Although a man may be as simple as the flowers of the field; knowing when, but scarcely why, he closes to the bitter wind; and feeling why, but scarcely when, he opens to the genial sun; yet without his questing much into the capsule of himself--to do which is a misery--he may have a general notion how he happens to be getting on.
I felt myself to be getting on better than at any time since the last wheat-harvest, as I took the lane to Kensington upon the Monday evening. For although no time was given in my Lorna's letter, I was not inclined to wait more than decency required. And though I went and watched the house, decency would not allow me to knock on the Sunday evening, especially when I found at the corner that his lordship was at home.
The lanes and fields between Charing Cross and the village of Kensington, are, or were at that time, more than reasonably infested with footpads and with highwaymen. However, my stature and holly club kept these fellows from doing more than casting sheep's eyes at me. For it was still broad daylight, and the view of the distant villages, Chelsea, Battersea, Tyburn, and others, as well as a few large houses, among the hams and towards the river, made it seem less lonely. Therefore I sang a song in the broadest Exmoor dialect, which caused no little amazement in the minds of all who met me.
When I came to Earl Brandir's house, my natural modesty forbade me to appear at the door for guests; therefore I went to the entrance for servants and retainers. Here, to my great surprise, who should come and let me in but little Gwenny Carfax, whose very existence had almost escaped my recollection. Her mistress, no doubt, had seen me coming, and sent her to save trouble. But when I offered to kiss Gwenny, in my joy and comfort to see a farm-house face again, she looked ashamed, and turned away, and would hardly speak to me.
I followed her to a little room, furnished very daintily; and there she ordered me to wait, in a most ungracious manner. 'Well,' thought I, 'if the mistress and the maid are alike in temper, better it had been for me to abide at Master Ramsack's.' But almost ere my thought was done, I heard the light quick step which I knew as well as 'Watch,' my dog, knew mine; and my breast began to tremble, like the trembling of an arch ere the keystone is put in.
Almost ere I hoped--for fear and hope were so entangled that they hindered one another--the velvet hangings of the doorway parted, with a little doubt, and then a good face put on it. Lorna, in her perfect beauty, stood before the crimson folds, and her dress was all pure white, and her cheeks were rosy pink, and her lips were scarlet.
Like a maiden, with skill and sense checking violent impulse, she stayed there for one moment only, just to be admired; and then like a woman, she came to me, seeing how alarmed I was. The hand she offered me I took, and raised it to my lips with fear, as a thing too good for me. 'Is that all?' she whispered; and then her eyes gleamed up at me; and in another instant, she was weeping on my breast.
'Darling Lorna, Lady Lorna,' I cried, in astonishment, yet unable but to keep her closer to me, and closer; 'surely, though I love you so, this is not as it should be.'
'Yes, it is, John. Yes, it is. Nothing else should ever be. Oh, why have you behaved so?'
'I am behaving.' I replied, 'to the very best of my ability. There is no other man in the world could hold you so, without kissing you.'
'Then why don't you do it, John?' asked Lorna, looking up at me, with a flash of her old fun.
Now this matter, proverbially, is not for discussion, and repetition. Enough that we said nothing more than, 'Oh, John, how glad I am!' and 'Lorna, Lorna Lorna!' for about five minutes. Then my darling drew back proudly, with blushing cheeks, and tear-bright eyes, she began to cross-examine me.
'Master John Ridd, you shall tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I have been in Chancery, sir; and can detect a story. Now why have you never, for more than a twelvemonth, taken the smallest notice of your old friend, Mistress Lorna Doone?' Although she spoke in this lightsome manner, as if it made no difference, I saw that her quick heart was moving, and the flash of her eyes controlled.
'Simply for this cause, I answered, 'that my old friend and true love, took not the smallest heed of me. Nor knew I where to find her.'
'What!' cried Lorna; and nothing more; being overcome with wondering; and much inclined to fall away, but for my assistance. I told her, over and over again, that not a single syllable of any message from her, or tidings of her welfare, had reached me, or any one of us, since the letter she left behind; except by soldier's gossip.
'Oh, you poor dear John!' said Lorna, sighing at thought of my misery: 'how wonderfully good of you, thinking of me as you must have done, not to marry that little plain thing (or perhaps I should say that lovely creature, for I have never seen her), Mistress Ruth--I forget her name; but something like a towel.'
'Ruth Huckaback is a worthy maid,' I answered with some dignity; 'and she alone of all our world, except indeed poor Annie, has kept her confidence in you, and told me not to dread your rank, but trust your heart, Lady Lorna.'
'Then Ruth is my best friend,' she answered, 'and is worthy of you, dear John. And now remember one thing, dear; if God should part us, as may be by nothing short of death, try to marry that little Ruth, when you cease to remember me. And now for the head-traitor. I have often suspected it: but she looks me in the face, and wishes--fearful things, which I cannot repeat.'
With these words, she moved an implement such as I had not seen before, and which made a ringing noise at a serious distance. And before I had ceased wondering--for if such things go on, we might ring the church bells, while sitting in our back-kitchen--little Gwenny Carfax came, with a grave and sullen face.
'Gwenny,' began my Lorna, in a tone of high rank and dignity, 'go and fetch the letters which I gave you at various times for despatch to Mistress Ridd.'
'How can I fetch them, when they are gone? It be no use for him to tell no lies--'
'Now, Gwenny, can you look at me?' I asked, very sternly; for the matter was no joke to me, after a year's unhappiness.
'I don't want to look at 'ee. What should I look at a young man for, although he did offer to kiss me?'
I saw the spite and impudence of this last remark, and so did Lorna, although she could not quite refrain from smiling.
'Now, Gwenny, not to speak of that,' said Lorna, very demurely, 'if you thought it honest to keep the letters, was it honest to keep the money?'
At this the Cornish maiden broke into a rage of honesty: 'A putt the money by for 'ee. 'Ee shall have every farden of it.' And so she flung out of the room.
'And, Gwenny,' said Lorna very softly, following under the door-hangings; 'if it is not honest to keep the money, it is not honest to keep the letters, which would have been worth more than any gold to those who were so kind to you. Your father shall know the whole, Gwenny, unless you tell the truth.'
'Now, a will tell all the truth,' this strange maiden answered, talking to herself at least as much as to her mistress, while she went out of sight and hearing. And then I was so glad at having my own Lorna once again, cleared of all contempt for us, and true to me through all of it, that I would have forgiven Gwenny for treason, or even forgery.
'I trusted her so much,' said Lorna, in her old ill-fortuned way; 'and look how she has deceived me! That is why I love you, John (setting other things aside), because you never told me falsehood; and you never could, you know.'
'Well, I am not so sure of that. I think I could tell any lie, to have you, darling, all my own.'
'Yes. And perhaps it might be right. To other people besides us two. But you could not do it to me, John. You never could do it to me, you know.'
Before I quite perceived my way to the bottom of the distinction--although beyond doubt a valid one--Gwenny came back with a leathern bag, and tossed it upon the table. Not a word did she vouchsafe to us; but stood there, looking injured.
'Go, and get your letters, John,' said Lorna very gravely; 'or at least your mother's letters, made of messages to you. As for Gwenny, she shall go before Lord Justice Jeffreys.' I knew that Lorna meant it not; but thought that the girl deserved a frightening; as indeed she did. But we both mistook the courage of this child of Cornwall. She stepped upon a little round thing, in the nature of a stool, such as I never had seen before, and thus delivered her sentiments.
'And you may take me, if you please, before the great Lord Jeffreys. I have done no more than duty, though I did it crookedly, and told a heap of lies, for your sake. And pretty gratitude I gets.'
'Much gratitude you have shown,' replied Lorna, 'to Master Ridd, for all his kindness and his goodness to you. Who was it that went down, at the peril of his life, and brought your father to you, when you had lost him for months and months? Who was it? Answer me, Gwenny?'
'Girt Jan Ridd,' said the handmaid, very sulkily.
'What made you treat me so, little Gwenny?' I asked, for Lorna would not ask lest the reply should vex me.
'Because 'ee be'est below her so. Her shanna' have a poor farmering chap, not even if her were a Carnishman. All her land, and all her birth--and who be you, I'd like to know?'
'Gwenny, you may go,' said Lorna, reddening with quiet anger; 'and remember that you come not near me for the next three days. It is the only way to punish her,' she continued to me, when the maid was gone, in a storm of sobbing and weeping. 'Now, for the next three days, she will scarcely touch a morsel of food, and scarcely do a thing but cry. Make up your mind to one thing, John; if you mean to take me, for better for worse, you will have to take Gwenny with me.
'I would take you with fifty Gwennies,' said I, 'although every one of them hated me, which I do not believe this little maid does, in the bottom of her heart.'
'No one can possibly hate you, John,' she answered very softly; and I was better pleased with this, than if she had called me the most noble and glorious man in the kingdom.
After this, we spoke of ourselves and the way people would regard us, supposing that when Lorna came to be her own free mistress (as she must do in the course of time) she were to throw her rank aside, and refuse her title, and caring not a fig for folk who cared less than a fig-stalk for her, should shape her mind to its native bent, and to my perfect happiness. It was not my place to say much, lest I should appear to use an improper and selfish influence. And of course to all men of common sense, and to everybody of middle age (who must know best what is good for youth), the thoughts which my Lorna entertained would be enough to prove her madness.
Not that we could not keep her well, comfortably, and with nice clothes, and plenty of flowers, and fruit, and landscape, and the knowledge of our neighbours' affairs, and their kind interest in our own. Still this would not be as if she were the owner of a county, and a haughty title; and able to lead the first men of the age, by her mind, and face, and money.
Therefore was I quite resolved not to have a word to say, while this young queen of wealth and beauty, and of noblemen's desire, made her mind up how to act for her purest happiness. But to do her justice, this was not the first thing she was thinking of: the test of her judgment was only this, 'How will my love be happiest?'
'Now, John,' she cried; for she was so quick that she always had my thoughts beforehand; 'why will you be backward, as if you cared not for me? Do you dream that I am doubting? My mind has been made up, good John, that you must be my husband, for--well, I will not say how long, lest you should laugh at my folly. But I believe it was ever since you came, with your stockings off, and the loaches. Right early for me to make up my mind; but you know that you made up yours, John; and, of course, I knew it; and that had a great effect on me. Now, after all this age of loving, shall a trifle sever us?'
I told her that it was no trifle, but a most important thing, to abandon wealth, and honour, and the brilliance of high life, and be despised by every one for such abundant folly. Moreover, that I should appear a knave for taking advantage of her youth, and boundless generosity, and ruining (as men would say) a noble maid by my selfishness. And I told her outright, having worked myself up by my own conversation, that she was bound to consult her guardian, and that without his knowledge, I would come no more to see her. Her flash of pride at these last words made her look like an empress; and I was about to explain myself better, but she put forth her hand and stopped me.
'I think that condition should rather have proceeded from me. You are mistaken, Master Ridd, in supposing that I would think of receiving you in secret. It was a different thing in Glen Doone, where all except yourself were thieves, and when I was but a simple child, and oppressed with constant fear. You are quite right in threatening to visit me thus no more; but I think you might have waited for an invitation, sir.'
'And you are quite right, Lady Lorna, in pointing out my presumption. It is a fault that must ever be found in any speech of mine to you.'
This I said so humbly, and not with any bitterness--for I knew that I had gone too far--and made her so polite a bow, that she forgave me in a moment, and we begged each other's pardon.
'Now, will you allow me just to explain my own view of this matter, John?' said she, once more my darling. 'It may be a very foolish view, but I shall never change it. Please not to interrupt me, dear, until you have heard me to the end. In the first place, it is quite certain that neither you nor I can be happy without the other. Then what stands between us? Worldly position, and nothing else. I have no more education than you have, John Ridd; nay, and not so much. My birth and ancestry are not one whit more pure than yours, although they may be better known. Your descent from ancient freeholders, for five-and-twenty generations of good, honest men, although you bear no coat of arms, is better than the lineage of nine proud English noblemen out of every ten I meet with. In manners, though your mighty strength, and hatred of any meanness, sometimes break out in violence--of which I must try to cure you, dear--in manners, if kindness, and gentleness, and modesty are the true things wanted, you are immeasurably above any of our Court-gallants; who indeed have very little. As for difference of religion, we allow for one another, neither having been brought up in a bitterly pious manner.'
Here, though the tears were in my eyes, at the loving things love said of me, I could not help a little laugh at the notion of any bitter piety being found among the Doones, or even in mother, for that matter. Lorna smiled, in her slyest manner, and went on again:--
'Now, you see, I have proved my point; there is nothing between us but worldly position--if you can defend me against the Doones, for which, I trow, I may trust you. And worldly position means wealth, and title, and the right to be in great houses, and the pleasure of being envied. I have not been here for a year, John, without learning something. Oh, I hate it; how I hate it! Of all the people I know, there are but two, besides my uncle, who do not either covet, or detest me. And who are those two, think you?'
'Gwenny, for one,' I answered.
'Yes, Gwenny, for one. And the queen, for the other. The one is too far below me (I mean, in her own opinion), and the other too high above. As for the women who dislike me, without having even heard my voice, I simply have nothing to do with them. As for the men who covet me, for my land and money, I merely compare them with you, John Ridd; and all thought of them is over. Oh, John, you must never forsake me, however cross I am to you. I thought you would have gone, just now; and though I would not move to stop you, my heart would have broken.'
'You don't catch me go in a hurry,' I answered very sensibly, 'when the loveliest maiden in all the world, and the best, and the dearest, loves me. All my fear of you is gone, darling Lorna, all my fear--'
'Is it possible you could fear me, John, after all we have been through together? Now you promised not to interrupt me; is this fair behaviour? Well, let me see where I left off--oh, that my heart would have broken. Upon that point, I will say no more, lest you should grow conceited, John; if anything could make you so. But I do assure you that half London--however, upon that point also I will check my power of speech, lest you think me conceited. And now to put aside all nonsense; though I have talked none for a year, John, having been so unhappy; and now it is such a relief to me--'
'Then talk it for an hour,' said I; 'and let me sit and watch you. To me it is the very sweetest of all sweetest wisdom.'
'Nay, there is no time,' she answered, glancing at a jewelled timepiece, scarcely larger than an oyster, which she drew from her waist-band; and then she pushed it away, in confusion, lest its wealth should startle me. 'My uncle will come home in less than half an hour, dear: and you are not the one to take a side- passage, and avoid him. I shall tell him that you have been here; and that I mean you to come again.'
As Lorna said this, with a manner as confident as need be, I saw that she had learned in town the power of her beauty, and knew that she could do with most men aught she set her mind upon. And as she stood there, flushed with pride and faith in her own loveliness, and radiant with the love itself, I felt that she must do exactly as she pleased with every one. For now, in turn, and elegance, and richness, and variety, there was nothing to compare with her face, unless it were her figure. Therefore I gave in, and said,--
'Darling, do just what you please. Only make no rogue of me.'
For that she gave me the simplest, kindest, and sweetest of all kisses; and I went down the great stairs grandly, thinking of nothing else but that.