaiety itself in comparison with her younger sister, once so gay. In their simple dresses—grey jaconet muslin, sparely trimmed with lavender—and wearing no jewel or ornament, but a single snow-drop in the breast, the lovely bridesmaids looked as if they defied all the world to make them brides.
But the Rector would not let them off from coming to the breakfast party, and with the well-bred sense of fitness they obeyed his bidding. Captain Stubbard (whose jokes had missed fire too often to be satisfied with a small touch-hole now) was broadly facetious at their expense; and Johnny, returning thanks for them, surprised the good company by his manly tone, and contempt of life before beginning it. This invigorated Scudamore, by renewing his faith in human nature as a thing beyond calculation. He whispered a word or so to his friend Johnny while Mr. and Mrs. Shargeloes were bowing farewell from the windows of a great family coach from London, which the Lord Mayor had lent them, to make up for not coming. For come he could not—though he longed to do so, and all Springhaven expected him—on account of the great preparations in hand for the funeral of Lord Nelson.
"Thy servant will see to it," the boy replied, with a wink at his sisters, whom he was to lead home; for Sir Francis had made his way down to the beach, to meditate his new poem, Theriodemos.
"His behaviour," thought Dolly, as she put on her cloak, "has been perfect. How thankful I feel for it! He never cast one glance at me. He quite enters into my feelings towards him. But how much more credit to his mind than to his heart!"
Scudamore, at a wary distance, kept his eyes upon her, as if she had been a French frigate gliding under strong land batteries, from which he must try to cut her out. Presently he saw that his good friend Johnny had done him the service requested. At a fork of the path leading to the Hall, Miss Dolly departed towards the left upon some errand among the trees, while her brother and sister went on towards the house. Forgetting the dignity of a Post-Captain, the gallant Scuddy made a cut across the grass, as if he were playing prisoner's base with the boys at Stonnington, and intercepted the fair prize in a bend of the brook, where the winter sun was nursing the first primrose.
"You, Captain Scudamore!" said the bridesmaid, turning as if she could never trust her eyes again. "You must have lost your way. This path leads nowhere."
"If it only leads to you, that is all that I could wish for. I am content to go to nothing, if I may only go with you."
"My brother sent me," said Dolly, looking down, with more colour on her cheeks than they had owned for months, and the snow-drop quivering on her breast, "to search for a primrose or two for him to wear when he dines at the rectory this evening. We shall not go, of course. We have done enough. But Frank and Johnny think they ought to go."
"May I help you to look? I am lucky in that way. I used to find so many things with you, in the happy times that used to be." Blyth saw that her eyelids were quivering with tears. "I will go away, if you would rather have it so. But you used to be so good-natured to me."
"So I am still. Or at least I mean that people should now be good-natured to me. Oh, Captain Scudamore, how foolish I have been!"
"Don't say so, don't think it, don't believe it for a moment," said Scudamore, scarcely knowing what he said, as she burst into a storm of sobbing. "Oh, Dolly, Dolly, you know you meant no harm. You are breaking your darling heart, when you don't deserve it. I could not bear to look at you, and think of it, this morning. Everybody loves you still, as much and more than ever. Oh, Dolly, I would rather die than see you cry so terribly."
"Nobody loves me, and I hate myself. I could never have believed I should ever hate myself. Go away, you are too good to be near me. Go away, or I shall think you want to kill me. And I wish you would do it, Captain Scudamore."
"Then let me stop," said the Captain, very softly. She smiled at the turn of his logic, through her tears. Then she wept with new anguish, that she had no right to smile.
"Only tell me one thing—may I hold you? Not of course from any right to do it, but because you are so overcome, my own, own Dolly." The Captain very cleverly put one arm round her, at first with a very light touch, and then with a firmer clasp, as she did not draw away. Her cloak was not very cumbrous, and her tumultuous heart was but a little way from his.
"You know that I never could help loving you," he whispered, as she seemed to wonder what the meaning was. "May I ever hope that you will like me?"
"Me! How can it matter now to anybody? I used to think it did; but I was very foolish then. I know my own value. It is less than this. This little flower has been a good creature. It has been true to its place, and hurt nobody."
Instead of seeking for any more flowers, she was taking from her breast the one she had—the snow-drop, and threatening to tear it in pieces.
"If you give it to me, I shall have some hope." As he spoke, he looked at her steadfastly, without any shyness or fear in his eyes, but as one who knows his own good heart, and has a right to be answered clearly. The maiden in one glance understood all the tales of his wonderful daring, which she never used to believe, because he seemed afraid to look at her.
"You may have it, if you like," she said; "but, Blyth, I shall never deserve you. I have behaved to you shamefully. And I feel as if I could never bear to be forgiven for it."
For the sake of peace and happiness, it must be hoped that she conquered this feminine feeling, which springs from an equity of nature—the desire that none should do to us more than we ever could do to them. Certain it is that when the Rector held his dinner party, two gallant bosoms throbbed beneath the emblem of purity and content. The military Captain's snow-drop hung where every one might observe it, and some gentle-witted jokes were made about its whereabouts that morning. By-and-by it grew weary on its stalk and fell, and Erle Twemlow never missed it. But the other snow-drop was not seen, except by the wearer with a stolen glance, when people were making a loyal noise—a little glance stolen at his own heart. He had made a little cuddy there inside his inner sarcenet, and down his plaited neck-cloth ran a sly companionway to it, so that his eyes might steal a visit to the joy that was over his heart and in it. Thus are women adored by men, especially those who deserve it least.
"Attention, my dear friends, attention, if you please," cried the Rector, rising, with a keen glance at Scuddy. "I will crave your attention before the ladies go, and theirs, for it concerns them equally. We have passed through a period of dark peril, a long time of trouble and anxiety and doubt. By the mercy of the Lord, we have escaped; but with losses that have emptied our poor hearts. England has lost her two foremost defenders, Lord Nelson, and Admiral Darling. To them we owe it that we are now beginning the New Year happily, with the blessing of Heaven, and my dear daughter married. Next week we shall attend the grand funeral of the hero, and obtain good places by due influence. My son-in-law, Percival Shargeloes, can do just as he pleases at St. Paul's. Therefore let us now, with deep thanksgiving, and one hand upon our hearts, lift up our glasses, and in silence pledge the memory of our greatest men. With the spirit of Britons we echo the last words that fell from the lips of our dying hero—'Thank God, I have done my duty!' His memory shall abide for ever, because he loved his country."
The company rose, laid hand on heart, and deeply bowing, said—"Amen!"