Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LV

Nicholas the Fish

Five hundred years ago there was a great Italian swimmer, even greater than our Captain Webb; inasmuch as he had what the wags of the age unjustly ascribe to our hero, that is to say, web toes and fingers. This capable man could, if history be true, not only swim for a week without ceasing (reassuring solid nature now and then by a gulp of live fish), but also could expand his chest so considerably that it held enough air for a day’s consumption. Fortified thus, he explored Charybdis and all the Liparic whirlpools, and could have found Cadman’s gun anywhere, if it had only been there. But at last the sea had its revenge upon him, through the cruel insistence of his king.

No man so amphibious has since arisen through the unfathomed tide of time. But a swimmer and diver of great repute was now living not far from Teesmouth. That is to say, he lived there whenever the state of the weather or the time of year stranded him in dry misery. Those who have never come across a man of this description might suppose that he was happy and content at home with his wife and growing family, assuaging the brine in the delightful manner commended by Hero to Leander. But, alas! it was not so at all. The temper of the man was very slow to move, as generally happens with deep-chested men, and a little girl might lead him with her finger on the shore; and he liked to try to smell land flowers, which in his opinion were but weeds. But if a man can not control his heart, in the very middle of his system, how can he hope to command his skin, that unscientific frontier of his frame?

“Nicholas the fish,” as his neighbors (whenever, by coming ashore, he had such treasures) contemptuously called him, was endowed from his birth with a peculiar skin, and by exercise had improved it. Its virtue was excessive thickness — such as a writer should pray for — protected also by powerful hairiness — largely admired by those with whom it is restricted to the head.

Unhappily for Nicholas, the peremptory poises of nature struck a line with him, and this was his line of flotation. From perpetual usage this was drawn, obliquely indeed, but as definitely as it is upon a ship of uniform displacement — a yacht, for instance, or a man-of-war. Below that line scarcely anything could hurt him; but above it he was most sensitive, unless he were continually wetted; and the flies, and the gnats, and many other plagues of England, with one accord pitched upon him, and pitched into him, during his short dry intervals, with a bracing sense of saline draught. Also the sun, and the wind, and even the moon, took advantage of him when unwetted.

This made his dry periods a purgatory to him; and no sooner did he hear from Mr. Mordacks of a promising job under water than he drew breath enough for a ten-fathom dive, and bursting from long despair, made a great slap at the flies beneath his collar-bone. The sound was like a drum which two men strike; and his wife, who was devoted to him, hastened home from the adjoining parish with a sad presentiment of parting. And this was speedily verified; for the champion swimmer and diver set forth that very day for Bempton Warren, where he was to have a private meeting with the general factor.

Now it was a great mistake to think — as many people at this time did, both in Yorkshire and Derbyshire — that the gulf of connubial cares had swallowed the great Roman hero Mordacks. Unarmed, and even without his gallant roadster to support him, he had leaped into that Curtian lake, and had fought a good fight at the bottom of it. The details are highly interesting, and the chronicle might be useful; but, alas! there is no space left for it. It is enough, and a great thing too, to say that he emerged triumphant, reduced his wife into very good condition, and obtained the due mastery of her estates, and lordship of the household.

Refreshed and recruited by the home campaign, and having now a double base for future operations — York city with the fosse of Ouse in the east, and Pretorian Hill, Derbyshire, westward — Mordacks returned, with a smack of lip more dry than amontilladissimo, to the strict embrace of business. So far as the needs of the body were concerned, he might have done handsomely without any business; but having no flesh fit to weigh against his mind, he gave preference to the latter. Now the essence of his nature was to take strong views; not hastily — if he could help it — nor through narrow aspect of prejudice, but with power of insight (right or wrong), and stern fixity thereafter. He had kept his opinion about Sir Duncan Yordas much longer than usual pending, being struck with the fame of the man, and his manner, and generous impulsive nature. All these he still admired, but felt that the mind was far too hasty, and, to put it in his own strong way, Sir Duncan (whatever he might be in India) had been but a fool in England. Why had he cast away his claim on Scargate, and foiled the factor’s own pet scheme for a great triumph over the lawyers? And why condemn his only son, when found with such skill and at heavy expense, without even hearing both sides of the tale? Last, but not least, what induced him to marry, when amply old enough to know better, a girl who might be well enough in her way, but had no family estate to bring, was shrewdly suspected of a cutting tongue, and had more than once been anything but polite to Geoffrey Mordacks?

Although this gentleman was not a lawyer, and indeed bore a tyrannous hate against that gentle and most precious class, he shared the solicitor’s just abhorrence of the word “farewell,” when addressed to him by any one of good substance. He resolved that his attentions should not cease, though undervalued for the moment, but should be continued to the son and heir — whose remainder in tail subsisted still, though it might be hard to substantiate — and when his cousin Lancelot should come into possession, he might find a certain factor to grapple him. Mr. Mordacks hated Lancelot, and had carried out his banishment with intense enjoyment, holding him as in a wrench-hammer all the way, silencing his squeaks with another turn of the screw, and as eager to crack him as if he were a nut, the first that turns auburn in September.

This being the condition of so powerful a mind, facts very speedily shaped themselves thereto, as they do when the power of an eminent orator lays hold of them and crushes them, and they can not even squeak. Or even as a still more eminent ‘bus driver, when the street is blocked, and there seems to be no room for his own thumb, yet (with a gentle whistle and a wink) solves the jostling stir and balk, makes obstructive traffic slide, like an eddy obsequious, beside him and behind, and comes forth as the first of an orderly procession toward the public-house of his true love.

Now if anything beyond his own conviction were wanted to set this great agent upon action, soon it was found in York Summer Assizes, and the sudden inrush of evidence, which — no matter how a case has been prepared — gets pent up always for the Bar and Bench. Then Robin Lyth came, with a gallant dash, and offered himself as a sacrifice, if needful, which proved both his courage and his common-sense in waiting till due occasion demanded him. Mordacks was charmed with this young man, not only for proving his own judgment right, but also for possessing a quickness of decision akin to his own, and backing up his own ideas.

With vigor thus renewed by many interests and motives, the general and generous factor kept his appointment in Bempton Warren. Since the distressing, but upon the whole desirable, decease of that poor Rickon Goold, the lonely hut in which he breathed his last had not been by any means a popular resort. There were said to be things heard, seen, and felt, even in the brightest summer day, which commended the spot to the creatures that fear mankind, but not their spectres. The very last of all to approach it now would have been the two rollicking tars who had trodden their wooden-legged watch around it. Nicholas the fish was superstitious also, as it behooved him well to be; but having heard nothing of the story of the place, and perceiving no gnats in the neighborhood, he thankfully took it for his short dry spells.

Mr. Mordacks met him, and the two men were deeply impressed with one another. The diver admired the sharp, terse style and definite expression of the factor, while the factor enjoyed the large ponderous roll and suggestive reservations of the diver. For this was a man who had met great beings, and faced mighty wonders in deep places; and he thought of them more than he liked to say, because he had to get his living.

Nothing could be settled to a nicety between them, not even as to pounds, shillings, and pence. For the nature of the job depended wholly upon the behavior of the weather; and the weather must be not only at its best, but also setting meekly in the right direction at the right moment of big springtide. The diver was afraid that he might ask too little, and the factor disliked the risk of offering too much, and possibly spoiling thereby a noble nature. But each of them realized (to some extent) the honesty of the other, and neither of them meant to be unreasonable.

“Give and take, is what I say,” said the short man with the monstrous chest, looking up at the tall man with the Roman nose; “live and let live. Ah! that’s it.”

Mr. Mordacks would have said, “Right you are,” if that elegant expression had been in vogue; but as that brilliance had not yet risen, he was content to say, “Just so.” Then he added, “Here you have everything you want. Madam Precious will send you twice a day, to the stone at the bottom of the lane, a gallon of beer, and victuals in proportion. Your duty is to watch the tides and weather, keep your boat going, and let me know; and here I am in half an hour.”

Calpurnia Mordacks was in her duty now, and took her autumn holiday at Flamborough. And though Widow Precious felt her heart go pitapat at first sight of another Mrs. Mordacks, she made up her mind, with a gulp, not to let this cash go to the Thornwick. As a woman she sighed; but as a landlady she smiled, and had visions of hoisting a flag on her roof.

When Mordacks, like a victorious general, conqueror of this Danish town, went forth for his evening stroll to see his subjects and be saluted, a handsome young sailor came up from the cliffs, and begged to have a few quiet words with him. “Say on, my lad; all my words are quiet,” replied the general factor. Then this young man up and told his tale, which was all in the well-trodden track of mankind. He had run away to sea, full of glorious dreams — valor, adventure, heroism, rivers of paradise, and lands of heaven. Instead of that, he had been hit upon the head, and in places of deeper tenderness, frequently roasted, and frozen yet more often, basted with brine when he had no skin left, scorched with thirst, and devoured by creatures whose appetites grew dainty when his own was ravening.

“Excellent youth,” Mr. Mordacks said, “your tale might move a heart of flint. All who know me have but one opinion. I am benevolence itself. But my balance is low at my banker’s.”

“I want no money, sir,” the sailor answered, simply offering benevolence itself a pipeful of tobacco from an ancient bit of bladder; “I have not got a farthing, but I am with good people who never would take it if I had it, and that makes everything square between us. I might have a hatful of money if I chose, but I find myself better without it, and my constitution braces up. If I only chose to walk a league sou’west, there would be bonfires burning. But I vowed I would go home a captain, and I will.”

“Ha!” cried Mr. Mordacks, with his usual quickness, and now knowing all about everybody; “you are Mr. John Anerley, the son of the famous Captain Anerley.”

“Jack Anerley, sir, till better times; and better they never will be, till I make them. But not a word to any one about me, if you please. It would break my mother’s heart (for she doth look down upon people, without asking) to hear that Robin Cockscroft was supporting of me. But, bless you, I shall pay him soon, a penny for a guinea.”

Truth, which struggles through the throng of men to get out and have a little breath sometimes, now and then succeeds, by accident, or the stupid misplacement of a word. A penny for a guinea was as much as Robin Cockscroft was likely ever to see for his outlay upon this very fine young fellow. Jack Anerley accepted the situation with the large philosophy of a sailor; and all he wanted from Mr. Mordacks was leave to be present at the diving job. This he obtained, as he promised to be useful, and a fourth oar was likely to be needed.

It was about an hour before noon of a beautifully soft September day, when little Sam Precious, the same boy that carried Robin Lyth’s note to Mary, came up to Mr. Mordacks with a bit of plaited rushes, the scytale of Nicholas the fish, who was happy enough not to know his alphabet. The factor immediately put on his hat, girded himself with his riding sword and pistol belt, and told his good wife that business might take him away for some hours. Then he hastened to Robin Cockscroft’s house, after sending the hostler, on his own horse, with a letter to Bridlington coast-guard station, as he had arranged with poor Carroway’s successor.

The Flamborough fishermen were out at sea; and without any fuss, Robin’s boat was launched, and manned by that veteran himself, together with old Joe and Bob, who had long been chewing the quid of expectation, and at the bow oar Jack Anerley. Their orders were to slip quietly round, and wait in the Dovecote till the diver came. Mordacks saw them on their way; and then he strode up the deserted path, and struck away toward a northern cove, where the diver’s little boat was housed. There he found Nicholas the fish, spread out in all his glory, like a polypod awash, or a basking turtle, or a well-fed calf of Proteus. Laid on his back, where the wavelets broke, and beaded a silver fringe upon the golden ruff of sand, he gave his body to soft lullaby, and his mind to perfect holiday. His breadth, and the spring of fresh air inside it, kept him gently up and down; and his calm enjoyment was enriched by the baffled wrath of his enemies. For flies, of innumerable sorts and sizes, held a hopeless buzz above him, being put upon their mettle to get at him, and perishing sweetly in the vain attempt.

With a grunt of reluctance he awoke to business, swam for his boat, and embarking Mr. Mordacks, pulled him across the placid bay to the cave where his forces were assembled.

“Let there be no mistake about it,” the factor shouted from the mermaids’ shelf, having promised his Calpurnia to keep upon dry land whenever the water permitted him; “our friend the great diver will first ascertain whether the thing which we seek is here. If so, he will leave it where it is until the arrival of the Preventive boat. You all understand that we wish to put the matter so that even a lawyer can not pick any hole in the evidence. Light no links until I tell you. Now, Nicholas the fish, go down at once.”

Without a word the diver plunged, having taken something between his teeth which he would not let the others see. The watery floor of the cavern was as smooth as a mill-pond in July, and he plunged so neatly that he made no splash; nothing but a flicker of reflection on the roof, and a lapping murmur round the sides, gave token that a big man was gone into the deep. For several minutes no one spoke, but every eye was strained upon the glassy dimness, and every ear intent for the first break of sound.

“T’ goop ha’ got un,” cried old Robin, indignant at this outrage by a stranger to his caves, “God niver mahd mon to pree intil ‘s ain warks.”

Old Joe and Bob grunted approbation, and Mordacks himself was beginning to believe that some dark whirlpool or coil of tangles had drowned the poor diver, when a very gentle noise, like a dabchick playing beneath a bridge, came from the darkest corner. Nicholas was there, inhaling air, not in greedy gulps and gasps, like a man who has had no practice, but leisurely encouraging his lungs with little doses, as a doctor gives soup to a starved boat crew. Being hailed by loud voices, he answered not, for his nature was by no means talkative; but presently, with very little breach of water, he swam to the middle, and asked for his pipe.

“Have you found the gun?” cried Mordacks, whose loftiest feelings had subsided in a quarter of a minute to the business level. Nicholas made no reply until the fire of his pipe was established, while he stood in the water quite as if he were on land, supporting himself by nothing more than a gentle movement of his feet, while the glow of the touch-paper lit his round face and yellow leather skull-cap. “In coorse I has,” he said at last, blowing a roll of smoke along the gleaming surface; “over to yon little cornder.”

“And you can put your hand upon it in a moment?” The reply was a nod and another roll of smoke. “Admirable! Now, then, Joe, and Bob the son of Joe, do what I told you, while Master Cockscroft and our nimble young friend get the links all ready.”

The torches were fixed on the rocky shelf, as they had been upon the fatal night; but they were not lit until Joe and his son, sent forth in the smaller boat to watch, came back with news that the Preventive gig was round the point, and approaching swiftly, with a lady in the stern, whose dress was black.

“Right!” cried Mr. Mordacks, with a brisk voice ringing under the ponderous brows of rock. “Men, I have brought you to receive a lesson. You shall see what comes of murder. Light the torches. Nicholas, go under, with the exception of your nose, or whatever it is you breathe with. When I lift my hand, go down; and do as I have ordered you.”

The cavern was lit with the flare of fire, and the dark still water heaved with it, when the coast-guard boat came gliding in. The crew, in white jerseys, looked like ghosts flitting into some magic scene. Only the officer, darkly clad, and standing up with the tiller-lines in hand, and the figure of a woman sitting in the stern, relieved their spectral whiteness.

“Commander Hardlock, and men of the coastguard,” shouted Mr. Mordacks, when the wash of ripples and the drip of oars and the creak of wood gave silence, “the black crime committed upon this spot shall no longer go unpunished. The ocean itself has yielded its dark secret to the perseverance of mankind, and the humble but not unskillful efforts which it has been my privilege to conduct. A good man was slain here, in cold blood slain — a man of remarkable capacity and zeal, gallantry, discipline, and every noble quality, and the father of a very large family. The villain who slew him would have slain six other harmless men by perjury if an enlightened English jury had been fools enough to believe him. Now I will show you what to believe. I am not eloquent, I am not a man of words; my motto is strict business. And business with me is a power, not a name. I lift my hand; you wait for half a minute; and then, from the depths of this abyss, arises the gun used in the murder.”

The men understood about half of this, being honest fellows in the main, and desiring time to put heads together about the meaning; but one there was who knew too well that his treacherous sin had found him out. He strove to look like the rest, but felt that his eyes obeyed heart more than brain; and then the widow, who had watched him closely through her black veil, lifted it, and fixed her eyes on his. Deadly terror seized him, and he wished that he had shot himself.

“Stand up, men,” the commander shouted, “until we see the end of this. The crime has been laid upon our force. We scorn the charge of such treachery. Stand up, men, and face, like innocent men, whatever can be shown against you.”

The men stood up, and the light of the torches fell upon their faces. All were pale with fear and wonder, but one was white as death itself. Calling up his dogged courage, and that bitterness of malice which had made him do the deed, and never yet repent of it, he stood as firmly as the rest, but differed from them in three things. His face wore a smile; he watched one place only; and his breath made a noise, while theirs was held.

Then, from the water, without a word, or sign of any hand that moved it, a long gun rose before John Cadman, and the butt was offered to his hand. He stood with his arms at his sides, and could not lift them to do anything. Neither could he speak, nor make defense, but stood like an image that is fastened by the feet.

“Hand me that,” cried the officer, sharply; but instead of obeying, the man stared malignantly, and then plunged over the gun into the depth.

Not so, however, did he cheat the hangman; Nicholas caught him (as a water-dog catches a worn-out glove), and gave him to any one that would have him. “Strap him tight,” the captain cried; and the men found relief in doing it. At the next jail-delivery he was tried, and the jury did their duty. His execution restored good-will, and revived that faith in justice which subsists upon so little food.

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