Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 58

Master Huckaback’s Secret

Knowing Master Huckaback to be a man of his word, as well as one who would have others so, I was careful to be in good time the next morning, by the side of the Wizard’s Slough. I am free to admit that the name of the place bore a feeling of uneasiness, and a love of distance, in some measure to my heart. But I did my best not to think of this; only I thought it a wise precaution, and due for the sake of my mother and Lorna, to load my gun with a dozen slugs made from the lead of the old church-porch, laid by, long since, against witchcraft.

I am well aware that some people now begin to doubt about witchcraft; or at any rate feign to do so; being desirous to disbelieve whatever they are afraid of. This spirit is growing too common among us, and will end (unless we put a stop to it!) in the destruction of all religion. And as regards witchcraft, a man is bound either to believe in it, or to disbelieve the Bible. For even in the New Testament, discarding many things of the Old, such as sacrifices, and Sabbath, and fasting, and other miseries, witchcraft is clearly spoken of as a thing that must continue; that the Evil One be not utterly robbed of his vested interests. Hence let no one tell me that witchcraft is done away with; for I will meet him with St. Paul, than whom no better man, and few less superstitious, can be found in all the Bible.

Feeling these things more in those days than I feel them now, I fetched a goodish compass round, by the way of the cloven rocks, rather than cross Black Barrow Down, in a reckless and unholy manner. There were several spots, upon that Down, cursed and smitten, and blasted, as if thunderbolts had fallen there, and Satan sat to keep them warm. At any rate it was good (as every one acknowledged) not to wander there too much; even with a doctor of divinity on one arm and of medicine upon the other.

Therefore, I, being all alone, and on foot (as seemed the wisest), preferred a course of roundabout; and starting about eight o’clock, without mentioning my business, arrived at the mouth of the deep descent, such as John Fry described it. Now this (though I have not spoken of it) was not my first time of being there. For, although I could not bring myself to spy upon Uncle Reuben, as John Fry had done, yet I thought it no ill manners, after he had left our house, to have a look at the famous place, where the malefactor came to life, at least in John’s opinion. At that time, however, I saw nothing except the great ugly black morass, with the grisly reeds around it; and I did not care to go very near it, much less to pry on the further side.

Now, on the other hand, I was bent to get at the very bottom of this mystery (if there were any), having less fear of witch or wizard, with a man of Uncle Reuben’s wealth to take my part, and see me through. So I rattled the ramrod down my gun, just to know if the charge were right, after so much walking; and finding it full six inches deep, as I like to have it, went boldly down the steep gorge of rock, with a firm resolve to shoot any witch unless it were good Mother Melldrum. Nevertheless to my surprise, all was quiet, and fair to look at, in the decline of the narrow way, with great stalked ferns coming forth like trees, yet hanging like cobwebs over one. And along one side, a little spring was getting rid of its waters. Any man might stop and think; or he might go on and think; and in either case, there was none to say that he was making a fool of himself.

When I came to the foot of this ravine, and over against the great black slough, there was no sign of Master Huckaback, nor of any other living man, except myself, in the silence. Therefore, I sat in a niche of rock, gazing at the slough, and pondering the old tradition about it.

They say that, in the ancient times, a mighty necromancer lived in the wilderness of Exmoor. Here, by spell and incantation, he built himself a strong high palace, eight-sided like a spider’s web, and standing on a central steep; so that neither man nor beast could cross the moors without his knowledge. If he wished to rob and slay a traveller, or to have wild ox, or stag for food, he had nothing more to do than sit at one of his eight windows, and point his unholy book at him. Any moving creature, at which that book was pointed, must obey the call, and come from whatever distance, if sighted once by the wizard.

This was a bad condition of things, and all the country groaned under it; and Exmoor (although the most honest place that a man could wish to live in) was beginning to get a bad reputation, and all through that vile wizard. No man durst even go to steal a sheep, or a pony, or so much as a deer for dinner, lest he should be brought to book by a far bigger rogue than he was. And this went on for many years; though they prayed to God to abate it. But at last, when the wizard was getting fat and haughty upon his high stomach, a mighty deliverance came to Exmoor, and a warning, and a memory. For one day the sorcerer gazed from his window facing the southeast of the compass, and he yawned, having killed so many men that now he was weary of it.

“Ifackins,’ he cried, or some such oath, both profane and uncomely, ‘I see a man on the verge of the sky-line, going along laboriously. A pilgrim, I trow, or some such fool, with the nails of his boots inside them. Too thin to be worth eating; but I will have him for the fun of the thing; and most of those saints have got money.’

With these words he stretched forth his legs on a stool, and pointed the book of heathenish spells back upwards at the pilgrim. Now this good pilgrim was plodding along, soberly and religiously, with a pound of flints in either boot, and not an ounce of meat inside him. He felt the spell of the wicked book, but only as a horse might feel a ‘gee-wug!’ addressed to him. It was in the power of this good man, either to go on, or turn aside, and see out the wizard’s meaning. And for a moment he halted and stood, like one in two minds about a thing. Then the wizard clapped one cover to, in a jocular and insulting manner; and the sound of it came to the pilgrim’s ear, about five miles in the distance, like a great gun fired at him.

‘By our Lady,’ he cried, ‘I must see to this; although my poor feet have no skin below them. I will teach this heathen miscreant how to scoff at Glastonbury.’

Thereupon he turned his course, and ploughed along through the moors and bogs, towards the eight-sided palace. The wizard sat on his chair of comfort, and with the rankest contempt observed the holy man ploughing towards him. ‘He has something good in his wallet, I trow,’ said the black thief to himself; ‘these fellows get always the pick of the wine, and the best of a woman’s money.’ Then he cried, ‘Come in, come in, good sir,’ as he always did to every one.

‘Bad sir, I will not come in,’ said the pilgrim; ‘neither shall you come out again. Here are the bones of all you have slain; and here shall your own bones be.’

‘Hurry me not,’ cried the sorcerer; ‘that is a thing to think about. How many miles hast thou travelled this day?’

But the pilgrim was too wide awake, for if he had spoken of any number, bearing no cross upon it, the necromancer would have had him, like a ball at bando-play. Therefore he answered, as truly as need be, ‘By the grace of our Lady, nine.’

Now nine is the crossest of all cross numbers, and full to the lip of all crochets. So the wizard staggered back, and thought, and inquired again with bravery, ‘Where can you find a man and wife, one going up-hill and one going down, and not a word spoken between them?’

‘In a cucumber plant,’ said the modest saint; blushing even to think of it; and the wizard knew he was done for.

‘You have tried me with ungodly questions,’ continued the honest pilgrim, with one hand still over his eyes, as he thought of the feminine cucumber; ‘and now I will ask you a pure one. To whom of mankind have you ever done good, since God saw fit to make you?’

The wizard thought, but could quote no one; and he looked at the saint, and the saint at him, and both their hearts were trembling. ‘Can you mention only one?’ asked the saint, pointing a piece of the true cross at him, hoping he might cling to it; ‘even a little child will do; try to think of some one.’

The earth was rocking beneath their feet, and the palace windows darkened on them, with a tint of blood, for now the saint was come inside, hoping to save the wizard.

‘If I must tell the pure truth,’ said the wizard, looking up at the arches of his windows, ‘I can tell of only one to whom I ever have done good.’

‘One will do; one is quite enough; be quick before the ground opens. The name of one — and this cross will save you. Lay your thumb on the end of it.’

‘Nay, that I cannot do, great saint. The devil have mercy upon me.’

All this while the palace was sinking, and blackness coming over them.

‘Thou hast all but done for thyself,’ said the saint, with a glory burning round his head; ‘by that last invocation. Yet give us the name of the one, my friend, if one there be; it will save thee, with the cross upon thy breast. All is crashing round us; dear brother, who is that one?’

‘My own self,’ cried the wretched wizard.

‘Then there is no help for thee.’ And with that the honest saint went upward, and the wizard, and all his palace, and even the crag that bore it, sank to the bowels of the earth; and over them was nothing left except a black bog fringed with reed, of the tint of the wizard’s whiskers. The saint, however, was all right, after sleeping off the excitement; and he founded a chapel, some three miles westward; and there he lies with his holy relic and thither in after ages came (as we all come home at last) both my Lorna’s Aunt Sabina, and her guardian Ensor Doone.

While yet I dwelled upon this strange story, wondering if it all were true, and why such things do not happen now, a man on horseback appeared as suddenly as if he had risen out of the earth, on the other side of the great black slough. At first I was a little scared, my mind being in the tune for wonders; but presently the white hair, whiter from the blackness of the bog between us, showed me that it was Uncle Reuben come to look for me, that way. Then I left my chair of rock, and waved my hat and shouted to him, and the sound of my voice among the crags and lonely corners frightened me.

Old Master Huckaback made no answer, but (so far as I could guess) beckoned me to come to him. There was just room between the fringe of reed and the belt of rock around it, for a man going very carefully to escape that horrible pit-hole. And so I went round to the other side, and there found open space enough, with stunted bushes, and starveling trees, and straggling tufts of rushes.

‘You fool, you are frightened,’ said Uncle Ben, as he looked at my face after shaking hands: ‘I want a young man of steadfast courage, as well as of strength and silence. And after what I heard of the battle at Glen Doone, I thought I might trust you for courage.’

‘So you may,’ said I, ‘wherever I see mine enemy; but not where witch and wizard be.’

‘Tush, great fool!’ cried Master Huckaback; ‘the only witch or wizard here is the one that bewitcheth all men. Now fasten up my horse, John Ridd, and not too near the slough, lad. Ah, we have chosen our entrance wisely. Two good horsemen, and their horses, coming hither to spy us out, are gone mining on their own account (and their last account it is) down this good wizard’s bog-hole.’

With these words, Uncle Reuben clutched the mane of his horse and came down, as a man does when his legs are old; and as I myself begin to do, at this time of writing. I offered a hand, but he was vexed, and would have nought to do with it.

‘Now follow me, step for step,’ he said, when I had tethered his horse to a tree; ‘the ground is not death (like the wizard’s hole), but many parts are treacherous, I know it well by this time.’

Without any more ado, he led me in and out the marshy places, to a great round hole or shaft, bratticed up with timber. I never had seen the like before, and wondered how they could want a well, with so much water on every side. Around the mouth were a few little heaps of stuff unused to the daylight; and I thought at once of the tales I had heard concerning mines in Cornwall, and the silver cup at Combe–Martin, sent to the Queen Elizabeth.

‘We had a tree across it, John,’ said Uncle Reuben, smiling grimly at my sudden shrink from it: ‘but some rogue came spying here, just as one of our men went up. He was frightened half out of his life, I believe, and never ventured to come again. But we put the blame of that upon you. And I see that we were wrong, John.’ Here he looked at me with keen eyes, though weak.

‘You were altogether wrong,’ I answered. ‘Am I mean enough to spy upon any one dwelling with us? And more than that, Uncle Reuben, it was mean of you to suppose it.’

‘All ideas are different,’ replied the old man to my heat, like a little worn-out rill running down a smithy; ‘you with your strength and youth, and all that, are inclined to be romantic. I take things as I have known them, going on for seventy years. Now will you come and meet the wizard, or does your courage fail you?’

‘My courage must be none,’ said I, ‘if I would not go where you go, sir.’

He said no more, but signed to me to lift a heavy wooden corb with an iron loop across it, and sunk in a little pit of earth, a yard or so from the mouth of the shaft. I raised it, and by his direction dropped it into the throat of the shaft, where it hung and shook from a great cross-beam laid at the level of the earth. A very stout thick rope was fastened to the handle of the corb, and ran across a pulley hanging from the centre of the beam, and thence out of sight in the nether places.

‘I will first descend,’ he said; ‘your weight is too great for safety. When the bucket comes up again, follow me, if your heart is good.’

Then he whistled down, with a quick sharp noise, and a whistle from below replied; and he clomb into the vehicle, and the rope ran through the pulley, and Uncle Ben went merrily down, and was out of sight, before I had time to think of him.

Now being left on the bank like that, and in full sight of the goodly heaven, I wrestled hard with my flesh and blood, about going down into the pit-hole. And but for the pale shame of the thing, that a white-headed man should adventure so, and green youth doubt about it, never could I have made up my mind; for I do love air and heaven. However, at last up came the bucket; and with a short sad prayer I went into whatever might happen.

My teeth would chatter, do all I could; but the strength of my arms was with me; and by them I held on the grimy rope, and so eased the foot of the corb, which threatened to go away fathoms under me. Of course I should still have been safe enough, being like an egg in an egg-cup, too big to care for the bottom; still I wished that all should be done, in good order, without excitement.

The scoopings of the side grew black, and the patch of sky above more blue, as with many thoughts of Lorna, a long way underground I sank. Then I was fetched up at the bottom with a jerk and rattle; and but for holding by the rope so, must have tumbled over. Two great torches of bale-resin showed me all the darkness, one being held by Uncle Ben and the other by a short square man with a face which seemed well-known to me.

‘Hail to the world of gold, John Ridd,’ said Master Huckaback, smiling in the old dry manner; ‘bigger coward never came down the shaft, now did he, Carfax?’

‘They be all alike,’ said the short square man, ‘fust time as they doos it.’

‘May I go to heaven,’ I cried, ‘which is a thing quite out of sight’— for I always have a vein of humour, too small to be followed by any one —‘if ever again of my own accord I go so far away from it!’ Uncle Ben grinned less at this than at the way I knocked my shin in getting out of the bucket; and as for Master Carfax, he would not even deign to smile. And he seemed to look upon my entrance as an interloping.

For my part, I had nought to do, after rubbing my bruised leg, except to look about me, so far as the dullness of light would help. And herein I seemed, like a mouse in a trap, able no more than to run to and fro, and knock himself, and stare at things. For here was a little channel grooved with posts on either side of it, and ending with a heap of darkness, whence the sight came back again; and there was a scooped place, like a funnel, but pouring only to darkness. So I waited for somebody to speak first, not seeing my way to anything.’

‘You seem to be disappointed, John,’ said Uncle Reuben, looking blue by the light of the flambeaux; ‘did you expect to see the roof of gold, and the sides of gold, and the floor of gold, John Ridd?’

‘Ha, ha!’ cried Master Carfax; ‘I reckon her did; no doubt her did.’

‘You are wrong,’ I replied; ‘but I did expect to see something better than dirt and darkness.’

‘Come on then, my lad; and we will show you some-thing better. We want your great arm on here, for a job that has beaten the whole of us.’

With these words, Uncle Ben led the way along a narrow passage, roofed with rock and floored with slate-coloured shale and shingle, and winding in and out, until we stopped at a great stone block or boulder, lying across the floor, and as large as my mother’s best oaken wardrobe. Beside it were several sledge-hammers, battered, and some with broken helves.

‘Thou great villain!’ cried Uncle Ben, giving the boulder a little kick; ‘I believe thy time is come at last. Now, John, give us a sample of the things they tell of thee. Take the biggest of them sledge-hammers and crack this rogue in two for us. We have tried at him for a fortnight, and he is a nut worth cracking. But we have no man who can swing that hammer, though all in the mine have handled it.’

‘I will do my very best,’ said I, pulling off my coat and waistcoat, as if I were going to wrestle; ‘but I fear he will prove too tough for me.’

‘Ay, that her wull,’ grunted Master Carfax; ‘lack’th a Carnishman, and a beg one too, not a little charp such as I be. There be no man outside Carnwall, as can crack that boolder.’

‘Bless my heart,’ I answered; ‘but I know something of you, my friend, or at any rate of your family. Well, I have beaten most of your Cornish men, though not my place to talk of it. But mind, if I crack this rock for you, I must have some of the gold inside it.’

‘Dost think to see the gold come tumbling out like the kernel of a nut, thou zany?’ asked Uncle Reuben pettishly; ‘now wilt thou crack it or wilt thou not? For I believe thou canst do it, though only a lad of Somerset.’

Uncle Reuben showed by saying this, and by his glance at Carfax, that he was proud of his county, and would be disappointed for it if I failed to crack the boulder. So I begged him to stoop his torch a little, that I might examine my subject. To me there appeared to be nothing at all remarkable about it, except that it sparkled here and there, when the flash of the flame fell upon it. A great obstinate, oblong, sullen stone; how could it be worth the breaking, except for making roads with?

Nevertheless, I took up the hammer, and swinging it far behind my head, fetched it down, with all my power, upon the middle of the rock. The roof above rang mightily, and the echo went down delven galleries, so that all the miners flocked to know what might be doing. But Master Carfax only smiled, although the blow shook him where he stood, for behold the stone was still unbroken, and as firm as ever. Then I smote it again, with no better fortune, and Uncle Ben looked vexed and angry, but all the miners grinned with triumph.

‘This little tool is too light,’ I cried; ‘one of you give me a piece of strong cord.’

Then I took two more of the weightiest hammers, and lashed them fast to the back of mine, not so as to strike, but to burden the fall. Having made this firm, and with room to grasp the handle of the largest one only — for the helves of the others were shorter — I smiled at Uncle Ben, and whirled the mighty implement round my head, just to try whether I could manage it. Upon that the miners gave a cheer, being honest men, and desirous of seeing fair play between this ‘shameless stone’ (as Dan Homer calls it) and me with my hammer hammering.

Then I swung me on high to the swing of the sledge, as a thresher bends back to the rise of his flail, and with all my power descending delivered the ponderous onset. Crashing and crushed the great stone fell over, and threads of sparkling gold appeared in the jagged sides of the breakage.

‘How now, Simon Carfax?’ cried Uncle Ben triumphantly; ‘wilt thou find a man in Cornwall can do the like of that?’

‘Ay, and more,’ he answered; ‘however, it be pretty fair for a lad of these outlandish parts. Get your rollers, my lads, and lead it to the crushing engine.’

I was glad to have been of some service to them; for it seems that this great boulder had been too large to be drawn along the gallery and too hard to crack. But now they moved it very easily, taking piece by piece, and carefully picking up the fragments.

‘Thou hast done us a good turn, my lad,’ said Uncle Reuben, as the others passed out of sight at the corner; ‘and now I will show thee the bottom of a very wondrous mystery. But we must not do it more than once, for the time of day is the wrong one.’

The whole affair being a mystery to me, and far beyond my understanding, I followed him softly, without a word, yet thinking very heavily, and longing to be above ground again. He led me through small passages, to a hollow place near the descending shaft, where I saw a most extraordinary monster fitted up. In form it was like a great coffee-mill, such as I had seen in London, only a thousand times larger, and with heavy windlass to work it.

‘Put in a barrow-load of the smoulder,’ said Uncle Ben to Carfax, ‘and let them work the crank, for John to understand a thing or two.’

‘At this time of day!’ cried Simon Carfax; ‘and the watching as has been o’ late!’

However, he did it without more remonstrance; pouring into the scuttle at the top of the machine about a baskeful of broken rock; and then a dozen men went to the wheel, and forced it round, as sailors do. Upon that such a hideous noise arose, as I never should have believed any creature capable of making, and I ran to the well of the mine for air, and to ease my ears, if possible.

‘Enough, enough!’ shouted Uncle Ben by the time I was nearly deafened; ‘we will digest our goodly boulder after the devil is come abroad for his evening work. Now, John, not a word about what you have learned; but henceforth you will not be frightened by the noise we make at dusk.’

I could not deny but what this was very clever management. If they could not keep the echoes of the upper air from moving, the wisest plan was to open their valves during the discouragement of the falling evening; when folk would rather be driven away, than drawn into the wilds and quagmires, by a sound so deep and awful, coming through the darkness.

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