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Lorna Doone - A Romance of Exmoor
Follow the link above to read the first thirty nine chapters, preface, and summary.
TWO FOOLS TOGETHER
That story of John Fry's, instead of causing any amusement, gave us great disquietude; not only because it showed that Tom Faggus could not resist sudden temptation and the delight of wildness, but also that we greatly feared lest the King's pardon might be annulled, and all his kindness cancelled, by a reckless deed of that sort. It was true (as Annie insisted continually, even with tears, to wear in her arguments) that Tom had not brought away anything, except the warrants, which were of no use at all, after receipt of the pardon; neither had he used any violence, except just to frighten people; but could it be established, even towards Christmas-time, that Tom had a right to give alms, right and left, out of other people's money?
Dear Annie appeared to believe that it could; saying that if the rich continually chose to forget the poor, a man who forced them to remember, and so to do good to themselves and to others, was a public benefactor, and entitled to every blessing. But I knew, and so Lizzie knew—John Fry being now out of hearing—that this was not sound argument. For, if it came to that, any man might take the King by the throat, and make him cast away among the poor the money which he wanted sadly for Her Grace the Duchess, and the beautiful Countess, of this, and of that. Lizzie, of course, knew nothing about His Majesty's diversions, which were not fit for a young maid's thoughts; but I now put the form of the argument as it occurred to me.
Therefore I said, once for all (and both my sisters always listened when I used the deep voice from my chest):
'Tom Faggus hath done wrong herein; wrong to himself, and to our Annie. All he need have done was to show his pardon, and the magistrates would have rejoiced with him. He might have led a most godly life, and have been respected by everybody; and knowing how brave Tom is, I thought that he would have done as much. Now if I were in love with a maid'—I put it thus for the sake of poor Lizzie—'never would I so imperil my life, and her fortune in life along with me, for the sake of a poor diversion. A man's first duty is to the women, who are forced to hang upon him'—
'Oh, John, not that horrible word,' cried Annie, to my great surprise, and serious interruption; 'oh, John, any word but that!' And she burst forth crying terribly.
'What word, Lizzie? What does the wench mean?' I asked, in the saddest vexation; seeing no good to ask Annie at all, for she carried on most dreadfully.
'Don't you know, you stupid lout?' said Lizzie, completing my wonderment, by the scorn of her quicker intelligence; 'if you don't know, axe about?'
And with that, I was forced to be content; for Lizzie took Annie in such a manner (on purpose to vex me, as I could see) with her head drooping down, and her hair coming over, and tears and sobs rising and falling, to boot, without either order or reason, that seeing no good for a man to do (since neither of them was Lorna), I even went out into the courtyard, and smoked a pipe, and wondered what on earth is the meaning of women.
Now in this I was wrong and unreasonable (as all women will acknowledge); but sometimes a man is so put out, by the way they take on about nothing, that he really cannot help thinking, for at least a minute, that women are a mistake for ever, and hence are for ever mistaken. Nevertheless I could not see that any of these great thoughts and ideas applied at all to my Lorna; but that she was a different being; not woman enough to do anything bad, yet enough of a woman for man to adore.
And now a thing came to pass which tested my adoration pretty sharply, inasmuch as I would far liefer faced Carver Doone and his father, nay, even the roaring lion himself with his hoofs and flaming nostrils, than have met, in cold blood, Sir Ensor Doone, the founder of all the colony, and the fear of the very fiercest.
But that I was forced to do at this time, and in the manner following. When I went up one morning to look for my seven rooks' nests, behold there were but six to be seen; for the topmost of them all was gone, and the most conspicuous. I looked, and looked, and rubbed my eyes, and turned to try them by other sights; and then I looked again; yes, there could be no doubt about it; the signal was made for me to come, because my love was in danger. For me to enter the valley now, during the broad daylight, could have brought no comfort, but only harm to the maiden, and certain death to myself. Yet it was more than I could do to keep altogether at distance; therefore I ran to the nearest place where I could remain unseen, and watched the glen from the wooded height, for hours and hours, impatiently.
However, no impatience of mine made any difference in the scene upon which I was gazing. In the part of the valley which I could see, there was nothing moving, except the water, and a few stolen cows, going sadly along, as if knowing that they had no honest right there. It sank very heavily into my heart, with all the beds of dead leaves around it, and there was nothing I cared to do, except blow on my fingers, and long for more wit.
For a frost was beginning, which made a great difference to Lorna and to myself, I trow; as well as to all the five million people who dwell in this island of England; such a frost as never I saw before,* neither hope ever to see again; a time when it was impossible to milk a cow for icicles, or for a man to shave some of his beard (as I liked to do for Lorna's sake, because she was so smooth) without blunting his razor on hard gray ice. No man could 'keep yatt' (as we say), even though he abandoned his work altogether, and thumped himself, all on the chest and the front, till his frozen hands would have been bleeding except for the cold that kept still all his veins.
* If John Ridd lived until the year 1740 (as so strong a man was bound to do), he must have seen almost a harder frost; and perhaps it put an end to him; for then he would be some fourscore years old. But tradition makes him 'keep yatt,' as he says, up to fivescore years.—ED.
However, at present there was no frost, although for a fortnight threatening; and I was too young to know the meaning of the way the dead leaves hung, and the worm-casts prickling like women's combs, and the leaden tone upon everything, and the dead weight of the sky. Will Watcombe, the old man at Lynmouth, who had been half over the world almost, and who talked so much of the Gulf-stream, had (as I afterwards called to mind) foretold a very bitter winter this year. But no one would listen to him because there were not so many hips and haws as usual; whereas we have all learned from our grandfathers that Providence never sends very hard winters, without having furnished a large supply of berries for the birds to feed upon.
It was lucky for me, while I waited here, that our very best sheep-dog, old Watch, had chosen to accompany me that day. For otherwise I must have had no dinner, being unpersuaded, even by that, to quit my survey of the valley. However, by aid of poor Watch, I contrived to obtain a supply of food; for I sent him home with a note to Annie fastened upon his chest; and in less than an hour back he came, proud enough to wag his tail off, with his tongue hanging out from the speed of his journey, and a large lump of bread and of bacon fastened in a napkin around his neck. I had not told my sister, of course, what was toward; for why should I make her anxious?
When it grew towards dark, I was just beginning to prepare for my circuit around the hills; but suddenly Watch gave a long low growl; I kept myself close as possible, and ordered the dog to be silent, and presently saw a short figure approaching from a thickly-wooded hollow on the left side of my hiding-place. It was the same figure I had seen once before in the moonlight, at Plover's Barrows; and proved, to my great delight, to be the little maid Gwenny Carfax. She started a moment, at seeing me, but more with surprise than fear; and then she laid both her hands upon mine, as if she had known me for twenty years.
'Young man,' she said, 'you must come with me. I was gwain' all the way to fetch thee. Old man be dying; and her can't die, or at least her won't, without first considering thee.'
'Considering me!' I cried; 'what can Sir Ensor Doone want with considering me? Has Mistress Lorna told him?'
'All concerning thee, and thy doings; when she knowed old man were so near his end. That vexed he was about thy low blood, a' thought her would come to life again, on purpose for to bate 'ee. But after all, there can't be scarcely such bad luck as that. Now, if her strook thee, thou must take it; there be no denaying of un. Fire I have seen afore, hot and red, and raging; but I never seen cold fire afore, and it maketh me burn and shiver.'
And in truth, it made me both burn and shiver, to know that I must either go straight to the presence of Sir Ensor Doone, or give up Lorna, once for all, and rightly be despised by her. For the first time of my life, I thought that she had not acted fairly. Why not leave the old man in peace, without vexing him about my affair? But presently I saw again that in this matter she was right; that she could not receive the old man's blessing (supposing that he had one to give, which even a worse man might suppose), while she deceived him about herself, and the life she had undertaken.
Therefore, with great misgiving of myself, but no ill thought of my darling, I sent Watch home, and followed Gwenny; who led me along very rapidly, with her short broad form gliding down the hollow, from which she had first appeared. Here at the bottom, she entered a thicket of gray ash stubs and black holly, with rocks around it gnarled with roots, and hung with masks of ivy. Here in a dark and lonely corner, with a pixie ring before it, she came to a narrow door, very brown and solid, looking like a trunk of wood at a little distance. This she opened, without a key, by stooping down and pressing it, where the threshold met the jamb; and then she ran in very nimbly, but I was forced to be bent in two, and even so without comfort. The passage was close and difficult, and as dark as any black pitch; but it was not long (be it as it might), and in that there was some comfort. We came out soon at the other end, and were at the top of Doone valley. In the chilly dusk air, it looked most untempting, especially during that state of mind under which I was labouring. As we crossed towards the Captain's house, we met a couple of great Doones lounging by the waterside. Gwenny said something to them, and although they stared very hard at me, they let me pass without hindrance. It is not too much to say that when the little maid opened Sir Ensor's door, my heart thumped, quite as much with terror as with hope of Lorna's presence.
But in a moment the fear was gone, for Lorna was trembling in my arms, and my courage rose to comfort her. The darling feared, beyond all things else, lest I should be offended with her for what she had said to her grandfather, and for dragging me into his presence; but I told her almost a falsehood (the first, and the last, that ever I did tell her), to wit, that I cared not that much—and showed her the tip of my thumb as I said it—for old Sir Ensor, and all his wrath, so long as I had his granddaughter's love.
Now I tried to think this as I said it, so as to save it from being a lie; but somehow or other it did not answer, and I was vexed with myself both ways. But Lorna took me by the hand as bravely as she could, and led me into a little passage where I could hear the river moaning and the branches rustling.
Here I passed as long a minute as fear ever cheated time of, saying to myself continually that there was nothing to be frightened at, yet growing more and more afraid by reason of so reasoning. At last my Lorna came back very pale, as I saw by the candle she carried, and whispered, 'Now be patient, dearest. Never mind what he says to you; neither attempt to answer him. Look at him gently and steadfastly, and, if you can, with some show of reverence; but above all things, no compassion; it drives him almost mad. Now come; walk very quietly.'
She led me into a cold, dark room, rough and very gloomy, although with two candles burning. I took little heed of the things in it, though I marked that the window was open. That which I heeded was an old man, very stern and comely, with death upon his countenance; yet not lying in his bed, but set upright in a chair, with a loose red cloak thrown over him. Upon this his white hair fell, and his pallid fingers lay in a ghastly fashion without a sign of life or movement or of the power that kept him up; all rigid, calm, and relentless. Only in his great black eyes, fixed upon me solemnly, all the power of his body dwelt, all the life of his soul was burning.
I could not look at him very nicely, being afeared of the death in his face, and most afeared to show it. And to tell the truth, my poor blue eyes fell away from the blackness of his, as if it had been my coffin-plate. Therefore I made a low obeisance, and tried not to shiver. Only I groaned that Lorna thought it good manners to leave us two together.
'Ah,' said the old man, and his voice seemed to come from a cavern of skeletons; 'are you that great John Ridd?'
'John Ridd is my name, your honour,' was all that I could answer; 'and I hope your worship is better.'
'Child, have you sense enough to know what you have been doing?'
'Yes, I knew right well,' I answered, 'that I have set mine eyes far above my rank.'
'Are you ignorant that Lorna Doone is born of the oldest families remaining in North Europe?'
'I was ignorant of that, your worship; yet I knew of her high descent from the Doones of Bagworthy.'
The old man's eyes, like fire, probed me whether I was jesting; then perceiving how grave I was, and thinking that I could not laugh (as many people suppose of me), he took on himself to make good the deficiency with a very bitter smile.
'And know you of your own low descent from the Ridds of Oare?'
'Sir,' I answered, being as yet unaccustomed to this style of speech, 'the Ridds, of Oare, have been honest men twice as long as the Doones have been rogues.'
'I would not answer for that, John,' Sir Ensor replied, very quietly, when I expected fury. 'If it be so, thy family is the very oldest in Europe. Now hearken to me, boy, or clown, or honest fool, or whatever thou art; hearken to an old man's words, who has not many hours to live. There is nothing in this world to fear, nothing to revere or trust, nothing even to hope for; least of all, is there aught to love.'
'I hope your worship is not quite right,' I answered, with great misgivings; 'else it is a sad mistake for anybody to live, sir.'
'Therefore,' he continued, as if I had never spoken, 'though it may seem hard for a week or two, like the loss of any other toy, I deprive you of nothing, but add to your comfort, and (if there be such a thing) to your happiness, when I forbid you ever to see that foolish child again. All marriage is a wretched farce, even when man and wife belong to the same rank of life, have temper well assorted, similar likes and dislikes, and about the same pittance of mind. But when they are not so matched, the farce would become a long, dull tragedy, if anything were worth lamenting. There, I have reasoned enough with you; I am not in the habit of reasoning. Though I have little confidence in man's honour, I have some reliance in woman's pride. You will pledge your word in Lorna's presence never to see or to seek her again; never even to think of her more. Now call her, for I am weary.'
He kept his great eyes fixed upon me with their icy fire (as if he scorned both life and death), and on his haughty lips some slight amusement at my trouble; and then he raised one hand (as if I were a poor dumb creature), and pointed to the door. Although my heart rebelled and kindled at his proud disdain, I could not disobey him freely; but made a low salute, and went straightway in search of Lorna.
I found my love (or not my love; according as now she should behave; for I was very desperate, being put upon so sadly); Lorna Doone was crying softly at a little window, and listening to the river's grief. I laid my heavy arm around her, not with any air of claiming or of forcing her thoughts to me, but only just to comfort her, and ask what she was thinking of. To my arm she made no answer, neither to my seeking eyes; but to my heart, once for all, she spoke with her own upon it. Not a word, nor sound between us; not even a kiss was interchanged; but man, or maid, who has ever loved hath learned our understanding.
Therefore it came to pass, that we saw fit to enter Sir Ensor's room in the following manner. Lorna, with her right hand swallowed entirely by the palm of mine, and her waist retired from view by means of my left arm. All one side of her hair came down, in a way to be remembered, upon the left and fairest part of my favourite otter-skin waistcoat; and her head as well would have lain there doubtless, but for the danger of walking so. I, for my part, was too far gone to lag behind in the matter; but carried my love bravely, fearing neither death nor hell, while she abode beside me.
Old Sir Ensor looked much astonished. For forty years he had been obeyed and feared by all around him; and he knew that I had feared him vastly, before I got hold of Lorna. And indeed I was still afraid of him; only for loving Lorna so, and having to protect her.
Then I made him a bow, to the very best of all I had learned both at Tiverton and in London; after that I waited for him to begin, as became his age and rank in life.
'Ye two fools!' he said at last, with a depth of contempt which no words may express; 'ye two fools!'
'May it please your worship,' I answered softly; 'maybe we are not such fools as we look. But though we be, we are well content, so long as we may be two fools together.'
'Why, John,' said the old man, with a spark, as of smiling in his eyes; 'thou art not altogether the clumsy yokel, and the clod, I took thee for.'
'Oh, no, grandfather; oh, dear grandfather,' cried Lorna, with such zeal and flashing, that her hands went forward; 'nobody knows what John Ridd is, because he is so modest. I mean, nobody except me, dear.' And here she turned to me again, and rose upon tiptoe, and kissed me.
'I have seen a little o' the world,' said the old man, while I was half ashamed, although so proud of Lorna; 'but this is beyond all I have seen, and nearly all I have heard of. It is more fit for southern climates than for the fogs of Exmoor.'
'It is fit for all the world, your worship; with your honour's good leave, and will,' I answered in humility, being still ashamed of it; 'when it happens so to people, there is nothing that can stop it, sir.'
Now Sir Ensor Doone was leaning back upon his brown chair-rail, which was built like a triangle, as in old farmhouses (from one of which it had come, no doubt, free from expense or gratitude); and as I spoke he coughed a little; and he sighed a good deal more; and perhaps his dying heart desired to open time again, with such a lift of warmth and hope as he descried in our eyes, and arms. I could not understand him then; any more than a baby playing with his grandfather's spectacles; nevertheless I wondered whether, at his time of life, or rather on the brink of death, he was thinking of his youth and pride.
'Fools you are; be fools for ever,' said Sir Ensor Doone, at last; while we feared to break his thoughts, but let each other know our own, with little ways of pressure; 'it is the best thing I can wish you; boy and girl, be boy and girl, until you have grandchildren.'
Partly in bitterness he spoke, and partly in pure weariness, and then he turned so as not to see us; and his white hair fell, like a shroud, around him.
All things being full of flaw, all things being full of holes, the strength of all things is in shortness. If Sir Ensor Doone had dwelled for half an hour upon himself, and an hour perhaps upon Lorna and me, we must both have wearied of him, and required change of air. But now I longed to see and know a great deal more about him, and hoped that he might not go to Heaven for at least a week or more. However, he was too good for this world (as we say of all people who leave it); and I verily believe his heart was not a bad one, after all.
Evil he had done, no doubt, as evil had been done to him; yet how many have done evil, while receiving only good! Be that as it may; and not vexing a question (settled for ever without our votes), let us own that he was, at least, a brave and courteous gentleman.
And his loss aroused great lamentation, not among the Doones alone, and the women they had carried off, but also of the general public, and many even of the magistrates, for several miles round Exmoor. And this, not only from fear lest one more wicked might succeed him (as appeared indeed too probable), but from true admiration of his strong will, and sympathy with his misfortunes.
I will not deceive any one, by saying that Sir Ensor Doone gave (in so many words) his consent to my resolve about Lorna. This he never did, except by his speech last written down; from which as he mentioned grandchildren, a lawyer perhaps might have argued it. Not but what he may have meant to bestow on us his blessing; only that he died next day, without taking the trouble to do it.
He called indeed for his box of snuff, which was a very high thing to take; and which he never took without being in very good humour, at least for him. And though it would not go up his nostrils, through the failure of his breath, he was pleased to have it there, and not to think of dying.
'Will your honour have it wiped?' I asked him very softly, for the brown appearance of it spoiled (to my idea) his white mostacchio; but he seemed to shake his head; and I thought it kept his spirits up. I had never before seen any one do, what all of us have to do some day; and it greatly kept my spirits down, although it did not so very much frighten me.
For it takes a man but a little while, his instinct being of death perhaps, at least as much as of life (which accounts for his slaying his fellow men so, and every other creature), it does not take a man very long to enter into another man's death, and bring his own mood to suit it. He knows that his own is sure to come; and nature is fond of the practice. Hence it came to pass that I, after easing my mother's fears, and seeing a little to business, returned (as if drawn by a polar needle) to the death-bed of Sir Ensor.
There was some little confusion, people wanting to get away, and people trying to come in, from downright curiosity (of all things the most hateful), and others making great to-do, and talking of their own time to come, telling their own age, and so on. But every one seemed to think, or feel, that I had a right to be there; because the women took that view of it. As for Carver and Counsellor, they were minding their own affairs, so as to win the succession; and never found it in their business (at least so long as I was there) to come near the dying man.
He, for his part, never asked for any one to come near him, not even a priest, nor a monk or friar; but seemed to be going his own way, peaceful, and well contented. Only the chief of the women said that from his face she believed and knew that he liked to have me at one side of his bed, and Lorna upon the other. An hour or two ere the old man died, when only we two were with him, he looked at us both very dimly and softly, as if he wished to do something for us, but had left it now too late. Lorna hoped that he wanted to bless us; but he only frowned at that, and let his hand drop downward, and crooked one knotted finger.
'He wants something out of the bed, dear,' Lorna whispered to me; 'see what it is, upon your side, there.'
I followed the bent of his poor shrunken hand, and sought among the pilings; and there I felt something hard and sharp, and drew it forth and gave it to him. It flashed, like the spray of a fountain upon us, in the dark winter of the room. He could not take it in his hand, but let it hang, as daisies do; only making Lorna see that he meant her to have it.
'Why, it is my glass necklace!' Lorna cried, in great surprise; 'my necklace he always promised me; and from which you have got the ring, John. But grandfather kept it, because the children wanted to pull it from my neck. May I have it now, dear grandfather? Not unless you wish, dear.'
Darling Lorna wept again, because the old man could not tell her (except by one very feeble nod) that she was doing what he wished. Then she gave to me the trinket, for the sake of safety; and I stowed it in my breast. He seemed to me to follow this, and to be well content with it.
Before Sir Ensor Doone was buried, the greatest frost of the century had set in, with its iron hand, and step of stone, on everything. How it came is not my business, nor can I explain it; because I never have watched the skies; as people now begin to do, when the ground is not to their liking. Though of all this I know nothing, and less than nothing I may say (because I ought to know something); I can hear what people tell me; and I can see before my eyes.
The strong men broke three good pickaxes, ere they got through the hard brown sod, streaked with little maps of gray where old Sir Ensor was to lie, upon his back, awaiting the darkness of the Judgment-day. It was in the little chapel-yard; I will not tell the name of it; because we are now such Protestants, that I might do it an evil turn; only it was the little place where Lorna's Aunt Sabina lay.
Here was I, remaining long, with a little curiosity; because some people told me plainly that I must be damned for ever by a Papist funeral; and here came Lorna, scarcely breathing through the thick of stuff around her, yet with all her little breath steaming on the air, like frost.
I stood apart from the ceremony, in which of course I was not entitled, either by birth or religion, to bear any portion; and indeed it would have been wiser in me to have kept away altogether; for now there was no one to protect me among those wild and lawless men; and both Carver and the Counsellor had vowed a fearful vengeance on me, as I heard from Gwenny. They had not dared to meddle with me while the chief lay dying; nor was it in their policy, for a short time after that, to endanger their succession by an open breach with Lorna, whose tender age and beauty held so many of the youths in thrall.
The ancient outlaw's funeral was a grand and moving sight; more perhaps from the sense of contrast than from that of fitness. To see those dark and mighty men, inured to all of sin and crime, reckless both of man and God, yet now with heads devoutly bent, clasped hands, and downcast eyes, following the long black coffin of their common ancestor, to the place where they must join him when their sum of ill was done; and to see the feeble priest chanting, over the dead form, words the living would have laughed at, sprinkling with his little broom drops that could not purify; while the children, robed in white, swung their smoking censers slowly over the cold and twilight grave; and after seeing all, to ask, with a shudder unexpressed, 'Is this the end that God intended for a man so proud and strong?'
Not a tear was shed upon him, except from the sweetest of all sweet eyes; not a sigh pursued him home. Except in hot anger, his life had been cold, and bitter, and distant; and now a week had exhausted all the sorrow of those around him, a grief flowing less from affection than fear. Aged men will show his tombstone; mothers haste with their infants by it; children shrink from the name upon it, until in time his history shall lapse and be forgotten by all except the great Judge and God.
After all was over, I strode across the moors very sadly; trying to keep the cold away by virtue of quick movement. Not a flake of snow had fallen yet; all the earth was caked and hard, with a dry brown crust upon it; all the sky was banked with darkness, hard, austere, and frowning. The fog of the last three weeks was gone, neither did any rime remain; but all things had a look of sameness, and a kind of furzy colour. It was freezing hard and sharp, with a piercing wind to back it; and I had observed that the holy water froze upon Sir Ensor's coffin.
One thing struck me with some surprise, as I made off for our fireside (with a strong determination to heave an ash-tree up the chimney-place), and that was how the birds were going, rather than flying as they used to fly. All the birds were set in one direction, steadily journeying westward, not with any heat of speed, neither flying far at once; but all (as if on business bound), partly running, partly flying, partly fluttering along; silently, and without a voice, neither pricking head nor tail. This movement of the birds went on, even for a week or more; every kind of thrushes passed us, every kind of wild fowl, even plovers went away, and crows, and snipes and wood-cocks. And before half the frost was over, all we had in the snowy ditches were hares so tame that we could pat them; partridges that came to hand, with a dry noise in their crops; heath-poults, making cups of snow; and a few poor hopping redwings, flipping in and out the hedge, having lost the power to fly. And all the time their great black eyes, set with gold around them, seemed to look at any man, for mercy and for comfort.
Annie took a many of them, all that she could find herself, and all the boys would bring her; and she made a great hutch near the fire, in the back-kitchen chimney-place. Here, in spite of our old Betty (who sadly wanted to roast them), Annie kept some fifty birds, with bread and milk, and raw chopped meat, and all the seed she could think of, and lumps of rotten apples, placed to tempt them, in the corners. Some got on, and some died off; and Annie cried for all that died, and buried them under the woodrick; but, I do assure you, it was a pretty thing to see, when she went to them in the morning. There was not a bird but knew her well, after one day of comforting; and some would come to her hand, and sit, and shut one eye, and look at her. Then she used to stroke their heads, and feel their breasts, and talk to them; and not a bird of them all was there but liked to have it done to him. And I do believe they would eat from her hand things unnatural to them, lest she should he grieved and hurt by not knowing what to do for them. One of them was a noble bird, such as I never had seen before, of very fine bright plumage, and larger than a missel-thrush. He was the hardest of all to please: and yet he tried to do his best. I have heard since then, from a man who knows all about birds, and beasts, and fishes, that he must have been a Norwegian bird, called in this country a Roller, who never comes to England but in the most tremendous winters.
Another little bird there was, whom I longed to welcome home, and protect from enemies, a little bird no native to us, but than any native dearer. But lo, in the very night which followed old Sir Ensor's funeral, such a storm of snow began as never have I heard nor read of, neither could have dreamed it. At what time of night it first began is more than I can say, at least from my own knowledge, for we all went to bed soon after supper, being cold and not inclined to talk. At that time the wind was moaning sadly, and the sky as dark as a wood, and the straw in the yard swirling round and round, and the cows huddling into the great cowhouse, with their chins upon one another. But we, being blinder than they, I suppose, and not having had a great snow for years, made no preparation against the storm, except that the lambing ewes were in shelter.
It struck me, as I lay in bed, that we were acting foolishly; for an ancient shepherd had dropped in and taken supper with us, and foretold a heavy fall and great disaster to live stock. He said that he had known a frost beginning, just as this had done, with a black east wind, after days of raw cold fog, and then on the third night of the frost, at this very time of year (to wit on the 15th of December) such a snow set in as killed half of the sheep and many even of the red deer and the forest ponies. It was three-score years agone,* he said; and cause he had to remember it, inasmuch as two of his toes had been lost by frost-nip, while he dug out his sheep on the other side of the Dunkery. Hereupon mother nodded at him, having heard from her father about it, and how three men had been frozen to death, and how badly their stockings came off from them.
* The frost of 1625.
Remembering how the old man looked, and his manner of listening to the wind and shaking his head very ominously (when Annie gave him a glass of schnapps), I grew quite uneasy in my bed, as the room got colder and colder; and I made up my mind, if it only pleased God not to send the snow till the morning, that every sheep, and horse, and cow, ay, and even the poultry, should be brought in snug, and with plenty to eat, and fodder enough to roast them.
Alas what use of man's resolves, when they come a day too late; even if they may avail a little, when they are most punctual!
In the bitter morning I arose, to follow out my purpose, knowing the time from the force of habit, although the room was so dark and gray. An odd white light was on the rafters, such as I never had seen before; while all the length of the room was grisly, like the heart of a mouldy oat-rick. I went to the window at once, of course; and at first I could not understand what was doing outside of it. It faced due east (as I may have said), with the walnut-tree partly sheltering it; and generally I could see the yard, and the woodrick, and even the church beyond.
But now, half the lattice was quite blocked up, as if plastered with gray lime; and little fringes, like ferns, came through, where the joining of the lead was; and in the only undarkened part, countless dots came swarming, clustering, beating with a soft, low sound, then gliding down in a slippery manner, not as drops of rain do, but each distinct from his neighbour. Inside the iron frame (which fitted, not to say too comfortably, and went along the stonework), at least a peck of snow had entered, following its own bend and fancy; light as any cobweb.
With some trouble, and great care, lest the ancient frame should yield, I spread the lattice open; and saw at once that not a moment must be lost, to save our stock. All the earth was flat with snow, all the air was thick with snow; more than this no man could see, for all the world was snowing.
I shut the window and dressed in haste; and when I entered the kitchen, not even Betty, the earliest of all early birds, was there. I raked the ashes together a little, just to see a spark of warmth; and then set forth to find John Fry, Jem Slocombe, and Bill Dadds. But this was easier thought than done; for when I opened the courtyard door, I was taken up to my knees at once, and the power of the drifting cloud prevented sight of anything. However, I found my way to the woodrick, and there got hold of a fine ash-stake, cut by myself not long ago. With this I ploughed along pretty well, and thundered so hard at John Fry's door, that he thought it was the Doones at least, and cocked his blunderbuss out of the window.
John was very loth to come down, when he saw the meaning of it; for he valued his life more than anything else; though he tried to make out that his wife was to blame. But I settled his doubts by telling him, that I would have him on my shoulder naked, unless he came in five minutes; not that he could do much good, but because the other men would be sure to skulk, if he set them the example. With spades, and shovels, and pitch-forks, and a round of roping, we four set forth to dig out the sheep; and the poor things knew that it was high time.
THE GREAT WINTER
It must have snowed most wonderfully to have made that depth of covering in about eight hours. For one of Master Stickles' men, who had been out all the night, said that no snow began to fall until nearly midnight. And here it was, blocking up the doors, stopping the ways, and the water courses, and making it very much worse to walk than in a saw-pit newly used. However, we trudged along in a line; I first, and the other men after me; trying to keep my track, but finding legs and strength not up to it. Most of all, John Fry was groaning; certain that his time was come, and sending messages to his wife, and blessings to his children. For all this time it was snowing harder than it ever had snowed before, so far as a man might guess at it; and the leaden depth of the sky came down, like a mine turned upside down on us. Not that the flakes were so very large; for I have seen much larger flakes in a shower of March, while sowing peas; but that there was no room between them, neither any relaxing, nor any change of direction.
Watch, like a good and faithful dog, followed us very cheerfully, leaping out of the depth, which took him over his back and ears already, even in the level places; while in the drifts he might have sunk to any distance out of sight, and never found his way up again. However, we helped him now and then, especially through the gaps and gateways; and so after a deal of floundering, some laughter, and a little swearing, we came all safe to the lower meadow, where most of our flock was hurdled.
But behold, there was no flock at all! None, I mean, to be seen anywhere; only at one corner of the field, by the eastern end, where the snow drove in, a great white billow, as high as a barn, and as broad as a house. This great drift was rolling and curling beneath the violent blast, tufting and combing with rustling swirls, and carved (as in patterns of cornice) where the grooving chisel of the wind swept round. Ever and again the tempest snatched little whiffs from the channelled edges, twirled them round and made them dance over the chime of the monster pile, then let them lie like herring-bones, or the seams of sand where the tide has been. And all the while from the smothering sky, more and more fiercely at every blast, came the pelting, pitiless arrows, winged with murky white, and pointed with the barbs of frost.
But although for people who had no sheep, the sight was a very fine one (so far at least as the weather permitted any sight at all); yet for us, with our flock beneath it, this great mount had but little charm. Watch began to scratch at once, and to howl along the sides of it; he knew that his charge was buried there, and his business taken from him. But we four men set to in earnest, digging with all our might and main, shovelling away at the great white pile, and fetching it into the meadow. Each man made for himself a cave, scooping at the soft, cold flux, which slid upon him at every stroke, and throwing it out behind him, in piles of castled fancy. At last we drove our tunnels in (for we worked indeed for the lives of us), and all converging towards the middle, held our tools and listened.
The other men heard nothing at all; or declared that they heard nothing, being anxious now to abandon the matter, because of the chill in their feet and knees. But I said, 'Go, if you choose all of you. I will work it out by myself, you pie-crusts,' and upon that they gripped their shovels, being more or less of Englishmen; and the least drop of English blood is worth the best of any other when it comes to lasting out.
But before we began again, I laid my head well into the chamber; and there I hears a faint 'ma-a-ah,' coming through some ells of snow, like a plaintive, buried hope, or a last appeal. I shouted aloud to cheer him up, for I knew what sheep it was, to wit, the most valiant of all the wethers, who had met me when I came home from London, and been so glad to see me. And then we all fell to again; and very soon we hauled him out. Watch took charge of him at once, with an air of the noblest patronage, lying on his frozen fleece, and licking all his face and feet, to restore his warmth to him. Then fighting Tom jumped up at once, and made a little butt at Watch, as if nothing had ever ailed him, and then set off to a shallow place, and looked for something to nibble at.
Further in, and close under the bank, where they had huddled themselves for warmth, we found all the rest of the poor sheep packed, as closely as if they were in a great pie. It was strange to observe how their vapour and breath, and the moisture exuding from their wool had scooped, as it were, a coved room for them, lined with a ribbing of deep yellow snow. Also the churned snow beneath their feet was as yellow as gamboge. Two or three of the weaklier hoggets were dead, from want of air, and from pressure; but more than three-score were as lively as ever; though cramped and stiff for a little while.
'However shall us get 'em home?' John Fry asked in great dismay, when we had cleared about a dozen of them; which we were forced to do very carefully, so as not to fetch the roof down. 'No manner of maning to draive 'un, drough all they girt driftnesses.'
'You see to this place, John,' I replied, as we leaned on our shovels a moment, and the sheep came rubbing round us; 'let no more of them out for the present; they are better where they be. Watch, here boy, keep them!'
Watch came, with his little scut of a tail cocked as sharp as duty, and I set him at the narrow mouth of the great snow antre. All the sheep sidled away, and got closer, that the other sheep might be bitten first, as the foolish things imagine; whereas no good sheep-dog even so much as lips a sheep to turn it.
Then of the outer sheep (all now snowed and frizzled like a lawyer's wig) I took the two finest and heaviest, and with one beneath my right arm, and the other beneath my left, I went straight home to the upper sheppey, and set them inside and fastened them. Sixty and six I took home in that way, two at a time on each joumey; and the work grew harder and harder each time, as the drifts of the snow were deepening. No other man should meddle with them; I was resolved to try my strength against the strength of the elements; and try it I did, ay, and proved it. A certain fierce delight burned in me, as the struggle grew harder; but rather would I die than yield; and at last I finished it. People talk of it to this day; but none can tell what the labour was, who have not felt that snow and wind.
Of the sheep upon the mountain, and the sheep upon the western farm, and the cattle on the upper barrows, scarcely one in ten was saved; do what we would for them, and this was not through any neglect (now that our wits were sharpened), but from the pure impossibility of finding them at all. That great snow never ceased a moment for three days and nights; and then when all the earth was filled, and the topmost hedges were unseen, and the trees broke down with weight (wherever the wind had not lightened them), a brilliant sun broke forth and showed the loss of all our customs.
All our house was quite snowed up, except where we had purged a way, by dint of constant shovellings. The kitchen was as dark and darker than the cider-cellar, and long lines of furrowed scollops ran even up to the chimney-stacks. Several windows fell right inwards, through the weight of the snow against them; and the few that stood, bulged in, and bent like an old bruised lanthorn. We were obliged to cook by candle-light; we were forced to read by candle-light; as for baking, we could not do it, because the oven was too chill; and a load of faggots only brought a little wet down the sides of it.
For when the sun burst forth at last upon that world of white, what he brought was neither warmth, nor cheer, nor hope of softening; only a clearer shaft of cold, from the violet depths of sky. Long-drawn alleys of white haze seemed to lead towards him, yet such as he could not come down, with any warmth remaining. Broad white curtains of the frost-fog looped around the lower sky, on the verge of hill and valley, and above the laden trees. Only round the sun himself, and the spot of heaven he claimed, clustered a bright purple-blue, clear, and calm, and deep.
That night such a frost ensued as we had never dreamed of, neither read in ancient books, or histories of Frobisher. The kettle by the fire froze, and the crock upon the hearth-cheeks; many men were killed, and cattle rigid in their head-ropes. Then I heard that fearful sound, which never I had heard before, neither since have heard (except during that same winter), the sharp yet solemn sound of trees burst open by the frost-blow. Our great walnut lost three branches, and has been dying ever since; though growing meanwhile, as the soul does. And the ancient oak at the cross was rent, and many score of ash trees. But why should I tell all this? the people who have not seen it (as I have) will only make faces, and disbelieve; till such another frost comes; which perhaps may never be.
This terrible weather kept Tom Faggus from coming near our house for weeks; at which indeed I was not vexed a quarter so much as Annie was; for I had never half approved of him, as a husband for my sister; in spite of his purchase from Squire Bassett, and the grant of the Royal pardon. It may be, however, that Annie took the same view of my love for Lorna, and could not augur well of it; but if so, she held her peace, though I was not so sparing. For many things contributed to make me less good-humoured now than my real nature was; and the very least of all these things would have been enough to make some people cross, and rude, and fractious. I mean the red and painful chapping of my face and hands, from working in the snow all day, and lying in the frost all night. For being of a fair complexion, and a ruddy nature, and pretty plump withal, and fed on plenty of hot victuals, and always forced by my mother to sit nearer the fire than I wished, it was wonderful to see how the cold ran revel on my cheeks and knuckles. And I feared that Lorna (if it should ever please God to stop the snowing) might take this for a proof of low and rustic blood and breeding.
And this I say was the smallest thing; for it was far more serious that we were losing half our stock, do all we would to shelter them. Even the horses in the stables (mustered all together for the sake of breath and steaming) had long icicles from their muzzles, almost every morning. But of all things the very gravest, to my apprehension, was the impossibility of hearing, or having any token of or from my loved one. Not that those three days alone of snow (tremendous as it was) could have blocked the country so; but that the sky had never ceased, for more than two days at a time, for full three weeks thereafter, to pour fresh piles of fleecy mantle; neither had the wind relaxed a single day from shaking them. As a rule, it snowed all day, cleared up at night, and froze intensely, with the stars as bright as jewels, earth spread out in lustrous twilight, and the sounds in the air as sharp and crackling as artillery; then in the morning, snow again; before the sun could come to help.
It mattered not what way the wind was. Often and often the vanes went round, and we hoped for change of weather; the only change was that it seemed (if possible) to grow colder. Indeed, after a week or so, the wind would regularly box the compass (as the sailors call it) in the course of every day, following where the sun should be, as if to make a mock of him. And this of course immensely added to the peril of the drifts; because they shifted every day; and no skill or care might learn them.
I believe it was on Epiphany morning, or somewhere about that period, when Lizzie ran into the kitchen to me, where I was thawing my goose-grease, with the dogs among the ashes—the live dogs, I mean, not the iron ones, for them we had given up long ago,—and having caught me, by way of wonder (for generally I was out shoveling long before my 'young lady' had her nightcap off), she positively kissed me, for the sake of warming her lips perhaps, or because she had something proud to say.
'You great fool, John,' said my lady, as Annie and I used to call her, on account of her airs and graces; 'what a pity you never read, John!'
'Much use, I should think, in reading!' I answered, though pleased with her condescension; 'read, I suppose, with roof coming in, and only this chimney left sticking out of the snow!'
'The very time to read, John,' said Lizzie, looking grander; 'our worst troubles are the need, whence knowledge can deliver us.'
'Amen,' I cried out; 'are you parson or clerk? Whichever you are, good-morning.'
Thereupon I was bent on my usual round (a very small one nowadays), but Eliza took me with both hands, and I stopped of course; for I could not bear to shake the child, even in play, for a moment, because her back was tender. Then she looked up at me with her beautiful eyes, so large, unhealthy and delicate, and strangely shadowing outward, as if to spread their meaning; and she said,—
'Now, John, this is no time to joke. I was almost frozen in bed last night; and Annie like an icicle. Feel how cold my hands are. Now, will you listen to what I have read about climates ten times worse than this; and where none but clever men can live?'
'Impossible for me to listen now, I have hundreds of things to see to; but I will listen after breakfast to your foreign climates, child. Now attend to mother's hot coffee.'
She looked a little disappointed, but she knew what I had to do; and after all she was not so utterly unreasonable; although she did read books. And when I had done my morning's work, I listened to her patiently; and it was out of my power to think that all she said was foolish.
For I knew common sense pretty well, by this time, whether it happened to be my own, or any other person's, if clearly laid before me. And Lizzie had a particular way of setting forth very clearly whatever she wished to express and enforce. But the queerest part of it all was this, that if she could but have dreamed for a moment what would be the first application made me by of her lesson, she would rather have bitten her tongue off than help me to my purpose.
She told me that in the Arctic Regions, as they call some places, a long way north, where the Great Bear lies all across the heavens, and no sun is up, for whole months at a time, and yet where people will go exploring, out of pure contradiction, and for the sake of novelty, and love of being frozen—that here they always had such winters as we were having now. It never ceased to freeze, she said; and it never ceased to snow; except when it was too cold; and then all the air was choked with glittering spikes; and a man's skin might come off of him, before he could ask the reason. Nevertheless the people there (although the snow was fifty feet deep, and all their breath fell behind them frozen, like a log of wood dropped from their shoulders), yet they managed to get along, and make the time of the year to each other, by a little cleverness. For seeing how the snow was spread, lightly over everything, covering up the hills and valleys, and the foreskin of the sea, they contrived a way to crown it, and to glide like a flake along. Through the sparkle of the whiteness, and the wreaths of windy tossings, and the ups and downs of cold, any man might get along with a boat on either foot, to prevent his sinking.
She told me how these boats were made; very strong and very light, of ribs with skin across them; five feet long, and one foot wide; and turned up at each end, even as a canoe is. But she did not tell me, nor did I give it a moment's thought myself, how hard it was to walk upon them without early practice. Then she told me another thing equally useful to me; although I would not let her see how much I thought about it. And this concerned the use of sledges, and their power of gliding, and the lightness of their following; all of which I could see at once, through knowledge of our own farm-sleds; which we employ in lieu of wheels, used in flatter districts. When I had heard all this from her, a mere chit of a girl as she was, unfit to make a snowball even, or to fry snow pancakes, I looked down on her with amazement, and began to wish a little that I had given more time to books.
But God shapes all our fitness, and gives each man his meaning, even as he guides the wavering lines of snow descending. Our Eliza was meant for books; our dear Annie for loving and cooking; I, John Ridd, for sheep, and wrestling, and the thought of Lorna; and mother to love all three of us, and to make the best of her children. And now, if I must tell the truth, as at every page I try to do (though God knows it is hard enough), I had felt through all this weather, though my life was Lorna's, something of a satisfaction in so doing duty to my kindest and best of mothers, and to none but her. For (if you come to think of it) a man's young love is very pleasant, very sweet, and tickling; and takes him through the core of heart; without his knowing how or why. Then he dwells upon it sideways, without people looking, and builds up all sorts of fancies, growing hot with working so at his own imaginings. So his love is a crystal Goddess, set upon an obelisk; and whoever will not bow the knee (yet without glancing at her), the lover makes it a sacred rite either to kick or to stick him. I am not speaking of me and Lorna, but of common people.
Then (if you come to think again) lo!—or I will not say lo! for no one can behold it—only feel, or but remember, what a real mother is. Ever loving, ever soft, ever turning sin to goodness, vices into virtues; blind to all nine-tenths of wrong; through a telescope beholding (though herself so nigh to them) faintest decimal of promise, even in her vilest child. Ready to thank God again, as when her babe was born to her; leaping (as at kingdom-come) at a wandering syllable of Gospel for her lost one.
All this our mother was to us, and even more than all of this; and hence I felt a pride and joy in doing my sacred duty towards her, now that the weather compelled me. And she was as grateful and delighted as if she had no more claim upon me than a stranger's sheep might have. Yet from time to time I groaned within myself and by myself, at thinking of my sad debarment from the sight of Lorna, and of all that might have happened to her, now she had no protection.
Therefore, I fell to at once, upon that hint from Lizzie, and being used to thatching-work, and the making of traps, and so on, before very long I built myself a pair of strong and light snow-shoes, framed with ash and ribbed of withy, with half-tanned calf-skin stretched across, and an inner sole to support my feet. At first I could not walk at all, but floundered about most piteously, catching one shoe in the other, and both of them in the snow-drifts, to the great amusement of the girls, who were come to look at me. But after a while I grew more expert, discovering what my errors were, and altering the inclination of the shoes themselves, according to a print which Lizzie found in a book of adventures. And this made such a difference, that I crossed the farmyard and came back again (though turning was the worst thing of all) without so much as falling once, or getting my staff entangled.
But oh, the aching of my ankles, when I went to bed that night; I was forced to help myself upstairs with a couple of mopsticks! and I rubbed the joints with neatsfoot oil, which comforted them greatly. And likely enough I would have abandoned any further trial, but for Lizzie's ridicule, and pretended sympathy; asking if the strong John Ridd would have old Betty to lean upon. Therefore I set to again, with a fixed resolve not to notice pain or stiffness, but to warm them out of me. And sure enough, before dark that day, I could get along pretty freely; especially improving every time, after leaving off and resting. The astonishment of poor John Fry, Bill Dadds, and Jem Slocombe, when they saw me coming down the hill upon them, in the twilight, where they were clearing the furze rick and trussing it for cattle, was more than I can tell you; because they did not let me see it, but ran away with one accord, and floundered into a snowdrift. They believed, and so did every one else (especially when I grew able to glide along pretty rapidly), that I had stolen Mother Melldrum's sieves, on which she was said to fly over the foreland at midnight every Saturday.
Upon the following day, I held some council with my mother; not liking to go without her permission, yet scarcely daring to ask for it. But here she disappointed me, on the right side of disappointment; saying that she had seen my pining (which she never could have done; because I had been too hard at work), and rather than watch me grieving so, for somebody or other, who now was all in all to me, I might go upon my course, and God's protection go with me! At this I was amazed, because it was not at all like mother; and knowing how well I had behaved, ever since the time of our snowing up, I was a little moved to tell her that she could not understand me. However my sense of duty kept me, and my knowledge of the catechism, from saying such a thing as that, or even thinking twice of it. And so I took her at her word, which she was not prepared for; and telling her how proud I was of her trust in Providence, and how I could run in my new snow-shoes, I took a short pipe in my mouth, and started forth accordingly.
NOT TOO SOON
When I started on my road across the hills and valleys (which now were pretty much alike), the utmost I could hope to do was to gain the crest of hills, and look into the Doone Glen. Hence I might at least descry whether Lorna still was safe, by the six nests still remaining, and the view of the Captain's house. When I was come to the open country, far beyond the sheltered homestead, and in the full brunt of the wind, the keen blast of the cold broke on me, and the mighty breadth of snow. Moor and highland, field and common, cliff and vale, and watercourse, over all the rolling folds of misty white were flung. There was nothing square or jagged left, there was nothing perpendicular; all the rugged lines were eased, and all the breaches smoothly filled. Curves, and mounds, and rounded heavings, took the place of rock and stump; and all the country looked as if a woman's hand had been on it.
Through the sparkling breadth of white, which seemed to glance my eyes away, and outside the humps of laden trees, bowing their backs like a woodman, I contrived to get along, half-sliding and half-walking, in places where a plain-shodden man must have sunk, and waited freezing till the thaw should come to him. For although there had been such violent frost, every night, upon the snow, the snow itself, having never thawed, even for an hour, had never coated over. Hence it was as soft and light as if all had fallen yesterday. In places where no drift had been, but rather off than on to them, three feet was the least of depth; but where the wind had chased it round, or any draught led like a funnel, or anything opposed it; there you might very safely say that it ran up to twenty feet, or thirty, or even fifty, and I believe some times a hundred.
At last I got to my spy-hill (as I had begun to call it), although I never should have known it but for what it looked on. And even to know this last again required all the eyes of love, soever sharp and vigilant. For all the beautiful Glen Doone (shaped from out the mountains, as if on purpose for the Doones, and looking in the summer-time like a sharp cut vase of green) now was besnowed half up the sides, and at either end so, that it was more like the white basins wherein we boil plum-puddings. Not a patch of grass was there, not a black branch of a tree; all was white; and the little river flowed beneath an arch of snow; if it managed to flow at all.
Now this was a great surprise to me; not only because I believed Glen Doone to be a place outside all frost, but also because I thought perhaps that it was quite impossible to be cold near Lorna. And now it struck me all at once that perhaps her ewer was frozen (as mine had been for the last three weeks, requiring embers around it), and perhaps her window would not shut, any more than mine would; and perhaps she wanted blankets. This idea worked me up to such a chill of sympathy, that seeing no Doones now about, and doubting if any guns would go off, in this state of the weather, and knowing that no man could catch me up (except with shoes like mine), I even resolved to slide the cliffs, and bravely go to Lorna.
It helped me much in this resolve, that the snow came on again, thick enough to blind a man who had not spent his time among it, as I had done now for days and days. Therefore I took my neatsfoot oil, which now was clogged like honey, and rubbed it hard into my leg-joints, so far as I could reach them. And then I set my back and elbows well against a snowdrift, hanging far adown the cliff, and saying some of the Lord's Prayer, threw myself on Providence. Before there was time to think or dream, I landed very beautifully upon a ridge of run-up snow in a quiet corner. My good shoes, or boots, preserved me from going far beneath it; though one of them was sadly strained, where a grub had gnawed the ash, in the early summer-time. Having set myself aright, and being in good spirits, I made boldly across the valley (where the snow was furrowed hard), being now afraid of nobody.
If Lorna had looked out of the window she would not have known me, with those boots upon my feet, and a well-cleaned sheepskin over me, bearing my own (J.R.) in red, just between my shoulders, but covered now in snow-flakes. The house was partly drifted up, though not so much as ours was; and I crossed the little stream almost without knowing that it was under me. At first, being pretty safe from interference from the other huts, by virtue of the blinding snow and the difficulty of walking, I examined all the windows; but these were coated so with ice, like ferns and flowers and dazzling stars, that no one could so much as guess what might be inside of them. Moreover I was afraid of prying narrowly into them, as it was not a proper thing where a maiden might be; only I wanted to know just this, whether she were there or not.
Taking nothing by this movement, I was forced, much against my will, to venture to the door and knock, in a hesitating manner, not being sure but what my answer might be the mouth of a carbine. However it was not so, for I heard a pattering of feet and a whispering going on, and then a shrill voice through the keyhole, asking, 'Who's there?'
'Only me, John Ridd,' I answered; upon which I heard a little laughter, and a little sobbing, or something that was like it; and then the door was opened about a couple of inches, with a bar behind it still; and then the little voice went on,—
'Put thy finger in, young man, with the old ring on it. But mind thee, if it be the wrong one, thou shalt never draw it back again.'
Laughing at Gwenny's mighty threat, I showed my finger in the opening; upon which she let me in, and barred the door again like lightning.
'What is the meaning of all this, Gwenny?' I asked, as I slipped about on the floor, for I could not stand there firmly with my great snow-shoes on.
'Maning enough, and bad maning too,' the Cornish girl made answer. Us be shut in here, and starving, and durstn't let anybody in upon us. I wish thou wer't good to ate, young man: I could manage most of thee.'
I was so frightened by her eyes, full of wolfish hunger, that I could only say 'Good God!' having never seen the like before. Then drew I forth a large piece of bread, which I had brought in case of accidents, and placed it in her hands. She leaped at it, as a starving dog leaps at sight of his supper, and she set her teeth in it, and then withheld it from her lips, with something very like an oath at her own vile greediness; and then away round the corner with it, no doubt for her young mistress. I meanwhile was occupied, to the best of my ability, in taking my snow-shoes off, yet wondering much within myself why Lorna did not come to me.
But presently I knew the cause, for Gwenny called me, and I ran, and found my darling quite unable to say so much as, 'John, how are you?' Between the hunger and the cold, and the excitement of my coming, she had fainted away, and lay back on a chair, as white as the snow around us. In betwixt her delicate lips, Gwenny was thrusting with all her strength the hard brown crust of the rye-bread, which she had snatched from me so.
'Get water, or get snow,' I said; 'don't you know what fainting is, you very stupid child?'
'Never heerd on it, in Cornwall,' she answered, trusting still to the bread; 'be un the same as bleeding?'
'It will be directly, if you go on squeezing away with that crust so. Eat a piece: I have got some more. Leave my darling now to me.'
Hearing that I had some more, the starving girl could resist no longer, but tore it in two, and had swallowed half before I had coaxed my Lorna back to sense, and hope, and joy, and love.
'I never expected to see you again. I had made up my mind to die, John; and to die without your knowing it.'
As I repelled this fearful thought in a manner highly fortifying, the tender hue flowed back again into her famished cheeks and lips, and a softer brilliance glistened from the depth of her dark eyes. She gave me one little shrunken hand, and I could not help a tear for it.
'After all, Mistress Lorna,' I said, pretending to be gay, for a smile might do her good; 'you do not love me as Gwenny does; for she even wanted to eat me.'
'And shall, afore I have done, young man,' Gwenny answered laughing; 'you come in here with they red chakes, and make us think o' sirloin.'
'Eat up your bit of brown bread, Gwenny. It is not good enough for your mistress. Bless her heart, I have something here such as she never tasted the like of, being in such appetite. Look here, Lorna; smell it first. I have had it ever since Twelfth Day, and kept it all the time for you. Annie made it. That is enough to warrant it good cooking.'
And then I showed my great mince-pie in a bag of tissue paper, and I told them how the mince-meat was made of golden pippins finely shred, with the undercut of the sirloin, and spice and fruit accordingly and far beyond my knowledge. But Lorna would not touch a morsel until she had thanked God for it, and given me the kindest kiss, and put a piece in Gwenny's mouth.
I have eaten many things myself, with very great enjoyment, and keen perception of their merits, and some thanks to God for them. But I never did enjoy a thing, that had found its way between my own lips, half, or even a quarter as much as I now enjoyed beholding Lorna, sitting proudly upwards (to show that she was faint no more) entering into that mince-pie, and moving all her pearls of teeth (inside her little mouth-place) exactly as I told her. For I was afraid lest she should be too fast in going through it, and cause herself more damage so, than she got of nourishment. But I had no need to fear at all, and Lorna could not help laughing at me for thinking that she had no self-control.
Some creatures require a deal of food (I myself among the number), and some can do with a very little; making, no doubt, the best of it. And I have often noticed that the plumpest and most perfect women never eat so hard and fast as the skinny and three-cornered ones. These last be often ashamed of it, and eat most when the men be absent. Hence it came to pass that Lorna, being the loveliest of all maidens, had as much as she could do to finish her own half of pie; whereas Gwenny Carfax (though generous more than greedy), ate up hers without winking, after finishing the brown loaf; and then I begged to know the meaning of this state of things.
'The meaning is sad enough,' said Lorna; 'and I see no way out of it. We are both to be starved until I let them do what they like with me.
'That is to say until you choose to marry Carver Doone, and be slowly killed by him?'
'Slowly! No, John, quickly. I hate him so intensely, that less than a week would kill me.'
'Not a doubt of that,' said Gwenny; 'oh, she hates him nicely then; but not half so much as I do.'
I told them that this state of things could be endured no longer, on which point they agreed with me, but saw no means to help it. For even if Lorna could make up her mind to come away with me and live at Plover's Barrows farm, under my good mother's care, as I had urged so often, behold the snow was all around us, heaped as high as mountains, and how could any delicate maiden ever get across it?
Then I spoke with a strange tingle upon both sides of my heart, knowing that this undertaking was a serious one for all, and might burn our farm down,—
'If I warrant to take you safe, and without much fright or hardship, Lorna, will you come with me?'
'To be sure I will, dear,' said my beauty, with a smile and a glance to follow it; 'I have small alternative, to starve, or go with you, John.'
'Gwenny, have you courage for it? Will you come with your young mistress?'
'Will I stay behind?' cried Gwenny, in a voice that settled it. And so we began to arrange about it; and I was much excited. It was useless now to leave it longer; if it could be done at all, it could not be too quickly done. It was the Counsellor who had ordered, after all other schemes had failed, that his niece should have no food until she would obey him. He had strictly watched the house, taking turns with Carver, to ensure that none came nigh it bearing food or comfort. But this evening, they had thought it needless to remain on guard; and it would have been impossible, because themselves were busy offering high festival to all the valley, in right of their own commandership. And Gwenny said that nothing made her so nearly mad with appetite as the account she received from a woman of all the dishes preparing. Nevertheless she had answered bravely,—
'Go and tell the Counsellor, and go and tell the Carver, who sent you to spy upon us, that we shall have a finer dish than any set before them.' And so in truth they did, although so little dreaming it; for no Doone that was ever born, however much of a Carver, might vie with our Annie for mince-meat.
Now while we sat reflecting much, and talking a good deal more, in spite of all the cold—for I never was in a hurry to go, when I had Lorna with me—she said, in her silvery voice, which always led me so along, as if I were a slave to a beautiful bell,—
'Now, John, we are wasting time, dear. You have praised my hair, till it curls with pride, and my eyes till you cannot see them, even if they are brown diamonds which I have heard for the fiftieth time at least; though I never saw such a jewel. Don't you think it is high time to put on your snow-shoes, John?'
'Certainly not,' I answered, 'till we have settled something more. I was so cold when I came in; and now I am as warm as a cricket. And so are you, you lively soul; though you are not upon my hearth yet.'
'Remember, John,' said Lorna, nestling for a moment to me; 'the severity of the weather makes a great difference between us. And you must never take advantage.'
'I quite understand all that, dear. And the harder it freezes the better, while that understanding continues. Now do try to be serious.'
'I try to be serious! And I have been trying fifty times, and could not bring you to it, John! Although I am sure the situation, as the Counsellor says at the beginning of a speech, the situation, to say the least, is serious enough for anything. Come, Gwenny, imitate him.'
Gwenny was famed for her imitation of the Counsellor making a speech; and she began to shake her hair, and mount upon a footstool; but I really could not have this, though even Lorna ordered it. The truth was that my darling maiden was in such wild spirits, at seeing me so unexpected, and at the prospect of release, and of what she had never known, quiet life and happiness, that like all warm and loving natures, she could scarce control herself.
'Come to this frozen window, John, and see them light the stack-fire. They will little know who looks at them. Now be very good, John. You stay in that corner, dear, and I will stand on this side; and try to breathe yourself a peep-hole through the lovely spears and banners. Oh, you don't know how to do it. I must do it for you. Breathe three times, like that, and that; and then you rub it with your fingers, before it has time to freeze again.'
All this she did so beautifully, with her lips put up like cherries, and her fingers bent half back, as only girls can bend them, and her little waist thrown out against the white of the snowed-up window, that I made her do it three times over; and I stopped her every time and let it freeze again, that so she might be the longer. Now I knew that all her love was mine, every bit as much as mine was hers; yet I must have her to show it, dwelling upon every proof, lengthening out all certainty. Perhaps the jealous heart is loath to own a life worth twice its own. Be that as it may, I know that we thawed the window nicely.
And then I saw, far down the stream (or rather down the bed of it, for there was no stream visible), a little form of fire arising, red, and dark, and flickering. Presently it caught on something, and went upward boldly; and then it struck into many forks, and then it fell, and rose again.
'Do you know what all that is, John?' asked Lorna, smiling cleverly at the manner of my staring.
'How on earth should I know? Papists burn Protestants in the flesh; and Protestants burn Papists in effigy, as we mock them. Lorna, are they going to burn any one to-night?'
'No, you dear. I must rid you of these things. I see that you are bigoted. The Doones are firing Dunkery beacon, to celebrate their new captain.'
'But how could they bring it here through the snow? If they have sledges, I can do nothing.'
'They brought it before the snow began. The moment poor grandfather was gone, even before his funeral, the young men, having none to check them, began at once upon it. They had always borne a grudge against it; not that it ever did them harm; but because it seemed so insolent. "Can't a gentleman go home, without a smoke behind him?" I have often heard them saying. And though they have done it no serious harm, since they threw the firemen on the fire, many, many years ago, they have often promised to bring it here for their candle; and now they have done it. Ah, now look! The tar is kindled.'
Though Lorna took it so in joke, I looked upon it very gravely, knowing that this heavy outrage to the feelings of the neighbourhood would cause more stir than a hundred sheep stolen, or a score of houses sacked. Not of course that the beacon was of the smallest use to any one, neither stopped anybody from stealing, nay, rather it was like the parish knell, which begins when all is over, and depresses all the survivors; yet I knew that we valued it, and were proud, and spoke of it as a mighty institution; and even more than that, our vestry had voted, within the last two years, seven shillings and six-pence to pay for it, in proportion with other parishes. And one of the men who attended to it, or at least who was paid for doing so, was our Jem Slocombe's grandfather.
However, in spite of all my regrets, the fire went up very merrily, blazing red and white and yellow, as it leaped on different things. And the light danced on the snow-drifts with a misty lilac hue. I was astonished at its burning in such mighty depths of snow; but Gwenny said that the wicked men had been three days hard at work, clearing, as it were, a cock-pit, for their fire to have its way. And now they had a mighty pile, which must have covered five land-yards square, heaped up to a goodly height, and eager to take fire.
In this I saw great obstacle to what I wished to manage. For when this pyramid should be kindled thoroughly, and pouring light and blazes round, would not all the valley be like a white room full of candles? Thinking thus, I was half inclined to abide my time for another night: and then my second thoughts convinced me that I would be a fool in this. For lo, what an opportunity! All the Doones would be drunk, of course, in about three hours' time, and getting more and more in drink as the night went on. As for the fire, it must sink in about three hours or more, and only cast uncertain shadows friendly to my purpose. And then the outlaws must cower round it, as the cold increased on them, helping the weight of the liquor; and in their jollity any noise would be cheered as a false alarm. Most of all, and which decided once for all my action,—when these wild and reckless villains should be hot with ardent spirits, what was door, or wall, to stand betwixt them and my Lorna?
This thought quickened me so much that I touched my darling reverently, and told her in a few short words how I hoped to manage it.
'Sweetest, in two hours' time, I shall be again with you. Keep the bar up, and have Gwenny ready to answer any one. You are safe while they are dining, dear, and drinking healths, and all that stuff; and before they have done with that, I shall be again with you. Have everything you care to take in a very little compass, and Gwenny must have no baggage. I shall knock loud, and then wait a little; and then knock twice, very softly.'
With this I folded her in my arms; and she looked frightened at me; not having perceived her danger; and then I told Gwenny over again what I had told her mistress: but she only nodded her head and said, 'Young man, go and teach thy grandmother.'
BROUGHT HOME AT LAST
To my great delight I found that the weather, not often friendly to lovers, and lately seeming so hostile, had in the most important matter done me a signal service. For when I had promised to take my love from the power of those wretches, the only way of escape apparent lay through the main Doone-gate. For though I might climb the cliffs myself, especially with the snow to aid me, I durst not try to fetch Lorna up them, even if she were not half-starved, as well as partly frozen; and as for Gwenny's door, as we called it (that is to say, the little entrance from the wooded hollow), it was snowed up long ago to the level of the hills around. Therefore I was at my wit's end how to get them out; the passage by the Doone-gate being long, and dark, and difficult, and leading to such a weary circuit among the snowy moors and hills.
But now, being homeward-bound by the shortest possible track, I slipped along between the bonfire and the boundary cliffs, where I found a caved way of snow behind a sort of avalanche: so that if the Doones had been keeping watch (which they were not doing, but revelling), they could scarcely have discovered me. And when I came to my old ascent, where I had often scaled the cliff and made across the mountains, it struck me that I would just have a look at my first and painful entrance, to wit, the water-slide. I never for a moment imagined that this could help me now; for I never had dared to descend it, even in the finest weather; still I had a curiosity to know what my old friend was like, with so much snow upon him. But, to my very great surprise, there was scarcely any snow there at all, though plenty curling high overhead from the cliff, like bolsters over it. Probably the sweeping of the north-east wind up the narrow chasm had kept the showers from blocking it, although the water had no power under the bitter grip of frost. All my water-slide was now less a slide than path of ice; furrowed where the waters ran over fluted ridges; seamed where wind had tossed and combed them, even while congealing; and crossed with little steps wherever the freezing torrent lingered. And here and there the ice was fibred with the trail of sludge-weed, slanting from the side, and matted, so as to make resting-place.
Lo it was easy track and channel, as if for the very purpose made, down which I could guide my sledge with Lorna sitting in it. There were only two things to be feared; one lest the rolls of snow above should fall in and bury us; the other lest we should rush too fast, and so be carried headlong into the black whirlpool at the bottom, the middle of which was still unfrozen, and looking more horrible by the contrast. Against this danger I made provision, by fixing a stout bar across; but of the other we must take our chance, and trust ourselves to Providence.
I hastened home at my utmost speed, and told my mother for God's sake to keep the house up till my return, and to have plenty of fire blazing, and plenty of water boiling, and food enough hot for a dozen people, and the best bed aired with the warming-pan. Dear mother smiled softly at my excitement, though her own was not much less, I am sure, and enhanced by sore anxiety. Then I gave very strict directions to Annie, and praised her a little, and kissed her; and I even endeavoured to flatter Eliza, lest she should be disagreeable.
After this I took some brandy, both within and about me; the former, because I had sharp work to do; and the latter in fear of whatever might happen, in such great cold, to my comrades. Also I carried some other provisions, grieving much at their coldness: and then I went to the upper linhay, and took our new light pony-sledd, which had been made almost as much for pleasure as for business; though God only knows how our girls could have found any pleasure in bumping along so. On the snow, however, it ran as sweetly as if it had been made for it; yet I durst not take the pony with it; in the first place, because his hoofs would break through the ever-shifting surface of the light and piling snow; and secondly, because these ponies, coming from the forest, have a dreadful trick of neighing, and most of all in frosty weather.
Therefore I girded my own body with a dozen turns of hay-rope, twisting both the ends in under at the bottom of my breast, and winding the hay on the skew a little, that the hempen thong might not slip between, and so cut me in the drawing. I put a good piece of spare rope in the sledd, and the cross-seat with the back to it, which was stuffed with our own wool, as well as two or three fur coats; and then, just as I was starting, out came Annie, in spite of the cold, panting for fear of missing me, and with nothing on her head, but a lanthorn in one hand.
'Oh, John, here is the most wonderful thing! Mother has never shown it before; and I can't think how she could make up her mind. She had gotten it in a great well of a cupboard, with camphor, and spirits, and lavender. Lizzie says it is a most magnificent sealskin cloak, worth fifty pounds, or a farthing.'
'At any rate it is soft and warm,' said I, very calmly flinging it into the bottom of the sledd. 'Tell mother I will put it over Lorna's feet.'
'Lorna's feet! Oh, you great fool,' cried Annie, for the first time reviling me; 'over her shoulders; and be proud, you very stupid John.'
'It is not good enough for her feet,' I answered, with strong emphasis; 'but don't tell mother I said so, Annie. Only thank her very kindly.'
With that I drew my traces hard, and set my ashen staff into the snow, and struck out with my best foot foremost (the best one at snow-shoes, I mean), and the sledd came after me as lightly as a dog might follow; and Annie, with the lanthorn, seemed to be left behind and waiting like a pretty lamp-post.
The full moon rose as bright behind me as a paten of pure silver, casting on the snow long shadows of the few things left above, burdened rock, and shaggy foreland, and the labouring trees. In the great white desolation, distance was a mocking vision; hills looked nigh, and valleys far; when hills were far and valleys nigh. And the misty breath of frost, piercing through the ribs of rock, striking to the pith of trees, creeping to the heart of man, lay along the hollow places, like a serpent sloughing. Even as my own gaunt shadow (travestied as if I were the moonlight's daddy-longlegs), went before me down the slope; even I, the shadow's master, who had tried in vain to cough, when coughing brought good liquorice, felt a pressure on my bosom, and a husking in my throat.
However, I went on quietly, and at a very tidy speed; being only too thankful that the snow had ceased, and no wind as yet arisen. And from the ring of low white vapour girding all the verge of sky, and from the rosy blue above, and the shafts of starlight set upon a quivering bow, as well as from the moon itself and the light behind it, having learned the signs of frost from its bitter twinges, I knew that we should have a night as keen as ever England felt. Nevertheless, I had work enough to keep me warm if I managed it. The question was, could I contrive to save my darling from it?
Daring not to risk my sledd by any fall from the valley-cliffs, I dragged it very carefully up the steep incline of ice, through the narrow chasm, and so to the very brink and verge where first I had seen my Lorna, in the fishing days of boyhood. As I then had a trident fork, for sticking of the loaches, so I now had a strong ash stake, to lay across from rock to rock, and break the speed of descending. With this I moored the sledd quite safe, at the very lip of the chasm, where all was now substantial ice, green and black in the moonlight; and then I set off up the valley, skirting along one side of it.
The stack-fire still was burning strongly, but with more of heat than blaze; and many of the younger Doones were playing on the verge of it, the children making rings of fire, and their mothers watching them. All the grave and reverend warriors having heard of rheumatism, were inside of log and stone, in the two lowest houses, with enough of candles burning to make our list of sheep come short.
All these I passed, without the smallest risk or difficulty, walking up the channel of drift which I spoke of once before. And then I crossed, with more of care, and to the door of Lorna's house, and made the sign, and listened, after taking my snow-shoes off.
But no one came, as I expected, neither could I espy a light. And I seemed to hear a faint low sound, like the moaning of the snow-wind. Then I knocked again more loudly, with a knocking at my heart: and receiving no answer, set all my power at once against the door. In a moment it flew inwards, and I glided along the passage with my feet still slippery. There in Lorna's room I saw, by the moonlight flowing in, a sight which drove me beyond sense.
Lorna was behind a chair, crouching in the corner, with her hands up, and a crucifix, or something that looked like it. In the middle of the room lay Gwenny Carfax, stupid, yet with one hand clutching the ankle of a struggling man. Another man stood above my Lorna, trying to draw the chair away. In a moment I had him round the waist, and he went out of the window with a mighty crash of glass; luckily for him that window had no bars like some of them. Then I took the other man by the neck; and he could not plead for mercy. I bore him out of the house as lightly as I would bear a baby, yet squeezing his throat a little more than I fain would do to an infant. By the bright moonlight I saw that I carried Marwood de Whichehalse. For his father's sake I spared him, and because he had been my schoolfellow; but with every muscle of my body strung with indignation, I cast him, like a skittle, from me into a snowdrift, which closed over him. Then I looked for the other fellow, tossed through Lorna's window, and found him lying stunned and bleeding, neither able to groan yet. Charleworth Doone, if his gushing blood did not much mislead me.
It was no time to linger now; I fastened my shoes in a moment, and caught up my own darling with her head upon my shoulder, where she whispered faintly; and telling Gwenny to follow me, or else I would come back for her, if she could not walk the snow, I ran the whole distance to my sledd, caring not who might follow me. Then by the time I had set up Lorna, beautiful and smiling, with the seal-skin cloak all over her, sturdy Gwenny came along, having trudged in the track of my snow-shoes, although with two bags on her back. I set her in beside her mistress, to support her, and keep warm; and then with one look back at the glen, which had been so long my home of heart, I hung behind the sledd, and launched it down the steep and dangerous way.
Though the cliffs were black above us, and the road unseen in front, and a great white grave of snow might at a single word come down, Lorna was as calm and happy as an infant in its bed. She knew that I was with her; and when I told her not to speak, she touched my hand in silence. Gwenny was in a much greater fright, having never seen such a thing before, neither knowing what it is to yield to pure love's confidence. I could hardly keep her quiet, without making a noise myself. With my staff from rock to rock, and my weight thrown backward, I broke the sledd's too rapid way, and brought my grown love safely out, by the selfsame road which first had led me to her girlish fancy, and my boyish slavery.
Unpursued, yet looking back as if some one must be after us, we skirted round the black whirling pool, and gained the meadows beyond it. Here there was hard collar work, the track being all uphill and rough; and Gwenny wanted to jump out, to lighten the sledd and to push behind. But I would not hear of it; because it was now so deadly cold, and I feared that Lorna might get frozen, without having Gwenny to keep her warm. And after all, it was the sweetest labour I had ever known in all my life, to be sure that I was pulling Lorna, and pulling her to our own farmhouse.
Gwenny's nose was touched with frost, before we had gone much farther, because she would not keep it quiet and snug beneath the sealskin. And here I had to stop in the moonlight (which was very dangerous) and rub it with a clove of snow, as Eliza had taught me; and Gwenny scolding all the time, as if myself had frozen it. Lorna was now so far oppressed with all the troubles of the evening, and the joy that followed them, as well as by the piercing cold and difficulty of breathing, that she lay quite motionless, like fairest wax in the moonlight—when we stole a glance at her, beneath the dark folds of the cloak; and I thought that she was falling into the heavy snow-sleep, whence there is no awaking.
Therefore, I drew my traces tight, and set my whole strength to the business; and we slipped along at a merry pace, although with many joltings, which must have sent my darling out into the cold snowdrifts but for the short strong arm of Gwenny. And so in about an hour's time, in spite of many hindrances, we came home to the old courtyard, and all the dogs saluted us. My heart was quivering, and my cheeks as hot as the Doones' bonfire, with wondering both what Lorna would think of our farm-yard, and what my mother would think of her. Upon the former subject my anxiety was wasted, for Lorna neither saw a thing, nor even opened her heavy eyes. And as to what mother would think of her, she was certain not to think at all, until she had cried over her.
And so indeed it came to pass. Even at this length of time, I can hardly tell it, although so bright before my mind, because it moves my heart so. The sledd was at the open door, with only Lorna in it; for Gwenny Carfax had jumped out, and hung back in the clearing, giving any reason rather than the only true one—that she would not be intruding. At the door were all our people; first, of course, Betty Muxworthy, teaching me how to draw the sledd, as if she had been born in it, and flourishing with a great broom, wherever a speck of snow lay. Then dear Annie, and old Molly (who was very quiet, and counted almost for nobody), and behind them, mother, looking as if she wanted to come first, but doubted how the manners lay. In the distance Lizzie stood, fearful of encouraging, but unable to keep out of it.
Betty was going to poke her broom right in under the sealskin cloak, where Lorna lay unconscious, and where her precious breath hung frozen, like a silver cobweb; but I caught up Betty's broom, and flung it clean away over the corn chamber; and then I put the others by, and fetched my mother forward.
'You shall see her first,' I said: 'is she not your daughter? Hold the light there, Annie.'
Dear mother's hands were quick and trembling, as she opened the shining folds; and there she saw my Lorna sleeping, with her black hair all dishevelled, and she bent and kissed her forehead, and only said, 'God bless her, John!' And then she was taken with violent weeping, and I was forced to hold her.
'Us may tich of her now, I rackon,' said Betty in her most jealous way; 'Annie, tak her by the head, and I'll tak her by the toesen. No taime to stand here like girt gawks. Don'ee tak on zo, missus. Ther be vainer vish in the zea—Lor, but, her be a booty!'
With this, they carried her into the house, Betty chattering all the while, and going on now about Lorna's hands, and the others crowding round her, so that I thought I was not wanted among so many women, and should only get the worst of it, and perhaps do harm to my darling. Therefore I went and brought Gwenny in, and gave her a potful of bacon and peas, and an iron spoon to eat it with, which she did right heartily.
Then I asked her how she could have been such a fool as to let those two vile fellows enter the house where Lorna was; and she accounted for it so naturally, that I could only blame myself. For my agreement had been to give one loud knock (if you happen to remember) and after that two little knocks. Well these two drunken rogues had come; and one, being very drunk indeed, had given a great thump; and then nothing more to do with it; and the other, being three-quarters drunk, had followed his leader (as one might say) but feebly, and making two of it. Whereupon up jumped Lorna, and declared that her John was there.
All this Gwenny told me shortly, between the whiles of eating, and even while she licked the spoon; and then there came a message for me that my love was sensible, and was seeking all around for me. Then I told Gwenny to hold her tongue (whatever she did among us), and not to trust to women's words; and she told me they all were liars, as she had found out long ago; and the only thing to believe in was an honest man, when found. Thereupon I could have kissed her as a sort of tribute, liking to be appreciated; yet the peas upon her lips made me think about it; and thought is fatal to action. So I went to see my dear.
That sight I shall not forget; till my dying head falls back, and my breast can lift no more. I know not whether I were then more blessed, or harrowed by it. For in the settle was my Lorna, propped with pillows round her, and her clear hands spread sometimes to the blazing fireplace. In her eyes no knowledge was of anything around her, neither in her neck the sense of leaning towards anything. Only both her lovely hands were entreating something, to spare her, or to love her; and the lines of supplication quivered in her sad white face.
'All go away, except my mother,' I said very quietly, but so that I would be obeyed; and everybody knew it. Then mother came to me alone; and she said, 'The frost is in her brain; I have heard of this before, John.' 'Mother, I will have it out,' was all that I could answer her; 'leave her to me altogether; only you sit there and watch.' For I felt that Lorna knew me, and no other soul but me; and that if not interfered with, she would soon come home to me. Therefore I sat gently by her, leaving nature, as it were, to her own good time and will. And presently the glance that watched me, as at distance and in doubt, began to flutter and to brighten, and to deepen into kindness, then to beam with trust and love, and then with gathering tears to falter, and in shame to turn away. But the small entreating hands found their way, as if by instinct, to my great projecting palms; and trembled there, and rested there.
For a little while we lingered thus, neither wishing to move away, neither caring to look beyond the presence of the other; both alike so full of hope, and comfort, and true happiness; if only the world would let us be. And then a little sob disturbed us, and mother tried to make believe that she was only coughing. But Lorna, guessing who she was, jumped up so very rashly that she almost set her frock on fire from the great ash log; and away she ran to the old oak chair, where mother was by the clock-case pretending to be knitting, and she took the work from mother's hands, and laid them both upon her head, kneeling humbly, and looking up.
'God bless you, my fair mistress!' said mother, bending nearer, and then as Lorna's gaze prevailed, 'God bless you, my sweet child!'
And so she went to mother's heart by the very nearest road, even as she had come to mine; I mean the road of pity, smoothed by grace, and youth, and gentleness.
A CHANGE LONG NEEDED
Jeremy Stickles was gone south, ere ever the frost set in, for the purpose of mustering forces to attack the Doone Glen. But, of course, this weather had put a stop to every kind of movement; for even if men could have borne the cold, they could scarcely be brought to face the perils of the snow-drifts. And to tell the truth I cared not how long this weather lasted, so long as we had enough to eat, and could keep ourselves from freezing. Not only that I did not want Master Stickles back again, to make more disturbances; but also that the Doones could not come prowling after Lorna while the snow lay piled between us, with the surface soft and dry. Of course they would very soon discover where their lawful queen was, although the track of sledd and snow-shoes had been quite obliterated by another shower, before the revellers could have grown half as drunk as they intended. But Marwood de Whichehalse, who had been snowed up among them (as Gwenny said), after helping to strip the beacon, that young Squire was almost certain to have recognised me, and to have told the vile Carver. And it gave me no little pleasure to think how mad that Carver must be with me, for robbing him of the lovely bride whom he was starving into matrimony. However, I was not pleased at all with the prospect of the consequences; but set all hands on to thresh the corn, ere the Doones could come and burn the ricks. For I knew that they could not come yet, inasmuch as even a forest pony could not traverse the country, much less the heavy horses needed to carry such men as they were. And hundreds of the forest ponies died in this hard weather, some being buried in the snow, and more of them starved for want of grass.
Going through this state of things, and laying down the law about it (subject to correction), I very soon persuaded Lorna that for the present she was safe, and (which made her still more happy) that she was not only welcome, but as gladdening to our eyes as the flowers of May. Of course, so far as regarded myself, this was not a hundredth part of the real truth; and even as regarded others, I might have said it ten times over. For Lorna had so won them all, by her kind and gentle ways, and her mode of hearkening to everybody's trouble, and replying without words, as well as by her beauty, and simple grace of all things, that I could almost wish sometimes the rest would leave her more to me. But mother could not do enough; and Annie almost worshipped her; and even Lizzie could not keep her bitterness towards her; especially when she found that Lorna knew as much of books as need be.
As for John Fry, and Betty, and Molly, they were a perfect plague when Lorna came into the kitchen. For betwixt their curiosity to see a live Doone in the flesh (when certain not to eat them), and their high respect for birth (with or without honesty), and their intense desire to know all about Master John's sweetheart (dropped, as they said, from the snow-clouds), and most of all their admiration of a beauty such as never even their angels could have seen—betwixt and between all this, I say, there was no getting the dinner cooked, with Lorna in the kitchen.
And the worst of it was that Lorna took the strangest of all strange fancies for this very kitchen; and it was hard to keep her out of it. Not that she had any special bent for cooking, as our Annie had; rather indeed the contrary, for she liked to have her food ready cooked; but that she loved the look of the place, and the cheerful fire burning, and the racks of bacon to be seen, and the richness, and the homeliness, and the pleasant smell of everything. And who knows but what she may have liked (as the very best of maidens do) to be admired, now and then, between the times of business?
Therefore if you wanted Lorna (as I was always sure to do, God knows how many times a day), the very surest place to find her was our own old kitchen. Not gossiping, I mean, nor loitering, neither seeking into things, but seeming to be quite at home, as if she had known it from a child, and seeming (to my eyes at least) to light it up, and make life and colour out of all the dullness; as I have seen the breaking sun do among brown shocks of wheat.
But any one who wished to learn whether girls can change or not, as the things around them change (while yet their hearts are steadfast, and for ever anchored), he should just have seen my Lorna, after a fortnight of our life, and freedom from anxiety. It is possible that my company—although I am accounted stupid by folk who do not know my way—may have had something to do with it; but upon this I will not say much, lest I lose my character. And indeed, as regards company, I had all the threshing to see to, and more than half to do myself (though any one would have thought that even John Fry must work hard this weather), else I could not hope at all to get our corn into such compass that a good gun might protect it.
But to come back to Lorna again (which I always longed to do, and must long for ever), all the change between night and day, all the shifts of cloud and sun, all the difference between black death and brightsome liveliness, scarcely may suggest or equal Lorna's transformation. Quick she had always been and 'peart' (as we say on Exmoor) and gifted with a leap of thought too swift for me to follow; and hence you may find fault with much, when I report her sayings. But through the whole had always run, as a black string goes through pearls, something dark and touched with shadow, coloured as with an early end.
But, now, behold! there was none of this! There was no getting her, for a moment, even to be serious. All her bright young wit was flashing, like a newly-awakened flame, and all her high young spirits leaped, as if dancing to its fire. And yet she never spoke a word which gave more pain than pleasure.
And even in her outward look there was much of difference. Whether it was our warmth, and freedom, and our harmless love of God, and trust in one another; or whether it were our air, and water, and the pea-fed bacon; anyhow my Lorna grew richer and more lovely, more perfect and more firm of figure, and more light and buoyant, with every passing day that laid its tribute on her cheeks and lips. I was allowed one kiss a day; only one for manners' sake, because she was our visitor; and I might have it before breakfast, or else when I came to say 'good-night!' according as I decided. And I decided every night, not to take it in the morning, but put it off till the evening time, and have the pleasure to think about, through all the day of working. But when my darling came up to me in the early daylight, fresher than the daystar, and with no one looking; only her bright eyes smiling, and sweet lips quite ready, was it likely I could wait, and think all day about it? For she wore a frock of Annie's, nicely made to fit her, taken in at the waist and curved—I never could explain it, not being a mantua-maker; but I know how her figure looked in it, and how it came towards me.
But this is neither here nor there; and I must on with my story. Those days are very sacred to me, and if I speak lightly of them, trust me, 'tis with lip alone; while from heart reproach peeps sadly at the flippant tricks of mind.
Although it was the longest winter ever known in our parts (never having ceased to freeze for a single night, and scarcely for a single day, from the middle of December till the second week in March), to me it was the very shortest and the most delicious; and verily I do believe it was the same to Lorna. But when the Ides of March were come (of which I do remember something dim from school, and something clear from my favourite writer) lo, there were increasing signals of a change of weather.
One leading feature of that long cold, and a thing remarked by every one (however unobservant) had been the hollow moaning sound ever present in the air, morning, noon, and night-time, and especially at night, whether any wind were stirring, or whether it were a perfect calm. Our people said that it was a witch cursing all the country from the caverns by the sea, and that frost and snow would last until we could catch and drown her. But the land, being thoroughly blocked with snow, and the inshore parts of the sea with ice (floating in great fields along), Mother Melldrum (if she it were) had the caverns all to herself, for there was no getting at her. And speaking of the sea reminds me of a thing reported to us, and on good authority; though people might be found hereafter who would not believe it, unless I told them that from what I myself beheld of the channel I place perfect faith in it: and this is, that a dozen sailors at the beginning of March crossed the ice, with the aid of poles from Clevedon to Penarth, or where the Holm rocks barred the flotage.
But now, about the tenth of March, that miserable moaning noise, which had both foregone and accompanied the rigour, died away from out the air; and we, being now so used to it, thought at first that we must be deaf. And then the fog, which had hung about (even in full sunshine) vanished, and the shrouded hills shone forth with brightness manifold. And now the sky at length began to come to its true manner, which we had not seen for months, a mixture (if I so may speak) of various expressions. Whereas till now from Allhallows-tide, six weeks ere the great frost set in, the heavens had worn one heavy mask of ashen gray when clouded, or else one amethystine tinge with a hazy rim, when cloudless. So it was pleasant to behold, after that monotony, the fickle sky which suits our England, though abused by foreign folk.
And soon the dappled softening sky gave some earnest of its mood; for a brisk south wind arose, and the blessed rain came driving, cold indeed, yet most refreshing to the skin, all parched with snow, and the eyeballs so long dazzled. Neither was the heart more sluggish in its thankfulness to God. People had begun to think, and somebody had prophesied, that we should have no spring this year, no seed-time, and no harvest; for that the Lord had sent a judgment on this country of England, and the nation dwelling in it, because of the wickedness of the Court, and the encouragement shown to Papists. And this was proved, they said, by what had happened in the town of London; where, for more than a fortnight, such a chill of darkness lay that no man might behold his neighbour, even across the narrowest street; and where the ice upon the Thames was more than four feet thick, and crushing London Bridge in twain. Now to these prophets I paid no heed, believing not that Providence would freeze us for other people's sins; neither seeing how England could for many generations have enjoyed good sunshine, if Popery meant frost and fogs. Besides, why could not Providence settle the business once for all by freezing the Pope himself; even though (according to our view) he were destined to extremes of heat, together with all who followed him?
Not to meddle with that subject, being beyond my judgment, let me tell the things I saw, and then you must believe me. The wind, of course, I could not see, not having the powers of a pig; but I could see the laden branches of the great oaks moving, hoping to shake off the load packed and saddled on them. And hereby I may note a thing which some one may explain perhaps in the after ages, when people come to look at things. This is that in desperate cold all the trees were pulled awry, even though the wind had scattered the snow burden from them. Of some sorts the branches bended downwards, like an archway; of other sorts the boughs curved upwards, like a red deer's frontlet. This I know no reason* for; but am ready to swear that I saw it.
* The reason is very simple, as all nature's reasons are; though the subject has not yet been investigated thoroughly. In some trees the vascular tissue is more open on the upper side, in others on the under side, of the spreading branches; according to the form of growth, and habit of the sap. Hence in very severe cold, when the vessels (comparatively empty) are constricted, some have more power of contraction on the upper side, and some upon the under.
Now when the first of the rain began, and the old familiar softness spread upon the window glass, and ran a little way in channels (though from the coldness of the glass it froze before reaching the bottom), knowing at once the difference from the short sharp thud of snow, we all ran out, and filled our eyes and filled our hearts with gazing. True, the snow was piled up now all in mountains round us; true, the air was still so cold that our breath froze on the doorway, and the rain was turned to ice wherever it struck anything; nevertheless that it was rain there was no denying, as we watched it across black doorways, and could see no sign of white. Mother, who had made up her mind that the farm was not worth having after all those prophesies, and that all of us must starve, and holes be scratched in the snow for us, and no use to put up a tombstone (for our church had been shut up long ago) mother fell upon my breast, and sobbed that I was the cleverest fellow ever born of woman. And this because I had condemned the prophets for a pack of fools; not seeing how business could go on, if people stopped to hearken to them.
Then Lorna came and glorified me, for I had predicted a change of weather, more to keep their spirits up, than with real hope of it; and then came Annie blushing shyly, as I looked at her, and said that Winnie would soon have four legs now. This referred to some stupid joke made by John Fry or somebody, that in this weather a man had no legs, and a horse had only two.
But as the rain came down upon us from the southwest wind, and we could not have enough of it, even putting our tongues to catch it, as little children might do, and beginning to talk of primroses; the very noblest thing of all was to hear and see the gratitude of the poor beasts yet remaining and the few surviving birds. From the cowhouse lowing came, more than of fifty milking times; moo and moo, and a turn-up noise at the end of every bellow, as if from the very heart of kine. Then the horses in the stables, packed as closely as they could stick, at the risk of kicking, to keep the warmth in one another, and their spirits up by discoursing; these began with one accord to lift up their voices, snorting, snaffling, whinnying, and neighing, and trotting to the door to know when they should have work again. To whom, as if in answer, came the feeble bleating of the sheep, what few, by dint of greatest care, had kept their fleeces on their backs, and their four legs under them.
Neither was it a trifling thing, let whoso will say the contrary, to behold the ducks and geese marching forth in handsome order from their beds of fern and straw. What a goodly noise they kept, what a flapping of their wings, and a jerking of their tails, as they stood right up and tried with a whistling in their throats to imitate a cockscrow! And then how daintily they took the wet upon their dusty plumes, and ducked their shoulders to it, and began to dress themselves, and laid their grooved bills on the snow, and dabbled for more ooziness!
Lorna had never seen, I dare say, anything like this before, and it was all that we could do to keep her from rushing forth with only little lambswool shoes on, and kissing every one of them. 'Oh, the dear things, oh, the dear things!' she kept saying continually, 'how wonderfully clever they are! Only look at that one with his foot up, giving orders to the others, John!'
'And I must give orders to you, my darling,' I answered, gazing on her face, so brilliant with excitement; 'and that is, that you come in at once, with that worrisome cough of yours; and sit by the fire, and warm yourself.'
'Oh, no, John! Not for a minute, if you please, good John. I want to see the snow go away, and the green meadows coming forth. And here comes our favourite robin, who has lived in the oven so long, and sang us a song every morning. I must see what he thinks of it!'
'You will do nothing of the sort,' I answered very shortly, being only too glad of a cause for having her in my arms again. So I caught her up, and carried her in; and she looked and smiled so sweetly at me instead of pouting (as I had feared) that I found myself unable to go very fast along the passage. And I set her there in her favourite place, by the sweet-scented wood-fire; and she paid me porterage without my even asking her; and for all the beauty of the rain, I was fain to stay with her; until our Annie came to say that my advice was wanted.
Now my advice was never much, as everybody knew quite well; but that was the way they always put it, when they wanted me to work for them. And in truth it was time for me to work; not for others, but myself, and (as I always thought) for Lorna. For the rain was now coming down in earnest; and the top of the snow being frozen at last, and glazed as hard as a china cup, by means of the sun and frost afterwards, all the rain ran right away from the steep inclines, and all the outlets being blocked with ice set up like tables, it threatened to flood everything. Already it was ponding up, like a tide advancing at the threshold of the door from which we had watched the duck-birds; both because great piles of snow trended in that direction, in spite of all our scraping, and also that the gulley hole, where the water of the shoot went out (I mean when it was water) now was choked with lumps of ice, as big as a man's body. For the 'shoot,' as we called our little runnel of everlasting water, never known to freeze before, and always ready for any man either to wash his hands, or drink, where it spouted from a trough of bark, set among white flint-stones; this at last had given in, and its music ceased to lull us, as we lay in bed.
It was not long before I managed to drain off this threatening flood, by opening the old sluice-hole; but I had much harder work to keep the stables, and the cow-house, and the other sheds, from flooding. For we have a sapient practice (and I never saw the contrary round about our parts, I mean), of keeping all rooms underground, so that you step down to them. We say that thus we keep them warmer, both for cattle and for men, in the time of winter, and cooler in the summer-time. This I will not contradict, though having my own opinion; but it seems to me to be a relic of the time when people in the western countries lived in caves beneath the ground, and blocked the mouths with neat-skins.
Let that question still abide, for men who study ancient times to inform me, if they will; all I know is, that now we had no blessings for the system. If after all their cold and starving, our weak cattle now should have to stand up to their knees in water, it would be certain death to them; and we had lost enough already to make us poor for a long time; not to speak of our kind love for them. And I do assure you, I loved some horses, and even some cows for that matter, as if they had been my blood-relations; knowing as I did their virtues. And some of these were lost to us; and I could not bear to think of them. Therefore I worked hard all night to try and save the rest of them.
SQUIRE FAGGUS MAKES SOME LUCKY HITS
Through that season of bitter frost the red deer of the forest, having nothing to feed upon, and no shelter to rest in, had grown accustomed to our ricks of corn, and hay, and clover. There we might see a hundred of them almost any morning, come for warmth, and food, and comfort, and scarce willing to move away. And many of them were so tame, that they quietly presented themselves at our back door, and stood there with their coats quite stiff, and their flanks drawn in and panting, and icicles sometimes on their chins, and their great eyes fastened wistfully upon any merciful person; craving for a bit of food, and a drink of water; I suppose that they had not sense enough to chew the snow and melt it; at any rate, all the springs being frozen, and rivers hidden out of sight, these poor things suffered even more from thirst than they did from hunger.
But now there was no fear of thirst, and more chance indeed of drowning; for a heavy gale of wind arose, with violent rain from the south-west, which lasted almost without a pause for three nights and two days. At first the rain made no impression on the bulk of snow, but ran from every sloping surface and froze on every flat one, through the coldness of the earth; and so it became impossible for any man to keep his legs without the help of a shodden staff. After a good while, however, the air growing very much warmer, this state of things began to change, and a worse one to succeed it; for now the snow came thundering down from roof, and rock, and ivied tree, and floods began to roar and foam in every trough and gulley. The drifts that had been so white and fair, looked yellow, and smirched, and muddy, and lost their graceful curves, and moulded lines, and airiness. But the strangest sight of all to me was in the bed of streams, and brooks, and especially of the Lynn river. It was worth going miles to behold such a thing, for a man might never have the chance again.
Vast drifts of snow had filled the valley, and piled above the river-course, fifty feet high in many places, and in some as much as a hundred. These had frozen over the top, and glanced the rain away from them, and being sustained by rock and tree, spanned the water mightily. But meanwhile the waxing flood, swollen from every moorland hollow and from every spouting crag, had dashed away all icy fetters, and was rolling gloriously. Under white fantastic arches, and long tunnels freaked and fretted, and between pellucid pillars jagged with nodding architraves, the red impetuous torrent rushed, and the brown foam whirled and flashed. I was half inclined to jump in and swim through such glorious scenery; for nothing used to please me more than swimming in a flooded river. But I thought of the rocks, and I thought of the cramp, and more than all, of Lorna; and so, between one thing and another, I let it roll on without me.
It was now high time to work very hard; both to make up for the farm-work lost during the months of frost and snow, and also to be ready for a great and vicious attack from the Doones, who would burn us in our beds at the earliest opportunity. Of farm-work there was little yet for even the most zealous man to begin to lay his hand to; because when the ground appeared through the crust of bubbled snow (as at last it did, though not as my Lorna had expected, at the first few drops of rain) it was all so soaked and sodden, and as we call it, 'mucksy,' that to meddle with it in any way was to do more harm than good. Nevertheless, there was yard work, and house work, and tendence of stock, enough to save any man from idleness.
As for Lorna, she would come out. There was no keeping her in the house. She had taken up some peculiar notion that we were doing more for her than she had any right to, and that she must earn her living by the hard work of her hands. It was quite in vain to tell her that she was expected to do nothing, and far worse than vain (for it made her cry sadly) if any one assured her that she could do no good at all. She even began upon mother's garden before the snow was clean gone from it, and sowed a beautiful row of peas, every one of which the mice ate.
But though it was very pretty to watch her working for her very life, as if the maintenance of the household hung upon her labours, yet I was grieved for many reasons, and so was mother also. In the first place, she was too fair and dainty for this rough, rude work; and though it made her cheeks so bright, it surely must be bad for her to get her little feet so wet. Moreover, we could not bear the idea that she should labour for her keep; and again (which was the worst of all things) mother's garden lay exposed to a dark deceitful coppice, where a man might lurk and watch all the fair gardener's doings. It was true that none could get at her thence, while the brook which ran between poured so great a torrent. Still the distance was but little for a gun to carry, if any one could be brutal enough to point a gun at Lorna. I thought that none could be found to do it; but mother, having more experience, was not so certain of mankind.
Now in spite of the floods, and the sloughs being out, and the state of the roads most perilous, Squire Faggus came at last, riding his famous strawberry mare. There was a great ado between him and Annie, as you may well suppose, after some four months of parting. And so we left them alone awhile, to coddle over their raptures. But when they were tired of that, or at least had time enough to do so, mother and I went in to know what news Tom had brought with him. Though he did not seem to want us yet, he made himself agreeable; and so we sent Annie to cook the dinner while her sweetheart should tell us everything.
Tom Faggus had very good news to tell, and he told it with such force of expression as made us laugh very heartily. He had taken up his purchase from old Sir Roger Bassett of a nice bit of land, to the south of the moors, and in the parish of Molland. When the lawyers knew thoroughly who he was, and how he had made his money, they behaved uncommonly well to him, and showed great sympathy with his pursuits. He put them up to a thing or two; and they poked him in the ribs, and laughed, and said that he was quite a boy; but of the right sort, none the less. And so they made old Squire Bassett pay the bill for both sides; and all he got for three hundred acres was a hundred and twenty pounds; though Tom had paid five hundred. But lawyers know that this must be so, in spite of all their endeavours; and the old gentleman, who now expected to find a bill for him to pay, almost thought himself a rogue, for getting anything out of them.
It is true that the land was poor and wild, and the soil exceeding shallow; lying on the slope of rock, and burned up in hot summers. But with us, hot summers are things known by tradition only (as this great winter may be); we generally have more moisture, especially in July, than we well know what to do with. I have known a fog for a fortnight at the summer solstice, and farmers talking in church about it when they ought to be praying. But it always contrives to come right in the end, as other visitations do, if we take them as true visits, and receive them kindly.
Now this farm of Squire Faggus (as he truly now had a right to be called) was of the very finest pasture, when it got good store of rain. And Tom, who had ridden the Devonshire roads with many a reeking jacket, knew right well that he might trust the climate for that matter. The herbage was of the very sweetest, and the shortest, and the closest, having perhaps from ten to eighteen inches of wholesome soil between it and the solid rock. Tom saw at once what it was fit for—the breeding of fine cattle.
Being such a hand as he was at making the most of everything, both his own and other people's (although so free in scattering, when the humour lay upon him) he had actually turned to his own advantage that extraordinary weather which had so impoverished every one around him. For he taught his Winnie (who knew his meaning as well as any child could, and obeyed not only his word of mouth, but every glance he gave her) to go forth in the snowy evenings when horses are seeking everywhere (be they wild or tame) for fodder and for shelter; and to whinny to the forest ponies, miles away from home perhaps, and lead them all with rare appetites and promise of abundance, to her master's homestead. He shod good Winnie in such a manner that she could not sink in the snow; and he clad her over the loins with a sheep-skin dyed to her own colour, which the wild horses were never tired of coming up and sniffing at; taking it for an especial gift, and proof of inspiration. And Winnie never came home at night without at least a score of ponies trotting shyly after her, tossing their heads and their tails in turn, and making believe to be very wild, although hard pinched by famine. Of course Tom would get them all into his pound in about five minutes, for he himself could neigh in a manner which went to the heart of the wildest horse. And then he fed them well, and turned them into his great cattle pen, to abide their time for breaking, when the snow and frost should be over.
He had gotten more than three hundred now, in this sagacious manner; and he said it was the finest sight to see their mode of carrying on, how they would snort, and stamp, and fume, and prick their ears, and rush backwards, and lash themselves with their long rough tails, and shake their jagged manes, and scream, and fall upon one another, if a strange man came anigh them. But as for feeding time, Tom said it was better than fifty plays to watch them, and the tricks they were up to, to cheat their feeders, and one another. I asked him how on earth he had managed to get fodder, in such impassable weather, for such a herd of horses; but he said that they lived upon straw and sawdust; and he knew that I did not believe him, any more than about his star-shavings. And this was just the thing he loved—to mystify honest people, and be a great deal too knowing. However, I may judge him harshly, because I myself tell everything.
I asked him what he meant to do with all that enormous lot of horses, and why he had not exerted his wits to catch the red deer as well. He said that the latter would have been against the laws of venery, and might have brought him into trouble, but as for disposing of his stud, it would give him little difficulty. He would break them, when the spring weather came on, and deal with them as they required, and keep the handsomest for breeding. The rest he would despatch to London, where he knew plenty of horse-dealers; and he doubted not that they would fetch him as much as ten pounds apiece all round, being now in great demand. I told him I wished that he might get it; but as it proved afterwards, he did.
Then he pressed us both on another point, the time for his marriage to Annie; and mother looked at me to say when, and I looked back at mother. However, knowing something of the world, and unable to make any further objection, by reason of his prosperity, I said that we must even do as the fashionable people did, and allow the maid herself to settle, when she would leave home and all. And this I spoke with a very bad grace, being perhaps of an ancient cast, and over fond of honesty—I mean, of course, among lower people.
But Tom paid little heed to this, knowing the world a great deal better than ever I could pretend to do; and being ready to take a thing, upon which he had set his mind, whether it came with a good grace, or whether it came with a bad one. And seeing that it would be awkward to provoke my anger, he left the room, before more words, to submit himself to Annie.
Upon this I went in search of Lorna, to tell her of our cousin's arrival, and to ask whether she would think fit to see him, or to dine by herself that day; for she should do exactly as it pleased her in everything, while remaining still our guest. But I rather wished that she might choose not to sit in Tom's company, though she might be introduced to him. Not but what he could behave quite as well as could, and much better, as regarded elegance and assurance, only that his honesty had not been as one might desire. But Lorna had some curiosity to know what this famous man was like, and declared that she would by all means have the pleasure of dining with him, if he did not object to her company on the ground of the Doones' dishonesty; moreover, she said that it would seem a most foolish air on her part, and one which would cause the greatest pain to Annie, who had been so good to her, if she should refuse to sit at table with a man who held the King's pardon, and was now a pattern of honesty.
Against this I had not a word to say; and could not help acknowledging in my heart that she was right, as well as wise, in her decision. And afterwards I discovered that mother would have been much displeased, if she had decided otherwise.
Accordingly she turned away, with one of her very sweetest smiles (whose beauty none can describe) saying that she must not meet a man of such fashion and renown, in her common gardening frock; but must try to look as nice as she could, if only in honour of dear Annie. And truth to tell, when she came to dinner, everything about her was the neatest and prettiest that can possibly be imagined. She contrived to match the colours so, to suit one another and her own, and yet with a certain delicate harmony of contrast, and the shape of everything was so nice, so that when she came into the room, with a crown of winning modesty upon the consciousness of beauty, I was quite as proud as if the Queen of England entered.
My mother could not help remarking, though she knew that it was not mannerly, how like a princess Lorna looked, now she had her best things on; but two things caught Squire Faggus's eyes, after he had made a most gallant bow, and received a most graceful courtesy; and he kept his bright bold gaze upon them, first on one, and then on the other, until my darling was hot with blushes, and I was ready to knock him down if he had not been our visitor. But here again I should have been wrong, as I was apt to be in those days; for Tom intended no harm whatever, and his gaze was of pure curiosity; though Annie herself was vexed with it. The two objects of his close regard, were first, and most worthily, Lorna's face, and secondly, the ancient necklace restored to her by Sir Ensor Doone.
Now wishing to save my darling's comfort, and to keep things quiet, I shouted out that dinner was ready, so that half the parish could hear me; upon which my mother laughed, and chid me, and despatched her guests before her. And a very good dinner we made, I remember, and a very happy one; attending to the women first, as now is the manner of eating; except among the workmen. With them, of course, it is needful that the man (who has his hours fixed) should be served first, and make the utmost of his time for feeding, while the women may go on, as much as ever they please, afterwards. But with us, who are not bound to time, there is no such reason to be quoted; and the women being the weaker vessels, should be the first to begin to fill. And so we always arranged it.
Now, though our Annie was a graceful maid, and Lizzie a very learned one, you should have seen how differently Lorna managed her dining; she never took more than about a quarter of a mouthful at a time, and she never appeared to be chewing that, although she must have done so. Indeed, she appeared to dine as if it were a matter of no consequence, and as if she could think of other things more than of her business. All this, and her own manner of eating, I described to Eliza once, when I wanted to vex her for something very spiteful that she had said; and I never succeeded so well before, for the girl was quite outrageous, having her own perception of it, which made my observation ten times as bitter to her. And I am not sure but what she ceased to like poor Lorna from that day; and if so, I was quite paid out, as I well deserved, for my bit of satire.
For it strikes me that of all human dealings, satire is the very lowest, and most mean and common. It is the equivalent in words of what bullying is in deeds; and no more bespeaks a clever man, than the other does a brave one. These two wretched tricks exalt a fool in his own low esteem, but never in his neighbour's; for the deep common sense of our nature tells that no man of a genial heart, or of any spread of mind, can take pride in either. And though a good man may commit the one fault or the other, now and then, by way of outlet, he is sure to have compunctions soon, and to scorn himself more than the sufferer.
Now when the young maidens were gone—for we had quite a high dinner of fashion that day, with Betty Muxworthy waiting, and Gwenny Carfax at the gravy—and only mother, and Tom, and I remained at the white deal table, with brandy, and schnapps, and hot water jugs; Squire Faggus said quite suddenly, and perhaps on purpose to take us aback, in case of our hiding anything,—'What do you know of the history of that beautiful maiden, good mother?'
'Not half so much as my son does,' mother answered, with a soft smile at me; 'and when John does not choose to tell a thing, wild horses will not pull it out of him.'
'That is not at all like me, mother,' I replied rather sadly; 'you know almost every word about Lorna, quite as well as I do.'
'Almost every word, I believe, John; for you never tell a falsehood. But the few unknown may be of all the most important to me.'
To this I made no answer, for fear of going beyond the truth, or else of making mischief. Not that I had, or wished to have, any mystery with mother; neither was there in purest truth, any mystery in the matter; to the utmost of my knowledge. And the only things that I had kept back, solely for mother's comfort, were the death of poor Lord Alan Brandir (if indeed he were dead) and the connection of Marwood de Whichehalse with the dealings of the Doones, and the threats of Carver Doone against my own prosperity; and, may be, one or two little things harrowing more than edifying.
'Come, come,' said Master Faggus, smiling very pleasantly, 'you two understand each other, if any two on earth do. Ah, if I had only had a mother, how different I might have been!' And with that he sighed, in the tone which always overcame mother upon that subject, and had something to do with his getting Annie; and then he produced his pretty box, full of rolled tobacco, and offered me one, as I now had joined the goodly company of smokers. So I took it, and watched what he did with his own, lest I might go wrong about mine.
But when our cylinders were both lighted, and I enjoying mine wonderfully, and astonishing mother by my skill, Tom Faggus told us that he was sure he had seen my Lorna's face before, many and many years ago, when she was quite a little child, but he could not remember where it was, or anything more about it at present; though he would try to do so afterwards. He could not be mistaken, he said, for he had noticed her eyes especially; and had never seen such eyes before, neither again, until this day. I asked him if he had ever ventured into the Doone-valley; but he shook his head, and replied that he valued his life a deal too much for that. Then we put it to him, whether anything might assist his memory; but he said that he knew not of aught to do so, unless it were another glass of schnapps.
This being provided, he grew very wise, and told us clearly and candidly that we were both very foolish. For he said that we were keeping Lorna, at the risk not only of our stock, and the house above our heads, but also of our precious lives; and after all was she worth it, although so very beautiful? Upon which I told him, with indignation, that her beauty was the least part of her goodness, and that I would thank him for his opinion when I had requested it.
'Bravo, our John Ridd!' he answered; 'fools will be fools till the end of the chapter; and I might be as big a one, if I were in thy shoes, John. Nevertheless, in the name of God, don't let that helpless child go about with a thing worth half the county on her.'
'She is worth all the county herself,' said I, 'and all England put together; but she has nothing worth half a rick of hay upon her; for the ring I gave her cost only,'—and here I stopped, for mother was looking, and I never would tell her how much it had cost me; though she had tried fifty times to find out.
'Tush, the ring!' Tom Faggus cried, with a contempt that moved me: 'I would never have stopped a man for that. But the necklace, you great oaf, the necklace is worth all your farm put together, and your Uncle Ben's fortune to the back of it; ay, and all the town of Dulverton.'
'What,' said I, 'that common glass thing, which she has had from her childhood!'
'Glass indeed! They are the finest brilliants ever I set eyes on; and I have handled a good many.'
'Surely,' cried mother, now flushing as red as Tom's own cheeks with excitement, 'you must be wrong, or the young mistress would herself have known it.'
I was greatly pleased with my mother, for calling Lorna 'the young mistress'; it was not done for the sake of her diamonds, whether they were glass or not; but because she felt as I had done, that Tom Faggus, a man of no birth whatever, was speaking beyond his mark, in calling a lady like Lorna a helpless child; as well as in his general tone, which displayed no deference. He might have been used to the quality, in the way of stopping their coaches, or roystering at hotels with them; but he never had met a high lady before, in equality, and upon virtue; and we both felt that he ought to have known it, and to have thanked us for the opportunity, in a word, to have behaved a great deal more humbly than he had even tried to do.
'Trust me,' answered Tom, in his loftiest manner, which Annie said was 'so noble,' but which seemed to me rather flashy, 'trust me, good mother, and simple John, for knowing brilliants, when I see them. I would have stopped an eight-horse coach, with four carabined out-riders, for such a booty as that. But alas, those days are over; those were days worth living in. Ah, I never shall know the like again. How fine it was by moonlight!'
'Master Faggus,' began my mother, with a manner of some dignity, such as she could sometimes use, by right of her integrity, and thorough kindness to every one, 'this is not the tone in which you have hitherto spoken to me about your former pursuits and life, I fear that the spirits'—but here she stopped, because the spirits were her own, and Tom was our visitor,—'what I mean, Master Faggus, is this: you have won my daughter's heart somehow; and you won my consent to the matter through your honest sorrow, and manly undertaking to lead a different life, and touch no property but your own. Annie is my eldest daughter, and the child of a most upright man. I love her best of all on earth, next to my boy John here'—here mother gave me a mighty squeeze, to be sure that she would have me at least—'and I will not risk my Annie's life with a man who yearns for the highway.'
Having made this very long speech (for her), mother came home upon my shoulder, and wept so that (but for heeding her) I would have taken Tom by the nose, and thrown him, and Winnie after him, over our farm-yard gate. For I am violent when roused; and freely hereby acknowledge it; though even my enemies will own that it takes a great deal to rouse me. But I do consider the grief and tears (when justly caused) of my dearest friends, to be a great deal to rouse me.
JEREMY IN DANGER
Nothing very long abides, as the greatest of all writers (in whose extent I am for ever lost in raptured wonder, and yet for ever quite at home, as if his heart were mine, although his brains so different), in a word as Mr. William Shakespeare, in every one of his works insists, with a humoured melancholy. And if my journey to London led to nothing else of advancement, it took me a hundred years in front of what I might else have been, by the most simple accident.
Two women were scolding one another across the road, very violently, both from upstair windows; and I in my hurry for quiet life, and not knowing what might come down upon me, quickened my step for the nearest corner. But suddenly something fell on my head; and at first I was afraid to look, especially as it weighed heavily. But hearing no breakage of ware, and only the other scold laughing heartily, I turned me about and espied a book, which one had cast at the other, hoping to break her window. So I took the book, and tendered it at the door of the house from which it had fallen; but the watchman came along just then, and the man at the door declared that it never came from their house, and begged me to say no more. This I promised readily, never wishing to make mischief; and I said, 'Good sir, now take the book; I will go on to my business.' But he answered that he would do no such thing; for the book alone, being hurled so hard, would convict his people of a lewd assault; and he begged me, if I would do a good turn, to put the book under my coat and go. And so I did: in part at least. For I did not put the book under my coat, but went along with it openly, looking for any to challenge it. Now this book, so acquired, has been not only the joy of my younger days, and main delight of my manhood, but also the comfort, and even the hope, of my now declining years. In a word, it is next to my Bible to me, and written in equal English; and if you espy any goodness whatever in my own loose style of writing, you must not thank me, John Ridd, for it, but the writer who holds the champion's belt in wit, as I once did in wrestling.
Now, as nothing very long abides, it cannot be expected that a woman's anger should last very long, if she be at all of the proper sort. And my mother, being one of the very best, could not long retain her wrath against the Squire Faggus especially when she came to reflect, upon Annie's suggestion, how natural, and one might say, how inevitable it was that a young man fond of adventure and change and winning good profits by jeopardy, should not settle down without some regrets to a fixed abode and a life of sameness, however safe and respectable. And even as Annie put the case, Tom deserved the greater credit for vanquishing so nobly these yearnings of his nature; and it seemed very hard to upbraid him, considering how good his motives were; neither could Annie understand how mother could reconcile it with her knowledge of the Bible, and the one sheep that was lost, and the hundredth piece of silver, and the man that went down to Jericho.
Whether Annie's logic was good and sound, I am sure I cannot tell; but it seemed to me that she ought to have let the Jericho traveller alone, inasmuch as he rather fell among Tom Fagusses, than resembled them. However, her reasoning was too much for mother to hold out against; and Tom was replaced, and more than that, being regarded now as an injured man. But how my mother contrived to know, that because she had been too hard upon Tom, he must be right about the necklace, is a point which I never could clearly perceive, though no doubt she could explain it.
To prove herself right in the conclusion, she went herself to fetch Lorna, that the trinket might be examined, before the day grew dark. My darling came in, with a very quick glance and smile at my cigarro (for I was having the third by this time, to keep things in amity); and I waved it towards her, as much as to say, 'you see that I can do it.' And then mother led her up to the light, for Tom to examine her necklace.
On the shapely curve of her neck it hung, like dewdrops upon a white hyacinth; and I was vexed that Tom should have the chance to see it there. But even if she had read my thoughts, or outrun them with her own, Lorna turned away, and softly took the jewels from the place which so much adorned them. And as she turned away, they sparkled through the rich dark waves of hair. Then she laid the glittering circlet in my mother's hands; and Tom Faggus took it eagerly, and bore it to the window.
'Don't you go out of sight,' I said; 'you cannot resist such things as those, if they be what you think them.'
'Jack, I shall have to trounce thee yet. I am now a man of honour, and entitled to the duello. What will you take for it, Mistress Lorna? At a hazard, say now.'
'I am not accustomed to sell things, sir,' replied Lorna, who did not like him much, else she would have answered sportively, 'What is it worth, in your opinion?'
'Do you think it is worth five pounds, now?'
'Oh, no! I never had so much money as that in all my life. It is very bright, and very pretty; but it cannot be worth five pounds, I am sure.'
'What a chance for a bargain! Oh, if it were not for Annie, I could make my fortune.'
'But, sir, I would not sell it to you, not for twenty times five pounds. My grandfather was so kind about it; and I think it belonged to my mother.'
'There are twenty-five rose diamonds in it, and twenty-five large brilliants that cannot be matched in London. How say you, Mistress Lorna, to a hundred thousand pounds?'
My darling's eyes so flashed at this, brighter than any diamonds, that I said to myself, 'Well, all have faults; and now I have found out Lorna's—she is fond of money!' And then I sighed rather heavily; for of all faults this seems to me one of the worst in a woman. But even before my sigh was finished, I had cause to condemn myself. For Lorna took the necklace very quietly from the hands of Squire Faggus, who had not half done with admiring it, and she went up to my mother with the sweetest smile I ever saw.
'Dear kind mother, I am so glad,' she said in a whisper, coaxing mother out of sight of all but me; 'now you will have it, won't you, dear? And I shall be so happy; for a thousandth part of your kindness to me no jewels in the world can match.'
I cannot lay before you the grace with which she did it, all the air of seeking favour, rather than conferring it, and the high-bred fear of giving offence, which is of all fears the noblest. Mother knew not what to say. Of course she would never dream of taking such a gift as that; and yet she saw how sadly Lorna would be disappointed. Therefore, mother did, from habit, what she almost always did, she called me to help her. But knowing that my eyes were full—for anything noble moves me so, quite as rashly as things pitiful—I pretended not to hear my mother, but to see a wild cat in the dairy.
Therefore I cannot tell what mother said in reply to Lorna; for when I came back, quite eager to let my love know how I worshipped her, and how deeply I was ashamed of myself, for meanly wronging her in my heart, behold Tom Faggus had gotten again the necklace which had such charms for him, and was delivering all around (but especially to Annie, who was wondering at his learning) a dissertation on precious stones, and his sentiments about those in his hand. He said that the work was very ancient, but undoubtedly very good; the cutting of every line was true, and every angle was in its place. And this he said, made all the difference in the lustre of the stone, and therefore in its value. For if the facets were ill-matched, and the points of light so ever little out of perfect harmony, all the lustre of the jewel would be loose and wavering, and the central fire dulled; instead of answering, as it should, to all possibilities of gaze, and overpowering any eye intent on its deeper mysteries. We laughed at the Squire's dissertation; for how should he know all these things, being nothing better, and indeed much worse than a mere Northmolton blacksmith? He took our laughter with much good nature; having Annie to squeeze his hand and convey her grief at our ignorance: but he said that of one thing he was quite certain, and therein I believed him. To wit, that a trinket of this kind never could have belonged to any ignoble family, but to one of the very highest and most wealthy in England. And looking at Lorna, I felt that she must have come from a higher source than the very best of diamonds.
Tom Faggus said that the necklace was made, he would answer for it, in Amsterdam, two or three hundred years ago, long before London jewellers had begun to meddle with diamonds; and on the gold clasp he found some letters, done in some inverted way, the meaning of which was beyond him; also a bearing of some kind, which he believed was a mountain-cat. And thereupon he declared that now he had earned another glass of schnapps, and would Mistress Lorna mix it for him?
I was amazed at his impudence; and Annie, who thought this her business, did not look best pleased; and I hoped that Lorna would tell him at once to go and do it for himself. But instead of that she rose to do it with a soft humility, which went direct to the heart of Tom; and he leaped up with a curse at himself, and took the hot water from her, and would not allow her to do anything except to put the sugar in; and then he bowed to her grandly. I knew what Lorna was thinking of; she was thinking all the time that her necklace had been taken by the Doones with violence upon some great robbery; and that Squire Faggus knew it, though he would not show his knowledge; and that this was perhaps the reason why mother had refused it so.
We said no more about the necklace for a long time afterwards; neither did my darling wear it, now that she knew its value, but did not know its history. She came to me the very next day, trying to look cheerful, and begged me if I loved her (never mind how little) to take charge of it again, as I once had done before, and not even to let her know in what place I stored it. I told her that this last request I could not comply with; for having been round her neck so often, it was now a sacred thing, more than a million pounds could be. Therefore it should dwell for the present in the neighbourhood of my heart; and so could not be far from her. At this she smiled her own sweet smile, and touched my forehead with her lips, and wished that she could only learn how to deserve such love as mine.
Tom Faggus took his good departure, which was a kind farewell to me, on the very day I am speaking of, the day after his arrival. Tom was a thoroughly upright man, according to his own standard; and you might rely upon him always, up to a certain point I mean, to be there or thereabouts. But sometimes things were too many for Tom, especially with ardent spirits, and then he judged, perhaps too much, with only himself for the jury. At any rate, I would trust him fully, for candour and for honesty, in almost every case in which he himself could have no interest. And so we got on very well together; and he thought me a fool; and I tried my best not to think anything worse of him.
Scarcely was Tom clean out of sight, and Annie's tears not dry yet (for she always made a point of crying upon his departure), when in came Master Jeremy Stickles, splashed with mud from head to foot, and not in the very best of humours, though happy to get back again.
'Curse those fellows!' he cried, with a stamp which sent the water hissing from his boot upon the embers; 'a pretty plight you may call this, for His Majesty's Commissioner to return to his headquarters in! Annie, my dear,' for he was always very affable with Annie, 'will you help me off with my overalls, and then turn your pretty hand to the gridiron? Not a blessed morsel have I touched for more than twenty-four hours.'
'Surely then you must be quite starving, sir,' my sister replied with the greatest zeal; for she did love a man with an appetite; 'how glad I am that the fire is clear!' But Lizzie, who happened to be there, said with her peculiar smile,—
'Master Stickles must be used to it; for he never comes back without telling us that.'
'Hush!' cried Annie, quite shocked with her; 'how would you like to be used to it? Now, Betty, be quick with the things for me. Pork, or mutton, or deer's meat, sir? We have some cured since the autumn.'
'Oh, deer's meat, by all means,' Jeremy Stickles answered; 'I have tasted none since I left you, though dreaming of it often. Well, this is better than being chased over the moors for one's life, John. All the way from Landacre Bridge, I have ridden a race for my precious life, at the peril of my limbs and neck. Three great Doones galloping after me, and a good job for me that they were so big, or they must have overtaken me. Just go and see to my horse, John, that's an excellent lad. He deserves a good turn this day, from me; and I will render it to him.'
However he left me to do it, while he made himself comfortable: and in truth the horse required care; he was blown so that he could hardly stand, and plastered with mud, and steaming so that the stable was quite full with it. By the time I had put the poor fellow to rights, his master had finished dinner, and was in a more pleasant humour, having even offered to kiss Annie, out of pure gratitude, as he said; but Annie answered with spirit that gratitude must not be shown by increasing the obligation. Jeremy made reply to this that his only way to be grateful then was to tell us his story: and so he did, at greater length than I can here repeat it; for it does not bear particularly upon Lorna's fortunes.
It appears that as he was riding towards us from the town of Southmolton in Devonshire, he found the roads very soft and heavy, and the floods out in all directions; but met with no other difficulty until he came to Landacre Bridge. He had only a single trooper with him, a man not of the militia but of the King's army, whom Jeremy had brought from Exeter. As these two descended towards the bridge they observed that both the Kensford water and the River Barle were pouring down in mighty floods from the melting of the snow. So great indeed was the torrent, after they united, that only the parapets of the bridge could be seen above the water, the road across either bank being covered and very deep on the hither side. The trooper did not like the look of it, and proposed to ride back again, and round by way of Simonsbath, where the stream is smaller. But Stickles would not have it so, and dashing into the river, swam his horse for the bridge, and gained it with some little trouble; and there he found the water not more than up to his horse's knees perhaps. On the crown of the bridge he turned his horse to watch the trooper's passage, and to help him with directions; when suddenly he saw him fall headlong into the torrent, and heard the report of a gun from behind, and felt a shock to his own body, such as lifted him out of the saddle. Turning round he beheld three men, risen up from behind the hedge on one side of his onward road, two of them ready to load again, and one with his gun unfired, waiting to get good aim at him. Then Jeremy did a gallant thing, for which I doubt whether I should have had the presence of mind in danger. He saw that to swim his horse back again would be almost certain death; as affording such a target, where even a wound must be fatal. Therefore he struck the spurs into the nag, and rode through the water straight at the man who was pointing the long gun at him. If the horse had been carried off his legs, there must have been an end of Jeremy; for the other men were getting ready to have another shot at him. But luckily the horse galloped right on without any need for swimming, being himself excited, no doubt, by all he had seen and heard of it. And Jeremy lay almost flat on his neck, so as to give little space for good aim, with the mane tossing wildly in front of him. Now if that young fellow with the gun had his brains as ready as his flint was, he would have shot the horse at once, and then had Stickles at his mercy; but instead of that he let fly at the man, and missed him altogether, being scared perhaps by the pistol which Jeremy showed him the mouth of. And galloping by at full speed, Master Stickles tried to leave his mark behind him, for he changed the aim of his pistol to the biggest man, who was loading his gun and cursing like ten cannons. But the pistol missed fire, no doubt from the flood which had gurgled in over the holsters; and Jeremy seeing three horses tethered at a gate just up the hill, knew that he had not yet escaped, but had more of danger behind him. He tried his other great pistol at one of the horses tethered there, so as to lessen (if possible) the number of his pursuers. But the powder again failed him; and he durst not stop to cut the bridles, bearing the men coming up the hill. So he even made the most of his start, thanking God that his weight was light, compared at least to what theirs was.
And another thing he had noticed which gave him some hope of escaping, to wit that the horses of the Doones, although very handsome animals, were suffering still from the bitter effects of the late long frost, and the scarcity of fodder. 'If they do not catch me up, or shoot me, in the course of the first two miles, I may see my home again'; this was what he said to himself as he turned to mark what they were about, from the brow of the steep hill. He saw the flooded valley shining with the breadth of water, and the trooper's horse on the other side, shaking his drenched flanks and neighing; and half-way down the hill he saw the three Doones mounting hastily. And then he knew that his only chance lay in the stoutness of his steed.
The horse was in pretty good condition; and the rider knew him thoroughly, and how to make the most of him; and though they had travelled some miles that day through very heavy ground, the bath in the river had washed the mud off, and been some refreshment. Therefore Stickles encouraged his nag, and put him into a good hard gallop, heading away towards Withycombe. At first he had thought of turning to the right, and making off for Withypool, a mile or so down the valley; but his good sense told him that no one there would dare to protect him against the Doones, so he resolved to go on his way; yet faster than he had intended.
The three villains came after him, with all the speed they could muster, making sure from the badness of the road that he must stick fast ere long, and so be at their mercy. And this was Jeremy's chiefest fear, for the ground being soft and thoroughly rotten, after so much frost and snow, the poor horse had terrible work of it, with no time to pick the way; and even more good luck than skill was needed to keep him from foundering. How Jeremy prayed for an Exmoor fog (such as he had often sworn at), that he might turn aside and lurk, while his pursuers went past him! But no fog came, nor even a storm to damp the priming of their guns; neither was wood or coppice nigh, nor any place to hide in; only hills, and moor, and valleys; with flying shadows over them, and great banks of snow in the corners. At one time poor Stickles was quite in despair; for after leaping a little brook which crosses the track at Newland, be stuck fast in a 'dancing bog,' as we call them upon Exmoor. The horse had broken through the crust of moss and sedge and marishweed, and could do nothing but wallow and sink, with the black water spirting over him. And Jeremy, struggling with all his might, saw the three villains now topping the crest, less than a furlong behind him; and heard them shout in their savage delight. With the calmness of despair, he yet resolved to have one more try for it; and scrambling over the horse's head, gained firm land, and tugged at the bridle. The poor nag replied with all his power to the call upon his courage, and reared his forefeet out of the slough, and with straining eyeballs gazed at him. 'Now,' said Jeremy, 'now, my fine fellow!' lifting him with the bridle, and the brave beast gathered the roll of his loins, and sprang from his quagmired haunches. One more spring, and he was on earth again, instead of being under it; and Jeremy leaped on his back, and stooped, for he knew that they would fire. Two bullets whistled over him, as the horse, mad with fright, dashed forward; and in five minutes more he had come to the Exe, and the pursuers had fallen behind him. The Exe, though a much smaller stream than the Barle, now ran in a foaming torrent, unbridged, and too wide for leaping. But Jeremy's horse took the water well; and both he and his rider were lightened, as well as comforted by it. And as they passed towards Lucott hill, and struck upon the founts of Lynn, the horses of the three pursuers began to tire under them. Then Jeremy Stickles knew that if he could only escape the sloughs, he was safe for the present; and so he stood up in his stirrups, and gave them a loud halloo, as if they had been so many foxes.
Their only answer was to fire the remaining charge at him; but the distance was too great for any aim from horseback; and the dropping bullet idly ploughed the sod upon one side of him. He acknowledged it with a wave of his hat, and laid one thumb to his nose, in the manner fashionable in London for expression of contempt. However, they followed him yet farther; hoping to make him pay out dearly, if he should only miss the track, or fall upon morasses. But the neighbourhood of our Lynn stream is not so very boggy; and the King's messenger now knew his way as well as any of his pursuers did; and so he arrived at Plover's Barrows, thankful, and in rare appetite.
'But was the poor soldier drowned?' asked Annie; 'and you never went to look for him! Oh, how very dreadful!'
'Shot, or drowned; I know not which. Thank God it was only a trooper. But they shall pay for it, as dearly as if it had been a captain.'
'And how was it you were struck by a bullet, and only shaken in your saddle? Had you a coat of mail on, or of Milanese chain-armour? Now, Master Stickles, had you?'
'No, Mistress Lizzie; we do not wear things of that kind nowadays. You are apt, I perceive, at romances. But I happened to have a little flat bottle of the best stoneware slung beneath my saddle-cloak, and filled with the very best eau de vie, from the George Hotel, at Southmolton. The brand of it now is upon my back. Oh, the murderous scoundrels, what a brave spirit they have spilled!'
'You had better set to and thank God,' said I, 'that they have not spilled a braver one.'
EVERY MAN MUST DEFEND HIMSELF
It was only right in Jeremy Stickles, and of the simplest common sense, that he would not tell, before our girls, what the result of his journey was. But he led me aside in the course of the evening, and told me all about it; saying that I knew, as well as he did, that it was not woman's business. This I took, as it was meant, for a gentle caution that Lorna (whom he had not seen as yet) must not be informed of any of his doings. Herein I quite agreed with him; not only for his furtherance, but because I always think that women, of whatever mind, are best when least they meddle with the things that appertain to men.
Master Stickles complained that the weather had been against him bitterly, closing all the roads around him; even as it had done with us. It had taken him eight days, he said, to get from Exeter to Plymouth; whither he found that most of the troops had been drafted off from Exeter. When all were told, there was but a battalion of one of the King's horse regiments, and two companies of foot soldiers; and their commanders had orders, later than the date of Jeremy's commission, on no account to quit the southern coast, and march inland. Therefore, although they would gladly have come for a brush with the celebrated Doones, it was more than they durst attempt, in the face of their instructions. However, they spared him a single trooper, as a companion of the road, and to prove to the justices of the county, and the lord lieutenant, that he had their approval.
To these authorities Master Stickles now was forced to address himself, although he would rather have had one trooper than a score from the very best trained bands. For these trained bands had afforded very good soldiers, in the time of the civil wars, and for some years afterwards; but now their discipline was gone; and the younger generation had seen no real fighting. Each would have his own opinion, and would want to argue it; and if he were not allowed, he went about his duty in such a temper as to prove that his own way was the best.
Neither was this the worst of it; for Jeremy made no doubt but what (if he could only get the militia to turn out in force) he might manage, with the help of his own men, to force the stronghold of the enemy; but the truth was that the officers, knowing how hard it would be to collect their men at that time of the year, and in that state of the weather, began with one accord to make every possible excuse. And especially they pressed this point, that Bagworthy was not in their county; the Devonshire people affirming vehemently that it lay in the shire of Somerset, and the Somersetshire folk averring, even with imprecations, that it lay in Devonshire. Now I believe the truth to be that the boundary of the two counties, as well as of Oare and Brendon parishes, is defined by the Bagworthy river; so that the disputants on both sides were both right and wrong.
Upon this, Master Stickles suggested, and as I thought very sensibly, that the two counties should unite, and equally contribute to the extirpation of this pest, which shamed and injured them both alike. But hence arose another difficulty; for the men of Devon said they would march when Somerset had taken the field; and the sons of Somerset replied that indeed they were quite ready, but what were their cousins of Devonshire doing? And so it came to pass that the King's Commissioner returned without any army whatever; but with promise of two hundred men when the roads should be more passable. And meanwhile, what were we to do, abandoned as we were to the mercies of the Doones, with only our own hands to help us? And herein I grieved at my own folly, in having let Tom Faggus go, whose wit and courage would have been worth at least half a dozen men to us. Upon this matter I held long council with my good friend Stickles; telling him all about Lorna's presence, and what I knew of her history. He agreed with me that we could not hope to escape an attack from the outlaws, and the more especially now that they knew himself to be returned to us. Also he praised me for my forethought in having threshed out all our corn, and hidden the produce in such a manner that they were not likely to find it. Furthermore, he recommended that all the entrances to the house should at once be strengthened, and a watch must be maintained at night; and he thought it wiser that I should go (late as it was) to Lynmouth, if a horse could pass the valley, and fetch every one of his mounted troopers, who might now be quartered there. Also if any men of courage, though capable only of handling a pitchfork, could be found in the neighbourhood, I was to try to summon them. But our district is so thinly peopled, that I had little faith in this; however my errand was given me, and I set forth upon it; for John Fry was afraid of the waters.
Knowing how fiercely the floods were out, I resolved to travel the higher road, by Cosgate and through Countisbury; therefore I swam my horse through the Lynn, at the ford below our house (where sometimes you may step across), and thence galloped up and along the hills. I could see all the inland valleys ribbon'd with broad waters; and in every winding crook, the banks of snow that fed them; while on my right the turbid sea was flaked with April showers. But when I descended the hill towards Lynmouth, I feared that my journey was all in vain.
For the East Lynn (which is our river) was ramping and roaring frightfully, lashing whole trunks of trees on the rocks, and rending them, and grinding them. And into it rushed, from the opposite side, a torrent even madder; upsetting what it came to aid; shattering wave with boiling billow, and scattering wrath with fury. It was certain death to attempt the passage: and the little wooden footbridge had been carried away long ago. And the men I was seeking must be, of course, on the other side of this deluge, for on my side there was not a single house.
I followed the bank of the flood to the beach, some two or three hundred yards below; and there had the luck to see Will Watcombe on the opposite side, caulking an old boat. Though I could not make him hear a word, from the deafening roar of the torrent, I got him to understand at last that I wanted to cross over. Upon this he fetched another man, and the two of them launched a boat; and paddling well out to sea, fetched round the mouth of the frantic river. The other man proved to be Stickles's chief mate; and so he went back and fetched his comrades, bringing their weapons, but leaving their horses behind. As it happened there were but four of them; however, to have even these was a help; and I started again at full speed for my home; for the men must follow afoot, and cross our river high up on the moorland.
This took them a long way round, and the track was rather bad to find, and the sky already darkening; so that I arrived at Plover's Barrows more than two hours before them. But they had done a sagacious thing, which was well worth the delay; for by hoisting their flag upon the hill, they fetched the two watchmen from the Foreland, and added them to their number.
It was lucky that I came home so soon; for I found the house in a great commotion, and all the women trembling. When I asked what the matter was, Lorna, who seemed the most self-possessed, answered that it was all her fault, for she alone had frightened them. And this in the following manner. She had stolen out to the garden towards dusk, to watch some favourite hyacinths just pushing up, like a baby's teeth, and just attracting the fatal notice of a great house-snail at night-time. Lorna at last had discovered the glutton, and was bearing him off in triumph to the tribunal of the ducks, when she descried two glittering eyes glaring at her steadfastly, from the elder-bush beyond the stream. The elder was smoothing its wrinkled leaves, being at least two months behind time; and among them this calm cruel face appeared; and she knew it was the face of Carver Doone.
The maiden, although so used to terror (as she told me once before), lost all presence of mind hereat, and could neither shriek nor fly, but only gaze, as if bewitched. Then Carver Doone, with his deadly smile, gloating upon her horror, lifted his long gun, and pointed full at Lorna's heart. In vain she strove to turn away; fright had stricken her stiff as stone. With the inborn love of life, she tried to cover the vital part wherein the winged death must lodge—for she knew Carver's certain aim—but her hands hung numbed, and heavy; in nothing but her eyes was life.
With no sign of pity in his face, no quiver of relenting, but a well-pleased grin at all the charming palsy of his victim, Carver Doone lowered, inch by inch, the muzzle of his gun. When it pointed to the ground, between her delicate arched insteps, he pulled the trigger, and the bullet flung the mould all over her. It was a refinement of bullying, for which I swore to God that night, upon my knees, in secret, that I would smite down Carver Doone or else he should smite me down. Base beast! what largest humanity, or what dreams of divinity, could make a man put up with this?
My darling (the loveliest, and most harmless, in the world of maidens), fell away on a bank of grass, and wept at her own cowardice; and trembled, and wondered where I was; and what I would think of this. Good God! What could I think of it? She over-rated my slow nature, to admit the question.
While she leaned there, quite unable yet to save herself, Carver came to the brink of the flood, which alone was between them; and then he stroked his jet-black beard, and waited for Lorna to begin. Very likely, he thought that she would thank him for his kindness to her. But she was now recovering the power of her nimble limbs; and ready to be off like hope, and wonder at her own cowardice.
'I have spared you this time,' he said, in his deep calm voice, 'only because it suits my plans; and I never yield to temper. But unless you come back to-morrow, pure, and with all you took away, and teach me to destroy that fool, who has destroyed himself for you, your death is here, your death is here, where it has long been waiting.'
Although his gun was empty, he struck the breech of it with his finger; and then he turned away, not deigning even once to look back again; and Lorna saw his giant figure striding across the meadow-land, as if the Ridds were nobodies, and he the proper owner. Both mother and I were greatly hurt at hearing of this insolence: for we had owned that meadow, from the time of the great Alfred; and even when that good king lay in the Isle of Athelney, he had a Ridd along with him.
Now I spoke to Lorna gently, seeing how much she had been tried; and I praised her for her courage, in not having run away, when she was so unable; and my darling was pleased with this, and smiled upon me for saying it; though she knew right well that, in this matter, my judgment was not impartial. But you may take this as a general rule, that a woman likes praise from the man whom she loves, and cannot stop always to balance it.
Now expecting a sharp attack that night—when Jeremy Stickles the more expected, after the words of Carver, which seemed to be meant to mislead us—we prepared a great quantity of knuckles of pork, and a ham in full cut, and a fillet of hung mutton. For we would almost surrender rather than keep our garrison hungry. And all our men were exceedingly brave; and counted their rounds of the house in half-pints.
Before the maidens went to bed, Lorna made a remark which seemed to me a very clever one, and then I wondered how on earth it had never occurred to me before. But first she had done a thing which I could not in the least approve of: for she had gone up to my mother, and thrown herself into her arms, and begged to be allowed to return to Glen Doone.
'My child, are you unhappy here?' mother asked her, very gently, for she had begun to regard her now as a daughter of her own.
'Oh, no! Too happy, by far too happy, Mrs. Ridd. I never knew rest or peace before, or met with real kindness. But I cannot be so ungrateful, I cannot be so wicked, as to bring you all into deadly peril, for my sake alone. Let me go: you must not pay this great price for my happiness.'
'Dear child, we are paying no price at all,' replied my mother, embracing her; 'we are not threatened for your sake only. Ask John, he will tell you. He knows every bit about politics, and this is a political matter.'
Dear mother was rather proud in her heart, as well as terribly frightened, at the importance now accruing to Plover's Barrows farm; and she often declared that it would be as famous in history as the Rye House, or the Meal-tub, or even the great black box, in which she was a firm believer: and even my knowledge of politics could not move her upon that matter. 'Such things had happened before,' she would say, shaking her head with its wisdom, 'and why might they not happen again? Women would be women, and men would be men, to the end of the chapter; and if she had been in Lucy Water's place, she would keep it quiet, as she had done'; and then she would look round, for fear, lest either of her daughters had heard her; 'but now, can you give me any reason, why it may not have been so? You are so fearfully positive, John: just as men always are.' 'No,' I used to say; 'I can give you no reason, why it may not have been so, mother. But the question is, if it was so, or not; rather than what it might have been. And, I think, it is pretty good proof against it, that what nine men of every ten in England would only too gladly believe, if true, is nevertheless kept dark from them.' 'There you are again, John,' mother would reply, 'all about men, and not a single word about women. If you had any argument at all, you would own that marriage is a question upon which women are the best judges.' 'Oh!' I would groan in my spirit, and go; leaving my dearest mother quite sure, that now at last she must have convinced me. But if mother had known that Jeremy Stickles was working against the black box, and its issue, I doubt whether he would have fared so well, even though he was a visitor. However, she knew that something was doing and something of importance; and she trusted in God for the rest of it. Only she used te tell me, very seriously, of an evening, 'The very least they can give you, dear John, is a coat of arms. Be sure you take nothing less, dear; and the farm can well support it.'
But lo! I have left Lorna ever so long, anxious to consult me upon political matters. She came to me, and her eyes alone asked a hundred questions, which I rather had answered upon her lips than troubled her pretty ears with them. Therefore I told her nothing at all, save that the attack (if any should be) would not be made on her account; and that if she should hear, by any chance, a trifle of a noise in the night, she was to wrap the clothes around her, and shut her beautiful eyes again. On no account, whatever she did, was she to go to the window. She liked my expression about her eyes, and promised to do the very best she could and then she crept so very close, that I needs must have her closer; and with her head on my breast she asked,—
'Can't you keep out of this fight, John?'
'My own one,' I answered, gazing through the long black lashes, at the depths of radiant love; 'I believe there will be nothing: but what there is I must see out.'
'Shall I tell you what I think, John? It is only a fancy of mine, and perhaps it is not worth telling.'
'Let us have it, dear, by all means. You know so much about their ways.'
'What I believe is this, John. You know how high the rivers are, higher than ever they were before, and twice as high, you have told me. I believe that Glen Doone is flooded, and all the houses under water.'
'You little witch,' I answered; 'what a fool I must be not to think of it! Of course it is: it must be. The torrent from all the Bagworthy forest, and all the valleys above it, and the great drifts in the glen itself, never could have outlet down my famous waterslide. The valley must be under water twenty feet at least. Well, if ever there was a fool, I am he, for not having thought of it.'
'I remember once before,' said Lorna, reckoning on her fingers, 'when there was heavy rain, all through the autumn and winter, five or it may be six years ago, the river came down with such a rush that the water was two feet deep in our rooms, and we all had to camp by the cliff-edge. But you think that the floods are higher now, I believe I heard you say, John.'
'I don't think about it, my treasure,' I answered; 'you may trust me for understanding floods, after our work at Tiverton. And I know that the deluge in all our valleys is such that no living man can remember, neither will ever behold again. Consider three months of snow, snow, snow, and a fortnight of rain on the top of it, and all to be drained in a few days away! And great barricades of ice still in the rivers blocking them up, and ponding them. You may take my word for it, Mistress Lorna, that your pretty bower is six feet deep.'
'Well, my bower has served its time', said Lorna, blushing as she remembered all that had happened there; 'and my bower now is here, John. But I am so sorry to think of all the poor women flooded out of their houses and sheltering in the snowdrifts. However, there is one good of it: they cannot send many men against us, with all this trouble upon them.'
'You are right,' I replied; 'how clever you are! and that is why there were only three to cut off Master Stickles. And now we shall beat them, I make no doubt, even if they come at all. And I defy them to fire the house: the thatch is too wet for burning.'
We sent all the women to bed quite early, except Gwenny Carfax and our old Betty. These two we allowed to stay up, because they might be useful to us, if they could keep from quarreling. For my part, I had little fear, after what Lorna had told me, as to the result of the combat. It was not likely that the Doones could bring more than eight or ten men against us, while their homes were in such danger: and to meet these we had eight good men, including Jeremy, and myself, all well armed and resolute, besides our three farm-servants, and the parish-clerk, and the shoemaker. These five could not be trusted much for any valiant conduct, although they spoke very confidently over their cans of cider. Neither were their weapons fitted for much execution, unless it were at close quarters, which they would be likely to avoid. Bill Dadds had a sickle, Jem Slocombe a flail, the cobbler had borrowed the constable's staff (for the constable would not attend, because there was no warrant), and the parish clerk had brought his pitch-pipe, which was enough to break any man's head. But John Fry, of course, had his blunderbuss, loaded with tin-tacks and marbles, and more likely to kill the man who discharged it than any other person: but we knew that John had it only for show, and to describe its qualities.
Now it was my great desire, and my chiefest hope, to come across Carver Doone that night, and settle the score between us; not by any shot in the dark, but by a conflict man to man. As yet, since I came to full-grown power, I had never met any one whom I could not play teetotum with: but now at last I had found a man whose strength was not to be laughed at. I could guess it in his face, I could tell it in his arms, I could see it in his stride and gait, which more than all the rest betray the substance of a man. And being so well used to wrestling, and to judge antagonists, I felt that here (if anywhere) I had found my match.
Therefore I was not content to abide within the house, or go the rounds with the troopers; but betook myself to the rick yard, knowing that the Doones were likely to begin their onset there. For they had a pleasant custom, when they visited farm-houses, of lighting themselves towards picking up anything they wanted, or stabbing the inhabitants, by first creating a blaze in the rick yard. And though our ricks were all now of mere straw (except indeed two of prime clover-hay), and although on the top they were so wet that no firebrands might hurt them; I was both unwilling to have them burned, and fearful that they might kindle, if well roused up with fire upon the windward side.
By the bye, these Doones had got the worst of this pleasant trick one time. For happening to fire the ricks of a lonely farm called Yeanworthy, not far above Glenthorne, they approached the house to get people's goods, and to enjoy their terror. The master of the farm was lately dead, and had left, inside the clock-case, loaded, the great long gun, wherewith he had used to sport at the ducks and the geese on the shore. Now Widow Fisher took out this gun, and not caring much what became of her (for she had loved her husband dearly), she laid it upon the window-sill, which looked upon the rick-yard; and she backed up the butt with a chest of oak drawers, and she opened the window a little back, and let the muzzle out on the slope. Presently five or six fine young Doones came dancing a reel (as their manner was) betwixt her and the flaming rick. Upon which she pulled the trigger with all the force of her thumb, and a quarter of a pound of duck-shot went out with a blaze on the dancers. You may suppose what their dancing was, and their reeling how changed to staggering, and their music none of the sweetest. One of them fell into the rick, and was burned, and buried in a ditch next day; but the others were set upon their horses, and carried home on a path of blood. And strange to say, they never avenged this very dreadful injury; but having heard that a woman had fired this desperate shot among them, they said that she ought to be a Doone, and inquired how old she was.
Now I had not been so very long waiting in our mow-yard, with my best gun ready, and a big club by me, before a heaviness of sleep began to creep upon me. The flow of water was in my ears, and in my eyes a hazy spreading, and upon my brain a closure, as a cobbler sews a vamp up. So I leaned back in the clover-rick, and the dust of the seed and the smell came round me, without any trouble; and I dozed about Lorna, just once or twice, and what she had said about new-mown hay; and then back went my head, and my chin went up; and if ever a man was blest with slumber, down it came upon me, and away went I into it.
Now this was very vile of me, and against all good resolutions, even such as I would have sworn to an hour ago or less. But if you had been in the water as I had, ay, and had long fight with it, after a good day's work, and then great anxiety afterwards, and brain-work (which is not fair for me), and upon that a stout supper, mayhap you would not be so hard on my sleep; though you felt it your duty to wake me.
MAIDEN SENTINELS ARE BEST
It was not likely that the outlaws would attack out premises until some time after the moon was risen; because it would be too dangerous to cross the flooded valleys in the darkness of the night. And but for this consideration, I must have striven harder against the stealthy approach of slumber. But even so, it was very foolish to abandon watch, especially in such as I, who sleep like any dormouse. Moreover, I had chosen the very worst place in the world for such employment, with a goodly chance of awakening in a bed of solid fire.
And so it might have been, nay, it must have been, but for Lorna's vigilance. Her light hand upon my arm awoke me, not too readily; and leaping up, I seized my club, and prepared to knock down somebody.
'Who's that?' I cried; 'stand back, I say, and let me have fair chance at you.'
'Are you going to knock me down, dear John?' replied the voice I loved so well; 'I am sure I should never get up again, after one blow from you, John.'
'My darling, is it you?' I cried; 'and breaking all your orders? Come back into the house at once: and nothing on your head, dear!'
'How could I sleep, while at any moment you might be killed beneath my window? And now is the time of real danger; for men can see to travel.'
I saw at once the truth of this. The moon was high and clearly lighting all the watered valleys. To sleep any longer might be death, not only to myself, but all.
'The man on guard at the back of the house is fast asleep,' she continued; 'Gwenny, who let me out, and came with me, has heard him snoring for two hours. I think the women ought to be the watch, because they have had no travelling. Where do you suppose little Gwenny is?'
'Surely not gone to Glen Doone?' I was not sure, however: for I could believe almost anything of the Cornish maiden's hardihood.
'No,' replied Lorna, 'although she wanted even to do that. But of course I would not hear of it, on account of the swollen waters. But she is perched on yonder tree, which commands the Barrow valley. She says that they are almost sure to cross the streamlet there; and now it is so wide and large, that she can trace it in the moonlight, half a mile beyond her. If they cross, she is sure to see them, and in good time to let us know.'
'What a shame,' I cried, 'that the men should sleep, and the maidens be the soldiers! I will sit in that tree myself, and send little Gwenny back to you. Go to bed, my best and dearest; I will take good care not to sleep again.'
'Please not to send me away, dear John,' she answered very mournfully; 'you and I have been together through perils worse than this. I shall only be more timid, and more miserable, indoors.'
'I cannot let you stay here,' I said; 'it is altogether impossible. Do you suppose that I can fight, with you among the bullets, Lorna? If this is the way you mean to take it, we had better go both to the apple-room, and lock ourselves in, and hide under the tiles, and let them burn all the rest of the premises.'
At this idea Lorna laughed, as I could see by the moonlight; and then she said,—
'You are right, John. I should only do more harm than good: and of all things I hate fighting most, and disobedience next to it. Therefore I will go indoors, although I cannot go to bed. But promise me one thing, dearest John. You will keep yourself out of the way, now won't you, as much as you can, for my sake?'
'Of that you may be quite certain, Lorna. I will shoot them all through the hay-ricks.'
'That is right, dear,' she answered, never doubting but what I could do it; 'and then they cannot see you, you know. But don't think of climbing that tree, John; it is a great deal too dangerous. It is all very well for Gwenny; she has no bones to break.'
'None worth breaking, you mean, I suppose. Very well; I will not climb the tree, for I should defeat my own purpose, I fear; being such a conspicuous object. Now go indoors, darling, without more words. The more you linger, the more I shall keep you.'
She laughed her own bright laugh at this, and only said, 'God keep you, love!' and then away she tripped across the yard, with the step I loved to watch so. And thereupon I shouldered arms, and resolved to tramp till morning. For I was vexed at my own neglect, and that Lorna should have to right it.
But before I had been long on duty, making the round of the ricks and stables, and hailing Gwenny now and then from the bottom of her tree, a short wide figure stole towards me, in and out the shadows, and I saw that it was no other than the little maid herself, and that she bore some tidings.
'Ten on 'em crossed the watter down yonner,' said Gwenny, putting her hand to her mouth, and seeming to regard it as good news rather than otherwise: 'be arl craping up by hedgerow now. I could shutt dree on 'em from the bar of the gate, if so be I had your goon, young man.'
'There is no time to lose, Gwenny. Run to the house and fetch Master Stickles, and all the men; while I stay here, and watch the rick-yard.'
Perhaps I was wrong in heeding the ricks at such a time as that; especially as only the clover was of much importance. But it seemed to me like a sort of triumph that they should be even able to boast of having fired our mow-yard. Therefore I stood in a nick of the clover, whence we had cut some trusses, with my club in hand, and gun close by.
The robbers rode into our yard as coolly as if they had been invited, having lifted the gate from the hinges first on account of its being fastened. Then they actually opened our stable-doors, and turned our honest horses out, and put their own rogues in the place of them. At this my breath was quite taken away; for we think so much of our horses. By this time I could see our troopers, waiting in the shadow of the house, round the corner from where the Doones were, and expecting the order to fire. But Jeremy Stickles very wisely kept them in readiness, until the enemy should advance upon them.
'Two of you lazy fellows go,' it was the deep voice of Carver Doone, 'and make us a light, to cut their throats by. Only one thing, once again. If any man touches Lorna, I will stab him where he stands. She belongs to me. There are two other young damsels here, whom you may take away if you please. And the mother, I hear, is still comely. Now for our rights. We have borne too long the insolence of these yokels. Kill every man, and every child, and burn the cursed place down.'
As he spoke thus blasphemously, I set my gun against his breast; and by the light buckled from his belt, I saw the little 'sight' of brass gleaming alike upon either side, and the sleek round barrel glimmering. The aim was sure as death itself. If I only drew the trigger (which went very lighily) Carver Doone would breathe no more. And yet—will you believe me?—I could not pull the trigger. Would to God that I had done so!
For I never had taken human life, neither done bodily harm to man; beyond the little bruises, and the trifling aches and pains, which follow a good and honest bout in the wrestling ring. Therefore I dropped my carbine, and grasped again my club, which seemed a more straight-forward implement.
Presently two young men came towards me, bearing brands of resined hemp, kindled from Carver's lamp. The foremost of them set his torch to the rick within a yard of me, and smoke concealing me from him. I struck him with a back-handed blow on the elbow, as he bent it; and I heard the bone of his arm break, as clearly as ever I heard a twig snap. With a roar of pain he fell on the ground, and his torch dropped there, and singed him. The other man stood amazed at this, not having yet gained sight of me; till I caught his firebrand from his hand, and struck it into his countenance. With that he leaped at me; but I caught him, in a manner learned from early wrestling, and snapped his collar-bone, as I laid him upon the top of his comrade.
This little success so encouraged me, that I was half inclined to advance, and challenge Carver Doone to meet me; but I bore in mind that he would be apt to shoot me without ceremony; and what is the utmost of human strength against the power of powder? Moreover, I remembered my promise to sweet Lorna; and who would be left to defend her, if the rogues got rid of me?
While I was hesitating thus (for I always continue to hesitate, except in actual conflict), a blaze of fire lit up the house, and brown smoke hung around it. Six of our men had let go at the Doones, by Jeremy Stickles' order, as the villains came swaggering down in the moonlight ready for rape or murder. Two of them fell, and the rest hung back, to think at their leisure what this was. They were not used to this sort of thing: it was neither just nor courteous.
Being unable any longer to contain myself, as I thought of Lorna's excitement at all this noise of firing, I came across the yard, expecting whether they would shoot at me. However, no one shot at me; and I went up to Carver Doone, whom I knew by his size in the moonlight, and I took him by the beard, and said, 'Do you call yourself a man?'
For a moment he was so astonished that he could not answer. None had ever dared, I suppose, to look at him in that way; and he saw that he had met his equal, or perhaps his master. And then he tried a pistol at me, but I was too quick for him.
'Now, Carver Doone, take warning,' I said to him, very soberly; 'you have shown yourself a fool by your contempt of me. I may not be your match in craft; but I am in manhood. You are a despicable villain. Lie low in your native muck.'
And with that word, I laid him flat upon his back in our straw-yard, by a trick of the inner heel, which he could not have resisted (though his strength had been twice as great as mine), unless he were a wrestler. Seeing him down the others ran, though one of them made a shot at me, and some of them got their horses, before our men came up; and some went away without them. And among these last was Captain Carver who arose, while I was feeling myself (for I had a little wound), and strode away with a train of curses enough to poison the light of the moon.
We gained six very good horses, by this attempted rapine, as well as two young prisoners, whom I had smitten by the clover-rick. And two dead Doones were left behind, whom (as we buried them in the churchyard, without any service over them), I for my part was most thankful that I had not killed. For to have the life of a fellow-man laid upon one's conscience—deserved he his death, or deserved it not—is to my sense of right and wrong the heaviest of all burdens; and the one that wears most deeply inwards, with the dwelling of the mind on this view and on that of it.
I was inclined to pursue the enemy and try to capture more of them; but Jeremy Stickles would not allow it, for he said that all the advantage would be upon their side, if we went hurrying after them, with only the moon to guide us. And who could tell but what there might be another band of them, ready to fall upon the house, and burn it, and seize the women, if we left them unprotected? When he put the case thus, I was glad enough to abide by his decision. And one thing was quite certain, that the Doones had never before received so rude a shock, and so violent a blow to their supremacy, since first they had built up their power, and become the Lords of Exmoor. I knew that Carver Doone would gnash those mighty teeth of his, and curse the men around him, for the blunder (which was in truth his own) of over-confidence and carelessness. And at the same time, all the rest would feel that such a thing had never happened, while old Sir Ensor was alive; and that it was caused by nothing short of gross mismanagement.
I scarcely know who made the greatest fuss about my little wound, mother, or Annie, or Lorna. I was heartily ashamed to be so treated like a milksop; but most unluckily it had been impossible to hide it. For the ball had cut along my temple, just above the eyebrow; and being fired so near at hand, the powder too had scarred me. Therefore it seemed a great deal worse than it really was; and the sponging, and the plastering, and the sobbing, and the moaning, made me quite ashamed to look Master Stickles in the face.
However, at last I persuaded them that I had no intention of giving up the ghost that night; and then they all fell to, and thanked God with an emphasis quite unknown in church. And hereupon Master Stickles said, in his free and easy manner (for no one courted his observation), that I was the luckiest of all mortals in having a mother, and a sister, and a sweetheart, to make much of me. For his part, he said, he was just as well off in not having any to care for him. For now he might go and get shot, or stabbed, or knocked on the head, at his pleasure, without any one being offended. I made bold, upon this, to ask him what was become of his wife; for I had heard him speak of having one. He said that he neither knew nor cared; and perhaps I should be like him some day. That Lorna should hear such sentiments was very grievous to me. But she looked at me with a smile, which proved her contempt for all such ideas; and lest anything still more unfit might be said, I dismissed the question.
But Master Stickles told me afterwards, when there was no one with us, to have no faith in any woman, whatever she might seem to be. For he assured me that now he possessed very large experience, for so small a matter; being thoroughly acquainted with women of every class, from ladies of the highest blood, to Bonarobas, and peasants' wives: and that they all might be divided into three heads and no more; that is to say as follows. First, the very hot and passionate, who were only contemptible; second, the cold and indifferent, who were simply odious; and third, the mixture of the other two, who had the bad qualities of both. As for reason, none of them had it; it was like a sealed book to them, which if they ever tried to open, they began at the back of the cover.
Now I did not like to hear such things; and to me they appeared to be insolent, as well as narrow-minded. For if you came to that, why might not men, as well as women, be divided into the same three classes, and be pronounced upon by women, as beings even more devoid than their gentle judges of reason? Moreover, I knew, both from my own sense, and from the greatest of all great poets, that there are, and always have been, plenty of women, good, and gentle, warm-hearted, loving, and lovable; very keen, moreover, at seeing the right, be it by reason, or otherwise. And upon the whole, I prefer them much to the people of my own sex, as goodness of heart is more important than to show good reason for having it. And so I said to Jeremy,—
'You have been ill-treated, perhaps, Master Stickles, by some woman or other?'
'Ah, that have I,' he replied with an oath; 'and the last on earth who should serve me so, the woman who was my wife. A woman whom I never struck, never wronged in any way, never even let her know that I like another better. And yet when I was at Berwick last, with the regiment on guard there against those vile moss-troopers, what does that woman do but fly in the face of all authority, and of my especial business, by running away herself with the biggest of all moss-troopers? Not that I cared a groat about her; and I wish the fool well rid of her: but the insolence of the thing was such that everybody laughed at me; and back I went to London, losing a far better and safer job than this; and all through her. Come, let's have another onion.'
Master Stickles's view of the matter was so entirely unromantic, that I scarcely wondered at Mistress Stickles for having run away from him to an adventurous moss-trooper. For nine women out of ten must have some kind of romance or other, to make their lives endurable; and when their love has lost this attractive element, this soft dew-fog (if such it be), the love itself is apt to languish; unless its bloom be well replaced by the budding hopes of children. Now Master Stickles neither had, nor wished to have, any children.
Without waiting for any warrant, only saying something about 'captus in flagrante delicto,'—if that be the way to spell it—Stickles sent our prisoners off, bound and looking miserable, to the jail at Taunton. I was desirous to let them go free, if they would promise amendment; but although I had taken them, and surely therefore had every right to let them go again, Master Stickles said, 'Not so.' He assured me that it was a matter of public polity; and of course, not knowing what he meant, I could not contradict him; but thought that surely my private rights ought to be respected. For if I throw a man in wrestling, I expect to get his stakes; and if I take a man prisoner—why, he ought, in common justice, to belong to me, and I have a good right to let him go, if I think proper to do so. However, Master Stickles said that I was quite benighted, and knew nothing of the Constitution; which was the very thing I knew, beyond any man in our parish!
Nevertheless, it was not for me to contradict a commissioner; and therefore I let my prisoners go, and wished them a happy deliverance. Stickles replied, with a merry grin, that if ever they got it, it would be a jail deliverance, and the bliss of dancing; and he laid his hand to his throat in a manner which seemed to me most uncourteous. However, his foresight proved too correct; for both those poor fellows were executed, soon after the next assizes. Lorna had done her very best to earn another chance for them; even going down on her knees to that common Jeremy, and pleading with great tears for them. However, although much moved by her, he vowed that he durst do nothing else. To set them free was more than his own life was worth; for all the country knew, by this time, that two captive Doones were roped to the cider-press at Plover's Barrows. Annie bound the broken arm of the one whom I had knocked down with the club, and I myself supported it; and then she washed and rubbed with lard the face of the other poor fellow, which the torch had injured; and I fetched back his collar-bone to the best of my ability. For before any surgeon could arrive, they were off with a well-armed escort. That day we were reinforced so strongly from the stations along the coast, even as far as Minehead, that we not only feared no further attack, but even talked of assaulting Glen Doone, without waiting for the train-bands. However, I thought that it would be mean to take advantage of the enemy in the thick of the floods and confusion; and several of the others thought so too, and did not like fighting in water. Therefore it was resolved to wait and keep a watch upon the valley, and let the floods go down again.
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Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore
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