Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 64

Slaughter in the Marshes

We rattled away at a merry pace, out of the town of Dulverton; my horse being gaily fed, and myself quite fit again for going. Of course I was puzzled about Cousin Ruth; for her behaviour was not at all such as I had expected; and indeed I had hoped for a far more loving and moving farewell than I got from her. But I said to myself, ‘It is useless ever to count upon what a woman will do; and I think that I must have vexed her, almost as much as she vexed me. And now to see what comes of it.’ So I put my horse across the moorland; and he threw his chest out bravely.

Now if I tried to set down at length all the things that happened to me, upon this adventure, every in and out, and up and down, and to and fro, that occupied me, together with the things I saw, and the things I heard of, however much the wiser people might applaud my narrative, it is likely enough that idle readers might exclaim, ‘What ails this man? Knows he not that men of parts and of real understanding, have told us all we care to hear of that miserable business. Let him keep to his farm, and his bacon, and his wrestling, and constant feeding.’

Fearing to meet with such rebuffs (which after my death would vex me), I will try to set down only what is needful for my story, and the clearing of my character, and the good name of our parish. But the manner in which I was bandied about, by false information, from pillar to post, or at other times driven quite out of my way by the presence of the King’s soldiers, may be known by the names of the following towns, to which I was sent in succession, Bath, Frome, Wells, Wincanton, Glastonbury, Shepton, Bradford, Axbridge, Somerton, and Bridgwater.

This last place I reached on a Sunday night, the fourth or fifth of July, I think — or it might be the sixth, for that matter; inasmuch as I had been too much worried to get the day of the month at church. Only I know that my horse and myself were glad to come to a decent place, where meat and corn could be had for money; and being quite weary of wandering about, we hoped to rest there a little.

Of this, however, we found no chance, for the town was full of the good Duke’s soldiers; if men may be called so, the half of whom had never been drilled, nor had fired a gun. And it was rumoured among them, that the ‘popish army,’ as they called it, was to be attacked that very night, and with God’s assistance beaten. However, by this time I had been taught to pay little attention to rumours; and having sought vainly for Tom Faggus among these poor rustic warriors, I took to my hostel; and went to bed, being as weary as weary can be.

Falling asleep immediately, I took heed of nothing; although the town was all alive, and lights had come glancing, as I lay down, and shouts making echo all round my room. But all I did was to bolt the door; not an inch would I budge, unless the house, and even my bed, were on fire. And so for several hours I lay, in the depth of the deepest slumber, without even a dream on its surface; until I was roused and awakened at last by a pushing, and pulling, and pinching, and a plucking of hair out by the roots. And at length, being able to open mine eyes, I saw the old landlady, with a candle, heavily wondering at me.

‘Can’t you let me alone?’ I grumbled. ‘I have paid for my bed, mistress; and I won’t get up for any one.’

‘Would to God, young man,’ she answered, shaking me as hard as ever, ‘that the popish soldiers may sleep this night, only half as strong as thou dost! Fie on thee, fie on thee! Get up, and go fight; we can hear the battle already; and a man of thy size mought stop a cannon.’

‘I would rather stop a-bed,’ said I; ‘what have I to do with fighting? I am for King James, if any.’

‘Then thou mayest even stop a-bed,’ the old woman muttered sulkily. ‘A would never have laboured half an hour to awake a Papisher. But hearken you one thing, young man; Zummerzett thou art, by thy brogue; or at least by thy understanding of it; no Zummerzett maid will look at thee, in spite of thy size and stature, unless thou strikest a blow this night.’

‘I lack no Zummerzett maid, mistress: I have a fairer than your brown things; and for her alone would I strike a blow.’

At this the old woman gave me up, as being beyond correction: and it vexed me a little that my great fame had not reached so far as Bridgwater, when I thought that it went to Bristowe. But those people in East Somerset know nothing about wrestling. Devon is the headquarters of the art; and Devon is the county of my chief love. Howbeit, my vanity was moved, by this slur upon it — for I had told her my name was John Ridd, when I had a gallon of ale with her, ere ever I came upstairs; and she had nodded, in such a manner, that I thought she knew both name and fame — and here was I, not only shaken, pinched, and with many hairs pulled out, in the midst of my first good sleep for a week, but also abused, and taken amiss, and (which vexed me most of all) unknown.

Now there is nothing like vanity to keep a man awake at night, however he be weary; and most of all, when he believes that he is doing something great — this time, if never done before — yet other people will not see, except what they may laugh at; and so be far above him, and sleep themselves the happier. Therefore their sleep robs his own; for all things play so, in and out (with the godly and ungodly ever moving in a balance, as they have done in my time, almost every year or two), all things have such nice reply of produce to the call for it, and such a spread across the world, giving here and taking there, yet on the whole pretty even, that haply sleep itself has but a certain stock, and keeps in hand, and sells to flattered (which can pay) that which flattened vanity cannot pay, and will not sue for.

Be that as it may, I was by this time wide awake, though much aggrieved at feeling so, and through the open window heard the distant roll of musketry, and the beating of drums, with a quick rub-a-dub, and the ‘come round the corner’ of trumpet-call. And perhaps Tom Faggus might be there, and shot at any moment, and my dear Annie left a poor widow, and my godson Jack an orphan, without a tooth to help him.

Therefore I reviled myself for all my heavy laziness; and partly through good honest will, and partly through the stings of pride, and yet a little perhaps by virtue of a young man’s love of riot, up I arose, and dressed myself, and woke Kickums (who was snoring), and set out to see the worst of it. The sleepy hostler scratched his poll, and could not tell me which way to take; what odds to him who was King, or Pope, so long as he paid his way, and got a bit of bacon on Sunday? And would I please to remember that I had roused him up at night, and the quality always made a point of paying four times over for a man’s loss of his beauty-sleep. I replied that his loss of beauty-sleep was rather improving to a man of so high complexion; and that I, being none of the quality, must pay half-quality prices: and so I gave him double fee, as became a good farmer; and he was glad to be quit of Kickums; as I saw by the turn of his eye, while going out at the archway.

All this was done by lanthorn light, although the moon was high and bold; and in the northern heaven, flags and ribbons of a jostling pattern; such as we often have in autumn, but in July very rarely. Of these Master Dryden has spoken somewhere, in his courtly manner; but of him I think so little — because by fashion preferred to Shakespeare — that I cannot remember the passage; neither is it a credit to him.

Therefore I was guided mainly by the sound of guns and trumpets, in riding out of the narrow ways, and into the open marshes. And thus I might have found my road, in spite of all the spread of water, and the glaze of moonshine; but that, as I followed sound (far from hedge or causeway), fog (like a chestnut-tree in blossom, touched with moonlight) met me. Now fog is a thing that I understand, and can do with well enough, where I know the country; but here I had never been before. It was nothing to our Exmoor fogs; not to be compared with them; and all the time one could see the moon; which we cannot do in our fogs; nor even the sun, for a week together. Yet the gleam of water always makes the fog more difficult: like a curtain on a mirror; none can tell the boundaries.

And here we had broad-water patches, in and out, inlaid on land, like mother-of-pearl in brown Shittim wood. To a wild duck, born and bred there, it would almost be a puzzle to find her own nest amongst us; what chance then had I and Kickums, both unused to marsh and mere? Each time when we thought that we must be right, now at last, by track or passage, and approaching the conflict, with the sounds of it waxing nearer, suddenly a break of water would be laid before us, with the moon looking mildly over it, and the northern lights behind us, dancing down the lines of fog.

It was an awful thing, I say (and to this day I remember it), to hear the sounds of raging fight, and the yells of raving slayers, and the howls of poor men stricken hard, and shattered from wrath to wailing; then suddenly the dead low hush, as of a soul departing, and spirits kneeling over it. Through the vapour of the earth, and white breath of the water, and beneath the pale round moon (bowing as the drift went by), all this rush and pause of fear passed or lingered on my path.

At last, when I almost despaired of escaping from this tangle of spongy banks, and of hazy creeks, and reed-fringe, my horse heard the neigh of a fellow-horse, and was only too glad to answer it; upon which the other, having lost its rider, came up and pricked his ears at us, and gazed through the fog very steadfastly. Therefore I encouraged him with a soft and genial whistle, and Kickums did his best to tempt him with a snort of inquiry. However, nothing would suit that nag, except to enjoy his new freedom; and he capered away with his tail set on high, and the stirrup-irons clashing under him. Therefore, as he might know the way, and appeared to have been in the battle, we followed him very carefully; and he led us to a little hamlet, called (as I found afterwards) West Zuyland, or Zealand, so named perhaps from its situation amid this inland sea.

Here the King’s troops had been quite lately, and their fires were still burning; but the men themselves had been summoned away by the night attack of the rebels. Hence I procured for my guide a young man who knew the district thoroughly, and who led me by many intricate ways to the rear of the rebel army. We came upon a broad open moor striped with sullen water courses, shagged with sedge, and yellow iris, and in the drier part with bilberries. For by this time it was four o’clock, and the summer sun, rising wanly, showed us all the ghastly scene.

Would that I had never been there! Often in the lonely hours, even now it haunts me: would, far more, that the piteous thing had never been done in England! Flying men, flung back from dreams of victory and honour, only glad to have the luck of life and limbs to fly with, mud-bedraggled, foul with slime, reeking both with sweat and blood, which they could not stop to wipe, cursing, with their pumped-out lungs, every stick that hindered them, or gory puddle that slipped the step, scarcely able to leap over the corses that had dragged to die. And to see how the corses lay; some, as fair as death in sleep; with the smile of placid valour, and of noble manhood, hovering yet on the silent lips. These had bloodless hands put upwards, white as wax, and firm as death, clasped (as on a monument) in prayer for dear ones left behind, or in high thanksgiving. And of these men there was nothing in their broad blue eyes to fear. But others were of different sort; simple fellows unused to pain, accustomed to the bill-hook, perhaps, or rasp of the knuckles in a quick-set hedge, or making some to-do at breakfast, over a thumb cut in sharpening a scythe, and expecting their wives to make more to-do. Yet here lay these poor chaps, dead; dead, after a deal of pain, with little mind to bear it, and a soul they had never thought of; gone, their God alone knows whither; but to mercy we may trust. Upon these things I cannot dwell; and none I trow would ask me: only if a plain man saw what I saw that morning, he (if God had blessed him with the heart that is in most of us) must have sickened of all desire to be great among mankind.

Seeing me riding to the front (where the work of death went on among the men of true English pluck; which, when moved, no farther moves), the fugitives called out to me, in half a dozen dialects, to make no utter fool of myself; for the great guns were come, and the fight was over; all the rest was slaughter.

‘Arl oop wi Moonmo’,’ shouted one big fellow, a miner of the Mendip hills, whose weapon was a pickaxe: ‘na oose to vaight na moor. Wend thee hame, yoong mon agin.’

Upon this I stopped my horse, desiring not to be shot for nothing; and eager to aid some poor sick people, who tried to lift their arms to me. And this I did to the best of my power, though void of skill in the business; and more inclined to weep with them than to check their weeping. While I was giving a drop of cordial from my flask to one poor fellow, who sat up, while his life was ebbing, and with slow insistence urged me, when his broken voice would come, to tell his wife (whose name I knew not) something about an apple-tree, and a golden guinea stored in it, to divide among six children — in the midst of this I felt warm lips laid against my cheek quite softly, and then a little push; and behold it was a horse leaning over me! I arose in haste, and there stood Winnie, looking at me with beseeching eyes, enough to melt a heart of stone. Then seeing my attention fixed she turned her head, and glanced back sadly toward the place of battle, and gave a little wistful neigh: and then looked me full in the face again, as much as to say, ‘Do you understand?’ while she scraped with one hoof impatiently. If ever a horse tried hard to speak, it was Winnie at that moment. I went to her side and patted her; but that was not what she wanted. Then I offered to leap into the empty saddle; but neither did that seem good to her: for she ran away toward the part of the field at which she had been glancing back, and then turned round, and shook her mane, entreating me to follow her.

Upon this I learned from the dying man where to find his apple-tree, and promised to add another guinea to the one in store for his children; and so, commending him to God, I mounted my own horse again, and to Winnie’s great delight, professed myself at her service. With her ringing silvery neigh, such as no other horse of all I ever knew could equal, she at once proclaimed her triumph, and told her master (or meant to tell, if death should not have closed his ears) that she was coming to his aid, and bringing one who might be trusted, of the higher race that kill.

A cannon-bullet (fired low, and ploughing the marsh slowly) met poor Winnie front to front; and she, being as quick as thought, lowered her nose to sniff at it. It might be a message from her master; for it made a mournful noise. But luckily for Winnie’s life, a rise of wet ground took the ball, even under her very nose; and there it cut a splashy groove, missing her off hindfoot by an inch, and scattering black mud over her. It frightened me much more than Winnie; of that I am quite certain: because though I am firm enough, when it comes to a real tussle, and the heart of a fellow warms up and tells him that he must go through with it; yet I never did approve of making a cold pie of death.

Therefore, with those reckless cannons, brazen-mouthed, and bellowing, two furlongs off, or it might be more (and the more the merrier), I would have given that year’s hay-crop for a bit of a hill, or a thicket of oaks, or almost even a badger’s earth. People will call me a coward for this (especially when I had made up my mind, that life was not worth having without any sign of Lorna); nevertheless, I cannot help it: those were my feelings; and I set them down, because they made a mark on me. At Glen Doone I had fought, even against cannon, with some spirit and fury: but now I saw nothing to fight about; but rather in every poor doubled corpse, a good reason for not fighting. So, in cold blood riding on, and yet ashamed that a man should shrink where a horse went bravely, I cast a bitter blame upon the reckless ways of Winnie.

Nearly all were scattered now. Of the noble countrymen (armed with scythe or pickaxe, blacksmith’s hammer, or fold-pitcher), who had stood their ground for hours against blazing musketry (from men whom they could not get at, by reason of the water-dyke), and then against the deadly cannon, dragged by the Bishop’s horses to slaughter his own sheep; of these sturdy Englishmen, noble in their want of sense, scarce one out of four remained for the cowards to shoot down. ‘Cross the rhaine,’ they shouted out, ‘cross the rhaine, and coom within rache:’ but the other mongrel Britons, with a mongrel at their head, found it pleasanter to shoot men who could not shoot in answer, than to meet the chance of mischief from strong arms, and stronger hearts.

The last scene of this piteous play was acting, just as I rode up. Broad daylight, and upstanding sun, winnowing fog from the eastern hills, and spreading the moors with freshness; all along the dykes they shone, glistened on the willow-trunks, and touched the banks with a hoary gray. But alas! those banks were touched more deeply with a gory red, and strewn with fallen trunks, more woeful than the wreck of trees; while howling, cursing, yelling, and the loathsome reek of carnage, drowned the scent of the new-mown hay, and the carol of the lark.

Then the cavalry of the King, with their horses at full speed, dashed from either side upon the helpless mob of countrymen. A few pikes feebly levelled met them; but they shot the pikemen, drew swords, and helter-skelter leaped into the shattered and scattering mass. Right and left they hacked and hewed; I could hear the snapping of scythes beneath them, and see the flash of their sweeping swords. How it must end was plain enough, even to one like myself, who had never beheld such a battle before. But Winnie led me away to the left; and as I could not help the people, neither stop the slaughter, but found the cannon-bullets coming very rudely nigh me, I was only too glad to follow her.

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