Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 23

A Royal Invitation

Although I had, for the most part, so very stout an appetite, that none but mother saw any need of encouraging me to eat, I could only manage one true good meal in a day, at the time I speak of. Mother was in despair at this, and tempted me with the whole of the rack, and even talked of sending to Porlock for a druggist who came there twice in a week; and Annie spent all her time in cooking, and even Lizzie sang songs to me; for she could sing very sweetly. But my conscience told me that Betty Muxworthy had some reason upon her side.

‘Latt the young ozebird aloun, zay I. Makk zuch ado about un, wi’ hogs’-puddens, and hock-bits, and lambs’-mate, and whaten bradd indade, and brewers’ ale avore dinner-time, and her not to zit wi’ no winder aupen — draive me mad ‘e doo, the ov’ee, zuch a passel of voouls. Do ’un good to starve a bit; and takk zome on’s wackedness out ov un.’

But mother did not see it so; and she even sent for Nicholas Snowe to bring his three daughters with him, and have ale and cake in the parlour, and advise about what the bees were doing, and when a swarm might be looked for. Being vexed about this and having to stop at home nearly half the evening, I lost good manners so much as to ask him (even in our own house!) what he meant by not mending the swing-hurdle where the Lynn stream flows from our land into his, and which he is bound to maintain. But he looked at me in a superior manner, and said, ‘Business, young man, in business time.’

I had other reason for being vexed with Farmer Nicholas just now, viz. that I had heard a rumour, after church one Sunday — when most of all we sorrow over the sins of one another — that Master Nicholas Snowe had been seen to gaze tenderly at my mother, during a passage of the sermon, wherein the parson spoke well and warmly about the duty of Christian love. Now, putting one thing with another, about the bees, and about some ducks, and a bullock with a broken knee-cap, I more than suspected that Farmer Nicholas was casting sheep’s eyes at my mother; not only to save all further trouble in the matter of the hurdle, but to override me altogether upon the difficult question of damming. And I knew quite well that John Fry’s wife never came to help at the washing without declaring that it was a sin for a well-looking woman like mother, with plenty to live on, and only three children, to keep all the farmers for miles around so unsettled in their minds about her. Mother used to answer ‘Oh fie, Mistress Fry! be good enough to mind your own business.’ But we always saw that she smoothed her apron, and did her hair up afterwards, and that Mistress Fry went home at night with a cold pig’s foot or a bowl of dripping.

Therefore, on that very night, as I could not well speak to mother about it, without seeming undutiful, after lighting the three young ladies — for so in sooth they called themselves — all the way home with our stable-lanthorn, I begged good leave of Farmer Nicholas (who had hung some way behind us) to say a word in private to him, before he entered his own house.

‘Wi’ all the plaisure in laife, my zon,’ he answered very graciously, thinking perhaps that I was prepared to speak concerning Sally.

‘Now, Farmer Nicholas Snowe,’ I said, scarce knowing how to begin it, ‘you must promise not to be vexed with me, for what I am going to say to you.’

‘Vaxed wi’ thee! Noo, noo, my lad. I ‘ave a knowed thee too long for that. And thy veyther were my best friend, afore thee. Never wronged his neighbours, never spak an unkind word, never had no maneness in him. Tuk a vancy to a nice young ‘ooman, and never kep her in doubt about it, though there wadn’t mooch to zettle on her. Spak his maind laike a man, he did, and right happy he were wi’ her. Ah, well a day! Ah, God knoweth best. I never shall zee his laike again. And he were the best judge of a dung-heap anywhere in this county.’

‘Well, Master Snowe,’ I answered him, ‘it is very handsome of you to say so. And now I am going to be like my father, I am going to speak my mind.’

‘Raight there, lad; raight enough, I reckon. Us has had enough of pralimbinary.’

‘Then what I want to say is this — I won’t have any one courting my mother.’

‘Coortin’ of thy mother, lad?’ cried Farmer Snowe, with as much amazement as if the thing were impossible; ‘why, who ever hath been dooin’ of it?’

‘Yes, courting of my mother, sir. And you know best who comes doing it.’

‘Wull, wull! What will boys be up to next? Zhud a’ thought herzelf wor the proper judge. No thank ‘ee, lad, no need of thy light. Know the wai to my own door, at laste; and have a raight to goo there.’ And he shut me out without so much as offering me a drink of cider.

The next afternoon, when work was over, I had seen to the horses, for now it was foolish to trust John Fry, because he had so many children, and his wife had taken to scolding; and just as I was saying to myself that in five days more my month would be done, and myself free to seek Lorna, a man came riding up from the ford where the road goes through the Lynn stream. As soon as I saw that it was not Tom Faggus, I went no farther to meet him, counting that it must be some traveller bound for Brendon or Cheriton, and likely enough he would come and beg for a draught of milk or cider; and then on again, after asking the way.

But instead of that, he stopped at our gate, and stood up from his saddle, and halloed as if he were somebody; and all the time he was flourishing a white thing in the air, like the bands our parson weareth. So I crossed the court-yard to speak with him.

‘Service of the King!’ he saith; ‘service of our lord the King! Come hither, thou great yokel, at risk of fine and imprisonment.’

Although not pleased with this, I went to him, as became a loyal man; quite at my leisure, however, for there is no man born who can hurry me, though I hasten for any woman.

‘Plover Barrows farm!’ said he; ‘God only knows how tired I be. Is there any where in this cursed county a cursed place called Plover Barrows farm? For last twenty mile at least they told me ’twere only half a mile farther, or only just round corner. Now tell me that, and I fain would thwack thee if thou wert not thrice my size.’

‘Sir,’ I replied, ‘you shall not have the trouble. This is Plover’s Barrows farm, and you are kindly welcome. Sheep’s kidneys is for supper, and the ale got bright from the tapping. But why do you think ill of us? We like not to be cursed so.’

‘Nay, I think no ill,’ he said; ‘sheep’s kidneys is good, uncommon good, if they do them without burning. But I be so galled in the saddle ten days, and never a comely meal of it. And when they hear “King’s service” cried, they give me the worst of everything. All the way down from London, I had a rogue of a fellow in front of me, eating the fat of the land before me, and every one bowing down to him. He could go three miles to my one though he never changed his horse. He might have robbed me at any minute, if I had been worth the trouble. A red mare he rideth, strong in the loins, and pointed quite small in the head. I shall live to see him hanged yet.’

All this time he was riding across the straw of our courtyard, getting his weary legs out of the leathers, and almost afraid to stand yet. A coarse-grained, hard-faced man he was, some forty years of age or so, and of middle height and stature. He was dressed in a dark brown riding suit, none the better for Exmoor mud, but fitting him very differently from the fashion of our tailors. Across the holsters lay his cloak, made of some red skin, and shining from the sweating of the horse. As I looked down on his stiff bright head-piece, small quick eyes and black needly beard, he seemed to despise me (too much, as I thought) for a mere ignoramus and country bumpkin.

‘Annie, have down the cut ham,’ I shouted, for my sister was come to the door by chance, or because of the sound of a horse in the road, ‘and cut a few rashers of hung deer’s meat. There is a gentleman come to sup, Annie. And fetch the hops out of the tap with a skewer that it may run more sparkling.’

‘I wish I may go to a place never meant for me,’ said my new friend, now wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his brown riding coat, ‘if ever I fell among such good folk. You are the right sort, and no error therein. All this shall go in your favour greatly, when I make deposition. At least, I mean, if it be as good in the eating as in the hearing. ’Tis a supper quite fit for Tom Faggus himself, the man who hath stolen my victuals so. And that hung deer’s meat, now is it of the red deer running wild in these parts?’

‘To be sure it is, sir,’ I answered; ‘where should we get any other?’

‘Right, right, you are right, my son. I have heard that the flavour is marvellous. Some of them came and scared me so, in the fog of the morning, that I hungered for them ever since. Ha, ha, I saw their haunches. But the young lady will not forget — art sure she will not forget it?’

‘You may trust her to forget nothing, sir, that may tempt a guest to his comfort.’

‘In faith, then, I will leave my horse in your hands, and be off for it. Half the pleasure of the mouth is in the nose beforehand. But stay, almost I forgot my business, in the hurry which thy tongue hath spread through my lately despairing belly. Hungry I am, and sore of body, from my heels right upward, and sorest in front of my doublet, yet may I not rest nor bite barley-bread, until I have seen and touched John Ridd. God grant that he be not far away; I must eat my saddle, if it be so.’

‘Have no fear, good sir,’ I answered; ‘you have seen and touched John Ridd. I am he, and not one likely to go beneath a bushel.’

‘It would take a large bushel to hold thee, John Ridd. In the name of the King, His Majesty, Charles the Second, these presents!’

He touched me with the white thing which I had first seen him waving, and which I now beheld to be sheepskin, such as they call parchment. It was tied across with cord, and fastened down in every corner with unsightly dabs of wax. By order of the messenger (for I was over-frightened now to think of doing anything), I broke enough of seals to keep an Easter ghost from rising; and there I saw my name in large; God grant such another shock may never befall me in my old age.

‘Read, my son; read, thou great fool, if indeed thou canst read,’ said the officer to encourage me; ‘there is nothing to kill thee, boy, and my supper will be spoiling. Stare not at me so, thou fool; thou art big enough to eat me; read, read, read.’

‘If you please, sir, what is your name?’ I asked; though why I asked him I know not, except from fear of witchcraft.

‘Jeremy Stickles is my name, lad, nothing more than a poor apparitor of the worshipful Court of King’s Bench. And at this moment a starving one, and no supper for me unless thou wilt read.’

Being compelled in this way, I read pretty nigh as follows; not that I give the whole of it, but only the gist and the emphasis —

‘To our good subject, John Ridd, etc.’— describing me ever so much better than I knew myself —‘by these presents, greeting. These are to require thee, in the name of our lord the King, to appear in person before the Right Worshipful, the Justices of His Majesty’s Bench at Westminster, laying aside all thine own business, and there to deliver such evidence as is within thy cognisance, touching certain matters whereby the peace of our said lord the King, and the well-being of this realm, is, are, or otherwise may be impeached, impugned, imperilled, or otherwise detrimented. As witness these presents.’ And then there were four seals, and then a signature I could not make out, only that it began with a J, and ended with some other writing, done almost in a circle. Underneath was added in a different handwriting ‘Charges will be borne. The matter is full urgent.’

The messenger watched me, while I read so much as I could read of it; and he seemed well pleased with my surprise, because he had expected it. Then, not knowing what else to do, I looked again at the cover, and on the top of it I saw, ‘Ride, Ride, Ride! On His Gracious Majesty’s business; spur and spare not.’

It may be supposed by all who know me, that I was taken hereupon with such a giddiness in my head and noisiness in my ears, that I was forced to hold by the crook driven in below the thatch for holding of the hay-rakes. There was scarcely any sense left in me, only that the thing was come by power of Mother Melldrum, because I despised her warning, and had again sought Lorna. But the officer was grieved for me, and the danger to his supper.

‘My son, be not afraid,’ he said; ‘we are not going to skin thee. Only thou tell all the truth, and it shall be — but never mind, I will tell thee all about it, and how to come out harmless, if I find thy victuals good, and no delay in serving them.’

‘We do our best, sir, without bargain,’ said I, ‘to please our visitors.’

But when my mother saw that parchment (for we could not keep it from her) she fell away into her favourite bed of stock gilly-flowers, which she had been tending; and when we brought her round again, did nothing but exclaim against the wickedness of the age and people. ‘It was useless to tell her; she knew what it was, and so should all the parish know. The King had heard what her son was, how sober, and quiet, and diligent, and the strongest young man in England; and being himself such a reprobate — God forgive her for saying so — he could never rest till he got poor Johnny, and made him as dissolute as himself. And if he did that’— here mother went off into a fit of crying; and Annie minded her face, while Lizzie saw that her gown was in comely order.

But the character of the King improved, when Master Jeremy Stickles (being really moved by the look of it, and no bad man after all) laid it clearly before my mother that the King on his throne was unhappy, until he had seen John Ridd. That the fame of John had gone so far, and his size, and all his virtues — that verily by the God who made him, the King was overcome with it.

Then mother lay back in her garden chair, and smiled upon the whole of us, and most of all on Jeremy; looking only shyly on me, and speaking through some break of tears. ‘His Majesty shall have my John; His Majesty is very good: but only for a fortnight. I want no titles for him. Johnny is enough for me; and Master John for the working men.’

Now though my mother was so willing that I should go to London, expecting great promotion and high glory for me, I myself was deeply gone into the pit of sorrow. For what would Lorna think of me? Here was the long month just expired, after worlds of waiting; there would be her lovely self, peeping softly down the glen, and fearing to encourage me; yet there would be nobody else, and what an insult to her! Dwelling upon this, and seeing no chance of escape from it, I could not find one wink of sleep; though Jeremy Stickles (who slept close by) snored loud enough to spare me some. For I felt myself to be, as it were, in a place of some importance; in a situation of trust, I may say; and bound not to depart from it. For who could tell what the King might have to say to me about the Doones — and I felt that they were at the bottom of this strange appearance — or what His Majesty might think, if after receiving a message from him (trusty under so many seals) I were to violate his faith in me as a churchwarden’s son, and falsely spread his words abroad?

Perhaps I was not wise in building such a wall of scruples. Nevertheless, all that was there, and weighed upon me heavily. And at last I made up my mind to this, that even Lorna must not know the reason of my going, neither anything about it; but that she might know I was gone a long way from home, and perhaps be sorry for it. Now how was I to let her know even that much of the matter, without breaking compact?

Puzzling on this, I fell asleep, after the proper time to get up; nor was I to be seen at breakfast time; and mother (being quite strange to that) was very uneasy about it. But Master Stickles assured her that the King’s writ often had that effect, and the symptom was a good one.

‘Now, Master Stickles, when must we start?’ I asked him, as he lounged in the yard gazing at our turkey poults picking and running in the sun to the tune of their father’s gobble. ‘Your horse was greatly foundered, sir, and is hardly fit for the road today; and Smiler was sledding yesterday all up the higher Cleve; and none of the rest can carry me.’

‘In a few more years,’ replied the King’s officer, contemplating me with much satisfaction; ‘’twill be a cruelty to any horse to put thee on his back, John.’

Master Stickles, by this time, was quite familiar with us, calling me ‘Jack,’ and Eliza ‘Lizzie,’ and what I liked the least of all, our pretty Annie ‘Nancy.’

‘That will be as God pleases, sir,’ I answered him, rather sharply; ‘and the horse that suffers will not be thine. But I wish to know when we must start upon our long travel to London town. I perceive that the matter is of great despatch and urgency.’

‘To be sure, so it is, my son. But I see a yearling turkey there, him I mean with the hop in his walk, who (if I know aught of fowls) would roast well tomorrow. Thy mother must have preparation: it is no more than reasonable. Now, have that turkey killed to-night (for his fatness makes me long for him), and we will have him for dinner tomorrow, with, perhaps, one of his brethren; and a few more collops of red deer’s flesh for supper, and then on the Friday morning, with the grace of God, we will set our faces to the road, upon His Majesty’s business.’

‘Nay, but good sir,’ I asked with some trembling, so eager was I to see Lorna; ‘if His Majesty’s business will keep till Friday, may it not keep until Monday? We have a litter of sucking-pigs, excellently choice and white, six weeks old, come Friday. There be too many for the sow, and one of them needeth roasting. Think you not it would be a pity to leave the women to carve it?’

‘My son Jack,’ replied Master Stickles, ‘never was I in such quarters yet: and God forbid that I should be so unthankful to Him as to hurry away. And now I think on it, Friday is not a day upon which pious people love to commence an enterprise. I will choose the young pig tomorrow at noon, at which time they are wont to gambol; and we will celebrate his birthday by carving him on Friday. After that we will gird our loins, and set forth early on Saturday.’

Now this was little better to me than if we had set forth at once. Sunday being the very first day upon which it would be honourable for me to enter Glen Doone. But though I tried every possible means with Master Jeremy Stickles, offering him the choice for dinner of every beast that was on the farm, he durst not put off our departure later than the Saturday. And nothing else but love of us and of our hospitality would have so persuaded him to remain with us till then. Therefore now my only chance of seeing Lorna, before I went, lay in watching from the cliff and espying her, or a signal from her.

This, however, I did in vain, until my eyes were weary and often would delude themselves with hope of what they ached for. But though I lay hidden behind the trees upon the crest of the stony fall, and waited so quiet that the rabbits and squirrels played around me, and even the keen-eyed weasel took me for a trunk of wood — it was all as one; no cast of colour changed the white stone, whose whiteness now was hateful to me; nor did wreath or skirt of maiden break the loneliness of the vale.

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