Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter II

Home from Greenland

One hot day, early in October of the year 1796, two girls set off from their country homes to Monkshaven to sell their butter and eggs, for they were both farmers’ daughters, though rather in different circumstances; for Molly Corney was one of a large family of children, and had to rough it accordingly; Sylvia Robson was an only child, and was much made of in more people’s estimation than Mary’s by her elderly parents. They had each purchases to make after their sales were effected, as sales of butter and eggs were effected in those days by the market-women sitting on the steps of the great old mutilated cross till a certain hour in the afternoon, after which, if all their goods were not disposed of, they took them unwillingly to the shops and sold them at a lower price. But good housewives did not despise coming themselves to the Butter Cross, and, smelling and depreciating the articles they wanted, kept up a perpetual struggle of words, trying, often in vain, to beat down prices. A housekeeper of the last century would have thought that she did not know her business, if she had not gone through this preliminary process; and the farmers’ wives and daughters treated it all as a matter of course, replying with a good deal of independent humour to the customer, who, once having discovered where good butter and fresh eggs were to be sold, came time after time to depreciate the articles she always ended in taking. There was leisure for all this kind of work in those days.

Molly had tied a knot on her pink-spotted handkerchief for each of the various purchases she had to make; dull but important articles needed for the week’s consumption at home; if she forgot any one of them she knew she was sure of a good ‘rating’ from her mother. The number of them made her pocket-handkerchief look like one of the nine-tails of a ‘cat;’ but not a single thing was for herself, nor, indeed, for any one individual of her numerous family. There was neither much thought nor much money to spend for any but collective wants in the Corney family.

It was different with Sylvia. She was going to choose her first cloak, not to have an old one of her mother’s, that had gone down through two sisters, dyed for the fourth time (and Molly would have been glad had even this chance been hers), but to buy a bran-new duffle cloak all for herself, with not even an elder authority to curb her as to price, only Molly to give her admiring counsel, and as much sympathy as was consistent with a little patient envy of Sylvia’s happier circumstances. Every now and then they wandered off from the one grand subject of thought, but Sylvia, with unconscious art, soon brought the conversation round to the fresh consideration of the respective merits of gray and scarlet. These girls were walking bare-foot and carrying their shoes and stockings in their hands during the first part of their way; but as they were drawing near Monkshaven they stopped, and turned aside along a foot-path that led from the main-road down to the banks of the Dee. There were great stones in the river about here, round which the waters gathered and eddied and formed deep pools. Molly sate down on the grassy bank to wash her feet; but Sylvia, more active (or perhaps lighter-hearted with the notion of the cloak in the distance), placed her basket on a gravelly bit of shore, and, giving a long spring, seated herself on a stone almost in the middle of the stream. Then she began dipping her little rosy toes in the cool rushing water and whisking them out with childish glee.

‘Be quiet, wi’ the’, Sylvia? Thou’st splashing me all ower, and my feyther’ll noane be so keen o’ giving me a new cloak as thine is, seemingly.’

Sylvia was quiet, not to say penitent, in a moment. She drew up her feet instantly; and, as if to take herself out of temptation, she turned away from Molly to that side of her stony seat on which the current ran shallow, and broken by pebbles. But once disturbed in her play, her thoughts reverted to the great subject of the cloak. She was now as still as a minute before she had been full of frolic and gambolling life. She had tucked herself up on the stone, as if it had been a cushion, and she a little sultana.

Molly was deliberately washing her feet and drawing on her stockings, when she heard a sudden sigh, and her companion turned round so as to face her, and said,

‘I wish mother hadn’t spoken up for t’ gray.’

‘Why, Sylvia, thou wert saying as we topped t’brow, as she did nought but bid thee think twice afore settling on scarlet.’

‘Ay! but mother’s words are scarce, and weigh heavy. Feyther’s liker me, and we talk a deal o’ rubble; but mother’s words are liker to hewn stone. She puts a deal o’ meaning in ’em. And then,’ said Sylvia, as if she was put out by the suggestion, ‘she bid me ask cousin Philip for his opinion. I hate a man as has getten an opinion on such-like things.’

‘Well! we shall niver get to Monkshaven this day, either for to sell our eggs and stuff, or to buy thy cloak, if we’re sittin’ here much longer. T’ sun’s for slanting low, so come along, lass, and let’s be going.’

‘But if I put on my stockings and shoon here, and jump back into yon wet gravel, I ‘se not be fit to be seen,’ said Sylvia, in a pathetic tone of bewilderment, that was funnily childlike. She stood up, her bare feet curved round the curving surface of the stone, her slight figure balancing as if in act to spring.

‘Thou knows thou’ll have just to jump back barefoot, and wash thy feet afresh, without making all that ado; thou shouldst ha’ done it at first, like me, and all other sensible folk. But thou’st getten no gumption.’

Molly’s mouth was stopped by Sylvia’s hand. She was already on the river bank by her friend’s side.

‘Now dunnot lecture me; I’m none for a sermon hung on every peg o’ words. I’m going to have a new cloak, lass, and I cannot heed thee if thou dost lecture. Thou shall have all the gumption, and I’ll have my cloak.’

It may be doubted whether Molly thought this an equal division.

Each girl wore tightly-fitting stockings, knit by her own hands, of the blue worsted common in that country; they had on neat high-heeled black leather shoes, coming well over the instep, and fastened as well as ornamented with bright steel buckles. They did not walk so lightly and freely now as they did before they were shod, but their steps were still springy with the buoyancy of early youth; for neither of them was twenty, indeed I believe Sylvia was not more than seventeen at this time.

They clambered up the steep grassy path, with brambles catching at their kilted petticoats, through the copse-wood, till they regained the high road; and then they ‘settled themselves,’ as they called it; that is to say, they took off their black felt hats, and tied up their clustering hair afresh; they shook off every speck of wayside dust; straightened the little shawls (or large neck-kerchiefs, call them which you will) that were spread over their shoulders, pinned below the throat, and confined at the waist by their apron-strings; and then putting on their hats again, and picking up their baskets, they prepared to walk decorously into the town of Monkshaven.

The next turn of the road showed them the red peaked roofs of the closely packed houses lying almost directly below the hill on which they were. The full autumn sun brought out the ruddy colour of the tiled gables, and deepened the shadows in the narrow streets. The narrow harbour at the mouth of the river was crowded with small vessels of all descriptions, making an intricate forest of masts. Beyond lay the sea, like a flat pavement of sapphire, scarcely a ripple varying its sunny surface, that stretched out leagues away till it blended with the softened azure of the sky. On this blue trackless water floated scores of white-sailed fishing boats, apparently motionless, unless you measured their progress by some land-mark; but still, and silent, and distant as they seemed, the consciousness that there were men on board, each going forth into the great deep, added unspeakably to the interest felt in watching them. Close to the bar of the river Dee a larger vessel lay to. Sylvia, who had only recently come into the neighbourhood, looked at this with the same quiet interest as she did at all the others; but Molly, as soon as her eye caught the build of it, cried out aloud —

‘She’s a whaler! she’s a whaler home from t’ Greenland seas! T’ first this season! God bless her!’ and she turned round and shook both Sylvia’s hands in the fulness of her excitement. Sylvia’s colour rose, and her eyes sparkled out of sympathy.

‘Is ta sure?’ she asked, breathless in her turn; for though she did not know by the aspect of the different ships on what trade they were bound, yet she was well aware of the paramount interest attached to whaling vessels.

‘Three o’clock! and it’s not high water till five!’ said Molly. ‘If we’re sharp we can sell our eggs, and be down to the staithes before she comes into port. Be sharp, lass!’

And down the steep long hill they went at a pace that was almost a run. A run they dared not make it; and as it was, the rate at which they walked would have caused destruction among eggs less carefully packed. When the descent was ended, there was yet the long narrow street before them, bending and swerving from the straight line, as it followed the course of the river. The girls felt as if they should never come to the market-place, which was situated at the crossing of Bridge Street and High Street. There the old stone cross was raised by the monks long ago; now worn and mutilated, no one esteemed it as a holy symbol, but only as the Butter Cross, where market-women clustered on Wednesday, and whence the town crier made all his proclamations of household sales, things lost or found, beginning with ‘Oh! yes, oh! yes, oh! yes!’ and ending with ‘God bless the king and the lord of this manor,’ and a very brisk ‘Amen,’ before he went on his way and took off the livery-coat, the colours of which marked him as a servant of the Burnabys, the family who held manorial rights over Monkshaven.

Of course the much frequented space surrounding the Butter Cross was the favourite centre for shops; and on this day, a fine market day, just when good housewives begin to look over their winter store of blankets and flannels, and discover their needs betimes, these shops ought to have had plenty of customers. But they were empty and of even quieter aspect than their every-day wont. The three-legged creepie-stools that were hired out at a penny an hour to such market-women as came too late to find room on the steps were unoccupied; knocked over here and there, as if people had passed by in haste.

Molly took in all at a glance, and interpreted the signs, though she had no time to explain their meaning, and her consequent course of action, to Sylvia, but darted into a corner shop.

‘T’ whalers is coming home! There’s one lying outside t’ bar!’

This was put in the form of an assertion; but the tone was that of eager cross-questioning.

‘Ay!’ said a lame man, mending fishing-nets behind a rough deal counter. ‘She’s come back airly, and she’s brought good news o’ t’ others, as I’ve heered say. Time was I should ha’ been on th’ staithes throwing up my cap wit’ t’ best on ’em; but now it pleases t’ Lord to keep me at home, and set me to mind other folks’ gear. See thee, wench, there’s a vast o’ folk ha’ left their skeps o’ things wi’ me while they’re away down to t’ quay side. Leave me your eggs and be off wi’ ye for t’ see t’ fun, for mebbe ye’ll live to be palsied yet, and then ye’ll be fretting ower spilt milk, and that ye didn’t tak’ all chances when ye was young. Ay, well! they’re out o’ hearin’ o’ my moralities; I’d better find a lamiter like mysen to preach to, for it’s not iverybody has t’ luck t’ clargy has of saying their say out whether folks likes it or not.’

He put the baskets carefully away with much of such talk as this addressed to himself while he did so. Then he sighed once or twice; and then he took the better course and began to sing over his tarry work.

Molly and Sylvia were far along the staithes by the time he got to this point of cheerfulness. They ran on, regardless of stitches and pains in the side; on along the river bank to where the concourse of people was gathered. There was no great length of way between the Butter Cross and the harbour; in five minutes the breathless girls were close together in the best place they could get for seeing, on the outside of the crowd; and in as short a time longer they were pressed inwards, by fresh arrivals, into the very midst of the throng. All eyes were directed to the ship, beating her anchor just outside the bar, not a quarter of a mile away. The custom-house officer was just gone aboard of her to receive the captain’s report of his cargo, and make due examination. The men who had taken him out in his boat were rowing back to the shore, and brought small fragments of news when they landed a little distance from the crowd, which moved as one man to hear what was to be told. Sylvia took a hard grasp of the hand of the older and more experienced Molly, and listened open-mouthed to the answers she was extracting from a gruff old sailor she happened to find near her.

‘What ship is she?’

‘T’ Resolution of Monkshaven!’ said he, indignantly, as if any goose might have known that.

‘An’ a good Resolution, and a blessed ship she’s been to me,’ piped out an old woman, close at Mary’s elbow. ‘She’s brought me home my ae’ lad — for he shouted to yon boatman to bid him tell me he was well. ‘Tell Peggy Christison,’ says he (my name is Margaret Christison)—‘tell Peggy Christison as her son Hezekiah is come back safe and sound.’ The Lord’s name be praised! An’ me a widow as never thought to see my lad again!’

It seemed as if everybody relied on every one else’s sympathy in that hour of great joy.

‘I ax pardon, but if you’d gie me just a bit of elbow-room for a minute like, I’d hold my babby up, so that he might see daddy’s ship, and happen, my master might see him. He’s four months old last Tuesday se’nnight, and his feyther’s never clapt eyne on him yet, and he wi’ a tooth through, an another just breaking, bless him!’

One or two of the better end of the Monkshaven inhabitants stood a little before Molly and Sylvia; and as they moved in compliance with the young mother’s request, they overheard some of the information these ship-owners had received from the boatman.

‘Haynes says they’ll send the manifest of the cargo ashore in twenty minutes, as soon as Fishburn has looked over the casks. Only eight whales, according to what he says.’

‘No one can tell,’ said the other, ‘till the manifest comes to hand.’

‘I’m afraid he’s right. But he brings a good report of the Good Fortune. She’s off St Abb’s Head, with something like fifteen whales to her share.’

‘We shall see how much is true, when she comes in.’

‘That’ll be by the afternoon tide tomorrow.’

‘That’s my cousin’s ship,’ said Molly to Sylvia. ‘He’s specksioneer on board the Good Fortune.’

An old man touched her as she spoke —

‘I humbly make my manners, missus, but I’m stone blind; my lad’s aboard yon vessel outside t’ bar; and my old woman is bed-fast. Will she be long, think ye, in making t’ harbour? Because, if so be as she were, I’d just make my way back, and speak a word or two to my missus, who’ll be boiling o’er into some mak o’ mischief now she knows he’s so near. May I be so bold as to ax if t’ Crooked Negro is covered yet?’

Molly stood on tip-toe to try and see the black stone thus named; but Sylvia, stooping and peeping through the glimpses afforded between the arms of the moving people, saw it first, and told the blind old man it was still above water.

‘A watched pot,’ said he, ‘ne’er boils, I reckon. It’s ta’en a vast o’ watter t’ cover that stone today. Anyhow, I’ll have time to go home and rate my missus for worritin’ hersen, as I’ll be bound she’s done, for all as I bade her not, but to keep easy and content.’

‘We’d better be off too,’ said Molly, as an opening was made through the press to let out the groping old man. ‘Eggs and butter is yet to sell, and tha’ cloak to be bought.’

‘Well, I suppose we had!’ said Sylvia, rather regretfully; for, though all the way into Monkshaven her head had been full of the purchase of this cloak, yet she was of that impressible nature that takes the tone of feeling from those surrounding; and though she knew no one on board the Resolution, she was just as anxious for the moment to see her come into harbour as any one in the crowd who had a dear relation on board. So she turned reluctantly to follow the more prudent Molly along the quay back to the Butter Cross.

It was a pretty scene, though it was too familiar to the eyes of all who then saw it for them to notice its beauty. The sun was low enough in the west to turn the mist that filled the distant valley of the river into golden haze. Above, on either bank of the Dee, there lay the moorland heights swelling one behind the other; the nearer, russet brown with the tints of the fading bracken; the more distant, gray and dim against the rich autumnal sky. The red and fluted tiles of the gabled houses rose in crowded irregularity on one side of the river, while the newer suburb was built in more orderly and less picturesque fashion on the opposite cliff. The river itself was swelling and chafing with the incoming tide till its vexed waters rushed over the very feet of the watching crowd on the staithes, as the great sea waves encroached more and more every minute. The quay-side was unsavourily ornamented with glittering fish-scales, for the hauls of fish were cleansed in the open air, and no sanitary arrangements existed for sweeping away any of the relics of this operation.

The fresh salt breeze was bringing up the lashing, leaping tide from the blue sea beyond the bar. Behind the returning girls there rocked the white-sailed ship, as if she were all alive with eagerness for her anchors to be heaved.

How impatient her crew of beating hearts were for that moment, how those on land sickened at the suspense, may be imagined, when you remember that for six long summer months those sailors had been as if dead from all news of those they loved; shut up in terrible, dreary Arctic seas from the hungry sight of sweethearts and friends, wives and mothers. No one knew what might have happened. The crowd on shore grew silent and solemn before the dread of the possible news of death that might toll in upon their hearts with this uprushing tide. The whalers went out into the Greenland seas full of strong, hopeful men; but the whalers never returned as they sailed forth. On land there are deaths among two or three hundred men to be mourned over in every half-year’s space of time. Whose bones had been left to blacken on the gray and terrible icebergs? Who lay still until the sea should give up its dead? Who were those who should come back to Monkshaven never, no, never more?

Many a heart swelled with passionate, unspoken fear, as the first whaler lay off the bar on her return voyage.

Molly and Sylvia had left the crowd in this hushed suspense. But fifty yards along the staithe they passed five or six girls with flushed faces and careless attire, who had mounted a pile of timber, placed there to season for ship-building, from which, as from the steps of a ladder or staircase, they could command the harbour. They were wild and free in their gestures, and held each other by the hand, and swayed from side to side, stamping their feet in time, as they sang —

Weel may the keel row, the keel row, the keel row,
Weel may the keel row that my laddie’s in!

‘What for are ye going off, now?’ they called out to our two girls. ‘She’ll be in in ten minutes!’ and without waiting for the answer which never came, they resumed their song.

Old sailors stood about in little groups, too proud to show their interest in the adventures they could no longer share, but quite unable to keep up any semblance of talk on indifferent subjects.

The town seemed very quiet and deserted as Molly and Sylvia entered the dark, irregular Bridge Street, and the market-place was as empty of people as before. But the skeps and baskets and three-legged stools were all cleared away.

‘Market’s over for today,’ said Molly Corney, in disappointed surprise. ‘We mun make the best on’t, and sell to t’ huxters, and a hard bargain they’ll be for driving. I doubt mother’ll be vexed.’

She and Sylvia went to the corner shop to reclaim their baskets. The man had his joke at them for their delay.

‘Ay, ay! lasses as has sweethearts a-coming home don’t care much what price they get for butter and eggs! I dare say, now, there’s some un in yon ship that ‘ud give as much as a shilling a pound for this butter if he only knowed who churned it!’ This was to Sylvia, as he handed her back her property.

The fancy-free Sylvia reddened, pouted, tossed back her head, and hardly deigned a farewell word of thanks or civility to the lame man; she was at an age to be affronted by any jokes on such a subject. Molly took the joke without disclaimer and without offence. She rather liked the unfounded idea of her having a sweetheart, and was rather surprised to think how devoid of foundation the notion was. If she could have a new cloak as Sylvia was going to have, then, indeed, there might be a chance! Until some such good luck, it was as well to laugh and blush as if the surmise of her having a lover was not very far from the truth, and so she replied in something of the same strain as the lame net-maker to his joke about the butter.

‘He’ll need it all, and more too, to grease his tongue, if iver he reckons to win me for his wife!’

When they were out of the shop, Sylvia said, in a coaxing tone —

‘Molly, who is it? Whose tongue ‘ll need greasing? Just tell me, and I’ll never tell!’

She was so much in earnest that Molly was perplexed. She did not quite like saying that she had alluded to no one in particular, only to a possible sweetheart, so she began to think what young man had made the most civil speeches to her in her life; the list was not a long one to go over, for her father was not so well off as to make her sought after for her money, and her face was rather of the homeliest. But she suddenly remembered her cousin, the specksioneer, who had given her two large shells, and taken a kiss from her half-willing lips before he went to sea the last time. So she smiled a little, and then said —

‘Well! I dunno. It’s ill talking o’ these things afore one has made up one’s mind. And perhaps if Charley Kinraid behaves hissen, I might be brought to listen.’

‘Charley Kinraid! who’s he?’

‘Yon specksioneer cousin o’ mine, as I was talking on.’

‘And do yo’ think he cares for yo’?’ asked Sylvia, in a low, tender tone, as if touching on a great mystery.

Molly only said, ‘Be quiet wi’ yo’,’ and Sylvia could not make out whether she cut the conversation so short because she was offended, or because they had come to the shop where they had to sell their butter and eggs.

‘Now, Sylvia, if thou’ll leave me thy basket, I’ll make as good a bargain as iver I can on ’em; and thou can be off to choose this grand new cloak as is to be, afore it gets any darker. Where is ta going to?’

‘Mother said I’d better go to Foster’s,’ answered Sylvia, with a shade of annoyance in her face. ‘Feyther said just anywhere.’

‘Foster’s is t’ best place; thou canst try anywhere afterwards. I’ll be at Foster’s in five minutes, for I reckon we mun hasten a bit now. It’ll be near five o’clock.’

Sylvia hung her head and looked very demure as she walked off by herself to Foster’s shop in the market-place.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18