Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXVIII

The Demon of the Axe

The air was sad and heavy thus, with discord, doubt, and death itself gathering and descending, like the clouds of long night, upon Flamborough. But far away, among the mountains and the dreary moorland, the “intake” of the coming winter was a great deal worse to see. For here no blink of the sea came up, no sunlight under the sill of clouds (as happens where wide waters are), but rather a dark rim of brooding on the rough horizon seemed to thicken itself against the light under the sullen march of vapors — the muffled funeral of the year. Dry trees and naked crags stood forth, and the dirge of the wind went to and fro, and there was no comfort out-of-doors.

Soon the first snow of the winter came, the first abiding earnest snow, for several skits had come before, and ribbed with white the mountain breasts. But nobody took much heed of that, except to lean over the plough, while it might be sped, or to want more breakfast. Well resigned was everybody to the stoppage of work by winter. It was only what must be every year, and a gracious provision of Providence. If a man earned very little money, that was against him in one way, but encouraged him in another. It brought home to his mind the surety that others would be kind to him; not with any sense of gift, but a large good-will of sharing.

But the first snow that visits the day, and does not melt in its own cold tears, is a sterner sign for every one. The hardened wrinkle, and the herring-bone of white that runs among the brown fern fronds, the crisp defiant dazzle on the walks, and the crust that glitters on the patient branch, and the crest curling under the heel of a gate, and the ridge piled up against the tool-house door — these, and the shivering wind that spreads them, tell of a bitter time in store.

The ladies of Scargate Hall looked out upon such a December afternoon. The massive walls of their house defied all sudden change of temperature, and nothing less than a week of rigor pierced the comfort of their rooms. The polished oak beams overhead glanced back the merry fire-glow, the painted walls shone with rosy tints, and warm lights flitting along them, and the thick-piled carpet yielded back a velvety sense of luxury. It was nice to see how bleak the crags were, and the sad trees laboring beneath the wind and snow.

“If it were not for thinking of the poor cold people, for whom one feels so deeply,” said the gentle Mrs. Carnaby, with a sweet soft sigh, “one would rather enjoy this dreary prospect. I hope there will be a deep snow to-night. There is every sign of it upon the scaurs. And then, Philippa, only think — no post, no plague of news, no prospect of even that odious Jellicorse! Once more we shall have our meals in quiet.”

Mrs. Carnaby loved a good dinner right well, a dinner unplagued by hospitable cares; when a woodcock was her own to dwell on, and pretty little teeth might pick a pretty little bone at ease.

“Eliza, you are always such a creature of the moment,” Mistress Yordas answered, indulgently; “you do love the good things of the world too much. How would you like to be out there, in a naked little cottage where the wind howls through, and the ewer is frozen every morning? And where, if you ever get anything to eat —”

“Philippa, I implore you not to be so dreadful. One never can utter the most commonplace reflection — and you know that I said I was sorry for the people.”

“My object is good, as you ought to know. My object is to habituate your mind —”

“Philippa, I beg you once more to confine your exertions, in that way, to your own more lofty mind. Again I refuse to have my mind, or whatever it is that does duty for it, habituated to anything. A gracious Providence knows that I should die outright, after all my blameless life, if reduced to those horrible straits you always picture. And I have too much faith in a gracious Providence to conceive for one moment that it would treat me so. I decline the subject. Why should we make such troubles? There is clear soup for dinner, and some lovely sweet-breads. Cook has got a new receipt for bread sauce, and Jordas says that he never did shoot such a woodcock.”

“Eliza, I trust that you may enjoy them all; your appetite is delicate, and you require nourishment. Why, what do I see over yonder in the snow? A slim figure moving at a very great pace, and avoiding the open places! Are my eyes growing old, or is it Lancelot?”

“Pet out in such weather, Philippa! Such a thing is simply impossible. Or at any rate I should hope so. You know that Jordas was obliged to put a set of curtains from end to end even of the bowling-alley, which is so beautifully sheltered; and even then poor Pet was sneezing. And you should have heard what he said to me, when I was afraid of the sheets taking fire from his warming-pan one night. Pet is unaccountable sometimes, I know. But the very last thing imaginable of him is that he should put his pretty feet into the snow.”

“You know him best, Eliza; and it is very puzzling to distinguish things in snow. But if it was not Pet, why, it must have been a squirrel.”

“The squirrels are gone to sleep for the winter, Philippa. I dare say it was only Jordas. Don’t you think that it must have been Jordas?”

“I am quite certain that it was not Jordas. But I will not pretend to say that it was not a squirrel. He may forego his habitudes more easily than Lancelot.”

“How horribly dry you are sometimes, Philippa. There seems to be no softness in your nature. You are fit to do battle with fifty lawyers; and I pity Mr. Jellicorse, with his best clothes on.”

“You could commit no greater error. We pay the price of his black silk stockings three times over, every time we see him. The true objects of pity are — you, I, and the estates.”

“Well, let us drop it for a while. If you begin upon that nauseous subject, not a particle of food will pass my lips; and I did look forward to a little nourishment.”

“Dinner, my ladies!” cried the well-appointed Welldrum, throwing open the door as only such a man can do, while cleverly accomplishing the necessary bow, which he clinched on such occasions with a fine smack of his lips.

“Go and tell Mr. Lancelot, if you please, that we are waiting for him.” A great point was made, but not always effected, of having Master Pet, in very gorgeous attire, to lead his aunt into the dining-room. It was fondly believed that this impressed him with the elegance and nice humanities required by his lofty position and high walk in life. Pet hated this performance, and generally spoiled it by making a face over his shoulder at old Welldrum, while he strode along in real or mock awe of Aunt Philippa.

“If you please, my ladies,” said the butler now, choosing Mrs. Carnaby for his eyes to rest on, “Mr. Lancelot beg to be excoosed of dinner. His head is that bad that he have gone for open air.”

“Snow-headache is much in our family; Eliza, you remember how our dear father used to feel it.” With these words Mistress Yordas led her sister to the dining-room; and they took good care to say nothing more about it before the officious Welldrum.

Pet meanwhile was beginning to repent of his cold and lonely venture. For a mile or two the warmth of his mind and the glow of exercise sustained him; and he kept on admiring his own courage till his feet began to tingle. “Insie will be bound to kiss me now; and she never will be able to laugh at me again,” he said to himself some fifty times. “I am like the great poet who describes the snow; and I have got some cherry-brandy.” He trudged on very bravely; but his poor dear toes at every step grew colder. Out upon the moor, where he was now, no shelter of any kind encouraged him; no mantlet of bank, or ridge, or brush-wood, set up a furry shiver betwixt him and the tatterdemalion wind. Not even a naked rock stood up to comfort a man by looking colder than himself.

But in truth there was no severe cold yet; no depth of snow, no intensity of frost, no splintery needles of sparkling drift; but only the beginning of the wintry time, such as makes a strong man pick his feet up, and a healthy boy start an imaginary slide. The wind, however, was shrewd and searching, and Lancelot was accustomed to a warming-pan. Inside his waistcoat he wore a hare-skin, and his heart began to give rapid thumps against it. He knew that he was going into bodily peril worse than any frost or snow.

For a long month he had not even seen his Insie, and his hot young heart had never before been treated so contemptuously. He had been allowed to show himself in the gill at his regular interval, a fortnight ago. But no one had ventured forth to meet him, or even wave signal of welcome or farewell. But that he could endure, because he had been warned not to hope for much that Friday; now, however, it was not his meaning to put up with any more such nonsense. That he, who had been told by the servants continually that all the land for miles and miles around was his, should be shut out like a beggar, and compelled to play bo-peep, by people who lived in a hole in the ground, was a little more than in the whole entire course of his life he could ever have imagined. His mind was now made up to let them know who he was and what he was; and unless they were very quick in coming to their senses, Jordas should have orders to turn them out, and take Insie altogether away from them.

But in spite of all brave thoughts and words, Master Pet began to spy about very warily, ere ever he descended from the moor into the gill. He seemed to have it borne in upon his mind that territorial rights — however large and goodly — may lead only to a taste of earth, when earth alone is witness to the treatment of her claimant. Therefore it behooved him to look sharp; and possessing the family gift of keen sight, he began to spy about, almost as shrewdly as if he had been educated in free trade. But first he had wit enough to step below the break, and get behind a gorse bush, lest haply he should illustrate only the passive voice of seeing.

In the deep cut of the glen there was very little snow, only a few veins and patches here and there, threading and seaming the steep, as if a white-footed hare had been coursing about. Little stubby brier shoots, and clumps of russet bracken, and dead heather, ruffling like a brown dog’s back, broke the dull surface of withered herbage, thistle stumps, teasels, rugged banks, and naked brush. Down in the bottom the noisy brook was scurrying over its pebbles brightly, or plunging into gloom of its own production; and away at the bend of the valley was seen the cot of poor Lancelot’s longing.

The situation was worth a sigh, and came half way to share one; Pet sighed heavily, and deeply felt how wrong it was of any one to treat him so. What could be easier for him than to go, as Insie had said to him at least a score of times, and mind his own business, and shake off the dust — or the mud — of his feet at such strangers? But, alas! he had tried it, and could shake nothing, except his sad and sapient head. How deplorably was he altered from the Pet that used to be! Where were now his lofty joys, the pleasure he found in wholesome mischief and wholesale destruction, the high delight of frightening all the world about his safety?

“There are people here, I do believe,” he said to himself, most touchingly, “who would be quite happy to chop off my head!”

As if to give edge to so murderous a thought, and wings to the feet of the thinker, a man both tall and broad came striding down the cottage garden. He was swinging a heavy axe as if it were a mere dress cane, and now and then dealing clean slash of a branch, with an air which made Pet shiver worse than any wind. The poor lad saw that in the grasp of such a man he could offer less resistance than a nut within the crackers, and even his champion, the sturdy Jordas, might struggle without much avail. He gathered in his legs, and tucked his head well under the gorse to watch him,

“Surely he is too big to run very fast,” thought the boy, with his valor evaporated; “it must be that horrible Maunder. What a blessing that I stopped up here just in time! He is going up the gill to cleave some wood. Shall I cut away at once, or lie flat upon my stomach? He would be sure to see me if I tried to run away; and much he would care for his landlord!”

In such a choice of evils, poor Lancelot resolved to lie still, unless the monster should turn his steps that way. And presently he had the heart-felt pleasure of seeing the formidable stranger take the track that followed the windings of the brook. But instead of going well away, and rounding the next corner, the big man stopped at the very spot where Insie used to fill her pitcher, pulled off his coat and hung it on a bush, and began with mighty strokes to fell a dead alder-tree that stood there. As his great arms swung, and his back rose and fell, and the sway of his legs seemed to shake the bank, and the ring of his axe filled the glen with echoes, wrath and terror were fighting a hot battle in the heart of Lancelot.

His sense of a land-owner’s rights and titles had always been most imperious, and though the Scargate estates were his as yet only in remainder, he was even more jealous about them than if he held them already in possession. What right had this man to cut down trees, to fell and appropriate timber? Even in the garden which he rented he could not rightfully touch a stick or stock. But to come out here, a good furlong from his renting, and begin hacking and hewing, quite as if the land were his — it seemed almost too brazen-faced for belief! It must be stopped at once — such outrageous trespass stopped, and punished sternly. He would stride down the hill with a summary veto — but, alas, if he did, he might get cut down too!

Not only this disagreeable reflection, but also his tender regard for Insie, prevented him from challenging this process of the axe; but his feelings began to goad him toward something worthy of a Yordas — for a Yordas he always accounted himself, and not by any means a Carnaby. And to this end all the powers of his home conspired.

“That fellow is terribly big and strong,” he said to himself, with much warmth of spirit; “but his axe is getting dull; and to chop down that tree of mine will take him at least half an hour. Dead wood is harder to cut than live. And when he has done that, he must work till dark to lop the branches, and so on. I need not be afraid of anybody but this fellow. Now is my time, then, while he is away. Even if the old folk are at home, they will listen to my reasons. The next time he comes to hack my tree on this side, I shall slip out, and go down to the cottage. I have no fear of any one that pays any heed to reason.”

This sudden admirer and lover of reason cleverly carried out his bold discretion. For now the savage woodman, intent upon that levelling which is the highest glory of pugnacious minds, came round the tree, glaring at it (as if it were the murderer, and he the victim), redoubling his tremendous thwacks at every sign of tremor, flinging his head back with a spiteful joy, poising his shoulders on the swing, and then with all his weight descending into the trenchant blow. When his back was fairly turned on Lancelot, and his whole mind and body thus absorbed upon his prey, the lad rose quickly from his lair, and slipped over the crest of the gill to the moorland. In a moment he was out of sight to that demon of the axe, and gliding, with his head bent low, along a little hollow of the heathery ground, which cut off a bend of the ravine, and again struck its brink a good furlong down the gill. Here Pet stopped running, and lay down, and peered over the brink, for this part was quite new to him, and resolved as he was to make a bold stroke of it, he naturally wished to see how the land lay, and what the fortress of the enemy was like, ere ever he ventured into it.

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