Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLI

Bat of the Gill

Upon that same evening the cottage in the gill was well snowed up, as befell it every winter, more or less handsomely, according to the wind. The wind was in the right way to do it truly now, with just enough draught to pile bountiful wreaths, and not enough of wild blast to scatter them again. “Bat of the Gill,” as Mr. Bert was called, sat by the fire, with his wife and daughter, and listened very calmly to the whistle of the wind, and the sliding of the soft fall that blocked his window-panes.

Insie was reading, Mrs. Bert was knitting stockings, and Mr. Bert was thinking of his own strange life. It never once occurred to him that great part of its strangeness sprang from the oddities of his own nature, any more than a man who has been in a quarrel believes that he could have kept out of it. “Matters beyond my own control have forced me to do this and that,” is the sure belief of every man whose life has run counter to his fellows, through his own inborn diversity. In this man’s nature were two strange points, sure (if they are strong enough to survive experience) to drive anybody into strange ways: he did not care for money, and he contemned rank.

How these two horrible twists got into his early composition is more than can be told, and in truth it does not matter. But being quite incurable, and meeting with no sympathy, except among people who aspired to them only, and failed — if they ever got the chance of failing — these depravations from the standard of mankind drove Christopher Bert from the beaten tracks of life. Providence offered him several occasions of return into the ordinary course; for after he had cast abroad a very nice inheritance, other two fortunes fell to him, but found him as difficult as ever to stay with. Not that he was lavish upon luxury of his own, for no man could have simpler tastes, but that he weakly believed in the duty of benevolence, and the charms of gratitude. Of the latter it is needless to say that he got none, while with the former he produced some harm. When all his bread was cast upon the waters, he set out to earn his own crust as best he might.

Hence came a chapter of accidents, and a volume of motley incidents in various climes, and upon far seas. Being a very strong, active man, with gift of versatile hand and brain, and early acquaintance with handicrafts, Christopher Bert could earn his keep, and make in a year almost as much as he used to give away, or lend without redemption, in a general day of his wealthy time. Hard labor tried to make him sour, but did not succeed therein.

Yet one thing in all this experience vexed him more than any hardship, to wit, that he never could win true fellowship among his new fellows in the guild of labor. Some were rather surly, others very pleasant (from a warm belief that he must yet come into money); but whatsomever or whosoever they were, or of whatever land, they all agreed that Christopher Bert was not of their communion. Manners, appearance, education, freedom from prejudice, and other wide diversities marked him as an interloper, and perhaps a spy, among the enlightened working-men of the period. Over and over again he strove to break down this barrier; but thrice as hard he might have striven, and found it still too strong for him. This and another circumstance at last impressed him with the superior value of his own society. Much as he loved the working-man — in spite of all experience of him — that worthy fellow would not have it, but felt a truly and piously hereditary scorn for “a gentleman as took a order, when, but for being a blessed fool, he might have stood there giving it.”

The other thing that helped to drive him from this very dense array was his own romantic marriage, and the copious birth of children. After the sensitive age was past, and when the sensibles ought to reign — for then he was past five-and-thirty — he fell (for the first time of his life) into a violent passion of love for a beautiful Jewish maid barely turned seventeen; Zilpah admired him, for he was of noble aspect, rich with variety of thoughts and deeds. With women he had that peculiar power which men of strong character possess; his voice was like music, and his words as good as poetry, and he scarcely ever seemed to contradict himself. Very soon Zilpah adored him; and then he gave notice to her parents that she was to be his wife. These stared considerably, being very wealthy people, of high Jewish blood (and thus the oldest of the old), and steadfast most — where all are steadfast — to their own race of religion. Finding their astonishment received serenely, they locked up their daughter, with some strong expressions; which they redoubled when they found the door wide open in the morning. Zilpah was gone, and they scratched out her name from the surface of their memories.

Christopher Bert, being lawfully married — for the local restrictions scorned the case of a foreigner and a Jewess — crossed the Polish frontier with his mules and tools, and drove his little covered cart through Austria. And here he lit upon, and helped in some predicament of the road, a spirited young Englishman undergoing the miseries of the grand tour, the son and heir of Philip Yordas. Duncan was large and crooked of thought — as every true Yordas must be — and finding a mind in advance of his own by several years of such sallyings, and not yet even swerving toward the turning goal of corpulence, the young man perceived that he had hit upon a prophet.

For Bert scarcely ever talked at all of his generous ideas. A prophet’s proper mantle is the long cloak of Harpocrates, and his best vaticinations are inspired more than uttered. So it came about that Duncan Yordas, difficult as he was to lead, largely shared the devious courses of Christopher Bert the workman, and these few months of friendship made a lasting mark upon the younger man.

Soon after this a heavy blow befell the ingenious wanderer. Among his many arts and trades, he had some knowledge of engineering, or at any rate much boldness of it; which led him to conceive a brave idea concerning some tributary of the Po. The idea was sound and fine, and might have led to many blessings; but Nature, enjoying her bad work best, recoiled upon her improver. He left an oozy channel drying (like a glanderous sponge) in August; and virulent fever came into his tent. All of his eight children died except his youngest son Maunder; his own strong frame was shaken sadly; and his loving wife lost all her strength and buxom beauty. He gathered the remnants of his race, and stricken but still unconquered, took his way to a long-forgotten land. “The residue of us must go home,” he said, after all his wanderings.

In London, of course, he was utterly forgotten, although he had spent much substance there, in the days of sanguine charity. Durham was his native county, where he might have been a leading man, if more like other men. “Cosmopolitan” as he was, and strong in his own opinions still, the force of years, and sorrow, and long striving, told upon him. He had felt a longing to mend the kettles of the house that once was his; but when he came to the brink of Tees his stout heart failed, and he could not cross.

Instead of that he turned away, to look for his old friend Yordas; not to be patronized by him — for patronage he would have none — but from hankering after a congenial mind, and to touch upon kind memories. Yordas was gone, as pure an outcast as himself, and his name almost forbidden there. He thought it a part of the general wrong, and wandered about to see the land, with his eyes wide open as usual.

There was nothing very beautiful in the land, and nothing at all attractive, except that it commanded length of view, and was noble in its rugged strength. This, however, pleased him well, and here he resolved to set up his staff, if means could be found to make it grow. From the higher fells he could behold (whenever the weather encouraged him) the dromedary humps of certain hills, at the tail whereof he had been at school — a charming mist of retrospect. And he felt, though it might have been hard to make him own it, a deeply seated joy that here he should be long lengths out of reach of the most highly illuminated working-man. This was an inconsistent thing, but consistent forever in coming to pass.

Where the will is, there the way is, if the will be only wise. Bert found out a way of living in this howling wilderness, as his poor wife would have called it, if she had been a bad wife. Unskillful as he had shown himself in the matter of silver and gold, he had won great skill in the useful metals, especially in steel — the type of truth. And here in a break of rock he discovered a slender vein of a slate-gray mineral, distinct from cobalt, but not unlike it, such as he had found in the Carpathian Mountains, and which in metallurgy had no name yet, for its value was known to very few. But a legend of the spot declared that the ancient cutlers of Bilbao owed much of their fame to the use of this mineral in the careful process of conversion.

“I can make a living out of it, and that is all I want,” said Bert, who was moderately sanguine still. “I know a manufacturer who has faith in me, and is doing all he can against the supremacy of Sheffield. If I can make arrangements with him, we will settle here, and keep to our own affairs for the future.”

He built him a cottage in lonely snugness, far in the waste, and outside even of the range of title-deeds, though he paid a small rent to the manor, to save trouble, and to satisfy his conscience of the mineral deposit. By right of discovery, lease, and user, this became entirely his, as nobody else had ever heard of it. So by the fine irony of facts it came to pass, first, that the squanderer of three fortunes united his lot with a Jewess; next, that a great “cosmopolitan” hugged a strict corner of jealous monopoly; and again, that a champion of communism insisted upon his exclusive right to other people’s property. However, for all that, it might not be easy to find a more consistent man.

Here Maunder, the surviving son, grew up, and Insie, their last child, was born; and the land enjoyed peace for twenty years, because it was of little value. A man who had been about the world so loosely must have found it hard to be boxed up here, except for the lowering of strength and pride by sorrow of affection, and sore bodily affliction. But the air of the moorland is good for such troubles. Bert possessed a happy nature; and perhaps it was well that his children could say, “We are nine; but only two to feed.”

It must have been the whistling wind, a long memorial sound, which sent him, upon this snowy December night, back among the echoes of the past; for he always had plenty of work to do, even in the winter evenings, and was not at all given to folded arms. And before he was tired of his short warm rest, his wife asked, “Where is Maunder?”

“I left him doing his work,” he replied; “he had a great heap still to clear. He understands his work right well. He will not go to bed till he has done it. We must not be quite snowed up, my dear.”

Mrs. Bert shook her head: having lost so many children, she was anxious about the rest of them. But before she could speak again, a heavy leap against the door was heard; the strong latch rattled, and the timbers creaked. Insie jumped up to see what it meant, but her father stopped her, and went himself. When he opened the door, a whirl of snow flew in, and through the glitter and the flutter a great dog came reeling, and rolled upon the floor, a mighty lump of bristled whiteness. Mrs. Bert was terrified, for she thought it was a wolf, not having found it in her power to believe that there could be such a desert place without wolves in the winter-time.

“Why, Saracen!” said Insie; “I declare it is! You poor old dog, what can have brought you out this weather?”

Both her parents were surprised to see her sit down on the floor and throw her arms around the neck of this self-invited and very uncouth visitor. For the girl forgot all of her trumpery concealments in the warmth of her feeling for a poor lost dog.

Saracen looked at her, with a view to dignity. He had only seen her once before, when Pet brought him down (both for company and safeguard), and he was not a dog who would dream of recognizing a person to whom he had been rashly introduced. And he knew that he was in a mighty difficulty now, which made self-respect all the more imperative. However, on the whole, he had been pleased with Insie at their first interview, and had patronized her — for she had an honest fragrance, and a little taste of salt — and now with a side look he let her know that he did not wish to hurt her feelings, although his business was not with her. But if she wanted to give him some refreshment, she might do so, while he was considering.

The fact was, though he could not tell it, and would scorn to do so if he could, that he had not had one bit to eat for more hours than he could reckon. That wicked hostler at Middleton had taken his money and disbursed it upon beer, adding insult to injury by remarking, in the hearing of Saracen (while strictly chained), that he was a deal too fat already. So vile a sentiment had deepened into passion the dog’s ever dominant love of home; and when the darkness closed upon him in an unknown hungry hole, without even a horse for company, any other dog would have howled; but this dog stiffened his tail with self-respect. He scraped away all the straw to make a clear area for his experiment, and then he stood up like a pillar, or a fine kangaroo, and made trial of his weight against the chain. Feeling something give, or show propensity toward giving, he said to himself that here was one more triumph for him over the presumptuous intellect of man. The chain might be strong enough to hold a ship, and the great leathern collar to secure a bull; but the fastening of chain to collar was unsound, by reason of the rusting of a rivet.

Retiring to the manger for a better length of rush, he backed against the wall for a fulcrum to his spring, while the roll of his chest and the breadth of his loins quivered with tight muscle. Then off like the charge of a cannon he dashed, the loop of the collar flew out of the rivet, and the chain fell clanking on the paving-bricks. With grim satisfaction the dog set off in the track of the horse for Scargate Hall. And now he sat panting in the cottage of the gill, to tell his discovery and to crave for help.

“Where do you come from, and what do you want?” asked Bert, as the dog, soon beginning to recover, looked round at the door, and then back again at him, and jerked up his chin impatiently, “Insie, you seem to know this fine fellow. Where have you met him? And whose dog is he? Saracen! Why, that is the name of the dog who is everybody’s terror at Scargate.”

“I gave him some water one day,” said Insie, “when he was terribly thirsty. But he seems to know you, father, better than me. He wants you to do something, and he scorns me.”

For Saracen, failing of articulate speech, was uttering volumes of entreaty with his eyes, which were large, and brown, and full of clear expression under eyebrows of rich tan; and then he ran to the door, put up one heavy paw and shook it, and ran back, and pushed the master with his nozzle, and then threw back his great head and long velvet ears, and opening his enormous jaws, gave vent to a mighty howl which shook the roof.

“Oh, put him out, put him out! open the door!” exclaimed Mrs. Bert, in fresh terror. “If he is not a wolf, he is a great deal worse.”

“His master is out in the snow,” cried Bert; “perhaps buried in the snow, and he is come to tell us. Give me my hat, child, and my thick coat. See how delighted he is, poor fellow! Oh, here comes Maunder! Now lead the way, my friend. Maunder, go and fetch the other shovel. There is somebody lost in the snow, I believe. We must follow this dog immediately.”

“Not till you both have had much plenty food,” the mother said: “out upon the moors, this bad, bad night, and for leagues possibly to travel. My son and my husband are much too good. You bad dog, why did you come, pestilent? But you shall have food also. Insie, provide him. While I make to eat your father and your brother.”

Saracen would hardly wait, starving as he was; but seeing the men prepare to start, he made the best of it, and cleared out a colander of victuals in a minute.

“Put up what is needful for a starving traveller,” Mr. Bert said to the ladies. “We shall want no lantern; the snow gives light enough, and the moon will soon be up. Keep a kettle boiling, and some warm clothes ready. Perhaps we shall be hours away; but have no fear. Maunder is the boy for snow-drifts.”

The young man being of a dark and silent nature, quite unlike his father’s, made no reply, nor even deigned to give a smile, but seemed to be wonderfully taken with the dog, who in many ways resembled him. Then he cast both shovels on his shoulder at the door, and strode forth, and stamped upon the path that he had cleared. His father took a stout stick, the dog leaped past them, and led them out at once upon the open moor.

“We are in for a night of it,” said Mr. Bert, and his son did not contradict him.

“The dog goes first, then I, then you,” he said to his father, with his deep slow tone. And the elderly man, whose chief puzzle in life — since he had given up the problem of the world — was the nature of his only son, now wondered again, as he seldom ceased from wondering, whether this boy despised or loved him. The young fellow always took the very greatest care of his father, as if he were a child to be protected, and he never showed the smallest sign of disrespect. Yet Maunder was not the true son of his father, but of some ancestor, whose pride sprang out of dust at the outrageous idea of a kettle-mending Bert, and embodied itself in this Maunder.

The large-minded father never dreamed of such a trifle, but felt in such weather, with the snow above his leggings, that sometimes it is good to have a large-bodied son.

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