Cliffs snow-mantled, and storm-ploughed sands, and dark gray billows frilled with white, rolling and roaring to the shrill east wind, made the bay of Bridlington a very different sight from the smooth fair scene of August. Scarcely could the staggering colliers, anchored under Flamborough Head (which they gladly would have rounded if they could), hold their own against wind and sea, although the outer spit of sand tempered as yet the full violence of waves.
But if everything looked cold and dreary, rough, and hard, and bare of beauty, the cottage of the late lieutenant, standing on the shallow bluff, beaten by the wind, and blinded of its windows from within, of all things looked the most forlorn, most desolate, and freezing. The windward side was piled with snow, on the crest of which foam pellets lay, looking yellow by comparison, and melting small holes with their brine. At the door no foot-mark broke the drift; and against the vaporous sky no warmer vapor tufted the chimney-pots.
“I am pretty nearly frozen again,” said Mordacks; “but that place sends another shiver down my back. All the poor little devils must be icicles at least.”
After peeping through a blind, he turned pale betwixt his blueness, and galloped to the public-house abutting on the quay. Here he marched into the parlor, and stamped about, till a merry-looking landlord came to him. “Have a glass of hot, sir; how blue your nose is!” the genial master said to him. The reply of the factor can not be written down in these days of noble language. Enough that it was a terse malediction of the landlord, the glass of hot, and even his own nose. Boniface was no Yorkshireman, else would he have given as much as he got, at least in lingual currency. As it was, he considered it no affair of his if a guest expressed his nationality. “You must have better orders than that to give, I hope, sir.”
“Yes, sir, I have. And you have got the better of me; which has happened to me three times this day already, because of the freezing of my wits, young man. Now you go in to your best locker, and bring me your very best bottle of Cognac — none of your government stuff, you know, but a sample of your finest bit of smuggling. Why did I swear at a glass of hot? Why, because you are all such a set of scoundrels. I want a glass of hot as much as man ever did. But how can I drink it, when women and children are dying — perhaps dead, for all I know — for want of warmth and victuals? Your next-door neighbors almost, and a woman, whose husband has just been murdered! And here you are swizzling, and rattling your coppers. Good God, sir! The Almighty from heaven would send orders to have His own commandment broken.”
Mr. Mordacks was excited, and the landlord saw no cause for it. “What makes you carry on like this?” he said; “it was only last night we was talking in the tap-room of getting a subscription up, downright liberal. I said I was good for a crown, and take it out of the tick they owes me. And when you come to think of these hard times —”
“Take that, and then tell me if you find them softer.” Suiting the action to the word, the universal factor did something omitted on his card in the list of his comprehensive functions. As the fat host turned away, to rub his hands, with a phosphoric feeling of his future generosity, a set of highly energetic toes, prefixed with the toughest York leather, and tingling for exercise, made him their example. The landlord flew up among his own pots and glasses, his head struck the ceiling, which declined too long a taste of him, and anon a silvery ring announced his return to his own timbers.
“Accept that neighborly subscription, my dear friend, and acknowledge its promptitude,” said Mr. Mordacks; “and now be quick about your orders, peradventure a second flight might be less agreeable. Now don’t show any airs; you have been well treated, and should be thankful for the facilities you have to offer. I know a poor man without any legs at all, who would be only too glad if he could do what you have done.”
“Then his taste must be a queer one,” the landlord replied, as he illustrated sadly the discovery reserved for a riper age — that human fingers have attained their present flexibility, form, and skill by habit of assuaging, for some millions of ages, the woes of the human body.
“Now don’t waste my time like that,” cried Mordacks; and seeing him draw near again, his host became right active. “Benevolence must be inculcated,” continued the factor, following strictly in pursuit. “I have done you a world of good, my dear friend; and reflection will compel you to heap every blessing on me.”
“I don’t know about that,” replied the landlord. It is certain, however, that this exhibition of philanthropic vigor had a fine effect. In five minutes all the resources of the house were at the disposal of this rapid agent, who gave his orders right and left, clapped down a bag of cash, and took it up again, and said, “Now just you mind my horse, twice as well as you mind your fellow-creatures. Take a leg of mutton out, and set it roasting. Have your biggest bed hot for a lot of frozen children. By the Lord, if you don’t look alive, I’ll have you up for murder.” As he spoke, a stout fish-woman came in from the quay; and he beckoned to her, and took her with him.
“You can’t come in,” said a little weak voice, when Mr. Mordacks, having knocked in vain, began to prise open the cottage door. “Mother is so poorly; and you mustn’t think of coming in. Oh, whatever shall I do, if you won’t stop when I tell you?”
“Where are all the rest of you? Oh, in the kitchen, are they? You poor little atomy, how many of you are dead?”
“None of us dead, sir; without it is the baby;” here Geraldine burst into a wailing storm of tears. “I gave them every bit,” she sobbed —“every bit, sir, but the rush-lights; and them they wouldn’t eat, sir, or I never would have touched them. But mother is gone off her head, and baby wouldn’t eat it.”
“You are a little heroine,” said Mordacks, looking at her — the pinched face, and the hollow eyes, and the tottering blue legs of her. “You are greater than a queen. No queen forgets herself in that way.”
“Please, sir, no; I ate almost a box of rush-lights, and they were only done last night. Oh, if baby would have took to them!”
“Hot bread and milk in this bottle; pour it out; feed her first, Molly,” Mr. Mordacks ordered. “The world can’t spare such girls as this. Oh, you won’t eat first! Very well; then the others shall not have a morsel till your mouth is full. And they seem to want it bad enough. Where is the dead baby?”
In the kitchen, where now they stood, not a spark of fire was lingering, but some wood-ash still retained a feeble memory of warmth; and three little children (blest with small advance from babyhood) were huddling around, with hands, and faces, and sharp grimy knees poking in for lukewarm corners; while two rather senior young Carroways were lying fast asleep, with a jack-towel over them. But Tommy was not there; that gallant Tommy, who had ridden all the way to Filey after dark, and brought his poor father to the fatal place.
Mordacks, with his short, bitter-sweet smile, considered all these little ones. They were not beautiful, nor even pretty; one of them was too literally a chip of the old block, for he had reproduced his dear father’s scar; and every one of them wanted a “wash and brush up,” as well as a warming and sound victualling. Corruptio optimi pessima. These children had always been so highly scrubbed, that the great molecular author of existence, dirt, resumed parental sway, with tenfold power of attachment and protection, the moment soap and flannel ceased their wicked usurpation.
“Please, sir, I couldn’t keep them clean, I couldn’t,” cried Geraldine, choking, both with bread and milk, and tears. “I had Tommy to feed through the coal-cellar door; and all the bits of victuals in the house to hunt up; and it did get so dark, and it was so cold. I am frightened to think of what mother will say for my burning up all of her brushes, and the baskets. But please, sir, little Cissy was a-freezing at the nose.”
The three little children at the grate were peeping back over the pits in their shoulders, half frightened at the tall, strange man, and half ready to toddle to him for protection; while the two on the floor sat up and stared, and opened their mouths for their sister’s bread and milk. Then Jerry flew to them, and squatted on the stones, and very nearly choked them with her spoon and basin.
“Molly, take two in your apron, and be off,” said the factor to the stout fish-woman — who was simply full of staring, and of crying out “Oh lor!”—“pop them into the hot bed at once; they want warmth first, and victuals by-and-by. Our wonderful little maid wants food most. I will come after you with the other three. But I must see my little queen fill her own stomach first.”
“But, please, sir, won’t you let our Tommy out first?” cried Jerry, as the strong woman lapped up the two youngest in her woolsey apron and ran off with them. “He has been so good, and he was too proud to cry so soon as ever he found out that mother couldn’t hear him. And I gave him the most to eat of anybody else, because of him being the biggest, sir. It was all as black as ink, going under the door; but Tommy never minded.”
“Wonderful merit! While you were eating tallow! Show me the coal-cellar, and out he comes. But why don’t you speak of your poor mother, child?”
The child, who had been so brave, and clever, self-denying, laborious, and noble, avoided his eyes, and began to lick her spoon, as if she had had enough, starving though she was. She glanced up at the ceiling, and then suddenly withdrew her eyes, and the blue lids trembled over them. Mordacks saw that it was childhood’s dread of death. “Show me where little Tommy is,” he said; “we must not be too hard upon you, my dear. But what made your mother lock you up, and carry on so?”
“I don’t know at all, sir,” said Geraldine.
“Now don’t tell a story,” answered Mr. Mordacks. “You were not meant for lies; and you know all about it. I shall just go away if you tell stories.”
“Then all I know is this,” cried Jerry, running up to him, and desperately clutching at his riding coat; “the very night dear father was put into the pit-hole — oh, hoo, oh, hoo, oh, hoo!”
“Now we can’t stop for that,” said the general factor, as he took her up and kissed her, and the tears, which had vainly tried to stop, ran out of young eyes upon well-seasoned cheeks; “you have been a wonder; I am like a father to you. You must tell me quickly, or else how can I cure it? We will let Tommy out then, and try to save your mother.”
“Mother was sitting in the window, sir,” said the child, trying strongly to command herself, “and I was to one side of her, and Tommy to the other, and none of us was saying anything. And then there came a bad, wicked face against the window, and the man said, ‘What was it you said today, ma’am?’ And mother stood up — she was quite right then — and she opened the window, and she looked right at him, and she said, ‘I spoke the truth, John Cadman. Between you and your God it rests.’ And the man said, ‘You shut your black mouth up, or you and your brats shall all go the same way. Mind one thing — you’ve had your warning.’ Then mother fell away, for she was just worn out; and she lay upon the floor, and she kept on moaning, ‘There is no God! there is no God!’ after all she have taught us to say our prayers to. And there was nothing for baby to draw ever since.”
For once in his life Mr. Mordacks held his tongue; and his face, which was generally fiercer than his mind, was now far behind it in ferocity. He thought within himself, “Well, I am come to something, to have let such things be going on in a matter which pertains to my office — pigeon-hole 100! This comes of false delicacy, my stumbling-block perpetually! No more of that. Now for action.”
Geraldine looked up at him, and said, “Oh, please, sir.” And then she ran off, to show the way toward little Tommy.
The coal-cellar flew open before the foot of Mordacks; but no Tommy appeared, till his sister ran in. The poor little fellow was quite dazzled with the light; and the grime on his cheeks made the inrush of fresh air come like wasps to him. “Now, Tommy, you be good,” said Geraldine; “trouble enough has been made about you.”
The boy put out his under lip, and blinked with great amazement. After such a quantity of darkness and starvation, to be told to be good was a little too bad. His sense of right and wrong became fluid with confusion; he saw no sign of anything to eat; and the loud howl of an injured heart began to issue from the coaly rampart of neglected teeth.
“Quite right, my boy,” Mr. Mordacks said. “You have had a bad time, and are entitled to lament. Wipe your nose on your sleeve, and have at it again.”
“Dirty, dirty things I hear. Who is come into my house like this? My house and my baby belong to me. Go away all of you. How can I bear this noise?”
Mrs. Carroway stood in the passage behind them, looking only fit to die. One of her husband’s watch-coats hung around her, falling nearly to her feet; and the long clothes of her dead baby, which she carried, hung over it, shaking like a white dog’s tail. She was standing with her bare feet well apart, and that swing of hip and heel alternate which mothers for a thousand generations have supposed to lull their babies into sweet sleep.
For once in his life the general factor had not the least idea of the proper thing to do. Not only did he not find it, but he did not even seek for it, standing aside rather out of the way, and trying to look like a calm spectator. But this availed him to no account whatever. He was the only man there, and the woman naturally fixed upon him.
“You are the man,” she said, in a quiet and reasonable voice, and coming up to Mordacks with the manner of a lady; “you are the gentleman, I mean, who promised to bring back my husband. Where is he? Have you fulfilled your promise?”
“My dear madam, my dear madam, consider your children, and how cold you are. Allow me to conduct you to a warmer place. You scarcely seem to enter into the situation.”
“Oh yes, I do, sir; thoroughly, thoroughly. My husband is in his grave; my children are going after him; and the best place for them. But they shall not be murdered. I will lock them up, so that they never shall be murdered.”
“My dear lady, I agree with you entirely. You do the very wisest thing in these bad times. But you know me well. I have had the honor of making your acquaintance in a pleasant manner. I feel for your children, quite as if I was — I mean, ma’am, a very fine old gentleman’s affection. Geraldine, come and kiss me, my darling. Tommy, you may have the other side; never mind the coal, my boy; there is a coal-wharf quite close to my windows at home.”
These children, who had been hiding behind Mr. Mordacks and Molly (who was now come back), immediately did as he ordered them; or rather Jerry led the way, and made Tommy come as well, by a signal which he never durst gainsay. But while they saluted the general factor (who sat down upon a box to accommodate them), from the corners of their eyes they kept a timid, trembling, melancholy watch upon their own mother.
Poor Mrs. Carroway was capable of wondering. Her power of judgment was not so far lost as it is in a dream — where we wonder at nothing, but cast off skeptic misery — and for the moment she seemed to be brought home from the distance of roving delusion, by looking at two of her children kissing a man who was hunting in his pocket for his card.
“Circumstances, madam,” said Mr. Mordacks, “have deprived me of the pleasure of producing my address. It should be in two of my pockets; but it seems to have strangely escaped from both of them. However, I will write it down, if required. Geraldine dear, where is your school slate? Go and look for it, and take Tommy with you.”
This surprised Mrs. Carroway, and began to make her think. These were her children — she was nearly sure of that — her own poor children, who were threatened from all sides with the likelihood of being done away with. Yet here was a man who made much of them, and kissed them; and they kissed him without asking her permission!
“I scarcely know what it is about,” she said; “and my husband is not here to help me.”
“You have hit the very point, ma’am. You must take it on yourself. How wonderfully clever the ladies always are! Your family is waiting for a government supply; everybody knows that everybody in the world may starve before government thinks of supplying supply. I do not belong to the government — although if I had my deserts I should have done so — but fully understanding them, I step in to anticipate their action. I see that the children of a very noble officer, and his admirable wife, have been neglected, through the rigor of the weather and condition of the roads. I am a very large factor in the neighborhood, who make a good thing out of all such cases. I step in; circumstances favor me; I discover a good stroke of business; my very high character, though much obscured by diffidence, secures me universal confidence. The little dears take to me, and I to them. They feel themselves safe under my protection from their most villainous enemies. They are pleased to kiss a man of strength and spirit, who represents the government.”
Mrs. Carroway scarcely understood a jot of this. Such a rush of words made her weak brain go round, and she looked about vainly for her children, who had gladly escaped upon the chance afforded. But she came to the conclusion she was meant to come to — that this gentleman before her was the government.
“I will do whatever I am told,” she said, looking miserably round, as if for anything to care about; “only I must count my children first, or the government might say there was not the proper number.”
“Of all points that is the very one that I would urge,” Mordacks answered, without dismay. “Molly, conduct this good lady to her room. Light a good fire, as the Commissioners have ordered; warm the soup sent from the arsenal last night, but be sure that you put no pepper in it. The lady will go with you, and follow our directions. She sees the importance of having all her faculties perfectly clear when we make our schedule, as we shall do in a few hours’ time, of all the children; every one, with the date of their birth, and their Christian names, which nobody knows so well as their own dear mother. Ah, how very sweet it is to have so many of them; and to know the pride, the pleasure, the delight, which the nation feels in providing for the welfare of every little darling!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05