Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter I

Headstrong and Headlong

Far from any house or hut, in the depth of dreary moor-land, a road, unfenced and almost unformed, descends to a rapid river. The crossing is called the “Seven Corpse Ford,” because a large party of farmers, riding homeward from Middleton, banded together and perhaps well primed through fear of a famous highwayman, came down to this place on a foggy evening, after heavy rain-fall. One of the company set before them what the power of the water was, but they laughed at him and spurred into it, and one alone spurred out of it. Whether taken with fright, or with too much courage, they laid hold of one another, and seven out of eight of them, all large farmers, and thoroughly understanding land, came never upon it alive again; and their bodies, being found upon the ridge that cast them up, gave a dismal name to a place that never was merry in the best of weather.

However, worse things than this had happened; and the country is not chary of its living, though apt to be scared of its dead; and so the ford came into use again, with a little attempt at improvement. For those farmers being beyond recall, and their families hard to provide for, Richard Yordas, of Scargate Hall, the chief owner of the neighborhood, set a long heavy stone up on either brink, and stretched a strong chain between them, not only to mark out the course of the shallow, whose shelf is askew to the channel, but also that any one being washed away might fetch up, and feel how to save himself. For the Tees is a violent water sometimes, and the safest way to cross it is to go on till you come to a good stone bridge.

Now forty years after that sad destruction of brave but not well-guided men, and thirty years after the chain was fixed, that their sons might not go after them, another thing happened at “Seven Corpse Ford,” worse than the drowning of the farmers. Or, at any rate, it made more stir (which is of wider spread than sorrow), because of the eminence of the man, and the length and width of his property. Neither could any one at first believe in so quiet an end to so turbulent a course. Nevertheless it came to pass, as lightly as if he were a reed or a bubble of the river that belonged to him.

It was upon a gentle evening, a few days after Michaelmas of 1777. No flood was in the river then, and no fog on the moor-land, only the usual course of time, keeping the silent company of stars. The young moon was down, and the hover of the sky (in doubt of various lights) was gone, and the equal spread of obscurity soothed the eyes of any reasonable man.

But the man who rode down to the river that night had little love of reason. Headstrong chief of a headlong race, no will must depart a hair’s-breadth from his; and fifty years of arrogant port had stiffened a neck too stiff at birth. Even now in the dim light his large square form stood out against the sky like a cromlech, and his heavy arms swung like gnarled boughs of oak, for a storm of wrath was moving him. In his youth he had rebelled against his father; and now his own son was a rebel to him.

“Good, my boy, good!” he said, within his grizzled beard, while his eyes shone with fire, like the flints beneath his horse; “you have had your own way, have you, then? But never shall you step upon an acre of your own, and your timber shall be the gallows. Done, my boy, once and forever.”

Philip, the squire, the son of Richard, and father of Duncan Yordas, with fierce satisfaction struck the bosom of his heavy Bradford riding-coat, and the crackle of parchment replied to the blow, while with the other hand he drew rein on the brink of the Tees sliding rapidly.

The water was dark with the twinkle of the stars, and wide with the vapor of the valley, but Philip Yordas in the rage of triumph laughed and spurred his reflecting horse.

“Fool!” he cried, without an oath — no Yordas ever used an oath except in playful moments —“fool! what fear you? There hangs my respected father’s chain. Ah, he was something like a man! Had I ever dared to flout him so, he would have hanged me with it.”

Wild with his wrong, he struck the rowel deep into the flank of his wading horse, and in scorn of the depth drove him up the river. The shoulders of the swimming horse broke the swirling water, as he panted and snorted against it; and if Philip Yordas had drawn back at once, he might even now have crossed safely. But the fury of his blood was up, the stronger the torrent the fiercer his will, and the fight between passion and power went on. The poor horse was fain to swerve back at last; but he struck him on the head with a carbine, and shouted to the torrent:

“Drown me, if you can. My father used to say that I was never born to drown. My own water drown me! That would be a little too much insolence.”

“Too much insolence” were his last words. The strength of the horse was exhausted. The beat of his legs grew short and faint, the white of his eyes rolled piteously, and the gurgle of his breath subsided. His heavy head dropped under water, and his sodden crest rolled over, like sea-weed where a wave breaks. The stream had him all at its mercy, and showed no more than his savage master had, but swept him a wallowing lump away, and over the reef of the crossing. With both feet locked in the twisted stirrups, and right arm broken at the elbow, the rider was swung (like the mast of a wreck) and flung with his head upon his father’s chain. There he was held by his great square chin — for the jar of his backbone stunned him — and the weight of the swept-away horse broke the neck which never had been known to bend. In the morning a peasant found him there, not drowned but hanged, with eyes wide open, a swaying corpse upon a creaking chain. So his father (though long in the grave) was his death, as he often had promised to be to him; while he (with the habit of his race) clutched fast with dead hand on dead bosom the instrument securing the starvation of his son.

Of the Yordas family truly was it said that the will of God was nothing to their will — as long as the latter lasted — and that every man of them scorned all Testament, old or new, except his own.

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