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Lorna Doone - A Romance of Exmoor
Follow the link above to read the first thirty six chapters, preface, and summary.
Chapter Thirty Seven
A VERY DESPERATE VENTURE
That the enterprise now resolved upon was far more dangerous than any hitherto attempted by me, needs no further proof than this:—I went and made my will at Porlock, with a middling honest lawyer there; not that I had much to leave, but that none could say how far the farm, and all the farming stock, might depend on my disposition. It makes me smile when I remember how particular I was, and how for the life of me I was puzzled to bequeath most part of my clothes, and hats, and things altogether my own, to Lorna, without the shrewd old lawyer knowing who she was and where she lived. At last, indeed, I flattered myself that I had baffled old Tape's curiosity; but his wrinkled smile and his speech at parting made me again uneasy.
'A very excellent will, young sir. An admirably just and virtuous will; all your effects to your nearest of kin; filial and fraternal duty thoroughly exemplified; nothing diverted to alien channels, except a small token of esteem and reverence to an elderly lady, I presume: and which may or may not be valid, or invalid, on the ground of uncertainty, or the absence of any legal status on the part of the legatee. Ha, ha! Yes, yes! Few young men are so free from exceptionable entanglements. Two guineas is my charge, sir: and a rare good will for the money. Very prudent of you, sir. Does you credit in every way. Well, well; we all must die; and often the young before the old.'
Not only did I think two guineas a great deal too much money for a quarter of an hour's employment, but also I disliked particularly the words with which he concluded; they sounded, from his grating voice, like the evil omen of a croaking raven. Nevertheless I still abode in my fixed resolve to go, and find out, if I died for it, what was become of Lorna. And herein I lay no claim to courage; the matter being simply a choice between two evils, of which by far the greater one was, of course, to lose my darling.
The journey was a great deal longer to fetch around the Southern hills, and enter by the Doone-gate, than to cross the lower land and steal in by the water-slide. However, I durst not take a horse (for fear of the Doones who might be abroad upon their usual business), but started betimes in the evening, so as not to hurry, or waste any strength upon the way. And thus I came to the robbers' highway, walking circumspectly, scanning the sky-line of every hill, and searching the folds of every valley, for any moving figure.
Although it was now well on towards dark, and the sun was down an hour or so, I could see the robbers' road before me, in a trough of the winding hills, where the brook ploughed down from the higher barrows, and the coving banks were roofed with furze. At present, there was no one passing, neither post nor sentinel, so far as I could descry; but I thought it safer to wait a little, as twilight melted into night; and then I crept down a seam of the highland, and stood upon the Doone-track.
As the road approached the entrance, it became more straight and strong, like a channel cut from rock, with the water brawling darkly along the naked side of it. Not a tree or bush was left, to shelter a man from bullets: all was stern, and stiff, and rugged, as I could not help perceiving, even through the darkness, and a smell as of churchyard mould, a sense of being boxed in and cooped, made me long to be out again.
And here I was, or seemed to be, particularly unlucky; for as I drew near the very entrance, lightly of foot and warily, the moon (which had often been my friend) like an enemy broke upon me, topping the eastward ridge of rock, and filling all the open spaces with the play of wavering light. I shrank back into the shadowy quarter on the right side of the road; and gloomily employed myself to watch the triple entrance, on which the moonlight fell askew.
All across and before the three rude and beetling archways hung a felled oak overhead, black, and thick, and threatening. This, as I heard before, could be let fall in a moment, so as to crush a score of men, and bar the approach of horses. Behind this tree, the rocky mouth was spanned, as by a gallery with brushwood and piled timber, all upon a ledge of stone, where thirty men might lurk unseen, and fire at any invader. From that rampart it would be impossible to dislodge them, because the rock fell sheer below them twenty feet, or it may be more; while overhead it towered three hundred, and so jutted over that nothing could be cast upon them; even if a man could climb the height. And the access to this portcullis place—if I may so call it, being no portcullis there—was through certain rocky chambers known to the tenants only.
But the cleverest of their devices, and the most puzzling to an enemy, was that, instead of one mouth only, there were three to choose from, with nothing to betoken which was the proper access; all being pretty much alike, and all unfenced and yawning. And the common rumour was that in times of any danger, when any force was known to be on muster in their neighbourhood, they changed their entrance every day, and diverted the other two, by means of sliding doors to the chasms and dark abysses.
Now I could see those three rough arches, jagged, black, and terrible; and I knew that only one of them could lead me to the valley; neither gave the river now any further guidance; but dived underground with a sullen roar, where it met the cross-bar of the mountain. Having no means at all of judging which was the right way of the three, and knowing that the other two would lead to almost certain death, in the ruggedness and darkness,—for how could a man, among precipices and bottomless depths of water, without a ray of light, have any chance to save his life?—I do declare that I was half inclined to go away, and have done with it.
However, I knew one thing for certain, to wit, that the longer I stayed debating the more would the enterprise pall upon me, and the less my relish be. And it struck me that, in times of peace, the middle way was the likeliest; and the others diverging right and left in their farther parts might be made to slide into it (not far from the entrance), at the pleasure of the warders. Also I took it for good omen that I remembered (as rarely happened) a very fine line in the Latin grammar, whose emphasis and meaning is 'middle road is safest.'
Therefore, without more hesitation, I plunged into the middle way, holding a long ash staff before me, shodden at the end with iron. Presently I was in black darkness groping along the wall, and feeling a deal more fear than I wished to feel; especially when upon looking back I could no longer see the light, which I had forsaken. Then I stumbled over something hard, and sharp, and very cold, moreover so grievous to my legs that it needed my very best doctrine and humour to forbear from swearing, in the manner they use in London. But when I arose and felt it, and knew it to be a culverin, I was somewhat reassured thereby, inasmuch as it was not likely that they would plant this engine except in the real and true entrance.
Therefore I went on again, more painfully and wearily, and presently found it to be good that I had received that knock, and borne it with such patience; for otherwise I might have blundered full upon the sentries, and been shot without more ado. As it was, I had barely time to draw back, as I turned a corner upon them; and if their lanthorn had been in its place, they could scarce have failed to descry me, unless indeed I had seen the gleam before I turned the corner.
There seemed to be only two of them, of size indeed and stature as all the Doones must be, but I need not have feared to encounter them both, had they been unarmed, as I was. It was plain, however, that each had a long and heavy carbine, not in his hands (as it should have been), but standing close beside him. Therefore it behoved me now to be exceedingly careful, and even that might scarce avail, without luck in proportion. So I kept well back at the corner, and laid one cheek to the rock face, and kept my outer eye round the jut, in the wariest mode I could compass, watching my opportunity: and this is what I saw.
The two villains looked very happy—which villains have no right to be, but often are, meseemeth—they were sitting in a niche of rock, with the lanthorn in the corner, quaffing something from glass measures, and playing at push-pin, or shepherd's chess, or basset; or some trivial game of that sort. Each was smoking a long clay pipe, quite of new London shape, I could see, for the shadow was thrown out clearly; and each would laugh from time to time, as he fancied he got the better of it. One was sitting with his knees up, and left hand on his thigh; and this one had his back to me, and seemed to be the stouter. The other leaned more against the rock, half sitting and half astraddle, and wearing leathern overalls, as if newly come from riding. I could see his face quite clearly by the light of the open lanthorn, and a handsomer or a bolder face I had seldom, if ever, set eyes upon; insomuch that it made me very unhappy to think of his being so near my Lorna.
'How long am I to stand crouching here?' I asked of myself, at last, being tired of hearing them cry, 'score one,' 'score two,' 'No, by —, Charlie,' 'By —, I say it is, Phelps.' And yet my only chance of slipping by them unperceived was to wait till they quarrelled more, and came to blows about it. Presently, as I made up my mind to steal along towards them (for the cavern was pretty wide, just there), Charlie, or Charleworth Doone, the younger and taller man, reached forth his hand to seize the money, which he swore he had won that time. Upon this, the other jerked his arm, vowing that he had no right to it; whereupon Charlie flung at his face the contents of the glass he was sipping, but missed him and hit the candle, which sputtered with a flare of blue flame (from the strength perhaps of the spirit) and then went out completely. At this, one swore, and the other laughed; and before they had settled what to do, I was past them and round the corner.
And then, like a giddy fool as I was, I needs must give them a startler—the whoop of an owl, done so exactly, as John Fry had taught me, and echoed by the roof so fearfully, that one of them dropped the tinder box; and the other caught up his gun and cocked it, at least as I judged by the sounds they made. And then, too late, I knew my madness, for if either of them had fired, no doubt but what all the village would have risen and rushed upon me. However, as the luck of the matter went, it proved for my advantage; for I heard one say to the other,—
'Curse it, Charlie, what was that? It scared me so, I have dropped my box; my flint is gone, and everything. Will the brimstone catch from your pipe, my lad?'
'My pipe is out, Phelps, ever so long. Damn it, I am not afraid of an owl, man. Give me the lanthorn, and stay here. I'm not half done with you yet, my friend.'
'Well said, my boy, well said! Go straight to Carver's, mind you. The other sleepy heads be snoring, as there is nothing up to-night. No dallying now under Captain's window. Queen will have nought to say to you; and Carver will punch your head into a new wick for your lanthorn.'
'Will he though? Two can play at that.' And so after some rude jests, and laughter, and a few more oaths, I heard Charlie (or at any rate somebody) coming toward me, with a loose and not too sober footfall. As he reeled a little in his gait, and I would not move from his way one inch, after his talk of Lorna, but only longed to grasp him (if common sense permitted it), his braided coat came against my thumb, and his leathern gaiters brushed my knee. If he had turned or noticed it, he would have been a dead man in a moment; but his drunkenness saved him.
So I let him reel on unharmed; and thereupon it occurred to me that I could have no better guide, passing as he would exactly where I wished to be; that is to say under Lorna's window. Therefore I followed him without any especial caution; and soon I had the pleasure of seeing his form against the moonlit sky. Down a steep and winding path, with a handrail at the corners (such as they have at Ilfracombe), Master Charlie tripped along—and indeed there was much tripping, and he must have been an active fellow to recover as he did—and after him walked I, much hoping (for his own poor sake) that he might not turn and espy me.
But Bacchus (of whom I read at school, with great wonder about his meaning—and the same I may say of Venus) that great deity preserved Charlie, his pious worshipper, from regarding consequences. So he led me very kindly to the top of the meadow land, where the stream from underground broke forth, seething quietly with a little hiss of bubbles. Hence I had fair view and outline of the robbers' township, spread with bushes here and there, but not heavily overshadowed. The moon, approaching now the full, brought the forms in manner forth, clothing each with character, as the moon (more than the sun) does, to an eye accustomed.
I knew that the Captain's house was first, both from what Lorna had said of it, and from my mother's description, and now again from seeing Charlie halt there for a certain time, and whistle on his fingers, and hurry on, fearing consequence. The tune that he whistled was strange to me, and lingered in my ears, as having something very new and striking, and fantastic in it. And I repeated it softly to myself, while I marked the position of the houses and the beauty of the village. For the stream, in lieu of any street, passing between the houses, and affording perpetual change, and twinkling, and reflections moreover by its sleepy murmur soothing all the dwellers there, this and the snugness of the position, walled with rock and spread with herbage, made it look, in the quiet moonlight, like a little paradise. And to think of all the inmates there, sleeping with good consciences, having plied their useful trade of making others work for them, enjoying life without much labour, yet with great renown.
Master Charlie went down the village, and I followed him carefully, keeping as much as possible in the shadowy places, and watching the windows of every house, lest any light should be burning. As I passed Sir Ensor's house, my heart leaped up, for I spied a window, higher than the rest above the ground, and with a faint light moving. This could hardly fail to be the room wherein my darling lay; for here that impudent young fellow had gazed while he was whistling. And here my courage grew tenfold, and my spirit feared no evil—for lo, if Lorna had been surrendered to that scoundrel, Carver, she would not have been at her grandfather's house, but in Carver's accursed dwelling.
Warm with this idea, I hurried after Charleworth Doone, being resolved not to harm him now, unless my own life required it. And while I watched from behind a tree, the door of the farthest house was opened; and sure enough it was Carver's self, who stood bareheaded, and half undressed in the doorway. I could see his great black chest, and arms, by the light of the lamp he bore.
'Who wants me this time of night?' he grumbled, in a deep gruff voice; 'any young scamp prowling after the maids shall have sore bones for his trouble.'
'All the fair maids are for thee, are they, Master Carver?' Charlie answered, laughing; 'we young scamps must be well-content with coarser stuff than thou wouldst have.'
'Would have? Ay, and will have,' the great beast muttered angrily. 'I bide my time; but not very long. Only one word for thy good, Charlie. I will fling thee senseless into the river, if ever I catch thy girl-face there again.'
'Mayhap, Master Carver, it is more than thou couldst do. But I will not keep thee; thou art not pleasant company to-night. All I want is a light for my lanthorn, and a glass of schnapps, if thou hast it.'
'What is become of thy light, then? Good for thee I am not on duty.'
'A great owl flew between me and Phelps, as we watched beside the culvern, and so scared was he at our fierce bright eyes that he fell and knocked the light out.'
'Likely tale, or likely lie, Charles! We will have the truth to-morrow. Here take thy light, and be gone with thee. All virtuous men are in bed now.'
'Then so will I be, and why art thou not? Ha, have I earned my schnapps now?'
'If thou hast, thou hast paid a bad debt; there is too much in thee already. Be off! my patience is done with.'
Then he slammed the door in the young man's face, having kindled his lanthorn by this time: and Charlie went up to the watchplace again, muttering as he passed me, 'Bad look-out for all of us, when that surly old beast is Captain. No gentle blood in him, no hospitality, not even pleasant language, nor a good new oath in his frowsy pate! I've a mind to cut the whole of it; and but for the girls I would so.'
My heart was in my mouth, as they say, when I stood in the shade by Lorna's window, and whispered her name gently. The house was of one story only, as the others were, with pine-ends standing forth the stone, and only two rough windows upon that western side of it, and perhaps both of them were Lorna's. The Doones had been their own builders, for no one should know their ins and outs; and of course their work was clumsy. As for their windows, they stole them mostly from the houses round about. But though the window was not very close, I might have whispered long enough, before she would have answered me; frightened as she was, no doubt by many a rude overture. And I durst not speak aloud because I saw another watchman posted on the western cliff, and commanding all the valley. And now this man (having no companion for drinking or for gambling) espied me against the wall of the house, and advanced to the brink, and challenged me.
'Who are you there? Answer! One, two, three; and I fire at thee.'
The nozzle of his gun was pointed full upon me, as I could see, with the moonlight striking on the barrel; he was not more than fifty yards off, and now he began to reckon. Being almost desperate about it, I began to whistle, wondering how far I should get before I lost my windpipe: and as luck would have it, my lips fell into that strange tune I had practised last; the one I had heard from Charlie. My mouth would scarcely frame the notes, being parched with terror; but to my surprise, the man fell back, dropped his gun, and saluted. Oh, sweetest of all sweet melodies!
That tune was Carver Doone's passport (as I heard long afterwards), which Charleworth Doone had imitated, for decoy of Lorna. The sentinel took me for that vile Carver; who was like enough to be prowling there, for private talk with Lorna; but not very likely to shout forth his name, if it might be avoided. The watchman, perceiving the danger perhaps of intruding on Carver's privacy, not only retired along the cliff, but withdrew himself to good distance.
Meanwhile he had done me the kindest service; for Lorna came to the window at once, to see what the cause of the shout was, and drew back the curtain timidly. Then she opened the rough lattice; and then she watched the cliff and trees; and then she sighed very sadly.
'Oh, Lorna, don't you know me?' I whispered from the side, being afraid of startling her by appearing over suddenly.
Quick though she always was of thought, she knew me not from my whisper, and was shutting the window hastily when I caught it back, and showed myself.
'John!' she cried, yet with sense enough not to speak aloud: 'oh, you must be mad, John.'
'As mad as a March hare,' said I, 'without any news of my darling. You knew I would come: of course you did.'
'Well, I thought, perhaps—you know: now, John, you need not eat my hand. Do you see they have put iron bars across?'
'To be sure. Do you think I should be contented, even with this lovely hand, but for these vile iron bars. I will have them out before I go. Now, darling, for one moment—just the other hand, for a change, you know.'
So I got the other, but was not honest; for I kept them both, and felt their delicate beauty trembling, as I laid them to my heart.
'Oh, John, you will make me cry directly'—she had been crying long ago—'if you go on in that way. You know we can never have one another; every one is against it. Why should I make you miserable? Try not to think of me any more.'
'And will you try the same of me, Lorna?'
'Oh yes, John; if you agree to it. At least I will try to try it.'
'Then you won't try anything of the sort,' I cried with great enthusiasm, for her tone was so nice and melancholy: 'the only thing we will try to try, is to belong to one another. And if we do our best, Lorna, God alone can prevent us.'
She crossed herself, with one hand drawn free as I spoke so boldly; and something swelled in her little throat, and prevented her from answering.
'Now tell me,' I said; 'what means all this? Why are you so pent up here? Why have you given me no token? Has your grandfather turned against you? Are you in any danger?'
'My poor grandfather is very ill: I fear that he will not live long. The Counsellor and his son are now the masters of the valley; and I dare not venture forth, for fear of anything they might do to me. When I went forth, to signal for you, Carver tried to seize me; but I was too quick for him. Little Gwenny is not allowed to leave the valley now; so that I could send no message. I have been so wretched, dear, lest you should think me false to you. The tyrants now make sure of me. You must watch this house, both night and day, if you wish to save me. There is nothing they would shrink from; if my poor grandfather—oh, I cannot bear to think of myself, when I ought to think of him only; dying without a son to tend him, or a daughter to shed a tear.'
'But surely he has sons enough; and a deal too many,' I was going to say, but stopped myself in time: 'why do none of them come to him?'
'I know not. I cannot tell. He is a very strange old man; and few have ever loved him. He was black with wrath at the Counsellor, this very afternoon—but I must not keep you here—you are much too brave, John; and I am much too selfish: there, what was that shadow?'
'Nothing more than a bat, darling, come to look for his sweetheart. I will not stay long; you tremble so: and yet for that very reason, how can I leave you, Lorna?'
'You must—you must,' she answered; 'I shall die if they hurt you. I hear the old nurse moving. Grandfather is sure to send for me. Keep back from the window.'
However, it was only Gwenny Carfax, Lorna's little handmaid: my darling brought her to the window and presented her to me, almost laughing through her grief.
'Oh, I am so glad, John; Gwenny, I am so glad you came. I have wanted long to introduce you to my "young man," as you call him. It is rather dark, but you can see him. I wish you to know him again, Gwenny.'
'Whoy!' cried Gwenny, with great amazement, standing on tiptoe to look out, and staring as if she were weighing me: 'her be bigger nor any Doone! Heared as her have bate our Cornish champion awrastling. 'Twadn't fair play nohow: no, no; don't tell me, 'twadn't fair play nohow.'
'True enough, Gwenny,' I answered her; for the play had been very unfair indeed on the side of the Bodmin champion; 'it was not a fair bout, little maid; I am free to acknowledge that.' By that answer, or rather by the construction she put upon it, the heart of the Cornish girl was won, more than by gold and silver.
'I shall knoo thee again, young man; no fear of that,' she answered, nodding with an air of patronage. 'Now, missis, gae on coortin', and I wall gae outside and watch for 'ee.' Though expressed not over delicately, this proposal arose, no doubt, from Gwenny's sense of delicacy; and I was very thankful to her for taking her departure.
'She is the best little thing in the world,' said Lorna, softly laughing; 'and the queerest, and the truest. Nothing will bribe her against me. If she seems to be on the other side, never, never doubt her. Now no more of your "coortin'," John! I love you far too well for that. Yes, yes, ever so much! If you will take a mean advantage of me. And as much as ever you like to imagine; and then you may double it, after that. Only go, do go, good John; kind, dear, darling John; if you love me, go.'
'How can I go without settling anything?' I asked very sensibly. 'How shall I know of your danger now? Hit upon something; you are so quick. Anything you can think of; and then I will go, and not frighten you.'
'I have been thinking long of something,' Lorna answered rapidly, with that peculiar clearness of voice which made every syllable ring like music of a several note, 'you see that tree with the seven rooks' nests bright against the cliffs there? Can you count them, from above, do you think? From a place where you will be safe, dear'—
'No doubt, I can; or if I cannot, it will not take me long to find a spot, whence I can do it.'
'Gwenny can climb like any cat. She has been up there in the summer, watching the young birds, day by day, and daring the boys to touch them. There are neither birds, nor eggs there now, of course, and nothing doing. If you see but six rooks' nests; I am in peril and want you. If you see but five, I am carried off by Carver.'
'Good God!' said I, at the mere idea; in a tone which frightened Lorna.
'Fear not, John,' she whispered sadly, and my blood grew cold at it: 'I have means to stop him; or at least to save myself. If you can come within one day of that man's getting hold of me, you will find me quite unharmed. After that you will find me dead, or alive, according to circumstances, but in no case such that you need blush to look at me.'
Her dear sweet face was full of pride, as even in the gloom I saw: and I would not trespass on her feelings by such a thing, at such a moment, as an attempt at any caress. I only said, 'God bless you, darling!' and she said the same to me, in a very low sad voice. And then I stole below Carver's house, in the shadow from the eastern cliff; and knowing enough of the village now to satisfy all necessity, betook myself to my well-known track in returning from the valley; which was neither down the waterslide (a course I feared in the darkness) nor up the cliffs at Lorna's bower; but a way of my own inventing, which there is no need to dwell upon.
A weight of care was off my mind; though much of trouble hung there still. One thing was quite certain—if Lorna could not have John Ridd, no one else should have her. And my mother, who sat up for me, and with me long time afterwards, agreed that this was comfort.
Chapter Thirty Eight
A GOOD TURN FOR JEREMY
John Fry had now six shillings a week of regular and permanent wage, besides all harvest and shearing money, as well as a cottage rent-free, and enough of garden-ground to rear pot-herbs for his wife and all his family. Now the wages appointed by our justices, at the time of sessions, were four-and-sixpence a week for summer, and a shilling less for the winter-time; and we could be fined, and perhaps imprisoned, for giving more than the sums so fixed. Therefore John Fry was looked upon as the richest man upon Exmoor, I mean of course among labourers, and there were many jokes about robbing him, as if he were the mint of the King; and Tom Faggus promised to try his hand, if he came across John on the highway, although he had ceased from business, and was seeking a Royal pardon.
Now is it according to human nature, or is it a thing contradictory (as I would fain believe)? But anyhow, there was, upon Exmoor, no more discontented man, no man more sure that he had not his worth, neither half so sore about it, than, or as, John Fry was. And one thing he did which I could not wholly (or indeed I may say, in any measure) reconcile with my sense of right, much as I laboured to do John justice, especially because of his roguery; and this was, that if we said too much, or accused him at all of laziness (which he must have known to be in him), he regularly turned round upon us, and quite compelled us to hold our tongues, by threatening to lay information against us for paying him too much wages!
Now I have not mentioned all this of John Fry, from any disrespect for his memory (which is green and honest amongst us), far less from any desire to hurt the feelings of his grandchildren; and I will do them the justice, once for all, to avow, thus publicly, that I have known a great many bigger rogues, and most of themselves in the number. But I have referred, with moderation, to this little flaw in a worthy character (or foible, as we call it, when a man is dead) for this reason only—that without it there was no explaining John's dealings with Jeremy Stickles.
Master Jeremy, being full of London and Norwich experience, fell into the error of supposing that we clods and yokels were the simplest of the simple, and could be cheated at his good pleasure. Now this is not so: when once we suspect that people have that idea of us, we indulge them in it to the top of their bent, and grieve that they should come out of it, as they do at last in amazement, with less money than before, and the laugh now set against them.
Ever since I had offended Jeremy, by threatening him (as before related) in case of his meddling with my affairs, he had more and more allied himself with simple-minded John, as he was pleased to call him. John Fry was everything: it was 'run and fetch my horse, John'—'John, are my pistols primed well?'—'I want you in the stable, John, about something very particular', until except for the rudeness of it, I was longing to tell Master Stickles that he ought to pay John's wages. John for his part was not backward, but gave himself the most wonderful airs of secrecy and importance, till half the parish began to think that the affairs of the nation were in his hand, and he scorned the sight of a dungfork.
It was not likely that this should last; and being the only man in the parish with any knowledge of politics, I gave John Fry to understand that he must not presume to talk so freely, as if he were at least a constable, about the constitution; which could be no affair of his, and might bring us all into trouble. At this he only tossed his nose, as if he had been in London at least three times for my one; which vexed me so that I promised him the thick end of the plough-whip if even the name of a knight of the shire should pass his lips for a fortnight.
Now I did not suspect in my stupid noddle that John Fry would ever tell Jeremy Stickles about the sight at the Wizard's Slough and the man in the white nightcap; because John had sworn on the blade of his knife not to breathe a word to any soul, without my full permission. However, it appears that John related, for a certain consideration, all that he had seen, and doubtless more which had accrued to it. Upon this Master Stickles was much astonished at Uncle Reuben's proceedings, having always accounted him a most loyal, keen, and wary subject.
All this I learned upon recovering Jeremy's good graces, which came to pass in no other way than by the saving of his life. Being bound to keep the strictest watch upon the seven rooks' nests, and yet not bearing to be idle and to waste my mother's stores, I contrived to keep my work entirely at the western corner of our farm, which was nearest to Glen Doone, and whence I could easily run to a height commanding the view I coveted.
One day Squire Faggus had dropped in upon us, just in time for dinner; and very soon he and King's messenger were as thick as need be. Tom had brought his beloved mare to show her off to Annie, and he mounted his pretty sweetheart upon her, after giving Winnie notice to be on her very best behaviour. The squire was in great spirits, having just accomplished a purchase of land which was worth ten times what he gave for it; and this he did by a merry trick upon old Sir Roger Bassett, who never supposed him to be in earnest, as not possessing the money. The whole thing was done on a bumper of claret in a tavern where they met; and the old knight having once pledged his word, no lawyers could hold him back from it. They could only say that Master Faggus, being attainted of felony, was not a capable grantee. 'I will soon cure that,' quoth Tom, 'my pardon has been ready for months and months, so soon as I care to sue it.'
And now he was telling our Annie, who listened very rosily, and believed every word he said, that, having been ruined in early innocence by the means of lawyers, it was only just, and fair turn for turn, that having become a match for them by long practice upon the highway, he should reinstate himself, at their expense, in society. And now he would go to London at once, and sue out his pardon, and then would his lovely darling Annie, etc., etc.—things which I had no right to hear, and in which I was not wanted.
Therefore I strode away up the lane to my afternoon's employment, sadly comparing my love with theirs (which now appeared so prosperous), yet heartily glad for Annie's sake; only remembering now and then the old proverb 'Wrong never comes right.'
I worked very hard in the copse of young ash, with my billhook and a shearing-knife; cutting out the saplings where they stooled too close together, making spars to keep for thatching, wall-crooks to drive into the cob, stiles for close sheep hurdles, and handles for rakes, and hoes, and two-bills, of the larger and straighter stuff. And all the lesser I bound in faggots, to come home on the sledd to the woodrick. It is not to be supposed that I did all this work, without many peeps at the seven rooks' nests, which proved my Lorna's safety. Indeed, whenever I wanted a change, either from cleaving, or hewing too hard, or stooping too much at binding, I was up and away to the ridge of the hill, instead of standing and doing nothing.
Soon I forgot about Tom and Annie; and fell to thinking of Lorna only; and how much I would make of her; and what I should call our children; and how I would educate them, to do honour to her rank; yet all the time I worked none the worse, by reason of meditation. Fresh-cut spars are not so good as those of a little seasoning; especially if the sap was not gone down at the time of cutting. Therefore we always find it needful to have plenty still in stock.
It was very pleasant there in the copse, sloping to the west as it was, and the sun descending brightly, with rocks and banks to dwell upon. The stems of mottled and dimpled wood, with twigs coming out like elbows, hung and clung together closely, with a mode of bending in, as children do at some danger; overhead the shrunken leaves quivered and rustled ripely, having many points like stars, and rising and falling delicately, as fingers play sad music. Along the bed of the slanting ground, all between the stools of wood, there were heaps of dead brown leaves, and sheltered mats of lichen, and drifts of spotted stick gone rotten, and tufts of rushes here and there, full of fray and feathering.
All by the hedge ran a little stream, a thing that could barely name itself, flowing scarce more than a pint in a minute, because of the sunny weather. Yet had this rill little crooks and crannies dark and bravely bearded, and a gallant rush through a reeden pipe—the stem of a flag that was grounded; and here and there divided threads, from the points of a branching stick, into mighty pools of rock (as large as a grown man's hat almost) napped with moss all around the sides and hung with corded grasses. Along and down the tiny banks, and nodding into one another, even across main channel, hung the brown arcade of ferns; some with gold tongues languishing; some with countless ear-drops jerking, some with great quilled ribs uprising and long saws aflapping; others cupped, and fanning over with the grace of yielding, even as a hollow fountain spread by winds that have lost their way.
Deeply each beyond other, pluming, stooping, glancing, glistening, weaving softest pillow lace, coying to the wind and water, when their fleeting image danced, or by which their beauty moved,—God has made no lovelier thing; and only He takes heed of them.
It was time to go home to supper now, and I felt very friendly towards it, having been hard at work for some hours, with only the voice of the little rill, and some hares and a pheasant for company. The sun was gone down behind the black wood on the farther cliffs of Bagworthy, and the russet of the tufts and spear-beds was becoming gray, while the greyness of the sapling ash grew brown against the sky; the hollow curves of the little stream became black beneath the grasses and the fairy fans innumerable, while outside the hedge our clover was crimping its leaves in the dewfall, like the cocked hats of wood-sorrel,—when, thanking God for all this scene, because my love had gifted me with the key to all things lovely, I prepared to follow their example, and to rest from labour.
Therefore I wiped my bill-hook and shearing-knife very carefully, for I hate to leave tools dirty; and was doubting whether I should try for another glance at the seven rooks' nests, or whether it would be too dark for it. It was now a quarter of an hour mayhap, since I had made any chopping noise, because I had been assorting my spars, and tying them in bundles, instead of plying the bill-hook; and the gentle tinkle of the stream was louder than my doings. To this, no doubt, I owe my life, which then (without my dreaming it) was in no little jeopardy.
For, just as I was twisting the bine of my very last faggot, before tucking the cleft tongue under, there came three men outside the hedge, where the western light was yellow; and by it I could see that all three of them carried firearms. These men were not walking carelessly, but following down the hedge-trough, as if to stalk some enemy: and for a moment it struck me cold to think it was I they were looking for. With the swiftness of terror I concluded that my visits to Glen Doone were known, and now my life was the forfeit.
It was a most lucky thing for me, that I heard their clothes catch in the brambles, and saw their hats under the rampart of ash, which is made by what we call 'splashing,' and lucky, for me that I stood in a goyal, and had the dark coppice behind me. To this I had no time to fly, but with a sort of instinct, threw myself flat in among the thick fern, and held my breath, and lay still as a log. For I had seen the light gleam on their gun-barrels, and knowing the faults of the neighbourhood, would fain avoid swelling their number. Then the three men came to the gap in the hedge, where I had been in and out so often; and stood up, and looked in over.
It is all very well for a man to boast that, in all his life, he has never been frightened, and believes that he never could be so. There may be men of that nature—I will not dare to deny it; only I have never known them. The fright I was now in was horrible, and all my bones seemed to creep inside me; when lying there helpless, with only a billet and the comb of fern to hide me, in the dusk of early evening, I saw three faces in the gap; and what was worse, three gun-muzzles.
'Somebody been at work here—' it was the deep voice of Carver Doone; 'jump up, Charlie, and look about; we must have no witnesses.'
'Give me a hand behind,' said Charlie, the same handsome young Doone I had seen that night; 'this bank is too devilish steep for me.'
'Nonsense, man!' cried Marwood de Whichehalse, who to my amazement was the third of the number; 'only a hind cutting faggots; and of course he hath gone home long ago. Blind man's holiday, as we call it. I can see all over the place; and there is not even a rabbit there.'
At that I drew my breath again, and thanked God I had gotten my coat on.
'Squire is right,' said Charlie, who was standing up high (on a root perhaps), 'there is nobody there now, captain; and lucky for the poor devil that he keepeth workman's hours. Even his chopper is gone, I see.'
'No dog, no man, is the rule about here, when it comes to coppice work,' continued young de Whichehalse; there is not a man would dare work there, without a dog to scare the pixies.'
'There is a big young fellow upon this farm,' Carver Doone muttered sulkily, 'with whom I have an account to settle, if ever I come across him. He hath a cursed spite to us, because we shot his father. He was going to bring the lumpers upon us, only he was afeared, last winter. And he hath been in London lately, for some traitorous job, I doubt.'
'Oh, you mean that fool, John Ridd,' answered the young squire; 'a very simple clod-hopper. No treachery in him I warrant; he hath not the head for it. All he cares about is wrestling. As strong as a bull, and with no more brains.'
'A bullet for that bull,' said Carver; and I could see the grin on his scornful face; 'a bullet for ballast to his brain, the first time I come across him.'
'Nonsense, captain! I won't have him shot, for he is my old school-fellow, and hath a very pretty sister. But his cousin is of a different mould, and ten times as dangerous.'
'We shall see, lads, we shall see,' grumbled the great black-bearded man. 'Ill bodes for the fool that would hinder me. But come, let us onward. No lingering, or the viper will be in the bush from us. Body and soul, if he give us the slip, both of you shall answer it.'
'No fear, captain, and no hurry,' Charlie answered gallantly, 'would I were as sure of living a twelvemonth as he is of dying within the hour! Extreme unction for him in my bullet patch. Remember, I claim to be his confessor, because he hath insulted me.'
'Thou art welcome to the job for me,' said Marwood, as they turned away, and kept along the hedge-row; 'I love to meet a man sword to sword; not to pop at him from a foxhole.'
What answer was made I could not hear, for by this time the stout ashen hedge was between us, and no other gap to be found in it, until at the very bottom, where the corner of the copse was. Yet I was not quit of danger now; for they might come through that second gap, and then would be sure to see me, unless I crept into the uncut thicket, before they could enter the clearing. But in spite of all my fear, I was not wise enough to do that. And in truth the words of Carver Doone had filled me with such anger, knowing what I did about him and his pretence to Lorna; and the sight of Squire Marwood, in such outrageous company, had so moved my curiosity, and their threats against some unknown person so aroused my pity, that much of my prudence was forgotten, or at least the better part of courage, which loves danger at long distance.
Therefore, holding fast my bill-hook, I dropped myself very quietly into the bed of the runnel, being resolved to take my chance of their entrance at the corner, where the water dived through the hedge-row. And so I followed them down the fence, as gently as a rabbit goes, only I was inside it, and they on the outside; but yet so near that I heard the branches rustle as they pushed them.
Perhaps I had never loved ferns so much as when I came to the end of that little gully, and stooped betwixt two patches of them, now my chiefest shelter, for cattle had been through the gap just there, in quest of fodder and coolness, and had left but a mound of trodden earth between me and the outlaws. I mean at least on my left hand (upon which side they were), for in front where the brook ran out of the copse was a good stiff hedge of holly. And now I prayed Heaven to lead them straight on; for if they once turned to their right, through the gap, the muzzles of their guns would come almost against my forehead.
I heard them, for I durst not look; and could scarce keep still for trembling—I heard them trampling outside the gap, uncertain which track they should follow. And in that fearful moment, with my soul almost looking out of my body, expecting notice to quit it, what do you think I did? I counted the threads in a spider's web, and the flies he had lately eaten, as their skeletons shook in the twilight.
'We shall see him better in there,' said Carver, in his horrible gruff voice, like the creaking of the gallows chain; 'sit there, behind holly hedge, lads, while he cometh down yonder hill; and then our good-evening to him; one at his body, and two at his head; and good aim, lest we baulk the devil.'
'I tell you, captain, that will not do,' said Charlie, almost whispering: 'you are very proud of your skill, we know, and can hit a lark if you see it: but he may not come until after dark, and we cannot be too nigh to him. This holly hedge is too far away. He crosses down here from Slocomslade, not from Tibbacot, I tell you; but along that track to the left there, and so by the foreland to Glenthorne, where his boat is in the cove. Do you think I have tracked him so many evenings, without knowing his line to a hair? Will you fool away all my trouble?'
'Come then, lad, we will follow thy lead. Thy life for his, if we fail of it.'
'After me then, right into the hollow; thy legs are growing stiff, captain.'
'So shall thy body be, young man, if thou leadest me astray in this.'
I heard them stumbling down the hill, which was steep and rocky in that part; and peering through the hedge, I saw them enter a covert, by the side of the track which Master Stickles followed, almost every evening, when he left our house upon business. And then I knew who it was they were come on purpose to murder—a thing which I might have guessed long before, but for terror and cold stupidity.
'Oh that God,' I thought for a moment, waiting for my blood to flow; 'Oh that God had given me brains, to meet such cruel dastards according to their villainy! The power to lie, and the love of it; the stealth to spy, and the glory in it; above all, the quiet relish for blood, and joy in the death of an enemy—these are what any man must have, to contend with the Doones upon even terms. And yet, I thank God that I have not any of these.'
It was no time to dwell upon that, only to try, if might be, to prevent the crime they were bound upon. To follow the armed men down the hill would have been certain death to me, because there was no covert there, and the last light hung upon it. It seemed to me that my only chance to stop the mischief pending was to compass the round of the hill, as fast as feet could be laid to ground; only keeping out of sight from the valley, and then down the rocks, and across the brook, to the track from Slocombslade: so as to stop the King's messenger from travelling any farther, if only I could catch him there.
And this was exactly what I did; and a terrible run I had for it, fearing at every step to hear the echo of shots in the valley, and dropping down the scrubby rocks with tearing and violent scratching. Then I crossed Bagworthy stream, not far below Doone-valley, and breasted the hill towards Slocombslade, with my heart very heavily panting. Why Jeremy chose to ride this way, instead of the more direct one (which would have been over Oare-hill), was more than I could account for: but I had nothing to do with that; all I wanted was to save his life.
And this I did by about a minute; and (which was the hardest thing of all) with a great horse-pistol at my head as I seized upon his bridle.
'Jeremy, Jerry,' was all I could say, being so fearfully short of breath; for I had crossed the ground quicker than any horse could.
'Spoken just in time, John Ridd!' cried Master Stickles, still however pointing the pistol at me: 'I might have known thee by thy size, John. What art doing here?'
'Come to save your life. For God's sake, go no farther. Three men in the covert there, with long guns, waiting for thee.'
'Ha! I have been watched of late. That is why I pointed at thee, John. Back round this corner, and get thy breath, and tell me all about it. I never saw a man so hurried. I could beat thee now, John.'
Jeremy Stickles was a man of courage, and presence of mind, and much resource: otherwise he would not have been appointed for this business; nevertheless he trembled greatly when he heard what I had to tell him. But I took good care to keep back the name of young Marwood de Whichehalse; neither did I show my knowledge of the other men; for reasons of my own not very hard to conjecture.
'We will let them cool their heels, John Ridd,' said Jeremy, after thinking a little. 'I cannot fetch my musketeers either from Glenthorne or Lynmouth, in time to seize the fellows. And three desperate Doones, well-armed, are too many for you and me. One result this attempt will have, it will make us attack them sooner than we had intended. And one more it will have, good John, it will make me thy friend for ever. Shake hands my lad, and forgive me freely for having been so cold to thee. Mayhap, in the troubles coming, it will help thee not a little to have done me this good turn.'
Upon this he shook me by the hand, with a pressure such as we feel not often; and having learned from me how to pass quite beyond view of his enemies, he rode on to his duty, whatever it might be. For my part I was inclined to stay, and watch how long the three fusiliers would have the patience to lie in wait; but seeing less and less use in that, as I grew more and more hungry, I swung my coat about me, and went home to Plover's Barrows.
Chapter Thirty Nine
TROUBLED STATE AND A FOOLISH JOKE
Stickles took me aside the next day, and opened all his business to me, whether I would or not. But I gave him clearly to understand that he was not to be vexed with me, neither to regard me as in any way dishonest, if I should use for my own purpose, or for the benefit of my friends, any part of the knowledge and privity thus enforced upon me. To this he agreed quite readily; but upon the express provision that I should do nothing to thwart his schemes, neither unfold them to any one; but otherwise be allowed to act according to my own conscience, and as consisted with the honour of a loyal gentleman—for so he was pleased to term me. Now what he said lay in no great compass and may be summed in smaller still; especially as people know the chief part of it already. Disaffection to the King, or rather dislike to his brother James, and fear of Roman ascendancy, had existed now for several years, and of late were spreading rapidly; partly through the downright arrogance of the Tory faction, the cruelty and austerity of the Duke of York, the corruption of justice, and confiscation of ancient rights and charters; partly through jealousy of the French king, and his potent voice in our affairs; and partly (or perhaps one might even say, mainly) through that natural tide in all political channels, which verily moves as if it had the moon itself for its mistress. No sooner is a thing done and fixed, being set far in advance perhaps of all that was done before (like a new mole in the sea), but immediately the waters retire, lest they should undo it; and every one says how fine it is, but leaves other people to walk on it. Then after awhile, the vague endless ocean, having retired and lain still without a breeze or murmur, frets and heaves again with impulse, or with lashes laid on it, and in one great surge advances over every rampart.
And so there was at the time I speak of, a great surge in England, not rolling yet, but seething; and one which a thousand Chief Justices, and a million Jeremy Stickles, should never be able to stop or turn, by stringing up men in front of it; any more than a rope of onions can repulse a volcano. But the worst of it was that this great movement took a wrong channel at first; not only missing legitimate line, but roaring out that the back ditchway was the true and established course of it.
Against this rash and random current nearly all the ancient mariners of the State were set; not to allow the brave ship to drift there, though some little boats might try it. For the present there seemed to be a pause, with no open onset, but people on the shore expecting, each according to his wishes, and the feel of his own finger, whence the rush of wind should come which might direct the water.
Now,—to reduce high figures of speech into our own little numerals,—all the towns of Somersetshire and half the towns of Devonshire were full of pushing eager people, ready to swallow anything, or to make others swallow it. Whether they believed the folly about the black box, and all that stuff, is not for me to say; only one thing I know, they pretended to do so, and persuaded the ignorant rustics. Taunton, Bridgwater, Minehead, and Dulverton took the lead of the other towns in utterance of their discontent, and threats of what they meant to do if ever a Papist dared to climb the Protestant throne of England. On the other hand, the Tory leaders were not as yet under apprehension of an immediate outbreak, and feared to damage their own cause by premature coercion, for the struggle was not very likely to begin in earnest during the life of the present King; unless he should (as some people hoped) be so far emboldened as to make public profession of the faith which he held (if any). So the Tory policy was to watch, not indeed permitting their opponents to gather strength, and muster in armed force or with order, but being well apprised of all their schemes and intended movements, to wait for some bold overt act, and then to strike severely. And as a Tory watchman—or spy, as the Whigs would call him—Jeremy Stickles was now among us; and his duty was threefold.
First, and most ostensibly, to see to the levying of poundage in the little haven of Lynmouth, and farther up the coast, which was now becoming a place of resort for the folk whom we call smugglers, that is to say, who land their goods without regard to King's revenue as by law established. And indeed there had been no officer appointed to take toll, until one had been sent to Minehead, not so very long before. The excise as well (which had been ordered in the time of the Long Parliament) had been little heeded by the people hereabouts.
Second, his duty was (though only the Doones had discovered it) to watch those outlaws narrowly, and report of their manners (which were scanty), doings (which were too manifold), reputation (which was execrable), and politics, whether true to the King and the Pope, or otherwise.
Jeremy Stickles' third business was entirely political; to learn the temper of our people and the gentle families, to watch the movements of the trained bands (which could not always be trusted), to discover any collecting of arms and drilling of men among us, to prevent (if need were, by open force) any importation of gunpowder, of which there had been some rumour; in a word, to observe and forestall the enemy.
Now in providing for this last-mentioned service, the Government had made a great mistake, doubtless through their anxiety to escape any public attention. For all the disposable force at their emissary's command amounted to no more than a score of musketeers, and these so divided along the coast as scarcely to suffice for the duty of sentinels. He held a commission, it is true, for the employment of the train-bands, but upon the understanding that he was not to call upon them (except as a last resource), for any political object; although he might use them against the Doones as private criminals, if found needful; and supposing that he could get them.
'So you see, John,' he said in conclusion, 'I have more work than tools to do it with. I am heartily sorry I ever accepted such a mixed and meagre commission. At the bottom of it lies (I am well convinced) not only the desire to keep things quiet, but the paltry jealousy of the military people. Because I am not a Colonel, forsooth, or a Captain in His Majesty's service, it would never do to trust me with a company of soldiers! And yet they would not send either Colonel or Captain, for fear of a stir in the rustic mind. The only thing that I can do with any chance of success, is to rout out these vile Doone fellows, and burn their houses over their heads. Now what think you of that, John Ridd?'
'Destroy the town of the Doones,' I said, 'and all the Doones inside it! Surely, Jeremy, you would never think of such a cruel act as that!'
'A cruel act, John! It would be a mercy for at least three counties. No doubt you folk, who live so near, are well accustomed to them, and would miss your liveliness in coming home after nightfall, and the joy of finding your sheep and cattle right, when you not expected it. But after awhile you might get used to the dullness of being safe in your beds, and not losing your sisters and sweethearts. Surely, on the whole, it is as pleasant not to be robbed as to be robbed.'
'I think we should miss them very much,' I answered after consideration; for the possibility of having no Doones had never yet occurred to me, and we all were so thoroughly used to them, and allowed for it in our year's reckoning; 'I am sure we should miss them very sadly; and something worse would come of it.'
'Thou art the staunchest of all staunch Tories,' cried Stickles, laughing, as he shook my hand; 'thou believest in the divine right of robbers, who are good enough to steal thy own fat sheep. I am a jolly Tory, John, but thou art ten times jollier: oh! the grief in thy face at the thought of being robbed no longer!'
He laughed in a very unseemly manner; while I descried nothing to laugh about. For we always like to see our way; and a sudden change upsets us. And unless it were in the loss of the farm, or the death of the King, or of Betty Muxworthy, there was nothing that could so unsettle our minds as the loss of the Doones of Bagworthy.
And beside all this, I was thinking, of course, and thinking more than all the rest, about the troubles that might ensue to my own beloved Lorna. If an attack of Glen Doone were made by savage soldiers and rude train-bands, what might happen, or what might not, to my delicate, innocent darling? Therefore, when Jeremy Stickles again placed the matter before me, commending my strength and courage and skill (to flatter me of the highest), and finished by saying that I would be worth at least four common men to him, I cut him short as follows:—
'Master Stickles, once for all, I will have naught to do with it. The reason why is no odds of thine, nor in any way disloyal. Only in thy plans remember that I will not strike a blow, neither give any counsel, neither guard any prisoners.'
'Not strike a blow,' cried Jeremy, 'against thy father's murderers, John!'
'Not a single blow, Jeremy; unless I knew the man who did it, and he gloried in his sin. It was a foul and dastard deed, yet not done in cold blood; neither in cold blood will I take God's task of avenging it.'
'Very well, John,' answered Master Stickles, 'I know thine obstinacy. When thy mind is made up, to argue with thee is pelting a rock with peppercorns. But thou hast some other reason, lad, unless I am much mistaken, over and above thy merciful nature and Christian forgiveness. Anyhow, come and see it, John. There will be good sport, I reckon; especially when we thrust our claws into the nest of the ravens. Many a yeoman will find his daughter, and some of the Porlock lads their sweethearts. A nice young maiden, now, for thee, John; if indeed, any—'
'No more of this!' I answered very sternly: 'it is no business of thine, Jeremy; and I will have no joking upon this matter.'
'Good, my lord; so be it. But one thing I tell thee in earnest. We will have thy old double-dealing uncle, Huckaback of Dulverton, and march him first to assault Doone Castle, sure as my name is Stickles. I hear that he hath often vowed to storm the valley himself, if only he could find a dozen musketeers to back him. Now, we will give him chance to do it, and prove his loyalty to the King, which lies under some suspicion of late.'
With regard to this, I had nothing to say; for it seemed to me very reasonable that Uncle Reuben should have first chance of recovering his stolen goods, about which he had made such a sad to-do, and promised himself such vengeance. I made bold, however, to ask Master Stickles at what time he intended to carry out this great and hazardous attempt. He answered that he had several things requiring first to be set in order, and that he must make an inland Journey, even as far as Tiverton, and perhaps Crediton and Exeter, to collect his forces and ammunition for them. For he meant to have some of the yeomanry as well as of the trained bands, so that if the Doones should sally forth, as perhaps they would, on horseback, cavalry might be there to meet them, and cut them off from returning.
All this made me very uncomfortable, for many and many reasons, the chief and foremost being of course my anxiety about Lorna. If the attack succeeded, what was to become of her? Who would rescue her from the brutal soldiers, even supposing that she escaped from the hands of her own people, during the danger and ferocity? And in smaller ways, I was much put out; for instance, who would ensure our corn-ricks, sheep, and cattle, ay, and even our fat pigs, now coming on for bacon, against the spreading all over the country of unlicensed marauders? The Doones had their rights, and understood them, and took them according to prescription, even as the parsons had, and the lords of manors, and the King himself, God save him! But how were these low soldiering fellows (half-starved at home very likely, and only too glad of the fat of the land, and ready, according to our proverb, to burn the paper they fried in), who were they to come hectoring and heroing over us, and Heliogabalising, with our pretty sisters to cook for them, and be chucked under chin perhaps afterwards? There is nothing England hates so much, according to my sense of it, as that fellows taken from plough-tail, cart-tail, pot-houses and parish-stocks, should be hoisted and foisted upon us (after a few months' drilling, and their lying shaped into truckling) as defenders of the public weal, and heroes of the universe.
In another way I was vexed, moreover—for after all we must consider the opinions of our neighbours—namely, that I knew quite well how everybody for ten miles round (for my fame must have been at least that wide, after all my wrestling), would lift up hands and cry out thus—'Black shame on John Ridd, if he lets them go without him!'
Putting all these things together, as well as many others, which our own wits will suggest to you, it is impossible but what you will freely acknowledge that this unfortunate John Ridd was now in a cloven stick. There was Lorna, my love and life, bound by her duty to that old vil—nay, I mean to her good grandfather, who could now do little mischief, and therefore deserved all praise—Lorna bound, at any rate, by her womanly feelings, if not by sense of duty, to remain in the thick danger, with nobody to protect her, but everybody to covet her, for beauty and position. Here was all the country roused with violent excitement, at the chance of snapping at the Doones; and not only getting tit for tat; but every young man promising his sweetheart a gold chain, and his mother at least a shilling. And here was our own mow-yard, better filled than we could remember, and perhaps every sheaf in it destined to be burned or stolen, before we had finished the bread we had baked.
Among all these troubles, there was, however, or seemed to be, one comfort. Tom Faggus returned from London very proudly and very happily, with a royal pardon in black and white, which everybody admired the more, because no one could read a word of it. The Squire himself acknowledged cheerfully that he could sooner take fifty purses than read a single line of it. Some people indeed went so far as to say that the parchment was made from a sheep Tom had stolen, and that was why it prevaricated so in giving him a character. But I, knowing something by this time, of lawyers, was able to contradict them; affirming that the wolf had more than the sheep to do with this matter.
For, according to our old saying, the three learned professions live by roguery on the three parts of a man. The doctor mauls our bodies; the parson starves our souls, but the lawyer must be the adroitest knave, for he has to ensnare our minds. Therefore he takes a careful delight in covering his traps and engines with a spread of dead-leaf words, whereof himself knows little more than half the way to spell them.
But now Tom Faggus, although having wit to gallop away on his strawberry mare, with the speed of terror, from lawyers (having paid them with money too honest to stop), yet fell into a reckless adventure, ere ever he came home, from which any lawyer would have saved him, although he ought to have needed none beyond common thought for dear Annie. Now I am, and ever have been, so vexed about this story that I cannot tell it pleasantly (as I try to write in general) in my own words and manner. Therefore I will let John Fry (whom I have robbed of another story, to which he was more entitled, and whom I have robbed of many speeches (which he thought very excellent), lest I should grieve any one with his lack of education,—the last lack he ever felt, by the bye), now with your good leave, I will allow poor John to tell this tale, in his own words and style; which he has a perfect right to do, having been the first to tell us. For Squire Faggus kept it close; not trusting even Annie with it (or at least she said so); because no man knows much of his sweetheart's tongue, until she has borne him a child or two.
Only before John begins his story, this I would say, in duty to him, and in common honesty,—that I dare not write down some few of his words, because they are not convenient, for dialect or other causes; and that I cannot find any way of spelling many of the words which I do repeat, so that people, not born on Exmoor, may know how he pronounced them; even if they could bring their lips and their legs to the proper attitude. And in this I speak advisedly; having observed some thousand times that the manner a man has of spreading his legs, and bending his knees, or stiffening, and even the way he will set his heel, make all the difference in his tone, and time of casting his voice aright, and power of coming home to you.
We always liked John's stories, not for any wit in them; but because we laughed at the man, rather than the matter. The way he held his head was enough, with his chin fixed hard like a certainty (especially during his biggest lie), not a sign of a smile in his lips or nose, but a power of not laughing; and his eyes not turning to anybody, unless somebody had too much of it (as young girls always do) and went over the brink of laughter. Thereupon it was good to see John Fry; how he looked gravely first at the laughter, as much as to ask, 'What is it now?' then if the fool went laughing more, as he or she was sure to do upon that dry inquiry, John would look again, to be sure of it, and then at somebody else to learn whether the laugh had company; then if he got another grin, all his mirth came out in glory, with a sudden break; and he wiped his lips, and was grave again.
Now John, being too much encouraged by the girls (of which I could never break them), came into the house that December evening, with every inch of him full of a tale. Annie saw it, and Lizzie, of course; and even I, in the gloom of great evils, perceived that John was a loaded gun; but I did not care to explode him. Now nothing primed him so hotly as this: if you wanted to hear all John Fry had heard, the surest of all sure ways to it was, to pretend not to care for a word of it.
'I wor over to Exeford in the morning,' John began from the chimney-corner, looking straight at Annie; 'for to zee a little calve, Jan, as us cuddn't get thee to lave houze about. Meesus have got a quare vancy vor un, from wutt her have heer'd of the brade. Now zit quite, wull 'e Miss Luzzie, or a 'wunt goo on no vurder. Vaine little tayl I'll tull' ee, if so be thee zits quite. Wull, as I coom down the hill, I zeed a saight of volks astapping of the ro-udwai. Arl on 'em wi' girt goons, or two men out of dree wi' 'em. Rackon there wor dree score on 'em, tak smarl and beg togather laike; latt aloun the women and chillers; zum on em wi' matches blowing, tothers wi' flint-lacks. "Wutt be up now?" I says to Bill Blacksmith, as had knowledge of me: "be the King acoomin? If her be, do 'ee want to shutt 'un?"
'"Thee not knaw!" says Bill Blacksmith, just the zame as I be a tullin of it: "whai, man, us expex Tam Faggus, and zum on us manes to shutt 'un."
'"Shutt 'un wi'out a warrant!" says I: "sure 'ee knaws better nor thic, Bill! A man mayn't shutt to another man, wi'out have a warrant, Bill. Warship zed so, last taime I zeed un, and nothing to the contrairy."
'"Haw, haw! Never frout about that," saith Bill, zame as I be tullin you; "us has warrants and warships enow, dree or vour on 'em. And more nor a dizzen warranties; fro'ut I know to contrairy. Shutt 'un, us manes; and shutt 'un, us will—" Whai, Miss Annie, good Lord, whuttiver maks 'ee stear so?'
'Nothing at all, John,' our Annie answered; 'only the horrible ferocity of that miserable blacksmith.'
'That be nayther here nor there,' John continued, with some wrath at his own interruption: 'Blacksmith knawed whutt the Squire had been; and veared to lose his own custom, if Squire tuk to shooin' again. Shutt any man I would myzell as intervared wi' my trade laike. "Lucky for thee," said Bill Blacksmith, "as thee bee'st so shart and fat, Jan. Dree on us wor a gooin' to shutt 'ee, till us zeed how fat thee waz, Jan."
'"Lor now, Bill!" I answered 'un, wi' a girt cold swat upon me: "shutt me, Bill; and my own waife niver drame of it!"'
Here John Fry looked round the kitchen; for he had never said anything of the kind, I doubt; but now made it part of his discourse, from thinking that Mistress Fry was come, as she generally did, to fetch him.
'Wull done then, Jan Vry,' said the woman, who had entered quietly, but was only our old Molly. 'Wutt handsome manners thee hast gat, Jan, to spake so well of thy waife laike; after arl the laife she leads thee!'
'Putt thee pot on the fire, old 'ooman, and bile thee own bakkon,' John answered her, very sharply: 'nobody no raight to meddle wi' a man's bad ooman but himzell. Wull, here was all these here men awaitin', zum wi' harses, zum wi'out; the common volk wi' long girt guns, and tha quarlity wi' girt broad-swords. Who wor there? Whay latt me zee. There wor Squire Maunder,' here John assumed his full historical key, 'him wi' the pot to his vittle-place; and Sir Richard Blewitt shaking over the zaddle, and Squaire Sandford of Lee, him wi' the long nose and one eye, and Sir Gronus Batchildor over to Ninehead Court, and ever so many more on 'em, tulling up how they was arl gooin' to be promoted, for kitching of Tom Faggus.
'"Hope to God," says I to myzell, "poor Tom wun't coom here to-day: arl up with her, if 'a doeth: and who be there to suckzade 'un?" Mark me now, all these charps was good to shutt 'un, as her coom crass the watter; the watter be waide enow there and stony, but no deeper than my knee-place.
'"Thee cas'n goo no vurder," Bill Blacksmith saith to me: "nawbody 'lowed to crass the vord, until such time as Faggus coom; plaise God us may mak sure of 'un."
'"Amen, zo be it," says I; "God knoweth I be never in any hurry, and would zooner stop nor goo on most taimes."
'Wi' that I pulled my vittles out, and zat a horsebarck, atin' of 'em, and oncommon good they was. "Won't us have 'un this taime just," saith Tim Potter, as keepeth the bull there; "and yet I be zorry for 'un. But a man must kape the law, her must; zo be her can only learn it. And now poor Tom will swing as high as the tops of they girt hashes there."
'"Just thee kitch 'un virst," says I; "maisure rope, wi' the body to maisure by."
'"Hurrah! here be another now," saith Bill Blacksmith, grinning; "another coom to help us. What a grave gentleman! A warship of the pace, at laste!"
'For a gentleman, on a cue-ball horse, was coming slowly down the hill on tother zide of watter, looking at us in a friendly way, and with a long papper standing forth the lining of his coat laike. Horse stapped to drink in the watter, and gentleman spak to 'un kindly, and then they coom raight on to ussen, and the gentleman's face wor so long and so grave, us veared 'a wor gooin' to prache to us.
'"Coort o' King's Bench," saith one man; "Checker and Plays," saith another; "Spishal Commission, I doubt," saith Bill Blacksmith; "backed by the Mayor of Taunton."
'"Any Justice of the King's Peace, good people, to be found near here?" said the gentleman, lifting his hat to us, and very gracious in his manner.
'"Your honour," saith Bill, with his hat off his head; "there be sax or zeven warships here: arl on 'em very wise 'uns. Squaire Maunder there be the zinnyer."
'So the gentleman rode up to Squire Maunder, and raised his cocked hat in a manner that took the Squire out of countenance, for he could not do the like of it.
'"Sir," said he, "good and worshipful sir, I am here to claim your good advice and valour; for purposes of justice. I hold His Majesty's commission, to make to cease a notorious rogue, whose name is Thomas Faggus." With that he offered his commission; but Squire Maunder told the truth, that he could not rade even words in print, much less written karakters.* Then the other magistrates rode up, and put their heads together, how to meet the London gentleman without loss of importance. There wor one of 'em as could rade purty vair, and her made out King's mark upon it: and he bowed upon his horse to the gentleman, and he laid his hand on his heart and said, "Worshipful sir, we, as has the honour of His Gracious Majesty's commission, are entirely at your service, and crave instructions from you."
* Lest I seem to under-rate the erudition of Devonshire magistrates, I venture to offer copy of a letter from a Justice of the Peace to his bookseller, circa 1810 A.D., now in my possession:— 'Sur. 'plez to zen me the aks relatting to A-GUSTUS-PAKS,' —Ed. of L. D.
'Then a waving of hats began, and a bowing, and making of legs to wan anather, sich as nayver wor zeed afore; but none of 'em arl, for air and brading, cud coom anaigh the gentleman with the long grave face.
'"Your warships have posted the men right well," saith he with anather bow all round; "surely that big rogue will have no chance left among so many valiant musketeers. Ha! what see I there, my friend? Rust in the pan of your gun! That gun would never go off, sure as I am the King's Commissioner. And I see another just as bad; and lo, there the third! Pardon me, gentlemen, I have been so used to His Majesty's Ordnance-yards. But I fear that bold rogue would ride through all of you, and laugh at your worship's beards, by George."
'"But what shall us do?" Squire Maunder axed; "I vear there be no oil here."
'"Discharge your pieces, gentlemen, and let the men do the same; or at least let us try to discharge them, and load again with fresh powder. It is the fog of the morning hath spoiled the priming. That rogue is not in sight yet: but God knows we must not be asleep with him, or what will His Majesty say to me, if we let him slip once more?"
'"Excellent, wondrous well said, good sir," Squire Maunder answered him; "I never should have thought of that now. Bill Blacksmith, tell all the men to be ready to shoot up into the air, directly I give the word. Now, are you ready there, Bill?"
'"All ready, your worship," saith Bill, saluting like a soldier.
'"Then, one, two, dree, and shutt!" cries Squire Maunder, standing up in the irons of his stirrups.
'Thereupon they all blazed out, and the noise of it went all round the hills; with a girt thick cloud arising, and all the air smelling of powder. Before the cloud was gone so much as ten yards on the wind, the gentleman on the cue-bald horse shuts up his face like a pair of nut-cracks, as wide as it was long before, and out he pulls two girt pistols longside of zaddle, and clap'th one to Squire Maunder's head, and tother to Sir Richard Blewitt's.
'"Hand forth your money and all your warrants," he saith like a clap of thunder; "gentlemen, have you now the wit to apprehend Tom Faggus?"
'Squire Maunder swore so that he ought to be fined; but he pulled out his purse none the slower for that, and so did Sir Richard Blewitt.
'"First man I see go to load a gun, I'll gi'e 'un the bullet to do it with," said Tom; for you see it was him and no other, looking quietly round upon all of them. Then he robbed all the rest of their warships, as pleasant as might be; and he saith, "Now, gentlemen, do your duty: serve your warrants afore you imprison me;" with that he made them give up all the warrants, and he stuck them in the band of his hat, and then he made a bow with it.
'"Good morning to your warships now, and a merry Christmas all of you! And the merrier both for rich and poor, when gentlemen see their almsgiving. Lest you deny yourselves the pleasure, I will aid your warships. And to save you the trouble of following me, when your guns be loaded—this is my strawberry mare, gentlemen, only with a little cream on her. Gentlemen all, in the name of the King, I thank you."
'All this while he was casting their money among the poor folk by the handful; and then he spak kaindly to the red mare, and wor over the back of the hill in two zeconds, and best part of two maile away, I reckon, afore ever a gun wor loaded.'
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Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore
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