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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSylvia's Lovers - Chapter II - HOME FROM GREENLAND
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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter II - HOME FROM GREENLAND Post by :EXNETSYS Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :502

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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter II - HOME FROM GREENLAND

One hot day, early in October of the year 1796, two girls set off
from their country homes to Monkshaven to sell their butter and
eggs, for they were both farmers' daughters, though rather in
different circumstances; for Molly Corney was one of a large family
of children, and had to rough it accordingly; Sylvia Robson was an
only child, and was much made of in more people's estimation than
Mary's by her elderly parents. They had each purchases to make after
their sales were effected, as sales of butter and eggs were effected
in those days by the market-women sitting on the steps of the great
old mutilated cross till a certain hour in the afternoon, after
which, if all their goods were not disposed of, they took them
unwillingly to the shops and sold them at a lower price. But good
housewives did not despise coming themselves to the Butter Cross,
and, smelling and depreciating the articles they wanted, kept up a
perpetual struggle of words, trying, often in vain, to beat down
prices. A housekeeper of the last century would have thought that
she did not know her business, if she had not gone through this
preliminary process; and the farmers' wives and daughters treated it
all as a matter of course, replying with a good deal of independent
humour to the customer, who, once having discovered where good
butter and fresh eggs were to be sold, came time after time to
depreciate the articles she always ended in taking. There was
leisure for all this kind of work in those days.

Molly had tied a knot on her pink-spotted handkerchief for each of
the various purchases she had to make; dull but important articles
needed for the week's consumption at home; if she forgot any one of
them she knew she was sure of a good 'rating' from her mother. The
number of them made her pocket-handkerchief look like one of the
nine-tails of a 'cat;' but not a single thing was for herself, nor,
indeed, for any one individual of her numerous family. There was
neither much thought nor much money to spend for any but collective
wants in the Corney family.

It was different with Sylvia. She was going to choose her first
cloak, not to have an old one of her mother's, that had gone down
through two sisters, dyed for the fourth time (and Molly would have
been glad had even this chance been hers), but to buy a bran-new
duffle cloak all for herself, with not even an elder authority to
curb her as to price, only Molly to give her admiring counsel, and
as much sympathy as was consistent with a little patient envy of
Sylvia's happier circumstances. Every now and then they wandered off
from the one grand subject of thought, but Sylvia, with unconscious
art, soon brought the conversation round to the fresh consideration
of the respective merits of gray and scarlet. These girls were
walking bare-foot and carrying their shoes and stockings in their
hands during the first part of their way; but as they were drawing
near Monkshaven they stopped, and turned aside along a foot-path
that led from the main-road down to the banks of the Dee. There were
great stones in the river about here, round which the waters
gathered and eddied and formed deep pools. Molly sate down on the
grassy bank to wash her feet; but Sylvia, more active (or perhaps
lighter-hearted with the notion of the cloak in the distance),
placed her basket on a gravelly bit of shore, and, giving a long
spring, seated herself on a stone almost in the middle of the
stream. Then she began dipping her little rosy toes in the cool
rushing water and whisking them out with childish glee.

'Be quiet, wi' the', Sylvia? Thou'st splashing me all ower, and my
feyther'll noane be so keen o' giving me a new cloak as thine is,
seemingly.'

Sylvia was quiet, not to say penitent, in a moment. She drew up her
feet instantly; and, as if to take herself out of temptation, she
turned away from Molly to that side of her stony seat on which the
current ran shallow, and broken by pebbles. But once disturbed in
her play, her thoughts reverted to the great subject of the cloak.
She was now as still as a minute before she had been full of frolic
and gambolling life. She had tucked herself up on the stone, as if
it had been a cushion, and she a little sultana.

Molly was deliberately washing her feet and drawing on her
stockings, when she heard a sudden sigh, and her companion turned
round so as to face her, and said,

'I wish mother hadn't spoken up for t' gray.'

'Why, Sylvia, thou wert saying as we topped t'brow, as she did
nought but bid thee think twice afore settling on scarlet.'

'Ay! but mother's words are scarce, and weigh heavy. Feyther's liker
me, and we talk a deal o' rubble; but mother's words are liker to
hewn stone. She puts a deal o' meaning in 'em. And then,' said
Sylvia, as if she was put out by the suggestion, 'she bid me ask
cousin Philip for his opinion. I hate a man as has getten an opinion
on such-like things.'

'Well! we shall niver get to Monkshaven this day, either for to sell
our eggs and stuff, or to buy thy cloak, if we're sittin' here much
longer. T' sun's for slanting low, so come along, lass, and let's be
going.'

'But if I put on my stockings and shoon here, and jump back into yon
wet gravel, I 'se not be fit to be seen,' said Sylvia, in a pathetic
tone of bewilderment, that was funnily childlike. She stood up, her
bare feet curved round the curving surface of the stone, her slight
figure balancing as if in act to spring.

'Thou knows thou'll have just to jump back barefoot, and wash thy
feet afresh, without making all that ado; thou shouldst ha' done it
at first, like me, and all other sensible folk. But thou'st getten
no gumption.'

Molly's mouth was stopped by Sylvia's hand. She was already on the
river bank by her friend's side.

'Now dunnot lecture me; I'm none for a sermon hung on every peg o'
words. I'm going to have a new cloak, lass, and I cannot heed thee
if thou dost lecture. Thou shall have all the gumption, and I'll
have my cloak.'

It may be doubted whether Molly thought this an equal division.

Each girl wore tightly-fitting stockings, knit by her own hands, of
the blue worsted common in that country; they had on neat
high-heeled black leather shoes, coming well over the instep, and
fastened as well as ornamented with bright steel buckles. They did
not walk so lightly and freely now as they did before they were
shod, but their steps were still springy with the buoyancy of early
youth; for neither of them was twenty, indeed I believe Sylvia was
not more than seventeen at this time.

They clambered up the steep grassy path, with brambles catching at
their kilted petticoats, through the copse-wood, till they regained
the high road; and then they 'settled themselves,' as they called
it; that is to say, they took off their black felt hats, and tied up
their clustering hair afresh; they shook off every speck of wayside
dust; straightened the little shawls (or large neck-kerchiefs, call
them which you will) that were spread over their shoulders, pinned
below the throat, and confined at the waist by their apron-strings;
and then putting on their hats again, and picking up their baskets,
they prepared to walk decorously into the town of Monkshaven.

The next turn of the road showed them the red peaked roofs of the
closely packed houses lying almost directly below the hill on which
they were. The full autumn sun brought out the ruddy colour of the
tiled gables, and deepened the shadows in the narrow streets. The
narrow harbour at the mouth of the river was crowded with small
vessels of all descriptions, making an intricate forest of masts.
Beyond lay the sea, like a flat pavement of sapphire, scarcely a
ripple varying its sunny surface, that stretched out leagues away
till it blended with the softened azure of the sky. On this blue
trackless water floated scores of white-sailed fishing boats,
apparently motionless, unless you measured their progress by some
land-mark; but still, and silent, and distant as they seemed, the
consciousness that there were men on board, each going forth into
the great deep, added unspeakably to the interest felt in watching
them. Close to the bar of the river Dee a larger vessel lay to.
Sylvia, who had only recently come into the neighbourhood, looked at
this with the same quiet interest as she did at all the others; but
Molly, as soon as her eye caught the build of it, cried out aloud--

'She's a whaler! she's a whaler home from t' Greenland seas! T'
first this season! God bless her!' and she turned round and shook
both Sylvia's hands in the fulness of her excitement. Sylvia's
colour rose, and her eyes sparkled out of sympathy.

'Is ta sure?' she asked, breathless in her turn; for though she did
not know by the aspect of the different ships on what trade they
were bound, yet she was well aware of the paramount interest
attached to whaling vessels.

'Three o'clock! and it's not high water till five!' said Molly. 'If
we're sharp we can sell our eggs, and be down to the staithes before
she comes into port. Be sharp, lass!'

And down the steep long hill they went at a pace that was almost a
run. A run they dared not make it; and as it was, the rate at which
they walked would have caused destruction among eggs less carefully
packed. When the descent was ended, there was yet the long narrow
street before them, bending and swerving from the straight line, as
it followed the course of the river. The girls felt as if they
should never come to the market-place, which was situated at the
crossing of Bridge Street and High Street. There the old stone cross
was raised by the monks long ago; now worn and mutilated, no one
esteemed it as a holy symbol, but only as the Butter Cross, where
market-women clustered on Wednesday, and whence the town crier made
all his proclamations of household sales, things lost or found,
beginning with 'Oh! yes, oh! yes, oh! yes!' and ending with 'God
bless the king and the lord of this manor,' and a very brisk 'Amen,'
before he went on his way and took off the livery-coat, the colours
of which marked him as a servant of the Burnabys, the family who
held manorial rights over Monkshaven.

Of course the much frequented space surrounding the Butter Cross was
the favourite centre for shops; and on this day, a fine market day,
just when good housewives begin to look over their winter store of
blankets and flannels, and discover their needs betimes, these shops
ought to have had plenty of customers. But they were empty and of
even quieter aspect than their every-day wont. The three-legged
creepie-stools that were hired out at a penny an hour to such
market-women as came too late to find room on the steps were
unoccupied; knocked over here and there, as if people had passed by
in haste.

Molly took in all at a glance, and interpreted the signs, though she
had no time to explain their meaning, and her consequent course of
action, to Sylvia, but darted into a corner shop.

'T' whalers is coming home! There's one lying outside t' bar!'

This was put in the form of an assertion; but the tone was that of
eager cross-questioning.

'Ay!' said a lame man, mending fishing-nets behind a rough deal
counter. 'She's come back airly, and she's brought good news o' t'
others, as I've heered say. Time was I should ha' been on th'
staithes throwing up my cap wit' t' best on 'em; but now it pleases
t' Lord to keep me at home, and set me to mind other folks' gear.
See thee, wench, there's a vast o' folk ha' left their skeps o'
things wi' me while they're away down to t' quay side. Leave me your
eggs and be off wi' ye for t' see t' fun, for mebbe ye'll live to be
palsied yet, and then ye'll be fretting ower spilt milk, and that ye
didn't tak' all chances when ye was young. Ay, well! they're out o'
hearin' o' my moralities; I'd better find a lamiter like mysen to
preach to, for it's not iverybody has t' luck t' clargy has of
saying their say out whether folks likes it or not.'

He put the baskets carefully away with much of such talk as this
addressed to himself while he did so. Then he sighed once or twice;
and then he took the better course and began to sing over his tarry
work.

Molly and Sylvia were far along the staithes by the time he got to
this point of cheerfulness. They ran on, regardless of stitches and
pains in the side; on along the river bank to where the concourse of
people was gathered. There was no great length of way between the
Butter Cross and the harbour; in five minutes the breathless girls
were close together in the best place they could get for seeing, on
the outside of the crowd; and in as short a time longer they were
pressed inwards, by fresh arrivals, into the very midst of the
throng. All eyes were directed to the ship, beating her anchor just
outside the bar, not a quarter of a mile away. The custom-house
officer was just gone aboard of her to receive the captain's report
of his cargo, and make due examination. The men who had taken him
out in his boat were rowing back to the shore, and brought small
fragments of news when they landed a little distance from the crowd,
which moved as one man to hear what was to be told. Sylvia took a
hard grasp of the hand of the older and more experienced Molly, and
listened open-mouthed to the answers she was extracting from a gruff
old sailor she happened to find near her.

'What ship is she?'

'T' _Resolution of Monkshaven!' said he, indignantly, as if any
goose might have known that.

'An' a good _Resolution_, and a blessed ship she's been to me,'
piped out an old woman, close at Mary's elbow. 'She's brought me
home my ae' lad--for he shouted to yon boatman to bid him tell me he
was well. 'Tell Peggy Christison,' says he (my name is Margaret
Christison)--'tell Peggy Christison as her son Hezekiah is come back
safe and sound.' The Lord's name be praised! An' me a widow as never
thought to see my lad again!'

It seemed as if everybody relied on every one else's sympathy in
that hour of great joy.

'I ax pardon, but if you'd gie me just a bit of elbow-room for a
minute like, I'd hold my babby up, so that he might see daddy's
ship, and happen, my master might see him. He's four months old last
Tuesday se'nnight, and his feyther's never clapt eyne on him yet,
and he wi' a tooth through, an another just breaking, bless him!'

One or two of the better end of the Monkshaven inhabitants stood a
little before Molly and Sylvia; and as they moved in compliance with
the young mother's request, they overheard some of the information
these ship-owners had received from the boatman.

'Haynes says they'll send the manifest of the cargo ashore in twenty
minutes, as soon as Fishburn has looked over the casks. Only eight
whales, according to what he says.'

'No one can tell,' said the other, 'till the manifest comes to
hand.'

'I'm afraid he's right. But he brings a good report of the _Good
Fortune_. She's off St Abb's Head, with something like fifteen
whales to her share.'

'We shall see how much is true, when she comes in.'

'That'll be by the afternoon tide to-morrow.'

'That's my cousin's ship,' said Molly to Sylvia. 'He's specksioneer
on board the _Good Fortune_.'

An old man touched her as she spoke--

'I humbly make my manners, missus, but I'm stone blind; my lad's
aboard yon vessel outside t' bar; and my old woman is bed-fast. Will
she be long, think ye, in making t' harbour? Because, if so be as
she were, I'd just make my way back, and speak a word or two to my
missus, who'll be boiling o'er into some mak o' mischief now she
knows he's so near. May I be so bold as to ax if t' Crooked Negro is
covered yet?'

Molly stood on tip-toe to try and see the black stone thus named;
but Sylvia, stooping and peeping through the glimpses afforded
between the arms of the moving people, saw it first, and told the
blind old man it was still above water.

'A watched pot,' said he, 'ne'er boils, I reckon. It's ta'en a vast
o' watter t' cover that stone to-day. Anyhow, I'll have time to go
home and rate my missus for worritin' hersen, as I'll be bound she's
done, for all as I bade her not, but to keep easy and content.'

'We'd better be off too,' said Molly, as an opening was made through
the press to let out the groping old man. 'Eggs and butter is yet to
sell, and tha' cloak to be bought.'

'Well, I suppose we had!' said Sylvia, rather regretfully; for,
though all the way into Monkshaven her head had been full of the
purchase of this cloak, yet she was of that impressible nature that
takes the tone of feeling from those surrounding; and though she
knew no one on board the Resolution, she was just as anxious for the
moment to see her come into harbour as any one in the crowd who had
a dear relation on board. So she turned reluctantly to follow the
more prudent Molly along the quay back to the Butter Cross.

It was a pretty scene, though it was too familiar to the eyes of all
who then saw it for them to notice its beauty. The sun was low
enough in the west to turn the mist that filled the distant valley
of the river into golden haze. Above, on either bank of the Dee,
there lay the moorland heights swelling one behind the other; the
nearer, russet brown with the tints of the fading bracken; the more
distant, gray and dim against the rich autumnal sky. The red and
fluted tiles of the gabled houses rose in crowded irregularity on
one side of the river, while the newer suburb was built in more
orderly and less picturesque fashion on the opposite cliff. The
river itself was swelling and chafing with the incoming tide till
its vexed waters rushed over the very feet of the watching crowd on
the staithes, as the great sea waves encroached more and more every
minute. The quay-side was unsavourily ornamented with glittering
fish-scales, for the hauls of fish were cleansed in the open air,
and no sanitary arrangements existed for sweeping away any of the
relics of this operation.

The fresh salt breeze was bringing up the lashing, leaping tide from
the blue sea beyond the bar. Behind the returning girls there rocked
the white-sailed ship, as if she were all alive with eagerness for
her anchors to be heaved.

How impatient her crew of beating hearts were for that moment, how
those on land sickened at the suspense, may be imagined, when you
remember that for six long summer months those sailors had been as
if dead from all news of those they loved; shut up in terrible,
dreary Arctic seas from the hungry sight of sweethearts and friends,
wives and mothers. No one knew what might have happened. The crowd
on shore grew silent and solemn before the dread of the possible
news of death that might toll in upon their hearts with this
uprushing tide. The whalers went out into the Greenland seas full of
strong, hopeful men; but the whalers never returned as they sailed
forth. On land there are deaths among two or three hundred men to be
mourned over in every half-year's space of time. Whose bones had
been left to blacken on the gray and terrible icebergs? Who lay
still until the sea should give up its dead? Who were those who
should come back to Monkshaven never, no, never more?

Many a heart swelled with passionate, unspoken fear, as the first
whaler lay off the bar on her return voyage.

Molly and Sylvia had left the crowd in this hushed suspense. But
fifty yards along the staithe they passed five or six girls with
flushed faces and careless attire, who had mounted a pile of timber,
placed there to season for ship-building, from which, as from the
steps of a ladder or staircase, they could command the harbour. They
were wild and free in their gestures, and held each other by the
hand, and swayed from side to side, stamping their feet in time, as
they sang--

Weel may the keel row, the keel row, the keel row,
Weel may the keel row that my laddie's in!

'What for are ye going off, now?' they called out to our two girls.
'She'll be in in ten minutes!' and without waiting for the answer
which never came, they resumed their song.

Old sailors stood about in little groups, too proud to show their
interest in the adventures they could no longer share, but quite
unable to keep up any semblance of talk on indifferent subjects.

The town seemed very quiet and deserted as Molly and Sylvia entered
the dark, irregular Bridge Street, and the market-place was as empty
of people as before. But the skeps and baskets and three-legged
stools were all cleared away.

'Market's over for to-day,' said Molly Corney, in disappointed
surprise. 'We mun make the best on't, and sell to t' huxters, and a
hard bargain they'll be for driving. I doubt mother'll be vexed.'

She and Sylvia went to the corner shop to reclaim their baskets. The
man had his joke at them for their delay.

'Ay, ay! lasses as has sweethearts a-coming home don't care much
what price they get for butter and eggs! I dare say, now, there's
some un in yon ship that 'ud give as much as a shilling a pound for
this butter if he only knowed who churned it!' This was to Sylvia,
as he handed her back her property.

The fancy-free Sylvia reddened, pouted, tossed back her head, and
hardly deigned a farewell word of thanks or civility to the lame
man; she was at an age to be affronted by any jokes on such a
subject. Molly took the joke without disclaimer and without offence.
She rather liked the unfounded idea of her having a sweetheart, and
was rather surprised to think how devoid of foundation the notion
was. If she could have a new cloak as Sylvia was going to have,
then, indeed, there might be a chance! Until some such good luck, it
was as well to laugh and blush as if the surmise of her having a
lover was not very far from the truth, and so she replied in
something of the same strain as the lame net-maker to his joke about
the butter.

'He'll need it all, and more too, to grease his tongue, if iver he
reckons to win me for his wife!'

When they were out of the shop, Sylvia said, in a coaxing tone,--

'Molly, who is it? Whose tongue 'll need greasing? Just tell me, and
I'll never tell!'

She was so much in earnest that Molly was perplexed. She did not
quite like saying that she had alluded to no one in particular, only
to a possible sweetheart, so she began to think what young man had
made the most civil speeches to her in her life; the list was not a
long one to go over, for her father was not so well off as to make
her sought after for her money, and her face was rather of the
homeliest. But she suddenly remembered her cousin, the specksioneer,
who had given her two large shells, and taken a kiss from her
half-willing lips before he went to sea the last time. So she smiled
a little, and then said,--

'Well! I dunno. It's ill talking o' these things afore one has made
up one's mind. And perhaps if Charley Kinraid behaves hissen, I
might be brought to listen.'

'Charley Kinraid! who's he?'

'Yon specksioneer cousin o' mine, as I was talking on.'

'And do yo' think he cares for yo'?' asked Sylvia, in a low, tender
tone, as if touching on a great mystery.

Molly only said, 'Be quiet wi' yo',' and Sylvia could not make out
whether she cut the conversation so short because she was offended,
or because they had come to the shop where they had to sell their
butter and eggs.

'Now, Sylvia, if thou'll leave me thy basket, I'll make as good a
bargain as iver I can on 'em; and thou can be off to choose this
grand new cloak as is to be, afore it gets any darker. Where is ta
going to?'

'Mother said I'd better go to Foster's,' answered Sylvia, with a
shade of annoyance in her face. 'Feyther said just anywhere.'

'Foster's is t' best place; thou canst try anywhere afterwards. I'll
be at Foster's in five minutes, for I reckon we mun hasten a bit
now. It'll be near five o'clock.'

Sylvia hung her head and looked very demure as she walked off by
herself to Foster's shop in the market-place.

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On the north-eastern shores of England there is a town calledMonkshaven, containing at the present day about fifteen thousandinhabitants. There were, however, but half the number at the end ofthe last century, and it was at that period that the events narratedin the following pages occurred.Monkshaven was a name not unknown in the history of England, andtraditions of its having been the landing-place of a thronelessqueen were current in the town. At that time there had been afortified castle on the heights above it, the site of which was nowoccupied by a deserted manor-house; and at an even earlier date thanthe
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