Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLIII

A Pleasant Interview

Cumbered as he was of body, and burdened with some cares of mind, the general factor ploughed his way with his usual resolution. A scowl of dark vapor came over the headlands, and under-ran the solid snow-clouds with a scud, like bonfire smoke. The keen wind following the curves of land, and shaking the fringe of every white-clad bush, piped (like a boy through a comb) wherever stock or stub divided it. It turned all the coat of the horse the wrong way, and frizzed up the hair of Mr. Mordacks, which was as short as a soldier’s, and tossed up his heavy riding cape, and got into him all up the small of his back. Being fond of strong language, he indulged in much; but none of it warmed him, and the wind whistled over his shoulders, and whirled the words out of his mouth.

When he came to the dip of the road, where it crosses the Dane’s Dike, he pulled up his horse for a minute, in the shelter of shivering fir-trees. “What a cursed bleak country! My fish is frozen stiff, and my legs are as dead as the mutton in the saddle-bags. Geoffrey, you are a fool,” he said. “Charity is very fine, and business even better; but a good coal fire is the best of all. But in for a penny of it, in for a pound. Hark! I hear some fellow-fool equally determined to be frozen. I’ll go at once and hail him; perhaps the sight of him will warm me.”

He turned his horse down a little lane upon the left, where snow lay deep, with laden bushes overhanging it, and a rill of water bridged with bearded ice ran dark in the hedge-trough. And here he found a stout lusty man, with shining red cheeks and keen blue eyes, hacking and hewing in a mighty maze of brambles.

“My friend, you seem busy. I admire your vast industry,” Mr. Mordacks exclaimed, as the man looked at him, but ceased not from swinging his long hedge-hook. “Happy is the land that owns such men.”

“The land dothn’t own me; I own the land. I shall be pleased to learn what your business is upon it.”

Farmer Anerley hated chaff, as a good agriculturist should do. Moreover, he was vexed by many little griefs today, and had not been out long enough to work them off. He guessed pretty shrewdly that this sworded man was “Moreducks”— as the leading wags of Flamborough were gradually calling him — and the sight of a sword upon his farm (unless of an officer bound to it) was already some disquietude to an English farmer’s heart. That was a trifle; for fools would be fools, and might think it a grand thing to go about with tools they were never born to the handling of; but a fellow who was come to take up Robin Lyth’s case, and strive to get him out of his abominable crime, had better go back to the rogue’s highway, instead of coming down the private road to Anerley.

“Upon my word I do believe,” cried Mordacks, with a sprightly joy, “that I have the pleasure of meeting at last the well-known Captain Anerley! My dear sir, I can not help commending your prudence in guarding the entrance to your manor; but not in this employment of a bill-hook. From all that I hear, it is a Paradise indeed. What a haven in such weather as the present! Now, Captain Anerley, I entreat you to consider whether it is wise to take the thorn so from the rose. If I had so sweet a place, I would plant brambles, briers, blackthorn, furze, crataegus, every kind of spinous growth, inside my gates, and never let anybody lop them. Captain, you are too hospitable.”

Farmer Anerley gazed with wonder at this man, who could talk so fast for the first time of seeing a body. Then feeling as if his hospitality were challenged, and desiring more leisure for reflection, “You better come down the lane, sir,” he said.

“Am I to understand that you invite me to your house, or only to the gate where the dogs come out? Excuse me: I always am a most plain-spoken man.”

“Our dogs never bite nobody but rogues.”

“In that case, Captain Anerley, I may trust their moral estimate. I knew a farmer once who was a thorough thief in hay; a man who farmed his own land, and trimmed his own hedges; a thoroughly respectable and solid agriculturist. But his trusses of hay were always six pounds short, and if ever anybody brought a sample truss to steelyard, he had got a little dog, just seven pounds weight, who slipped into the core of it, being just a good hay-color. He always delivered his hay in the twilight, and when it swung the beam, he used to say, ‘Come, now, I must charge you for overweight.’ Now, captain, have you got such an honest dog as that?”

“I would have claimed him, that I would, if such a clever dog were weighed to me. But, sir, you have got the better of me. What a man for stories you be, for sure! Come in to our fire-place.” Farmer Anerley was conquered by this tale, which he told fifty times every year he lived thereafter, never failing to finish with, “What rogues they be, up York way!”

Master Mordacks was delighted with this piece of luck on his side. Many times he had been longing to get in at Anerley, not only from the reputation of good cheer there, but also from kind curiosity to see the charming Mary, who was now becoming an important element of business. Since Robin had given him the slip so sadly — a thing it was impossible to guard against — the best chance of hearing what became of him would be to get into the good graces of his sweetheart.

“We have been very sadly for a long time now,” said the farmer, as he knocked at his own porch door with the handle of his bill-hook. “There used to be one as was always welcome here; and a pleasure it was to see him make himself so pleasant, sir. But ever since the Lord took him home from his family, without a good-by, as a man might say, my wife hath taken to bar the doors whiles I am away and out of sight.” Stephen Anerley knocked harder, as he thus explained the need of it; for it grieved him to have his house shut up.

“Very wise of them all to bar out such weather,” said Mordacks, who read the farmer’s thoughts like print, “Don’t relax your rules, sir, until the weather changes. Ah, that was a very sad thing about the captain. As gallant an officer, and as single-minded, as ever killed a Frenchman in the best days of our navy.”

“Single-minded is the very word to give him, sir. I sought about for it ever since I heard of him coming to an end like that, and doing of his duty in the thick of it. If I could only get a gentleman to tell me, or an officer’s wife would be better still, what the manners is when a poor lady gets her husband shot, I’ll be blest if I wouldn’t go straight and see her, though they make such a distance betwixt us and the regulars. — Oh, then, ye’ve come at last! No thief, no thief.”

“Father,” cried Mary, bravely opening all the door, of which the ruffian wind made wrong by casting her figure in high relief — and yet a pardonable wrong —“father, you are quite wise to come home, before your dear nose is quite cut off. — Oh, I beg your pardon, sir; I never saw you.”

“My fate in life is to be overlooked,” Mr. Mordacks answered, with a martial stride; “but not always, young lady, with such exquisite revenge. What I look at pays fiftyfold for being overlooked.”

“You are an impudent, conceited man,” thought Mary to herself, with gross injustice; but she only blushed and said, “I beg your pardon, sir.”

“You see, sir,” quoth the farmer, with some severity, tempered, however, with a smile of pride, “my daughter, Mary Anerley.”

“And I take off my hat,” replied audacious Mordacks, among whose faults was no false shame, “not only to salute a lady, sir, but also to have a better look.”

“Well, well,” said the farmer, as Mary ran away; “your city ways are high polite, no doubt, but my little lass is strange to them. And I like her better so, than to answer pert with pertness. Now come you in, and warm your feet a bit. None of us are younger than we used to be.”

This was not Master Anerley’s general style of welcoming a guest, but he hated new-fangled Frenchified manners, as he told his good wife, when he boasted by-and-by how finely he had put that old coxcomb down. “You never should have done it,” was all the praise he got. “Mr. Mordacks is a business man, and business men always must relieve their minds.” For no sooner now was the general factor introduced to Mistress Anerley than she perceived clearly that the object of his visit was not to make speeches to young chits of girls, but to seek the advice of a sensible person, who ought to have been consulted a hundred times for once that she even had been allowed to open her mouth fairly. Sitting by the fire, he convinced her that the whole of the mischief had been caused by sheer neglect of her opinion. Everything she said was so exactly to the point that he could not conceive how it should have been so slighted, and she for her part begged him to stay and partake of their simple dinner.

“Dear madam, it can not be,” he replied; “alas! I must not think of it. My conscience reproaches me for indulging, as I have done, in what is far sweeter than even one of your dinners — a most sensible lady’s society. I have a long bitter ride before me, to comfort the fatherless and the widow. My two legs of mutton will be thawed by this time in the genial warmth of your stable. I also am thawed, warmed, feasted I may say, by happy approximation to a mind so bright and congenial. Captain Anerley, madam, has shown true kindness in allowing me the privilege of exclusive speech with you. Little did I hope for such a piece of luck this morning. You have put so many things in a new and brilliant light, that my road becomes clear before me. Justice must be done; and you feel quite sure that Robin Lyth committed this atrocious murder because poor Carroway surprised him so when making clandestine love, at your brother Squire Popplewell’s, to a beautiful young lady who shall be nameless. And deeply as you grieve for the loss of such a neighbor, the bravest officer of the British navy, who leaped from a strictly immeasurable height into a French ship, and scattered all her crew, and has since had a baby about three months old, as well as innumerable children, you feel that you have reason to be thankful sometimes that the young man’s character has been so clearly shown, before he contrived to make his way into the bosom of respectable families in the neighborhood.”

“I never thought it out quite so clear as that, sir; for I feel so sorry for everybody, and especially those who have brought him up, and those he has made away with.”

“Quite so, my dear madam; such are your fine feelings, springing from the goodness of your nature. Pardon my saying that you could have no other, according to my experience of a most benevolent countenance. Part of my duty, and in such a case as yours, one of the pleasantest parts of it, is to study the expression of a truly benevolent —”

“I am not that old, sir, asking of your pardon, to pretend to be benevolent. All that I lay claim to is to look at things sensible.”

“Certainly, yet with a tincture of high feeling. Now if it should happen that this poor young man were of very high birth, perhaps the highest in the county, and the heir to very large landed property, and a title, and all that sort of nonsense, you would look at him from the very same point of view?”

“That I would, sir, that I would. So long as he was proclaimed for hanging. But naturally bound, of course, to be more sorry for him.”

“Yes, from sense of all the good things he must lose. There seems, however, to be strong ground for believing — as I may tell you, in confidence, Dr. Upround does — that he had no more to do with it than you or I, ma’am. At first I concluded as you have done. I am going to see Mrs. Carroway now. Till then I suspend my judgment.”

“Now that is what nobody should do, Mr. Mordacks. I have tried, but never found good come of it. To change your mind is two words against yourself; and you go wrong both ways, before and after.”

“Undoubtedly you do, ma’am. I never thought of that before. But you must remember that we have not the gift of hitting — I might say of making — the truth with a flash or a dash, as you ladies have. May I be allowed to come again?”

“To tell you the truth, sir, I am heartily sorry that you are going away at all. I could have talked to you all the afternoon; and how seldom I get the chance now, Lord knows. There is that in your conversation which makes one feel quite sure of being understood; not so much in what you say, sir — if you understand my meaning — as in the way you look, quite as if my meaning was not at all too quick for you. My good husband is of a greater mind than I am, being nine-and-forty inches round the chest; but his mind seems somehow to come after mine, the same as the ducks do, going down to our pond.”

“Mistress Anerley, how thankful you should be! What a picture of conjugal felicity! But I thought that the drake always led the way?”

“Never upon our farm, sir. When he doth, it is a proof of his being crossed with wild-ducks. The same as they be round Flamborough.”

“Oh, now I see the truth. How slow I am! It improves their flavor, at the expense of their behavior. But seriously, madam, you are fit to take the lead. What a pleasant visit I have had! I must brace myself up for a very sad one now — a poor lady, with none to walk behind her.”

“Yes, to be sure! It is very fine of me to talk. But if I was left without my husband, I should only care to walk after him. Please to give her my kind love, sir; though I have only seen her once. And if there is anything that we can do —”

“If there is anything that we can do,” said the farmer, coming out of his corn-chamber, “we won’t talk about it, but we’ll do it, Mr. Moreducks.”

The factor quietly dispersed this rebuke, by waving his hand at his two legs of mutton and the cod, which had thawed in the stable. “I knew that I should be too late,” he said; “her house will be full of such little things as these, so warm is the feeling of the neighborhood. I guessed as much, and arranged with my butcher to take them back in that case; and he said they would eat all the better for the ride. But as for the cod, perhaps you will accept him. I could never take him back to Flamborough.”

“Ride away, sir, ride away,” said the farmer, who had better not have measured swords with Mordacks. “I were thinking of sending a cart over there, so soon as the weather should be opening of the roads up. But the children might be hankerin’ after meat, the worse for all the snow-time.”

“It is almost impossible to imagine such a thing. Universally respected, suddenly cut off, enormous family with hereditary hunger, all the neighbors well aware of straitened circumstances, the kindest-hearted county in Great Britain — sorrow and abundance must have cloyed their appetites, as at a wealthy man’s funeral. What a fool I must have been not to foresee all that!”

“Better see than foresee,” replied the farmer, who was crusty from remembering that he had done nothing. “Neighbors likes to wait for neighbors to go in; same as two cows staring at a new-mown meadow.”

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