Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 53

Jeremy Finds Out Something

‘You know, my son,’ said Jeremy Stickles, with a good pull at his pipe, because he was going to talk so much, and putting his legs well along the settle; ‘it has been my duty, for a wearier time than I care to think of (and which would have been unbearable, except for your great kindness), to search this neighbourhood narrowly, and learn everything about everybody. Now the neighbourhood itself is queer; and people have different ways of thinking from what we are used to in London. For instance now, among your folk, when any piece of news is told, or any man’s conduct spoken of, the very first question that arises in your mind is this —“Was this action kind and good?” Long after that, you say to yourselves, “does the law enjoin or forbid this thing?” Now here is your fundamental error: for among all truly civilised people the foremost of all questions is, “how stands the law herein?” And if the law approve, no need for any further questioning. That this is so, you may take my word: for I know the law pretty thoroughly.

‘Very well; I need not say any more about that, for I have shown that you are all quite wrong. I only speak of this savage tendency, because it explains so many things which have puzzled me among you, and most of all your kindness to men whom you never saw before; which is an utterly illegal thing. It also explains your toleration of these outlaw Doones so long. If your views of law had been correct, and law an element of your lives, these robbers could never have been indulged for so many years amongst you: but you must have abated the nuisance.’

‘Now, Stickles,’ I cried, ‘this is too bad!’ he was delivering himself so grandly. ‘Why you yourself have been amongst us, as the balance, and sceptre, and sword of law, for nigh upon a twelvemonth; and have you abated the nuisance, or even cared to do it, until they began to shoot at you?’

‘My son,’ he replied, ‘your argument is quite beside the purpose, and only tends to prove more clearly that which I have said of you. However, if you wish to hear my story, no more interruptions. I may not have a chance to tell you, perhaps for weeks, or I know not when, if once those yellows and reds arrive, and be blessed to them, the lubbers! Well, it may be six months ago, or it may be seven, at any rate a good while before that cursed frost began, the mere name of which sends a shiver down every bone of my body, when I was riding one afternoon from Dulverton to Watchett’—

‘Dulverton to Watchett!’ I cried. ‘Now what does that remind me of? I am sure, I remember something —’

‘Remember this, John, if anything — that another word from thee, and thou hast no more of mine. Well, I was a little weary perhaps, having been plagued at Dulverton with the grossness of the people. For they would tell me nothing at all about their fellow-townsmen, your worthy Uncle Huckaback, except that he was a God-fearing man, and they only wished I was like him. I blessed myself for a stupid fool, in thinking to have pumped them; for by this time I might have known that, through your Western homeliness, every man in his own country is something more than a prophet. And I felt, of course, that I had done more harm than good by questioning; inasmuch as every soul in the place would run straightway and inform him that the King’s man from the other side of the forest had been sifting out his ways and works.’

‘Ah,’ I cried, for I could not help it; ‘you begin to understand at last, that we are not quite such a set of oafs, as you at first believed us.’

‘I was riding on from Dulverton,’ he resumed, with great severity, yet threatening me no more, which checked me more than fifty threats: ‘and it was late in the afternoon, and I was growing weary. The road (if road it could be called) ‘turned suddenly down from the higher land to the very brink of the sea; and rounding a little jut of cliff, I met the roar of the breakers. My horse was scared, and leaped aside; for a northerly wind was piping, and driving hunks of foam across, as children scatter snow-balls. But he only sank to his fetlocks in the dry sand, piled with pop-weed: and I tried to make him face the waves; and then I looked about me.

‘Watchett town was not to be seen, on account of a little foreland, a mile or more upon my course, and standing to the right of me. There was room enough below the cliffs (which are nothing there to yours, John), for horse and man to get along, although the tide was running high with a northerly gale to back it. But close at hand and in the corner, drawn above the yellow sands and long eye-brows of rackweed, as snug a little house blinked on me as ever I saw, or wished to see.

‘You know that I am not luxurious, neither in any way given to the common lusts of the flesh, John. My father never allowed his hair to grow a fourth part of an inch in length, and he was a thoroughly godly man; and I try to follow in his footsteps, whenever I think about it. Nevertheless, I do assure you that my view of that little house and the way the lights were twinkling, so different from the cold and darkness of the rolling sea, moved the ancient Adam in me, if he could he found to move. I love not a house with too many windows: being out of house and doors some three-quarters of my time, when I get inside a house I like to feel the difference. Air and light are good for people who have any lack of them; and if a man once talks about them, ’tis enough to prove his need of them. But, as you well know, John Ridd, the horse who has been at work all day, with the sunshine in his eyes, sleeps better in dark stables, and needs no moon to help him.

‘Seeing therefore that this same inn had four windows, and no more, I thought to myself how snug it was, and how beautiful I could sleep there. And so I made the old horse draw hand, which he was only too glad to do, and we clomb above the spring-tide mark, and over a little piece of turf, and struck the door of the hostelry. Some one came and peeped at me through the lattice overhead, which was full of bulls’ eyes; and then the bolt was drawn back, and a woman met me very courteously. A dark and foreign-looking woman, very hot of blood, I doubt, but not altogether a bad one. And she waited for me to speak first, which an Englishwoman would not have done.

‘“Can I rest here for the night?” I asked, with a lift of my hat to her; for she was no provincial dame, who would stare at me for the courtesy; “my horse is weary from the sloughs, and myself but little better: beside that, we both are famished.”

‘“Yes, sir, you can rest and welcome. But of food, I fear, there is but little, unless of the common order. Our fishers would have drawn the nets, but the waves were violent. However, we have — what you call it? I never can remember, it is so hard to say — the flesh of the hog salted.”

‘“Bacon!” said I; “what can be better? And half dozen of eggs with it, and a quart of fresh-drawn ale. You make me rage with hunger, madam. Is it cruelty, or hospitality?”

‘“Ah, good!” she replied, with a merry smile, full of southern sunshine: “you are not of the men round here; you can think, and you can laugh!”

‘“And most of all, I can eat, good madam. In that way I shall astonish you; even more than by my intellect.”

‘She laughed aloud, and swung her shoulders, as your natives cannot do; and then she called a little maid to lead my horse to stable. However, I preferred to see that matter done myself, and told her to send the little maid for the frying-pan and the egg-box.

‘Whether it were my natural wit and elegance of manner; or whether it were my London freedom and knowledge of the world; or (which is perhaps the most probable, because the least pleasing supposition) my ready and permanent appetite, and appreciation of garlic — I leave you to decide, John: but perhaps all three combined to recommend me to the graces of my charming hostess. When I say “charming,” I mean of course by manners and by intelligence, and most of all by cooking; for as regards external charms (most fleeting and fallacious) hers had ceased to cause distress, for I cannot say how many years. She said that it was the climate — for even upon that subject she requested my opinion — and I answered, “if there be a change, let madam blame the seasons.”

‘However, not to dwell too much upon our little pleasantries (for I always get on with these foreign women better than with your Molls and Pegs), I became, not inquisitive, but reasonably desirous to know, by what strange hap or hazard, a clever and a handsome woman, as she must have been some day, a woman moreover with great contempt for the rustic minds around her, could have settled here in this lonely inn, with only the waves for company, and a boorish husband who slaved all day in turning a potter’s wheel at Watchett. And what was the meaning of the emblem set above her doorway, a very unattractive cat sitting in a ruined tree?

‘However, I had not very long to strain my curiosity; for when she found out who I was, and how I held the King’s commission, and might be called an officer, her desire to tell me all was more than equal to mine of hearing it. Many and many a day, she had longed for some one both skilful and trustworthy, most of all for some one bearing warrant from a court of justice. But the magistrates of the neighbourhood would have nothing to say to her, declaring that she was a crack-brained woman, and a wicked, and even a foreign one.

‘With many grimaces she assured me that never by her own free-will would she have lived so many years in that hateful country, where the sky for half the year was fog, and rain for nearly the other half. It was so the very night when first her evil fortune brought her there; and so no doubt it would be, long after it had killed her. But if I wished to know the reason of her being there, she would tell me in few words, which I will repeat as briefly.

‘By birth she was an Italian, from the mountains of Apulia, who had gone to Rome to seek her fortunes, after being badly treated in some love-affair. Her Christian name was Benita; as for her surname, that could make no difference to any one. Being a quick and active girl, and resolved to work down her troubles, she found employment in a large hotel; and rising gradually, began to send money to her parents. And here she might have thriven well, and married well under sunny skies, and been a happy woman, but that some black day sent thither a rich and noble English family, eager to behold the Pope. It was not, however, their fervent longing for the Holy Father which had brought them to St. Peter’s roof; but rather their own bad luck in making their home too hot to hold them. For although in the main good Catholics, and pleasant receivers of anything, one of their number had given offence, by the folly of trying to think for himself. Some bitter feud had been among them, Benita knew not how it was; and the sister of the nobleman who had died quite lately was married to the rival claimant, whom they all detested. It was something about dividing land; Benita knew not what it was.

‘But this Benita did know, that they were all great people, and rich, and very liberal; so that when they offered to take her, to attend to the children, and to speak the language for them, and to comfort the lady, she was only too glad to go, little foreseeing the end of it. Moreover, she loved the children so, from their pretty ways and that, and the things they gave her, and the style of their dresses, that it would have broken her heart almost never to see the dears again.

‘And so, in a very evil hour, she accepted the service of the noble Englishman, and sent her father an old shoe filled to the tongue with money, and trusted herself to fortune. But even before she went, she knew that it could not turn out well; for the laurel leaf which she threw on the fire would not crackle even once, and the horn of the goat came wrong in the twist, and the heel of her foot was shining. This made her sigh at the starting-time; and after that what could you hope for?

‘However, at first all things went well. My Lord was as gay as gay could be: and never would come inside the carriage, when a decent horse could be got to ride. He would gallop in front, at a reckless pace, without a weapon of any kind, delighted with the pure blue air, and throwing his heart around him. Benita had never seen any man so admirable, and so childish. As innocent as an infant; and not only contented, but noisily happy with anything. Only other people must share his joy; and the shadow of sorrow scattered it, though it were but the shade of poverty.

‘Here Benita wept a little; and I liked her none the less, and believed her ten times more; in virtue of a tear or two.

‘And so they travelled through Northern Italy, and throughout the south of France, making their way anyhow; sometimes in coaches, sometimes in carts, sometimes upon mule-back, sometimes even a-foot and weary; but always as happy as could be. The children laughed, and grew, and throve (especially the young lady, the elder of the two), and Benita began to think that omens must not be relied upon. But suddenly her faith in omens was confirmed for ever.

‘My Lord, who was quite a young man still, and laughed at English arrogance, rode on in front of his wife and friends, to catch the first of a famous view, on the French side of the Pyrenee hills. He kissed his hand to his wife, and said that he would save her the trouble of coming. For those two were so one in one, that they could make each other know whatever he or she had felt. And so my Lord went round the corner, with a fine young horse leaping up at the steps.

‘They waited for him, long and long; but he never came again; and within a week, his mangled body lay in a little chapel-yard; and if the priests only said a quarter of the prayers they took the money for, God knows they can have no throats left; only a relaxation.

‘My lady dwelled for six months more — it is a melancholy tale (what true tale is not so?)— scarcely able to believe that all her fright was not a dream. She would not wear a piece or shape of any mourning-clothes; she would not have a person cry, or any sorrow among us. She simply disbelieved the thing, and trusted God to right it. The Protestants, who have no faith, cannot understand this feeling. Enough that so it was; and so my Lady went to heaven.

‘For when the snow came down in autumn on the roots of the Pyrenees, and the chapel-yard was white with it, many people told the lady that it was time for her to go. And the strongest plea of all was this, that now she bore another hope of repeating her husband’s virtues. So at the end of October, when wolves came down to the farm-lands, the little English family went home towards their England.

‘They landed somewhere on the Devonshire coast, ten or eleven years agone, and stayed some days at Exeter; and set out thence in a hired coach, without any proper attendance, for Watchett, in the north of Somerset. For the lady owned a quiet mansion in the neighbourhood of that town, and her one desire was to find refuge there, and to meet her lord, who was sure to come (she said) when he heard of his new infant. Therefore with only two serving-men and two maids (including Benita), the party set forth from Exeter, and lay the first night at Bampton.

‘On the following morn they started bravely, with earnest hope of arriving at their journey’s end by daylight. But the roads were soft and very deep, and the sloughs were out in places; and the heavy coach broke down in the axle, and needed mending at Dulverton; and so they lost three hours or more, and would have been wiser to sleep there. But her ladyship would not hear of it; she must be home that night, she said, and her husband would be waiting. How could she keep him waiting now, after such a long, long time?

‘Therefore, although it was afternoon, and the year now come to December, the horses were put to again, and the heavy coach went up the hill, with the lady and her two children, and Benita, sitting inside of it; the other maid, and two serving-men (each man with a great blunderbuss) mounted upon the outside; and upon the horses three Exeter postilions. Much had been said at Dulverton, and even back at Bampton, about some great freebooters, to whom all Exmoor owed suit and service, and paid them very punctually. Both the serving-men were scared, even over their ale, by this. But the lady only said, “Drive on; I know a little of highwaymen: they never rob a lady.”

‘Through the fog and through the muck the coach went on, as best it might; sometimes foundered in a slough, with half of the horses splashing it, and some-times knuckled up on a bank, and straining across the middle, while all the horses kicked at it. However, they went on till dark as well as might be expected. But when they came, all thanking God, to the pitch and slope of the sea-bank, leading on towards Watchett town, and where my horse had shied so, there the little boy jumped up, and clapped his hands at the water; and there (as Benita said) they met their fate, and could not fly it.

‘Although it was past the dusk of day, the silver light from the sea flowed in, and showed the cliffs, and the gray sand-line, and the drifts of wreck, and wrack-weed. It showed them also a troop of horsemen, waiting under a rock hard by, and ready to dash upon them. The postilions lashed towards the sea, and the horses strove in the depth of sand, and the serving-men cocked their blunder-busses, and cowered away behind them; but the lady stood up in the carriage bravely, and neither screamed nor spoke, but hid her son behind her. Meanwhile the drivers drove into the sea, till the leading horses were swimming.

‘But before the waves came into the coach, a score of fierce men were round it. They cursed the postilions for mad cowards, and cut the traces, and seized the wheel-horses, all-wild with dismay in the wet and the dark. Then, while the carriage was heeling over, and well-nigh upset in the water, the lady exclaimed, “I know that man! He is our ancient enemy;” and Benita (foreseeing that all their boxes would be turned inside out, or carried away), snatched the most valuable of the jewels, a magnificent necklace of diamonds, and cast it over the little girl’s head, and buried it under her travelling-cloak, hoping to save it. Then a great wave, crested with foam, rolled in, and the coach was thrown on its side, and the sea rushed in at the top and the windows, upon shrieking, and clashing, and fainting away.

‘What followed Benita knew not, as one might well suppose, herself being stunned by a blow on the head, beside being palsied with terror. “See, I have the mark now,” she said, “where the jamb of the door came down on me!” But when she recovered her senses, she found herself lying upon the sand, the robbers were out of sight, and one of the serving-men was bathing her forehead with sea water. For this she rated him well, having taken already too much of that article; and then she arose and ran to her mistress, who was sitting upright on a little rock, with her dead boy’s face to her bosom, sometimes gazing upon him, and sometimes questing round for the other one.

‘Although there were torches and links around, and she looked at her child by the light of them, no one dared to approach the lady, or speak, or try to help her. Each man whispered his fellow to go, but each hung back himself, and muttered that it was too awful to meddle with. And there she would have sat all night, with the fine little fellow stone dead in her arms, and her tearless eyes dwelling upon him, and her heart but not her mind thinking, only that the Italian women stole up softly to her side, and whispered, “It is the will of God.”

‘“So it always seems to be,” were all the words the mother’ answered; and then she fell on Benita’s neck; and the men were ashamed to be near her weeping; and a sailor lay down and bellowed. Surely these men are the best.

‘Before the light of the morning came along the tide to Watchett my Lady had met her husband. They took her into the town that night, but not to her own castle; and so the power of womanhood (which is itself maternity) came over swiftly upon her. The lady, whom all people loved (though at certain times particular), lies in Watchett little churchyard, with son and heir at her right hand, and a little babe, of sex unknown, sleeping on her bosom.

‘This is a miserable tale,’ said Jeremy Stickles brightly; ‘hand me over the schnapps, my boy. What fools we are to spoil our eyes for other people’s troubles! Enough of our own to keep them clean, although we all were chimney-sweeps. There is nothing like good hollands, when a man becomes too sensitive. Restore the action of the glands; that is my rule, after weeping. Let me make you another, John. You are quite low-spirited.’

But although Master Jeremy carried on so (as became his manhood), and laughed at the sailor’s bellowing; bless his heart, I knew as well that tears were in his brave keen eyes, as if I had dared to look for them, or to show mine own.

‘And what was the lady’s name?’ I asked; ‘and what became of the little girl? And why did the woman stay there?’

‘Well!’ cried Jeremy Stickles, only too glad to be cheerful again: ‘talk of a woman after that! As we used to say at school —“Who dragged whom, how many times, in what manner, round the wall of what?” But to begin, last first, my John (as becomes a woman): Benita stayed in that blessed place, because she could not get away from it. The Doones — if Doones indeed they were, about which you of course know best — took every stiver out of the carriage: wet or dry they took it. And Benita could never get her wages: for the whole affair is in Chancery, and they have appointed a receiver.’

‘Whew!’ said I, knowing something of London, and sorry for Benita’s chance.

‘So the poor thing was compelled to drop all thought of Apulia, and settle down on the brink of Exmoor, where you get all its evils, without the good to balance them. She married a man who turned a wheel for making the blue Watchett ware, partly because he could give her a house, and partly because he proved himself a good soul towards my Lady. There they are, and have three children; and there you may go and visit them.’

‘I understand all that, Jeremy, though you do tell things too quickly, and I would rather have John Fry’s style; for he leaves one time for his words to melt. Now for my second question. What became of the little maid?’

‘You great oaf!’ cried Jeremy Stickles: ‘you are rather more likely to know, I should think, than any one else in all the kingdoms.’

‘If I knew, I should not ask you. Jeremy Stickles, do try to be neither conceited nor thick-headed.’

‘I will when you are neither,’ answered Master Jeremy; ‘but you occupy all the room, John. No one else can get in with you there.’

‘Very well then, let me out. Take me down in both ways.’

‘If ever you were taken down; you must have your double joints ready now. And yet in other ways you will be as proud and set up as Lucifer. As certain sure as I stand here, that little maid is Lorna Doone.’

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