Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter 68

John is John No Longer

It would be hard for me to tell the state of mind in which I lived for a long time after this. I put away from me all torment, and the thought of future cares, and the sight of difficulty; and to myself appeared, which means that I became the luckiest of lucky fellows, since the world itself began. I thought not of the harvest even, nor of the men who would get their wages without having earned them, nor of my mother’s anxiety and worry about John Fry’s great fatness (which was growing upon him), and how she would cry fifty times in a day, ‘Ah, if our John would only come home, how different everything would look!’

Although there were no soldiers now quartered at Plover’s Barrows, all being busied in harassing the country, and hanging the people where the rebellion had thriven most, my mother, having received from me a message containing my place of abode, contrived to send me, by the pack-horses, as fine a maund as need be of provisions, and money, and other comforts. Therein I found addressed to Colonel Jeremiah Stickles, in Lizzie’s best handwriting, half a side of the dried deer’s flesh, in which he rejoiced so greatly. Also, for Lorna, a fine green goose, with a little salt towards the tail, and new-laid eggs inside it, as well as a bottle of brandied cherries, and seven, or it may have been eight pounds of fresh homemade butter. Moreover, to myself there was a letter full of good advice, excellently well expressed, and would have been of the greatest value, if I had cared to read it. But I read all about the farm affairs, and the man whe had offered himself to our Betty for the five pounds in her stocking; as well as the antics of Sally Snowe, and how she had almost thrown herself at Parson Bowden’s head (old enough to be her grandfather), because on the Sunday after the hanging of a Countisbury man, he had preached a beautiful sermon about Christian love; which Lizzie, with her sharp eyes, found to be the work of good Bishop Ken. Also I read that the Doones were quiet; the parishes round about having united to feed them well through the harvest time, so that after the day’s hard work, the farmers might go to bed at night. And this plan had been found to answer well, and to save much trouble on both sides, so that everybody wondered it had not been done before. But Lizzie thought that the Doones could hardly be expected much longer to put up with it, and probably would not have done so now, but for a little adversity; to wit, that the famous Colonel Kirke had, in the most outrageous manner, hanged no less than six of them, who were captured among the rebels; for he said that men of their rank and breeding, and above all of their religion, should have known better than to join plough-boys, and carters, and pickaxemen, against our Lord the King, and his Holiness the Pope. This hanging of so many Doones caused some indignation among people who were used to them; and it seemed for a while to check the rest from any spirit of enterprise.

Moreover, I found from this same letter (which was pinned upon the knuckle of a leg of mutton, for fear of being lost in straw) that good Tom Faggus was at home again, and nearly cured of his dreadful wound; but intended to go to war no more, only to mind his family. And it grieved him more than anything he ever could have imagined, that his duty to his family, and the strong power of his conscience, so totally forbade him to come up and see after me. For now his design was to lead a new life, and be in charity with all men. Many better men than he had been hanged, he saw no cause to doubt; but by the grace of God he hoped himself to cheat the gallows.

There was no further news of moment in this very clever letter, except that the price of horses’ shoes was gone up again, though already twopence-farthing each; and that Betty had broken her lover’s head with the stocking full of money; and then in the corner it was written that the distinguished man of war, and worshipful scholar, Master Bloxham, was now promoted to take the tolls, and catch all the rebels around our part.

Lorna was greatly pleased with the goose, and the butter, and the brandied cherries; and the Earl Brandir himself declared that he never tasted better than those last, and would beg the young man from the country to procure him instructions for making them. This nobleman, being as deaf as a post, and of a very solid mind, could never be brought to understand the nature of my thoughts towards Lorna. He looked upon me as an excellent youth, who had rescued the maiden from the Doones, whom he cordially detested; and learning that I had thrown two of them out of window (as the story was told him), he patted me on the back, and declared that his doors would ever be open to me, and that I could not come too often.

I thought this very kind of his lordship, especially as it enabled me to see my darling Lorna, not indeed as often as I wished, but at any rate very frequently, and as many times as modesty (ever my leading principle) would in common conscience approve of. And I made up my mind that if ever I could help Earl Brandir, it would be — as we say, when with brandy and water — the ‘proudest moment of my life,’ when I could fulfil the pledge.

And I soon was able to help Lord Brandir, as I think, in two different ways; first of all as regarded his mind, and then as concerned his body: and the latter perhaps was the greatest service, at his time of life. But not to be too nice about that; let me tell how these things were.

Lorna said to me one day, being in a state of excitement — whereto she was over prone, when reft of my slowness to steady her —

‘I will tell him, John; I must tell him, John. It is mean of me to conceal it.’

I thought that she meant all about our love, which we had endeavoured thrice to drill into his fine old ears; but could not make him comprehend, without risk of bringing the house down: and so I said, ‘By all means; darling; have another try at it.’

Lorna, however, looked at me — for her eyes told more than tongue — as much as to say, ‘Well, you are a stupid. We agreed to let that subject rest.’ And then she saw that I was vexed at my own want of quickness; and so she spoke very kindly —

‘I meant about his poor son, dearest; the son of his old age almost; whose loss threw him into that dreadful cold — for he went, without hat, to look for him — which ended in his losing the use of his dear old ears. I believe if we could only get him to Plover’s Barrows for a month, he would be able to hear again. And look at his age! he is not much over seventy, John, you know; and I hope that you will be able to hear me, long after you are seventy, John.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘God settles that. Or at any rate, He leaves us time to think about those questions, when we are over fifty. Now let me know what you want, Lorna. The idea of my being seventy! But you would still be beautiful.’

‘To the one who loves me,’ she answered, trying to make wrinkles in her pure bright forehead: ‘but if you will have common sense, as you always will, John, whether I wish it or otherwise — I want to know whether I am bound, in honour, and in conscience, to tell my dear and good old uncle what I know about his son?’

‘First let me understand quite clearly,’ said I, never being in a hurry, except when passion moves me, ‘what his lordship thinks at present; and how far his mind is urged with sorrow and anxiety.’ This was not the first time we had spoken of the matter.

‘Why, you know, John, well enough,’ she answered, wondering at my coolness, ‘that my poor uncle stlll believes that his one beloved son will come to light and live again. He has made all arrangements accordingly: all his property is settled on that supposition. He knows that young Alan always was what he calls a “feckless ne’er-do-weel;” but he loves him all the more for that. He cannot believe that he will die, without his son coming back to him; and he always has a bedroom ready, and a bottle of Alan’s favourite wine cool from out the cellar; he has made me work him a pair of slippers from the size of a mouldy boot; and if he hears of a new tobacco — much as he hates the smell of it — he will go to the other end of London to get some for Alan. Now you know how deaf he is; but if any one say, “Alan,” even in the place outside the door, he will make his courteous bow to the very highest visitor, and be out there in a moment, and search the entire passage, and yet let no one know it.’

‘It is a piteous thing,’ I said; for Lorna’s eyes were full of tears.

‘And he means me to marry him. It is the pet scheme of his life. I am to grow more beautiful, and more highly taught, and graceful; until it pleases Alan to come back, and demand me. Can you understand this matter, John? Or do you think my uncle mad?’

‘Lorna, I should be mad myself, to call any other man mad, for hoping.’

‘Then will you tell me what to do? It makes me very sorrowful. For I know that Alan Brandir lies below the sod in Doone-valley.’

‘And if you tell his father,’ I answered softly, but clearly, ‘in a few weeks he will lie below the sod in London; at least if there is any.’

‘Perhaps you are right, John,’ she replied: ‘to lose hope must be a dreadful thing, when one is turned of seventy. Therefore I will never tell him.’

The other way in which I managed to help the good Earl Brandir was of less true moment to him; but as he could not know of the first, this was the one which moved him. And it happened pretty much as follows — though I hardly like to tell, because it advanced me to such a height as I myself was giddy at; and which all my friends resented greatly (save those of my own family), and even now are sometimes bitter, in spite of all my humility. Now this is a matter of history, because the King was concerned in it; and being so strongly misunderstood, (especially in my own neighbourhood, I will overcome so far as I can) my diffidence in telling it.

The good Earl Brandir was a man of the noblest charity. True charity begins at home, and so did his; and was afraid of losing the way, if it went abroad. So this good nobleman kept his money in a handsome pewter box, with his coat of arms upon it, and a double lid and locks. Moreover, there was a heavy chain, fixed to a staple in the wall, so that none might carry off the pewter with the gold inside of it. Lorna told me the box was full, for she had seen him go to it, and she often thought that it would be nice for us to begin the world with. I told her that she must not allow her mind to dwell upon things of this sort; being wholly against the last commandment set up in our church at Oare.

Now one evening towards September, when the days were drawing in, looking back at the house to see whether Lorna were looking after me, I espied (by a little glimpse, as it were) a pair of villainous fellows (about whom there could be no mistake) watching from the thicket-corner, some hundred yards or so behind the good Earl’s dwelling. ‘There is mischief afoot,’ thought I to myself, being thoroughly conversant with theft, from my knowledge of the Doones; ‘how will be the moon to-night, and when may we expect the watch?’

I found that neither moon nor watch could be looked for until the morning; the moon, of course, before the watch, and more likely to be punctual. Therefore I resolved to wait, and see what those two villains did, and save (if it were possible) the Earl of Brandir’s pewter box. But inasmuch as those bad men were almost sure to have seen me leaving the house and looking back, and striking out on the London road, I marched along at a merry pace, until they could not discern me; and then I fetched a compass round, and refreshed myself at a certain inn, entitled The Cross-bones and Buttons.

Here I remained until it was very nearly as dark as pitch; and the house being full of footpads and cutthroats, I thought it right to leave them. One or two came after me, in the hope of designing a stratagem; but I dropped them in the darkness; and knowing all the neighbourhood well, I took up my position, two hours before midnight, among the shrubs at the eastern end of Lord Brandir’s mansion. Hence, although I might not see, I could scarcely fail to hear, if any unlawful entrance either at back or front were made.

From my own observation, I thought it likely that the attack would he in the rear; and so indeed it came to pass. For when all the lights were quenched, and all the house was quiet, I heard a low and wily whistle from a clump of trees close by; and then three figures passed between me and a whitewashed wall, and came to a window which opened into a part of the servants’ basement. This window was carefully raised by some one inside the house; and after a little whispering, and something which sounded like a kiss, all the three men entered.

‘Oh, you villains!’ I said to myself, ‘this is worse than any Doone job; because there is treachery in it.’ But without waiting to consider the subject from a moral point of view, I crept along the wall, and entered very quietly after them; being rather uneasy about my life, because I bore no fire-arms, and had nothing more than my holly staff, for even a violent combat.

To me this was matter of deep regret, as I followed these vile men inward. Nevertheless I was resolved that my Lorna should not be robbed again. Through us (or at least through our Annie) she had lost that brilliant necklace; which then was her only birthright: therefore it behoved me doubly, to preserve the pewter box; which must belong to her in the end, unless the thieves got hold of it.

I went along very delicately (as a man who has learned to wrestle can do, although he may weigh twenty stone), following carefully the light, brought by the traitorous maid, and shaking in her loose dishonest hand. I saw her lead the men into a little place called a pantry; and there she gave them cordials, and I could hear them boasting.

Not to be too long over it — which they were much inclined to be — I followed them from this drinking-bout, by the aid of the light they bore, as far as Earl Brandir’s bedroom, which I knew, because Lorna had shown it to me that I might admire the tapestry. But I had said that no horse could ever be shod as the horses were shod therein, unless he had the foot of a frog, as well as a frog to his foot. And Lorna had been vexed at this (as taste and high art always are, at any small accurate knowledge), and so she had brought me out again, before I had time to admire things.

Now, keeping well away in the dark, yet nearer than was necessary to my own dear Lorna’s room, I saw these fellows try the door of the good Earl Brandir, knowing from the maid, of course, that his lordship could hear nothing, except the name of Alan. They tried the lock, and pushed at it, and even set their knees upright; but a Scottish nobleman may be trusted to secure his door at night. So they were forced to break it open; and at this the guilty maid, or woman, ran away. These three rogues — for rogues they were, and no charity may deny it — burst into Earl Brandir’s room, with a light, and a crowbar, and fire-arms. I thought to myself that this was hard upon an honest nobleman; and if further mischief could be saved, I would try to save it.

When I came to the door of the room, being myself in shadow, I beheld two bad men trying vainly to break open the pewter box, and the third with a pistol-muzzle laid to the night-cap of his lordship. With foul face and yet fouler words, this man was demanding the key of the box, which the other men could by no means open, neither drag it from the chain.

‘I tell you,’ said this aged Earl, beginning to understand at last what these rogues were up for; ‘I will give no key to you. It all belongs to my boy, Alan. No one else shall have a farthing.’

‘Then you may count your moments, lord. The key is in your old cramped hand. One, two, and at three, I shoot you.’

I saw that the old man was abroad; not with fear, but with great wonder, and the regrets of deafness. And I saw that rather would he be shot than let these men go rob his son, buried now, or laid to bleach in the tangles of the wood, three, or it might be four years agone, but still alive to his father. Hereupon my heart was moved; and I resolved to interfere. The thief with the pistol began to count, as I crossed the floor very quietly, while the old Earl fearfully gazed at the muzzle, but clenched still tighter his wrinkled hand. The villain, with hair all over his eyes, and the great horse-pistol levelled, cried ‘three,’ and pulled the trigger; but luckily, at that very moment, I struck up the barrel with my staff, so that the shot pierced the tester, and then with a spin and a thwack I brought the good holly down upon the rascal’s head, in a manner which stretched him upon the floor.

Meanwhile the other two robbers had taken the alarm, and rushed at me, one with a pistol and one with a hanger; which forced me to be very lively. Fearing the pistol most, I flung the heavy velvet curtain of the bed across, that he might not see where to aim at me, and then stooping very quickly I caught up the senseless robber, and set him up for a shield and target; whereupon he was shot immediately, without having the pain of knowing it; and a happy thing it was for him. Now the other two were at my mercy, being men below the average strength; and no hanger, except in most skilful hands, as well as firm and strong ones, has any chance to a powerful man armed with a stout cudgel, and thoroughly practised in single-stick.

So I took these two rogues, and bound them together; and leaving them under charge of the butler (a worthy and shrewd Scotchman), I myself went in search of the constables, whom, after some few hours, I found; neither were they so drunk but what they could take roped men to prison. In the morning, these two men were brought before the Justices of the Peace: and now my wonderful luck appeared; for the merit of having defeated, and caught them, would never have raised me one step in the State, or in public consideration, if they had only been common robbers, or even notorious murderers. But when these fellows were recognised, by some one in the court, as Protestant witnesses out of employment, companions and understrappers to Oates, and Bedloe, and Carstairs, and hand in glove with Dangerfield, Turberville; and Dugdale — in a word, the very men against whom His Majesty the King bore the bitterest rancour, but whom he had hitherto failed to catch — when this was laid before the public (with emphasis and admiration), at least a dozen men came up, whom I had never seen before, and prayed me to accept their congratulations, and to be sure to remember them; for all were of neglected merit, and required no more than a piece of luck.

I answered them very modestly, and each according to his worth, as stated by himself, who of course could judge the best. The magistrate made me many compliments, ten times more than I deserved, and took good care to have them copied, that His Majesty might see them. And ere the case was thoroughly heard, and those poor fellows were committed, more than a score of generous men had offered to lend me a hundred pounds, wherewith to buy a new Court suit, when called before His Majesty.

Now this may seem very strange to us who live in a better and purer age — or say at least that we do so — and yet who are we to condemn our fathers for teaching us better manners, and at their own expense? With these points any virtuous man is bound to deal quite tenderly, making allowance for corruption, and not being too sure of himself. And to tell the truth, although I had seen so little of the world as yet, that which astonished me in the matter, was not so much that they paid me court, as that they found out so soon the expediency of doing it.

In the course of that same afternoon I was sent for by His Majesty. He had summoned first the good Earl Brandir, and received the tale from him, not without exaggeration, although my lord was a Scotchman. But the chief thing His Majesty cared to know was that, beyond all possible doubt, these were the very precious fellows from perjury turned to robbery.

Being fully assured at last of this, His Majesty had rubbed his hands, and ordered the boots of a stricter pattern (which he himself had invented) to be brought at once, that he might have them in the best possible order. And he oiled them himself, and expressed his fear that there was no man in London quite competent to work them. Nevertheless he would try one or two, rather than wait for his pleasure, till the torturer came from Edinburgh.

The next thing be did was to send for me; and in great alarm and flurry I put on my best clothes, and hired a fashionable hairdresser, and drank half a gallon of ale, because both my hands were shaking. Then forth I set, with my holly staff, wishing myself well out of it. I was shown at once, and before I desired it, into His Majesty’s presence, and there I stood most humbly, and made the best bow I could think of.

As I could not advance any farther — for I saw that the Queen was present, which frightened me tenfold — His Majesty, in the most gracious manner, came down the room to encourage me. And as I remained with my head bent down, he told me to stand up, and look at him.

‘I have seen thee before, young man, he said; ‘thy form is not one to be forgotten. Where was it? Thou art most likely to know.’

‘May it please Your Most Gracious Majesty the King,’ I answered, finding my voice in a manner which surprised myself; ‘it was in the Royal Chapel.’

Now I meant no harm whatever by this. I ought to have said the ‘Ante-chapel,’ but I could not remember the word, and feared to keep the King looking at me.

‘I am well-pleased,’ said His Majesty, with a smile which almost made his dark and stubborn face look pleasant, ‘to find that our greatest subject, greatest I mean in the bodily form, is also a good Catholic. Thou needest not say otherwise. The time shall be, and that right soon, when men shall be proud of the one true faith.’ Here he stopped, having gone rather far! but the gleam of his heavy eyes was such that I durst not contradict.

‘This is that great Johann Reed,’ said Her Majesty, coming forward, because the King was in meditation; ‘for whom I have so much heard, from the dear, dear Lorna. Ah, she is not of this black countree, she is of the breet Italie.’

I have tried to write it, as she said it: but it wants a better scholar to express her mode of speech.

‘Now, John Ridd,’ said the King, recovering from his thoughts about the true Church, and thinking that his wife was not to take the lead upon me; ‘thou hast done great service to the realm, and to religion. It was good to save Earl Brandir, a loyal and Catholic nobleman; but it was great service to catch two of the vilest bloodhounds ever laid on by heretics. And to make them shoot one another: it was rare; it was rare, my lad. Now ask us anything in reason; thou canst carry any honours, on thy club, like Hercules. What is thy chief ambition, lad?’

‘Well,’ said I, after thinking a little, and meaning to make the most of it, for so the Queen’s eyes conveyed to me; ‘my mother always used to think that having been schooled at Tiverton, with thirty marks a year to pay, I was worthy of a coat of arms. And that is what she longs for.’

‘A good lad! A very good lad,’ said the King, and he looked at the Queen, as if almost in joke; ‘but what is thy condition in life?’

‘I am a freeholder,’ I answered, in my confusion, ‘ever since the time of King Alfred. A Ridd was with him in the isle of Athelney, and we hold our farm by gift from him; or at least people say so. We have had three very good harvests running, and might support a coat of arms; but for myself I want it not.’

‘Thou shalt have a coat, my lad,’ said the King, smiling at his own humour; ‘but it must be a large one to fit thee. And more than that shalt thou have, John Ridd, being of such loyal breed, and having done such service.’

And while I wondered what he meant, he called to some of the people in waiting at the farther end of the room, and they brought him a little sword, such as Annie would skewer a turkey with. Then he signified to me to kneel, which I did (after dusting the board, for the sake of my best breeches), and then he gave me a little tap very nicely upon my shoulder, before I knew what he was up to; and said, ‘Arise, Sir John Ridd!’

This astonished and amazed me to such extent of loss of mind, that when I got up I looked about, and thought what the Snowes would think of it. And I said to the King, without forms of speech —

‘Sir, I am very much obliged. But what be I to do with it?’

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