Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 25

A Great Man Attends to Business

Having seen Lord Russell murdered in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn, or rather having gone to see it, but turned away with a sickness and a bitter flood of tears — for a whiter and a nobler neck never fell before low beast — I strode away towards Westminster, cured of half my indignation at the death of Charles the First. Many people hurried past me, chiefly of the more tender sort, revolting at the butchery. In their ghastly faces, as they turned them back, lest the sight should be coming after them, great sorrow was to be seen, and horror, and pity, and some anger.

In Westminster Hall I found nobody; not even the crowd of crawling varlets, who used to be craving evermore for employment or for payment. I knocked at three doors, one after other, of lobbies going out of it, where I had formerly seen some officers and people pressing in and out, but for my trouble I took nothing, except some thumps from echo. And at last an old man told me that all the lawyers were gone to see the result of their own works, in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn.

However, in a few days’ time, I had better fortune; for the court was sitting and full of business, to clear off the arrears of work, before the lawyers’ holiday. As I was waiting in the hall for a good occasion, a man with horsehair on his head, and a long blue bag in his left hand, touched me gently on the arm, and led me into a quiet place. I followed him very gladly, being confident that he came to me with a message from the Justiciaries. But after taking pains to be sure that none could overhear us, he turned on me suddenly, and asked —

‘Now, John, how is your dear mother?’

‘Worshipful sir’ I answered him, after recovering from my surprise at his knowledge of our affairs, and kindly interest in them, ‘it is two months now since I have seen her. Would to God that I only knew how she is faring now, and how the business of the farm goes!’

‘Sir, I respect and admire you,’ the old gentleman replied, with a bow very low and genteel; ‘few young court-gallants of our time are so reverent and dutiful. Oh, how I did love my mother!’ Here he turned up his eyes to heaven, in a manner that made me feel for him and yet with a kind of wonder.

‘I am very sorry for you, sir,’ I answered most respectfully, not meaning to trespass on his grief, yet wondering at his mother’s age; for he seemed to be at least threescore; ‘but I am no court-gallant, sir; I am only a farmer’s son, and learning how to farm a little.’

‘Enough, John; quite enough,’ he cried, ‘I can read it in thy countenance. Honesty is written there, and courage and simplicity. But I fear that, in this town of London, thou art apt to be taken in by people of no principle. Ah me! Ah me! The world is bad, and I am too old to improve it.’

Then finding him so good and kind, and anxious to improve the age, I told him almost everything; how much I paid the fellmonger, and all the things I had been to see; and how I longed to get away, before the corn was ripening; yet how (despite of these desires) I felt myself bound to walk up and down, being under a thing called ‘recognisance.’ In short, I told him everything; except the nature of my summons (which I had no right to tell), and that I was out of money.

My tale was told in a little archway, apart from other lawyers; and the other lawyers seemed to me to shift themselves, and to look askew, like sheep through a hurdle, when the rest are feeding.

‘What! Good God!’ my lawyer cried, smiting his breast indignantly with a roll of something learned; ‘in what country do we live? Under what laws are we governed? No case before the court whatever; no primary deposition, so far as we are furnished; not even a King’s writ issued — and here we have a fine young man dragged from his home and adoring mother, during the height of agriculture, at his own cost and charges! I have heard of many grievances; but this the very worst of all. Nothing short of a Royal Commission could be warranty for it. This is not only illegal, sir, but most gravely unconstitutional.’

‘I had not told you, worthy sir,’ I answered him, in a lower tone, ‘if I could have thought that your sense of right would be moved so painfully. But now I must beg to leave you, sir — for I see that the door again is open. I beg you, worshipful sir, to accept —’

Upon this he put forth his hand and said, ‘Nay, nay, my son, not two, not two:’ yet looking away, that he might not scare me.

‘To accept, kind sir, my very best thanks, and most respectful remembrances.’ And with that, I laid my hand in his. ‘And if, sir, any circumstances of business or of pleasure should bring you to our part of the world, I trust you will not forget that my mother and myself (if ever I get home again) will do our best to make you comfortable with our poor hospitality.’

With this I was hasting away from him, but he held my hand and looked round at me. And he spoke without cordiality.

‘Young man, a general invitation is no entry for my fee book. I have spent a good hour of business-time in mastering thy case, and stating my opinion of it. And being a member of the bar, called six-and-thirty years agone by the honourable society of the Inner Temple, my fee is at my own discretion; albeit an honorarium. For the honour of the profession, and my position in it, I ought to charge thee at least five guineas, although I would have accepted one, offered with good will and delicacy. Now I will enter it two, my son, and half a crown for my clerk’s fee.’

Saying this, he drew forth from his deep, blue bag, a red book having clasps to it, and endorsed in gold letters ‘Fee-book’; and before I could speak (being frightened so) he had entered on a page of it, ‘To consideration of ease as stated by John Ridd, and advising thereupon, two guineas.’

‘But sir, good sir,’ I stammered forth, not having two guineas left in the world, yet grieving to confess it, ‘I knew not that I was to pay, learned sir. I never thought of it in that way.’

‘Wounds of God! In what way thought you that a lawyer listened to your rigmarole?’

‘I thought that you listened from kindness, sir, and compassion of my grievous case, and a sort of liking for me.’

‘A lawyer like thee, young curmudgeon! A lawyer afford to feel compassion gratis! Either thou art a very deep knave, or the greenest of all greenhorns. Well, I suppose, I must let thee off for one guinea, and the clerk’s fee. A bad business, a shocking business!’

Now, if this man had continued kind and soft, as when he heard my story, I would have pawned my clothes to pay him, rather than leave a debt behind, although contracted unwittingly. But when he used harsh language so, knowing that I did not deserve it, I began to doubt within myself whether he deserved my money. Therefore I answered him with some readiness, such as comes sometimes to me, although I am so slow.

‘Sir, I am no curmudgeon: if a young man had called me so, it would not have been well with him. This money shall be paid, if due, albeit I had no desire to incur the debt. You have advised me that the Court is liable for my expenses, so far as they be reasonable. If this be a reasonable expense, come with me now to Lord Justice Jeffreys, and receive from him the two guineas, or (it may be) five, for the counsel you have given me to deny his jurisdiction.’ With these words, I took his arm to lead him, for the door was open still.

‘In the name of God, boy, let me go. Worthy sir, pray let me go. My wife is sick, and my daughter dying — in the name of God, sir, let me go.’

‘Nay, nay,’ I said, having fast hold of him, ‘I cannot let thee go unpaid, sir. Right is right; and thou shalt have it.’

‘Ruin is what I shall have, boy, if you drag me before that devil. He will strike me from the bar at once, and starve me, and all my family. Here, lad, good lad, take these two guineas. Thou hast despoiled the spoiler. Never again will I trust mine eyes for knowledge of a greenhorn.’

He slipped two guineas into the hand which I had hooked through his elbow, and spoke in an urgent whisper again, for the people came crowding around us —‘For God’s sake let me go, boy; another moment will be too late.’

‘Learned sir,’ I answered him, ‘twice you spoke, unless I err, of the necessity of a clerk’s fee, as a thing to be lamented.’

‘To be sure, to be sure, my son. You have a clerk as much as I have. There it is. Now I pray thee, take to the study of the law. Possession is nine points of it, which thou hast of me. Self-possession is the tenth, and that thou hast more than the other nine.’

Being flattered by this, and by the feeling of the two guineas and half-crown, I dropped my hold upon Counsellor Kitch (for he was no less a man than that), and he was out of sight in a second of time, wig, blue bag, and family. And before I had time to make up my mind what I should do with his money (for of course I meant not to keep it) the crier of the Court (as they told me) came out, and wanted to know who I was. I told him, as shortly as I could, that my business lay with His Majesty’s bench, and was very confidential; upon which he took me inside with warning, and showed me to an under-clerk, who showed me to a higher one, and the higher clerk to the head one.

When this gentleman understood all about my business (which I told him without complaint) he frowned at me very heavily, as if I had done him an injury.

‘John Ridd,’ he asked me with a stern glance, ‘is it your deliberate desire to be brought into the presence of the Lord Chief Justice?’

‘Surely, sir, it has been my desire for the last two months and more.’

‘Then, John, thou shalt be. But mind one thing, not a word of thy long detention, or thou mayst get into trouble.’

‘How, sir? For being detained against my own wish?’ I asked him; but he turned away, as if that matter were not worth his arguing, as, indeed, I suppose it was not, and led me through a little passage to a door with a curtain across it.

‘Now, if my Lord cross-question you,’ the gentleman whispered to me, ‘answer him straight out truth at once, for he will have it out of thee. And mind, he loves not to be contradicted, neither can he bear a hang-dog look. Take little heed of the other two; but note every word of the middle one; and never make him speak twice.’

I thanked him for his good advice, as he moved the curtain and thrust me in, but instead of entering withdrew, and left me to bear the brunt of it.

The chamber was not very large, though lofty to my eyes, and dark, with wooden panels round it. At the further end were some raised seats, such as I have seen in churches, lined with velvet, and having broad elbows, and a canopy over the middle seat. There were only three men sitting here, one in the centre, and one on each side; and all three were done up wonderfully with fur, and robes of state, and curls of thick gray horsehair, crimped and gathered, and plaited down to their shoulders. Each man had an oak desk before him, set at a little distance, and spread with pens and papers. Instead of writing, however, they seemed to be laughing and talking, or rather the one in the middle seemed to be telling some good story, which the others received with approval. By reason of their great perukes it was hard to tell how old they were; but the one who was speaking seemed the youngest, although he was the chief of them. A thick-set, burly, and bulky man, with a blotchy broad face, and great square jaws, and fierce eyes full of blazes; he was one to be dreaded by gentle souls, and to be abhorred by the noble.

Between me and the three lord judges, some few lawyers were gathering up bags and papers and pens and so forth, from a narrow table in the middle of the room, as if a case had been disposed of, and no other were called on. But before I had time to look round twice, the stout fierce man espied me, and shouted out with a flashing stare’—

‘How now, countryman, who art thou?’

‘May it please your worship,’ I answered him loudly, ‘I am John Ridd, of Oare parish, in the shire of Somerset, brought to this London, some two months back by a special messenger, whose name is Jeremy Stickles; and then bound over to be at hand and ready, when called upon to give evidence, in a matter unknown to me, but touching the peace of our lord the King, and the well-being of his subjects. Three times I have met our lord the King, but he hath said nothing about his peace, and only held it towards me, and every day, save Sunday, I have walked up and down the great hall of Westminster, all the business part of the day, expecting to be called upon, yet no one hath called upon me. And now I desire to ask your worship, whether I may go home again?’

‘Well, done, John,’ replied his lordship, while I was panting with all this speech; ‘I will go bail for thee, John, thou hast never made such a long speech before; and thou art a spunky Briton, or thou couldst not have made it now. I remember the matter well, and I myself will attend to it, although it arose before my time’ — he was but newly Chief Justice —‘but I cannot take it now, John. There is no fear of losing thee, John, any more than the Tower of London. I grieve for His Majesty’s exchequer, after keeping thee two months or more.’

‘Nay, my lord, I crave your pardon. My mother hath been keeping me. Not a groat have I received.’

‘Spank, is it so?’ his lordship cried, in a voice that shook the cobwebs, and the frown on his brow shook the hearts of men, and mine as much as the rest of them — ‘Spank, is His Majesty come to this, that he starves his own approvers?’

‘My lord, my lord,’ whispered Mr. Spank, the chief-officer of evidence, ‘the thing hath been overlooked, my lord, among such grave matters of treason.’

‘I will overlook thy head, foul Spank, on a spike from Temple Bar, if ever I hear of the like again. Vile varlet, what art thou paid for? Thou hast swindled the money thyself, foul Spank; I know thee, though thou art new to me. Bitter is the day for thee that ever I came across thee. Answer me not — one word more and I will have thee on a hurdle.’ And he swung himself to and fro on his bench, with both hands on his knees; and every man waited to let it pass, knowing better than to speak to him.

‘John Ridd,’ said the Lord Chief Justice, at last recovering a sort of dignity, yet daring Spank from the corners of his eyes to do so much as look at him, ‘thou hast been shamefully used, John Ridd. Answer me not boy; not a word; but go to Master Spank, and let me know how he behaves to thee;’ here he made a glance at Spank, which was worth at least ten pounds to me; ‘be thou here again tomorrow, and before any other case is taken, I will see justice done to thee. Now be off boy; thy name is Ridd, and we are well rid of thee.’

I was only too glad to go, after all this tempest; as you may well suppose. For if ever I saw a man’s eyes become two holes for the devil to glare from, I saw it that day; and the eyes were those of the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys.

Mr. Spank was in the lobby before me, and before I had recovered myself — for I was vexed with my own terror — he came up sidling and fawning to me, with a heavy bag of yellow leather.

‘Good Master Ridd, take it all, take it all, and say a good word for me to his lordship. He hath taken a strange fancy to thee; and thou must make the most of it. We never saw man meet him eye to eye so, and yet not contradict him, and that is just what he loveth. Abide in London, Master Ridd, and he will make thy fortune. His joke upon thy name proves that. And I pray you remember, Master Ridd, that the Spanks are sixteen in family.’

But I would not take the bag from him, regarding it as a sort of bribe to pay me such a lump of money, without so much as asking how great had been my expenses. Therefore I only told him that if he would kindly keep the cash for me until the morrow, I would spend the rest of the day in counting (which always is sore work with me) how much it had stood me in board and lodging, since Master Stickles had rendered me up; for until that time he had borne my expenses. In the morning I would give Mr. Spank a memorandum, duly signed, and attested by my landlord, including the breakfast of that day, and in exchange for this I would take the exact amount from the yellow bag, and be very thankful for it.

‘If that is thy way of using opportunity,’ said Spank, looking at me with some contempt, ‘thou wilt never thrive in these times, my lad. Even the Lord Chief Justice can be little help to thee; unless thou knowest better than that how to help thyself ’

It mattered not to me. The word ‘approver’ stuck in my gorge, as used by the Lord Chief Justice; for we looked upon an approver as a very low thing indeed. I would rather pay for every breakfast, and even every dinner, eaten by me since here I came, than take money as an approver. And indeed I was much disappointed at being taken in that light, having understood that I was sent for as a trusty subject, and humble friend of His Majesty.

In the morning I met Mr. Spank waiting for me at the entrance, and very desirous to see me. I showed him my bill, made out in fair copy, and he laughed at it, and said, ‘Take it twice over, Master Ridd; once for thine own sake, and once for His Majesty’s; as all his loyal tradesmen do, when they can get any. His Majesty knows and is proud of it, for it shows their love of his countenance; and he says, “bis dat qui cito dat,” then how can I grumble at giving twice, when I give so slowly?’

‘Nay, I will take it but once,’ I said; ‘if His Majesty loves to be robbed, he need not lack of his desire, while the Spanks are sixteen in family.’

The clerk smiled cheerfully at this, being proud of his children’s ability; and then having paid my account, he whispered —

‘He is all alone this morning, John, and in rare good humour. He hath been promised the handling of poor Master Algernon Sidney, and he says he will soon make republic of him; for his state shall shortly be headless. He is chuckling over his joke, like a pig with a nut; and that always makes him pleasant. John Ridd, my lord!’ With that he swung up the curtain bravely, and according to special orders, I stood, face to face, and alone with Judge Jeffreys.

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