Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XL

Stormy Gap

Snowy weather now set in, and people were content to stay at home. Among the scaurs and fells and moors the most perturbed spirit was compelled to rest, or try to do so, or at any rate not agitate its body out-of-doors. Lazy folk were suited well with reason good for laziness; and gentle minds, that dreaded evil, gladly found its communication stopped.

Combined excitement and exertion, strong amazement, ardent love, and a cold of equal severity, laid poor Pet Carnaby by the heels, and reduced him to perpetual gruel. He was shut off from external commune, and strictly blockaded in his bedroom, where his only attendants were his sweet mother, and an excellent nurse who stroked his forehead, and called him “dear pet,” till he hated her, and, worst of all, that Dr. Spraggs, who lived in the house, because the weather was so bad.

“We have taken a chill, and our mind is a little unhinged,” said the skillful practitioner: “careful diet, complete repose, a warm surrounding atmosphere, absence of undue excitement, and, above all, a course of my gentle alteratives regularly administered — these are the very simple means to restore our beloved patient. He is certainly making progress; but I assure you, my dear madam, or rather I need not tell a lady of such wonderfully clear perception, that remedial measures must be slow to be truly efficacious. With lower organizations we may deal in a more empiric style; but no experiments must be tried here —”

“Dr. Spraggs, I should hope not, indeed. You alarm me by the mere suggestion.”

“Gradation, delicately pursued, adapted subtly, discriminated nicely by the unerring diagnosis of extensive medical experience, combined with deep study of the human system, and a highly distinguished university career — such, madam, are, in my humble opinion, the true elements of permanent amelioration. At the same time we must not conceal from ourselves that our constitution is by no means one of ordinary organization. None of your hedger and ditcher class, but delicate, fragile, impulsive, sensitive, liable to inopine derangements from excessive activity of mind —”

“Oh, Dr. Spraggs, he has been reading poetry, which none of our family ever even dreamed of doing — it is a young man, over your way somewhere. Possibly you may have heard of him.”

“That young man has a great deal to answer for. I have traced a very bad case of whooping-cough to him. That explains many symptoms which I could not quite make out. We will take away this book, madam, and give him Dr. Watts — the only wholesome poet that our country has produced; though even his opinions would be better expressed in prose.”

But the lad, in spite of all this treatment, slowly did recover, and then obtained relief, which set him on his nimble legs again. For his aunt Philippa, one snowy morning, went into the room beneath that desperately sick chamber, to see whether wreaths of snow had entered, as they often did, between the loose joints of the casement. She walked very carefully, for fear of making a noise that might be heard above, and disturb the repose of the poor invalid. But, to her surprise, there came loud thumps from above, and a quivering of the ceiling, and a sound as of rushing steps, and laughter, and uproarious jollity.

“What can it be? I am perfectly amazed,” said Mistress Yordas to herself. “I must inquire into this.”

She knew that her sister was out of the way, and the nurse in the kitchen, having one of her frequent feeds and agreeable discourses. So she went to a mighty ring in her own room, as large as an untaxed carriage wheel, and from it (after due difficulty) took the spare key of the passage door that led the way to Lancelot.

No sooner had she passed this door than she heard a noise a great deal worse than the worst imagination — whiz, and hiss, and crack, and smash, and rolling of hollow things over hollow places, varied with shouts, and the flapping of skirts, and jingling of money upon heart of oak; these and many other travails of the air (including strong language) amazed the lady. Hastening into the sick-room, she found the window wide open, with the snow pouring in, a dozen of phial bottles ranged like skittles, some full and some empty, and Lancelot dancing about in his night-gown, with Divine Songs poised for another hurl.

“Two for a full, and one for an empty. Seven to me, and four to you. No cheating, now, or I’ll knock you over,” he was shouting to Welldrum’s boy, who had clearly been smuggled in at the window for this game. “There’s plenty more in old Spraggs’s chest. Holloa, here’s Aunt Philippa!”

Mistress Yordas was not displeased with this spirited application of pharmacy; she at once flung wide the passage door, and Pet was free of the house again, but upon parole not to venture out of doors. The first use he made of his liberty was to seek the faithful Jordas, who possessed a little private sitting-room, and there hold secret council with him.

The dogman threw his curly head back, when he had listened to his young lord’s tale (which contained the truth, and nothing but the truth, yet not by any means the whole truth, for the leading figure was left out), and a snort from his broad nostrils showed contempt and strong vexation.

“Just what I said would come o’ such a job,” he muttered, without thought of Lancelot; “to let in a traitor, and spake him fair, and make much of him. I wish you had knocked his two eyes out, Master Lance, instead of only blacking of ’un. And a fortnight lost through that pisonin’ Spraggs! And the weather going on, snow and thaw, snow and thaw. There’s scarcely a dog can stand, let alone a horse, and the wreaths getting deeper. Most onlucky! It hath come to pass most ontoimely.”

“But who is Sir Duncan? And who is Mr. Bert? I have told you everything, Jordas; and all you do is to tell me nothing.”

“What more can I tell you, sir? You seem to know most about ’em. And what was it as took you down that way, sir, if I may make so bold to ask?”

“Jordas, that is no concern of yours; every gentleman has his own private affairs, which can not in any way concern a common man. But I wish you particularly to find out all that can be known about Mr. Bert — what made him come here, and why does he live so, and how much has he got a year? He seems to be quite a gentleman —”

“Then his private affairs, sir, can not concern a common man. You had better ways go yourself and ask him; or ask his friend with the two black eyes. Now just you do as I bid you, Master Lance. Not a word of all this here to my ladies; but think of something as you must have immediate from Middleton. Something as your health requires”— here Jordas indulged in a sarcastic grin —“something as must come, if the sky come down, or the day of Judgment was tomorrow.”

“I know, yes, I am quite up to you, Jordas. Let me see: last time it was a sweet-bread. That would never do again. It shall be a hundred oysters; and Spraggs shall command it, or be turned out.”

“Jordas, I really can not bear,” said the kind Mrs. Carnaby, an hour afterward, “that you should seem almost to risk your life by riding to Middleton in such dreadful weather. Are you sure that it will not snow again, and quite sure that you can get through all the wreaths? If not, I would on no account have you go. Perhaps, after all, it is but the fancy of a poor fantastic invalid, though Dr. Spraggs feels that it is so important, and may be the turning-point in his sad illness. It seems such a long way in such weather; and selfish people, who can never understand, might say that it was quite unkind of us. But if you have made up your mind to go, in spite of all remonstrance, you must be sure to come back to-night; and do please to see that the oysters are round, and have not got any of their lids up.”

The dogman knew well that he jeopardized his life in either half of the journey; no little in going, and tenfold as much in returning through the snows of night. Though the journey in the first place had been of his own seeking, and his faithful mind was set upon it, some little sense of bitterness was in his heart, that his life was not thought more of. He made a low bow, and turned away, that he might not meet those eyes so full of anxiety for another, and of none for him. And when he came to think of it, he was sorry afterward for indulging in a little bit of two-edged satire.

“Will you please to ask my lady if I may take Marmaduke? Or whether she would be afeared to risk him in such weather?”

“I think it is unkind of you to speak like that. I need not ask my sister, as you ought to know. Of course you may take Marmaduke. I need not tell you to be careful of him.”

After that, if he had chosen for himself, he would not have taken Marmaduke. But he thought of the importance of his real purpose, and could trust no other horse to get him through it.

In fine summer weather, when the sloughs were in, and the water-courses low or dry, and the roads firm, wherever there were any, a good horse and rider, well acquainted with the track, might go from Scargate Hall to Middleton in about three hours, nearly all of the journey being well down hill. But the travel to come back was a very different thing; four hours and a half was quick time for it, even in the best state of earth and sky, and the Royal Mail pony was allowed a good seven, because his speed (when first established) had now impaired his breathing. And ever since the snow set in, he had received his money for the journey, but preferred to stay in stable; for which everybody had praised him, finding letters give them indigestion.

Now Jordas roughed Marmaduke’s shoes himself; for the snow would be frozen in the colder places, and ball wherever any softness was — two things which demand very different measures. Also he fed him well, and nourished himself, and took nurture for the road; so that with all haste he could not manage to start before twelve of the day. Travelling was worse than he expected, and the snow very deep in places, especially at Stormy Gap, about a league from Scargate. Moreover, he knew that the strength of his horse must be carefully husbanded for the return; and so it was dusk of the winter evening, and the shops of the little town were being lit with hoops of candles, when Jordas, followed by Saracen, came trotting through the unpretending street.

That ancient dog Saracen, the largest of the blood-hounds, had joined the expedition as a volunteer, craftily following and crouching out of sight, until he was certain of being too far from home to be sent back again. Then he boldly appeared, and cantered gayly on in front of Marmaduke, with his heavy dewlaps laced with snow.

Jordas put up at a quiet old inn, and had Saracen chained strongly to a ringbolt in the stable; then he set off afoot to see Mr. Jellicorse, and just as he rang the office bell a little fleecy twinkle fell upon one of his eyelashes, and looking sharply up, he saw that a snowy night was coming.

The worthy lawyer received him kindly, but not at all as if he wished to see him; for Christmas-tide was very nigh at hand, and the weather made the ink go thick, and only a clerk who was working for promotion would let his hat stay on its peg after the drum and fife went by, as they always did at dusk of night, to frighten Bonyparty.

“There are only two important facts in all you have told me, Jordas,” Mr. Jellicorse said, when he had heard him out: “one that Sir Duncan is come home, of which I was aware some time ago; and the other that he has been consulting an agent of the name of Mordacks, living in this county. That certainly looks as if he meant to take some steps against us. But what can he do more than might have been done five-and-twenty years ago?” The lawyer took good care to speak to none but his principals concerning that plaguesome deed of appointment.

“Well, sir, you know best, no doubt. Only that he hath the money now, by all accounts; and like enough he hath labored for it a’ purpose to fight my ladies. If your honor knew as well as I do what a Yordas is for fighting, and for downright stubbornness —”

“Perhaps I do,” replied the lawyer, with a smile; “but if he has no children of his own, as I believe is the case with him, it seems unlikely that he would risk his substance in a rash attempt to turn out those who are his heirs.”

“He is not so old but what he might have children yet, if he hath none now to hand. Anyways it was my duty to tell you my news immediate.”

“Jordas, I always say that you are a model of a true retainer — a character becoming almost extinct in this faithless and revolutionary age. Very few men would have ridden into town through all those dangerous unmade roads, in weather when even the Royal Mail is kept, by the will of the Lord, in stable.”

“Well, sir,” said Jordas, with his brave soft smile, “the smooth and the rough of it comes in and out, accordin’. Some days I does next to nought; and some days I earns my keepin’. Any more commands for me, Lawyer Jellicoose? Time cometh on rather late for starting.”

“Jordas, you amaze me! You never mean to say that you dream of setting forth again on such a night as this is? I will find you a bed; you shall have a hot supper. What would your ladies think of me, if I let you go forth among the snow again? Just look at the window-panes, while you and I were talking! And the feathers of the ice shooting up inside, as long as the last sheaf of quills I opened for them. Quills, quills, quills, all day! And when I buy a goose unplucked, if his quills are any good, his legs won’t carve, and his gizzard is full of gravel-stones! Ah, the world grows every day in roguery.”

“All the world agrees to that, sir; ever since I were as high as your table, never I hear two opinions about it; and it maketh a man seem to condemn himself. Good-night, sir, and I hope we shall have good news so soon as his Royal Majesty the king affordeth a pony as can lift his legs.”

Mr. Jellicorse vainly strove to keep the man in town that night. He even called for his sensible wife and his excellent cook to argue, having no clerk left to make scandal of the scene. The cook had a turn of mind for Jordas, and did think that he would stop for her sake; and she took a broom to show him what the depth of snow was upon the red tiles between the brew-house and the kitchen. An icicle hung from the lip of the pump, and new snow sparkled on the cook’s white cap, and the dark curly hair which she managed to let fall; the brew-house smelled nice, and the kitchen still nicer; but it made no difference to Jordas. If he had told them the reason of this hurry, they would have said hard things about it, perhaps; Mrs. Jellicorse especially (being well read in the Scriptures, and fond of quoting them against all people who had grouse and sent her none) would have called to mind what David said, when the three mighty men broke through the host, and brought water from the well of Bethlehem. So Jordas only answered that he had promised to return, and a trifle of snow improved the travelling.

“A willful man must have his way,” said Mr. Jellicorse at last. “We can not put him in the pound, Diana; but the least we can do is to provide him for a coarse, cold journey. If I know anything of our country, he will never see Scargate Hall to-night, but his blanket will be a snowdrift. Give him one of our new whitneys to go behind his saddle, and I will make him take two things. I am your legal adviser, Jordas, and you are like all other clients. Upon the main issue, you cast me off; but in small matters you must obey me.”

The hardy dogman was touched with this unusual care for his welfare. At home his services were accepted as a due, requiring little praise and less of gratitude. It was his place to do this and that, and be thankful for the privilege. But his comfort was left for himself to study; and if he had studied it much, reproach would soon have been the chief reward. It never would do, as his ladies said, to make too much of Jordas. He would give himself airs, and think that people could not get on without him.

Marmaduke looked fresh and bold when he came out of stable; he had eaten with pleasure a good hot dinner, or supper perhaps he considered it, liking to have his meals early, as horses generally do. And he neighed and capered for the homeward road, though he knew how full it was of hardships; for never yet looked horse through bridle, without at least one eye resilient toward the charm of headstall. And now he had both eyes fixed with legitimate aim in that direction; and what were a few tiny atoms of snow to keep a big horse from his household?

Merrily, therefore, he set forth, with a sturdy rider on his back; his clear neigh rang through the thick dull streets, and kind people came to their white blurred windows, and exclaimed, as they glanced at the party-colored horseman rushing away into the dreary depths, “Well, rather him than me, thank God!”

“You keep the dog,” Master Jordas had said to the hostler, before he left the yard; “he is like a lamb, when you come to know him. I can’t be plagued with him to-night. Here’s a half crown for his victuals; he eats precious little for the size of him. A bullock’s liver every other day, and a pound and a half the between times. Don’t be afeared of him. He looks like that, to love you, man.”

Instead of keeping on the Durham side of Tees, as he would have done in fair weather for the first six miles or so, Jordas crossed by the old town bridge into his native county. The journey would be longer thus, but easier in some places, and the track more plain to follow, which on a snowy night was everything. For all things now were in one indiscriminate pelt and whirl of white; the Tees was striped with rustling floes among the black moor-water; and the trees, as long as there were any, bent their shrouded forms and moaned.

But with laborious plunges, and broad scatterings of obstruction, the willing horse ploughed out his way, himself the while wrapped up in white, and caked in all his tufty places with a crust that flopped up and down. The rider, himself piled up with snow, and bearded with a berg of it, from time to time, with his numb right hand, fumbled at the frozen clouts that clogged the poor horse’s mane and crest.

“How much longer will a’ go, I wonder?” said Jordas to himself for the twentieth time. “The Lord in heaven knows where we be; but horse knows better than the Lord a’most. Two hour it must be since ever I ‘tempted to make head or tail of it. But Marmaduke knoweth when a’ hath his head; these creatures is wiser than Christians. Save me from the witches, if I ever see such weather! And I wish that Master Lance’s oysters wasn’t quite so much like him.”

For, broad as his back was, perpetual thump of rugged and flintified knobs and edges, through the flag basket strapped over his neck, was beginning to tell upon his stanch but jolted spine; while his foot in the northern stirrup was numbed, and threatening to get frost-bitten.

“The Lord knoweth where we be,” he said once more, growing in piety as the peril grew. “What can old horse know, without the Lord hath told ’un? And likely he hath never asked, no more than I did. We mought ‘a come twelve moiles, or we mought ‘a come no more than six. What ever is there left in the world to judge by? The hills, or the hollows, or the boskies, all is one, so far as the power of a man’s eyes goes. Howsomever, drive on, old Dukie.”

Old Dukie drove on with all his might and main, and the stout spirit which engenders strength, till he came to a white wall reared before him, twice as high as his snow-capped head, and swirling like a billow of the sea with drift. Here he stopped short, for he had his own rein, and turned his clouted neck, and asked his master what to make of it.

“We must ‘a come at last to Stormy Gap: it might be worse, and it might be better. Rocks o’ both sides, and no way round. No choice but to get through it, or to spend the night inside of it. You and I are a pretty good weight, old Dukie. We’ll even try a charge for it, afore we knock under. We can’t have much more smother than we’ve gotten already. My father was taken like this, I’ve heard tell, in the service of old Squire Philip; and he put his nag at it, and scumbled through. But first you get up your wind, old chap.”

Marmaduke seemed to know what was expected of him; for he turned round, retreated a few steps, and then stood panting. Then Jordas dismounted, as well as he could with his windward leg nearly frozen. He smote himself lustily, with both arms swinging, upon his broad breast, and he stamped in the snow till he felt his tingling feet again. Then he took up the skirt of his thick heavy coat, and wiped down the head, mane, and shoulders of the horse, and the great pile of snow upon the crupper. “Start clear is a good word,” he said.

For a moment he stopped to consider the forlorn hope of his last resolution. “About me, there is no such great matter,” he thought; “but if I was to kill Dukie, who would ever hear the last of it? And what a good horse he have been, to be sure! But if I was to leave him so, the crows would only have him. We be both in one boat; we must try of it.” He said a little prayer, which was all he knew, for himself and a lass he had a liking to, who lived in a mill upon the river Lune; and then he got into the saddle again, and set his teeth hard, and spoke to Marmaduke, a horse who would never be touched with a spur. “Come on, old chap,” was all he said.

The horse looked about in the thick of the night, as the head of the horse peers out of the cloak, in Welsh mummery, at Christmas-tide. The thick of the night was light and dark, with the dense intensity of down-pour; light in itself, and dark with shutting out all sight of everything — a close-at-hand confusion, and a distance out of measure. The horse, with his wise snow-crusted eyes, took in all the winnowing of light among the draff, and saw no possibility of breaking through, but resolved to spend his life as he was ordered. No power of rush or of dash could he gather, because of the sinking of his feet; the main chance was of bulk and weight; and his rider left him free to choose. For a few steps he walked, nimbly picking up his feet, and then, with a canter of the best spring he could compass, hurled himself into the depth of the drift, while Jordas lay flat along his neck, and let him plunge. For a few yards the light snow flew before him, like froth of the sea before a broad-bowed ship, and smothered as he was, he fought onward for his life. But very soon the power of his charge was gone, his limbs could not rise, and his breath was taken from him; the hole that he had made was filled up behind him; fresh volumes from the shaken height came pouring down upon him; his flanks and his back were wedged fast in the cumber, and he stood still and trembled, being buried alive.

Jordas, with a great effort, threw himself off, and put his hat before his mouth, to make himself a breathing space. He scarcely knew whether he stood or lay; but he kicked about for want of air, and the more he kicked the worse it was, as in the depth of nightmare. Blindness, choking, smothering, and freezing fell in a lump upon his poor body now, and the shrieking of the horse and the panting of his struggles came, by some vibration, to him.

But just as he began to lose his wits, sink away backward, and gasp for breath, a gleam of light broke upon his closing eyes; he gathered the remnant of his strength, struck for it, and was in a space of free air. After several long pants he looked around, and found that a thicket of stub oak jutting from the crag of the gap had made a small alcove with billows of snow piled over it. Then the brave spirit of the man came forth. “There is room for Dukie as well as me,” he gasped; “with God’s help, I will fetch him in.”

Weary as he was, he cast himself back into the wall of snow, and listened. At first he heard nothing, and made sure that all was over; but presently a faint soft gurgle, like a dying sob, came through the murk. With all his might he dashed toward the sound, and laid hold of a hairy chin just foundering. “Rise up, old chap,” he tried to shout, and he gave the horse a breath or two with the broad-brimmed hat above his nose. Then Marmaduke rallied for one last fight, with the surety of a man to help him. He staggered forward to the leading of the hand he knew so well, and fell down upon his knees; but his head was clear, and he drew long breaths, and his heart was glad, and his eyes looked up, and he gave a feeble whinny.

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