Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 56

John Becomes Too Popular

No flower that I have ever seen, either in shifting of light and shade, or in the pearly morning, may vie with a fair young woman’s face when tender thought and quick emotion vary, enrich, and beautify it. Thus my Lorna hearkened softly, almost without word or gesture, yet with sighs and glances telling, and the pressure of my hand, how each word was moving her.

When at last my tale was done, she turned away, and wept bitterly for the sad fate of her parents. But to my surprise she spoke not even a word of wrath or rancour. She seemed to take it all as fate.

‘Lorna, darling,’ I said at length, for men are more impatient in trials of time than women are, ‘do you not even wish to know what your proper name is?’

‘How can it matter to me, John?’ she answered, with a depth of grief which made me seem a trifler. ‘It can never matter now, when there are none to share it.’

‘Poor little soul!’ was all I said in a tone of purest pity; and to my surprise she turned upon me, caught me in her arms, and loved me as she had never done before.

‘Dearest, I have you,’ she cried; ‘you, and only you, love. Having you I want no other. All my life is one with yours. Oh, John, how can I treat you so?’

Blushing through the wet of weeping, and the gloom of pondering, yet she would not hide her eyes, but folded me, and dwelled on me.

‘I cannot believe,’ in the pride of my joy, I whispered into one little ear, ‘that you could ever so love me, beauty, as to give up the world for me.’

‘Would you give up your farm for me, John?’ cried Lorna, leaping back and looking, with her wondrous power of light at me; ‘would you give up your mother, your sisters, your home, and all that you have in the world and every hope of your life, John?’

‘Of course I would. Without two thoughts. You know it; you know it, Lorna.’

‘It is true that I do, ‘she answered in a tone of deepest sadness; ‘and it is this power of your love which has made me love you so. No good can come of it, no good. God’s face is set against selfishness.’

As she spoke in that low tone I gazed at the clear lines of her face (where every curve was perfect) not with love and wonder only, but with a strange new sense of awe.

‘Darling,’ I said, ‘come nearer to me. Give me surety against that. For God’s sake never frighten me with the thought that He would part us.’

‘Does it then so frighten you?’ she whispered, coming close to me; ‘I know it, dear; I have known it long; but it never frightens me. It makes me sad, and very lonely, till I can remember.’

‘Till you can remember what?’ I asked, with a long, deep shudder; for we are so superstitious.

‘Until I do remember, love, that you will soon come back to me, and be my own for ever. This is what I always think of, this is what I hope for.’

Although her eyes were so glorious, and beaming with eternity, this distant sort of beatitude was not much to my liking. I wanted to have my love on earth; and my dear wife in my own home; and children in good time, if God should please to send us any. And then I would be to them, exactly what my father was to me. And beside all this, I doubted much about being fit for heaven; where no ploughs are, and no cattle, unless sacrificed bulls went thither.

Therefore I said, ‘Now kiss me, Lorna; and don’t talk any nonsense.’ And the darling came and did it; being kindly obedient, as the other world often makes us.

‘You sweet love,’ I said at this, being slave to her soft obedience; ‘do you suppose I should be content to leave you until Elysium?’

‘How on earth can I tell, dear John, what you will be content with?’

‘You, and only you,’ said I; ‘the whole of it lies in a syllable. Now you know my entire want; and want must be my comfort.’

‘But surely if I have money, sir, and birth, and rank, and all sorts of grandeur, you would never dare to think of me.’

She drew herself up with an air of pride, as she gravely pronounced these words, and gave me a scornful glance, or tried; and turned away as if to enter some grand coach or palace; while I was so amazed and grieved in my raw simplicity especially after the way in which she had first received my news, so loving and warm-hearted, that I never said a word, but stared and thought, ‘How does she mean it?’

She saw the pain upon my forehead, and the wonder in my eyes, and leaving coach and palace too, back she flew to me in a moment, as simple as simplest milkmaid.

‘Oh, you fearful stupid, John, you inexpressibly stupid, John,’ she cried with both arms round my neck, and her lips upon my forehead; ‘you have called yourself thick-headed, John, and I never would believe it. But now I do with all my heart. Will you never know what I am, love?’

‘No, Lorna, that I never shall. I can understand my mother well, and one at least of my sisters, and both the Snowe girls very easily, but you I never understand; only love you all the more for it.’

‘Then never try to understand me, if the result is that, dear John. And yet I am the very simplest of all foolish simple creatures. Nay, I am wrong; therein I yield the palm to you, my dear. To think that I can act so! No wonder they want me in London, as an ornament for the stage, John.’

Now in after days, when I heard of Lorna as the richest, and noblest, and loveliest lady to be found in London, I often remembered that little scene, and recalled every word and gesture, wondering what lay under it. Even now, while it was quite impossible once to doubt those clear deep eyes, and the bright lips trembling so; nevertheless I felt how much the world would have to do with it; and that the best and truest people cannot shake themselves quite free. However, for the moment, I was very proud and showed it.

And herein differs fact from fancy, things as they befall us from things as we would have them, human ends from human hopes; that the first are moved by a thousand and the last on two wheels only, which (being named) are desire and fear. Hope of course is nothing more than desire with a telescope, magnifying distant matters, overlooking near ones; opening one eye on the objects, closing the other to all objections. And if hope be the future tense of desire, the future of fear is religion — at least with too many of us.

Whether I am right or wrong in these small moralities, one thing is sure enough, to wit, that hope is the fastest traveller, at any rate, in the time of youth. And so I hoped that Lorna might be proved of blameless family, and honourable rank and fortune; and yet none the less for that, love me and belong to me. So I led her into the house, and she fell into my mother’s arms; and I left them to have a good cry of it, with Annie ready to help them.

If Master Stickles should not mend enough to gain his speech a little, and declare to us all he knew, I was to set out for Watchett, riding upon horseback, and there to hire a cart with wheels, such as we had not begun, as yet, to use on Exmoor. For all our work went on broad wood, with runners and with earthboards; and many of us still looked upon wheels (though mentioned in the Bible) as the invention of the evil one, and Pharoah’s especial property.

Now, instead of getting better, Colonel Stickles grew worse and worse, in spite of all our tendance of him, with simples and with nourishment, and no poisonous medicine, such as doctors would have given him. And the fault of this lay not with us, but purely with himself and his unquiet constitution. For he roused himself up to a perfect fever, when through Lizzie’s giddiness he learned the very thing which mother and Annie were hiding from him, with the utmost care; namely, that Sergeant Bloxham had taken upon himself to send direct to London by the Chancery officers, a full report of what had happened, and of the illness of his chief, together with an urgent prayer for a full battalion of King’s troops, and a plenary commander.

This Sergeant Bloxham, being senior of the surviving soldiers, and a very worthy man in his way, but a trifle over-zealous, had succeeded to the captaincy upon his master’s disablement. Then, with desire to serve his country and show his education, he sat up most part of three nights, and wrote this very wonderful report by the aid of our stable lanthorn. It was a very fine piece of work, as three men to whom he read it (but only one at a time) pronounced, being under seal of secrecy. And all might have gone well with it, if the author could only have held his tongue, when near the ears of women. But this was beyond his sense as it seems, although so good a writer. For having heard that our Lizzie was a famous judge of literature (as indeed she told almost every one), he could not contain himself, but must have her opinion upon his work.

Lizzie sat on a log of wood, and listened with all her ears up, having made proviso that no one else should be there to interrupt her. And she put in a syllable here and there, and many a time she took out one (for the Sergeant overloaded his gun, more often than undercharged it; like a liberal man of letters), and then she declared the result so good, so chaste, and the style to be so elegant, and yet so fervent, that the Sergeant broke his pipe in three, and fell in love with her on the spot. Now this has led me out of my way; as things are always doing, partly through their own perverseness, partly through my kind desire to give fair turn to all of them, and to all the people who do them. If any one expects of me a strict and well-drilled story, standing ‘at attention’ all the time, with hands at the side like two wens on my trunk, and eyes going neither right nor left; I trow that man has been disappointed many a page ago, and has left me to my evil ways; and if not, I love his charity. Therefore let me seek his grace, and get back, and just begin again.

That great despatch was sent to London by the Chancery officers, whom we fitted up with clothes, and for three days fattened them; which in strict justice they needed much, as well as in point of equity. They were kind enough to be pleased with us, and accepted my new shirts generously; and urgent as their business was, another week (as they both declared) could do no harm to nobody, and might set them upon their legs again. And knowing, although they were London men, that fish do live in water, these two fellows went fishing all day, but never landed anything. However, their holiday was cut short; for the Sergeant, having finished now his narrative of proceedings, was not the man to let it hang fire, and be quenched perhaps by Stickles.

Therefore, having done their business, and served both citations, these two good men had a pannier of victuals put up by dear Annie, and borrowing two of our horses, rode to Dunster, where they left them, and hired on towards London. We had not time to like them much, and so we did not miss them, especially in our great anxiety about poor Master Stickles.

Jeremy lay between life and death, for at least a fortnight. If the link of chain had flown upwards (for half a link of chain it was which took him in the mouth so), even one inch upwards, the poor man could have needed no one except Parson Bowden; for the bottom of his skull, which holds the brain as in the egg-cup, must have clean gone from him. But striking him horizontally, and a little upon the skew, the metal came out at the back of his neck, and (the powder not being strong, I suppose) it lodged in his leather collar.

Now the rust of this iron hung in the wound, or at least we thought so; though since I have talked with a man of medicine, I am not so sure of it. And our chief aim was to purge this rust; when rather we should have stopped the hole, and let the oxide do its worst, with a plug of new flesh on both sides of it.

At last I prevailed upon him by argument, that he must get better, to save himself from being ignobly and unjustly superseded; and hereupon I reviled Sergeant Bloxham more fiercely than Jeremy’s self could have done, and indeed to such a pitch that Jeremy almost forgave him, and became much milder. And after that his fever and the inflammation of his wound, diminished very rapidly.

However, not knowing what might happen, or even how soon poor Lorna might be taken from our power, and, falling into lawyers’ hands, have cause to wish herself most heartily back among the robbers, I set forth one day for Watchett, taking advantage of the visit of some troopers from an outpost, who would make our house quite safe. I rode alone, being fully primed, and having no misgivings. For it was said that even the Doones had begun to fear me, since I cast their culverin through the door, as above related; and they could not but believe, from my being still untouched (although so large an object) in the thickest of their fire, both of gun and cannon, that I must bear a charmed life, proof against ball and bullet. However, I knew that Carver Doone was not a likely man to hold any superstitious opinions; and of him I had an instinctive dread, although quite ready to face him.

Riding along, I meditated upon Lorna’s history; how many things were now beginning to unfold themselves, which had been obscure and dark! For instance, Sir Ensor Doone’s consent, or to say the least his indifference, to her marriage with a yeoman; which in a man so proud (though dying) had greatly puzzled both of us. But now, if she not only proved to be no grandchild of the Doone, but even descended from his enemy, it was natural enough that he should feel no great repugnance to her humiliation. And that Lorna’s father had been a foe to the house of Doone I gathered from her mother’s cry when she beheld their leader. Moreover that fact would supply their motive in carrying off the unfortunate little creature, and rearing her among them, and as one of their own family; yet hiding her true birth from her. She was a ‘great card,’ as we say, when playing All-fours at Christmas-time; and if one of them could marry her, before she learned of right and wrong, vast property, enough to buy pardons for a thousand Doones, would be at their mercy. And since I was come to know Lorna better, and she to know me thoroughly — many things had been outspoken, which her early bashfulness had kept covered from me. Attempts I mean to pledge her love to this one, or that other; some of which perhaps might have been successful, if there had not been too many.

And then, as her beauty grew richer and brighter, Carver Doone was smitten strongly, and would hear of no one else as a suitor for her; and by the terror of his claim drove off all the others. Here too may the explanation of a thing which seemed to be against the laws of human nature, and upon which I longed, but dared not to cross-question Lorna. How could such a lovely girl, although so young, and brave, and distant, have escaped the vile affections of a lawless company?

But now it was as clear as need be. For any proven violence would have utterly vitiated all claim upon her grand estate; at least as those claims must be urged before a court of equity. And therefore all the elders (with views upon her real estate) kept strict watch on the youngers, who confined their views to her personality.

Now I do not mean to say that all this, or the hundred other things which came, crowding consideration, were half as plain to me at the time, as I have set them down above. Far be it from me to deceive you so. No doubt my thoughts were then dark and hazy, like an oil-lamp full of fungus; and I have trimmed them, as when they burned, with scissors sharpened long afterwards. All I mean to say is this, that jogging along to a certain tune of the horse’s feet, which we call ‘three-halfpence and twopence,’ I saw my way a little into some things which had puzzled me.

When I knocked at the little door, whose sill was gritty and grimed with sand, no one came for a very long time to answer me, or to let me in. Not wishing to be unmannerly, I waited a long time, and watched the sea, from which the wind was blowing; and whose many lips of waves — though the tide was half-way out — spoke to and refreshed me. After a while I knocked again, for my horse was becoming hungry; and a good while after that again, a voice came through the key-hole —

‘Who is that wishes to enter?’

‘The boy who was at the pump,’ said I, ‘when the carriage broke down at Dulverton. The boy that lives at oh — ah; and some day you would come seek for him.’

‘Oh, yes, I remember certainly. My leetle boy, with the fair white skin. I have desired to see him, oh many, yes, many times.’

She was opening the door, while saying this, and then she started back in affright that the little boy should have grown so.

‘You cannot be that leetle boy. It is quite impossible. Why do you impose on me?’

‘Not only am I that little boy, who made the water to flow for you, till the nebule came upon the glass; but also I am come to tell you all about your little girl.’

‘Come in, you very great leetle boy,’ she answered, with her dark eyes brightened. And I went in, and looked at her. She was altered by time, as much as I was. The slight and graceful shape was gone; not that I remembered anything of her figure, if you please; for boys of twelve are not yet prone to note the shapes of women; but that her lithe straight gait had struck me as being so unlike our people. Now her time for walking so was past, and transmitted to her children. Yet her face was comely still, and full of strong intelligence. I gazed at her, and she at me; and we were sure of one another.

‘Now what will ye please to eat?’ she asked, with a lively glance at the size of my mouth: ‘that is always the first thing you people ask, in these barbarous places.’

‘I will tell you by-and-by,’ I answered, misliking this satire upon us; ‘but I might begin with a quart of ale, to enable me to speak, madam.’

‘Very well. One quevart of be-or;’ she called out to a little maid, who was her eldest child, no doubt. ‘It is to be expected, sir. Be-or, be-or, be-or, all day long, with you Englishmen!’

‘Nay,’ I replied, ‘not all day long, if madam will excuse me. Only a pint at breakfast-time, and a pint and a half at eleven o’clock, and a quart or so at dinner. And then no more till the afternoon; and half a gallon at supper-time. No one can object to that.’

‘Well, I suppose it is right,’ she said, with an air of resignation; ‘God knows. But I do not understand it. It is “good for business,” as you say, to preclude everything.’

‘And it is good for us, madam,’ I answered with indignation, for beer is my favourite beverage; ‘and I am a credit to beer, madam; and so are all who trust to it.’

‘At any rate, you are, young man. If beer has made you grow so large, I will put my children upon it; it is too late for me to begin. The smell to me is hateful.’

Now I only set down that to show how perverse those foreign people are. They will drink their wretched heartless stuff, such as they call claret, or wine of Medoc, or Bordeaux, or what not, with no more meaning than sour rennet, stirred with the pulp from the cider press, and strained through the cap of our Betty. This is very well for them; and as good as they deserve, no doubt, and meant perhaps by the will of God, for those unhappy natives. But to bring it over to England and set it against our home-brewed ale (not to speak of wines from Portugal) and sell it at ten times the price, as a cure for British bile, and a great enlightenment; this I say is the vilest feature of the age we live in.

Madam Benita Odam — for the name of the man who turned the wheel proved to be John Odam — showed me into a little room containing two chairs and a fir-wood table, and sat down on a three-legged seat and studied me very steadfastly. This she had a right to do; and I, having all my clothes on now, was not disconcerted. It would not become me to repeat her judgment upon my appearance, which she delivered as calmly as if I were a pig at market, and as proudly as if her own pig. And she asked me whether I had ever got rid of the black marks on my breast.

Not wanting to talk about myself (though very fond of doing so, when time and season favour) I led her back to that fearful night of the day when first I had seen her. She was not desirous to speak of it, because of her own little children; however, I drew her gradually to recollection of Lorna, and then of the little boy who died, and the poor mother buried with him. And her strong hot nature kindled, as she dwelled upon these things; and my wrath waxed within me; and we forgot reserve and prudence under the sense of so vile a wrong. She told me (as nearly as might be) the very same story which she had told to Master Jeremy Stickles; only she dwelled upon it more, because of my knowing the outset. And being a woman, with an inkling of my situation, she enlarged upon the little maid, more than to dry Jeremy.

‘Would you know her again?’ I asked, being stirred by these accounts of Lorna, when she was five years old: ‘would you know her as a full-grown maiden?’

‘I think I should,’ she answered; ‘it is not possible to say until one sees the person; but from the eyes of the little girl, I think that I must know her. Oh, the poor young creature! Is it to be believed that the cannibals devoured her! What a people you are in this country! Meat, meat, meat!’

As she raised her hands and eyes in horror at our carnivorous propensities, to which she clearly attributed the disappearance of Lorna, I could scarce help laughing, even after that sad story. For though it is said at the present day, and will doubtless be said hereafter, that the Doones had devoured a baby once, as they came up Porlock hill, after fighting hard in the market-place, I knew that the tale was utterly false; for cruel and brutal as they were, their taste was very correct and choice, and indeed one might say fastidious. Nevertheless I could not stop to argue that matter with her.

‘The little maid has not been devoured,’ I said to Mistress Odam: ‘and now she is a tall young lady, and as beautiful as can be. If I sleep in your good hostel to-night after going to Watchett town, will you come with me to Oare tomorrow, and see your little maiden?’

‘I would like — and yet I fear. This country is so barbarous. And I am good to eat — my God, there is much picking on my bones!’

She surveyed herself with a glance so mingled of pity and admiration, and the truth of her words was so apparent (only that it would have taken a week to get at the bones, before picking) that I nearly lost good manners; for she really seemed to suspect even me of cannibal inclinations. However, at last I made her promise to come with me on the morrow, presuming that Master Odam could by any means be persuaded to keep her company in the cart, as propriety demanded. Having little doubt that Master Odam was entirely at his wife’s command, I looked upon that matter as settled, and set off for Watchett, to see the grave of Lorna’s poor mother, and to hire a cart for the morrow.

And here (as so often happens with men) I succeeded without any trouble or hindrance, where I had looked for both of them, namely, in finding a suitable cart; whereas the other matter, in which I could have expected no difficulty, came very near to defeat me. For when I heard that Lorna’s father was the Earl of Dugal — as Benita impressed upon me with a strong enforcement, as much as to say, ‘Who are you, young man, to come even asking about her?’— then I never thought but that everybody in Watchett town must know all about the tombstone of the Countess of Dugal.

This, however, proved otherwise. For Lord Dugal had never lived at Watchett Grange, as their place was called; neither had his name become familiar as its owner. Because the Grange had only devolved to him by will, at the end of a long entail, when the last of the Fitz–Pains died out; and though he liked the idea of it, he had gone abroad, without taking seisin. And upon news of his death, John Jones, a rich gentleman from Llandaff, had taken possession, as next of right, and hushed up all the story. And though, even at the worst of times, a lady of high rank and wealth could not be robbed, and as bad as murdered, and then buried in a little place, without moving some excitement, yet it had been given out, on purpose and with diligence, that this was only a foreign lady travelling for her health and pleasure, along the seacoast of England. And as the poor thing never spoke, and several of her servants and her baggage looked so foreign, and she herself died in a collar of lace unlike any made in England, all Watchett, without hesitation, pronounced her to be a foreigner. And the English serving man and maid, who might have cleared up everything, either were bribed by Master Jones, or else decamped of their own accord with the relics of the baggage. So the poor Countess of Dugal, almost in sight of her own grand house, was buried in an unknown grave, with her pair of infants, without a plate, without a tombstone (worse than all) without a tear, except from the hired Italian woman.

Surely my poor Lorna came of an ill-starred family.

Now in spite of all this, if I had only taken Benita with me, or even told her what I wished, and craved her directions, there could have been no trouble. But I do assure you that among the stupid people at Watchett (compared with whom our folk of Oare, exceeding dense though being, are as Hamlet against Dogberry) what with one of them and another, and the firm conviction of all the town that I could be come only to wrestle, I do assure you (as I said before) that my wits almost went out of me. And what vexed me yet more about it was, that I saw my own mistake, in coming myself to seek out the matter, instead of sending some unknown person. For my face and form were known at that time (and still are so) to nine people out of every ten living in forty miles of me. Not through any excellence, or anything of good desert, in either the one or the other, but simply because folks will be fools on the rivalry of wrestling. The art is a fine one in itself, and demands a little wit of brain, as well as strength of body; it binds the man who studies it to temperance, and chastity, to self-respect, and most of all to an even and sweet temper; for I have thrown stronger men than myself (when I was a mere sapling, and before my strength grew hard on me) through their loss of temper. But though the art is an honest one, surely they who excel therein have a right (like all the rest of man-kind) to their own private life.

Be that either way — and I will not speak too strongly, for fear of indulging my own annoyance — anyhow, all Watchett town cared ten times as much to see John Ridd, as to show him what he wanted. I was led to every public-house, instead of to the churchyard; and twenty tables were ready for me, in lieu of a single gravestone. ‘Zummerzett thou bee’st, Jan Ridd, and Zummerzett thou shalt be. Thee carl theezell a Davonsheer man! Whoy, thee lives in Zummerzett; and in Zummerzett thee wast barn, lad.’ And so it went on, till I was weary; though very much obliged to them.

Dull and solid as I am, and with a wild duck waiting for me at good Mistress Odam’s, I saw that there was nothing for it but to yield to these good people, and prove me a man of Somerset, by eating a dinner at their expense. As for the churchyard, none would hear of it; and I grieved for broaching the matter.

But how was I to meet Lorna again, without having done the thing of all things which I had promised to see to? It would never do to tell her that so great was my popularity, and so strong the desire to feed me, that I could not attend to her mother. Least of all could I say that every one in Watchett knew John Ridd; while none had heard of the Countess of Dugal. And yet that was about the truth, as I hinted very delicately to Mistress Odam that evening. But she (being vexed about her wild duck, and not having English ideas on the matter of sport, and so on) made a poor unwitting face at me. Nevertheless Master Odam restored me to my self-respect; for he stared at me till I went to bed; and he broke his hose with excitement. For being in the leg-line myself, I wanted to know what the muscles were of a man who turned a wheel all day. I had never seen a treadmill (though they have one now at Exeter), and it touched me much to learn whether it were good exercise. And herein, from what I saw of Odam, I incline to think that it does great harm; as moving the muscles too much in a line, and without variety.

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