Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 22

A Long Spring Month

After hearing that tale from Lorna, I went home in sorry spirits, having added fear for her, and misery about, to all my other ailments. And was it not quite certain now that she, being owned full cousin to a peer and lord of Scotland (although he was a dead one), must have nought to do with me, a yeoman’s son, and bound to be the father of more yeomen? I had been very sorry when first I heard about that poor young popinjay, and would gladly have fought hard for him; but now it struck me that after all he had no right to be there, prowling (as it were) for Lorna, without any invitation: and we farmers love not trespass. Still, if I had seen the thing, I must have tried to save him.

Moreover, I was greatly vexed with my own hesitation, stupidity, or shyness, or whatever else it was, which had held me back from saying, ere she told her story, what was in my heart to say, videlicet, that I must die unless she let me love her. Not that I was fool enough to think that she would answer me according to my liking, or begin to care about me for a long time yet; if indeed she ever should, which I hardly dared to hope. But that I had heard from men more skillful in the matter that it is wise to be in time, that so the maids may begin to think, when they know that they are thought of. And, to tell the truth, I had bitter fears, on account of her wondrous beauty, lest some young fellow of higher birth and finer parts, and finish, might steal in before poor me, and cut me out altogether. Thinking of which, I used to double my great fist, without knowing it, and keep it in my pocket ready.

But the worst of all was this, that in my great dismay and anguish to see Lorna weeping so, I had promised not to cause her any further trouble from anxiety and fear of harm. And this, being brought to practice, meant that I was not to show myself within the precincts of Glen Doone, for at least another month. Unless indeed (as I contrived to edge into the agreement) anything should happen to increase her present trouble and every day’s uneasiness. In that case, she was to throw a dark mantle, or covering of some sort, over a large white stone which hung within the entrance to her retreat — I mean the outer entrance — and which, though unseen from the valley itself, was (as I had observed) conspicuous from the height where I stood with Uncle Reuben.

Now coming home so sad and weary, yet trying to console myself with the thought that love o’erleapeth rank, and must still be lord of all, I found a shameful thing going on, which made me very angry. For it needs must happen that young Marwood de Whichehalse, only son of the Baron, riding home that very evening, from chasing of the Exmoor bustards, with his hounds and serving-men, should take the short cut through our farmyard, and being dry from his exercise, should come and ask for drink. And it needs must happen also that there should be none to give it to him but my sister Annie. I more than suspect that he had heard some report of our Annie’s comeliness, and had a mind to satisfy himself upon the subject. Now, as he took the large ox-horn of our quarantine-apple cider (which we always keep apart from the rest, being too good except for the quality), he let his fingers dwell on Annie’s, by some sort of accident, while he lifted his beaver gallantly, and gazed on her face in the light from the west. Then what did Annie do (as she herself told me afterwards) but make her very best curtsey to him, being pleased that he was pleased with her, while she thought what a fine young man he was and so much breeding about him! And in truth he was a dark, handsome fellow, hasty, reckless, and changeable, with a look of sad destiny in his black eyes that would make any woman pity him. What he was thinking of our Annie is not for me to say, although I may think that you could not have found another such maiden on Exmoor, except (of course) my Lorna.

Though young Squire Marwood was so thirsty, he spent much time over his cider, or at any rate over the ox-horn, and he made many bows to Annie, and drank health to all the family, and spoke of me as if I had been his very best friend at Blundell’s; whereas he knew well enough all the time that we had nought to say to one another; he being three years older, and therefore of course disdaining me. But while he was casting about perhaps for some excuse to stop longer, and Annie was beginning to fear lest mother should come after her, or Eliza be at the window, or Betty up in pigs’ house, suddenly there came up to them, as if from the very heart of the earth, that long, low, hollow, mysterious sound which I spoke of in winter.

The young man started in his saddle, let the horn fall on the horse-steps, and gazed all around in wonder; while as for Annie, she turned like a ghost, and tried to slam the door, but failed through the violence of her trembling; (for never till now had any one heard it so close at hand as you might say) or in the mere fall of the twilight. And by this time there was no man, at least in our parish, but knew — for the Parson himself had told us so — that it was the devil groaning because the Doones were too many for him.

Marwood de Whichehalse was not so alarmed but what he saw a fine opportunity. He leaped from his horse, and laid hold of dear Annie in a highly comforting manner; and she never would tell us about it (being so shy and modest), whether in breathing his comfort to her he tried to take some from her pure lips. I hope he did not, because that to me would seem not the deed of a gentleman, and he was of good old family.

At this very moment, who should come into the end of the passage upon them but the heavy writer of these doings I, John Ridd myself, and walking the faster, it may be, on account of the noise I mentioned. I entered the house with some wrath upon me at seeing the gazehounds in the yard; for it seems a cruel thing to me to harass the birds in the breeding-time. And to my amazement there I saw Squire Marwood among the milk-pans with his arm around our Annie’s waist, and Annie all blushing and coaxing him off, for she was not come to scold yet.

Perhaps I was wrong; God knows, and if I was, no doubt I shall pay for it; but I gave him the flat of my hand on his head, and down he went in the thick of the milk-pans. He would have had my fist, I doubt, but for having been at school with me; and after that it is like enough he would never have spoken another word. As it was, he lay stunned, with the cream running on him; while I took poor Annie up and carried her in to mother, who had heard the noise and was frightened.

Concerning this matter I asked no more, but held myself ready to bear it out in any form convenient, feeling that I had done my duty, and cared not for the consequence; only for several days dear Annie seemed frightened rather than grateful. But the oddest result of it was that Eliza, who had so despised me, and made very rude verses about me, now came trying to sit on my knee, and kiss me, and give me the best of the pan. However, I would not allow it, because I hate sudden changes.

Another thing also astonished me — namely, a beautiful letter from Marwood de Whichehalse himself (sent by a groom soon afterwards), in which he apologised to me, as if I had been his equal, for his rudeness to my sister, which was not intended in the least, but came of their common alarm at the moment, and his desire to comfort her. Also he begged permission to come and see me, as an old schoolfellow, and set everything straight between us, as should be among honest Blundellites.

All this was so different to my idea of fighting out a quarrel, when once it is upon a man, that I knew not what to make of it, but bowed to higher breeding. Only one thing I resolved upon, that come when he would he should not see Annie. And to do my sister justice, she had no desire to see him.

However, I am too easy, there is no doubt of that, being very quick to forgive a man, and very slow to suspect, unless he hath once lied to me. Moreover, as to Annie, it had always seemed to me (much against my wishes) that some shrewd love of a waiting sort was between her and Tom Faggus: and though Tom had made his fortune now, and everybody respected him, of course he was not to be compared, in that point of respectability, with those people who hanged the robbers when fortune turned against them.

So young Squire Marwood came again, as though I had never smitten him, and spoke of it in as light a way as if we were still at school together. It was not in my nature, of course, to keep any anger against him; and I knew what a condescension it was for him to visit us. And it is a very grievous thing, which touches small landowners, to see an ancient family day by day decaying: and when we heard that Ley Barton itself, and all the Manor of Lynton were under a heavy mortgage debt to John Lovering of Weare–Gifford, there was not much, in our little way, that we would not gladly do or suffer for the benefit of De Whichehalse.

Meanwhile the work of the farm was toward, and every day gave us more ado to dispose of what itself was doing. For after the long dry skeltering wind of March and part of April, there had been a fortnight of soft wet; and when the sun came forth again, hill and valley, wood and meadow, could not make enough of him. Many a spring have I seen since then, but never yet two springs alike, and never one so beautiful. Or was it that my love came forth and touched the world with beauty?

The spring was in our valley now; creeping first for shelter shyly in the pause of the blustering wind. There the lambs came bleating to her, and the orchis lifted up, and the thin dead leaves of clover lay for the new ones to spring through. There the stiffest things that sleep, the stubby oak, and the saplin’d beech, dropped their brown defiance to her, and prepared for a soft reply.

While her over-eager children (who had started forth to meet her, through the frost and shower of sleet), catkin’d hazel, gold-gloved withy, youthful elder, and old woodbine, with all the tribe of good hedge-climbers (who must hasten while haste they may)— was there one of them that did not claim the merit of coming first?

There she stayed and held her revel, as soon as the fear of frost was gone; all the air was a fount of freshness, and the earth of gladness, and the laughing waters prattled of the kindness of the sun.

But all this made it much harder for us, plying the hoe and rake, to keep the fields with room upon them for the corn to tiller. The winter wheat was well enough, being sturdy and strong-sided; but the spring wheat and the barley and the oats were overrun by ill weeds growing faster. Therefore, as the old saying is —

Farmer, that thy wife may thrive,
Let not burr and burdock wive;
And if thou wouldst keep thy son,
See that bine and gith have none.

So we were compelled to go down the field and up it, striking in and out with care where the green blades hung together, so that each had space to move in and to spread its roots abroad. And I do assure you now, though you may not believe me, it was harder work to keep John Fry, Bill Dadds, and Jem Slocomb all in a line and all moving nimbly to the tune of my own tool, than it was to set out in the morning alone, and hoe half an acre by dinner-time. For, instead of keeping the good ash moving, they would for ever be finding something to look at or to speak of, or at any rate, to stop with; blaming the shape of their tools perhaps, or talking about other people’s affairs; or, what was most irksome of all to me, taking advantage as married men, and whispering jokes of no excellence about my having, or having not, or being ashamed of a sweetheart. And this went so far at last that I was forced to take two of them and knock their heads together; after which they worked with a better will.

When we met together in the evening round the kitchen chimney-place, after the men had had their supper and their heavy boots were gone, my mother and Eliza would do their very utmost to learn what I was thinking of. Not that we kept any fire now, after the crock was emptied; but that we loved to see the ashes cooling, and to be together. At these times Annie would never ask me any crafty questions (as Eliza did), but would sit with her hair untwined, and one hand underneath her chin, sometimes looking softly at me, as much as to say that she knew it all and I was no worse off than she. But strange to say my mother dreamed not, even for an instant, that it was possible for Annie to be thinking of such a thing. She was so very good and quiet, and careful of the linen, and clever about the cookery and fowls and bacon-curing, that people used to laugh, and say she would never look at a bachelor until her mother ordered her. But I (perhaps from my own condition and the sense of what it was) felt no certainty about this, and even had another opinion, as was said before.

Often I was much inclined to speak to her about it, and put her on her guard against the approaches of Tom Faggus; but I could not find how to begin, and feared to make a breach between us; knowing that if her mind was set, no words of mine would alter it; although they needs must grieve her deeply. Moreover, I felt that, in this case, a certain homely Devonshire proverb would come home to me; that one, I mean, which records that the crock was calling the kettle smutty. Not, of course, that I compared my innocent maid to a highwayman; but that Annie might think her worse, and would be too apt to do so, if indeed she loved Tom Faggus. And our Cousin Tom, by this time, was living a quiet and godly life; having retired almost from the trade (except when he needed excitement, or came across public officers), and having won the esteem of all whose purses were in his power.

Perhaps it is needless for me to say that all this time while my month was running — or rather crawling, for never month went so slow as that with me — neither weed, nor seed, nor cattle, nor my own mother’s anxiety, nor any care for my sister, kept me from looking once every day, and even twice on a Sunday, for any sign of Lorna. For my heart was ever weary; in the budding valleys, and by the crystal waters, looking at the lambs in fold, or the heifers on the mill, labouring in trickled furrows, or among the beaded blades; halting fresh to see the sun lift over the golden-vapoured ridge; or doffing hat, from sweat of brow, to watch him sink in the low gray sea; be it as it would of day, of work, or night, or slumber, it was a weary heart I bore, and fear was on the brink of it.

All the beauty of the spring went for happy men to think of; all the increase of the year was for other eyes to mark. Not a sign of any sunrise for me from my fount of life, not a breath to stir the dead leaves fallen on my heart’s Spring.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31