Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXVI

Men of Solid Timber

Mr. Mordacks was one of those vivacious men who have strong faith in their good luck, and yet attribute to their merits whatever turns out well. In the present matter he had done as yet nothing at all ingenious, or even to be called sagacious. The discovery of “Monument Joe,” or “Peg-leg Joe,” as he was called at Flamborough, was not the result of any skill whatever, either his own or the factor’s, but a piece of as pure luck as could be. For all that, however, Mr. Mordacks intended to have the whole credit as his sole and righteous due.

“Whenever I am at all down-hearted, samples of my skill turn up,” he said to himself as soon as Joe was gone; “and happy results come home, on purpose to rebuke my diffidence. Would any other man have got so far as I have got by simple, straightforward, yet truly skillful action, without a suspicion being started? Old Jellicorse lies on his bed of roses, snoring folios of long words, without a dream of the gathering cloud. Those insolent ladies are revelling in the land from which they have ousted their only brother; they are granting leases not worth a straw; they are riding the high horse; they are bringing up that cub (who set the big dog at me) in every wanton luxury. But wait a bit — wait a bit, my ladies; as sure as I live I shall have you.

“In the first place, it is clear that my conclusion was correct concerning that poor Golconda; and why not also in the other issue? The Indiaman was scuttled — I had never thought of that, but only of a wreck. It comes to the same thing, only she went down more quietly; and that explains a lot of things. She was bound for Leith, with the boy to be delivered into the hands of his Scotch relatives. She was spoken last off Yarmouth Roads, all well, and under easy sail. Very good so far. I have solved her fate, which for twenty years has been a mystery. We shall have all particulars in proper time, by steering on one side of the law, which always huddles up everything. A keen eye must be kept upon that scoundrel, but he must never dream that he is watched at all; he has committed a capital offense. But as yet there is nothing but his own raving to convict him of barratry. The truth must be got at by gentle means. I must not claim the 500 pounds as yet, but I am sure of getting it. And I have excellent hopes of the 5000 pounds.”

Geoffrey Mordacks never took three nights to sleep upon his thoughts (as the lawyer of Middleton loved to do), but rather was apt to overdrive his purport, with the goad of hasty action. But now he was quite resolved to be most careful; for the high hand would never do in such a ticklish matter, and the fewer the hands introduced at all into it, the better the chance of coming out clear and clean. The general factor had never done anything which, in his opinion, was not thoroughly upright; and now, with his reputation made, and his conscience stiffened to the shape of it, even a large sum of money must be clean, and cleanly got at, to make it pay for handling.

This made him counsel with himself just now. For he was a superior man upon the whole, and particular always in feeling sure that the right word in anything would be upon his side. Not that he cared a groat for anybody’s gossip; only that he kept a lofty tenor of good opinion. And sailors who made other sailors tipsy, and went rolling about on the floor all together, whether with natural legs or artificial, would do no credit to his stairs of office on a fine market-day in the morning. On the other hand, while memory held sway, no instance could be cited of two jolly sailors coming to see the wonders of this venerable town, and failing to be wholly intoxicated with them, before the Minster bell struck one.

This was to be avoided, or rather forestalled, as a thing inevitable should be. Even in York city, teeming as it is with most delightful queerities, the approach of two sailors with three wooden legs might be anticipated at a distant offing, so abundant are boys there, and everywhere. Therefore it was well provided, on the part of Master Mordacks, that Kitty, or Koity, the maid-of-all-work, a damsel of muscular power and hard wit, should hold tryst with these mariners in the time of early bucket, and appoint a little meeting with her master by-and-by. This she did cleverly, and they were not put out; because they were to dine at his expense at a snug little chop-house in Parliament Street, and there to remain until he came to pay the score.

All this happened to the utmost of desires; and before they had time to get thick-witted, Mordacks stood before them. His sharp eyes took in Sailor Bob before the poor fellow looked twice at him, and the general factor saw that he might be trusted not to think much for himself. This was quite as Mr. Mordacks hoped; he wanted a man who could hold his tongue, and do what he was told to do.

After a few words about their dinner, and how they got on, and so forth, the principal came to the point by saying: “Now both of you must start tomorrow morning; such clever fellows can not be spared to go to sleep. You shall come and see York again, with free billet, and lashings of money in your pockets, as soon as you have carried out your sailing orders. To-night you may jollify; but after that you are under strict discipline, for a month at least. What do you say to that, my men?”

Watchman Joe looked rather glum; he had hoped for a fortnight of stumping about, with a tail of admiring boys after him, and of hailing every public-house the cut of whose jib was inviting; however, he put his knife into his mouth, with a bit of fat, saved for a soft adieu to dinner, and nodded for his son to launch true wisdom into the vasty deep of words.

Now Bob, the son of Joe, had striven to keep himself up to the paternal mark. He cited his father as the miracle of the age, when he was a long way off; and when he was nigh at hand, he showed his sense of duty, nearly always, by letting him get tipsy first. Still, they were very sober fellows in the main, and most respectable, when they had no money.

“Sir,” began Bob, after jerking up his chin, as a sailor always does when he begins to think (perhaps for hereditary counsel with the sky), “my father and I have been hauling of it over, to do whatever is laid down by duty, without going any way again’ ourselves. And this is the sense we be come to, that we should like to have something handsome down, to lay by again’ chances; also a dokkyment in black and white, to bear us harmless of the law, and enter the prize-money.”

“What a fine councillor a’ would have made!” old Joe exclaimed, with ecstasy. “He hath been round the world three times — excuseth of him for only one leg left.”

“My friend, how you condemn yourself! You have not been round the world at all, and yet you have no leg at all.” So spake Mr. Mordacks, wishing to confuse ideas; for the speech of Bob misliked him.

“The corners of the body is the Lord’s good-will,” old Joe answered, with his feelings hurt; “He calleth home a piece to let the rest bide on, and giveth longer time to it — so saith King David.”

“It may be so; but I forget the passage. Now what has your son Bob to say?”

Bob was a sailor of the fine old British type, still to be found even nowadays, and fit to survive forever. Broad and resolute of aspect, set with prejudice as stiff as his own pigtail, truthful when let alone, yet joyful in a lie, if anybody doubted him, peaceable in little things through plenty of fight in great ones, gentle with women and children, and generous with mankind in general, expecting to be cheated, yet not duly resigned at being so, and subject to unaccountable extremes of laziness and diligence. His simple mind was now confused by the general factor’s appeal to him to pronounce his opinion, when he had just now pronounced it, after great exertion.

“Sir,” he said, “I leave such things to father’s opinion; he hath been ashore some years; and I almost forget how the land lays.”

“Sea-faring Robert, you are well advised. A man may go round the world till he has no limbs left, yet never overtake his father. So the matter is left to my decision. Very good; you shall have no reason to repent it. To-night you have liberty to splice the main-brace, or whatever your expression is for getting jolly drunk; in the morning you will be sobriety itself, sad, and wise, and aching. But hear my proposal, before you take a gloomy view of things, such as tomorrow’s shades may bring. You have been of service to me, and I have paid you with great generosity; but what I have done, including dinner, is dust in the balance to what I shall do, provided only that you act with judgment, discipline, and self-denial, never being tipsy more than once a week, which is fair naval average, and doing it then with only one another. Hard it may be; but it must be so. Now before I go any further, let me ask whether you, Joseph, as a watchman under government, have lost your position by having left it for two months upon a private spree?”

“Lor’, no, your honor! Sure you must know more than that. I gived a old ‘ooman elevenpence a week, and a pot of beer a Sunday, to carry out the dooties of the government.”

“You farmed out your appointment at a low figure. My opinion of your powers and discretion is enhanced; you will return to your post with redoubled ardor, and vigor renewed by recreation; you will be twice the man you were, and certainly ought to get double pay. I have interest; I may be enabled to double your salary — if you go on well.”

This made both of them look exceeding downcast, and chew the bitter quid of disappointment. They had laid their heads together over glass number one, and resolved upon asking for a guinea a week; over glass number two, they had made up their minds upon getting two guineas weekly; and glass number three had convinced them that they must be poor fools to accept less than three. Also they felt that the guineas they had spent, in drinking their way up to a great discovery, should without hesitation be made good ere ever they had another pint of health. In this catastrophe of large ideas, the father gazed sadly at the son, and the son reproachfully reflected the paternal gaze. How little availed it to have come up here, wearily going on upon yellow waters, in a barge where the fleas could man the helm, without aid of the stouter insect, and where a fresh run sailor was in more demand than salmon; and even without that (which had largely enhanced the inestimable benefit of having wooden legs), this pair of tars had got into a state of mind to return the whole way upon horseback. No spurs could they wear, and no stirrups could they want, and to get up would be difficult; but what is the use of living, except to conquer difficulties? They rejoiced all the more in the four legs of a horse, by reason of the paucity of their own; which approves a liberal mind. But now, where was the horse to come from, or the money to make him go?

“You look sad,” proceeded Mr. Mordacks. “It grieves me when any good man looks sad; and doubly so when a brace of them do it. Explain your feelings, Joe and Bob; if it lies in a human being to relieve them, I will do it.”

“Captain, we only wants what is our due,” said Bob, with his chin up, and his strong eyes stern. “We have been on the loose; and it is the manner of us, and encouraged by the high authorities. We have come across, by luck of drink, a thing as seems to suit you; and we have told you all our knowledge without no conditions. If you takes us for a pair of fools, and want no more of us, you are welcome, and it will be what we are used to; but if your meaning is to use us, we must have fair wages; and even so, we would have naught to do with it if it was against an honest man; but a rogue who has scuttled a ship — Lor’, there!”

Bob cast out the juice of his chew into the fire, as if it were the life-blood of such a villain, and looked at his father, who expressed approval by the like proceeding. And Geoffrey Mordacks was well content at finding them made of decent stuff. It was not his manner to do things meanly; and he had only spoken so to moderate their minds and keep them steady.

“Mariner Bob, you speak well and wisely,” he answered, with a superior smile. “Your anxiety as to ways and means does credit to your intellect. That subject has received my consideration. I have studied the style of life at Flamborough, and the prices of provisions — would that such they were in York! — and to keep you in temperate and healthy comfort, without temptation, and with minds alert, I am determined to allow for the two of you, over and above all your present income from a grateful country (which pays a man less when amputation has left less of him), the sum of one guinea and a half per week. But remember that, to draw this stipend, both of you must be in condition to walk one mile and a half on a Saturday night, which is a test of character. You will both be fitted up with solid steel ends, by the cutler at the end of Ouse Bridge, tomorrow morning, so that the state of the roads will not affect you, and take note of one thing, mutual support (graceful though it always is in paternal and filial communion) will not be allowed on a Saturday night. Each man must stand on his own stumps.”

“Sir,” replied Bob, who had much education, which led him to a knowledge of his failings, “never you fear but what we shall do it. Sunday will be the day of standing with a shake to it; for such, is the habit of the navy. Father, return thanks; make a leg — no man can do it better. Master Mordacks, you shall have our utmost duty; but a little brass in hand would be convenient.”

“You shall have a fortnight in advance; after that you must go every Saturday night to a place I will appoint for you. Now keep your own counsel; watch that fellow; by no means scare him at first, unless you see signs of his making off; but rather let him think that you know nothing of his crime. Labor hard to make him drink again; then terrify him like Davy Jones himself; and get every particular out of him, especially how he himself escaped, where he landed, and who was with him. I want to learn all about a little boy (at least, he may be a big man now), who was on board the ship Golconda, under the captain’s special charge. I can not help thinking that the child escaped; and I got a little trace of something connected with him at Flamborough. I durst not make much inquiry there, because I am ordered to keep things quiet. Still, I did enough to convince me almost that my suspicion was an error; for Widow Precious —”

“Pay you no heed, Sir, to any manoeuvring of Widow Precious. We find her no worse than the other women; but not a blamed bit better.”

“I think highly of the female race; at least, in comparison with the male one. I have always found reason to believe that a woman, put upon her mettle by a secret, will find it out, or perish.”

“Your honor, everybody knows as much as that; but it doth not follow that she tells it on again, without she was ordered not to do so.”

“Bob, you have not been round the world for nothing. I see my blot, and you have hit it; you deserve to know all about the matter now. Match me that button, and you shall have ten guineas.”

The two sailors stared at the bead of Indian gold which Mordacks pulled out of his pocket. Buttons are a subject for nautical contempt and condemnation; perhaps because there is nobody to sew them on at sea; while ear-rings, being altogether useless, are held in good esteem and honor.

“I have seen a brace of ear-rings like it,” said old Joe, wading through deep thought. “Bob, you knows who was a-wearing of ’em.”

“A score of them fishermen, like enough,” cautious Bob answered; for he knew what his father meant, but would not speak of the great free-trader; for Master Mordacks might even be connected with the revenue. “What use to go on about such gear? His honor wanteth to hear of buttons, regulation buttons by the look of it, and good enough for Lord Nelson. Will you let us take the scantle, and the rig of it, your honor?”

“By all means, if you can do so, my friend; but what have you to do it with?”

“Hold on a bit, Sir, and you shall see.” With these words Bob clapped a piece of soft York bread into the hollow of his broad brown palm, moistened it with sugary dregs of ale, such as that good city loves, and kneading it firmly with some rapid flits of thumb, tempered and enriched it nobly with the mellow juice of quid. Treated thus, it took consistence, plastic, docile, and retentive pulp; and the color was something like that of gold which had passed, according to its fate, through a large number of unclean hands.

“Now the pattern, your honor,” said Bob, with a grin; “I could do it from memory, but better from the thing.” He took the bauble, and set it on the foot of a rummer which stood on the table; and in half a minute he had the counterpart in size, shape, and line; but without the inscription. “A sample of them in the hollow will do, and good enough for the nigger-body words — heathen writing, to my mind.” With lofty British intolerance, he felt that it might be a sinful thing to make such marks; nevertheless he impressed one side, whereon the characters were boldest, into the corresponding groove of his paste model; then he scooped up the model on the broad blade of his knife, and set it in the oven of the little fire-place, in a part where the heat was moderate.

“Well done, indeed!” cried Mr. Mordacks; “you will have a better likeness of it than good Mother Precious. Robert, I admire your ingenuity. But all sailors are ingenious.”

“At sea, in the trades, or in a calm, Sir, what have we to do but to twiddle our thumbs, and practice fiddling with them? A lively tune is what I like, and a-serving of the guns red-hot; a man must act according to what nature puts upon him. And nature hath taken one of my legs from me with a cannon-shot from the French line-of-battle ship — Rights of Mankind the name of her.”

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