Chapter I. When the Ship Comes Home

In the days when England trusted mainly to the vigor and valor of one man, against a world of enemies, no part of her coast was in greater peril than the fair vale of Springhaven. But lying to the west of the narrow seas, and the shouts both of menace and vigilance, the quiet little village in the tranquil valley forbore to be uneasy.

For the nature of the place and race, since time has outlived memory, continually has been, and must be, to let the world pass easily. Little to talk of, and nothing to do, is the healthy condition of mankind just there. To all who love repose and shelter, freedom from the cares of money and the cark of fashion, and (in lieu of these) refreshing air, bright water, and green country, there is scarcely any valley left to compare with that of Springhaven. This valley does not interrupt the land, but comes in as a pleasant relief to it. No glaring chalk, no grim sandstone, no rugged flint, outface it; but deep rich meadows, and foliage thick, and cool arcades of ancient trees, defy the noise that men make. And above the trees, in shelving distance, rise the crests of upland, a soft gray lias, where orchards thrive, and greensward strokes down the rigor of the rocks, and quick rills lace the bosom of the slope with tags of twisted silver.

In the murmur of the valley twenty little waters meet, and discoursing their way to the sea, give name to the bay that receives them and the anchorage they make. And here no muddy harbor reeks, no foul mouth of rat-haunted drains, no slimy and scraggy wall runs out, to mar the meeting of sweet and salt. With one or two mooring posts to watch it, and a course of stepping- stones, the brook slides into the peaceful bay, and is lost in larger waters. Even so, however, it is kindly still, for it forms a tranquil haven.

Because, where the ruffle of the land stream merges into the heavier disquietude of sea, slopes of shell sand and white gravel give welcome pillow to the weary keel. No southerly tempest smites the bark, no long groundswell upheaves her; for a bold point, known as the "Haven-head," baffles the storm in the offing, while the bulky rollers of a strong spring-tide, that need no wind to urge them, are broken by the shifting of the shore into a tier of white- frilled steps. So the deep-waisted smacks that fish for many generations, and even the famous "London trader" (a schooner of five-and-forty tons), have rest from their labors, whenever they wish or whenever they can afford it, in the arms of the land, and the mouth of the water, and under the eyes of Springhaven.

At the corner of the wall, where the brook comes down, and pebble turns into shingle, there has always been a good white gate, respected (as a white gate always is) from its strong declaration of purpose. Outside of it, things may belong to the Crown, the Admiralty, Manor, or Trinity Brethren, or perhaps the sea itself-- according to the latest ebb or flow of the fickle tide of Law Courts--but inside that gate everything belongs to the fine old family of Darling.

Concerning the origin of these Darlings divers tales are told, according to the good-will or otherwise of the diver. The Darlings themselves contend and prove that stock and name are Saxon, and the true form of the name is "Deerlung," as witness the family bearings. But the foes of the race, and especially the Carnes, of ancient Sussex lineage, declare that the name describes itself. Forsooth, these Darlings are nothing more, to their contemptuous certainty, than the offset of some court favorite, too low to have won nobility, in the reign of some light-affectioned king.

If ever there was any truth in that, it has been worn out long ago by friction of its own antiquity. Admiral Darling owns that gate, and all the land inside it, as far as a Preventive man can see with his spy-glass upon the top bar of it. And this includes nearly all the village of Springhaven, and the Hall, and the valley, and the hills that make it. And how much more does all this redound to the credit of the family when the gazer reflects that this is nothing but their younger tenement! For this is only Springhaven Hall, while Darling Holt, the headquarters of the race, stands far inland, and belongs to Sir Francis, the Admiral's elder brother.

When the tides were at their spring, and the year 1802 of our era in the same condition, Horatia Dorothy Darling, younger daughter of the aforesaid Admiral, choosing a very quiet path among thick shrubs and under-wood, came all alone to a wooden building, which her father called his Round-house. In the war, which had been patched over now, but would very soon break out again, that veteran officer held command of the coast defense (westward of Nelson's charge) from Beachy Head to Selsey Bill. No real danger had existed then, and no solid intent of invasion, but many sharp outlooks had been set up, and among them was this at Springhaven.

Here was established under thatch, and with sliding lights before it, the Admiral's favorite Munich glass, mounted by an old ship's carpenter (who had followed the fortunes of his captain) on a stand which would have puzzled anybody but the maker, with the added security of a lanyard from the roof. The gear, though rough, was very strong and solid, and afforded more range and firmer rest to the seven-feet tube and adjustments than a costly mounting by a London optician would have been likely to supply. It was a pleasure to look through such a glass, so clear, and full of light, and firm; and one who could have borne to be looked at through it, or examined even by a microscope, came now to enjoy that pleasure.

Miss Dolly Darling could not be happy--though her chief point was to be so--without a little bit of excitement, though it were of her own construction. Her imagination, being bright and tender and lively, rather than powerful, was compelled to make its own material, out of very little stuff sometimes. She was always longing for something sweet and thrilling and romantic, and what chance of finding it in this dull place, even with the longest telescope? For the war, with all its stirring rumors and perpetual motion on shore and sea, and access of gallant visitors, was gone for the moment, and dull peace was signed.

This evening, as yet, there seemed little chance of anything to enliven her. The village, in the valley and up the stream, was hidden by turns of the land and trees; her father's house beneath the hill crest was out of sight and hearing; not even a child was on the beach; and the only movement was of wavelets leisurely advancing toward the sea-wall fringed with tamarisk. The only thing she could hope to see was the happy return of the fishing- smacks, and perhaps the "London trader," inasmuch as the fishermen (now released from fencible duty and from French alarm) did their best to return on Saturday night to their moorings, their homes, the disposal of fish, and then the deep slumber of Sunday. If the breeze should enable them to round the Head, and the tide avail for landing, the lane to the village, the beach, and even the sea itself would swarm with life and bustle and flurry and incident. But Dolly's desire was for scenes more warlike and actors more august than these.

Beauty, however, has an eye for beauty beyond its own looking- glass. Deeply as Dolly began to feel the joy of her own loveliness, she had managed to learn, and to feel as well, that so far as the strength and vigor of beauty may compare with its grace and refinement, she had her own match at Springhaven. Quite a hardworking youth, of no social position and no needless education, had such a fine countenance and such bright eyes that she neither could bear to look at him nor forbear to think of him. And she knew that if the fleet came home she would see him on board of the Rosalie.

Flinging on a shelf the small white hat which had scarcely covered her dark brown curls, she lifted and shored with a wooden prop the southern casement of leaded glass. This being up, free range was given to the swinging telescope along the beach to the right and left, and over the open sea for miles, and into the measureless haze of air. She could manage this glass to the best advantage, through her father's teaching, and could take out the slide and clean the lenses, and even part the object-glass, and refix it as well as possible. She belonged to the order of the clever virgins, but scarcely to that of the wise ones.