When the little boy came back with the bluebells, which he had managed to find--as children always do find flowers, when older eyes see none--the only sign of his father left was a dark brown bubble, upon a newly formed patch of blackness. But to the center of its pulpy gorge the greedy slough was heaving, and sullenly grinding its weltering jaws among the flags and the sedges.
With pain, and ache, both of mind and body, and shame at my own fury, I heavily mounted my horse again, and, looked down at the innocent Ensie. Would this playful, loving child grow up like his cruel father, and end a godless life of hatred with a death of violence? He lifted his noble forehead towards me, as if to answer, "Nay, I will not": but the words he spoke were these:--
'Don,'--for he could never say 'John'--'oh, Don, I am so glad that nasty naughty man is gone away. Take me home, Don. Take me home.'
It has been said of the wicked, 'not even their own children love them.' And I could easily believe that Carver Doone's cold-hearted ways had scared from him even his favorite child. No man would I call truly wicked, unless his heart be cold.
It hurt me, more than I can tell, even through all other grief, to take into my arms the child of the man just slain by me. The feeling was a foolish one, and a wrong one, as the thing has been --for I would fain have saved that man, after he was conquered-- nevertheless my arms went coldly round that little fellow; neither would they have gone at all, if there had been any help for it. But I could not leave him there, till some one else might fetch him; on account of the cruel slough, and the ravens which had come hovering over the dead horse; neither could I, with my wound, tie him on my horse and walk.
For now I had spent a great deal of blood, and was rather faint and weary. And it was lucky for me that Kickums had lost spirit, like his master, and went home as mildly as a lamb. For, when we came towards the farm, I seemed to be riding in a dream almost; and the voices both of man and women (who had hurried forth upon my track), as they met me, seemed to wander from a distant muffling cloud. Only the thought of Lorna's death, like a heavy knell, was tolling in the belfry of my brain.
When we came to the stable door, I rather fell from my horse than got off; and John Fry, with a look of wonder took Kickum's head, and led him in. Into the old farmhouse I tottered, like a weanling child, with mother in her common clothes, helping me along, yet fearing, except by stealth, to look at me.
'I have killed him,' was all I said; 'even as he killed Lorna. Now let me see my wife, mother. She belongs to me none the less, though dead.'
'You cannot see her now, dear John,' said Ruth Huckaback, coming forward; since no one else had the courage. 'Annie is with her now, John.'
'What has that to do with it? Let me see my dead one; and pray myself to die.'
All the women fell away, and whispered, and looked at me, with side glances, and some sobbing; for my face was hard as flint. Ruth alone stood by me, and dropped her eyes, and trembled. Then one little hand of hers stole into my great shaking palm, and the other was laid on my tattered coat: yet with her clothes she shunned my blood, while she whispered gently,--
'John, she is not your dead one. She may even be your living one yet, your wife, your home, and your happiness. But you must not see her now.'
'Is there any chance for her? For me, I mean; for me, I mean?'
'God in heaven knows, dear John. But the sight of you, and in this sad plight, would be certain death to her. Now come first, and be healed yourself.'
I obeyed her, like a child, whispering only as I went, for none but myself knew her goodness--'Almighty God will bless you, darling, for the good you are doing now.'
Tenfold, ay and a thousandfold, I prayed and I believed it, when I came to know the truth. If it had not been for this little maid, Lorna must have died at once, as in my arms she lay for dead, from the dastard and murderous cruelty. But the moment I left her Ruth came forward and took the command of every one, in right of her firmness and readiness.
She made them bear her home at once upon the door of the pulpit, with the cushion under the drooping head. With her own little hands she cut off, as tenderly as a pear is peeled, the bridal-dress, so steeped and stained, and then with her dainty transparent fingers (no larger than a pencil) she probed the vile wound in the side, and fetched the reeking bullet forth; and then with the coldest water stanched the flowing of the life-blood. All this while my darling lay insensible, and white as death; and needed nothing but her maiden shroud.
But Ruth still sponged the poor side and forehead, and watched the long eyelashes flat upon the marble cheek; and laid her pure face on the faint heart, and bade them fetch her Spanish wine. Then she parted the pearly teeth (feebly clenched on the hovering breath), and poured in wine from a christening spoon, and raised the graceful neck and breast, and stroked the delicate throat, and waited; and then poured in a little more.
Annie all the while looked on with horror and amazement, counting herself no second-rate nurse, and this as against all theory. But the quiet lifting of Ruth's hand, and one glance from her dark bright eyes, told Annie just to stand away, and not intercept the air so. And at the very moment when all the rest had settled that Ruth was a simple idiot, but could not harm the dead much, a little flutter in the throat, followed by a short low sigh, made them pause, and look and hope.
For hours, however, and days, she lay at the very verge of death, kept alive by nothing but the care, the skill, the tenderness, and the perpetual watchfulness of Ruth. Luckily Annie was not there very often, so as to meddle; for kind and clever nurse as she was, she must have done more harm than good. But my broken rib, which was set by a doctor, who chanced to be at the wedding, was allotted to Annie's care; and great inflammation ensuing, it was quite enough to content her. This doctor had pronounced poor Lorna dead; wherefore Ruth refused most firmly to have aught to do with him. She took the whole case on herself; and with God's help she bore it through.
Now whether it were the light and brightness of my Lorna's nature; or the freedom from anxiety--for she knew not of my hurt;--or, as some people said, her birthright among wounds and violence, or her manner of not drinking beer--I leave that doctor to determine who pronounced her dead. But anyhow, one thing is certain; sure as stars of hope above us; Lorna recovered, long ere I did.
For the grief was on me still of having lost my love and lover at the moment she was mine. With the power of fate upon me, and the black cauldron of the wizard's death boiling in my heated brain, I had no faith in the tales they told. I believed that Lorna was in the churchyard, while these rogues were lying to me. For with strength of blood like mine, and power of heart behind it, a broken bone must burn itself.
Mine went hard with fires of pain, being of such size and thickness; and I was ashamed of him for breaking by reason of a pistol-ball, and the mere hug of a man. And it fetched me down in conceit of strength; so that I was careful afterwards.
All this was a lesson to me. All this made me very humble; illness being a thing, as yet, altogether unknown to me. Not that I cried small, or skulked, or feared the death which some foretold; shaking their heads about mortification, and a green appearance. Only that I seemed quite fit to go to heaven, and Lorna. For in my sick distracted mind (stirred with many tossings), like the bead in the spread of frog-spawn carried by the current, hung the black and central essence of my future life. A life without Lorna; a tadpole life. All stupid head; and no body.
Many men may like such life; anchorites, fakirs, high-priests, and so on; but to my mind, it is not the native thing God meant for us. My dearest mother was a show, with crying and with fretting. The Doones, as she thought, were born to destroy us. Scarce had she come to some liveliness (though sprinkled with tears, every now and then) after her great bereavement, and ten years' time to dwell on it--when lo, here was her husband's son, the pet child of her own good John, murdered like his father! Well, the ways of God were wonderful!
So they were, and so they are; and so they ever will be. Let us debate them as we will, are ways are His, and much the same; only second-hand from Him. And I expected something from Him, even in my worst of times, knowing that I had done my best.
This is not edifying talk--as our Nonconformist parson says, when he can get no more to drink--therefore let me only tell what became of Lorna. One day, I was sitting in my bedroom, for I could not get downstairs, and there was no one strong enough to carry me, even if I would have allowed it.
Though it cost me sore trouble and weariness, I had put on all my Sunday clothes, out of respect for the doctor, who was coming to bleed me again (as he always did twice a week); and it struck me that he had seemed hurt in his mind, because I wore my worst clothes to be bled in--for lie in bed I would not, after six o'clock; and even that was great laziness.
I looked at my right hand, whose grasp had been like that of a blacksmith's vice; and it seemed to myself impossible that this could be John Ridd's. The great frame of the hand was there, as well as the muscles, standing forth like the guttering of a candle, and the broad blue veins, going up the back, and crossing every finger. But as for colour, even Lorna's could scarcely have been whiter; and as for strength, little Ensie Doone might have come and held it fast. I laughed as I tried in vain to lift the basin set for bleeding me.
Then I thought of all the lovely things going on out-of-doors just now, concerning which the drowsy song of the bees came to me. These must be among the thyme, by the sound of their great content. Therefore the roses must be in blossom, and the woodbine, and clove-gilly-flower; the cherries on the wall must be turning red, the yellow Sally must be on the brook, wheat must be callow with quavering bloom, and the early meadows swathed with hay.
Yet here was I, a helpless creature quite unfit to stir among them, gifted with no sight, no scent of all the changes that move our love, and lead our hearts, from month to month, along the quiet path of life. And what was worse, I had no hope of caring ever for them more.
Presently a little knock sounded through my gloomy room, and supposing it to be the doctor, I tried to rise and make my bow. But to my surprise it was little Ruth, who had never once come to visit me, since I was placed under the doctor's hands. Ruth was dressed so gaily, with rosettes, and flowers, and what not, that I was sorry for her bad manners; and thought she was come to conquer me, now that Lorna was done with.
Ruth ran towards me with sparkling eyes, being rather short of sight; then suddenly she stopped, and I saw entire amazement in her face.
'Can you receive visitors, Cousin Ridd?--why, they never told me of this!' she cried: 'I knew that you were weak, dear John; but not that you were dying. Whatever is that basin for?'
'I have no intention of dying, Ruth; and I like not to talk about it. But that basin, if you must know, is for the doctor's purpose.'
'What, do you mean bleeding you? You poor weak cousin! Is it possible that he does that still?'
'Twice a week for the last six weeks, dear. Nothing else has kept me alive.'
'Nothing else has killed you, nearly. There!' and she set her little boot across the basin, and crushed it. 'Not another drop shall they have from you. Is Annie such a fool as that? And Lizzie, like a zany, at her books! And killing her brother, between them!'
I was surprised to see Ruth excited; her character being so calm and quiet. And I tried to soothe her with my feeble hand, as now she knelt before me.
'Dear cousin, the doctor must know best. Annie says so, every day. What has he been brought up for?'
'Brought up for slaying and murdering. Twenty doctors killed King Charles, in spite of all the women. Will you leave it to me, John? I have a little will of my own; and I am not afraid of doctors. Will you leave it to me, dear John? I have saved your Lorna's life. And now I will save yours; which is a far, far easier business.'
'You have saved my Lorna's life! What do you mean by talking so?'
'Only what I say, Cousin John. Though perhaps I overprize my work. But at any rate she says so.'
'I do not understand,' I said, falling back with bewilderment; 'all women are such liars.'
'Have you ever known me tell a lie?' Ruth in great indignation--more feigned, I doubt, than real--'your mother may tell a story, now and then when she feels it right; and so may both your sisters. But so you cannot do, John Ridd; and no more than you can I do it.'
If ever there was virtuous truth in the eyes of any woman, it was now in Ruth Huckaback's: and my brain began very slowly to move, the heart being almost torpid from perpetual loss of blood.
'I do not understand,' was all I could say for a very long time.
'Will you understand, if I show you Lorna? I have feared to do it, for the sake of you both. But now Lorna is well enough, if you think that you are, Cousin John. Surely you will understand, when you see your wife.'
Following her, to the very utmost of my mind and heart, I felt that all she said was truth; and yet I could not make it out. And in her last few words there was such a power of sadness rising through the cover of gaiety, that I said to myself, half in a dream, 'Ruth is very beautiful.'
Before I had time to listen much for the approach of footsteps, Ruth came back, and behind her Lorna; coy as if of her bridegroom; and hanging back with her beauty. Ruth banged the door, and ran away; and Lorna stood before me.
But she did not stand for an instant, when she saw what I was like. At the risk of all thick bandages, and upsetting a dozen medicine bottles, and scattering leeches right and left, she managed to get into my arms, although they could not hold her. She laid her panting warm young breast on the place where they meant to bleed me, and she set my pale face up; and she would not look at me, having greater faith in kissing.
I felt my life come back, and warm; I felt my trust in women flow; I felt the joys of living now, and the power of doing it. It is not a moment to describe; who feels can never tell of it. But the rush of Lorna's tears, and the challenge of my bride's lips, and the throbbing of my wife's heart (now at last at home on mine), made me feel that the world was good, and not a thing to be weary of.
Little more have I to tell. The doctor was turned out at once; and slowly came back my former strength, with a darling wife, and good victuals. As for Lorna, she never tired of sitting and watching me eat and eat. And such is her heart that she never tires of being with me here and there, among the beautiful places, and talking with her arm around me--so far at least as it can go, though half of mine may go round her--of the many fears and troubles, dangers and discouragements, and worst of all the bitter partings, which we used to have, somehow.
There is no need for my farming harder than becomes a man of weight. Lorna has great stores of money, though we never draw it out, except for some poor neighbor; unless I find her a sumptuous dress, out of her own perquisites. And this she always looks upon as a wondrous gift from me; and kisses me much when she puts it on, and walks like the noble woman she is. And yet I may never behold it again; for she gets back to her simple clothes, and I love her the better in them. I believe that she gives half the grandeur away, and keeps the other half for the children.
As for poor Tom Faggus, every one knows his bitter adventures, when his pardon was recalled, because of his journey to Sedgemoor. Not a child in the country, I doubt, but knows far more than I do of Tom's most desperate doings. The law had ruined him once, he said; and then he had been too much for the law: and now that a quiet life was his object, here the base thing came after him. And such was his dread of this evil spirit, that being caught upon Barnstaple Bridge, with soldiers at either end of it (yet doubtful about approaching him), he set his strawberry mare, sweet Winnie, at the left-hand parapet, with a whisper into her dove-coloured ear. Without a moment's doubt she leaped it, into the foaming tide, and swam, and landed according to orders. Also his flight from a public-house (where a trap was set for him, but Winnie came and broke down the door, and put two men under, and trod on them,) is as well known as any ballad. It was reported for awhile that poor Tom had been caught at last, by means of his fondness for liquor, and was hanged before Taunton Jail; but luckily we knew better. With a good wife, and a wonderful horse, and all the country attached to him, he kept the law at a wholesome distance, until it became too much for its master; and a new king arose. Upon this, Tom sued his pardon afresh; and Jeremy Stickles, who suited the times, was glad to help him in getting it, as well as a compensation. Thereafter the good and respectable Tom lived a godly (though not always sober) life; and brought up his children to honesty, as the first of all qualifications.
My dear mother was as happy as possibly need be with us; having no cause for jealousy, as others arose around her. And everybody was well pleased, when Lizzy came in one day and tossed her bookshelf over, and declared that she would have Captain Bloxham, and nobody should prevent her. For that he alone, of all the men she had ever met with, knew good writing when he saw it, and could spell a word when told. As he had now succeeded to Captain Stickle's position (Stickles going up the tree), and had the power of collecting, and of keeping, what he liked, there was nothing to be said against it; and we hoped that he would pay her out.
I sent little Ensie to Blundell's school, at my own cost and charges, having changed his name, for fear of what anyone might do to him. I called him Ensie Jones; and we got him a commission, and after many scrapes of spirit, he did great things in the Low Countries. He looks upon me as his father; and without my leave will not lay claim to the heritage and title of the Doones, which clearly belong to him.
Ruth Huckaback is not married yet; although upon Uncle Reuben's death she came into all his property; except, indeed, 2000 pounds, which Uncle Ben, in his driest manner, bequeathed 'to Sir John Ridd, the worshipful knight, for greasing of the testator's boots.' And he left almost a mint of money, not from the mine, but from the shop, and the good use of usury. For the mine had brought in just what it cost, when the vein of gold ended suddenly; leaving all concerned much older, and some, I fear, much poorer; but no one utterly ruined, as is the case with most of them. Ruth herself was his true mine, as upon death-bed he found. I know a man even worthy of her: and though she is not very young, he loves her, as I love Lorna. It is my firm conviction, that in the end he will win her; and I do not mean to dance again, except at dear Ruth's wedding; if the floor be strong enough.
Of Lorna, of my lifelong darling, of my more and more loved wife, I will not talk; for it is not seemly that a man should exalt his pride. Year by year her beauty grows, with the growth of goodness, kindness, and true happiness--above all with loving. For change, she makes a joke of this, and plays with it, and laughs at it; and then, when my slow nature marvels, back she comes to the earnest thing. And if I wish to pay her out for something very dreadful--as may happen once or twice, when we become too gladsome--I bring her to forgotten sadness, and to me for cure of it, by the two words 'Lorna Doone.'