Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XLIX

Wanted, a Sawyer

To judge Mr. Goad by his own scale of morality and honor, he certainly had behaved very well through a trying and unexpected scene. He fought for his honor a great deal harder than ever it could have deserved of him; and then he strove well to appease it with cash, the mere thought of which must have flattered it. However, it was none the worse for a little disaster of this kind. At the call of duty it coalesced with interest and fine sense of law, and the contact of these must have strengthened it to face any future production.

For the moment he laid it aside in a drawer — and the smallest he possessed would hold it — and being compelled to explain his instructions (partly in short-hand and partly in cipher), he kindly, and for the main of it truly, interpreted them as follows:

“July 31, 1858. — Received directions from M. H. to attend without fail, at whatever expense, to any matter laid before us by a tall, dark gentleman bearing his card. M. H. considerably in our debt; but his father can not last long. Understand what he means, having dealt with this matter before, and managed well with it.

“August 2. — Said gentleman called, gave no name, and was very close. Had experienced some great wrong. Said that he was true heir to the C. estates now held by Lord C. Only required a little further evidence to claim them; and some of this was to be got through us. Important papers must be among the effects of the old lord’s son, lately dead in California, the same for whom a reward had been offered, and we had been employed about it. Must get possession of those papers, and of the girl, if possible. Yankees to be bribed, at whatever figure, and always stand out for a high one. Asked where funds were to come from; gave good reference, and verified it. To be debited to the account of M. H. Said we would have nothing to do with it without more knowledge of our principal. Replied, with anger, that he himself was Lord C., ousted by usurpers. Had not the necessary proofs as yet, but would get them, and blast all his enemies. Had doubts about his sanity, and still greater about his solvency. Resolved to inquire into both points.

“August 3. — M. H. himself, as cool as ever, but shammed to be indignant. Said we were fools if we did not take it up. Not a farthing would he pay of his old account, and fellows like us could not bring actions. Also a hatful of money was to be made of this job, managed snugly. Emigrants to California were the easiest of all things to square up. A whole train of them disappeared this very year, by Indians or Mormons, and no bones made. The best and most active of us must go — too ticklish for an agent. We must carry on all above-board out there, and as if sent by British government. In the far West no one any wiser. Resolved to go myself, upon having a certain sum in ready.

“August 5. — The money raised. Start for Liverpool tomorrow. Require a change, or would not go. May hit upon a nugget, etc., etc.”

Mr. Goad’s memoranda of his adventures, and signal defeat by Uncle Sam, have no claim to be copied here, though differing much from my account. With their terse unfeeling strain, they might make people laugh who had not sadder things to think of. And it matters very little how that spy escaped, as such people almost always seem to do.

“Two questions, Goad, if you please,” said Major Hockin, who had smiled sometimes, through some of his own remembrances; “what has happened since your return, and what is the name of the gentleman whom you have called ‘M.H.?’”

“Is it possible that you do not know, Sir? Why, he told us quite lately that you were at his back! You must know Sir Montague Hockin.”

“Yes, yes; certainly I do,” the old man said, shortly, with a quick gleam in his eyes; “a highly respected gentleman now, though he may have sown his wild oats like the rest. To be sure; of course I know all about it. His meaning was good, but he was misled.”

In all my little experience of life nothing yet astonished me more than this. I scarcely knew whom to believe, or what. That the Major, most upright of men, should take up his cousin’s roguery — all new to him — and speak of him thus! But he gave me a nudge; and being all confusion, I said nothing, and tried to look at neither of them, because my eyes must always tell the truth.

“As to the other point,” Mr. Goad went on; “since my embassy failed, we have not been trusted with the confidence we had the right to expect. Ours is a peculiar business, Sir: ‘Trust me in all, or trust me not at all,’ as one of our modern poets says, is the very essence of it. And possibly, Major, if that had been done, even your vigor and our sense of law might not have extorted from me what you have heard. Being cashiered, as we are, we act according to the strictest honor in divulging things no longer confided to us.”

“Goad, you have done yourself the utmost credit, legally, intellectually, and — well, I will not quite say morally. If I ever have a nasty job to do — at least I mean a stealthy one — which God, who has ever kept me straight, forbid! — I will take care not to lose your address. I have a very queer thing occurring on my manor — I believe it is bound up with this affair — never mind; I must think — I hate all underhanded work.”

“Major, our charges are strictly moderate. We do in a week what takes lawyers a twelvemonth. Allow me to hand you one of our new cards.”

“No, no. My pockets are all full. And I don’t want to have it found among my papers. No offense, Mr. Goad, no offense at all. Society is not as it was when I was young. I condemn no modern institutions, Sir, though the world gets worse every day of its life.”

In terror of committing himself to any connection with such a firm, the Major put on his dark lights again, took up his cane, and let every body know, with a summary rap on the floor, that he might have relaxed, but would not allow any further liberty about it. And as he marched away, not proudly, yet with a very nice firmness, I was almost afraid to say any thing to him to disturb his high mental attitude. For Mrs. Hockin must have exclaimed that here was a noble spectacle.

“But one thing,” I forced myself to suggest; “do ask one thing before we go. That strange man who called himself ‘Lord Castlewood’ here, and ‘Captain Brown’ at Soberton — have they any idea where to find him now? And why does he not come forward?”

My comrade turned back, and put these questions; and the private inquirer answered that they had no idea of his whereabouts, but could easily imagine many good reasons for his present reserve of claim. For instance, he might be waiting for discovery of further evidence; or (which was even more likely) for the death of the present Lord Castlewood, which could not be very far distant, and would remove the chief opponent. It grieved me deeply to find that my cousin’s condition was so notorious, and treated of in such a cold-blooded way, like a mule fallen lame, or a Chinaman in Frisco.

“My dear, you must grow used to such things,” Major Hockin declared, when he saw that I was vexed, after leaving those selfish premises. “If it were not for death, how could any body live? Right feeling is shown by considering such points, and making for the demise of others even more preparation than for our own. Otherwise there is a selfishness about it by no means Christian-minded. You look at things always from such an intense and even irreligious point of view. But such things are out of my line altogether. Your Aunt Mary understands them best.”

“Would you be able,” I said, “to account to Aunt Mary conscientiously for that dreadful story which I heard you tell? I scarcely knew where I stood, Major Hockin.”

“You mean about Montague? Family honor must be defended at any price. Child, I was greatly pained to go beyond the truth; but in such a case it is imperative. I was shocked and amazed at my cousin’s conduct; but how could I let such a fellow know that? And think what I owe to his father, Sir Rufus? No, no; there are times when Bayard himself must stretch a point. Honor and religion alike demand it; and Mrs. Hockin need never hear of it.”

“Certainly I shall not speak of it,” I answered, though a little surprised at his arguments; “but you mean, of course, to find out all about it. It seems to me such a suspicious thing. But I never could bear Sir Montague.”

The Major smiled grimly, and, perceiving that he wished to drop the subject, I said no more. He had many engagements in London always, and I must not attempt to engross his time. However, he would not for a moment hear of leaving me any where but with Betsy, for perhaps he saw how strange I was. And, being alone at last with her, I could keep up my pride no longer.

Through all that had happened, there never had been such a dreadful trial as I had borne this day without a word to any one. Danger and loss and sad dreariness of mind, from want of young companionship; mystery also, and obscurity of life, had always been my fortune. With all of these I had striven, to the best of my very small ability, having from nature no gift except the dull one of persistence. And throughout that struggle I had felt quite sure that a noble yearning for justice and a lofty power of devotion were my two impelling principles. But now, when I saw myself sprung of low birth, and the father of my worship base-born, down fell all my arduous castles, and I craved to go under the earth and die.

For every word of Mr. Goad, and every crooked turn of little things in twist against me — even the Major’s last grim smile — all began to work together, and make up a wretched tumult, sounding in my ears like drums. Where was the use of going on, of proving any body’s guilt or any body’s innocence, if the utmost issue of the whole would be to show my father an impostor? Then, and only then, I knew that love of abstract justice is to little minds impossible, that sense of honor is too prone to hang on chance of birth, and virtue’s fountain, self-respect, springs but ill from parental taint.

When I could no longer keep such bitter imaginings to myself, but poured them forth to Betsy, she merely laughed, and asked me how I could be such a simpleton. Only to think of my father in such a light was beyond her patience! Where was my pride, she would like to know, and my birth, and my family manners? However, she did believe there was something in my ideas, if you turned them inside out, and took hold of them by the other end. It was much more likely, to her mind, that the villain, the unknown villain at the bottom of all the misery, was really the son born out of wedlock, if any such there were at all, and therefore a wild harum-scarum fellow like Ishmael in the Book of Genesis. And it would be just of a piece, she thought, with the old lord’s character to drive such a man to desperation by refusing to give him a farthing.

“All that might very well be,” I answered; “but it would in no way serve to explain my father’s conduct, which was the great mystery of all.” Nevertheless, I was glad to accept almost any view of the case rather than that which had forced itself upon me since the opening of the locket. Any doubt of that most wretched conclusion was a great relief while it lasted; and, after so long a time of hope and self-reliance, should I cast away all courage through a mere suspicion?

While I was thus re-assuring myself, and being re-assured by my faithful nurse, sad news arrived, and drove my thoughts into another crooked channel. Mrs. Hockin, to meet my anxiety for some tidings from California, had promised that if any letter came, she would not even wait for the post, but forward it by special messenger. And thus, that very same evening, I received a grimy epistle, in an unknown hand, with the postmark of Sacramento. Tearing it open, I read as follows:

“MISS ‘REMA— No good luck ever came, since you, to this Blue River Station, only to be washed away, and robbed by greasers, and shot through the ribs, and got more work than can do, and find an almighty nugget sent by Satan. And now the very worst luck of all have come, wholly and out of all denial, by you and your faces and graces and French goings on. Not that I do not like you, mind; for you always was very polite to me, and done your best when you found me trying to put up with the trials put on me. But now this trial is the worst of all that ever come to my establishings; and to go away now as I used to think of doing when tyrannized upon is out of my way altogether, and only an action fit for a half-breed. Sawyer Gundry hath cut and run, without a word behind him — no instructions for orders in hand, and pouring in-no directions where to find him, not even ‘God bless you’ to any one of the many hands that looked up to him. Only a packet of dollars for me to pay the wages for two months to come, and a power of lawyer to receive all debts, and go on anyhow just the same. And to go on just the same is more than the worst of us has the heart for, without the sight of his old red face. He may have been pretty sharp, and too much the master now and then, perhaps; but to do without him is a darned sight worse, and the hands don’t take to me like him. Many’s the time I have seen his faults, of having his own way, and such likes, and paying a man beyond his time if his wife was out of order. And many’s the time I have said myself I was fitter to be at the head of it.

“About that I was right enough, perhaps, if I had started upon my own hook; but to stand in the tracks he has worn to his own foot is to go into crooked compasses. There is never a day without some hand threatening to strike and to better himself, as if they were hogs to come and go according to the acorns; and such low words I can never put up with, and packs them off immediate. No place can be carried on if the master is to shut up his lips to impudence. And now I have only got three hands left, with work enough for thirty, and them three only stopped on, I do believe, to grumble of me if the Sawyer do come home!

“But what we all want to know — and old Suan took a black stick to make marks for you — is why the old man hath run away, and where. Young Firm, who was getting a sight too uppish for me to have long put up with him, he was going about here, there, and every where, from the very first time of your going away, opening his mouth a deal too much, and asking low questions how long I stopped to dinner. Old Suan said he was troubled in his mind, as the pale-faces do about young girls, instead of dragging them to their wigwams; and she would give him a spell to get over it. But nothing came of that; and when the war broke out, he had words with his grandfather, and went off, so they said, to join the rebels.

“Sawyer let him go, as proud as could be, though he would sooner have cut his own head off; and the very same night he sat down by his fire and shammed to eat supper as usual. But I happened to go in to get some orders, and, my heart, I would never wish to see such things again!

“The old man would never waste a bit of victuals, as you know, Miss ‘Rema; and, being acquaint with Suan’s way of watching, he had slipped all his supper aside from his plate, and put it on a clean pocket-handkerchief to lock it in the press till his appetite should serve; and I caught him in the act, and it vexed him. ‘Ha’n’t you the manners to knock at the door?’ he said; and I said, ‘Certainly,’ and went back and done it; and, troubled as he was, he grinned a bit. Then he bowed his great head, as he always did when he knew he had gone perhaps a trifle too far with a man in my position. I nodded to forgive him, and he stood across, and saw that he could do no less than liquor me, after such behavior. But he only brought out one glass; and I said, ‘Come, Colonel, square is square, you know.’ ‘Excuse of me, Martin,’ he said; ‘but no drop of strong drink passes the brim of my mouth till this gallivanting is done with. I might take too much, as the old men do, to sink what they don’t want to think on.’ ‘You mean about bully-cock Firm,’ says I; ‘rebel Firm — nigger-driver Firm.’ ‘Hush!’ he said; ‘no bad words about it. He has gone by his conscience and his heart. What do we know of what come inside of him?’

“This was true enough, for I never did make that boy out to my liking: and the old man now was as stiff as a rock, and pretty nigh as peculiar. He made me a cocktail of his own patent, to show how firm his hand was; but the lines of his face was like wainscot mouldings, and the cords of his arm stood out like cogs. Then he took his long pipe, as he may have done perhaps every blessed night for the last fifty years; but that length of time ought to have learned him better than to go for to fill it upside down. ‘Ha, ha!’ he said; ‘every thing is upside down since I was a man under heaven — countries and nations and kindreds and duties; and why not a old tobacco-pipe? That’s the way babies blow bubbles with them. We shall all have to smoke ’em that way if our noble republic is busted up. Fill yours, and try it, Martin.’

“Instead of enjoying my cocktail, Miss ‘Rema, I never was so down at mouth; for, to my mind, his old heart was broken while he carried on so. And let every body say what they will, one thing there is no denying of. Never was seen on this side of the big hills a man fit to walk in the tracks of Uncle Sam, so large and good-hearted according to his lights, hard as a grizzly bear for a man to milk him, but soft in the breastbone as a young prairie-hen for all folk down upon their nine-pins.

“You may be surprised, miss, to find me write so long. Fact is, the things won’t go out of my mind without it. And it gives me a comfort, after all I may have said, to put good opinions upon paper. If he never should turn up again, my language will be to his credit; whereas if he do come back, with the betting a horse to a duck against it, to his pride he will read this testimonial of yours, faithfully, MARTIN CLOGFAST.

“P.S. — Can’t carry on like this much longer. Enough to rip one’s heart up. You never would know the old place, miss. The heads of the horses is as long as their tails with the way they carry them; the moss is as big as a Spaniard’s beard upon the kitchen door-sill; and the old dog howls all day and night, like fifty thousand scalpers. Suan saith, if you was to come back, the lad might run home after you. ‘Tisn’t the lad I cares about so much, but poor old Sawyer, at his time of life, swallowed up in the wilderness.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50