Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVI

Maids and Mermaids

Day comes with climbing, night by falling; hence the night is so much swifter. Happiness takes years to build; but misery swoops like an avalanche. Such, and even more depressing, are the thoughts young folk give way to when their first great trouble rushes and sweeps them into a desert, trackless to the inexperienced hope.

When Mary Anerley heard, by the zealous offices of watchful friends, that Robin Lyth had murdered Captain Carroway ferociously, and had fled for his life across the seas, first wrath at such a lie was followed by persistent misery. She had too much faith in his manly valor and tender heart to accept the tale exactly as it was told to her; but still she could not resist the fear that in the whirl of conflict, with life against life, he had dealt the death. And she knew that even such a deed would brand him as a murderer, stamp out all love, and shatter every hope of quiet happiness. The blow to her pride was grievous also; for many a time had she told herself that a noble task lay before her — to rescue from unlawful ways and redeem to reputable life the man whose bravery and other gallant gifts had endeared him to the public and to her. But now, through force of wretched facts, he must be worse than ever.

Her father and mother said never a word upon the subject to her. Mrs. Anerley at first longed to open out, and shed upon the child a mother’s sympathy, as well as a mother’s scolding; but firmly believing, as she did, the darkest version of the late event, it was better that she should hold her peace, according to her husband’s orders.

“Let the lass alone,” he said; “a word against that fellow now would make a sight of mischief. Suppose I had shot George Tanfield, instead of hiding him soundly, when he stuck up to you, why you must have been sorry for me, Sophy. And Mary is sorry for that rogue, no doubt, and believes that he did it for her sake, I dare say. The womenkind always do think that. If a big thief gets swung for breaking open a cash-box, his lassie will swear he was looking for her thimble. If you was to go now for discoursing of this matter, you would never put up with poor Poppet’s account of him, and she would run him higher up, every time you ran him down; ay, and believe it too: such is the ways of women.”

“Why, Stephen, you make me open up my eyes. I never dreamed you were half so cunning, and of such low opinions.”

“Well, I don’t know, only from my own observance. I would scarcely trust myself not to abuse that fellow. And, Sophy, you know you can not stop your tongue, like me.”

“Thank God for that same! He never meant us so to do. But, Stephen, I will follow your advice; because it is my own opinion.”

Mary was puzzled by this behavior; for everything used to be so plain among them. She would even have tried for some comfort from Willie, whose mind was very large upon all social questions. But Willie had solved at last the problem of perpetual motion, according to his own conviction, and locked himself up with his model all day; and the world might stand still, so long as that went on. “Oh, what would I give for dear Jack!” cried Mary.

Worn out at length with lonely grief, she asked if she might go to Byrsa Cottage, for a change. Even that was refused, though her father’s kind heart ached at the necessary denial. Sharp words again had passed between the farmer and the tanner concerning her, and the former believed that his brother-inlaw would even encourage the outlaw still. And for Mary herself now the worst of it was that she had nothing to lay hold of in the way of complaint or grievance. It was not like that first estrangement, when her father showed how much he felt it in a hundred ways, and went about everything upside down, and comforted her by his want of comfort. Now it was ten times worse than that, for her father took everything quite easily!

Shocking as it may be, this was true. Stephen Anerley had been through a great many things since the violence of his love-time, and his views upon such tender subjects were not so tender as they used to be. With the eyes of wisdom he looked back, having had his own way in the matter, upon such young sensations as very laudable, but curable. In his own case he had cured them well, and, upon the whole, very happily, by a good long course of married life; but having tried that remedy alone, how could he say that there was no better? He remembered how his own miseries had soon subsided, or gone into other grooves, after matrimony. This showed that they were transient, but did not prove such a course to be the only cure for them. Recovering from illness, has any man been known to say that the doctor recovered him?

Mrs. Anerley’s views upon the subject were much the same, though modified, of course, by the force of her own experience. She might have had a much richer man than Stephen; and when he was stingy, she reminded him of that, which, after a little disturbance, generally terminated in five guineas. And now she was clear that if Mary were not worried, condoled with, or cried over, she would take her own time, and come gradually round, and be satisfied with Harry Tanfield. Harry was a fine young fellow, and worshipped the ground that Mary walked upon; and it seemed a sort of equity that he should have her, as his father had been disappointed of her mother. Every Sunday morning he trimmed his whiskers, and put on a wonderful waistcoat; and now he did more, for he bought a new hat, and came to church to look at her.

Oftentimes now, by all these doings, the spirit of the girl was roused, and her courage made ready to fly out in words; but the calm look of the elders stopped her, and then true pride came to her aid. If they chose to say nothing of the matter which was in her heart continually, would she go whining to them about it, and scrape a grain of pity from a cartload of contempt? One day, as she stood before the swinging glass — that present from Aunt Popplewell which had moved her mother’s wrath so — she threw back her shoulders, and smoothed the plaits of her nice little waist, and considered herself. The humor of the moment grew upon her, and crept into indulgence, as she saw what a very fair lass she was, and could not help being proud of it. She saw how the soft rich damask of her cheeks returned at being thought of, and the sparkle of her sweet blue eyes, and the merry delight of her lips, that made respectable people want to steal a kiss, from the pure enticement of good-will.

“I will cry no more in the nights,” she said. “Why should I make such a figure of myself, with nobody to care for it? And here is my hair full of kinkles and neglect! I declare, if he ever came back, he would say, ‘What a fright you are become, my Mary!’ Where is that stuff of Aunt Deborah’s, I wonder, that makes her hair like satin? It is high time to leave off being such a dreadful dowdy. I will look as nice as ever, just to let them know that their cruelty has not killed me.”

Virtuous resolves commend themselves, and improve with being carried out. She put herself into her very best trim, as simple as a lily, and as perfect as a rose, though the flutter of a sigh or two enlarged her gentle breast. She donned a very graceful hat, adorned with sweet ribbon right skillfully smuggled; and she made up her mind to have the benefit of the air.

The prettiest part of all Anerley Farm, for those who are not farmers, is a soft little valley, where a brook comes down, and passes from voluntary ruffles into the quiet resignation of a sheltered lake. A pleasant and a friendly little water-spread is here, cheerful to the sunshine, and inviting to the moon, with a variety of gleamy streaks, according to the sky and breeze. Pasture-land and arable come sloping to the margin, which, instead of being rough and rocky, lips the pool with gentleness. Ins and outs of little bays afford a nice variety, while round the brink are certain trees of a modest and unpretentious bent. These having risen to a very fair distance toward the sky, come down again, scarcely so much from a doubt of their merits, as through affection to their native land. In summer they hang like a permanent shower of green to refresh the bright water; and in winter, like loose osier-work, or wattles curved for binding.

Under one of the largest of these willows the runaway Jack had made a seat, whereon to sit and watch his toy boat cruising on the inland wave. Often when Mary was tired of hoping for the return of her playmate, she came to this place to think about him, and wonder whether he thought of her. And now in the soft December evening (lonely and sad, but fair to look at, like herself) she was sitting here.

The keen east wind, which had set in as Captain Brown predicted, was over now, and succeeded by the gentler influence of the west. Nothing could be heard in this calm nook but the lingering touch of the dying breeze, and the long soft murmur of the distant sea, and the silvery plash of a pair of coots at play. Neither was much to be seen, except the wavering glisten and long shadows of the mere, the tracery of trees against the fading light, and the outline of the maiden as she leaned against the trunk. Generations of goat-moths in their early days of voracity had made a nice hollow for her hat to rest in, and some of the powdering willow dusted her bright luxuriant locks with gold. Her face was by no means wan or gloomy, and she added to the breezes not a single sigh. This happened without any hardness of heart, or shallow contempt of the nobler affections; simply from the hopefulness of healthful youth, and the trust a good will has in powers of good.

She was looking at those coots, who were full of an idea that the winter had spent itself in that east wind, that the gloss of spring plumage must be now upon their necks, and that they felt their toes growing warmer toward the downy tepefaction of a perfect nest. Improving a long and kind acquaintance with these birds, some of whom have confidence in human nature, Mary was beginning to be absent from her woes, and joyful in the pleasure of a thoughtless pair, when suddenly, with one accord, they dived, and left a bright splash and a wrinkle. “Somebody is coming; they must have seen an enemy,” said the damsel to herself. “I am sure I never moved. I will never have them shot by any wicked poacher.” To watch the bank nicely, without being seen, she drew in her skirt and shrank behind the tree, not from any fear, but just to catch the fellow; for one of the laborers on the farm, who had run at his master with a pitchfork once, was shrewdly suspected of poaching with a gun. But keener eyes than those of any poacher were upon her, and the lightest of light steps approached.

“Oh, Robin, are you come, then, at last?” cried Mary.

“Three days I have been lurking, in the hope of this. Heart of my heart, are you glad to see me?”

“I should think that I was. It is worth a world of crying. Oh, where have you been this long, long time?”

“Let me have you in my arms, if it is but for a moment. You are not afraid of me? — you are not ashamed to love me?”

“I love you all the better for your many dreadful troubles. Not a word do I believe of all the wicked people say of you. Don’t be afraid of me. You may kiss me, Robin.”

“You are such a beautiful spick and span! And I am only fit to go into the pond. Oh, Mary, what a shame of me to take advantage of you!”

“Well, I think that it is time for you to leave off now. Though you must not suppose that I think twice about my things. When I look at you, it makes me long to give you my best cloak and a tidy hat. Oh, where is all your finery gone, poor Robin?”

“Endeavor not to be insolent, on the strength of your fine clothes. Remember that I have abandoned free trade; and the price of every article will rise at once.”

Mary Anerley not only smiled, but laughed, with the pleasure of a great relief. She had always scorned the idea that her lover had even made a shot at Carroway, often though the brave lieutenant had done the like to him; and now she felt sure that he could clear himself; or how could he be so light-hearted? “You see that I am scarcely fit to lead off a country-dance with you,” said Robin, still holding both her hands, and watching the beauty of her clear bright eyes, which might gather big tears at any moment, as the deep blue sky is a sign of sudden rain; “and it will be a very long time, my darling, before you see me in gay togs again.”

“I like you a great deal better so. You always look brave — but you look so honest now!”

“That is a most substantial saying, and worthy of the race of Anerley. How I wish that your father would like me, Mary! I suppose it is hopeless to wish for that?”

“No, not at all — if you could keep on looking shabby. My dear father has a most generous mind. If he only could be brought to see how you are ill-treated —”

“Alas! I shall have no chance of letting him see that. Before tomorrow morning I must say good-by to England. My last chance of seeing you was now this evening. I bless every star that is in the heaven now. I trusted to my luck, and it has not deceived me.”

“Robin dear, I never wish to try to be too pious. But I think that you should rather trust in Providence than starlight.”

“So I do. And it is Providence that has kept me out of sight — out of sight of enemies, and in sight of you, my Mary. The Lord looks down on every place where His lovely angels wander. You are one of His angels, Mary; and you have made a man of me. For years I shall not see you, darling; never more again, perhaps. But as long as I live you will be here; and the place shall be kept pure for you. If we only could have a shop together — oh, how honest I would be! I would give full weight, besides the paper; I would never sell an egg more than three weeks old; and I would not even adulterate! But that is a dream of the past, I fear. Oh, I never shall hoist the Royal Arms. But I mean to serve under them, and fight my way. My captain shall be Lord Nelson.”

“That is the very thing that you were meant for. I will never forgive Dr. Upandown for not putting you into the navy. You could have done no smuggling then.”

“I am not altogether sure of that. However, I will shun scandal, as behooves a man who gets so much. You have not asked me to clear myself of that horrible thing about poor Carroway. I love you the more for not asking me; it shows your faith so purely. But you have the right to know all I know. There is no fear of any interruption here; so, Mary, I will tell you, if you are sure that you can bear it.”

“Yes, oh yes! Do tell me all you know. It is so frightful that I must hear it.”

“What I have to say will not frighten you, darling, because I did not even see the deed. But my escape was rather strange, and deserves telling better than I can tell it, even with you to encourage me by listening. When we were so suddenly caught in the cave, through treachery of some of our people, I saw in a moment that we must be taken, but resolved to have some fun for it, with a kind of whim which comes over me sometimes. So I knocked away the lights, and began myself to splash with might and main, and ordered the rest to do likewise. We did it so well that the place was like a fountain or a geyser; and I sent a great dollop of water into the face of the poor lieutenant — the only assault I have ever made upon him. There was just light enough for me to know him, because he was so tall and strange; but I doubt whether he knew me at all. He became excited, as he well might be; he dashed away the water from his eyes with one hand, and with the other made a wild sword-cut, rushing forward as if to have at me. Like a bird, I dived into the water from our gunwale, and under the keel of the other boat, and rose to the surface at the far side of the cave. In the very act of plunging, a quick flash came before me — or at least I believed so afterward — and a loud roar, as I struck the wave. It might have been only from my own eyes and ears receiving so suddenly the cleavage of the water. If I thought anything at all about it, it was that somebody had shot at me; but expecting to be followed, I swam rapidly away. I did not even look back, as I kept in the dark of the rocks, for it would have lost a stroke, and a stroke was more than I could spare. To my great surprise, I heard no sound of any boat coming after me, nor any shouts of Carroway, such as I am accustomed to. But swimming as I was, for my own poor life, like an otter with a pack of hounds after him, I assure you I did not look much after anything except my own run of the gauntlet.”

“Of course not. How could you? It makes me draw my breath to think of you swimming in the dark like that, with deep water, and caverns, and guns, and all!”

“Mary, I thought that my time was come; and only one beautiful image sustained me, when I came to think of it afterward. I swam with my hands well under water, and not a breath that could be heard, and my cap tucked into my belt, and my sea-going pumps slipped away into a pocket. The water was cold, but it only seemed to freshen me, and I found myself able to breathe very pleasantly in the gentle rise and fall of waves. Yet I never expected to escape, with so many boats to come after me. For now I could see two boats outside, as well as old Carroway’s pinnace in the cave; and if once they caught sight of me, I could never get away.

“When I saw those two boats upon the watch outside, I scarcely knew what to do for the best, whether to put my breast to it and swim out, or to hide in some niche with my body under water, and cover my face with oar-weed. Luckily I took the bolder course, remembering their portfires, which would make the cave like day. Not everybody could have swum out through that entrance, against a spring-tide and the lollop of the sea; and one dash against the rocks would have settled me. But I trusted in the Lord, and tried a long, slow stroke.

“My enemies must have been lost in dismay, and panic, and utter confusion, or else they must have espied me, for twice or thrice, as I met the waves, my head and shoulders were thrown above the surface, do what I would; and I durst not dive, for I wanted my eyes every moment. I kept on the darkest side, of course, but the shadows were not half so deep as I could wish; and worst of all, outside there was a piece of moonlight, which I must cross within fifty yards of the bigger of the sentry boats.

“The mouth of that cave is two fathoms wide for a longish bit of channel; and, Mary dear, if I had not been supported by continual thoughts of you, I must have gone against the sides, or downright to the bottom, from the waves keeping knocking me about so. I may tell you that I felt that I should never care again, as my clothes began to bag about me, except to go down to the bottom and be quiet, but for the blessed thought of standing up some day, at the ‘hymeneal altar,’ as great people call it, with a certain lovely Mary.”

“Oh, Robin, now you make me laugh, when I ought to be quite crying. If such a thing should ever be, I shall expect to see you swimming.”

“Such a thing will be, as sure as I stand here — though not at all in hymeneal garb just now. Whatever my whole heart is set upon, I do, and overcome all obstacles. Remember that, and hold fast, darling. However, I had now to overcome the sea, which is worse than any tide in the affairs of men. A long and hard tussle it was, I assure you, to fight against the indraught, and to drag my frame through the long hillocky gorge. At last, however, I managed it; and to see the open waves again put strength into my limbs, and vigor into my knocked-about brain. I suppose that you can not understand it, Mary, but I never enjoyed a thing more than the danger of crossing that strip of moonlight. I could see the very eyes and front teeth of the men who were sitting there to look out for me if I should slip their mates inside; and knowing the twist of every wave, and the vein of every tide-run, I rested in a smooth dark spot, and considered their manners quietly. They had not yet heard a word of any doings in the cavern, but their natures were up for some business to do, as generally happens with beholders. Having nothing to do, they were swearing at the rest.

“In the place where I was halting now the line of a jagged cliff seemed to cut the air, and fend off the light from its edges. You can only see such a thing from the level of the sea, and it looks very odd when you see it, as if the moon and you were a pair of playing children, feeling round a corner for a glimpse of one another. But plain enough it was, and far too plain, that the doubling of that little cape would treble my danger, by reason of the bold moonlight, I knew that my only refuge was another great hollow in the crags between the cave I had escaped from and the point — a place which is called the ‘Church Cave,’ from an old legend that it leads up to Flamborough church. To the best of my knowledge, it does nothing of the kind, at any rate now; but it has a narrow fissure, known to few except myself, up which a nimble man may climb; and this was what I hoped to do. Also it has a very narrow entrance, through which the sea flows into it, so that a large boat can not enter, and a small one would scarcely attempt it in the dark, unless it were one of my own, hard pressed. Now it seemed almost impossible for me to cross that moonlight without being seen by those fellows in the boat, who could pull, of course, four times as fast as I could swim, not to mention the chances of a musket-ball. However, I was just about to risk it, for my limbs were growing very cold, when I heard a loud shout from the cave which I had left, and knew that the men there were summoning their comrades. These at once lay out upon their oars, and turned their backs to me, and now was my good time. The boat came hissing through the water toward the Dovecote, while I stretched away for the other snug cave. Being all in a flurry, they kept no look-out; if the moon was against me, my good stars were in my favor. Nobody saw me, and I laughed in my wet sleeves as I thought of the rage of Carroway, little knowing that the fine old fellow was beyond all rage or pain.”

“How wonderful your luck was, and your courage too!” cried Mary, who had listened with bright tears upon her cheeks. “Not one man in a thousand could have done so bold a thing. And how did you get away at last, poor Robin?”

“Exactly as I meant to do, from the time I formed my plan. The Church has ever been a real friend in need to me; I took the name for a lucky omen, and swam in with a brisker stroke. It is the prettiest of all the caves, to my mind, though the smallest, with a sweet round basin, and a playful little beach, and nothing very terrible about it. I landed, and rested with a thankful heart upon the shelly couch of the mermaids.”

“Oh, Robin, I hope none of them came to you. They are so wonderfully beautiful. And no one that ever has seen them cares any more for — for dry people that wear dresses.”

“Mary, you delight me much, by showing signs of jealousy. Fifty may have come, but I saw not one, for I fell into a deep calm sleep. If they had come, I would have spurned them all, not only from my constancy to you, my dear, but from having had too much drip already. Mary, I see a man on the other side of the mere, not opposite to us, but a good bit further down. You see those two swimming birds: look far away between them, you will see something moving.”

“I see nothing, either standing still or moving. It is growing too dark for any eyes not thoroughly trained in smuggling. But that reminds me to tell you, Robin, that a strange man — a gentleman they seemed to say — has been seen upon our land, and he wanted to see me, without my father knowing it. But only think! I have never even asked you whether you are hungry — perhaps even starving! How stupid, how selfish, how churlish of me! But the fault is yours, because I had so much to hear of.”

“Darling, you may trust me not to starve, I can feed by-and-by. For the present I must talk, that you may know all about everything, and bear me harmless in your mind, when evil things are said of me. Have you heard that I went to see Widow Carroway, even before she had heard of her loss, but not before I was hunted? I knew that I must do so, now or never, before the whole world was up in arms against me; and I thank God that I saw her. A man might think nothing of such an act, or even might take it for hypocrisy; but a woman’s heart is not so black. Though she did not even know what I meant, for she had not felt her awful blow, and I could not tell her of it, she did me justice afterward. In the thick of her terrible desolation, she stood beside her husband’s grave, in Bridlington Priory Church yard, and she said to a hundred people there: ‘Here lies my husband, foully murdered. The coroner’s jury have brought their verdict against Robin Lyth the smuggler. Robin Lyth is as innocent as I am. I know who did it, and time will show. My curse is upon him; and my eyes are on him now.’ Then she fell down in a fit, and the Preventive men, who were drawn up in a row, came and carried her away. Did anybody tell you, darling? Perhaps they keep such things from you.”

“Part of it I heard; but not so clearly. I was told that she acquitted you and I blessed her in my heart for it.”

“Even more than that she did. As soon as she got home again, she wrote to Robin Cockscroft — a very few words, but as strong as could be, telling him that I should have no chance of justice if I were caught just now; that she must have time to carry out her plans; that the Lord would soon raise up good friends to help her; and as sure as there was a God in heaven, she would bring the man who did it to the gallows. Only that I must leave the land at once. And that is what I shall do this very night. Now I have told you almost all. Mary, we must say ‘good-by.’”

“But surely I shall hear from you sometimes?” said Mary, striving to be brave, and to keep her voice from trembling. “Years and years, without a word — and the whole world bitter against you and me! Oh, Robin, I think that it will break my heart. And I must not even talk of you.”

“Think of me, darling, while I think of you. Thinking is better than talking, I shall never talk of you, but be thinking all the more. Talking ruins thinking. Take this token of the time you saved me, and give me that bit of blue ribbon, my Mary; I shall think of your eyes every time I kiss it. Kiss it yourself before you give it to me.”

Like a good girl, she did what she was told to do. She gave him the love-knot from her breast, and stored his little trinket in that pure shrine.

“But sometimes — sometimes, I shall hear of you?” she whispered, lingering, and trembling in the last embrace.

“To be sure, you shall hear of me from time to time, through Robin and Joan Cockscroft. I will not grieve you by saying, ‘Be true to me,’ my noble one, and my everlasting love.”

Mary was comforted, and ceased to cry. She was proud of him thus in the depth of his trouble; and she prayed to God to bless him through the long sad time.

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