Chapter XX. Among the Ladies

It would have surprised the stout Captain Stubbard, who thought no small beer of his gunnery, to hear that it was held in very light esteem by the "Frenchified young man overhead," as he called Caryl Carne, to his landlady. And it would have amazed him to learn that this young man was a captain of artillery, in the grand army mustering across the sea, and one of the most able among plenty of ability, and favoured by the great First Consul.

In the gully where the Tugwell boats were built, behind a fringe of rough longshore growth, young Carne had been sitting with a good field-glass, observing the practice of the battery. He had also been able to observe unseen the disobedient practices of young ladies, when their father is widely out of sight. Upon Faith, however, no blame could fall, for she went against her wish, and only to retrieve the rebellious Dolly.

Secure from the danger, these two held council in the comfort of the Admiral's Round-house. There Miss Dolly, who considered it her domain, kept sundry snug appliances congenial to young ladies, for removing all traces of sudden excitement, and making them fit to be seen again. Simple and unfashionable as they were in dress, they were sure to have something to do to themselves after the late derangement, ere ever they could run the risk of meeting any of the brave young officers, who were so mysteriously fond of coming for orders to Springhaven Hall.

"You look well enough, dear," said Faith at last, "and much better than you deserve to look, after leading me such a dance by your self-will. But one thing must be settled before we go back--are we to speak of this matter, or not?"

"How can you ask such a question, Faith?" Miss Dolly loved a bit of secrecy. "Of course we must rather bite our tongues out, than break the solemn pledges which we have given." She had cried a good deal, and she began to cry again.

"Don't cry, that's a darling," said the simple-hearted sister. "You make the whole world seem so cruel when you cry, because you look so innocent. It shall be as you please, if I can only think it right. But I cannot see how we gave a pledge of any sort, considering that we ran away without speaking. The question is-- have we any right to conceal it, when father has a right to know everything?"

"He would be in such a sad passion," pleaded Dolly, with a stock of fresh tears only waiting, "and he never would look again at poor Captain Stubbard, and what would become of all his family?"

"Father is a just and conscientious man," replied the daughter who inherited those qualities; "he would not blame Captain Stubbard; he would blame us, and no others."

"Oh, I could not bear to hear you blamed, Faith. I should have to say that it was all my fault. And then how I should catch it, and be punished for a month! Confined to the grounds for a month at least, and never have a bit of appetite. But I am not thinking of myself, I am quite sure of that. You know that I never do that much. I am thinking of that heroic gentleman, who stamped out the sparks so cleverly. All the time I lay on the sand I watched him, though I expected to be blown to pieces every single moment. Oh! what a nasty sensation it was! I expected to find all my hair turned grey. But, thank Heaven, I don't see a streak in it!" To make sure of that, she went to the glass again.

"If all mine had turned grey, 'twould be no odds to nobody--as Captain Zeb says about his income--because I am intended for an old maid." Miss Darling, whose beauty still lacked many years of its prime, turned away for a moment, because her eyes were glistening, and her sister was tired of the subject. "But for yours there are fifty to weep, Dolly. Especially perhaps this young gentleman, towards whom you feel so much gratitude."

"How unkind you are, Faith! All the gratitude I owe him is for saving your life. As for myself, I was flat upon the sand, with a heap of sea-weed between me and the thing. If it had gone off, it would have gone over me; but you chose to stand up, like a stupid. Your life was saved, beyond all doubt, by him; and the way you acknowledge it is to go and tell his chief enemy that he was there observing him!"

"Well, I never!" Faith exclaimed, with more vigour than grace of language. "A minute ago you knew nothing of him, and even wondered who he was, and now you know all about his enemies! I am afraid that you stick at nothing."

"I don't stick thinking, as you do, Miss," Dolly answered, without abashment, and knowing that the elder hated to be so addressed; "but things come to me by the light of nature, without a twelvemonth of brown-study. When I said what you remind me of, in such a hurry, it was perfectly true--so true that you need have no trouble about it, with all your truth. But since that, a sudden idea flashed across me, the sort of idea that proves itself. Your hero you are in such a hurry to betray can be nobody but the mysterious lodger in Widow Shanks' dimity-parlour, as she calls it; and Jenny has told me all she knows about him, which is a great deal less than she ought to know. I meant to have told you, but you are so grand in your lofty contempt of what you call gossip, but which I call good neighbourly intercourse! You know that he is Mr. Caryl Carne, of course. Everybody knows that, and there the knowledge seems to terminate. Even the Twemlows, his own aunt and uncle, are scarcely ever favoured with his company; and I, who am always on the beach, or in the village, have never had the honour of beholding him, until--until it came to this"--here she imitated with her lips the spluttering of the fuse so well that her sister could not keep from laughing. "He never goes out, and he never asks questions, any more than he answers them, and he never cares to hear what fish they have caught, or anything else, about anybody. He never eats or drinks, and he never says a word about the flowers they put upon his table; and what he does all day long nobody knows, except that he has a lot of books with him. Widow Shanks, who has the best right to know all about him, has made up her mind that his head has been turned by the troubles of his family, except for his going without dinner, which no lunatic ever does, according to her knowledge. And he seems to have got 'Butter Cheeseman,' as they call him, entirely at his beck and call. He leaves his black horse there every morning, and rides home at night to his ancestral ruins. There, now, you know as much as I do."

"There is mischief at the bottom of all this," said Faith; "in these dangerous times, it must not be neglected. We are bound, as you say, to consider his wishes, after all that he has done for us. But the tale about us will be over the place in a few hours, at the latest. The gunners will have known where their bad shot fell, and perhaps they will have seen us with their glasses. How will it be possible to keep this affair from gossip?"

"They may have seen us, without seeing him at all, on account of the smoke that came afterwards. At any rate, let us say nothing about it until we hear what other people say. The shell will be washed away or buried in the sand, for it fell upon the shingle, and then rolled towards the sea; and there need be no fuss unless we choose to make it, and so perhaps ruin Captain Stubbard and his family. And his wife has made such pretty things for us. If he knew what he had done, he would go and shoot himself. He is so excessively humane and kind."

"We will not urge his humanity to that extreme. I hate all mystery, as you know well. But about this affair I will say nothing, unless there is cause to do so, at least until father comes back; and then I shall tell him if it seems to be my duty."

"It won't be your duty, it can't be your duty, to get good people into trouble, Faith. I find it my duty to keep out of trouble, and I like to treat others the same as myself."

"You are such a lover of duty, dear Dolly, because everything you like becomes your duty. And now your next duty is to your dinner. Mrs. Twemlow is coming--I forgot to tell you--as well as Eliza, and Mrs. Stubbard. And if Johnny comes home in time from Harrow, to be Jack among the ladies, we shall hear some wonders, you may be quite sure."

"Oh, I vow, I forgot all about that wicked Johnny. What a blessing that he was not here just now! It is my black Monday when his holidays begin. Instead of getting steadier, he grows more plaguesome. And the wonder of it is that he would tie your kid shoes; while he pulls out my jaconet, and sits on my French hat. How I wish he was old enough for his commission! To-morrow he will be dancing in and out of every cottage, boat, or gun, or rabbit- hole, and nothing shall be hidden from his eyes and ears. Let him come. 'I am accustomed to have all things go awry,' as somebody says in some tragedy. The only chance is to make him fall in love, deeply in love, with Miss Stubbard. He did it with somebody for his Easter week, and became as harmless as a sucking dove, till he found his nymph eating onions raw with a pocketful of boiled limpets. Maggie Stubbard is too perfect in her style for that. She is twelve years old, and has lots of hair, and eyes as large as oysters. I shall introduce Johnny to-morrow, and hope to keep him melancholy all his holidays."

"Perhaps it will be for his good," said Faith, "because, without some high ideas, he gets into such dreadful scrapes; and certainly it will be for our good."

After making light of young love thus, these girls deserved the shafts of Cupid, in addition to Captain Stubbard's shells. And it would have been hard to find fairer marks when they came down dressed for dinner. Mrs. Twemlow arrived with her daughter Eliza, but without her husband, who was to fetch her in the evening; and Mrs. Stubbard came quite alone, for her walkable children--as she called them--were all up at the battery. "Can't smell powder too young in such days as these," was the Captain's utterance; and, sure enough, they took to it, like sons of guns.

"I should be so frightened," Mrs. Twemlow said, when Johnny (who sat at the foot of the table representing his father most gallantly) had said grace in Latin, to astonish their weak minds, "so nervous all the time, so excessively anxious, the whole time that dreadful din was proceeding! It is over now, thank goodness! But how can you have endured it, how can you have gone about your household duties calmly, with seven of your children--I think you said--going about in that fiery furnace?"

"Because, ma'am," replied Mrs. Stubbard, who was dry of speech, and fit mother of heroes, "the cannons are so made, if you can understand, that they do not shoot out of their back ends."

"We are quite aware of that"--Miss Twemlow came to her mother's relief very sharply--"but still they are apt to burst, or to be overloaded, or badly directed, or even to fly back suddenly, as I have heard on good authority."

"Very likely, miss, when they are commanded by young women."

Eliza Twemlow coloured, for she was rather quick of temper; but she did not condescend to pay rudeness in kind.

"It would hardly be a lady-like position, I suppose," she answered, with a curve of her graceful neck--the Carnes had been celebrated for their necks, which were longer than those of the Darlings; "but even under the command of a most skilful man, for instance Captain Stubbard, little accidents will happen, like the fall of a shell upon the beach this afternoon. Some people were close to it, according to the rumour; but luckily it did not explode."

"How providential!" cried Mrs. Twemlow; "but the stupid people would have gone without much pity, whatever had befallen them, unless they were blind, or too ignorant to read. Don't you think so, Faith, my dear?"

"I don't believe a single word of that story," Mrs. Stubbard cut short the question; "for the simple reason that it never could have happened. My husband was to direct every gun himself. Is it likely he would have shelled the beach?"

"Well, the beach is the proper place for shells; but if I had only known it, wouldn't I have come a few hours earlier?" said Johnny. "Even now there must be something left to see; and I am bound to understand that sort of thing. Ladies, I entreat you not to think me rude, if I go as soon as ever you can do without me. I think I have got you nearly everything you want; and perhaps you would rather be without me."

With many thanks and compliments--such a pretty boy he was--the ladies released him gladly; and then Mrs. Twemlow, having reasons of her own, drew nigh to Mrs. Stubbard with lively interest in her children. At first, she received short answers only; for the Captain's wife had drawn more sour juices than sweet uses from adversity. But the wife of the man of peace outflanked the better half of the man of war, drove in her outposts, and secured the key of all her communications.

"I can scarcely believe that you are so kind. My dear Mrs. Twemlow, how good you are! My Bob is a nice boy, so manly and clever, so gentle and well-behaved, even when he knows that I am not likely to find him out. But that you should have noticed it, is what surprises me--so few people now know the difference! But in the House of God--as you so well observe--you can very soon see what a boy is. When I tell him that he may ride your grey pony, I wish you could be there to watch the fine expression of his face. How he does love dumb animals! It was only last Saturday, he knocked down a boy nearly three times his own size for poking a pin into a poor donkey with the fish. And Maggie to have a flower-bed on your front lawn! They won't let her touch a plant, at our cottage, though she understands gardening so thoroughly. She won't sleep a wink to-night, if I tell her, and I had better keep that for the morning. Poor children! They have had a hard time of it; but they have come out like pure gold from the fire--I mean as many of them as can use their legs. But to be on horseback--what will Bob say?"

"You must have met with very little kindness, Mrs. Stubbard, to attach any importance to such mere trifles. It makes me blush to think that there can be a spot in England where such children as yours could pass unnoticed. It is not a question of religious feeling only. Far from it; in fact, quite the opposite; though my husband, of course, is quite right in insisting that all our opinions and actions must be referred to that one standard. But I look at things also from a motherly point of view, because I have suffered such sad trials. Three dear ones in the churchyard, and the dearest of all--the Almighty only knows where he is. Sometimes it is more than I can bear, to live on in this dark and most dreadful uncertainty. My medical man has forbidden me to speak of it. But how can he know what it is to be a mother? But hush! Or darling Faith may hear me. Sometimes I lose all self-command."

Mrs. Twemlow's eyes were in need of wiping, and stout Mrs. Stubbard's in the same condition. "How I wish I could help you," said the latter, softly: "is there anything in the world that I can do?"

"No, my dear friend; I wish there was, for I'm sure that it would be a pleasure to you. But another anxiety, though far less painful, is worrying me as well just now. My poor brother's son is behaving most strangely. He hardly ever comes near us, and he seems to dislike my dear husband. He has taken rooms over your brave husband's Office, and he comes and goes very mysteriously. It is my duty to know something about this; but I dare not ask Captain Stubbard."

"My dear Mrs. Twemlow, it has puzzled me too. But thinking that you knew all about it, I concluded that everything must be quite right. What you tell me has surprised me more than I can tell. I shall go to work quietly to find out all about it. Mystery and secrecy are such hateful things; and a woman is always the best hand at either."