Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter IX

Robin Cockscroft

Nothing ever was allowed to stop Mrs. Anerley from seeing to the bedrooms. She kept them airing for about three hours at this time of the sun-stitch — as she called all the doings of the sun upon the sky — and then there was pushing, and probing, and tossing, and pulling, and thumping, and kneading of knuckles, till the rib of every feather was aching; and then (like dough before the fire) every well-belabored tick was left to yeast itself a while. Winnie, the maid, was as strong as a post, and wore them all out in bed-making. Carroway heard the beginning of this noise, but none of it meddled at all with his comfort; he lay back nicely in a happy fit of chair, stretched his legs well upon a bench, and nodded, keeping slow time with the breathings of his pipe, and drawing a vapory dream of ease. He had fared many stony miles afoot that morning; and feet, legs, and body were now less young than they used to be once upon a time. Looking up sleepily, the captain had idea of a pretty young face hanging over him, and a soft voice saying, “It was me who did it all,” which was very good grammar in those days; “will you forgive me? But I could not help it, and you must have been sorry to shoot him.”

“Shoot every body who attempts to land,” the weary man ordered, drowsily. “Mattie, once more, you are not to dust my pistols.”

“I could not be happy without telling you the truth,” the soft voice continued, “because I told you such a dreadful story. And now — Oh! here comes mother!”

“What has come over you this morning, child? You do the most extraordinary things, and now you can not let the captain rest. Go round and look for eggs this very moment. You will want to be playing fine music next. Now, captain, I am at your service, if you please, unless you feel too sleepy.”

“Mistress Anerley, I never felt more wide-awake in all my life. We of the service must snatch a wink whenever we can, but with one eye open; and it is not often that we see such charming sights.”

The farmer’s wife having set the beds to “plump,” had stolen a look at the glass, and put on her second-best Sunday cap, in honor of a real officer; and she looked very nice indeed, especially when she received a compliment. But she had seen too much of life to be disturbed thereby.

“Ah, Captain Carroway, what ways you have of getting on with simple people, while you are laughing all the time at them! It comes of the foreign war experience, going on so long that in the end we shall all be foreigners. But one place there is that you never can conquer, nor Boneypart himself, to my belief.”

“Ah, you mean Flamborough — Flamborough, yes! It is a nest of cockatrices.”

“Captain, it is nothing of the sort. It is the most honest place in all the world. A man may throw a guinea on the crossroads in the night, and have it back from Dr. Upandown any time within seven years. You ought to know by this time what they are, hard as it is to get among them.”

“I only know that they can shut their mouths; and the devil himself — I beg your pardon, madam — Old Nick himself never could unscrew them.”

“You are right, Sir. I know their manner well. They are open as the sky with one another, but close as the grave to all the world outside them, and most of all to people of authority like you.”

“Mistress Anerley, you have just hit it. Not a word can I get out of them. The name of the king — God bless him! — seems to have no weight among them.”

“And you can not get at them, Sir, by any dint of money, or even by living in the midst of them. The only way to do it is by kin of blood, or marriage. And that is how I come to know more about them than almost any body else outside. My master can scarcely win a word of them even, kind as he is, and well-spoken; and neither might I, though my tongue was tenfold, if it were not for Joan Cockscroft. But being Joan’s cousin, I am like one of themselves.”

“Cockscroft! Cockscroft? I have heard that name. Do they keep the public-house there?”

The lieutenant was now on the scent of duty, and assumed his most knowing air, the sole effect of which was to put every body upon guard against him. For this was a man of no subtlety, but straightforward, downright, and ready to believe; and his cleverest device was to seem to disbelieve.

“The Cockscrofts keep no public-house,” Mrs. Anerley answered, with a little flush of pride. “Why, she was half-niece to my own grandmother, and never was beer in the family. Not that it would have been wrong, if it was. Captain, you are thinking of Widow Precious, licensed to the Cod with the hook in his gills. I should have thought, Sir, that you might have known a little more of your neighbors having fallen below the path of life by reason of bad bank-tokens. Banking came up in her parts like dog-madness, as it might have done here, if our farmers were the fools to handle their cash with gloves on. And Joan became robbed by the fault of her trustees, the very best bakers in Scarborough, though Robin never married her for it, thank God! Still it was very sad, and scarcely bears describing of, and pulled them in the crook of this world’s swing to a lower pitch than if they had robbed the folk that robbed and ruined them. And Robin so was driven to the fish again, which he always had hankered after. It must have been before you heard of this coast, captain, and before the long war was so hard on us, that every body about these parts was to double his bags by banking, and no man was right to pocket his own guineas, for fear of his own wife feeling them. And bitterly such were paid out for their cowardice and swindling of their own bosoms.”

“I have heard of it often, and it served them right. Master Anerley knew where his money was safe, ma’am!”

“Neither Captain Robin Cockscroft nor his wife was in any way to blame,” answered Mrs. Anerley. “I have framed my mind to tell you about them; and I will do it truly, if I am not interrupted. Two hammers never yet drove a nail straight, and I make a rule of silence when my betters wish to talk.”

“Madam, you remind me of my own wife. She asks me a question, and she will not let me answer.”

“That is the only way I know of getting on. Mistress Carroway must understand you, captain. I was at the point of telling you how my cousin Joan was married, before her money went, and when she was really good-looking. I was quite a child, and ran along the shore to see it. It must have been in the high summer-time, with the weather fit for bathing, and the sea as smooth as a duck-pond. And Captain Robin, being well-to-do, and established with every thing except a wife, and pleased with the pretty smile and quiet ways of Joan — for he never had heard of her money, mind — put his oar into the sea and rowed from Flamborough all the way to Filey Brigg, with thirty-five fishermen after him; for the Flamborough people make a point of seeing one another through their troubles. And Robin was known for the handsomest man and the uttermost fisher of the landing, with three boats of his own, and good birth, and long sea-lines. And there at once they found my cousin Joan, with her trustees, come overland, four wagons and a cart in all of them; and after they were married, they burned sea-weed, having no fear in those days of invasions. And a merry day they made of it, and rowed back by the moonshine. For every one liked and respected Captain Cockscroft on account of his skill with the deep-sea lines, and the openness of his hands when full — a wonderful quiet and harmless man, as the manner is of all great fishermen. They had bacon for breakfast whenever they liked, and a guinea to lend to any body in distress.

“Then suddenly one morning, when his hair was growing gray and his eyes getting weary of the night work, so that he said his young Robin must grow big enough to learn all the secrets of the fishes, while his father took a spell in the blankets, suddenly there came to them a shocking piece of news. All his wife’s bit of money, and his own as well, which he had been putting by from year to year, was lost in a new-fangled Bank, supposed as faithful as the Bible. Joan was very nearly crazed about it; but Captain Cockscroft never heaved a sigh, though they say it was nearly seven hundred guineas. ‘There are fish enough still in the sea,’ he said; ‘and the Lord has spared our children. I will build a new boat, and not think of feather-beds.’

“Captain Carroway, he did so, and every body knows what befell him. The new boat, built with his own hands, was called the Mercy Robin, for his only son and daughter, little Mercy and poor Robin. The boat is there as bright as ever, scarlet within and white outside; but the name is painted off, because the little dears are in their graves. Two nicer children were never seen, clever, and sprightly, and good to learn; they never even took a common bird’s nest, I have heard, but loved all the little things the Lord has made, as if with a foreknowledge of going early home to Him. Their father came back very tired one morning, and went up the hill to his breakfast, and the children got into the boat and pushed off, in imitation of their daddy. It came on to blow, as it does down there, without a single whiff of warning; and when Robin awoke for his middle-day meal, the bodies of his little ones were lying on the table. And from that very day Captain Cockscroft and his wife began to grow old very quickly. The boat was recovered without much damage; and in it he sits by the hour on dry land, whenever there is no one on the cliffs to see him, with his hands upon his lap, and his eyes upon the place where his dear little children used to sit. Because he has always taken whatever fell upon him gently; and of course that makes it ever so much worse when he dwells upon the things that come inside of him.”

“Madam, you make me feel quite sorry for him,” the lieutenant exclaimed, as she began to cry, “If even one of my little ones was drowned, I declare to you, I can not tell what I should be like. And to lose them all at once, and as his own wife perhaps would say, because he was thinking of his breakfast! And when he had been robbed, and the world all gone against him! Madam, it is a long time, thank God, since I heard so sad a tale.”

“Now you would not, captain, I am sure you would not,” said Mistress Anerley, getting up a smile, yet freshening his perception of a tear as well —“you would never have the heart to destroy that poor old couple by striking the last prop from under them. By the will of the Lord they are broken down enough. They are quietly hobbling to their graves, and would you be the man to come and knock them on their heads at once?”

“Mistress Anerley, have you ever heard that I am a brute and inhuman? Madam, I have no less than seven children, and I hope to have fourteen.”

“I hope with all my heart you may. And you will deserve them all, for promising so very kindly not to shoot poor Robin Lyth.”

“Robin Lyth! I never spoke of him, madam. He is outlawed, condemned, with a fine reward upon him. We shot at him today; we shall shoot at him again; and before very long we must hit him. Ma’am, it is my duty to the king, the Constitution, the service I belong to, and the babes I have begotten.”

“Blood-money poisons all innocent mouths, Sir, and breaks out for generations. And for it you will have to take three lives — Robin’s, the captain’s, and my dear old cousin Joan’s.”

“Mistress Anerley, you deprive me of all satisfaction. It is just my luck, when my duty was so plain, and would pay so well for doing of.”

“Listen now, captain. It is my opinion, and I am generally borne out by the end, that instead of a hundred pounds for killing Robin Lyth, you may get a thousand for preserving him alive. Do you know how he came upon this coast, and how he has won his extraordinary name?”

“I have certainly heard rumors; scarcely any two alike. But I took no heed of them. My duty was to catch him; and it mattered not a straw to me who or what he was. But now I must really beg to know all about him, and what makes you think such things of him. Why should that excellent old couple hang upon him? and what can make him worth such a quantity of money? Honestly, of course, I mean; honestly worth it, ma’am, without any cheating of his Majesty.”

“Captain Carroway,” his hostess said, not without a little blush, as she thought of the king and his revenue, “cheating of his Majesty is a thing we leave for others. But if you wish to hear the story of that young man, so far as known, which is not so even in Flamborough, you must please to come on Sunday, Sir; for Sunday is the only day that I can spare for clacking, as the common people say. I must be off now; I have fifty things to see to. And on Sunday my master has his best things on, and loves no better than to sit with his legs up, and a long clay pipe lying on him down below his waist (or, to speak more correctly, where it used to be, as he might, indeed, almost say the very same to me), and then not to speak a word, but hear other folk tell stories, that might not have made such a dinner as himself. And as for dinner, Sir, if you will do the honor to dine with them that are no more than in the Volunteers, a saddle of good mutton fit for the Body–Guards to ride upon, the men with the skins around them all turned up, will be ready just at one o’clock, if the parson lets us out.”

“My dear madam, I shall scarcely care to look at any slice of victuals until one o’clock on Sunday, by reason of looking forward.”

After all, this was not such a gross exaggeration, Anerley Farm being famous for its cheer; whereas the poor lieutenant, at the best of times, had as much as he could do to make both ends meet; and his wife, though a wonderful manager, could give him no better than coarse bread, and almost coarser meat.

“And, Sir, if your good lady would oblige us also —”

“No, madam, no!” he cried, with vigorous decision, having found many festive occasions spoiled by excess of loving vigilance; “we thank you most truly; but I must say ‘no.’ She would jump at the chance; but a husband must consider. You may have heard it mentioned that the Lord is now considering about the production of an eighth little Carroway.”

“Captain, I have not, or I should not so have spoken. But with all my heart I wish you joy.”

“I have pleasure, I assure you, in the prospect, Mistress Anerley. My friends make wry faces, but I blow them away, ‘Tush,’ I say, ‘tush, Sir; at the rate we now are fighting, and exhausting all British material, there can not be too many, Sir, of mettle such as mine!’ What do you say to that, madam?”

“Sir, I believe it is the Lord’s own truth. And true it is also that our country should do more to support the brave hearts that fight for it.”

Mrs. Anerley sighed, for she thought of her younger son, by his own perversity launched into the thankless peril of fighting England’s battles. His death at any time might come home, if any kind person should take the trouble even to send news of it; or he might lie at the bottom of the sea unknown, even while they were talking. But Carroway buttoned up his coat and marched, after a pleasant and kind farewell. In the course of hard service he had seen much grief, and suffered plenty of bitterness, and he knew that it is not the part of a man to multiply any of his troubles but children. He went about his work, and he thought of all his comforts, which need not have taken very long to count, but he added to their score by not counting them, and by the self-same process diminished that of troubles. And thus, upon the whole, he deserved his Sunday dinner, and the tale of his hostess after it, not a word of which Mary was allowed to hear, for some subtle reason of her mother’s. But the farmer heard it all, and kept interrupting so, when his noddings and the joggings of his pipe allowed, or, perhaps one should say, compelled him, that merely for the courtesy of saving common time it is better now to set it down without them. Moreover, there are many things well worthy of production which she did not produce, for reasons which are now no hinderance. And the foremost of those reasons is that the lady did not know the things; the second that she could not tell them clearly as a man might; and the third, and best of all, that if she could, she would not do so. In which she certainly was quite right; for it would have become her very badly, as the cousin of Joan Cockscroft (half removed, and upon the mother’s side), and therefore kindly received at Flamborough, and admitted into the inner circle, and allowed to buy fish at wholesale prices, if she had turned round upon all these benefits, and described all the holes to be found in the place, for the teaching of a revenue officer.

Still, it must be clearly understood that the nature of the people is fishing. They never were known to encourage free-trading, but did their very utmost to protect themselves; and if they had produced the very noblest free-trader, born before the time of Mr. Cobden, neither the credit nor the blame was theirs.

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