The story told by John Fry that night, and my conviction of its truth, made me very uneasy, especially as following upon the warning of Judge Jeffreys, and the hints received from Jeremy Stickles, and the outburst of the tanner at Dunster, as well as sundry tales and rumours, and signs of secret understanding, seen and heard on market-days, and at places of entertainment. We knew for certain that at Taunton, Bridgwater, and even Dulverton, there was much disaffection towards the King, and regret for the days of the Puritans. Albeit I had told the truth, and the pure and simple truth, when, upon my examination, I had assured his lordship, that to the best of my knowledge there was nothing of the sort with us.
But now I was beginning to doubt whether I might not have been mistaken; especially when we heard, as we did, of arms being landed at Lynmouth, in the dead of the night, and of the tramp of men having reached some one's ears, from a hill where a famous echo was. For it must be plain to any conspirator (without the example of the Doones) that for the secret muster of men and the stowing of unlawful arms, and communication by beacon lights, scarcely a fitter place could be found than the wilds of Exmoor, with deep ravines running far inland from an unwatched and mostly a sheltered sea. For the Channel from Countisbury Foreland up to Minehead, or even farther, though rocky, and gusty, and full of currents, is safe from great rollers and the sweeping power of the south-west storms, which prevail with us more than all the others, and make sad work on the opposite coast.
But even supposing it probable that something against King Charles the Second (or rather against his Roman advisers, and especially his brother) were now in preparation amongst us, was it likely that Master Huckaback, a wealthy man, and a careful one, known moreover to the Lord Chief Justice, would have anything to do with it? To this I could make no answer; Uncle Ben was so close a man, so avaricious, and so revengeful, that it was quite impossible to say what course he might pursue, without knowing all the chances of gain, or rise, or satisfaction to him. That he hated the Papists I knew full well, though he never spoke much about them; also that he had followed the march of Oliver Cromwell's army, but more as a suttler (people said) than as a real soldier; and that he would go a long way, and risk a great deal of money, to have his revenge on the Doones; although their name never passed his lips during the present visit.
But how was it likely to be as to the Doones themselves? Which side would they probably take in the coming movement, if movement indeed it would be? So far as they had any religion at all, by birth they were Roman Catholics--so much I knew from Lorna; and indeed it was well known all around, that a priest had been fetched more than once to the valley, to soothe some poor outlaw's departure. On the other hand, they were not likely to entertain much affection for the son of the man who had banished them and confiscated their property. And it was not at all impossible that desperate men, such as they were, having nothing to lose, but estates to recover, and not being held by religion much, should cast away all regard for the birth from which they had been cast out, and make common cause with a Protestant rising, for the chance of revenge and replacement.
However I do not mean to say that all these things occurred to me as clearly as I have set them down; only that I was in general doubt, and very sad perplexity. For mother was so warm, and innocent, and kind so to every one, that knowing some little by this time of the English constitution, I feared very greatly lest she should be punished for harbouring malcontents. As well as possible I knew, that if any poor man came to our door, and cried, 'Officers are after me; for God's sake take and hide me,' mother would take him in at once, and conceal, and feed him, even though he had been very violent; and, to tell the truth, so would both my sisters, and so indeed would I do. Whence it will be clear that we were not the sort of people to be safe among disturbances.
Before I could quite make up my mind how to act in this difficulty, and how to get at the rights of it (for I would not spy after Uncle Reuben, though I felt no great fear of the Wizard's Slough, and none of the man with the white night-cap), a difference came again upon it, and a change of chances. For Uncle Ben went away as suddenly as he first had come to us, giving no reason for his departure, neither claiming the pony, and indeed leaving something behind him of great value to my mother. For he begged her to see to his young grand-daughter, until he could find opportunity of fetching her safely to Dulverton. Mother was overjoyed at this, as she could not help displaying; and Ruth was quite as much delighted, although she durst not show it. For at Dulverton she had to watch and keep such ward on the victuals, and the in and out of the shopmen, that it went entirely against her heart, and she never could enjoy herself. Truly she was an altered girl from the day she came to us; catching our unsuspicious manners, and our free goodwill, and hearty noise of laughing.
By this time, the harvest being done, and the thatching of the ricks made sure against south-western tempests, and all the reapers being gone, with good money and thankfulness, I began to burn in spirit for the sight of Lorna. I had begged my sister Annie to let Sally Snowe know, once for all, that it was not in my power to have any thing more to do with her. Of course our Annie was not to grieve Sally, neither to let it appear for a moment that I suspected her kind views upon me, and her strong regard for our dairy: only I thought it right upon our part not to waste Sally's time any longer, being a handsome wench as she was, and many young fellows glad to marry her.
And Annie did this uncommonly well, as she herself told me afterwards, having taken Sally in the sweetest manner into her pure confidence, and opened half her bosom to her, about my very sad love affair. Not that she let Sally know, of course, who it was, or what it was; only that she made her understand, without hinting at any desire of it, that there was no chance now of having me. Sally changed colour a little at this, and then went on about a red cow which had passed seven needles at milking time.
Inasmuch as there are two sorts of month well recognised by the calendar, to wit the lunar and the solar, I made bold to regard both my months, in the absence of any provision, as intended to be strictly lunar. Therefore upon the very day when the eight weeks were expiring forth I went in search of Lorna, taking the pearl ring hopefully, and all the new-laid eggs I could find, and a dozen and a half of small trout from our brook. And the pleasure it gave me to catch those trout, thinking as every one came forth and danced upon the grass, how much she would enjoy him, is more than I can now describe, although I well remember it. And it struck me that after accepting my ring, and saying how much she loved me, it was possible that my Queen might invite me even to stay and sup with her: and so I arranged with dear Annie beforehand, who was now the greatest comfort to me, to account for my absence if I should be late.
But alas, I was utterly disappointed; for although I waited and waited for hours, with an equal amount both of patience and peril, no Lorna ever appeared at all, nor even the faintest sign of her. And another thing occurred as well, which vexed me more than it need have done, for so small a matter. And this was that my little offering of the trout and the new-laid eggs was carried off in the coolest manner by that vile Carver Doone. For thinking to keep them the fresher and nicer, away from so much handling, I laid them in a little bed of reeds by the side of the water, and placed some dog-leaves over them. And when I had quite forgotten about them, and was watching from my hiding-place beneath the willow-tree (for I liked not to enter Lorna's bower, without her permission; except just to peep that she was not there), and while I was turning the ring in my pocket, having just seen the new moon, I became aware of a great man coming eisurely down the valley. He had a broad-brimmed hat, and a leather jerkin, and heavy jack-boots to his middle thigh, and what was worst of all for me, on his shoulder he bore a long carbine. Having nothing to meet him withal but my staff, and desiring to avoid disturbance, I retired promptly into the chasm, keeping the tree betwixt us that he might not descry me, and watching from behind the jut of a rock, where now I had scraped myself a neat little hole for the purpose.
Presently the great man reappeared, being now within fifty yards of me, and the light still good enough, as he drew nearer for me to descry his features: and though I am not a judge of men's faces, there was something in his which turned me cold, as though with a kind of horror. Not that it was an ugly face; nay, rather it seemed a handsome one, so far as mere form and line might go, full of strength, and vigour, and will, and steadfast resolution. From the short black hair above the broad forehead, to the long black beard descending below the curt, bold chin, there was not any curve or glimpse of weakness or of afterthought. Nothing playful, nothing pleasant, nothing with a track of smiles; nothing which a friend could like, and laugh at him for having. And yet he might have been a good man (for I have known very good men so fortified by their own strange ideas of God): I say that he might have seemed a good man, but for the cold and cruel hankering of his steel-blue eyes.
Now let no one suppose for a minute that I saw all this in a moment; for I am very slow, and take a long time to digest things; only I like to set down, and have done with it, all the results of my knowledge, though they be not manifold. But what I said to myself, just then, was no more than this: 'What a fellow to have Lorna!' Having my sense of right so outraged (although, of course, I would never allow her to go so far as that), I almost longed that he might thrust his head in to look after me. For there I was, with my ash staff clubbed, ready to have at him, and not ill inclined to do so; if only he would come where strength, not firearms, must decide it. However, he suspected nothing of my dangerous neighbourhood, but walked his round like a sentinel, and turned at the brink of the water.
Then as he marched back again, along the margin of the stream, he espied my little hoard, covered up with dog-leaves. He saw that the leaves were upside down, and this of course drew his attention. I saw him stoop, and lay bare the fish, and the eggs set a little way from them and in my simple heart, I thought that now he knew all about me. But to my surprise, he seemed well-pleased; and his harsh short laughter came to me without echo,--
'Ha, ha! Charlie boy! Fisherman Charlie, have I caught thee setting bait for Lorna? Now, I understand thy fishings, and the robbing of Counsellor's hen roost. May I never have good roasting, if I have it not to-night and roast thee, Charlie, afterwards!'
With this he calmly packed up my fish, and all the best of dear Annie's eggs; and went away chuckling steadfastly, to his home, if one may call it so. But I was so thoroughly grieved and mortified by this most impudent robbery, that I started forth from my rocky screen with the intention of pursuing him, until my better sense arrested me, barely in time to escape his eyes. For I said to myself, that even supposing I could contend unarmed with him, it would be the greatest folly in the world to have my secret access known, and perhaps a fatal barrier placed between Lorna and myself, and I knew not what trouble brought upon her, all for the sake of a few eggs and fishes. It was better to bear this trifling loss, however ignominious and goading to the spirit, than to risk my love and Lorna's welfare, and perhaps be shot into the bargain. And I think that all will agree with me, that I acted for the wisest, in withdrawing to my shelter, though deprived of eggs and fishes.
Having waited (as I said) until there was no chance whatever of my love appearing, I hastened homeward very sadly; and the wind of early autumn moaned across the moorland. All the beauty of the harvest, all the gaiety was gone, and the early fall of dusk was like a weight upon me. Nevertheless, I went every evening thenceforward for a fortnight; hoping, every time in vain to find my hope and comfort. And meanwhile, what perplexed me most was that the signals were replaced, in order as agreed upon, so that Lorna could scarcely be restrained by any rigour.
One time I had a narrow chance of being shot and settled with; and it befell me thus. I was waiting very carelessly, being now a little desperate, at the entrance to the glen, instead of watching through my sight-hole, as the proper practice was. Suddenly a ball went by me, with a whizz and whistle, passing through my hat and sweeping it away all folded up. My soft hat fluttered far down the stream, before I had time to go after it, and with the help of both wind and water, was fifty yards gone in a moment. At this I had just enough mind left to shrink back very suddenly, and lurk very still and closely; for I knew what a narrow escape it had been, as I heard the bullet, hard set by the powder, sing mournfully down the chasm, like a drone banished out of the hive. And as I peered through my little cranny, I saw a wreath of smoke still floating where the thickness was of the withy-bed; and presently Carver Doone came forth, having stopped to reload his piece perhaps, and ran very swiftly to the entrance to see what he had shot.
Sore trouble had I to keep close quarters, from the slipperiness of the stone beneath me with the water sliding over it. My foe came quite to the verge of the fall, where the river began to comb over; and there he stopped for a minute or two, on the utmost edge of dry land, upon the very spot indeed where I had fallen senseless when I clomb it in my boyhood. I could hear him breathing hard and grunting, as in doubt and discontent, for he stood within a yard of me, and I kept my right fist ready for him, if he should discover me. Then at the foot of the waterslide, my black hat suddenly appeared, tossing in white foam, and fluttering like a raven wounded. Now I had doubted which hat to take, when I left home that day; till I thought that the black became me best, and might seem kinder to Lorna.
'Have I killed thee, old bird, at last?' my enemy cried in triumph; tis the third time I have shot at thee, and thou wast beginning to mock me. No more of thy cursed croaking now, to wake me in the morning. Ha, ha! there are not many who get three chances from Carver Doone; and none ever go beyond it.'
I laughed within myself at this, as he strode away in his triumph; for was not this his third chance of me, and he no whit the wiser? And then I thought that perhaps the chance might some day be on the other side.
For to tell the truth, I was heartily tired of lurking and playing bo-peep so long; to which nothing could have reconciled me, except my fear for Lorna. And here I saw was a man of strength fit for me to encounter, such as I had never met, but would be glad to meet with; having found no man of late who needed not my mercy at wrestling, or at single-stick. And growing more and more uneasy, as I found no Lorna, I would have tried to force the Doone Glen from the upper end, and take my chance of getting back, but for Annie and her prayers.
Now that same night I think it was, or at any rate the next one, that I noticed Betty Muxworthy going on most strangely. She made the queerest signs to me, when nobody was looking, and laid her fingers on her lips, and pointed over her shoulder. But I took little heed of her, being in a kind of dudgeon, and oppressed with evil luck; believing too that all she wanted was to have some little grumble about some petty grievance.
But presently she poked me with the heel of a fire-bundle, and passing close to my ear whispered, so that none else could hear her, 'Larna Doo-un.'
By these words I was so startled, that I turned round and stared at her; but she pretended not to know it, and began with all her might to scour an empty crock with a besom.
'Oh, Betty, let me help you! That work is much too hard for you,' I cried with a sudden chivalry, which only won rude answer.
'Zeed me adooing of thic, every naight last ten year, Jan, wiout vindin' out how hard it wor. But if zo bee thee wants to help, carr peg's bucket for me. Massy, if I ain't forgotten to fade the pegs till now.'
Favouring me with another wink, to which I now paid the keenest heed, Betty went and fetched the lanthorn from the hook inside the door. Then when she had kindled it, not allowing me any time to ask what she was after, she went outside, and pointed to the great bock of wash, and riddlings, and brown hulkage (for we ground our own corn always), and though she knew that Bill Dadds and Jem Slocombe had full work to carry it on a pole (with another to help to sling it), she said to me as quietly as a maiden might ask one to carry a glove, 'Jan Ridd, carr thic thing for me.'
So I carried it for her, without any words; wondering what she was up to next, and whether she had ever heard of being too hard on the willing horse. And when we came to hog-pound, she turned upon me suddenly, with the lanthorn she was bearing, and saw that I had the bock by one hand very easily.
'Jan Ridd,' she said, 'there be no other man in England cud a' dood it. Now thee shalt have Larna.'
While I was wondering how my chance of having Lorna could depend upon my power to carry pig's wash, and how Betty could have any voice in the matter (which seemed to depend upon her decision), and in short, while I was all abroad as to her knowledge and everything, the pigs, who had been fast asleep and dreaming in their emptiness, awoke with one accord at the goodness of the smell around them. They had resigned themselves, as even pigs do, to a kind of fast, hoping to break their fast more sweetly on the morrow morning. But now they tumbled out all headlong, pigs below and pigs above, pigs point-blank and pigs across, pigs courant and pigs rampant, but all alike prepared to eat, and all in good cadence squeaking.
'Tak smarl boocket, and bale un out; wad 'e waste sich stoof as thic here be?' So Betty set me to feed the pigs, while she held the lanthorn; and knowing what she was, I saw that she would not tell me another word until all the pigs were served. And in truth no man could well look at them, and delay to serve them, they were all expressing appetite in so forcible a manner; some running to and fro, and rubbing, and squealing as if from starvation, some rushing down to the oaken troughs, and poking each other away from them; and the kindest of all putting up their fore-feet on the top-rail on the hog-pound, and blinking their little eyes, and grunting prettily to coax us; as who would say, 'I trust you now; you will be kind, I know, and give me the first and the very best of it.'
'Oppen ge-at now, wull 'e, Jan? Maind, young sow wi' the baible back arlway hath first toorn of it, 'cos I brought her up on my lap, I did. Zuck, zuck, zuck! How her stickth her tail up; do me good to zee un! Now thiccy trough, thee zany, and tak thee girt legs out o' the wai. Wish they wud gie thee a good baite, mak thee hop a bit vaster, I reckon. Hit that there girt ozebird over's back wi' the broomstick, he be robbing of my young zow. Choog, choog, choog! and a drap more left in the dripping-pail.'
'Come now, Betty,' I said, when all the pigs were at it sucking, swilling, munching, guzzling, thrusting, and ousting, and spilling the food upon the backs of their brethren (as great men do with their charity), 'come now, Betty, how much longer am I to wait for your message? Surely I am as good as a pig.'
'Dunno as thee be, Jan. No straikiness in thy bakkon. And now I come to think of it, Jan, thee zed, a wake agone last Vriday, as how I had got a girt be-ard. Wull 'e stick to that now, Maister Jan?'
'No, no, Betty, certainly not; I made a mistake about it. I should have said a becoming mustachio, such as you may well be proud of.'
'Then thee be a laiar, Jan Ridd. Zay so, laike a man, lad.'
'Not exactly that, Betty; but I made a great mistake; and I humbly ask your pardon; and if such a thing as a crown-piece, Betty'--
'No fai, no fai!' said Betty, however she put it into her pocket; 'now tak my advice, Jan; thee marry Zally Snowe.'
'Not with all England for her dowry. Oh, Betty, you know better.'
'Ah's me! I know much worse, Jan. Break thy poor mother's heart it will. And to think of arl the danger! Dost love Larna now so much?'
'With all the strength of my heart and soul. I will have her, or I will die, Betty.'
'Wull. Thee will die in either case. But it baint for me to argify. And do her love thee too, Jan?'
'I hope she does, Betty I hope she does. What do you think about it?'
'Ah, then I may hold my tongue to it. Knaw what boys and maidens be, as well as I knew young pegs. I myzell been o' that zort one taime every bit so well as you be.' And Betty held the lanthorn up, and defied me to deny it; and the light through the horn showed a gleam in her eyes, such as I had never seer there before. 'No odds, no odds about that,' she continued; 'mak a fool of myzell to spake of it. Arl gone into churchyard. But it be a lucky foolery for thee, my boy, I can tull 'ee. For I love to see the love in thee. Coom'th over me as the spring do, though I be naigh three score. Now, Jan, I will tell thee one thing, can't abear to zee thee vretting so. Hould thee head down, same as they pegs do.'
So I bent my head quite close to her; and she whispered in my ear, 'Goo of a marning, thee girt soft. Her can't get out of an avening now, her hath zent word to me, to tull 'ee.'
In the glory of my delight at this, I bestowed upon Betty a chaste salute, with all the pigs for witnesses; and she took it not amiss, considering how long she had been out of practice. But then she fell back, like a broom on its handle, and stared at me, feigning anger.
'Oh fai, oh fai! Lunnon impudence, I doubt. I vear thee hast gone on zadly, Jan.'