Sylvia's Lovers/Chapter V

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Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter V: Story of the press-gang


STORY OF THE PRESS-GANG

For a few days after the evening mentioned in the last chapter the weather was dull. Not in quick, sudden showers did the rain come down, but in constant drizzle, blotting out all colour from the surrounding landscape, and filling the air with fine gray mist, until people breathed more water than air. At such times the consciousness of the nearness of the vast unseen sea acted as a dreary depression to the spirits; but besides acting on the nerves of the excitable, such weather affected the sensitive or ailing in material ways. Daniel Robson's fit of rheumatism incapacitated him from stirring abroad; and to a man of his active habits, and somewhat inactive mind, this was a great hardship. He was not ill-tempered naturally, but this state of confinement made him more ill-tempered than he had ever been before in his life. He sat in the chimney-corner, abusing the weather and doubting the wisdom or desirableness of all his wife saw fit to do in the usual daily household matters. The 'chimney-corner' was really a corner at Haytersbank. There were two projecting walls on each side of the fire-place, running about six feet into the room, and a stout wooden settle was placed against one of these, while opposite was the circular-backed 'master's chair,' the seat of which was composed of a square piece of wood judiciously hollowed out, and placed with one corner to the front. Here, in full view of all the operations going on over the fire, sat Daniel Robson for four live-long days, advising and directing his wife in all such minor matters as the boiling of potatoes, the making of porridge, all the work on which she specially piqued herself, and on which she would have taken advice--no! not from the most skilled housewife in all the three Ridings. But, somehow, she managed to keep her tongue quiet from telling him, as she would have done any woman, and any other man, to mind his own business, or she would pin a dish-clout to his tail. She even checked Sylvia when the latter proposed, as much for fun as for anything else, that his ignorant directions should be followed, and the consequences brought before his eyes and his nose.

'Na, na!' said Bell, 'th' feyther's feyther, and we mun respect him. But it's dree work havin' a man i' th' house, nursing th' fire, an' such weather too, and not a soul coming near us, not even to fall out wi' him; for thee and me must na' do that, for th' Bible's sake, dear; and a good stand-up wordy quarrel would do him a power of good; stir his blood like. I wish Philip would turn up.'

Bell sighed, for in these four days she had experienced somewhat of Madame de Maintenon's difficulty (and with fewer resources to meet it) of trying to amuse a man who was not amusable. For Bell, good and sensible as she was, was not a woman of resources. Sylvia's plan, undutiful as it was in her mother's eyes, would have done Daniel more good, even though it might have made him angry, than his wife's quiet, careful monotony of action, which, however it might conduce to her husband's comfort when he was absent, did not amuse him when present.

Sylvia scouted the notion of cousin Philip coming into their household in the character of an amusing or entertaining person, till she nearly made her mother angry at her ridicule of the good steady young fellow, to whom Bell looked up as the pattern of all that early manhood should be. But the moment Sylvia saw she had been giving her mother pain, she left off her wilful little jokes, and kissed her, and told her she would manage all famously, and ran out of the back-kitchen, in which mother and daughter had been scrubbing the churn and all the wooden implements of butter-making. Bell looked at the pretty figure of her little daughter, as, running past with her apron thrown over her head, she darkened the window beneath which her mother was doing her work. She paused just for a moment, and then said, almost unawares to herself, 'Bless thee, lass,' before resuming her scouring of what already looked almost snow-white.

Sylvia scampered across the rough farmyard in the wetting, drizzling rain to the place where she expected to find Kester; but he was not there, so she had to retrace her steps to the cow-house, and, making her way up a rough kind of ladder-staircase fixed straight against the wall, she surprised Kester as he sat in the wool-loft, looking over the fleeces reserved for the home-spinning, by popping her bright face, swathed round with her blue woollen apron, up through the trap-door, and thus, her head the only visible part, she addressed the farm-servant, who was almost like one of the family.

'Kester, feyther's just tiring hissel' wi' weariness an' vexation, sitting by t' fireside wi' his hands afore him, an' nought to do. An' mother and me can't think on aught as 'll rouse him up to a bit of a laugh, or aught more cheerful than a scolding. Now, Kester, thou mun just be off, and find Harry Donkin th' tailor, and bring him here; it's gettin' on for Martinmas, an' he'll be coming his rounds, and he may as well come here first as last, and feyther's clothes want a deal o' mending up, and Harry's always full of his news, and anyhow he'll do for feyther to scold, an' be a new person too, and that's somewhat for all on us. Now go, like a good old Kester as yo' are.'

Kester looked at her with loving, faithful admiration. He had set himself his day's work in his master's absence, and was very desirous of finishing it, but, somehow, he never dreamed of resisting Sylvia, so he only stated the case.

'T' 'ool's a vast o' muck in 't, an' a thowt as a'd fettle it, an' do it up; but a reckon a mun do yo'r biddin'.'

'There's a good old Kester,' said she, smiling, and nodding her muffled head at him; then she dipped down out of his sight, then rose up again (he had never taken his slow, mooney eyes from the spot where she had disappeared) to say--'Now, Kester, be wary and deep--thou mun tell Harry Donkin not to let on as we've sent for him, but just to come in as if he were on his round, and took us first; and he mun ask feyther if there is any work for him to do; and I'll answer for 't, he'll have a welcome and a half. Now, be deep and fause, mind thee!'

'A'se deep an' fause enow wi' simple folk; but what can a do i' Donkin be as fause as me--as happen he may be?'

'Ga way wi' thee! I' Donkin be Solomon, thou mun be t' Queen o' Sheba; and I'se bound for to say she outwitted him at last!'

Kester laughed so long at the idea of his being the Queen of Sheba, that Sylvia was back by her mother's side before the cachinnation ended.

That night, just as Sylvia was preparing to go to bed in her little closet of a room, she heard some shot rattling at her window. She opened the little casement, and saw Kester standing below. He recommenced where he left off, with a laugh--

'He, he, he! A's been t' queen! A'se ta'en Donkin on t' reet side, an' he'll coom in to-morrow, just permiskus, an' ax for work, like as if 't were a favour; t' oud felley were a bit cross-grained at startin', for he were workin' at farmer Crosskey's up at t' other side o' t' town, wheer they puts a strike an' a half of maut intil t' beer, when most folk put nobbut a strike, an t' made him ill to convince: but he'll coom, niver fear!'

The honest fellow never said a word of the shilling he had paid out of his own pocket to forward Sylvia's wishes, and to persuade the tailor to leave the good beer. All his anxiety now was to know if he had been missed, and if it was likely that a scolding awaited him in the morning.

'T' oud measter didn't set up his back, 'cause a didn't coom in t' supper?'

'He questioned a bit as to what thou were about, but mother didn't know, an' I held my peace. Mother carried thy supper in t' loft for thee.'

'A'll gang after 't, then, for a'm like a pair o' bellowses wi' t' wind out; just two flat sides wi' nowt betwixt.'

The next morning, Sylvia's face was a little redder than usual when Harry Donkin's bow-legs were seen circling down the path to the house door.

'Here's Donkin, for sure!' exclaimed Bell, when she caught sight of him a minute after her daughter. 'Well, I just call that lucky! for he'll be company for thee while Sylvia and me has to turn th' cheeses.'

This was too original a remark for a wife to make in Daniel's opinion, on this especial morning, when his rheumatism was twinging him more than usual, so he replied with severity--

'That's all t' women know about it. Wi' them it's "coompany, coompany, coompany," an' they think a man's no better than theirsels. A'd have yo' to know a've a vast o' thoughts in myself', as I'm noane willing to lay out for t' benefit o' every man. A've niver gotten time for meditation sin' a were married; leastways, sin' a left t' sea. Aboard ship, wi' niver a woman wi'n leagues o' hail, and upo' t' masthead, in special, a could.'

'Then I'd better tell Donkin as we've no work for him,' said Sylvia, instinctively managing her father by agreeing with him, instead of reasoning with or contradicting him.

'Now, theere you go!' wrenching himself round, for fear Sylvia should carry her meekly made threat into execution. 'Ugh! ugh!' as his limb hurt him. 'Come in, Harry, come in, and talk a bit o' sense to me, for a've been shut up wi' women these four days, and a'm a'most a nateral by this time. A'se bound for 't, they'll find yo' some wark, if 't's nought but for to save their own fingers.'

So Harry took off his coat, and seated himself professional-wise on the hastily-cleared dresser, so that he might have all the light afforded by the long, low casement window. Then he blew in his thimble, sucked his finger, so that they might adhere tightly together, and looked about for a subject for opening conversation, while Sylvia and her mother might be heard opening and shutting drawers and box-lids before they could find the articles that needed repair, or that were required to mend each other.

'Women's well enough i' their way,' said Daniel, in a philosophizing tone, 'but a man may have too much on 'em. Now there's me, leg-fast these four days, and a'll make free to say to yo', a'd rather a deal ha' been loading dung i' t' wettest weather; an' a reckon it's th' being wi' nought but women as tires me so: they talk so foolish it gets int' t' bones like. Now thou know'st thou'rt not called much of a man oather, but bless yo', t' ninth part's summut to be thankful for, after nought but women. An' yet, yo' seen, they were for sending yo' away i' their foolishness! Well! missus, and who's to pay for t' fettling of all them clothes?' as Bell came down with her arms full. She was going to answer her husband meekly and literally according to her wont, but Sylvia, already detecting the increased cheerfulness of his tone, called out from behind her mother--

'I am, feyther. I'm going for to sell my new cloak as I bought Thursday, for the mending on your old coats and waistcoats.'

'Hearken till her,' said Daniel, chuckling. 'She's a true wench. Three days sin' noane so full as she o' t' new cloak that now she's fain t' sell.'

'Ay, Harry. If feyther won't pay yo' for making all these old clothes as good as new, I'll sell my new red cloak sooner than yo' shall go unpaid.'

'A reckon it's a bargain,' said Harry, casting sharp, professional eyes on the heap before him, and singling out the best article as to texture for examination and comment.

'They're all again these metal buttons,' said he. 'Silk weavers has been petitioning Ministers t' make a law to favour silk buttons; and I did hear tell as there were informers goin' about spyin' after metal buttons, and as how they could haul yo' before a justice for wearing on 'em.'

'A were wed in 'em, and a'll wear 'em to my dyin' day, or a'll wear noane at a'. They're for making such a pack o' laws, they'll be for meddling wi' my fashion o' sleeping next, and taxing me for ivery snore a give. They've been after t' winders, and after t' vittle, and after t' very saut to 't; it's dearer by hauf an' more nor it were when a were a boy: they're a meddlesome set o' folks, law-makers is, an' a'll niver believe King George has ought t' do wi' 't. But mark my words; I were wed wi' brass buttons, and brass buttons a'll wear to my death, an' if they moither me about it, a'll wear brass buttons i' my coffin!'

By this time Harry had arranged a certain course of action with Mrs Robson, conducting the consultation and agreement by signs. His thread was flying fast already, and the mother and daughter felt more free to pursue their own business than they had done for several days; for it was a good sign that Daniel had taken his pipe out of the square hollow in the fireside wall, where he usually kept it, and was preparing to diversify his remarks with satisfying interludes of puffing.

'Why, look ye; this very baccy had a run for 't. It came ashore sewed up neatly enough i' a woman's stays, as was wife to a fishing-smack down at t' bay yonder. She were a lean thing as iver you saw, when she went for t' see her husband aboard t' vessel; but she coom back lustier by a deal, an' wi' many a thing on her, here and theere, beside baccy. An' that were i' t' face o' coast-guard and yon tender, an' a'. But she made as though she were tipsy, an' so they did nought but curse her, an' get out on her way.'

'Speaking of t' tender, there's been a piece o' wark i' Monkshaven this week wi' t' press-gang,' said Harry.

'Ay! ay! our lass was telling about 't; but, Lord bless ye! there's no gettin' t' rights on a story out on a woman--though a will say this for our Sylvie, she's as bright a lass as iver a man looked at.'

Now the truth was, that Daniel had not liked to demean himself, at the time when Sylvia came back so full of what she had seen at Monkshaven, by evincing any curiosity on the subject. He had then thought that the next day he would find some business that should take him down to the town, when he could learn all that was to be learnt, without flattering his womankind by asking questions, as if anything they might say could interest him. He had a strong notion of being a kind of domestic Jupiter.

'It's made a deal o' wark i' Monkshaven. Folk had gotten to think nought o' t' tender, she lay so still, an' t' leftenant paid such a good price for all he wanted for t' ship. But o' Thursday t' _Resolution_, first whaler back this season, came in port, and t' press-gang showed their teeth, and carried off four as good able-bodied seamen as iver I made trousers for; and t' place were all up like a nest o' wasps, when yo've set your foot in t' midst. They were so mad, they were ready for t' fight t' very pavin' stones.'

'A wish a'd been theere! A just wish a had! A've a score for t' reckon up wi' t' press-gang!'

And the old man lifted up his right hand--his hand on which the forefinger and thumb were maimed and useless--partly in denunciation, and partly as a witness of what he had endured to escape from the service, abhorred because it was forced. His face became a totally different countenance with the expression of settled and unrelenting indignation, which his words called out.

'G'on, man, g'on,' said Daniel, impatient with Donkin for the little delay occasioned by the necessity of arranging his work more fully.

'Ay! ay! all in good time; for a've a long tale to tell yet; an' a mun have some 'un to iron me out my seams, and look me out my bits, for there's none here fit for my purpose.'

'Dang thy bits! Here, Sylvie! Sylvie! come and be tailor's man, and let t' chap get settled sharp, for a'm fain t' hear his story.'

Sylvia took her directions, and placed her irons in the fire, and ran upstairs for the bundle which had been put aside by her careful mother for occasions like the present. It consisted of small pieces of various coloured cloth, cut out of old coats and waistcoats, and similar garments, when the whole had become too much worn for use, yet when part had been good enough to be treasured by a thrifty housewife. Daniel grew angry before Donkin had selected his patterns and settled the work to his own mind.

'Well,' said he at last; 'a mought be a young man a-goin' a wooin', by t' pains thou'st taken for t' match my oud clothes. I don't care if they're patched wi' scarlet, a tell thee; so as thou'lt work away at thy tale wi' thy tongue, same time as thou works at thy needle wi' thy fingers.'

'Then, as a were saying, all Monkshaven were like a nest o' wasps, flyin' hither and thither, and makin' sich a buzzin' and a talkin' as niver were; and each wi' his sting out, ready for t' vent his venom o' rage and revenge. And women cryin' and sobbin' i' t' streets--when, Lord help us! o' Saturday came a worse time than iver! for all Friday there had been a kind o' expectation an' dismay about t' _Good Fortune_, as t' mariners had said was off St Abb's Head o' Thursday, when t' _Resolution_ came in; and there was wives and maids wi' husbands an' sweethearts aboard t' _Good Fortune_ ready to throw their eyes out on their heads wi' gazin', gazin' nor'ards over t'sea, as were all one haze o' blankness wi' t' rain; and when t' afternoon tide comed in, an' niver a line on her to be seen, folk were oncertain as t' whether she were holding off for fear o' t' tender--as were out o' sight, too--or what were her mak' o' goin' on. An' t' poor wet draggled women folk came up t' town, some slowly cryin', as if their hearts was sick, an' others just bent their heads to t' wind, and went straight to their homes, nother looking nor speaking to ony one; but barred their doors, and stiffened theirsels up for a night o' waiting. Saturday morn--yo'll mind Saturday morn, it were stormy and gusty, downreet dirty weather--theere stood t' folk again by daylight, a watching an' a straining, and by that tide t' _Good Fortune_ came o'er t' bar. But t' excisemen had sent back her news by t' boat as took 'em there. They'd a deal of oil, and a vast o' blubber. But for all that her flag was drooping i' t' rain, half mast high, for mourning and sorrow, an' they'd a dead man aboard--a dead man as was living and strong last sunrise. An' there was another as lay between life an' death, and there was seven more as should ha' been theere as wasn't, but was carried off by t' gang. T' frigate as we 'n a' heard tell on, as lying off Hartlepool, got tidings fra' t' tender as captured t' seamen o' Thursday: and t' _Aurora_, as they ca'ed her, made off for t' nor'ard; and nine leagues off St Abb's Head, t' _Resolution_ thinks she were, she see'd t' frigate, and knowed by her build she were a man-o'-war, and guessed she were bound on king's kidnapping. I seen t' wounded man mysen wi' my own eyes; and he'll live! he'll live! Niver a man died yet, wi' such a strong purpose o' vengeance in him. He could barely speak, for he were badly shot, but his colour coome and went, as t' master's mate an' t' captain telled me and some others how t' _Aurora_ fired at 'em, and how t' innocent whaler hoisted her colours, but afore they were fairly run up, another shot coome close in t' shrouds, and then t' Greenland ship being t' windward, bore down on t' frigate; but as they knew she were an oud fox, and bent on mischief, Kinraid (that's he who lies a-dying, only he'll noane die, a'se bound), the specksioneer, bade t' men go down between decks, and fasten t' hatches well, an' he'd stand guard, he an' captain, and t' oud master's mate, being left upo' deck for t' give a welcome just skin-deep to t' boat's crew fra' t' _Aurora_, as they could see coming t'wards them o'er t' watter, wi' their reg'lar man-o'-war's rowing----'

'Damn 'em!' said Daniel, in soliloquy, and under his breath.

Sylvia stood, poising her iron, and listening eagerly, afraid to give Donkin the hot iron for fear of interrupting the narrative, unwilling to put it into the fire again, because that action would perchance remind him of his work, which now the tailor had forgotten, so eager was he in telling his story.

'Well! they coome on over t' watters wi' great bounds, and up t' sides they coome like locusts, all armed men; an' t' captain says he saw Kinraid hide away his whaling knife under some tarpaulin', and he knew he meant mischief, an' he would no more ha' stopped him wi' a word nor he would ha' stopped him fra' killing a whale. And when t' _Aurora_'s men were aboard, one on 'em runs to t' helm; and at that t' captain says, he felt as if his wife were kissed afore his face; but says he, "I bethought me on t' men as were shut up below hatches, an' I remembered t' folk at Monkshaven as were looking out for us even then; an' I said to mysel', I would speak fair as long as I could, more by token o' the whaling-knife, as I could see glinting bright under t' black tarpaulin." So he spoke quite fair and civil, though he see'd they was nearing t' _Aurora_, and t' _Aurora_ was nearing them. Then t' navy captain hailed him thro' t' trumpet, wi' a great rough blast, and, says he, "Order your men to come on deck." And t' captain of t' whaler says his men cried up from under t' hatches as they'd niver be gi'en up wi'out bloodshed, and he sees Kinraid take out his pistol, and look well to t' priming; so he says to t' navy captain, "We're protected Greenland-men, and you have no right t' meddle wi' us." But t' navy captain only bellows t' more, "Order your men t' come on deck. If they won't obey you, and you have lost the command of your vessel, I reckon you're in a state of mutiny, and you may come aboard t' _Aurora_ and such men as are willing t' follow you, and I'll fire int' the rest." Yo' see, that were t' depth o' the man: he were for pretending and pretexting as t' captain could na manage his own ship, and as he'd help him. But our Greenland captain were noane so poor-spirited, and says he, "She's full of oil, and I ware you of consequences if you fire into her. Anyhow, pirate, or no pirate" (for t' word pirate stuck in his gizzard), "I'm a honest Monkshaven man, an' I come fra' a land where there's great icebergs and many a deadly danger, but niver a press-gang, thank God! and that's what you are, I reckon." Them's the words he told me, but whether he spoke 'em out so bold at t' time, I'se not so sure; they were in his mind for t' speak, only maybe prudence got t' better on him, for he said he prayed i' his heart to bring his cargo safe to t' owners, come what might. Well, t' _Aurora_'s men aboard t' _Good Fortune_ cried out "might they fire down t' hatches, and bring t' men out that a way?" and then t' specksioneer, he speaks, an' he says he stands ower t' hatches, and he has two good pistols, and summut besides, and he don't care for his life, bein' a bachelor, but all below are married men, yo' see, and he'll put an end to t' first two chaps as come near t' hatches. An' they say he picked two off as made for t' come near, and then, just as he were stooping for t' whaling knife, an' it's as big as a sickle----'

'Teach folk as don't know a whaling knife,' cried Daniel. 'I were a Greenland-man mysel'.'

'They shot him through t' side, and dizzied him, and kicked him aside for dead; and fired down t' hatches, and killed one man, and disabled two, and then t' rest cried for quarter, for life is sweet, e'en aboard a king's ship; and t' _Aurora_ carried 'em off, wounded men, an' able men, an' all: leaving Kinraid for dead, as wasn't dead, and Darley for dead, as was dead, an' t' captain and master's mate as were too old for work; and t' captain, as loves Kinraid like a brother, poured rum down his throat, and bandaged him up, and has sent for t' first doctor in Monkshaven for to get t' slugs out; for they say there's niver such a harpooner in a' t' Greenland seas; an' I can speak fra' my own seeing he's a fine young fellow where he lies theere, all stark and wan for weakness and loss o' blood. But Darley's dead as a door-nail; and there's to be such a burying of him as niver was seen afore i' Monkshaven, come Sunday. And now gi' us t' iron, wench, and let's lose no more time a-talking.'

'It's noane loss o' time,' said Daniel, moving himself heavily in his chair, to feel how helpless he was once more. 'If a were as young as once a were--nay, lad, if a had na these sore rheumatics, now--a reckon as t' press-gang 'ud find out as t' shouldn't do such things for nothing. Bless thee, man! it's waur nor i' my youth i' th' Ameriky war, and then 't were bad enough.'

'And Kinraid?' said Sylvia, drawing a long breath, after the effort of realizing it all; her cheeks had flushed up, and her eyes had glittered during the progress of the tale.

'Oh! he'll do. He'll not die. Life's stuff is in him yet.'

'He'll be Molly Corney's cousin, I reckon,' said Sylvia, bethinking her with a blush of Molly Corney's implication that he was more than a cousin to her, and immediately longing to go off and see Molly, and hear all the little details which women do not think it beneath them to give to women. From that time Sylvia's little heart was bent on this purpose. But it was not one to be openly avowed even to herself. She only wanted sadly to see Molly, and she almost believed herself that it was to consult her about the fashion of her cloak; which Donkin was to cut out, and which she was to make under his directions; at any rate, this was the reason she gave to her mother when the day's work was done, and a fine gleam came out upon the pale and watery sky towards evening.