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Moonfleet/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER 6
AN ASSAULT

Surely after all,
The noblest answer unto such
Is perfect stillness when they brawl—Tennyson


I have more than once brought up the name of Mr. Maskew; and as I shall have other things to tell of him later on, I may as well relate here what manner of man he was. His stature was but medium, not exceeding five feet four inches, I think; and to make the most of it, he flung his head far back, and gave himself a little strut in walking. He had a thin face with a sharp nose that looked as if it would peck you, and grey eyes that could pierce a millstone if there was a guinea on the far side of it. His hair, for he wore his own, had been red, though it was now grizzled; and the colour of it was set down in Moonfleet to his being a Scotchman, for we thought all Scotchmen were red-headed. He was a lawyer by profession, and having made money in Edinburgh, had gone so far south as Moonfleet to get quit, as was said, of the memories of rascally deeds. It was about four years since he bought a parcel of the Mohune Estate, which had been breaking up and selling piecemeal for a generation; and on his land stood the Manor House, or so much of it as was left. Of the mansion I have spoken before. It was a very long house of two storeys, with a projecting gable and doorway in the middle, and at each end gabled wings running out crosswise. The Maskews lived in one of these wings, and that was the only habitable portion of the place; for as to the rest, the glass was out of the windows, and in some places the roofs had fallen in. Mr. Maskew made no attempt to repair house or grounds, and the bough of the great cedar which the snows had brought down in '49 still blocked the drive. The entrance to the house was through the porchway in the middle, but more than one tumble-down corridor had to be threaded before one reached the inhabited wing; while fowls and pigs and squirrels had possession of the terrace lawns in front. It was not for want of money that Maskew let things remain thus, for men said that he was rich enough, only that his mood was miserly; and perhaps, also, it was the lack of woman's company that made him think so little of neatness and order. For his wife was dead; and though he had a daughter, she was young, and had not yet weight enough to make her father do things that he did not choose.

Till Maskew came there had been none living in the Manor House for a generation, so the village children used the terrace for a playground, and picked primroses in the woods; and the men thought they had a right to snare a rabbit or shoot a pheasant in the chase. But the new owner changed all this, hiding gins and spring-guns in the coverts, and nailing up boards on the trees to say he would have the law of any that trespassed. So he soon made enemies for himself, and before long had everyone's hand against him. Yet he preferred his neighbour's enmity to their goodwill, and went about to make it more bitter by getting himself posted for magistrate, and giving out that he would put down the contraband thereabouts. For no one round Moonfleet was for the Excise; but farmers loved a glass of Schnapps that had never been gauged, and their wives a piece of fine lace from France. And then came the affair between the Elector and the ketch, with David Block's death; and after that they said it was not safe for Maskew to walk at large, and that he would be found some day dead on the down; but he gave no heed to it, and went on as if he had been a paid exciseman rather than a magistrate.

When I was a little boy the Manor woods were my delight, and many a sunny afternoon have I sat on the terrace edge looking down over the village, and munching red quarantines from the ruined fruit gardens. And though this was now forbidden, yet the Manor had still a sweeter attraction to me than apples or bird-batting, and that was Grace Maskew. She was an only child, and about my own age, or little better, at the time of which I am speaking. I knew her, because she went every day to the old almshouses to be taught by the Reverend Mr. Glennie, from whom I also received my schooling. She was tall for her age, and slim, with a thin face and a tumble of tawny hair, which flew about her in a wind or when she ran. Her frocks were washed and patched and faded, and showed more of her arms and legs than the dressmaker had ever intended, for she was a growing girl, and had none to look after her clothes. She was a favourite playfellow with all, and an early choice for games of 'prisoner's base', and she could beat most of us boys at speed. Thus, though we all hated her father, and had for him many jeering titles among ourselves; yet we never used an evil nickname nor a railing word against him when she was by, because we liked her well.

There were a half-dozen of us boys, and as many girls, whom Mr. Glennie used to teach; and that you may see what sort of man Maskew was, I will tell you what happened one day in school between him and the parson. Mr. Glennie taught us in the almshouses; for though there were now no bedesmen, and the houses themselves were fallen to decay, yet the little hall in which the inmates had once dined was still maintained, and served for our schoolroom. It was a long and lofty room, with a high wainscot all round it, a carved oak screen at one end, and a broad window at the other. A very heavy table, polished by use, and sadly besmirched with ink, ran down the middle of the hall with benches on either side of it for us to use; and a high desk for Mr. Glennie stood under the window at the end of the room. Thus we were sitting one morning with our summing-slates and grammars before us when the door in the screen opens and Mr. Maskew enters.

I have told you already of the verses which Mr. Glennie wrote for David Block's grave; and when the floods had gone down Ratsey set up the headstone with the poetry carved on it. But Maskew, through not going to church, never saw the stone for weeks, until one morning, walking through the churchyard, he lighted on it, and knew the verses for Mr. Glennie's. So 'twas to have it out with the parson that he had come to school this day; and though we did not know so much then, yet guessed from his presence that something was in the wind, and could read in his face that he was very angry. Now, for all that we hated Maskew, yet were we glad enough to see him there, as hoping for something strange to vary the sameness of school, and scenting a disturbance in the air. Only Grace was ill at ease for fear her father should say something unseemly, and kept her head down with shocks of hair falling over her book, though I could see her blushing between them. So in vapours Maskew, and with an angry glance about him makes straight for the desk where our master sits at the top of the room.

For a moment Mr. Glennie, being shortsighted, did not see who 'twas; but as his visitor drew near, rose courteously to greet him.

'Good day to you, Mister Maskew,' says he, holding out his hand.

But Maskew puts his arms behind his back and bubbles out, 'Hold not out your hand to me lest I spit on it. 'Tis like your snivelling cant to write sweet psalms for smuggling rogues and try to frighten honest men with your judgements.'

At first Mr. Glennie did not know what the other would be at, and afterwards understanding, turned very pale; but said as a minister he would never be backward in reproving those whom he considered in the wrong, whether from the pulpit or from the gravestone. Then Maskew flies into a great passion, and pours out many vile and insolent words, saying Mr. Glennie is in league with the smugglers and fattens on their crimes; that the poetry is a libel; and that he, Maskew, will have the law of him for calumny.

After that he took Grace by the arm, and bade her get hat and cape and come with him. 'For', says he, 'I will not have thee taught any more by a psalm-singing hypocrite that calls thy father murderer.' And all the while he kept drawing up closer to Mr. Glennie, until the two stood very near each other.

There was a great difference between them; the one short and blustering, with a red face turned up; the other tall and craning down, ill-clad, ill-fed, and pale. Maskew had in his left hand a basket, with which he went marketing of mornings, for he made his own purchases, and liked fish, as being cheaper than meat. He had been chaffering with the fishwives this very day, and was bringing back his provend with him when he visited our school.

Then he said to Mr. Glennie: 'Now, Sir Parson, the law has given into Your fool's hands a power over this churchyard, and 'tis your trade to stop unseemly headlines from being set up within its walls, or once set up, to turn them out forthwith. So I give you a week's grace, and if tomorrow sennight yon stone be not gone, I will have it up and flung in pieces outside the wall.'

Mr. Glennie answered him in a low voice, but quite clear, so that we could hear where we sat: 'I can neither turn the stone out myself, nor stop you from turning it out if you so mind; but if you do this thing, and dishonour the graveyard, there is One stronger than either you or I that must be reckoned with.'

I knew afterwards that he meant the Almighty, but thought then that 'twas of Elzevir he spoke; and so, perhaps, did Mr. Maskew, for he fell into a worse rage, thrust his hand in the basket, whipped out a great sole he had there, and in a twinkling dashes it in Mr. Glennie's face, with a 'Then, take that for an unmannerly parson, for I would not foul my fist with your mealy chops.'

But to see that stirred my choler, for Mr. Glennie was weak as wax, and would never have held up his hand to stop a blow, even were he strong as Goliath. So I was for setting on Maskew, and being a stout lad for my age, could have had him on the floor as easy as a baby; but as I rose from my seat, I saw he held Grace by the hand, and so hung back for a moment, and before I got my thoughts together he was gone, and I saw the tail of Grace's cape whisk round the screen door.

A sole is at the best an ugly thing to have in one's face, and this sole was larger than most, for Maskew took care to get what he could for his money, so it went with a loud smack on Mr. Glennie's cheek, and then fell with another smack on the floor. At this we all laughed, as children will, and Mr. Glennie did not check us, but went back and sat very quiet at his desk; and soon I was sorry I had laughed, for he looked sad, with his face sanded and a great red patch on one side, and beside that the fin had scratched him and made a blood-drop trickle down his cheek. A few minutes later the thin voice of the almshouse clock said twelve, and away walked Mr. Glennie without his usual 'Good day, children', and there was the sole left lying on the dusty floor in front of his desk.

It seemed a shame so fine a fish should be wasted, so I picked it up and slipped it in my desk, sending Fred Burt to get his mother's gridiron that we might grill it on the schoolroom fire. While he was gone I went out to the court to play, and had not been there five minutes when back comes Maskew through our playground without Grace, and goes into the schoolroom. But in the screen at the end of the room was a chink, against which we used to hold our fingers on bright days for the sun to shine through, and show the blood pink; so up I slipped and fixed my eye to the hole, wanting to know what he was at. He had his basket with him, and I soon saw he had come back for the sole, not having the heart to leave so good a bit of fish. But look where he would, he could not find it, for he never searched my desk, and had to go off with a sour countenance; but Fred Burt and I cooked the sole, and found it well flavoured, for all it had given so much pain to Mr. Glennie.

After that Grace came no more to school, both because her father had said she should not, and because she was herself ashamed to go back after what Maskew had done to Mr. Glennie. And then it was that I took to wandering much in the Manor woods, having no fear of man-traps, for I knew their place as soon as they were put down, but often catching sight of Grace, and sometimes finding occasion to talk with her. Thus time passed, and I lived with Elzevir at the Why Not?, still going to school of mornings, but spending the afternoons in fishing, or in helping him in the garden, or with the boats. As soon as I got to know him well, I begged him to let me help run the cargoes, but he refused, saying I was yet too young, and must not come into mischief. Yet, later, yielding to my importunity, he consented; and more than one dark night I was in the landing-boats that unburdened the lugger, though I could never bring myself to enter the Mohune vault again, but would stand as sentry at the passage-mouth. And all the while I had round my neck Colonel John Mohune's locket, and at first wore it next myself, but finding it black the skin, put it between shirt and body-jacket. And there by dint of wear it grew less black, and showed a little of the metal underneath, and at last I took to polishing it at odd times, until it came out quite white and shiny, like the pure silver that it was. Elzevir had seen this locket when he put me to bed the first time I came to the Why Not? and afterwards I told him whence I got it; but though we had it out more than once of an evening, we could never come at any hidden meaning. Indeed, we scarce tried to, judging it to be certainly a sacred charm to keep evil spirits from Blackbeard's body.