Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXIII

Retaliation

The public-house that had been chosen by the leaders of the press-gang in Monkshaven at this time, for their rendezvous (or ‘Randyvowse’, as it was generally pronounced), was an inn of poor repute, with a yard at the back which opened on to the staithe or quay nearest to the open sea. A strong high stone wall bounded this grass-grown mouldy yard on two sides; the house, and some unused out-buildings, formed the other two. The choice of the place was good enough, both as to situation, which was sufficiently isolated, and yet near to the widening river; and as to the character of the landlord, John Hobbs was a failing man, one who seemed as if doomed to be unfortunate in all his undertakings, and the consequence of all this was that he was envious of the more prosperous, and willing to do anything that might bring him in a little present success in life. His household consisted of his wife, her niece, who acted as servant, and an out-of-doors man, a brother of Ned Simpson, the well-doing butcher, who at one time had had a fancy for Sylvia. But the one brother was prosperous, the other had gone on sinking in life, like him who was now his master. Neither Hobbs nor his man Simpson were absolutely bad men; if things had gone well with them they might each have been as scrupulous and conscientious as their neighbours, and even now, supposing the gain in money to be equal, they would sooner have done good than evil; but a very small sum was enough to turn the balance. And in a greater degree than in most cases was the famous maxim of Rochefoucault true with them; for in the misfortunes of their friends they seemed to see some justification of their own. It was blind fate dealing out events, not that the events themselves were the inevitable consequences of folly or misconduct. To such men as these the large sum offered by the lieutenant of the press-gang for the accommodation of the Mariners’ Arms was simply and immediately irresistible. The best room in the dilapidated house was put at the service of the commanding officer of the impress service, and all other arrangements made at his desire, irrespective of all the former unprofitable sources of custom and of business. If the relatives both of Hobbs and of Simpson had not been so well known and so prosperous in the town, they themselves would have received more marks of popular ill opinion than they did during the winter the events of which are now being recorded. As it was, people spoke to them when they appeared at kirk or at market, but held no conversation with them; no, not although they each appeared better dressed than they had either of them done for years past, and although their whole manner showed a change, inasmuch as they had been formerly snarling and misanthropic, and were now civil almost to deprecation.

Every one who was capable of understanding the state of feeling in Monkshaven at this time must have been aware that at any moment an explosion might take place; and probably there were those who had judgment enough to be surprised that it did not take place sooner than it did. For until February there were only occasional cries and growls of rage, as the press-gang made their captures first here, then there; often, apparently, tranquil for days, then heard of at some distance along the coast, then carrying off a seaman from the very heart of the town. They seemed afraid of provoking any general hostility, such as that which had driven them from Shields, and would have conciliated the inhabitants if they could; the officers on the service and on board the three men-of-war coming often into the town, spending largely, talking to all with cheery friendliness, and making themselves very popular in such society as they could obtain access to at the houses of the neighbouring magistrates or at the rectory. But this, however agreeable, did not forward the object the impress service had in view; and, accordingly, a more decided step was taken at a time when, although there was no apparent evidence as to the fact, the town was full of the Greenland mariners coming quietly in to renew their yearly engagements, which, when done, would legally entitle them to protection from impressment. One night — it was on a Saturday, February 23rd, when there was a bitter black frost, with a north-east wind sweeping through the streets, and men and women were close shut in their houses — all were startled in their household content and warmth by the sound of the fire-bell busily swinging, and pealing out for help. The fire-bell was kept in the market-house where High Street and Bridge Street met: every one knew what it meant. Some dwelling, or maybe a boiling-house was on fire, and neighbourly assistance was summoned with all speed, in a town where no water was laid on, nor fire-engines kept in readiness. Men snatched up their hats, and rushed out, wives following, some with the readiest wraps they could lay hands on, with which to clothe the over-hasty husbands, others from that mixture of dread and curiosity which draws people to the scene of any disaster. Those of the market people who were making the best of their way homewards, having waited in the town till the early darkness concealed their path, turned back at the sound of the ever-clanging fire-bell, ringing out faster and faster as if the danger became every instant more pressing.

As men ran against or alongside of each other, their breathless question was ever, ‘Where is it?’ and no one could tell; so they pressed onwards into the market-place, sure of obtaining the information desired there, where the fire-bell kept calling out with its furious metal tongue.

The dull oil-lamps in the adjoining streets only made darkness visible in the thronged market-place, where the buzz of many men’s unanswered questions was rising louder and louder. A strange feeling of dread crept over those nearest to the closed market-house. Above them in the air the bell was still clanging; but before them was a door fast shut and locked; no one to speak and tell them why they were summoned — where they ought to be. They were at the heart of the mystery, and it was a silent blank! Their unformed dread took shape at the cry from the outside of the crowd, from where men were still coming down the eastern side of Bridge Street. ‘The gang! the gang!’ shrieked out some one. ‘The gang are upon us! Help! help!’ Then the fire-bell had been a decoy; a sort of seething the kid in its mother’s milk, leading men into a snare through their kindliest feelings. Some dull sense of this added to utter dismay, and made them struggle and strain to get to all the outlets save that in which a fight was now going on; the swish of heavy whips, the thud of bludgeons, the groans, the growls of wounded or infuriated men, coming with terrible distinctness through the darkness to the quickened ear of fear.

A breathless group rushed up the blackness of a narrow entry to stand still awhile, and recover strength for fresh running. For a time nothing but heavy pants and gasps were heard amongst them. No one knew his neighbour, and their good feeling, so lately abused and preyed upon, made them full of suspicion. The first who spoke was recognized by his voice.

‘Is it thee, Daniel Robson?’ asked his neighbour, in a low tone.

‘Ay! Who else should it be?’

‘A dunno.’

‘If a am to be any one else, I’d like to be a chap of nobbut eight stun. A’m welly done for!’

‘It were as bloody a shame as iver I heerd on. Who’s to go t’ t’ next fire, a’d like to know!’

‘A tell yo’ what, lads,’ said Daniel, recovering his breath, but speaking in gasps. ‘We were a pack o’ cowards to let ’em carry off yon chaps as easy as they did, a’m reckoning!’

‘A think so, indeed,’ said another voice.

Daniel went on —

‘We was two hunder, if we was a man; an’ t’ gang has niver numbered above twelve.’

‘But they was armed. A seen t’ glitter on their cutlasses,’ spoke out a fresh voice.

‘What then!’ replied he who had latest come, and who stood at the mouth of the entry. ‘A had my whalin’ knife wi’ me i’ my pea-jacket as my missus threw at me, and a’d ha’ ripped ’em up as soon as winkin’, if a could ha’ thought what was best to do wi’ that d —— d bell makin’ such a din reet above us. A man can but die onest, and we was ready to go int’ t’ fire for t’ save folks’ lives, and yet we’d none on us t’ wit to see as we might ha’ saved yon poor chaps as screeched out for help.’

‘They’ll ha’ getten ’em to t’ Randyvowse by now,’ said some one.

‘They cannot tak’ ’em aboard till morning; t’ tide won’t serve,’ said the last speaker but one.

Daniel Robson spoke out the thought that was surging up into the brain of every one there.

‘There’s a chance for us a’. How many be we?’ By dint of touching each other the numbers were counted. Seven. ‘Seven. But if us seven turns out and rouses t’ town, there’ll be many a score ready to gang t’ Mariners’ Arms, and it’ll be easy work reskyin’ them chaps as is pressed. Us seven, each man jack on us, go and seek up his friends, and get him as well as he can to t’ church steps; then, mebbe, there’ll be some theere as’ll not be so soft as we was, lettin’ them poor chaps be carried off from under our noses, just becase our ears was busy listenin’ to yon confounded bell, whose clip-clappin’ tongue a’ll tear out afore this week is out.’

Before Daniel had finished speaking, those nearest to the entrance muttered their assent to his project, and had stolen off, keeping to the darkest side of the streets and lanes, which they threaded in different directions; most of them going straight as sleuth-hounds to the haunts of the wildest and most desperate portion of the seafaring population of Monkshaven. For, in the breasts of many, revenge for the misery and alarm of the past winter took a deeper and more ferocious form than Daniel had thought of when he made his proposal of a rescue. To him it was an adventure like many he had been engaged in in his younger days; indeed, the liquor he had drunk had given him a fictitious youth for the time; and it was more in the light of a rough frolic of which he was to be the leader, that he limped along ( always lame from old attacks of rheumatism), chuckling to himself at the apparent stillness of the town, which gave no warning to the press-gang at the Rendezvous of anything in the wind. Daniel, too, had his friends to summon; old hands like himself, but ‘deep uns’, also, like himself, as he imagined.

It was nine o’clock when all who were summoned met at the church steps; and by nine o’clock, Monkshaven, in those days, was more quiet and asleep than many a town at present is at midnight. The church and churchyard above them were flooded with silver light, for the moon was high in the heavens: the irregular steps were here and there in pure white clearness, here and there in blackest shadow. But more than half way up to the top, men clustered like bees; all pressing so as to be near enough to question those who stood nearest to the planning of the attack. Here and there, a woman, with wild gestures and shrill voice, that no entreaty would hush down to the whispered pitch of the men, pushed her way through the crowd — this one imploring immediate action, that adjuring those around her to smite and spare not those who had carried off her ‘man’ — the father, the breadwinner. Low down in the darkened silent town were many whose hearts went with the angry and excited crowd, and who would bless them and caress them for that night’s deeds. Daniel soon found himself a laggard in planning, compared to some of those around him. But when, with the rushing sound of many steps and but few words, they had arrived at the blank, dark, shut-up Mariners’ Arms, they paused in surprise at the uninhabited look of the whole house: it was Daniel once more who took the lead.

‘Speak ’em fair,’ said he; ‘try good words first. Hobbs ‘ll mebbe let ’em out quiet, if we can catch a word wi’ him. A say, Hobbs,’ said he, raising his voice, ‘is a’ shut up for t’ neet; for a’d be glad of a glass. A’m Dannel Robson, thou knows.’

Not one word in reply, any more than from the tomb; but his speech had been heard nevertheless. The crowd behind him began to jeer and to threaten; there was no longer any keeping down their voices, their rage, their terrible oaths. If doors and windows had not of late been strengthened with bars of iron in anticipation of some such occasion, they would have been broken in with the onset of the fierce and now yelling crowd who rushed against them with the force of a battering-ram, to recoil in baffled rage from the vain assault. No sign, no sound from within, in that breathless pause.

‘Come away round here! a’ve found a way to t’ back o’ behint, where belike it’s not so well fenced,’ said Daniel, who had made way for younger and more powerful men to conduct the assault, and had employed his time meanwhile in examining the back premises. The men rushed after him, almost knocking him down, as he made his way into the lane into which the doors of the outbuildings belonging to the inn opened. Daniel had already broken the fastening of that which opened into a damp, mouldy-smelling shippen, in one corner of which a poor lean cow shifted herself on her legs, in an uneasy, restless manner, as her sleeping-place was invaded by as many men as could cram themselves into the dark hold. Daniel, at the end farthest from the door, was almost smothered before he could break down the rotten wooden shutter, that, when opened, displayed the weedy yard of the old inn, the full clear light defining the outline of each blade of grass by the delicate black shadow behind.

This hole, used to give air and light to what had once been a stable, in the days when horse travellers were in the habit of coming to the Mariners’ Arms, was large enough to admit the passage of a man; and Daniel, in virtue of its discovery, was the first to get through. But he was larger and heavier than he had been; his lameness made him less agile, and the impatient crowd behind him gave him a helping push that sent him down on the round stones with which the yard was paved, and for the time disabled him so much that he could only just crawl out of the way of leaping feet and heavy nailed boots, which came through the opening till the yard was filled with men, who now set up a fierce, derisive shout, which, to their delight, was answered from within. No more silence, no more dead opposition: a living struggle, a glowing, raging fight; and Daniel thought he should be obliged to sit there still, leaning against the wall, inactive, while the strife and the action were going on in which he had once been foremost.

He saw the stones torn up; he saw them used with good effect on the unguarded back-door; he cried out in useless warning as he saw the upper windows open, and aim taken among the crowd; but just then the door gave way, and there was an involuntary forward motion in the throng, so that no one was so disabled by the shots as to prevent his forcing his way in with the rest. And now the sounds came veiled by the walls as of some raging ravening beast growling over his prey; the noise came and went — once utterly ceased; and Daniel raised himself with difficulty to ascertain the cause, when again the roar came clear and fresh, and men poured into the yard again, shouting and rejoicing over the rescued victims of the press-gang. Daniel hobbled up, and shouted, and rejoiced, and shook hands with the rest, hardly caring to understand that the lieutenant and his gang had quitted the house by a front window, and that all had poured out in search of them; the greater part, however, returning to liberate the prisoners, and then glut their vengeance on the house and its contents.

From all the windows, upper and lower, furniture was now being thrown into the yard. The smash of glass, the heavier crash of wood, the cries, the laughter, the oaths, all excited Daniel to the utmost; and, forgetting his bruises, he pressed forwards to lend a helping hand. The wild, rough success of his scheme almost turned his head. He hurraed at every flagrant piece of destruction; he shook hands with every one around him, and, at last, when the destroyers inside paused to take breath, he cried out —

‘If a was as young as onest a was, a’d have t’ Randyvowse down, and mak’ a bonfire on it. We’d ring t’ fire-bell then t’ some purpose.’

No sooner said than done. Their excitement was ready to take the slightest hint of mischief; old chairs, broken tables, odd drawers, smashed chests, were rapidly and skilfully heaped into a pyramid, and one, who at the first broaching of the idea had gone for live coals the speedier to light up the fire, came now through the crowd with a large shovelful of red-hot cinders. The rioters stopped to take breath and look on like children at the uncertain flickering blaze, which sprang high one moment, and dropped down the next only to creep along the base of the heap of wreck, and make secure of its future work. Then the lurid blaze darted up wild, high, and irrepressible; and the men around gave a cry of fierce exultation, and in rough mirth began to try and push each other in. In one of the pauses of the rushing, roaring noise of the flames, the moaning low and groan of the poor alarmed cow fastened up in the shippen caught Daniel’s ear, and he understood her groans as well as if they had been words. He limped out of the yard through the now deserted house, where men were busy at the mad work of destruction, and found his way back to the lane into which the shippen opened. The cow was dancing about at the roar, and dazzle, and heat of the fire; but Daniel knew how to soothe her, and in a few minutes he had a rope round her neck, and led her gently out from the scene of her alarm. He was still in the lane when Simpson, the man-of-all-work at the Mariners’ Arms, crept out of some hiding-place in the deserted outbuilding, and stood suddenly face to face with Robson.

The man was white with fear and rage.

‘Here, tak’ thy beast, and lead her wheere she’ll noane hear yon cries and shouts. She’s fairly moithered wi’ heat an’ noise.’

‘They’re brennin’ ivery rag I have i’ t’ world,’ gasped out Simpson: ‘I niver had much, and now I’m a beggar.’

‘Well! thou shouldn’t ha’ turned again’ thine own town-folks, and harboured t’ gang. Sarves thee reet. A’d noane be here leadin’ beasts if a were as young as a were; a’d be in t’ thick on it.’

‘It was thee set ‘m on — a heerd thee — a see’d thee a helping on ’em t’ break in; they’d niver ha’ thought on attackin’ t’ house, and settin’ fire to yon things, if thou hadn’t spoken on it.’ Simpson was now fairly crying. But Daniel did not realize what the loss of all the small property he had in the world was to the poor fellow (rapscallion though he was, broken down, unprosperous ne’er-do-weel!) in his pride at the good work he believed he had set on foot.

‘Ay,’ said he; ‘it’s a great thing for folk to have a chap for t’ lead ’em wi’ a head on his shouthers. A misdoubt me if there were a felly theere as would ha’ thought o’ routling out yon wasps’ nest; it tak’s a deal o’ mother-wit to be up to things. But t’ gang’ll niver harbour theere again, one while. A only wish we’d cotched ’em. An’ a should like t’ ha’ gi’en Hobbs a bit o’ my mind.’

‘He’s had his sauce,’ said Simpson, dolefully. ‘Him and me is ruined.’

‘Tut, tut, thou’s got thy brother, he’s rich enough. And Hobbs ‘ll do a deal better; he’s had his lesson now, and he’ll stick to his own side time to come. Here, tak’ thy beast an’ look after her, for my bones is achin’. An’ mak’ thysel’ scarce, for some o’ them fellys has getten their blood up, an’ wunnot be for treating thee o’er well if they fall in wi’ thee.’

‘Hobbs ought to be served out; it were him as made t’ bargain wi’ lieutenant; and he’s off safe wi’ his wife and his money bag, and a’m left a beggar this neet i’ Monkshaven street. My brother and me has had words, and he’ll do nought for me but curse me. A had three crown-pieces, and a good pair o’ breeches, and a shirt, and a dare say better nor two pair o’ stockings. A wish t’ gang, and thee, and Hobbs and them mad folk up yonder, were a’ down i’ hell, a do.’

‘Coom, lad,’ said Daniel, noways offended at his companion’s wish on his behalf. ‘A’m noane flush mysel’, but here’s half-a-crown and tuppence; it’s a’ a’ve getten wi’ me, but it’ll keep thee and t’ beast i’ food and shelter to-neet, and get thee a glass o’ comfort, too. A had thought o’ takin’ one mysel’, but a shannot ha’ a penny left, so a’ll just toddle whoam to my missus.’

Daniel was not in the habit of feeling any emotion at actions not directly affecting himself; or else he might have despised the poor wretch who immediately clutched at the money, and overwhelmed that man with slobbery thanks whom he had not a minute before been cursing. But all Simpson’s stronger passions had been long ago used up; now he only faintly liked and disliked, where once he loved and hated; his only vehement feeling was for himself; that cared for, other men might wither or flourish as best suited them.

Many of the doors which had been close shut when the crowd went down the High Street, were partially open as Daniel slowly returned; and light streamed from them on the otherwise dark road. The news of the successful attempt at rescue had reached those who had sate in mourning and in desolation an hour or two ago, and several of these pressed forwards as from their watching corner they recognized Daniel’s approach; they pressed forward into the street to shake him by the hand, to thank him (for his name had been bruited abroad as one of those who had planned the affair), and at several places he was urged to have a dram — urgency that he was loath for many reasons to refuse, but his increasing uneasiness and pain made him for once abstinent, and only anxious to get home and rest. But he could not help being both touched and flattered at the way in which those who formed his ‘world’ looked upon him as a hero; and was not insensible to the words of blessing which a wife, whose husband had been impressed and rescued this night, poured down upon him as he passed.

‘Theere, theere — dunnot crack thy throat wi’ blessin’. Thy man would ha’ done as much for me, though mebbe he mightn’t ha’ shown so much gumption and capability; but them’s gifts, and not to be proud on.’

When Daniel reached the top of the hill on the road home, he turned to look round; but he was lame and bruised, he had gone along slowly, the fire had pretty nearly died out, only a red hue in the air about the houses at the end of the long High Street, and a hot lurid mist against the hill-side beyond where the Mariners’ Arms had stood, were still left as signs and token of the deed of violence.

Daniel looked and chuckled. ‘That comes o’ ringin’ t’ fire-bell,’ said he to himself; ‘it were shame for it to be tellin’ a lie, poor oud story-teller.’

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