Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXX

Cocks and Coxcombs

Major Hockin brought the only fly as yet to be found in Bruntsea, to meet me at Newport, where the railway ended at present, for want of further encouragement.

“Very soon you go,” he cried out to the bulkheads, or buffers, or whatever are the things that close the career of a land-engine. “Station-master, you are very wise in putting in your very best cabbage plants there. You understand your own company. Well done! If I were to offer you a shilling apiece for those young early Yorks, what would you say, now?”

“Weel, a think I should say nah, Sir,” the Scotch station-master made answer, with a grin, while he pulled off his cap of office and put on a dissolute Glengary. “They are a veery fine young kail, that always pays for planting.”

“The villain!” said the Major, as I jumped into the fly. “However, I suppose he does quite right. Set a thief to watch a thief. The company are big rogues, and he tries to be a bigger. We shall cut through his garden in about three months, just when his cabbages are getting firm, and their value will exceed that of pine-apples. The surveyor will come down and certify, and the ‘damage to crops’ will be at least five pounds, when they have no right to sow even mustard and cress, and a saucepan would hold all the victuals on the land.”

From this I perceived that my host was as full of his speculative schemes as ever; and soon he made the driver of the one-horse fly turn aside from the unfenced road and take the turf. “Coachman,” he cried, “just drive along the railway; you won’t have the chance much longer.”

There was no sod turned yet and no rod set up; but the driver seemed to know what was meant, and took us over the springy turf where once had run the river. And the salt breath of the sea came over the pebble ridge, full of appetite and briskness, after so much London.

“It is one of the saddest things I ever heard of,” Major Hockin began to say to me. “Poor Shovelin! poor Shovelin! A man of large capital — the very thing we want. It might have been the making of this place. I have very little doubt that I must have brought him to see our great natural advantages — the beauty of the situation, the salubrity of the air, the absence of all clay, or marsh, or noxious deposit, the bright crisp turf, and the noble underlay of chalk, which (if you perceive my meaning) can not retain any damp, but transmits it into sweet natural wells. Why, driver, where the devil are you driving us?”

“No fear, your honor. I know every trick of it. It won’t come over the wheels, I do believe, and it does all the good in the world to his sand-cracks. Whoa-ho, my boy, then! And the young lady’s feet might go up upon the cushion, if her boots is thin, Sir; and Mr. Rasper will excuse of it.”

“What the”— something hot —“do you mean, Sir?” the Major roared over the water, which seemed to be deepening as we went on. “Pull out this instant; pull out, I tell you, or you shall have three months’ hard labor. May I be d —— d now — my dear, I beg your pardon for speaking with such sincerity — I simply mean, may I go straightway to the devil, if I don’t put this fellow on the tread-mill. Oh, you can pull out now, then, can you?”

“If your honor pleases, I never did pull in,” the poor driver answered, being frightened at the excitement of the lord of the manor. “My orders was, miss, to drive along the line coming on now just to Bruntsea, and keep in the middle of that same I did, and this here little wet is a haxident — a haxident of the full moon, I do assure you, and the wind coming over the sea, as you might say. These pebbles is too round, miss, to stick to one another; you couldn’t expect it of them; and sometimes the water here and there comes a-leaking like through the bottom. I have seed it so, ever since I can remember.”

“I don’t believe a word of it,” the Major said, as we waited a little for the vehicle to drain, and I made a nosegay of the bright sea flowers. “Tell me no lies, Sir; you belong to the West Bruntseyans, and you have driven us into a vile bog to scare me. They have bribed you. I see the whole of it. Tell me the truth, and you shall have five shillings.”

The driver looked over the marshes as if he had never received such an offer before. Five shillings for a falsehood would have seemed the proper thing, and have called for a balance of considerations, and made a demand upon his energies. But to earn five shillings by the truth had never fallen to his luck before; and he turned to me, because I smiled, and he said, “Will you taste the water, miss?”

“Bless me!” cried the Major, “now I never thought of that. Common people have such ways about things they are used to! I might have stood here for a month, and never have thought of that way to settle it. Ridiculously simple. Give me a taste, Erema. Ah, that is the real beauty of our coast, my dear! The strongest proportion of the saline element — I should know the taste of it any where. No sea-weed, no fishy particles, no sludge, no beards of oysters. The pure, uncontaminated, perfect brine, that sets every male and female on his legs, varicose, orthopedic — I forget their scientifics, but I know the smack of it.”

“Certainly,” I said, “it is beautifully salt. It will give you an appetite for dinner, Major Hockin. I could drink a pint of it, after all that smoke. But don’t you think it is a serious thing for the sea itself to come pouring through the bottom of this pebble bank in this way?”

“Not at all. No, I rather like it. It opens up many strictly practical ideas. It adds very much to the value of the land. For instance, a ‘salt-lick,’ as your sweet Yankees call it — and set up an infirmary for foot and mouth disease. And better still, the baths, the baths, my dear. No expense for piping, or pumping, or any thing. Only place your marble at the proper level, and twice a day you have the grand salubrious sparkling influx of ocean’s self, self-filtered, and by its own operation permeated with a fine siliceous element. What foreign mud could compete with such a bath?”

“But supposing there should come too much of it,” I said, “and wash both the baths and the bathers away?”

“Such an idea is ridiculous. It can be adjusted to a nicety. I am very glad I happened to observe this thing, this — this noble phenomenon. I shall speak to Montague about it at once, before I am half an hour older. My dear, you have made a conquest; I quite forgot to tell you; but never mind that for the present. Driver, here is half a crown for you. Your master will put down the fly to my account. He owes me a heriot. I shall claim his best beast, the moment he gets one without a broken wind.”

As the Major spoke, he got out at his own door with all his wonted alacrity; but instead of offering me his hand, as he always had done in London, he skipped up his nine steps, on purpose (as I saw) that somebody else might come down for me. And this was Sir Montague Hockin, as I feared was only too likely from what had been said. If I had even suspected that this gentleman was at Bruntlands, I would have done my utmost to stay where I was, in spite of all absence of money. Betsy would gladly have allowed me to remain, without paying even a farthing, until it should become convenient. Pride had forbidden me to speak of this; but I would have got over that pride much rather than meet this Sir Montague Hockin thus. Some instinct told me to avoid him altogether; and having so little now of any other guidance, I attached, perhaps, foolish importance to that.

However, it was not the part of a lady to be rude to any one through instinct; and I knew already that in England young women are not quite such masters of their own behavior as in the far West they are allowed to be. And so I did my best that, even in my eyes, he should not see how vexed I was at meeting him. And soon it appeared that this behavior, however painful to me, was no less wise than good, because both with my host and hostess this new visitor was already at the summit of all good graces. He had conquered the Major by admiration of all his schemes and upshots, and even offering glimmers of the needful money in the distance; and Mrs. Hockin lay quite at his feet ever since he had opened a hamper and produced a pair of frizzled fowls, creatures of an extraordinary aspect, toothed all over like a dandelion plant, with every feather sticking inside out. When I saw them, I tried for my life not to laugh, and biting my lips very hard, quite succeeded, until the cock opened up a pair of sleepy eyes, covered with comb and very sad inversions, and glancing with complacency at his wife (who stood beneath him, even more turned inside out), capered with his twiggy legs, and gave a long, sad crow. Mrs. Hockin looked at him with intense delight.

“Erema, is it possible that you laugh? I thought that you never laughed, Erema. At any rate, if you ever do indulge, you might choose a fitter opportunity, I think. You have spoiled his demonstration altogether — see, he does not understand such unkindness — and it is the very first he has uttered since he came. Oh, poor Fluffsky!”

“I am very, very sorry. But how was I to help it? I would not, on any account, have stopped him if I had known he was so sensitive. Fluffsky, do please to begin again.”

“These beggars are nothing at all, I can assure you,” said Sir Montague, coming to my aid, when Fluffsky spurned all our prayers for one more crow. “Mrs. Hockin, if you really would like to have a fowl that even Lady Clara Crowcombe has not got, you shall have it in a week, or a fortnight, or, at any rate, a month, if I can manage it. They are not to be had except through certain channels, and the fellows who write the poultry books have never even heard of them.”

“Oh, how delighted I shall be! Lady Clara despises all her neighbors so. But do they lay eggs? Half the use of keeping poultry, when you never kill them, is to get an egg for breakfast; and Major Hockin looks round and says, ‘Now is this our own?’ and I can not say that it is; and I am vexed with the books, and he begins to laugh at me. People said it was for want of chalk, but they walk upon nothing but chalk, as you can see.”

“And their food, Mrs. Hockin. They are walking upon that. Starve them for a week, and forty eggs at least will reward you for stern discipline.”

But all this little talk I only tell to show how good and soft Mrs. Hockin was; and her husband, in spite of all his self-opinion, and resolute talk about money and manorial dues, in his way, perhaps, was even less to be trusted to get his cash out of any poor and honest man.

On the very day after my return from London I received a letter from “Colonel Gundry” (as we always called the Sawyer now, through his kinship to the Major), and, as it can not easily be put into less compass, I may as well give his very words:

“DEAR MISS REMA— Your last favor to hand, with thanks. Every thing is going on all right with us. The mill is built up, and goes better than ever; more orders on hand than we can get through. We have not cracked the big nugget yet. Expect the government to take him at a trifle below value, for Washington Museum. Must have your consent; but, for my part, would rather let him go there than break him. Am ready to lose a few dollars upon him, particularly as he might crack up all quartzy in the middle. They offer to take him by weight at three dollars and a half per pound below standard. Please say if agreeable.

“I fear, my dear, that there are bad times coming for all of us here in this part. Not about money, but a long sight worse; bad will, and contention, and rebellion, perhaps. What we hear concerning it is not much here; but even here thoughts are very much divided. Ephraim takes a different view from mine; which is not a right thing for a grandson to do; and neighbor Sylvester goes with him. The Lord send agreement and concord among us; but, if He doeth so, He must change his mind first, for every man is borrowing his neighbor’s gun.

“If there is any thing that you can do to turn Ephraim back to his duty, my dear, I am sure that, for love of us, you will do it. If Firm was to run away from me now, and go fighting on behalf of slavery, I never should care more for naught upon this side of Jordan; and the new mill might go to Jericho; though it does look uncommon handsome now, I can assure you, and tears through its work like a tiger.

“Noting symptoms in your last of the price of things in England, and having carried over some to your account, inclosed please to find a bill for five hundred dollars, though not likely to be wanted yet. Save a care of your money, my dear; but pay your way handsome, as a Castlewood should do. Jowler goes his rounds twice a day looking for you; and somebody else never hangs his hat up without casting one eye at the corner you know. Sylvester’s girl was over here last week, dashing about as usual. If Firm goes South, he may have her, for aught I care, and never see saw-mill again. But I hope that the Lord will spare my old days such disgrace and tribulation.

“About you know what, my dear, be not overanxious. I have been young, and now am old, as the holy Psalmist says; and the more I see of the ways of men, the less I verily think of them. Their good esteem, their cap in hand, their fair fame, as they call it, goes by accident, and fortune, the whim of the moment, and the way the clever ones have of tickling them. A great man laughs at the flimsy of it, and a good one goes to his conscience. Your father saw these things at their value. I have often grieved that you can not see them so; but perhaps I have liked you none the worse, my dear.

“Don’t forget about going South. A word from you may stop him. It is almost the only hope I have, and even that may be too late. Suan Isco and Martin send messages. The flowers are on your father’s grave. I have got a large order for pine cradles in great haste, but have time to be,

“Truly yours,

“SAMPSON GUNDRY.”

That letter, while it relieved me in one way, from the want of money, cost me more than ten times five hundred dollars’ worth of anxiety. The Sawyer had written to me twice ere this — kind, simple letters, but of no importance, except for their goodness and affection. But now it was clear that when he wrote this letter he must have been sadly put out and upset. His advice to me was beyond all value; but he seemed to have kept none at home for himself. He was carried quite out of his large, staid ways when he wrote those bitter words about poor Firm — the very apple of his eye, as the holy Psalmist says. And, knowing the obstinacy of them both, I dreaded clash between them.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31