Mary Anerley, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXXV

Little Carroways

Mrs. Carroway was always glad to be up quite early in the morning. But some few mornings seemed to slip in between whiles when, in accordance with human nature, and its operations in the baby stage, even Lauta Carroway failed to be about the world before the sun himself. Whenever this happened she was slightly cross, from the combat of conscience and self-assertion, which fly at one another worse than any dog and cat. Geraldine knew that her mother was put out if any one of the household durst go down the stairs before her. And yet if Geraldine herself held back, and followed the example of late minutes, she was sure “to catch it worse,” as the poor child expressed it.

If any active youth with a very small income (such as an active youth is pretty sure to have) wants a good wife, and has the courage to set out with one, his proper course is to choose the eldest daughter of a numerous family. When the others come thickly, this daughter of the house gets worked down into a wonderful perfection of looking after others, while she overlooks herself. Such a course is even better for her than to have a step-mother — which also is a goodly thing, but sometimes leads to sourness. Whereas no girl of any decent staple can revolt against her duty to her own good mother, and the proud sense of fostering and working for the little ones. Now Geraldine was wise in all these ways, and pleased to be called the little woman of the house.

The baby had been troublous in the night, and scant of reason, as the rising race can be, even while so immature; and after being up with it, and herself producing a long series of noises — which lead to peace through the born desire of contradiction — the mother fell asleep at last, perhaps from simple sympathy, and slept beyond her usual hour. But instead of being grateful for this, she was angry and bitter to any one awake before her.

“I can not tell why it is,” she said to Geraldine, who was toasting a herring for her brothers and sisters, and enjoying the smell (which was all that she would get), “but perpetually now you stand exactly like your father. There is every excuse for your father, because he is an officer, and has been knocked about, as he always is; but there is no excuse for you, miss. Put your heel decently under your dress. If we can afford nothing else, we can surely afford to behave well.”

The child made no answer, but tucked her heel in, and went on toasting nobly, while she counted the waves on the side of the herring, where his ribs should have been if he were not too fat; and she mentally divided him into seven pieces, not one of which, alas! would be for hungry Geraldine. “Tom must have two, after being out all night,” she was saying to herself; “and to grudge him would be greedy. But the bit of skin upon the toasting-fork will be for me, I am almost sure.”

“Geraldine, the least thing you can do, when I speak to you, is to answer. This morning you are in a most provoking temper, and giving yourself the most intolerable airs. And who gave you leave to do your hair like that? One would fancy that you were some rising court beauty, or a child of the nobility at the very least, instead of a plain little thing that has to work — or at any rate that ought to work — to help its poor mother! Oh, now you are going to cry, I suppose. Let me see a tear, and you shall go to bed again.”

“Oh, mother, mother, now what do you think has happened?” little Tom shouted, as he rushed in from the beach. “Father has caught all the smugglers, every one, and the Royal George is coming home before a spanking breeze, with three boats behind her, and they can’t be all ours; and one of them must belong to Robin Lyth himself; and I would almost bet a penny they have been and shot him; though everybody said that he never could be shot. Jerry, come and look — never mind the old fish. I never did see such a sight in all my life. They have got the jib-sail on him, so he must be dead at last; and instead of half a crown, I am sure to get a guinea. Come along, Jerry, and perhaps I’ll give you some of it!”

“Tommy,” said his mother, “you are always so impetuous! I never will believe in such good luck until I see it. But you have been a wonderfully good brave boy, and your father may thank you for whatever he has done. I shall not allow Geraldine to go; for she is not a good child this morning. And of course I can not go myself, for your father will come home absolutely starving. And it would not be right for the little ones to go, if things are at all as you suppose. Now, if I let you go yourself, you are not to go beyond the flag-staff. Keep far away from the boats, remember; unless your father calls for you to run on any errand. All the rest of you go in here, with your bread and milk, and wait until I call you.”

Mrs. Carroway locked all the little ones in a room from which they could see nothing of the beach, with orders to Cissy, the next girl, to feed them, and keep them all quiet till she came again. But while she was busy, with a very lively stir, to fetch out whatever could be found of fatness or grease that could be hoped to turn to gravy in the pan — for Carroway, being so lean, loved fat, and to put a fish before him was an insult to his bones — just at the moment when she had struck oil, in the shape of a very fat chop, from forth a stew, which had beaten all the children by stearine inertia — then at this moment, when she was rejoicing, the latch of the door clicked, and a man came in.

“Whoever you are, you seem to me to make yourself very much at home,” the lady said, sharply, without turning round, because she supposed it to be a well-accustomed enemy, armed with that odious “little bill.” The intruder made no answer, and she turned to rate him thoroughly; but the petulance of her eyes drew back before the sad stern gaze of his. “Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked, with a yellow dish in one hand, and a frying-pan in the other. “Geraldine, come here: that man looks wild.”

Her visitor did look wild enough, but without any menace in his sorrowful dark eyes. “Can’t the man speak?” she cried. “Are you mad, or starving? We are not very rich; but we can give you bread, poor fellow. Captain Carroway will be at home directly, and he will see what can be done for you,”

“Have you not heard of the thing that has been done?” the young man asked her, word by word, and staying himself with one hand upon the dresser, because he was trembling dreadfully.

“Yes, I have heard of it all. They have shot the smuggler Robin Lyth at last. I am very sorry for him. But it was needful; and he had no family.”

“Lady, I am Robin Lyth. I have not been shot; nor even shot at. The man that has been shot, I know not how, instead of me, was — was somebody quite different. With all my heart I wish it had been me; and no more trouble.”

He looked at the mother and the little girl, and sobbed, and fell upon a salting stool, which was to have been used that morning. Then, while Mrs. Carroway stood bewildered, Geraldine ran up to him, and took his hand, and said: “Don’t cry. My papa says that men never cry. And I am so glad that you were not shot.”

“See me kiss her,” said Robin Lyth, as he laid his lips upon the child’s fair forehead. “If I had done it, could I do that? Darling, you will remember this. Madam, I am hunted like a mad dog, and shall be hanged to your flag-staff if I am caught. I am here to tell you that, as God looks down from heaven upon you and me, I did not do it — I did not even know it.”

The smuggler stood up, with his right hand on his heart, and tears rolling manifestly down his cheeks, but his eyes like crystal, clear with truth; and the woman, who knew not that she was a widow, but felt it already with a helpless wonder, answered, quietly: “You speak the truth, sir. But what difference can it make to me?” Lyth tried to answer with the same true look; but neither his eyes nor his tongue would serve.

“I shall just go and judge for myself,” she said, as if it were a question of marketing (such bitter defiance came over her), and she took no more heed of him than if he were a chair; nor even half so much, for she was a great judge of a chair. “Geraldine, go and put your bonnet on. We are going to meet your father. Tell Cissy and all the rest to come but the baby. The baby can not do it, I suppose. In a minute and a half I shall expect you all — how many? Seven? — yes, seven of you.”

“Seven, mother, yes. And the baby makes it eight; and yesterday you said that he was worth all us together.”

Robin Lyth saw that he was no more wanted, or even heeded; and without delay he quitted such premises of danger. Why should he linger in a spot where he might have violent hands laid on him, and be sped to a premature end, without benefit even of trial by jury? Upon this train of reasoning he made off.

Without any manner of reasoning at all, but with fierceness of dread and stupidity of grief, the mother collected her children in silence, from the damsel of ten to the toddler of two. Then, leaving the baby tied down in the cradle, she pulled at the rest of them, on this side and on that, to get them into proper trim of dresses and of hats, as if they were going to be marched off to church. For that all the younger ones made up their minds, and put up their ears for the tinkle of the bell; but the elder children knew that it was worse than that, because their mother never looked at them.

“You will go by the way of the station,” she said, for the boats were still out at sea, and no certainty could be made of them: “whatever it is, we may thank the station for it.”

The poor little things looked up at her in wonder; and then, acting up to their discipline, set off, in lopsided pairs of a small and a big one, to save any tumbling and cutting of knees. The elder ones walked with discretion, and a strong sense of responsibility, hushed, moreover, by some inkling of a great black thing to meet. But the baby ones prattled, and skipped with their feet, and straggled away toward the flowers by the path. The mother of them all followed slowly and heavily, holding the youngest by the hand, because of its trouble in getting through the stones. Her heart was nearly choking, but her eyes free and reckless, wandering wildly over earth, and sea, and sky, in vain search of guidance from any or from all of them.

The pinnace came nearer, with its sad, cold freight. The men took off their hats, and rubbed their eyes, and some of them wanted to back off again; but Mrs. Carroway calmly said, “Please to let me have my husband.”

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