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- Sylvia's Lovers - 4/104 -
'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
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