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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!"
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