Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 55

Getting into Chancery

Two of the Devonshire officers (Captains Pyke and Dallan) now took command of the men who were left, and ordered all to go home again, commending much the bravery which had been displayed on all sides, and the loyalty to the King, and the English constitution. This last word always seems to me to settle everything when said, because nobody understands it, and yet all can puzzle their neighbours. So the Devonshire men, having beans to sow (which they ought to have done on Good Friday) went home; and our Somerset friends only stayed for two days more to backbite them.

To me the whole thing was purely grievous; not from any sense of defeat (though that was bad enough) but from the pain and anguish caused by death, and wounds, and mourning. ‘Surely we have woes enough,’ I used to think of an evening, when the poor fellows could not sleep or rest, or let others rest around them; ‘surely all this smell of wounds is not incense men should pay to the God who made them. Death, when it comes and is done with, may be a bliss to any one; but the doubt of life or death, when a man lies, as it were, like a trunk upon a sawpit and a grisly head looks up at him, and the groans of pain are cleaving him, this would be beyond all bearing — but for Nature’s sap — sweet hope.’

Jeremy Stickles lay and tossed, and thrust up his feet in agony, and bit with his lipless mouth the clothes, and was proud to see blood upon them. He looked at us ever so many times, as much as to say, ‘Fools, let me die, then I shall have some comfort’; but we nodded at him sagely, especially the women, trying to convey to him, on no account to die yet. And then we talked to one another (on purpose for him to hear us), how brave he was, and not the man to knock under in a hurry, and how he should have the victory yet; and how well he looked, considering.

These things cheered him a little now, and a little more next time; and every time we went on so, he took it with less impatience. Then once when he had been very quiet, and not even tried to frown at us, Annie leaned over, and kissed his forehead, and spread the pillows and sheet, with a curve as delicate as his own white ears; and then he feebly lifted hands, and prayed to God to bless her. And after that he came round gently; though never to the man he had been, and never to speak loud again.

For a time (as I may have implied before) Master Stickles’s authority, and manner of levying duties, had not been taken kindly by the people round our neighbourhood. The manors of East Lynn and West Lynn, and even that of Woolhanger — although just then all three were at issue about some rights of wreck, and the hanging of a sheep-stealer (a man of no great eminence, yet claimed by each for the sake of his clothes)— these three, having their rights impugned, or even superseded, as they declared by the quartering of soldiers in their neighbourhood, united very kindly to oppose the King’s Commissioner. However, Jeremy had contrived to conciliate the whole of them, not so much by anything engaging in his deportment or delicate address, as by holding out bright hopes that the plunder of the Doone Glen might become divisible among the adjoining manors. Now I have never discovered a thing which the lords of manors (at least in our part of the world) do not believe to belong to themselves, if only they could get their rights. And it did seem natural enough that if the Doones were ousted, and a nice collection of prey remained, this should be parted among the people having ancient rights of plunder. Nevertheless, Master Jeremy knew that the soldiers would have the first of it, and the King what they could not carry.

And perhaps he was punished justly for language so misleading, by the general indignation of the people all around us, not at his failure, but at himself, for that which he could in no wise prevent. And the stewards of the manors rode up to our house on purpose to reproach him, and were greatly vexed with all of us, because he was too ill to see them.

To myself (though by rights the last to be thought of, among so much pain and trouble) Jeremy’s wound was a great misfortune, in more ways than one. In the first place, it deferred my chance of imparting either to my mother or to Mistress Lorna my firm belief that the maid I loved was not sprung from the race which had slain my father; neither could he in any way have offended against her family. And this discovery I was yearning more and more to declare to them; being forced to see (even in the midst of all our warlike troubles) that a certain difference was growing betwixt them both, and betwixt them and me. For although the words of the Counsellor had seemed to fail among us, being bravely met and scattered, yet our courage was but as wind flinging wide the tare-seeds, when the sower casts them from his bag. The crop may not come evenly, many places may long lie bare, and the field be all in patches; yet almost every vetch will spring, and tiller out, and stretch across the scatterings where the wind puffed.

And so dear mother and darling Lorna now had been for many a day thinking, worrying, and wearing, about the matter between us. Neither liked to look at the other, as they used to do; with mother admiring Lorna’s eyes, and grace, and form of breeding; and Lorna loving mother’s goodness, softness, and simplicity. And the saddest and most hurtful thing was that neither could ask the other of the shadow falling between them. And so it went on, and deepened.

In the next place Colonel Stickles’s illness was a grievous thing to us, in that we had no one now to command the troopers. Ten of these were still alive, and so well approved to us, that they could never fancy aught, whether for dinner or supper, without its being forth-coming. If they wanted trout they should have it; if colloped venison, or broiled ham, or salmon from Lynmouth and Trentisoe, or truffles from the woodside, all these were at the warriors’ service, until they lusted for something else. Even the wounded men ate nobly; all except poor Jeremy, who was forced to have a young elder shoot, with the pith drawn, for to feed him. And once, when they wanted pickled loach (from my description of it), I took up my boyish sport again, and pronged them a good jarful. Therefore, none of them could complain; and yet they were not satisfied; perhaps for want of complaining.

Be that as it might, we knew that if they once resolved to go (as they might do at any time, with only a corporal over them) all our house, and all our goods, ay, and our own precious lives, would and must be at the mercy of embittered enemies. For now the Doones, having driven back, as every one said, five hundred men — though not thirty had ever fought with them — were in such feather all round the country, that nothing was too good for them. Offerings poured in at the Doone gate, faster than Doones could away with them, and the sympathy both of Devon and Somerset became almost oppressive. And perhaps this wealth of congratulation, and mutual good feeling between plundered and victim, saved us from any piece of spite; kindliness having won the day, and every one loving every one.

But yet another cause arose, and this the strongest one of all, to prove the need of Stickles’s aid, and calamity of his illness. And this came to our knowledge first, without much time to think of it. For two men appeared at our gate one day, stripped to their shirts, and void of horses, and looking very sorrowful. Now having some fear of attack from the Doones, and scarce knowing what their tricks might be, we received these strangers cautiously, desiring to know who they were before we let them see all our premises.

However, it soon became plain to us that although they might not be honest fellows, at any rate they were not Doones; and so we took them in, and fed, and left them to tell their business. And this they were glad enough to do; as men who have been maltreated almost always are. And it was not for us to contradict them, lest our victuals should go amiss.

These two very worthy fellows — nay, more than that by their own account, being downright martyrs — were come, for the public benefit, from the Court of Chancery, sitting for everybody’s good, and boldly redressing evil. This court has a power of scent unknown to the Common-law practitioners, and slowly yet surely tracks its game; even as the great lumbering dogs, now introduced from Spain, and called by some people ‘pointers,’ differ from the swift gaze-hound, who sees his prey and runs him down in the manner of the common lawyers. If a man’s ill fate should drive him to make a choice between these two, let him rather be chased by the hounds of law, than tracked by the dogs of Equity.

Now, as it fell in a very black day (for all except the lawyers) His Majesty’s Court of Chancery, if that be what it called itself, gained scent of poor Lorna’s life, and of all that might be made of it. Whether through that brave young lord who ran into such peril, or through any of his friends, or whether through that deep old Counsellor, whose game none might penetrate; or through any disclosures of the Italian woman, or even of Jeremy himself; none just now could tell us; only this truth was too clear — Chancery had heard of Lorna, and then had seen how rich she was; and never delaying in one thing, had opened mouth, and swallowed her.

The Doones, with a share of that dry humour which was in them hereditary, had welcomed the two apparitors (if that be the proper name for them) and led them kindly down the valley, and told them then to serve their writ. Misliking the look of things, these poor men began to fumble among their clothes; upon which the Doones cried, ‘off with them! Let us see if your message he on your skins.’ And with no more manners than that, they stripped, and lashed them out of the valley; only bidding them come to us, if they wanted Lorna Doone; and to us they came accordingly. Neither were they sure at first but that we should treat them so; for they had no knowledge of the west country, and thought it quite a godless place, wherein no writ was holy.

We however comforted and cheered them so considerably, that, in gratitude, they showed their writs, to which they had stuck like leeches. And these were twofold; one addressed to Mistress Lorna Doone, so called, and bidding her keep in readiness to travel whenever called upon, and commit herself to nobody, except the accredited messengers of the right honourable Court; while the other was addressed to all subjects of His Majesty, having custody of Lorna Doone, or any power over her. And this last threatened and exhorted, and held out hopes of recompense, if she were rendered truly. My mother and I held consultation, over both these documents, with a mixture of some wrath and fear, and a fork of great sorrow to stir them. And now having Jeremy Stickles’s leave, which he gave with a nod when I told him all, and at last made him understand it, I laid bare to my mother as well what I knew, as what I merely surmised, or guessed, concerning Lorna’s parentage. All this she received with great tears, and wonder, and fervent thanks to God, and still more fervent praise of her son, who had nothing whatever to do with it. However, now the question was, how to act about these writs. And herein it was most unlucky that we could not have Master Stickles, with his knowledge of the world, and especially of the law-courts, to advise us what to do, and to help in doing it. And firstly of the first I said, ‘We have rogues to deal with; but try we not to rogue them.’

To this, in some measure, dear mother agreed, though she could not see the justice of it, yet thought that it might he wiser, because of our want of practice. And then I said, ‘Now we are bound to tell Lorna, and to serve her citation upon her, which these good fellows have given us.’

‘Then go, and do it thyself, my son,’ mother replied with a mournful smile, misdoubting what the end might be. So I took the slip of brown parchment, and went to seek my darling.

Lorna was in her favourite place, the little garden which she tended with such care and diligence. Seeing how the maiden loved it, and was happy there, I had laboured hard to fence it from the dangers of the wood. And here she had corrected me, with better taste, and sense of pleasure, and the joys of musing. For I meant to shut out the brook, and build my fence inside of it; but Lorna said no; if we must have a fence, which could not but be injury, at any rate leave the stream inside, and a pleasant bank beyond it. And soon I perceived that she was right, though not so much as afterwards; for the fairest of all things in a garden, and in summer-time most useful, is a brook of crystal water; where a man may come and meditate, and the flowers may lean and see themselves, and the rays of the sun are purfied. Now partly with her own white hands, and partly with Gwenny’s red ones, Lorna had made of this sunny spot a haven of beauty to dwell in. It was not only that colours lay in the harmony we would seek of them, neither was it the height of plants, sloping to one another; nor even the delicate tone of foliage following suit, and neighbouring. Even the breathing of the wind, soft and gentle in and out, moving things that need not move, and passing longer-stalked ones, even this was not enough among the flush of fragrance, to tell a man the reason of his quiet satisfaction. But so it shall for ever be. As the river we float upon (with wine, and flowers, and music,) is nothing at the well-spring but a bubble without reason.

Feeling many things, but thinking without much to guide me, over the grass-plats laid between, I went up to Lorna. She in a shower of damask roses, raised her eyes and looked at me. And even now, in those sweet eyes, so deep with loving-kindness, and soft maiden dreamings, there seemed to be a slight unwilling, half confessed withdrawal; overcome by love and duty, yet a painful thing to see.

‘Darling,’ I said, ‘are your spirits good? Are you strong enough today, to bear a tale of cruel sorrow; but which perhaps, when your tears are shed, will leave you all the happier?’

‘What can you mean?’ she answered trembling, not having been vey strong of late, and now surprised at my manner; ‘are you come to give me up, John?’

‘Not very likely,’ I replied; ‘neither do I hope such a thing would leave you all the happier. Oh, Lorna, if you can think that so quickly as you seem to have done, now you have every prospect and strong temptation to it. You are far, far above me in the world, and I have no right to claim you. Perhaps, when you have heard these tidings you will say, “John Ridd, begone; your life and mine are parted.”’

‘Will I?’ cried Lorna, with all the brightness of her playful ways returning: ‘you very foolish and jealous John, how shall I punish you for this? Am I to forsake every flower I have, and not even know that the world goes round, while I look up at you, the whole day long and say, “John, I love, love, love you?”’

During these words she leaned upon me, half in gay imitation of what I had so often made her do, and half in depth of earnestness, as the thrice-repeated word grew stronger, and grew warmer, with and to her heart. And as she looked up at the finish, saying, ‘you,’ so musically, I was much inclined to clasp her round; but remembering who she was, forbore; at which she seemed surprised with me.

‘Mistress Lorna, I replied, with I know not what temptation, making little of her caresses, though more than all my heart to me: ‘Mistress Lorna, you must keep your rank and proper dignity. You must never look at me with anything but pity now.’

‘I shall look at you with pity, John,’ said Lorna, trying to laugh it off, yet not knowing what to make of me, ‘if you talk any more of this nonsense, knowing me as you ought to do. I shall even begin to think that you, and your friends, are weary of me, and of so long supporting me; and are only seeking cause to send me back to my old misery. If it be so, I will go. My life matters little to any one.’ Here the great bright tears arose; but the maiden was too proud to sob.

‘Sweetest of all sweet loves,’ I cried, for the sign of a tear defeated me; ‘what possibility could make me ever give up Lorna?’

‘Dearest of all dears,’ she answered; ‘if you dearly love me, what possibility could ever make me give you up, dear?’

Upon that there was no more forbearing, but I kissed and clasped her, whether she were Countess, or whether Queen of England; mine she was, at least in heart; and mine she should be wholly. And she being of the same opinion, nothing was said between us.

‘Now, Lorna,’ said I, as she hung on my arm, willing to trust me anywhere, ‘come to your little plant-house, and hear my moving story.’

‘No story can move me much, dear,’ she answered rather faintly, for any excitement stayed with her; ‘since I know your strength of kindness, scarcely any tale can move me, unless it be of yourself, love; or of my poor mother.’

‘It is of your poor mother, darling. Can you bear to hear it?’ And yet I wondered why she did not say as much of her father.

‘Yes, I can bear anything. But although I cannot see her, and have long forgotten, I could not bear to hear ill of her.’

‘There is no ill to hear, sweet child, except of evil done to her. Lorna, you are of an ill-starred race.’

‘Better that than a wicked race,’ she answered with her usual quickness, leaping at conclusion; ‘tell me I am not a Doone, and I will — but I cannot love you more.’

‘You are not a Doone, my Lorna, for that, at least, I can answer; though I know not what your name is.’

‘And my father — your father — what I mean is —’

‘Your father and mine never met one another. Your father was killed by an accident in the Pyrenean mountains, and your mother by the Doones; or at least they caused her death, and carried you away from her.’

All this, coming as in one breath upon the sensitive maiden, was more than she could bear all at once; as any but a fool like me must of course have known. She lay back on the garden bench, with her black hair shed on the oaken bark, while her colour went and came and only by that, and her quivering breath, could any one say that she lived and thought. And yet she pressed my hand with hers, that I might tell her all of it.

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