Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter VI

Anerley Farm

On the eastern coast of the same great county, at more than ninety miles of distance for a homing pigeon, and some hundred and twenty for a carriage from the Hall of Yordas, there was in those days, and there still may be found, a property of no vast size — snug, however, and of good repute — and called universally “Anerley Farm.” How long it has borne that name it knows not, neither cares to moot the question; and there lives no antiquary of enough antiquity to decide it. A place of smiling hope, and comfort, and content with quietude; no memory of man about it runneth to the contrary; while every ox, and horse, and sheep, and fowl, and frisky porker, is full of warm domestic feeling and each homely virtue.

For this land, like a happy country, has escaped, for years and years, the affliction of much history. It has not felt the desolating tramp of lawyer or land-agent, nor been bombarded by fine and recovery, lease and release, bargain and sale, Doe and Roe and Geoffrey Styles, and the rest of the pitiless shower of slugs, ending with a charge of Demons. Blows, and blights, and plagues of that sort have not come to Anerley, nor any other drain of nurture to exhaust the green of meadow and the gold of harvest. Here stands the homestead, and here lies the meadow-land; there walk the kine (having no call to run), and yonder the wheat in the hollow of the hill, bowing to the silvery stroke of the wind, is touched with the promise of increasing gold.

As good as the cattle and the crops themselves are the people that live upon them; or at least, in a fair degree, they try to be so; though not of course so harmless, or faithful, or peaceful, or charitable. But still, in proportion, they may be called as good; and in fact they believe themselves much better. And this from no conceit of any sort, beyond what is indispensable; for nature not only enables but compels a man to look down upon his betters.

From generation to generation, man, and beast, and house, and land, have gone on in succession here, replacing, following, renewing, repairing and being repaired, demanding and getting more support, with such judicious give-and-take, and thoroughly good understanding, that now in the August of this year, when Scargate Hall is full of care, and afraid to cart a load of dung, Anerley farm is quite at ease, and in the very best of heart, man, and horse, and land, and crops, and the cock that crows the time of day. Nevertheless, no acre yet in Yorkshire, or in the whole wide world, has ever been so farmed or fenced as to exclude the step of change.

From father to son the good lands had passed, without even a will to disturb them, except at distant intervals; and the present owner was Stephen Anerley, a thrifty and well-to-do Yorkshire farmer of the olden type. Master Anerley was turned quite lately of his fifty-second year, and hopeful (if so pleased the Lord) to turn a good many more years yet, as a strong horse works his furrow. For he was strong and of a cheerful face, ruddy, square, and steadfast, built up also with firm body to a wholesome stature, and able to show the best man on the farm the way to swing a pitchfork. Yet might he be seen, upon every Lord’s day, as clean as a new-shelled chestnut; neither at any time of the week was he dirtier than need be. Happy alike in the place of his birth, his lot in life, and the wisdom of the powers appointed over him, he looked up with a substantial faith, yet a solid reserve of judgment, to the Church, the Justices of the Peace, spiritual lords and temporal, and above all His Majesty George the Third. Without any reserve of judgmemt, which could not deal with such low subjects, he looked down upon every Dissenter, every pork-dealer, and every Frenchman. What he was brought up to, that he would abide by; and the sin beyond repentance, to his mind, was the sin of the turncoat.

With all these hard-set lines of thought, or of doctrine (the scabbard of thought, which saves its edge, and keeps it out of mischief), Stephen Anerley was not hard, or stern, or narrow-hearted. Kind, and gentle, and good to every one who knew “how to behave himself,” and dealing to every man full justice — meted by his own measure — he was liable even to generous acts, after being severe and having his own way. But if any body ever got the better of him by lies, and not fair bettering, that man had wiser not begin to laugh inside the Riding. Stephen Anerley was slow but sure; not so very keen, perhaps, but grained with kerns of maxim’d thought, to meet his uses as they came, and to make a rogue uneasy. To move him from such thoughts was hard; but to move him from a spoken word had never been found possible.

The wife of this solid man was solid and well fitted to him. In early days, by her own account, she had possessed considerable elegance, and was not devoid of it even now, whenever she received a visitor capable of understanding it. But for home use that gift had been cut short, almost in the honey-moon, by a total want of appreciation on the part of her husband. And now, after five-and-twenty years of studying and entering into him, she had fairly earned his firm belief that she was the wisest of women. For she always agreed with him, when he wished it; and she knew exactly when to contradict him, and that was before he had said a thing at all, and while he was rolling it slowly in his mind, with a strong tendency against it. In out-door matters she never meddled, without being specially consulted by the master; but indoors she governed with watchful eyes, a firm hand, and a quiet tongue.

This good woman now was five-and-forty years of age, vigorous, clean, and of a very pleasant look, with that richness of color which settles on fair women when the fugitive beauty of blushing is past. When the work of the morning was done, and the clock in the kitchen was only ten minutes from twelve, and the dinner was fit for the dishing, then Mistress Anerley remembered as a rule the necessity of looking to her own appearance. She went up stairs, with a quarter of an hour to spare, but not to squander, and she came down so neat that the farmer was obliged to be careful in helping the gravy. For she always sat next to him, as she had done before there came any children, and it seemed ever since to be the best place for her to manage their plates and their manners as well.

Alas! that the kindest and wisest of women have one (if not twenty) blind sides to them; and if any such weakness is pointed out, it is sure to have come from their father. Mistress Anerley’s weakness was almost conspicuous to herself — she worshipped her eldest son, perhaps the least worshipful of the family.

Willie Anerley was a fine young fellow, two inches taller than his father, with delicate features, and curly black hair, and cheeks as bright as a maiden’s. He had soft blue eyes, and a rich clear voice, with a melancholy way of saying things, as if he were above all this. And yet he looked not like a fool; neither was he one altogether, when he began to think of things. The worst of him was that he always wanted something new to go on with. He never could be idle; and yet he never worked to the end which crowns the task. In the early stage he would labor hard, be full of the greatness of his aim, and demand every body’s interest, exciting, also, mighty hopes of what was safe to come of it. And even after that he sometimes carried on with patience; but he had not perseverance. Once or twice he had been on the very nick of accomplishing something, and had driven home his nail; but then he let it spring back without clinching. “Oh, any fool can do that!” he cried, and never stood to it, to do it again, or to see that it came not undone. In a word, he stuck to nothing, but swerved about, here, there, and every where.

His father, being of so different a cast, and knowing how often the wisest of men must do what any fool can do, was bitterly vexed at the flighty ways of Willie, and could do no more than hope, with a general contempt, that when the boy grew older he might be a wiser fool. But Willie’s dear mother maintained, with great consistency, that such a perfect wonder could never be expected to do any thing not wonderful. To this the farmer used to listen with a grim, decorous smile; then grumbled, as soon as he was out of hearing, and fell to and did the little jobs himself.

Sore jealousy of Willie, perhaps, and keen sense of injustice, as well as high spirit and love of adventure, had driven the younger son, Jack, from home, and launched him on a sea-faring life. With a stick and a bundle he had departed from the ancestral fields and lanes, one summer morning about three years since, when the cows were lowing for the milk pail, and a royal cutter was cruising off the Head. For a twelvemonth nothing was heard of him, until there came a letter beginning, “Dear and respected parents,” and ending, “Your affectionate and dutiful son, Jack.” The body of the letter was of three lines only, occupied entirely with kind inquiries as to the welfare of every body, especially his pup, and his old pony, and dear sister Mary.

Mary Anerley, the only daughter and the youngest child, well deserved the best remembrance of the distant sailor, though Jack may have gone too far in declaring (as he did till he came to his love-time) that the world contained no other girl fit to hold a candle to her. No doubt it would have been hard to find a girl more true and loving, more modest and industrious; but hundreds and hundreds of better girls might be found perhaps even in Yorkshire.

For this maiden had a strong will of her own, which makes against absolute perfection; also she was troubled with a strenuous hate of injustice — which is sure, in this world, to find cause for an outbreak — and too active a desire to rush after what is right, instead of being well content to let it come occasionally. And so firm could she be, when her mind was set, that she would not take parables, or long experience, or even kindly laughter, as a power to move her from the thing she meant. Her mother, knowing better how the world goes on, promiscuously, and at leisure, and how the right point slides away when stronger forces come to bear, was very often vexed by the crotchets of the girl, and called her wayward, headstrong, and sometimes nothing milder than “a saucy miss.”

This, however, was absurd, and Mary scarcely deigned to cry about it, but went to her father, as she always did when any weight lay on her mind. Nothing was said about any injustice, because that might lead to more of it, as well as be (from a proper point of view) most indecorous. Nevertheless, it was felt between them, when her pretty hair was shed upon his noble waistcoat, that they two were in the right, and cared very little who thought otherwise.

Now it was time to leave off this; for Mary (without heed almost of any but her mother) had turned into a full-grown damsel, comely, sweet, and graceful. She was tall enough never to look short, and short enough never to seem too tall, even when her best feelings were outraged; and nobody, looking at her face, could wish to do any thing but please her — so kind was the gaze of her deep blue eyes, so pleasant the frankness of her gentle forehead, so playful the readiness of rosy lips for a pretty answer or a lovely smile. But if any could be found so callous and morose as not to be charmed or nicely cheered by this, let him only take a longer look, not rudely, but simply in a spirit of polite inquiry; and then would he see, on the delicate rounding of each soft and dimpled cheek, a carmine hard to match on palette, morning sky, or flower bed.

Lovely people ought to be at home in lovely places; and though this can not be so always, as a general rule it is. At Anerley Farm the land was equal to the stock it had to bear, whether of trees, or corn, or cattle, hogs, or mushrooms, or mankind. The farm was not so large or rambling as to tire the mind or foot, yet wide enough and full of change — rich pasture, hazel copse, green valleys, fallows brown, and golden breast-lands pillowing into nooks of fern, clumps of shade for horse or heifer, and for rabbits sandy warren, furzy cleve for hare and partridge, not without a little mere for willows and for wild-ducks. And the whole of the land, with a general slope of liveliness and rejoicing, spread itself well to the sun, with a strong inclination toward the morning, to catch the cheery import of his voyage across the sea.

The pleasure of this situation was the more desirable because of all the parts above it being bleak and dreary. Round the shoulders of the upland, like the arch of a great arm-chair, ran a barren scraggy ridge, whereupon no tree could stand upright, no cow be certain of her own tail, and scarcely a crow breast the violent air by stooping ragged pinions, so furious was the rush of wind when any power awoke the clouds; or sometimes, when the air was jaded with continual conflict, a heavy settlement of brackish cloud lay upon a waste of chalky flint.

By dint of persevering work there are many changes for the better now, more shelter and more root-hold; but still it is a battle-ground of winds, which rarely change their habits, for this is the chump of the spine of the Wolds, which hulks up at last into Flamborough Head.

Flamborough Head, the furthest forefront of a bare and jagged coast, stretches boldly off to eastward — a strong and rugged barrier. Away to the north the land falls back, with coving bends, and some straight lines of precipice and shingle, to which the German Ocean sweeps, seldom free from sullen swell in the very best of weather. But to the southward of the Head a different spirit seems to move upon the face of every thing. For here is spread a peaceful bay, and plains of brighter sea more gently furrowed by the wind, and cliffs that have no cause to be so steep, and bathing-places, and scarcely freckled sands, where towns may lay their drain-pipes undisturbed. In short, to have rounded that headland from the north is as good as to turn the corner of a garden wall in March, and pass from a buffeted back, and bare shivers, to a sunny front of hope all as busy as a bee, with pears spurring forward into creamy buds of promise, peach-trees already in a flush of tasselled pink, and the green lobe of the apricot shedding the snowy bloom.

Below this point the gallant skipper of the British collier, slouching with a heavy load of grime for London, or waddling back in ballast to his native North, alike is delighted to discover storms ahead, and to cast his tarry anchor into soft gray calm. For here shall he find the good shelter of friends like-minded with himself, and of hospitable turn, having no cause to hurry any more than he has, all too wise to command their own ships; and here will they all jollify together while the sky holds a cloud or the locker a drop. Nothing here can shake their ships, except a violent east wind, against which they wet the other eye; lazy boats visit them with comfort and delight, while white waves are leaping, in the offing; they cherish their well-earned rest, and eat the lotus — or rather the onion — and drink ambrosial grog; they lean upon the bulwarks, and contemplate their shadows — the noblest possible employment for mankind — and lo! if they care to lift their eyes, in the south shines the quay of Bridlington, inland the long ridge of Priory stands high, and westward in a nook, if they level well a clear glass (after holding on the slope so many steamy ones), they may espy Anerley Farm, and sometimes Mary Anerley herself.

For she, when the ripple of the tide is fresh, and the glance of the summer morn glistening on the sands, also if a little rocky basin happens to be fit for shrimping, and only some sleepy ships at anchor in the distance look at her, fearless she — because all sailors are generally down at breakfast — tucks up her skirt and gayly runs upon the accustomed play-ground, with her pony left to wait for her. The pony is old, while she is young (although she was born before him), and now he belies his name, “Lord Keppel,” by starting at every soft glimmer of the sea. Therefore now he is left to roam at his leisure above high-water mark, poking his nose into black dry weed, probing the winnow casts of yellow drift for oats, and snorting disappointment through a gritty dance of sand-hoppers.

Mary has brought him down the old “Dane’s Dike” for society rather than service, and to strengthen his nerves with the dew of the salt, for the sake of her Jack who loved him. He may do as he likes, as he always does. If his conscience allows him to walk home, no one will think the less of him. Having very little conscience at his time of life (after so much contact with mankind), he considers convenience only. To go home would suit him very well, but his crib would be empty till his young mistress came; moreover, there is a little dog that plagues him when his door is open; and in spite of old age, it is something to be free, and in spite of all experience, to hope for something good. Therefore Lord Keppel is as faithful as the rocks; he lifts his long heavy head, and gazes wistfully at the anchored ships, and Mary is sure that the darling pines for his absent master.

But she, with the multitudinous tingle of youth, runs away rejoicing. The buoyant power and brilliance of the morning are upon her, and the air of the bright sea lifts and spreads her, like a pillowy skate’s egg. The polish of the wet sand flickers like veneer of maple-wood at every quick touch of her dancing feet. Her dancing feet are as light as nature and high spirits made them, not only quit of spindle heels, but even free from shoes and socks left high and dry on the shingle. And lighter even than the dancing feet the merry heart is dancing, laughing at the shadows of its own delight; while the radiance of blue eyes springs like a fount of brighter heaven; and the sunny hair falls, flows, or floats, to provoke the wind for playmate.

Such a pretty sight was good to see for innocence and largeness. So the buoyancy of nature springs anew in those who have been weary, when they see her brisk power inspiring the young, who never stand still to think of her, but are up and away with her, where she will, at the breath of her subtle encouragement.

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