The coast on that part of the island to which this story refers is bordered by rocks and cliffs. The inland country immediately adjacent to the coast is level, flat, and bleak; it is only where the long stretch of dyke-enclosed fields terminates abruptly in a sheer descent, and the stranger sees the ocean creeping up the sands far below him, that he is aware on how great an elevation he has been. Here and there, as I have said, a cleft in the level land (thus running out into the sea in steep promontories) occurs—what they would call a 'chine' in the Isle of Wight; but instead of the soft south wind stealing up the woody ravine, as it does there, the eastern breeze comes piping shrill and clear along these northern chasms, keeping the trees that venture to grow on the sides down to the mere height of scrubby brushwood. The descent to the shore through these 'bottoms' is in most cases very abrupt, too much so for a cartway, or even a bridle-path; but people can pass up and down without difficulty, by the help of a few rude steps hewn here and there out of the rock.
Sixty or seventy years ago (not to speak of much later times) the farmers who owned or hired the land which lay directly on the summit of these cliffs were smugglers to the extent of their power, only partially checked by the coast-guard distributed, at pretty nearly equal interspaces of eight miles, all along the north-eastern seaboard. Still sea-wrack was a good manure, and there was no law against carrying it up in great osier baskets for the purpose of tillage, and many a secret thing was lodged in hidden crevices in the rocks till the farmer sent trusty people down to the shore for a good supply of sand and seaweed for his land.
One of the farms on the cliff had lately been taken by Sylvia's father. He was a man who had roamed about a good deal—been sailor, smuggler, horse-dealer, and farmer in turns; a sort of fellow possessed by a spirit of adventure and love of change, which did him and his own family more harm than anybody else. He was just the kind of man that all his neighbours found fault with, and all his neighbours liked. Late in life (for such an imprudent man as he, was one of a class who generally wed, trusting to chance and luck for the provision for a family), farmer Robson married a woman whose only want of practical wisdom consisted in taking him for a husband. She was Philip Hepburn's aunt, and had had the charge of him until she married from her widowed brother's house. He it was who had let her know when Haytersbank Farm had been to let; esteeming it a likely piece of land for his uncle to settle down upon, after a somewhat unprosperous career of horse-dealing. The farmhouse lay in the shelter of a very slight green hollow scarcely scooped out of the pasture field by which it was surrounded; the short crisp turf came creeping up to the very door and windows, without any attempt at a yard or garden, or any nearer enclosure of the buildings than the stone dyke that formed the boundary of the field itself. The buildings were long and low, in order to avoid the rough violence of the winds that swept over that wild, bleak spot, both in winter and summer. It was well for the inhabitants of that house that coal was extremely cheap; otherwise a southerner might have imagined that they could never have survived the cutting of the bitter gales that piped all round, and seemed to seek out every crevice for admission into the house.
But the interior was warm enough when once you had mounted the long bleak lane, full of round rough stones, enough to lame any horse unaccustomed to such roads, and had crossed the field by the little dry, hard footpath, which tacked about so as to keep from directly facing the prevailing wind. Mrs. Robson was a Cumberland woman, and as such, was a cleaner housewife than the farmers' wives of that north-eastern coast, and was often shocked at their ways, showing it more by her looks than by her words, for she was not a great talker. This fastidiousness in such matters made her own house extremely comfortable, but did not tend to render her popular among her neighbours. Indeed, Bell Robson piqued herself on her housekeeping generally, and once in-doors in the gray, bare stone house, there were plenty of comforts to be had besides cleanliness and warmth. The great rack of clap-bread hung overhead, and Bell Robson's preference of this kind of oat-cake over the leavened and partly sour kind used in Yorkshire was another source of her unpopularity. Flitches of bacon and 'hands' (i.e., shoulders of cured pork, the legs or hams being sold, as fetching a better price) abounded; and for any visitor who could stay, neither cream nor finest wheaten flour was wanting for 'turf cakes' and 'singing hinnies,' with which it is the delight of the northern housewives to regale the honoured guest, as he sips their high-priced tea, sweetened with dainty sugar.
This night farmer Robson was fidgeting in and out of his house-door, climbing the little eminence in the field, and coming down disappointed in a state of fretful impatience. His quiet, taciturn wife was a little put out by Sylvia's non-appearance too; but she showed her anxiety by being shorter than usual in her replies to his perpetual wonders as to where the lass could have been tarrying, and by knitting away with extra diligence.
'I've a vast o' mind to go down to Monkshaven mysen, and see after t' child. It's well on for seven.'
'No, Dannel,' said his wife; 'thou'd best not. Thy leg has been paining thee this week past, and thou'rt not up to such a walk. I'll rouse Kester, and send him off, if thou think'st there's need on it.'
'A'll noan ha' Kester roused. Who's to go afield betimes after t' sheep in t' morn, if he's ca'ed up to-neet? He'd miss t' lass, and find a public-house, a reckon,' said Daniel, querulously.
'I'm not afeard o' Kester,' replied Bell. 'He's a good one for knowing folk i' th' dark. But if thou'd rather, I'll put on my hood and cloak and just go to th' end o' th' lane, if thou'lt have an eye to th' milk, and see as it does na' boil o'er, for she canna stomach it if it's bishopped e'er so little.'
Before Mrs. Robson, however, had put away her knitting, voices were heard at a good distance down the lane, but coming nearer every moment, and once more Daniel climbed the little brow to look and to listen.
'It's a' reet!' said he, hobbling quickly down. 'Niver fidget theesel' wi' gettin' ready to go search for her. I'll tak' thee a bet it's Philip Hepburn's voice, convoying her home, just as I said he would, an hour sin'.'
Bell did not answer, as she might have done, that this probability of Philip's bringing Sylvia home had been her own suggestion, set aside by her husband as utterly unlikely. Another minute and the countenances of both parents imperceptibly and unconsciously relaxed into pleasure as Sylvia came in.
She looked very rosy from the walk, and the October air, which began to be frosty in the evenings; there was a little cloud over her face at first, but it was quickly dispersed as she met the loving eyes of home. Philip, who followed her, had an excited, but not altogether pleased look about him. He received a hearty greeting from Daniel, and a quiet one from his aunt.
'Tak' off thy pan o' milk, missus, and set on t' kettle. Milk may do for wenches, but Philip and me is for a drop o' good Hollands and watter this cold night. I'm a'most chilled to t' marrow wi' looking out for thee, lass, for t' mother was in a peck o' troubles about thy none coining home i' t' dayleet, and I'd to keep hearkening out on t' browhead.'
This was entirely untrue, and Bell knew it to be so; but her husband did not. He had persuaded himself now, as he had done often before, that what he had in reality done for his own pleasure or satisfaction, he had done in order to gratify some one else.
'The town was rough with a riot between the press-gang and the whaling folk; and I thought I'd best see Sylvia home.'
'Ay, ay, lad; always welcome, if it's only as an excuse for t' liquor. But t' whalers, say'st ta? Why, is t' whalers in? There was none i' sight yesterday, when I were down on t' shore. It's early days for 'em as yet. And t' cursed old press-gang's agate again, doing its devil's work!'
His face changed as he ended his speech, and showed a steady passion of old hatred.
'Ay, missus, yo' may look. I wunnot pick and choose my words, noather for yo' nor for nobody, when I speak o' that daumed gang. I'm none ashamed o' my words. They're true, and I'm ready to prove 'em. Where's my forefinger? Ay! and as good a top-joint of a thumb as iver a man had? I wish I'd kept 'em i' sperits, as they done things at t' 'potticary's, just to show t' lass what flesh and bone I made away wi' to get free. I ups wi' a hatchet when I saw as I were fast a-board a man-o'-war standing out for sea—it were in t' time o' the war wi' Amerikay, an' I could na stomach the thought o' being murdered i' my own language—so I ups wi' a hatchet, and I says to Bill Watson, says I, "Now, my lad, if thou'll do me a kindness, I'll pay thee back, niver fear, and they'll be glad enough to get shut on us, and send us to old England again. Just come down with a will." Now, missus, why can't ye sit still and listen to me, 'stead o' pottering after pans and what not?' said he, speaking crossly to his wife, who had heard the story scores of times, and, it must be confessed, was making some noise in preparing bread and milk for Sylvia's supper.
Bell did not say a word in reply, but Sylvia tapped his shoulder with a pretty little authoritative air.
'It's for me, feyther. I'm just keen-set for my supper. Once let me get quickly set down to it, and Philip there to his glass o' grog, and you'll never have such listeners in your life, and mother's mind will be at ease too.'
'Eh! thou's a wilfu' wench,' said the proud father, giving her a great slap on her back. 'Well! set thee down to thy victual, and be quiet wi' thee, for I want to finish my tale to Philip. But, perhaps, I've telled it yo' afore?' said he, turning round to question Hepburn.
Hepburn could not say that he had not heard it, for he piqued himself on his truthfulness. But instead of frankly and directly owning this, he tried to frame a formal little speech, which would soothe Daniel's mortified vanity; and, of course, it had the directly opposite effect. Daniel resented being treated like a child, and yet turned his back on Philip with all the wilfulness of one. Sylvia did not care for her cousin, but hated the discomfort of having her father displeased; so she took up her tale of adventure, and told her father and mother of her afternoon's proceedings. Daniel pretended not to listen at first, and made ostentatious noises with his spoon and glass; but by-and-by he got quite warm and excited about the doings of the press-gang, and scolded both Philip and Sylvia for not having learnt more particulars as to what was the termination of the riot.
'I've been whaling mysel',' said he; 'and I've heerd tell as whalers wear knives, and I'd ha' gi'en t' gang a taste o' my whittle, if I'd been cotched up just as I'd set my foot a-shore.'
'I don't know,' said Philip; 'we're at war wi' the French, and we shouldn't like to be beaten; and yet if our numbers are not equal to theirs, we stand a strong chance of it.'
'Not a bit on't—so be d—d!' said Daniel Robson, bringing down his fist with such violence on the round deal table, that the glasses and earthenware shook again. 'Yo'd not strike a child or a woman, for sure! yet it 'ud be like it, if we did na' give the Frenchies some 'vantages—if we took 'em wi' equal numbers. It's not fair play, and that's one place where t' shoe pinches. It's not fair play two ways. It's not fair play to cotch up men as has no call for fightin' at another man's biddin', though they've no objection to fight a bit on their own account and who are just landed, all keen after bread i'stead o' biscuit, and flesh-meat i'stead o' junk, and beds i'stead o' hammocks. (I make naught o' t' sentiment side, for I were niver gi'en up to such carnal-mindedness and poesies.) It's noane fair to cotch 'em up and put 'em in a stifling hole, all lined with metal for fear they should whittle their way out, and send 'em off to sea for years an' years to come. And again it's no fair play to t' French. Four o' them is rightly matched wi' one o' us; and if we go an' fight 'em four to four it's like as if yo' fell to beatin' Sylvie there, or little Billy Croxton, as isn't breeched. And that's my mind. Missus, where's t' pipe?'
Philip did not smoke, so took his turn at talking, a chance he seldom had with Daniel, unless the latter had his pipe between his lips. So after Daniel had filled it, and used Sylvia's little finger as a stopper to ram down the tobacco—a habit of his to which she was so accustomed that she laid her hand on the table by him, as naturally as she would have fetched him his spittoon when he began to smoke—Philip arranged his arguments, and began—
'I'm for fair play wi' the French as much as any man, as long as we can be sure o' beating them; but, I say, make sure o' that, and then give them ivery advantage. Now I reckon Government is not sure as yet, for i' the papers it said as half th' ships i' th' Channel hadn't got their proper complement o' men; and all as I say is, let Government judge a bit for us; and if they say they're hampered for want o' men, why we must make it up somehow. John and Jeremiah Foster pay in taxes, and Militiaman pays in person; and if sailors cannot pay in taxes, and will not pay in person, why they must be made to pay; and that's what th' press-gang is for, I reckon. For my part, when I read o' the way those French chaps are going on, I'm thankful to be governed by King George and a British Constitution.'
Daniel took his pipe out of his mouth at this.
'And when did I say a word again King George and the Constitution? I only ax 'em to govern me as I judge best, and that's what I call representation. When I gived my vote to Measter Cholmley to go up to t' Parliament House, I as good as said, 'Now yo' go up theer, sir, and tell 'em what I, Dannel Robson, think right, and what I, Dannel Robson, wish to have done.' Else I'd be darned if I'd ha' gi'en my vote to him or any other man. And div yo' think I want Seth Robson ( as is my own brother's son, and mate to a collier) to be cotched up by a press-gang, and ten to one his wages all unpaid? Div yo' think I'd send up Measter Cholmley to speak up for that piece o' work? Not I.' He took up his pipe again, shook out the ashes, puffed it into a spark, and shut his eyes, preparatory to listening.
'But, asking pardon, laws is made for the good of the nation, not for your good or mine.'
Daniel could not stand this. He laid down his pipe, opened his eyes, stared straight at Philip before speaking, in order to enforce his words, and then said slowly—
'Nation here! nation theere! I'm a man and yo're another, but nation's nowheere. If Measter Cholmley talked to me i' that fashion, he'd look long for another vote frae me. I can make out King George, and Measter Pitt, and yo' and me, but nation! nation, go hang!'
Philip, who sometimes pursued an argument longer than was politic for himself, especially when he felt sure of being on the conquering side, did not see that Daniel Robson was passing out of the indifference of conscious wisdom into that state of anger which ensues when a question becomes personal in some unspoken way. Robson had contested this subject once or twice before, and had the remembrance of former disputes to add to his present vehemence. So it was well for the harmony of the evening that Bell and Sylvia returned from the kitchen to sit in the house-place. They had been to wash up the pans and basins used for supper; Sylvia had privately shown off her cloak, and got over her mother's shake of the head at its colour with a coaxing kiss, at the end of which her mother had adjusted her cap with a 'There! there! ha' done wi' thee,' but had no more heart to show her disapprobation; and now they came back to their usual occupations until it should please their visitor to go; then they would rake the fire and be off to bed; for neither Sylvia's spinning nor Bell's knitting was worth candle-light, and morning hours are precious in a dairy.
People speak of the way in which harp-playing sets off a graceful figure; spinning is almost as becoming an employment. A woman stands at the great wool-wheel, one arm extended, the other holding the thread, her head thrown back to take in all the scope of her occupation; or if it is the lesser spinning-wheel for flax—and it was this that Sylvia moved forwards to-night—the pretty sound of the buzzing, whirring motion, the attitude of the spinner, foot and hand alike engaged in the business—the bunch of gay coloured ribbon that ties the bundle of flax on the rock—all make it into a picturesque piece of domestic business that may rival harp-playing any day for the amount of softness and grace which it calls out.
Sylvia's cheeks were rather flushed by the warmth of the room after the frosty air. The blue ribbon with which she had thought it necessary to tie back her hair before putting on her hat to go to market had got rather loose, and allowed her disarranged curls to stray in a manner which would have annoyed her extremely, if she had been upstairs to look at herself in the glass; but although they were not set in the exact fashion which Sylvia esteemed as correct, they looked very pretty and luxuriant. Her little foot, placed on the 'traddle', was still encased in its smartly buckled shoe—not slightly to her discomfort, as she was unaccustomed to be shod in walking far; only as Philip had accompanied them home, neither she nor Molly had liked to go barefoot. Her round mottled arm and ruddy taper hand drew out the flax with nimble, agile motion, keeping time to the movement of the wheel. All this Philip could see; the greater part of her face was lost to him as she half averted it, with a shy dislike to the way in which she knew from past experience that cousin Philip always stared at her. And avert it as she would she heard with silent petulance the harsh screech of Philip's chair as he heavily dragged it on the stone floor, sitting on it all the while, and felt that he was moving round so as to look at her as much as was in his power, without absolutely turning his back on either her father or mother. She got herself ready for the first opportunity of contradiction or opposition.
'Well, wench! and has ta bought this grand new cloak?'
'Yes, feyther. It's a scarlet one.'
'Ay, ay! and what does mother say?'
'Oh, mother's content,' said Sylvia, a little doubting in her heart, but determined to defy Philip at all hazards.
'Mother 'll put up with it if it does na spot would be nearer fact, I'm thinking,' said Bell, quietly.
'I wanted Sylvia to take the gray,' said Philip.
'And I chose the red; it's so much gayer, and folk can see me the farther off. Feyther likes to see me at first turn o' t' lane, don't yo', feyther? and I'll niver turn out when it's boun' for to rain, so it shall niver get a spot near it, mammy.'
'I reckoned it were to wear i' bad weather,' said Bell. 'Leastways that were the pretext for coaxing feyther out o' it.'
She said it in a kindly tone, though the words became a prudent rather than a fond mother. But Sylvia understood her better than Daniel did as it appeared.
'Hou'd thy tongue, mother. She niver spoke a pretext at all.'
He did not rightly know what a 'pretext' was: Bell was a touch better educated than her husband, but he did not acknowledge this, and made a particular point of differing from her whenever she used a word beyond his comprehension.
'She's a good lass at times; and if she liked to wear a yellow-orange cloak she should have it. Here's Philip here, as stands up for laws and press-gangs, I'll set him to find us a law again pleasing our lass; and she our only one. Thou dostn't think on that, mother!
Bell did think of that often; oftener than her husband, perhaps, for she remembered every day, and many times a day, the little one that had been born and had died while its father was away on some long voyage. But it was not her way to make replies.
Sylvia, who had more insight into her mother's heart than Daniel, broke in with a new subject.
'Oh! as for Philip, he's been preaching up laws all t' way home. I said naught, but let Molly hold her own; or else I could ha' told a tale about silks an' lace an' things.'
Philip's face flushed. Not because of the smuggling; every one did that, only it was considered polite to ignore it; but he was annoyed to perceive how quickly his little cousin had discovered that his practice did not agree with his preaching, and vexed, too, to see how delighted she was to bring out the fact. He had some little idea, too, that his uncle might make use of his practice as an argument against the preaching he had lately been indulging in, in opposition to Daniel; but Daniel was too far gone in his Hollands-and-water to do more than enunciate his own opinions, which he did with hesitating and laboured distinctness in the following sentence:
'What I think and say is this. Laws is made for to keep some folks fra' harming others. Press-gangs and coast-guards harm me i' my business, and keep me fra' getting what I want. Theerefore, what I think and say is this: Measter Cholmley should put down press-gangs and coast-guards. If that theere isn't reason I ax yo' to tell me what is? an' if Measter Cholmley don't do what I ax him, he may go whistle for my vote, he may.'
At this period in his conversation, Bell Robson interfered; not in the least from any feeling of disgust or annoyance, or dread of what he might say or do if he went on drinking, but simply as a matter of health. Sylvia, too, was in no way annoyed; not only with her father, but with every man whom she knew, excepting her cousin Philip, was it a matter of course to drink till their ideas became confused. So she simply put her wheel aside, as preparatory to going to bed, when her mother said, in a more decided tone than that which she had used on any other occasion but this, and similar ones—
'Come, measter, you've had as much as is good for you.'
'Let a' be! Let a' be,' said he, clutching at the bottle of spirits, but perhaps rather more good-humoured with what he had drunk than he was before; he jerked a little more into his glass before his wife carried it off, and locked it up in the cupboard, putting the key in her pocket, and then he said, winking at Philip—
'Eh! my man. Niver gie a woman t' whip hand o'er yo'! Yo' seen what it brings a man to; but for a' that I'll vote for Cholmley, an' d——t' press-gang!'
He had to shout out the last after Philip, for Hepburn, really anxious to please his aunt, and disliking drinking habits himself by constitution, was already at the door, and setting out on his return home, thinking, it must be confessed, far more of the character of Sylvia's shake of the hand than of the parting words of either his uncle or aunt.