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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSylvia's Lovers - Chapter XXIII - RETALIATION
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Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter XXIII - RETALIATION Post by :clov78 Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :January 2011 Read :1976

Click below to download : Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter XXIII - RETALIATION (Format : PDF)

Sylvia's Lovers - Chapter XXIII - RETALIATION

The public-house that had been chosen by the leaders of the
press-gang in Monkshaven at this time, for their rendezvous (or
'Randyvowse', as it was generally pronounced), was an inn of poor
repute, with a yard at the back which opened on to the staithe or
quay nearest to the open sea. A strong high stone wall bounded this
grass-grown mouldy yard on two sides; the house, and some unused
out-buildings, formed the other two. The choice of the place was
good enough, both as to situation, which was sufficiently isolated,
and yet near to the widening river; and as to the character of the
landlord, John Hobbs was a failing man, one who seemed as if doomed
to be unfortunate in all his undertakings, and the consequence of
all this was that he was envious of the more prosperous, and willing
to do anything that might bring him in a little present success in
life. His household consisted of his wife, her niece, who acted as
servant, and an out-of-doors man, a brother of Ned Simpson, the
well-doing butcher, who at one time had had a fancy for Sylvia. But
the one brother was prosperous, the other had gone on sinking in
life, like him who was now his master. Neither Hobbs nor his man
Simpson were absolutely bad men; if things had gone well with them
they might each have been as scrupulous and conscientious as their
neighbours, and even now, supposing the gain in money to be equal,
they would sooner have done good than evil; but a very small sum was
enough to turn the balance. And in a greater degree than in most
cases was the famous maxim of Rochefoucault true with them; for in
the misfortunes of their friends they seemed to see some
justification of their own. It was blind fate dealing out events,
not that the events themselves were the inevitable consequences of
folly or misconduct. To such men as these the large sum offered by
the lieutenant of the press-gang for the accommodation of the
Mariners' Arms was simply and immediately irresistible. The best
room in the dilapidated house was put at the service of the
commanding officer of the impress service, and all other
arrangements made at his desire, irrespective of all the former
unprofitable sources of custom and of business. If the relatives
both of Hobbs and of Simpson had not been so well known and so
prosperous in the town, they themselves would have received more
marks of popular ill opinion than they did during the winter the
events of which are now being recorded. As it was, people spoke to
them when they appeared at kirk or at market, but held no
conversation with them; no, not although they each appeared better
dressed than they had either of them done for years past, and
although their whole manner showed a change, inasmuch as they had
been formerly snarling and misanthropic, and were now civil almost
to deprecation.

Every one who was capable of understanding the state of feeling in
Monkshaven at this time must have been aware that at any moment an
explosion might take place; and probably there were those who had
judgment enough to be surprised that it did not take place sooner
than it did. For until February there were only occasional cries and
growls of rage, as the press-gang made their captures first here,
then there; often, apparently, tranquil for days, then heard of at
some distance along the coast, then carrying off a seaman from the
very heart of the town. They seemed afraid of provoking any general
hostility, such as that which had driven them from Shields, and
would have conciliated the inhabitants if they could; the officers
on the service and on board the three men-of-war coming often into
the town, spending largely, talking to all with cheery friendliness,
and making themselves very popular in such society as they could
obtain access to at the houses of the neighbouring magistrates or at
the rectory. But this, however agreeable, did not forward the object
the impress service had in view; and, accordingly, a more decided
step was taken at a time when, although there was no apparent
evidence as to the fact, the town was full of the Greenland mariners
coming quietly in to renew their yearly engagements, which, when
done, would legally entitle them to protection from impressment. One
night--it was on a Saturday, February 23rd, when there was a bitter
black frost, with a north-east wind sweeping through the streets,
and men and women were close shut in their houses--all were startled
in their household content and warmth by the sound of the fire-bell
busily swinging, and pealing out for help. The fire-bell was kept in
the market-house where High Street and Bridge Street met: every one
knew what it meant. Some dwelling, or maybe a boiling-house was on
fire, and neighbourly assistance was summoned with all speed, in a
town where no water was laid on, nor fire-engines kept in readiness.
Men snatched up their hats, and rushed out, wives following, some
with the readiest wraps they could lay hands on, with which to
clothe the over-hasty husbands, others from that mixture of dread
and curiosity which draws people to the scene of any disaster. Those
of the market people who were making the best of their way
homewards, having waited in the town till the early darkness
concealed their path, turned back at the sound of the ever-clanging
fire-bell, ringing out faster and faster as if the danger became
every instant more pressing.

As men ran against or alongside of each other, their breathless
question was ever, 'Where is it?' and no one could tell; so they
pressed onwards into the market-place, sure of obtaining the
information desired there, where the fire-bell kept calling out with
its furious metal tongue.

The dull oil-lamps in the adjoining streets only made darkness
visible in the thronged market-place, where the buzz of many men's
unanswered questions was rising louder and louder. A strange feeling
of dread crept over those nearest to the closed market-house. Above
them in the air the bell was still clanging; but before them was a
door fast shut and locked; no one to speak and tell them why they
were summoned--where they ought to be. They were at the heart of the
mystery, and it was a silent blank! Their unformed dread took shape
at the cry from the outside of the crowd, from where men were still
coming down the eastern side of Bridge Street. 'The gang! the gang!'
shrieked out some one. 'The gang are upon us! Help! help!' Then the
fire-bell had been a decoy; a sort of seething the kid in its
mother's milk, leading men into a snare through their kindliest
feelings. Some dull sense of this added to utter dismay, and made
them struggle and strain to get to all the outlets save that in
which a fight was now going on; the swish of heavy whips, the thud
of bludgeons, the groans, the growls of wounded or infuriated men,
coming with terrible distinctness through the darkness to the
quickened ear of fear.

A breathless group rushed up the blackness of a narrow entry to
stand still awhile, and recover strength for fresh running. For a
time nothing but heavy pants and gasps were heard amongst them. No
one knew his neighbour, and their good feeling, so lately abused and
preyed upon, made them full of suspicion. The first who spoke was
recognized by his voice.

'Is it thee, Daniel Robson?' asked his neighbour, in a low tone.

'Ay! Who else should it be?'

'A dunno.'

'If a am to be any one else, I'd like to be a chap of nobbut eight
stun. A'm welly done for!'

'It were as bloody a shame as iver I heerd on. Who's to go t' t'
next fire, a'd like to know!'

'A tell yo' what, lads,' said Daniel, recovering his breath, but
speaking in gasps. 'We were a pack o' cowards to let 'em carry off
yon chaps as easy as they did, a'm reckoning!'

'A think so, indeed,' said another voice.

Daniel went on--

'We was two hunder, if we was a man; an' t' gang has niver numbered
above twelve.'

'But they was armed. A seen t' glitter on their cutlasses,' spoke
out a fresh voice.

'What then!' replied he who had latest come, and who stood at the
mouth of the entry. 'A had my whalin' knife wi' me i' my pea-jacket
as my missus threw at me, and a'd ha' ripped 'em up as soon as
winkin', if a could ha' thought what was best to do wi' that d----d
bell makin' such a din reet above us. A man can but die onest, and
we was ready to go int' t' fire for t' save folks' lives, and yet
we'd none on us t' wit to see as we might ha' saved yon poor chaps
as screeched out for help.'

'They'll ha' getten 'em to t' Randyvowse by now,' said some one.

'They cannot tak' 'em aboard till morning; t' tide won't serve,'
said the last speaker but one.

Daniel Robson spoke out the thought that was surging up into the
brain of every one there.

'There's a chance for us a'. How many be we?' By dint of touching
each other the numbers were counted. Seven. 'Seven. But if us seven
turns out and rouses t' town, there'll be many a score ready to gang
t' Mariners' Arms, and it'll be easy work reskyin' them chaps as is
pressed. Us seven, each man jack on us, go and seek up his friends,
and get him as well as he can to t' church steps; then, mebbe,
there'll be some theere as'll not be so soft as we was, lettin' them
poor chaps be carried off from under our noses, just becase our ears
was busy listenin' to yon confounded bell, whose clip-clappin'
tongue a'll tear out afore this week is out.'

Before Daniel had finished speaking, those nearest to the entrance
muttered their assent to his project, and had stolen off, keeping to
the darkest side of the streets and lanes, which they threaded in
different directions; most of them going straight as sleuth-hounds
to the haunts of the wildest and most desperate portion of the
seafaring population of Monkshaven. For, in the breasts of many,
revenge for the misery and alarm of the past winter took a deeper
and more ferocious form than Daniel had thought of when he made his
proposal of a rescue. To him it was an adventure like many he had
been engaged in in his younger days; indeed, the liquor he had drunk
had given him a fictitious youth for the time; and it was more in
the light of a rough frolic of which he was to be the leader, that
he limped along ( always lame from old attacks of rheumatism),
chuckling to himself at the apparent stillness of the town, which
gave no warning to the press-gang at the Rendezvous of anything in
the wind. Daniel, too, had his friends to summon; old hands like
himself, but 'deep uns', also, like himself, as he imagined.

It was nine o'clock when all who were summoned met at the church
steps; and by nine o'clock, Monkshaven, in those days, was more
quiet and asleep than many a town at present is at midnight. The
church and churchyard above them were flooded with silver light, for
the moon was high in the heavens: the irregular steps were here and
there in pure white clearness, here and there in blackest shadow.
But more than half way up to the top, men clustered like bees; all
pressing so as to be near enough to question those who stood nearest
to the planning of the attack. Here and there, a woman, with wild
gestures and shrill voice, that no entreaty would hush down to the
whispered pitch of the men, pushed her way through the crowd--this
one imploring immediate action, that adjuring those around her to
smite and spare not those who had carried off her 'man',--the
father, the breadwinner. Low down in the darkened silent town were
many whose hearts went with the angry and excited crowd, and who
would bless them and caress them for that night's deeds. Daniel soon
found himself a laggard in planning, compared to some of those
around him. But when, with the rushing sound of many steps and but
few words, they had arrived at the blank, dark, shut-up Mariners'
Arms, they paused in surprise at the uninhabited look of the whole
house: it was Daniel once more who took the lead.

'Speak 'em fair,' said he; 'try good words first. Hobbs 'll mebbe
let 'em out quiet, if we can catch a word wi' him. A say, Hobbs,'
said he, raising his voice, 'is a' shut up for t' neet; for a'd be
glad of a glass. A'm Dannel Robson, thou knows.'

Not one word in reply, any more than from the tomb; but his speech
had been heard nevertheless. The crowd behind him began to jeer and
to threaten; there was no longer any keeping down their voices,
their rage, their terrible oaths. If doors and windows had not of
late been strengthened with bars of iron in anticipation of some
such occasion, they would have been broken in with the onset of the
fierce and now yelling crowd who rushed against them with the force
of a battering-ram, to recoil in baffled rage from the vain assault.
No sign, no sound from within, in that breathless pause.

'Come away round here! a've found a way to t' back o' behint, where
belike it's not so well fenced,' said Daniel, who had made way for
younger and more powerful men to conduct the assault, and had
employed his time meanwhile in examining the back premises. The men
rushed after him, almost knocking him down, as he made his way into
the lane into which the doors of the outbuildings belonging to the
inn opened. Daniel had already broken the fastening of that which
opened into a damp, mouldy-smelling shippen, in one corner of which
a poor lean cow shifted herself on her legs, in an uneasy, restless
manner, as her sleeping-place was invaded by as many men as could
cram themselves into the dark hold. Daniel, at the end farthest from
the door, was almost smothered before he could break down the rotten
wooden shutter, that, when opened, displayed the weedy yard of the
old inn, the full clear light defining the outline of each blade of
grass by the delicate black shadow behind.

This hole, used to give air and light to what had once been a
stable, in the days when horse travellers were in the habit of
coming to the Mariners' Arms, was large enough to admit the passage
of a man; and Daniel, in virtue of its discovery, was the first to
get through. But he was larger and heavier than he had been; his
lameness made him less agile, and the impatient crowd behind him
gave him a helping push that sent him down on the round stones with
which the yard was paved, and for the time disabled him so much that
he could only just crawl out of the way of leaping feet and heavy
nailed boots, which came through the opening till the yard was
filled with men, who now set up a fierce, derisive shout, which, to
their delight, was answered from within. No more silence, no more
dead opposition: a living struggle, a glowing, raging fight; and
Daniel thought he should be obliged to sit there still, leaning
against the wall, inactive, while the strife and the action were
going on in which he had once been foremost.

He saw the stones torn up; he saw them used with good effect on the
unguarded back-door; he cried out in useless warning as he saw the
upper windows open, and aim taken among the crowd; but just then the
door gave way, and there was an involuntary forward motion in the
throng, so that no one was so disabled by the shots as to prevent
his forcing his way in with the rest. And now the sounds came veiled
by the walls as of some raging ravening beast growling over his
prey; the noise came and went--once utterly ceased; and Daniel
raised himself with difficulty to ascertain the cause, when again
the roar came clear and fresh, and men poured into the yard again,
shouting and rejoicing over the rescued victims of the press-gang.
Daniel hobbled up, and shouted, and rejoiced, and shook hands with
the rest, hardly caring to understand that the lieutenant and his
gang had quitted the house by a front window, and that all had
poured out in search of them; the greater part, however, returning
to liberate the prisoners, and then glut their vengeance on the
house and its contents.

From all the windows, upper and lower, furniture was now being
thrown into the yard. The smash of glass, the heavier crash of wood,
the cries, the laughter, the oaths, all excited Daniel to the
utmost; and, forgetting his bruises, he pressed forwards to lend a
helping hand. The wild, rough success of his scheme almost turned
his head. He hurraed at every flagrant piece of destruction; he
shook hands with every one around him, and, at last, when the
destroyers inside paused to take breath, he cried out,--

'If a was as young as onest a was, a'd have t' Randyvowse down, and
mak' a bonfire on it. We'd ring t' fire-bell then t' some purpose.'

No sooner said than done. Their excitement was ready to take the
slightest hint of mischief; old chairs, broken tables, odd drawers,
smashed chests, were rapidly and skilfully heaped into a pyramid,
and one, who at the first broaching of the idea had gone for live
coals the speedier to light up the fire, came now through the crowd
with a large shovelful of red-hot cinders. The rioters stopped to
take breath and look on like children at the uncertain flickering
blaze, which sprang high one moment, and dropped down the next only
to creep along the base of the heap of wreck, and make secure of its
future work. Then the lurid blaze darted up wild, high, and
irrepressible; and the men around gave a cry of fierce exultation,
and in rough mirth began to try and push each other in. In one of
the pauses of the rushing, roaring noise of the flames, the moaning
low and groan of the poor alarmed cow fastened up in the shippen
caught Daniel's ear, and he understood her groans as well as if they
had been words. He limped out of the yard through the now deserted
house, where men were busy at the mad work of destruction, and found
his way back to the lane into which the shippen opened. The cow was
dancing about at the roar, and dazzle, and heat of the fire; but
Daniel knew how to soothe her, and in a few minutes he had a rope
round her neck, and led her gently out from the scene of her alarm.
He was still in the lane when Simpson, the man-of-all-work at the
Mariners' Arms, crept out of some hiding-place in the deserted
outbuilding, and stood suddenly face to face with Robson.

The man was white with fear and rage.

'Here, tak' thy beast, and lead her wheere she'll noane hear yon
cries and shouts. She's fairly moithered wi' heat an' noise.'

'They're brennin' ivery rag I have i' t' world,' gasped out Simpson:
' I niver had much, and now I'm a beggar.'

'Well! thou shouldn't ha' turned again' thine own town-folks, and
harboured t' gang. Sarves thee reet. A'd noane be here leadin'
beasts if a were as young as a were; a'd be in t' thick on it.'

'It was thee set 'm on--a heerd thee--a see'd thee a helping on 'em
t' break in; they'd niver ha' thought on attackin' t' house, and
settin' fire to yon things, if thou hadn't spoken on it.' Simpson
was now fairly crying. But Daniel did not realize what the loss of
all the small property he had in the world was to the poor fellow
(rapscallion though he was, broken down, unprosperous
ne'er-do-weel!) in his pride at the good work he believed he had set
on foot.

'Ay,' said he; 'it's a great thing for folk to have a chap for t'
lead 'em wi' a head on his shouthers. A misdoubt me if there were a
felly theere as would ha' thought o' routling out yon wasps' nest;
it tak's a deal o' mother-wit to be up to things. But t' gang'll
niver harbour theere again, one while. A only wish we'd cotched 'em.
An' a should like t' ha' gi'en Hobbs a bit o' my mind.'

'He's had his sauce,' said Simpson, dolefully. 'Him and me is
ruined.'

'Tut, tut, thou's got thy brother, he's rich enough. And Hobbs 'll
do a deal better; he's had his lesson now, and he'll stick to his
own side time to come. Here, tak' thy beast an' look after her, for
my bones is achin'. An' mak' thysel' scarce, for some o' them fellys
has getten their blood up, an' wunnot be for treating thee o'er well
if they fall in wi' thee.'

'Hobbs ought to be served out; it were him as made t' bargain wi'
lieutenant; and he's off safe wi' his wife and his money bag, and
a'm left a beggar this neet i' Monkshaven street. My brother and me
has had words, and he'll do nought for me but curse me. A had three
crown-pieces, and a good pair o' breeches, and a shirt, and a dare
say better nor two pair o' stockings. A wish t' gang, and thee, and
Hobbs and them mad folk up yonder, were a' down i' hell, a do.'

'Coom, lad,' said Daniel, noways offended at his companion's wish on
his behalf. 'A'm noane flush mysel', but here's half-a-crown and
tuppence; it's a' a've getten wi' me, but it'll keep thee and t'
beast i' food and shelter to-neet, and get thee a glass o' comfort,
too. A had thought o' takin' one mysel', but a shannot ha' a penny
left, so a'll just toddle whoam to my missus.'

Daniel was not in the habit of feeling any emotion at actions not
directly affecting himself; or else he might have despised the poor
wretch who immediately clutched at the money, and overwhelmed that
man with slobbery thanks whom he had not a minute before been
cursing. But all Simpson's stronger passions had been long ago used
up; now he only faintly liked and disliked, where once he loved and
hated; his only vehement feeling was for himself; that cared for,
other men might wither or flourish as best suited them.

Many of the doors which had been close shut when the crowd went down
the High Street, were partially open as Daniel slowly returned; and
light streamed from them on the otherwise dark road. The news of the
successful attempt at rescue had reached those who had sate in
mourning and in desolation an hour or two ago, and several of these
pressed forwards as from their watching corner they recognized
Daniel's approach; they pressed forward into the street to shake him
by the hand, to thank him (for his name had been bruited abroad as
one of those who had planned the affair), and at several places he
was urged to have a dram--urgency that he was loath for many reasons
to refuse, but his increasing uneasiness and pain made him for once
abstinent, and only anxious to get home and rest. But he could not
help being both touched and flattered at the way in which those who
formed his 'world' looked upon him as a hero; and was not
insensible to the words of blessing which a wife, whose husband had
been impressed and rescued this night, poured down upon him as he
passed.

'Theere, theere,--dunnot crack thy throat wi' blessin'. Thy man
would ha' done as much for me, though mebbe he mightn't ha' shown so
much gumption and capability; but them's gifts, and not to be proud
on.'

When Daniel reached the top of the hill on the road home, he turned
to look round; but he was lame and bruised, he had gone along
slowly, the fire had pretty nearly died out, only a red hue in the
air about the houses at the end of the long High Street, and a hot
lurid mist against the hill-side beyond where the Mariners' Arms had
stood, were still left as signs and token of the deed of violence.

Daniel looked and chuckled. 'That comes o' ringin' t' fire-bell,'
said he to himself; 'it were shame for it to be tellin' a lie, poor
oud story-teller.'

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