Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXVII

The Proper Way to Argue

Alas, how seldom is anything done in proper time and season! Either too fast, or too slow, is the clock of all human dealings; and what is the law of them, when the sun (the regulator of works and ways) has to be allowed for very often on his own meridian? With the best intention every man sets forth to do his duty, and to talk of it; and he makes quite sure that he has done it, and to his privy circle boasts, or lets them do it better for him; but before his lips are dry, his ears apprise him that he was a stroke too late.

So happened it with Master Mordacks, who of all born men was foremost, with his wiry fingers spread, to pass them through the scattery forelock of that mettlesome horse, old Time. The old horse galloped by him unawares, and left him standing still, to hearken the swish of the tail, and the clatter of the hoofs, and the spirited nostrils neighing for a race, on the wide breezy down at the end of the lane. But Geoffrey Mordacks was not to blame. His instructions were to move slowly, until he was sure of something worth moving for. And of this he had no surety yet, and was only too likely to lose it altogether by any headlong action. Therefore, instead of making any instant rush, or belting on his pistols, and hiring the sagacious quadruped that understood his character, content he was to advance deliberately upon one foot and three artificial legs.

Meanwhile, at Anerley Farm, the usual fatness of full garners, and bright comfort of the evening hearth, the glow of peace, which labor kindles in the mind that has earned its rest, and the pleasant laziness of heart which comes where family love lies careless, confident, and unassailed — the pleasure also of pitying the people who never can get in their wheat, and the hot benevolence of boiling down the bones for the man who has tumbled off one’s own rick — all these blisses, large and little, were not in their usual prime.

The master of the house was stern and silent, heavy and careless of his customary victuals, neglectful also of his customary jokes. He disliked the worse side of a bargain as much as in his most happy moments; and the meditation (which is generally supposed to be going on where speech is scarce) was not of such loftiness as to overlook the time a man stopped round the corner. As a horse settles down to strong collar-work better when the gloss of the stable takes the ruffle of the air, so this man worked at his business all the harder, with the brightness of the home joys fading. But it went very hard with him more than once, when he made a good stroke of salesmanship, to have to put the money in the bottom of his pocket, without even rubbing a bright half crown, and saying to himself, “I have a’most a mind to give this to Mary.”

Now if this settled and steadfast man (with three-quarters of his life gone over him, and less and less time every year for considering soft subjects), in spite of all that, was put out of his way by not being looked at as usual — though for that matter, perhaps, himself failed to look in search of those looks as usual — what, on the other hand, was likely to remain of mirth and light-heartedness in a weaker quarter? Mary, who used to be as happy as a bird where worms abound and cats are scarce, was now in a grievous plight of mind, restless, lonely, troubled in her heart, and doubtful of her conscience. Her mother had certainly shown kind feeling, and even a readiness to take her part, which surprised the maiden, after all her words; and once or twice they had had a cry together, clearing and strengthening their intellects desirably. For the more Mistress Anerley began to think about it, the more she was almost sure that something could be said on both sides. She never had altogether approved of the farmer’s volunteering, which took him away to drill at places where ladies came to look at him; and where he slept out of his own bed, and got things to eat that she had never heard of; and he never was the better afterward. If that was the thing which set his mind against free trade so bitterly, it went far to show that free trade was good, and it made all the difference of a blanket. And more than that, she had always said from the very first, and had even told the same thing to Captain Carroway, in spite of his position, that nobody knew what Robin Lyth might not turn out in the end to be. He had spoken most highly of her, as Mary had not feared to mention; and she felt obliged to him for doing so, though of course he could not do otherwise. Still, there were people who would not have done that, and it proved that he was a very promising young man.

Mary was pleased with this conclusion, and glad to have some one who did not condemn her; hopeful, moreover, that her mother’s influence might have some effect by-and-by. But for the present it seemed to do more harm than good; because the farmer, having quite as much jealousy as justice, took it into silent dudgeon that the mother of his daughter, who regularly used to be hard upon her for next to nothing, should now turn round and take her part, from downright womanism, in the teeth of all reason, and of her own husband! Brave as he was, he did not put it to his wife in so strong a way as that; but he argued it so to himself, and would let it fly forth, without thinking twice about it, if they went on in that style much longer, quite as if he were nobody, and they could do better without him. Little he knew, in this hurt state of mind — for which he should really have been too old — how the heart of his child was slow and chill, stupid with the strangeness he had made, waiting for him to take the lead, or open some door for entrance, and watching for the humors of the elder body, as the young of past generations did. And sometimes, faithful as she was to plighted truth and tenderness, one coaxing word would have brought her home to the arms that used to carry her.

But while such things were waiting to be done till they were thought of, the time for doing them went by; and to think of them was memory. Master Popplewell had told Captain Anerley continually what his opinions were, fairly giving him to know on each occasion that they were to be taken for what they were worth; that it did not follow, from his own success in life, that he might not be mistaken now; and that he did not care a d — n, except for Christian feeling, whether any fool hearkened to him twice or not. He said that he never had been far out in any opinion he had formed in all his life; but none the more for that would he venture to foretell a thing with cross-purposes about it. A man of sagacity and dealings with the world might happen to be right ninety-nine times in a hundred, and yet he might be wrong the other time. Therefore he would not give any opinion, except that everybody would be sorry by-and-by, when things were too late for mending.

To this the farmer listened with an air of wisdom, not put forward too severely; because Brother Popplewell had got a lot of money, and must behave handsomely when in a better world. The simplest way of treating him was just to let him talk — for it pleased him, and could do no harm — and then to recover self-content by saying what a fool he was when out of hearing. The tanner partly suspected this; and it put his nature upon edge; for he always drove his opinions in as if they were so many tenpenny nails, which the other man must either clinch or strike back into his teeth outright. He would rather have that than flabby silence, as if he were nailing into dry-rot.

“I tell you what it is,” he said, the third time he came over, which was well within a week — for nothing breeds impatience faster than retirement from work —“you are so thick-headed in your farmhouse ways, sometimes I am worn out with you. I do not expect to be thought of any higher because I have left off working for myself; and Deborah is satisfied to be called ‘Debby,’ and walks no prouder than if she had got to clean her own steps daily. You can not enter into what people think of me, counting Parson Beloe; and therefore it is no good saying anything about it. But, Stephen, you may rely upon it that you will be sorry afterward. That poor girl, the prettiest girl in Yorkshire, and the kindest, and the best, is going off her victuals, and consuming of her substance, because you will not even look at her. If you don’t want the child, let me have her. To us she is welcome as the flowers in May.”

“If Mary wishes it, she can go with you,” the farmer answered, sternly; and hating many words, he betook himself to work, resolving to keep at it until the tanner should be gone. But when he came home after dusk, his steadfast heart was beating faster than his stubborn mind approved. Mary might have taken him at his word, and flown for refuge from displeasure, cold voice, and dull comfort, to the warmth, and hearty cheer, and love of the folk who only cared to please her, spoil her, and utterly ruin her. Folk who had no sense of fatherly duty, or right conscience; but, having piled up dirty money, thought that it covered everything: such people might think it fair to come between a father and his child, and truckle to her, by backing her up in whims that were against her good, and making light of right and wrong, as if they turned on money; but Mary (such a prudent lass, although she was a fool just now) must see through all such shallow tricks, such rigmarole about Parson Beloe, who must be an idiot himself to think so much of Simon Popplewell — for Easter offerings, no doubt — but there, if Mary had the heart to go away, what use to stand maundering about it? Stephen Anerley would be dashed if he cared which way it was.

Meaning all this, Stephen Anerley, however, carried it out in a style at variance with such reckless vigor. Instead of marching boldly in at his own door, and throwing himself upon a bench, and waiting to be waited upon, he left the narrow gravel-walk (which led from the horse gate to the front door) and craftily fetched a compass through the pleasure beds and little shrubs, upon the sward, and in the dusk, so that none might see or hear him. Then, priding himself upon his stealth, as a man with whom it is rare may do, yet knowing all the time that he was more than half ashamed of it, he began to peep in at his own windows, as if he were planning how to rob his own house. This thought struck him, but instead of smiling, he sighed very sadly; for his object was to learn whether house and home had been robbed of that which he loved so fondly. There was no Mary in the kitchen, seeing to his supper; the fire was bright, and the pot was there, but only shadows round it. No Mary in the little parlor; only Willie half asleep, with a stupid book upon his lap, and a wretched candle guttering. Then, as a last hope, he peered into the dairy, where she often went at fall of night, to see things safe, and sang to keep the ghosts away. She would not be singing now of course, because he was so cross with her; but if she were there, it would be better than the merriest song for him. But no, the place was dark and cold; tub and pan, and wooden skimmer, and the pails hung up to drain, all were left to themselves, and the depth of want of life was over them. “She hathn’t been there for an hour,” thought he; “a reek o’ milk, and not my lassie.”

Very few human beings have such fragrance of good-will as milk. The farmer knew that he had gone too far in speaking coarsely of the cow, whose children first forego their food for the benefit of ours, and then become veal to please us. “My little maid is gone,” said the lord of many cows, and who had robbed some thousand of their dear calves. “I trow I must make up my mind to see my little maid no more.”

Without compunction for any mortal cow (though one was bellowing sadly in the distance, that had lost her calf that day), and without even dreaming of a grievance there, Master Anerley sat down to think upon a little bench hard by. His thoughts were not very deep or subtle; yet to him they were difficult, because they were so new and sad. He had always hoped to go through life in the happiest way there is of it, with simply doing common work, and heeding daily business, and letting other people think the higher class of thought for him. To live as Nature, cultivated quite enough for her own content, enjoys the round of months and years, the changes of the earth and sky, and gentle slope of time subsiding to softer shadows and milder tones. And, most of all, to see his children, dutiful, good, and loving, able and ready to take his place — when he should be carried from farm to church — to work the land he loved so well, and to walk in his ways, and praise him.

But now he thought, like Job in his sorrow, “All these things are against me.” The air was laden with the scents of autumn, rich and ripe and soothing — the sweet fulfillment of the year. The mellow odor of stacked wheat, the stronger perfume of clover, the brisk smell of apples newly gathered, the distant hint of onions roped, and the luscious waft of honey, spread and hung upon the evening breeze. “What is the good of all this,” he muttered, “when my little lassie is gone away, as if she had no father?”

“Father, I am not gone away. Oh, father, I never will go away, if you will love me as you did.”

Here Mary stopped; for the short breath of a sob was threatening to catch her words; and her nature was too like her father’s to let him triumph over her. The sense of wrong was in her heart, as firm and deep as in his own, and her love of justice quite as strong; only they differed as to what it was. Therefore Mary would not sob until she was invited. She stood in the arch of trimmed yew-tree, almost within reach of his arms; and though it was dark, he knew her face as if the sun was on it.

“Dearie, sit down here,” he said; “there used to be room for you and me, without two chairs, when you was my child.”

“Father, I am still your child,” she answered, softly, sitting by him. “Were you looking for me just now? Say it was me you were looking for.”

“There is such a lot of rogues to look for; they skulk about so, and they fire the stacks —”

“Now, father, you never could tell a fib,” she answered, sidling closer up, and preparing for his repentance.

“I say that I was looking for a rogue. If the cap fits —” here he smiled a little, as much as to say, “I had you there;” and then, without meaning it, from simple force of habit, he did a thing equal to utter surrender. He stroked his chin, as he always used to do when going to kiss Mary, that the bristles might lie down for her.

“The cap doesn’t fit; nothing fits but you; you — you — you, my own dear father,” she cried, as she kissed him again and again, and put her arms round to protect him. “And nobody fits you, but your own Mary. I knew you were sorry. You needn’t say it. You are too stubborn, and I will let you off. Now don’t say a word, father, I can do without it. I don’t want to humble you, but only to make you good; and you are the very best of all people, when you please. And you never must be cross again with your darling Mary. Promise me immediately; or you shall have no supper.”

“Well,” said the farmer, “I used to think that I was gifted with the gift of argument. Not like a woman, perhaps; but still pretty well for a man, as can’t spare time for speechifying, and hath to earn bread for self and young ‘uns.”

“Father, it is that arguing spirit that has done you so much harm. You must take things as Heaven sends them; and not go arguing about them. For instance, Heaven has sent you me.”

“So a’ might,” Master Anerley replied; “but without a voice from the belly of a fish, I wunna’ believe that He sent Bob Lyth.”

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