Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXIX

Battery and Assumpsit

That little moorland glen, whose only murmur was of wavelets, and principal traffic of birds and rabbits, even at this time of year looked pretty, with the winter light winding down its shelter and soft quietude. Ferny pitches and grassy bends set off the harsh outline of rock and shale, while a white mist (quivering like a clew above the rivulet) was melting into the faint blue haze diffused among the foldings and recesses of the land. On the hither side, nearly at the bottom of the slope, a bright green spot among the brown and yellow roughness, looking by comparison most smooth and rich, showed where the little cottage grew its vegetables, and even indulged in a small attempt at fruit. Behind this, the humble retirement of the cot was shielded from the wind by a breastwork of bold rock, fringed with ground-ivy, hanging broom, and silver stars of the carline. So simple and low was the building, and so matched with the colors around it, that but for the smoke curling up from a pipe of red pottery-ware, a stranger might almost have overlooked it. The walls were made from the rocks close by, the roof of fir slabs thatched with ling; there was no upper story, and (except the door and windows) all the materials seemed native and at home. Lancelot had heard, by putting a crafty question in safe places, that the people of the gill here had built their own dwelling, a good many years ago; and it looked as if they could have done it easily.

Now, if he intended to spy out the land, and the house as well, before the giant of the axe returned, there was no time to lose in beginning. He had a good deal of sagacity in tricks, and some practice in little arts of robbery. For before he attained to this exalted state of mind one of his favorite pastimes had been a course of stealthy raids upon the pears in Scargate garden. He might have had as many as he liked for asking; but what flavor would they have thus possessed? Moreover, he bore a noble spite against the gardener, whose special pride was in that pear wall; and Pet more than once had the joy of beholding him thrash his own innocent son for the dark disappearance of Beurre and Bergamot. Making good use of this experience, he stole his way down the steep glen-side, behind the low fence of the garden, until he reached the bottom, and the brush-wood by the stream. Here he stopped to observe again, and breathe, and get his spirit up. The glassy water looked as cold as death; and if he got cramp in his feet, how could he run? And yet he could see no other way but wading, of approaching the cottage unperceived.

Now fortune (whose privilege it is to cast mortals into the holes that most misfit them) sometimes, when she has got them there, takes pity, and contemptuously lifts them. Pet was in a hole of hardship, such as his dear mamma never could have dreamed of, and such as his nurture and constitution made trebly disastrous for him. He had taken a chill from his ambush, and fright, and the cold wind over the snow of the moor; and now the long wading of that icy water might have ended upon the shores of Acheron. However, he was just about to start upon that passage — for the spirit of his race was up — when a dull grating sound, as of footsteps crunching grit, came to his prettily concave ears.

At this sound Lancelot Carnaby stopped from his rash venture into the water, and drew himself back into an ivied bush, which served as the finial of the little garden hedge. Peeping through this, he could see that the walk from the cottage to the hedge was newly sprinkled with gray wood ash, perhaps to prevent the rain from lodging and the snow from lying there. Heavy steps of two old men (as Pet in the insolence of young days called them) fell upon the dull soft crust, and ground it, heel and toe — heel first, as stiff joints have it — with the bruising snip a hungry cow makes, grazing wiry grasses. “One of them must be Insie’s dad,” said Pet to himself, as he crouched more closely behind the hedge; “which of them, I wonder? Well, the tall one, I suppose, to go by the height of that Maunder. And the other has only one arm; and a man with one arm could never have built their house. They are coming to sit on that bench; I shall hear every word they say, and learn some of their secrets that I never could get out of Insie one bit of. But I wonder who that other fellow is?”

That other fellow, in spite of his lease, would promptly have laid his surviving hand to the ear of Master Lancelot, or any other eavesdropper; for a sturdy and resolute man was he, being no less than our ancient friend and old soldier, Jack of the Smithies. And now was verified that homely proverb that listeners never hear good of themselves.

“Sit down, my friend,” said the elder of the twain, a man of rough dress and hard hands, but good, straightforward aspect, and that careless humor which generally comes from a life of adventures, and a long acquaintance with the world’s caprice. “I have brought you here that we may be undisturbed. Little pitchers have long ears. My daughter is as true as steel; but this matter is not for her at present. You are sure, then, that Sir Duncan is come home at last? And he wished that I should know it?”

“Yes, sir, he wished that you should know it. So soon as I told him that you was here, and leading what one may call this queer life, he slapped his thigh like this here — for he hath a downright way of everything — and he said, ‘Now, Smithies, so soon as you get home, go and tell him that I am coming. I can trust him as I trust myself; and glad I am for one old friend in the parts I am such a stranger to. Years and years I have longed to know what was become of my old friend Bert.’ Tears was in his eyes, your honor: Sir Duncan hath seen such a mighty lot of men, that his heart cometh up to the few he hath found deserving of the name, sir.”

“You said that you saw him at York, I think?”

“Yes, sir, at the business house of his agent, one Master Geoffrey Mordacks. He come there quite unexpected, I believe, to see about something else he hath in hand, and I got a message to go there at once. I save his life once in India, sir, from one of they cursed Sours, which made him take heed of me, and me of him. And then it come out where I come from, and why; and the both of us spoke the broad Yorkshire together, like as I dea naa care to do to home. After that he got on wonderful, as you know; and I stuck to him through the whole of it, from luck as well as liking, till, if I had gone out to see to his breeches, I could not very well have knowed more of him. And I tell you, sir, not to regard him for a Yordas. He hath a mind far above them lot; though I was born under them, to say so!”

“And you think that he will come and recover his rights, in spite of his father’s will against him. I know nothing of the ladies of the Hall; but it seems a hard thing to turn them out, after being there so long.”

“Who was turned out first, they or him? Five-and-twenty years of tent, open sky, jungle, and who knows what, for him — but eider-down, and fireside, and fat of land for them! No, no, sir; whatever shall happen there, will be God’s own justice.”

“Of His justice who shall judge?” said Insie’s father, quietly. “But is there not a young man grown, who passes for the heir with every one?”

“Ay, that there is; and the best game of all will be neck and crop for that young scamp. A bully, a coward, a puling milksop, is all the character he beareth. He giveth himself born airs, as if every inch of the Riding belonged to him. He hath all the viciousness of Yordas, without the pluck to face it out. A little beast that hath the venom, without the courage, of a toad. Ah, how I should like to see —”

Jack of the Smithies not only saw, but felt. The Yordas blood was up in Pet. He leaped through the hedge and struck this man with a sharp quick fist in either eye. Smithies fell backward behind the bench, his heels danced in the air, and the stump of his arm got wedged in the stubs of a bush, while Lancelot glared at him with mad eyes.

“What next?” said his companion, rising calmly, and steadfastly gazing at Lancelot.

“The next thing is to kill him; and it shall be done,” the furious youth replied, while he swung the gentleman’s big stick, which he had seized, and danced round his foe with the speed of a wild-cat. “Don’t meddle, or it will be worse for you. You heard what he said of me. Get out of the way.”

“Indeed, my young friend, I shall do nothing of the sort.” But the old man was not at all sure that he could do much; such was the fury and agility of the youth, who jumped three yards for every step of his, while the poor old soldier could not move. The boy skipped round the protecting figure, whose grasp he eluded easily, and swinging the staff with both arms, aimed a great blow at the head of his enemy. Suddenly the other interposed the bench, upon which the stick fell, and broke short; and before the assailant could recover from the jerk, he was a prisoner in two powerful old arms.

“You are so wild that we must make you fast,” his captor said, with a benignant smile; and struggle as he might, the boy was very soon secured. His antagonist drew forth a red bandana handkerchief, and fastened his bleeding hands behind his back. “There, now, lad,” he said, “you can do no mischief. Recover your temper, sir, and tell us who you are, as soon as you are sane enough to know.”

Pet, having spent his just indignation, began to perceive that he had made a bad investment. His desire had been to maintain in this particular spot strict privacy from all except Insie, to whom in the largeness of love he had declared himself. Yet here he stood, promulged and published, strikingly and flagrantly pronounced! At first he was like to sulk in the style of a hawk who has failed of his swoop; but seeing his enemy arising slowly with grunts, and action nodose and angular — rather than flexibly graceful — contempt became the uppermost feature of his mind.

“My name,” he said, “if you are not afraid of it, that you tie me in this cowardly low manner, is — Lancelot Yordas Carnaby.”

“My boy, it is a long name for any one to carry. No wonder that you look weak beneath it. And where do you live, young gentleman?”

Amazement sat upon the face of Pet — a genuine astonishment, entirely pure from wrath. It was wholly beyond his imagination that any one, after hearing his name, should have to ask him where he lived. He thought that the question must be put in low mockery, and to answer was far beneath his dignity.

By this time the veteran Jack of the Smithies had got out of his trap, and was standing stiffly, passing his hand across his sadly smitten eyes, and talking to himself about them.

“Two black eyes, at my time of life, as sure as I’m a Christian! Howsomever, young chap, I likes you better. Never dreamed there was such good stuff in you. Master Bert, cast him loose, if so please you. Let me shake hands with ’un, and bear no malice. Bad words deserve hard blows, and I ask his pardon for driving him into it. I called ’un a milksop, and he hath proved me a liar. He may be a bad ’un, but with good stuff in ’un. Lord bless me, I never would have believed the lad could hit so smartly!”

Pet was well pleased with this tribute to his prowess; but as for shaking hands with a tenant, and a “common man”— as every one not of gentle birth was then called — such an act was quite below him, or above him, according as we take his own opinion, or the truth. And possibly he rose in Smithies’ mind by drawing back from bodily overture.

Mr. Bert looked on with all the bliss of an ancient interpreter. He could follow out the level of the vein of each, as no one may do except a gentleman, perhaps, who has turned himself deliberately into a “common man.” Bert had done his utmost toward this end; but the process is difficult when voluntary.

“I think it is time,” he now said, firmly, to the unshackled and triumphant Pet, “for Lancelot Yordas Carnaby to explain what has brought him into such humble quarters, and induced him to turn eavesdropper; which was not considered (at least in my young days) altogether the part of a gentleman.”

The youth had not seen quite enough of the world to be pat with a fertile lie as yet; especially under such searching eyes. However, he did as much as could be well expected.

“I was just looking over my property,” he said, “and I thought I heard somebody cutting down my timber. I came to see who it was, and I heard people talking, and before I could ask them about it, I heard myself abused disgracefully; and that was more than I could stand.”

“We must take it for granted that a brave young gentleman of your position would tell no falsehood. You assure us, on your honor, that you heard no more?”

“Well, I heard voices, sir. But nothing to understand, or make head or tail of.” There was some truth in this; for young Lancelot had not the least idea who “Sir Duncan” was. His mother and aunt had kept him wholly in the dark as to any lost uncle in India. “I should like to know what it was,” he added, “if it has anything to do with me.”

This was a very clever hit of his; and it made the old gentleman believe him altogether.

“All in good time, my young friend,” he answered, even with a smile of some pity for the youth. “But you are scarcely old enough for business questions, although so keen about your timber. Now after abusing you so disgracefully, as I admit that my friend here has done, and after roping your pugnacious hands, as I myself was obliged to do, we never can launch you upon the moor, in such weather as this, without some food. You are not very strong, and you have overdone yourself. Let us go to the house, and have something.”

Jack of the Smithies showed alacrity at this, as nearly all old soldiers must; but Pet was much oppressed with care, and the intellect in his breast diverged into sore distraction of anxious thought. Whether should he draw the keen sword of assurance, put aside the others, and see Insie, or whether should he start with best foot foremost, scurry up the hill, and avoid the axe of Maunder? Pallas counselled this course, and Aphrodite that; and the latter prevailed, as she always used to do, until she produced the present dry-cut generation.

Lancelot bowed to the gentleman of the gill, and followed him along the track of grit, which set his little pearly teeth on edge; while Jack of the Smithies led, and formed, the rear-guard. “This is coming now to something very queer,” thought Pet; “after all, it might have been better for me to take my chance with the hatchet man.”

Brown dusk was ripely settling down among the mossy apple-trees, and the leafless alders of the brook, and the russet and yellow memories of late autumn lingering in the glen, while the peaky little freaks of snow, and the cold sighs of the wind, suggested fireside and comfort. Mr. Bert threw open his cottage door, and bowing as to a welcome guest, invited Pet to enter. No passage, no cold entrance hall, demanded scrapes of ceremony; but here was the parlor, and the feeding-place, and the warm dance of the fire-glow. Logs that meant to have a merry time, and spread a cheerful noise abroad, ere ever they turned to embers, were snorting forth the pointed flames, and spitting soft protests of sap. And before them stood, with eyes more bright than any flash of fire-light, intent upon rich simmering scents, a lovely form, a grace of dainties — oh, a goddess certainly!

“Master Carnaby,” said the host, “allow me, sir, the honor to present my daughter to you, Insie darling, this is Mr. Lancelot Yordas Carnaby. Make him a pretty courtesy.”

Insie turned round with a rosy blush, brighter than the brightest fire-wood, and tried to look at Pet as if she had never even dreamed of such a being. Pet drew hard upon his heart, and stood bewildered, tranced, and dazzled. He had never seen Insie indoors before, which makes a great difference in a girl; and the vision was too bright for him.

For here, at her own hearth, she looked so gentle, sweet, and lovely. No longer wild and shy, or gayly mischievous and watchful, but calm-eyed, firm-lipped, gravely courteous; intent upon her father’s face, and banishing not into shadow so much as absolute nullity any one who dreamed that he ever filled a pitcher for her, or fed her with grouse and partridge, and committed the incredible atrocity of kissing her.

Lancelot ceased to believe it possible that he ever could have done such a thing as that, while he saw how she never would see him at all, or talk in the voice that he had been accustomed to, or even toss her head in the style he had admired, when she tried to pretend to make light of him. If she would only make light of him now, he would be well contented, and say to himself that she did it on purpose, for fear of the opposite extreme. But the worst of it was that she had quite forgotten, beyond blink of inquiry or gleam of hope, that ever in her life she had set eyes on a youth of such perfect insignificance before.

“My friend, you ought to be hungry,” said Bert of the Gill, as he was proud to call himself; “after your exploit you should be fed. Your vanquished foe will sit next to you. Insie, you are harassed in mind by the countenance of our old friend Master John Smithies. He has met with a little mishap — never mind — the rising generation is quick of temper. A soldier respects his victor; it is a beautiful arrangement of Providence; otherwise wars would never cease. Now give our two guests a good dish of the best, piping hot, and of good meaty fibre. We will have our own supper by-and-by, when Maunder comes home, and your mother is ready. Gentlemen, fall to; you have far to go, and the moors are bad after night-fall.”

Lancelot, proudly as he stood upon his rank, saw fit to make no objection. Not only did his inner man cry, “Feed, even though a common man feed with thee,” but his mind was under the influence of a stronger one, which scorned such stuff. Moreover, Insie, for the first time, gave him a glance, demure but imperative, which meant, “Obey my father, sir.”

He obeyed, and was rewarded; for the beautiful girl came round him so, to hand whatever he wanted, and seemed to feel so sweetly for him in his strange position, that he scarcely knew what he was eating, only that it savored of rich rare love, and came from the loveliest creature in the world. In stern fact, it came from the head of a sheep; but neither jaws nor teeth were seen. Upon one occasion he was almost sure that a curl of Insie’s lovely hair fell upon the back of his stooping neck; he could scarcely keep himself from jumping up; and he whispered, very softly, when the old man was away, “Oh, if you would only do that again!” But his darling made manifest that this was a mistake, and applied herself sedulously to the one-armed Jack.

Jack of the Smithies was a trencherman of the very first order, and being well wedded (with a promise already of young soldiers to come), it behooved him to fill all his holes away from home, and spare his own cupboard for the sake of Mistress Smithies. He perceived the duty, and performed it, according to the discipline of the British army.

But Insie was fretting in the conscience of her heart to get the young Lancelot fed and dismissed before the return of her great wild brother. Not that he would hurt their guest, though unwelcome; or even show any sort of rudeness to him; but more than ever now, since she heard of Pet’s furious onslaught upon the old soldier — which made her begin to respect him a little — she longed to prevent any meeting between this gallant and the rough Maunder. And that anxiety led her to look at Pet with a melancholy kindness. Then Jack of the Smithies cut things short.

“Off’s the word,” he said, “if ever I expects to see home afore daylight. All of these moors is known to me, and many’s the time I have tracked them all in sleep, when the round world was betwixt us. But without any moon it is hard to do ’em waking; and the loss of my arm sends me crooked in the dark. And as for young folk, they be all abroad to once. With your leave, Master Bert, I’ll be off immediate, after getting all I wants, as the manner of the world is. My good missus will be wondering what is come of me.”

“You have spoken well,” his host replied; “and I think we shall have a heavy fall to-night. But this young gentleman must not go home alone. He is not robust, and the way is long and rough. I have seen him shivering several times. I will fetch my staff, and march with him.”

“No, sir, I will not have such a thing done,” the veteran answered, sturdily. “If the young gentleman is a gentleman, he will not be afraid for me to take him home, in spite of what he hath done to me. Speak up, young man, are you frightened of me?”

“Not if you are not afraid of me,” said Pet, who had now forgotten all about that Maunder, and only longed to stay where he was, and set up a delicious little series of glances. For the room, and the light, and the tenor of the place, began more and more to suit such uses. And most and best of all, his Insie was very thankful to him for his good behavior; and he scarcely could believe that she wanted him to go. To go, however, was his destiny; and when he had made a highly laudable and far-away salute, it happened — in the shift of people, and of light, and clothing, which goes on so much in the winter-time — that a little hand came into his, and rose to his lips, with ground of action, not for assault and battery, but simply for assumpsit.

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