Read CHAPTER XXV - DOWN AMONG THE DEAD WEEDS of Mary Anerley, free online book, by R. D. Blackmore, on

Can it be supposed that all this time Master Geoffrey Mordacks, of the city of York, land agent, surveyor, and general factor, and maker and doer of everything whether general or particular, was spending his days in doing nothing, and his nights in dreaming?  If so, he must have had a sunstroke on that very bright day of the year when he stirred up the minds of the washer-women, and the tongue of Widow Precious.  But Flamborough is not at all the place for sunstroke, although it reflects so much in whitewash; neither had Mordacks the head to be sunstruck, but a hard, impenetrable, wiry poll, as weather-proof as felt asphalted.  At first sight almost everybody said that he must have been a soldier, at a time when soldiers were made of iron, whalebone, whip-cord, and ramrods.  Such opinions he rewarded with a grin, and shook his straight shoulders straighter.  If pride of any sort was not beneath him, as a matter of strict business, it was the pride which he allowed his friends to take in his military figure and aspect.

This gentleman’s place of business was scarcely equal to the expectations which might have been formed from a view of the owner.  The old King’s Staith, on the right hand after crossing Ouse Bridge from the Micklegate, is a passageway scarcely to be called a street, but combining the features of an alley, a lane, a jetty, a quay, and a barge-walk, and ending ignominiously.  Nevertheless, it is a lively place sometimes, and in moments of excitement.  Also it is a good place for business, and for brogue of the broadest; and a man who is unable to be happy there, must have something on his mind unusual.  Geoffrey Mordacks had nothing on his mind except other people’s business; which (as in the case of Lawyer Jellicorse) is a very favorable state of the human constitution for happiness.

But though Mr. Mordacks attended so to other people’s business, he would not have anybody to attend to his.  No partner, no clerk, no pupil, had a hand in the inner breast pockets of his business; there was nothing mysterious about his work, but he liked to follow it out alone.  Things that were honest and wise came to him to be carried out with judgment; and he knew that the best way to carry them out is to act with discreet candor.  For the slug shall be known by his slime; and the spider who shams death shall receive it.

Now here, upon a very sad November afternoon, when the Northern day was narrowing in; and the Ouse, which is usually of a ginger-color, was nearly as dark as a nutmeg; and the bridge, and the staith, and the houses, and the people, resembled one another in tint and tone; while between the Minster and the Clifford Tower there was not much difference of outline — here and now Master Geoffrey Mordacks was sitting in the little room where strangers were received.  The live part of his household consisted of his daughter, and a very young Geoffrey, who did more harm than good, and a thoroughly hard-working country maid, whose slowness was gradually giving way to pressure.

The weather was enough to make anybody dull, and the sap of every human thing insipid; and the time of day suggested tea, hot cakes, and the crossing of comfortable legs.  Mordacks could well afford all these good things, and he never was hard upon his family; but every day he liked to feel that he had earned the bread of it, and this day he had labored without seeming to earn anything.  For after all the ordinary business of the morning, he had been devoting several hours to the diligent revisal of his premises and data, in a matter which he was resolved to carry through, both for his credit and his interest.  And this was the matter which had cost him two days’ ride, from York to Flamborough, and three days on the road home, as was natural after such a dinner as he made in little Denmark.  But all that trouble he would not have minded, especially after his enjoyment of the place, if it had only borne good fruit.  He had felt quite certain that it must do this, and that he would have to pay another visit to the Head, and eat another duck, and have a flirt with Widow Precious.

But up to the present time nothing had come of it, and so far as he could see he might just as well have spared himself that long rough ride.  Three months had passed, and that surely was enough for even Flamborough folk to do something, if they ever meant to do it.  It was plain that he had been misled for once, that what he suspected had not come to pass, and that he must seek elsewhere the light which had gleamed upon him vainly from the Danish town.  To this end he went through all his case again, while hope (being very hard to beat, as usual) kept on rambling over everything unsettled, with a very sage conviction that there must be something there, and doubly sure, because there was no sign of it.

Men at the time of life which he had reached, conducting their bodies with less suppleness of joint, and administering food to them with greater care, begin to have doubts about their intellect as well, whether it can work as briskly as it used to do.  And the mind, falling under this discouragement of doubt, asserts itself amiss, in making futile strokes, even as a gardener can never work his best while conscious of suspicious glances through the window-blinds.  Geoffrey Mordacks told himself that it could not be the self it used to be, in the days when no mistakes were made, but everything was evident at half a glance, and carried out successfully with only half a hand.  In this Flamborough matter he had felt no doubt of running triumphantly through, and being crowned with five hundred pounds in one issue of the case, and five thousand in the other.  But lo! here was nothing.  And he must reply, by the next mail, that he had made a sad mistake.

Suddenly, while he was rubbing his wiry head with irritation, and poring over his letters for some clew, like a dunce going back through his pot-hooks, suddenly a great knock sounded through the house — one, two, three — like the thumping of a mallet on a cask, to learn whether any beer may still be hoped for.

“This must be a Flamborough man,” cried Master Mordacks, jumping up; “that is how I heard them do it; they knock the doors, instead of knocking at them.  It would be a very strange thing just now if news were to come from Flamborough; but the stranger a thing is, the more it can be trusted, as often is the case with human beings.  Whoever it is, show them up at once,” he shouted down the narrow stairs; for no small noise was arising in the passage.

“A’ canna coom oop.  I wand a’ canna,” was the answer in Kitty’s well-known brogue; “how can a’, when a’ hanna got naa legs?”

“Oh ho!  I see,” said Mr. Mordacks to himself; “my veteran friend from the watch-tower, doubtless.  A man with no legs would not have come so far for nothing.  Show the gentleman into the parlor, Kitty; and Miss Arabella may bring her work up here.”

The general factor, though eager for the news, knew better than to show any haste about it; so he kept the old mariner just long enough in waiting to damp a too covetous ardor, and then he complacently locked Arabella in her bedroom, and bolted off Kitty in the basement; because they both were sadly inquisitive, and this strange arrival had excited them.

“Ah, mine ancient friend of the tower!  Veteran Joseph, if my memory is right,” Mr. Mordacks exclaimed, in his lively way, as he went up and offered the old tar both hands, to seat him in state upon the sofa; but the legless sailor condemned “them swabs,” and crutched himself into a hard-bottomed chair.  Then he pulled off his hat, and wiped his white head with a shred of old flag, and began hunting for his pipe.

“First time I ever was in York city; and don’t think much of it, if this here is a sample.”

“Joseph, you must not be supercilious,” his host replied, with an amiable smile; “you will see things better through a glass of grog; and the state of the weather points to something dark.  You have had a long journey, and the scenery is new.  Rum shall it be, my friend?  Your countenance says ‘yes.’  Rum, like a ruby of the finest water, have I; and no water shall you have with it.  Said I well?  A man without legs must keep himself well above water.”

“First time I ever was in York city,” the ancient watchman answered, “and grog must be done as they does it here.  A berth on them old walls would suit me well; and no need to travel such a distance for my beer.”

“And you would be the man of all the world for such a berth,” said Master Mordacks, gravely, as he poured the sparkling liquor into a glass that was really a tumbler; “for such a post we want a man who is himself a post; a man who will not quit his duty, just because he can not, which is the only way of making sure.  Joseph, your idea is a very good one, and your beer could be brought to you at the middle of each watch.  I have interest; you shall be appointed.”

“Sir, I am obligated to you,” said the watchman; “but never could I live a month without a wink of sea-stuff.  The coming of the clouds, and the dipping of the land, and the waiting of the distance for what may come to be in it; let alone how they goes changing of their color, and making of a noise that is always out of sight:  it is the very same as my beer is to me.  Master, I never could get on without it.”

“Well, I can understand a thing like that,” Mordacks answered, graciously; “my water-butt leaked for three weeks, pat, pat, all night long upon a piece of slate, and when a man came and caulked it up, I put all the blame upon the pillow; but the pillow was as good as ever.  Not a wink could I sleep till it began to leak again; and you may trust a York workman that it wasn’t very long.  But, Joseph, I have interest at Scarborough also.  The castle needs a watchman for fear of tumbling down; and that is not the soldiers’ business, because they are inside.  There you could have quantities of sea-stuff, my good friend; and the tap at the Hooked Cod is nothing to it there.  Cheer up, Joseph, we will land you yet.  How the devil did you manage, now, to come so far?”

“Well, now, your honor, I had rare luck for it, as I must say, ever since I set eyes on you.  There comes a son of mine as I thought were lost at sea; but not he, blow me! nearly all of him come back, with a handful of guineas, and the memory of his father.  Lord!  I could have cried; and he up and blubbered fairly, a trick as he learned from ten Frenchmen he had killed.  Ah! he have done his work well, and aimed a good conduck — fourpence-halfpenny a day, so long as ever he shall live hereafter.”

“In this world you mean, I suppose, my friend; but be not overcome; such things will happen.  But what did you do with all that money, Joseph?”

“We never wasted none of it, not half a groat, Sir.  We finished out the cellar at the Hooked Cod first; and when Mother Precious made a grumble of it, we gave her the money for to fill it up again, upon the understanding to come back when it was ready; and then we went to Burlington, and spent the rest in poshays like two gentlemen; and when we was down upon our stumps at last, for only one leg there is between us both, your honor, my boy he ups and makes a rummage in his traps; which the Lord he put it into his mind to do so, when he were gone a few good sheets in the wind; and there sure enough he finds five good guineas in the tail of an old hankercher he had clean forgotten; and he says, ’Now, father, you take care of them.  Let us go and see the capital, and that good gentleman, as you have picked up a bit of news for.’  So we shaped a course for York, on board the schooner Mary Anne, and from Goole in a barge as far as this here bridge; and here we are, high and dry, your honor.  I was half a mind to bring in my boy Bob; but he saith, ‘Not without the old chap axes;’ and being such a noisy one, I took him at his word; though he hath found out what there was to find — not me.”

“How noble a thing is parental love!” cried the general factor, in his hard, short way, which made many people trust him, because it was unpleasant; “and filial duty of unfathomable grog!  Worthy Joseph, let your narrative proceed.”

“They big words is beyond me, Sir.  What use is any man to talk over a chap’s head?”

“Then, dash your eyes, go on, Joe.  Can you understand that, now?”

“Yes, Sir, I can, and I likes a thing put sensible.  If the gentlemen would always speak like that, there need be no difference atween us.  Well, it was all along of all that money-bag of Bob’s that he and I found out anything.  What good were your guinea?  Who could stand treat on that more than a night or two, and the right man never near you?  But when you keep a good shop open for a month, as Bob and me did with Widow Tapsy, it standeth to reason that you must have everybody, to be called at all respectable, for miles and miles around.  For the first few nights or so some on ’em holds off — for an old chalk against them, or for doubt of what is forrard, or for cowardliness of their wives, or things they may have sworn to stop, or other bad manners.  But only go on a little longer, and let them see that you don’t care, and send everybody home a-singing through the lanes as merry as a voting-time for Parliament, and the outer ones begins to shake their heads, and to say that they are bound to go, and stop the racket of it.  And so you get them all, your honor, saints as well as sinners, if you only keeps the tap turned long enough.”

“Your reasoning is ingenious, Joseph, and shows a deep knowledge of human nature.  But who was this tardy saint that came at last for grog?”

“Your honor, he were as big a sinner as ever you clap eyes on.  Me and my son was among the sawdust, spite of our three crutches, and he spreading hands at us, sober as a judge, for lumps of ungenerous iniquity.  Mother Tapsy told us of it, the very next day, for it was not in our power to be ackirate when he done it, and we see everybody laffing at us round the corner.  But we took the wind out of his sails the next night, captain, you may warrant us.  Here’s to your good health, Sir, afore I beats to win’ard.”

“Why, Joseph, you seem to be making up lost way for years of taciturnity in the tower.  They say there is a balance in all things.”

“We had the balance of him next night, and no mistake, your honor.  He was one of them ’longshore beggars as turns up here, there, and everywhere, galley-raking, like a stinking ray-fish when the tide goes out; thundering scoundrels that make a living of it, pushing out for roguery with their legs tucked up; no courage for smuggling, nor honest enough, they goes on anyhow with their children paid for.  We found out what he were, and made us more ashamed, for such a sneaking rat to preach upon us, like a regular hordinated chaplain, as might say a word or two and mean no harm, with the license of the Lord to do it.  So my son Bob and me called a court-martial in the old tower, so soon as we come round; and we had a red herring, because we was thirsty, and we chawed a bit of pigtail to keep it down.  At first we was glum; but we got our peckers up, as a family is bound to do when they comes together.  My son Bob was a sharp lad in his time, and could read in Holy Scripter afore he chewed a quid; and I see’d a good deal of it in his mind now, remembering of King Solomon.  ‘Dad,’ he says, ’fetch out that bottle as was left of French white brandy, and rouse up a bit of fire in the old port-hole.  We ain’t got many toes to warm between us’ — only five, you see, your worship — ’but,’ says he, ’we’ll warm up the currents where they used to be.’

“According to what my son said, I done; for he leadeth me now, being younger of the two, and still using half of a shoemaker.  However, I says to him, ‘Warm yourself; it don’t lay in my power to do that for you.’  He never said nothing; for he taketh after me, in tongue and other likings; but he up with the kettle on the fire, and put in about a fathom and a half of pigtail.  ‘So?’ says I; and he says, ‘So!’ and we both of us began to laugh, as long and as gentle as a pair of cockles, with their tongues inside their shells.

“Well, your honor understands; I never spake so much before since ever I pass my coorting-time.  We boiled down the pigtail to a pint of tidy soup, and strained it as bright as sturgeon juice; then we got a bottle with ‘Navy Supply’ on a bull’s-eye in the belly of it; and we filled it with the French white brandy, and the pigtail soup, and a noggin of molasses, and shook it all up well together; and a better contract-rum, your honor, never come into high admiral’s stores.”

“But, Joseph, good Joseph,” cried Mr. Mordacks, “do forge ahead a little faster.  Your private feelings, and the manufacture of them, are highly interesting to you; but I only want to know what came of it.”

“Your honor is like a child hearing of a story; you wants the end first, and the middle of it after; but I bowls along with a hitch and a squirt, from habit of fo’castle:  and the more you crosses hawse, the wider I shall head about, or down helm and bear off, mayhap.  I can hear my Bob a-singing:  what a voice he hath!  They tell me it cometh from the timber of his leg; the same as a old Cremony.  He tuned up a many times in yonder old barge, and shook the brown water, like a frigate’s wake.  He would just make our fortin in the Minister, they said, with Black-eyed Susan and Tom Bowline.”

“Truly, he has a magnificent voice:  what power, what compass, what a rich clear tone!  In spite of the fog I will have the window up.”

Geoffrey Mordacks loved good singing, the grandest of all melody, and, impatient as he was, he forgot all hurry; while the river, and the buildings, and the arches of the bridge, were ringing, and echoing, and sweetly embosoming the mellow delivery of the one-legged tar.  And old Joe was highly pleased, although he would not show it, at such an effect upon a man so hard and dry.

“Now, your honor, it is overbad of you,” he continued, with a softening grin, “to hasten me so, and then to hear me out o’ window, because Bob hath a sweeter pipe.  Ah, he can whistle like a blackbird, too, and gain a lot of money; but there, what good?  He sacrifices it all to the honor of his heart, first maggot that cometh into it; and he done the very same with Rickon Goold, the Methody galley-raker.  We never was so softy when I were afloat.  But your honor shall hear, and give judgment for yourself.

“Mother Precious was ready in her mind to run out a double-shotted gun at Rickon, who liveth down upon the rabbit-warren, to the other side of Bempton, because he scarcely ever doth come nigh her; and when he do come, he putteth up both bands, to bless her for hospitality, but neither of them into his breeches pocket.  And being a lone woman, she doth feel it.  Bob and me gave her sailing orders — ’twould amaze you, captain; all was carried out as ship-shape as the battle of the Nile.  There was Rickon Goold at anchor, with a spring upon his cable, having been converted; and he up and hailed that he would slip, at the very first bad word we used.  My son hath such knowledge of good words that he, answered, ‘Amen, so be it.’

“Well, your honor, we goes on decorous, as our old quartermaster used to give the word; and we tried him first with the usual tipple, and several other hands dropped in.  But my son and me never took a blessed drop, except from a gin-bottle full of cold water, till we see all the others with their scuppers well awash.  Then Bob he findeth fault — Lor’ how beautiful he done it! — with the scantling of the stuff; and he shouteth out, ’Mother, I’m blest if I won’t stand that old guinea bottle of best Jamaica, the one as you put by, with the cobwebs on it, for Lord Admiral.  No Lord Admiral won’t come now.  Just you send away, and hoist it up.’

“Rickon Goold pricked up his ugly ears at this; and Mother Tapsy did it bootiful.  And to cut a long yarn short, we spliced him, captain, with never a thought of what would come of it; only to have our revenge, your honor.  He showed himself that greedy of our patent rum, that he never let the bottle out of his own elbow, and the more he stowed away, the more his derrick chains was creaking; but if anybody reasoned, there he stood upon his rights, and defied every way of seeing different, until we was compelled to take and spread him down, in the little room with sea-weeds over it.

“With all this, Bob and me was as sober as two judges, though your honor would hardly believe it, perhaps; but we left him in the dark, to come round upon the weeds, as a galley-raker ought to do.  And now we began to have a little drop ourselves, after towing the prize into port, and recovering the honor of the British navy; and we stood all round to every quarter of the compass, with the bottom of the locker still not come to shallow soundings.  But sudden our harmony was spoiled by a scream, like a whistle from the very bottom of the sea.

“We all of us jumped up, as if a gun had broke its lashings; and the last day of judgment was the thoughts of many bodies; but Bob he down at once with his button-stump gun-metal, and takes the command of the whole of us.  ‘Bear a hand, all on you,’ he saith, quite steadfast; ’Rickon Goold is preaching to his own text to-night.’  And so a’ was, sure enough; so a’ was, your honor.

“We thought he must have died, although he managed to claw off of it, with confessing of his wickedness, and striking to his Maker.  All of us was frightened so, there was no laugh among us, till we come to talk over it afterward.  There the thundering rascal lay in the middle of that there mangerie of sea-stuff, as Mother Precious is so proud of, that the village calleth it the ‘Widow’s Weeds.’  Blest if he didn’t think that he were a-lying at the bottom of the sea, among the stars and cuttles, waiting for the day of judgment!

“‘Oh, Captain McNabbins, and Mate Govery,’ he cries, ’the hand of the Lord hath sent me down to keep you company down here.  I never would ’a done it, captain, hard as you was on me, if only I had knowed how dark and cold and shivery it would be down here.  I cut the plank out; I’ll not lie; no lies is any good down here, with the fingers of the deep things pointing to me, and the black devil’s wings coming over me — but a score of years agone it were, and never no one dreamed of it — oh, pull away, pull! for God’s sake, pull! — the wet woman and the three innocent babbies crawling over me like congers!’

“This was the shadows of our legs, your honor, from good Mother Tapsy’s candle; for she was in a dreadful way by this time about her reputation and her weeds, and come down with her tongue upon the lot of us.  ’Enter all them names upon the log,’ says I to Bob, for he writeth like a scholar.  But Bob says, ‘Hold hard, dad; now or never.’  And with that, down he goeth on the deck himself, and wriggleth up to Rickon through the weeds, with a hiss like a great sea-snake, and grippeth him.  ’Name of ship, you sinner!’ cried Bob, in his deep voice, like Old Nick a-hailing from a sepulchre.  ‘Golconda, of Calcutta,’ says the fellow, with a groan as seemed to come out of the whites of his eyes; and down goes his head again, enough to split a cat-head.  And that was the last of him we heard that night.

“Well, now, captain, you scarcely would believe, but although my nob is so much older of the pair, and white where his is as black as any coal, Bob’s it was as first throwed the painter up, for a-hitching of this drifty to the starn of your consarns.  And it never come across him till the locker was run out, and the two of us pulling longer faces than our legs is.  Then Bob, by the mercy of the Lord, like Peter, found them guineas in the corner of his swab — some puts it round their necks, and some into their pockets; I never heard of such a thing till chaps run soft and watery — and so we come to this here place to change the air and the breeding, and spin this yarn to your honor’s honor, as hath a liberal twist in it; and then to take orders, and draw rations, and any ’rears of pay fallen due, after all dibs gone in your service; and for Bob to tip a stave in the Minister.”

“You have done wisely and well in coming here,” said Mr, Mordacks, cheerfully; “but we must have further particulars, my friend.  You seem to have hit upon the clew I wanted, but it must be followed very cautiously.  You know where to lay your hand upon this villain?  You have had the sense not to scare him off?”

Sartén, your honor.  I could clap the irons on him any hour you gives that signal.”

“Capital!  Take your son to see the sights, and both of you come to me at ten to-morrow morning.  Stop:  you may as well take this half guinea.  But when you get drunk, drink inwards.”