A VERY DESPERATE VENTURE
That the enterprise now resolved upon was far more dangerous than any hitherto attempted by me, needs no further proof than this:--I went and made my will at Porlock, with a middling honest lawyer there; not that I had much to leave, but that none could say how far the farm, and all the farming stock, might depend on my disposition. It makes me smile when I remember how particular I was, and how for the life of me I was puzzled to bequeath most part of my clothes, and hats, and things altogether my own, to Lorna, without the shrewd old lawyer knowing who she was and where she lived. At last, indeed, I flattered myself that I had baffled old Tape's curiosity; but his wrinkled smile and his speech at parting made me again uneasy.
'A very excellent will, young sir. An admirably just and virtuous will; all your effects to your nearest of kin; filial and fraternal duty thoroughly exemplified; nothing diverted to alien channels, except a small token of esteem and reverence to an elderly lady, I presume: and which may or may not be valid, or invalid, on the ground of uncertainty, or the absence of any legal status on the part of the legatee. Ha, ha! Yes, yes! Few young men are so free from exceptionable entanglements. Two guineas is my charge, sir: and a rare good will for the money. Very prudent of you, sir. Does you credit in every way. Well, well; we all must die; and often the young before the old.'
Not only did I think two guineas a great deal too much money for a quarter of an hour's employment, but also I disliked particularly the words with which he concluded; they sounded, from his grating voice, like the evil omen of a croaking raven. Nevertheless I still abode in my fixed resolve to go, and find out, if I died for it, what was become of Lorna. And herein I lay no claim to courage; the matter being simply a choice between two evils, of which by far the greater one was, of course, to lose my darling.
The journey was a great deal longer to fetch around the Southern hills, and enter by the Doone-gate, than to cross the lower land and steal in by the water-slide. However, I durst not take a horse (for fear of the Doones who might be abroad upon their usual business), but started betimes in the evening, so as not to hurry, or waste any strength upon the way. And thus I came to the robbers' highway, walking circumspectly, scanning the sky-line of every hill, and searching the folds of every valley, for any moving figure.
Although it was now well on towards dark, and the sun was down an hour or so, I could see the robbers' road before me, in a trough of the winding hills, where the brook ploughed down from the higher barrows, and the coving banks were roofed with furze. At present, there was no one passing, neither post nor sentinel, so far as I could descry; but I thought it safer to wait a little, as twilight melted into night; and then I crept down a seam of the highland, and stood upon the Doone-track.
As the road approached the entrance, it became more straight and strong, like a channel cut from rock, with the water brawling darkly along the naked side of it. Not a tree or bush was left, to shelter a man from bullets: all was stern, and stiff, and rugged, as I could not help perceiving, even through the darkness, and a smell as of churchyard mould, a sense of being boxed in and cooped, made me long to be out again.
And here I was, or seemed to be, particularly unlucky; for as I drew near the very entrance, lightly of foot and warily, the moon (which had often been my friend) like an enemy broke upon me, topping the eastward ridge of rock, and filling all the open spaces with the play of wavering light. I shrank back into the shadowy quarter on the right side of the road; and gloomily employed myself to watch the triple entrance, on which the moonlight fell askew.
All across and before the three rude and beetling archways hung a felled oak overhead, black, and thick, and threatening. This, as I heard before, could be let fall in a moment, so as to crush a score of men, and bar the approach of horses. Behind this tree, the rocky mouth was spanned, as by a gallery with brushwood and piled timber, all upon a ledge of stone, where thirty men might lurk unseen, and fire at any invader. From that rampart it would be impossible to dislodge them, because the rock fell sheer below them twenty feet, or it may be more; while overhead it towered three hundred, and so jutted over that nothing could be cast upon them; even if a man could climb the height. And the access to this portcullis place--if I may so call it, being no portcullis there--was through certain rocky chambers known to the tenants only.
But the cleverest of their devices, and the most puzzling to an enemy, was that, instead of one mouth only, there were three to choose from, with nothing to betoken which was the proper access; all being pretty much alike, and all unfenced and yawning. And the common rumour was that in times of any danger, when any force was known to be on muster in their neighbourhood, they changed their entrance every day, and diverted the other two, by means of sliding doors to the chasms and dark abysses.
Now I could see those three rough arches, jagged, black, and terrible; and I knew that only one of them could lead me to the valley; neither gave the river now any further guidance; but dived underground with a sullen roar, where it met the cross-bar of the mountain. Having no means at all of judging which was the right way of the three, and knowing that the other two would lead to almost certain death, in the ruggedness and darkness,--for how could a man, among precipices and bottomless depths of water, without a ray of light, have any chance to save his life?--I do declare that I was half inclined to go away, and have done with it.
However, I knew one thing for certain, to wit, that the longer I stayed debating the more would the enterprise pall upon me, and the less my relish be. And it struck me that, in times of peace, the middle way was the likeliest; and the others diverging right and left in their farther parts might be made to slide into it (not far from the entrance), at the pleasure of the warders. Also I took it for good omen that I remembered (as rarely happened) a very fine line in the Latin grammar, whose emphasis and meaning is 'middle road is safest.'
Therefore, without more hesitation, I plunged into the middle way, holding a long ash staff before me, shodden at the end with iron. Presently I was in black darkness groping along the wall, and feeling a deal more fear than I wished to feel; especially when upon looking back I could no longer see the light, which I had forsaken. Then I stumbled over something hard, and sharp, and very cold, moreover so grievous to my legs that it needed my very best doctrine and humour to forbear from swearing, in the manner they use in London. But when I arose and felt it, and knew it to be a culverin, I was somewhat reassured thereby, inasmuch as it was not likely that they would plant this engine except in the real and true entrance.
Therefore I went on again, more painfully and wearily, and presently found it to be good that I had received that knock, and borne it with such patience; for otherwise I might have blundered full upon the sentries, and been shot without more ado. As it was, I had barely time to draw back, as I turned a corner upon them; and if their lanthorn had been in its place, they could scarce have failed to descry me, unless indeed I had seen the gleam before I turned the corner.
There seemed to be only two of them, of size indeed and stature as all the Doones must be, but I need not have feared to encounter them both, had they been unarmed, as I was. It was plain, however, that each had a long and heavy carbine, not in his hands (as it should have been), but standing close beside him. Therefore it behoved me now to be exceedingly careful, and even that might scarce avail, without luck in proportion. So I kept well back at the corner, and laid one cheek to the rock face, and kept my outer eye round the jut, in the wariest mode I could compass, watching my opportunity: and this is what I saw.
The two villains looked very happy--which villains have no right to be, but often are, meseemeth--they were sitting in a niche of rock, with the lanthorn in the corner, quaffing something from glass measures, and playing at push-pin, or shepherd's chess, or basset; or some trivial game of that sort. Each was smoking a long clay pipe, quite of new London shape, I could see, for the shadow was thrown out clearly; and each would laugh from time to time, as he fancied he got the better of it. One was sitting with his knees up, and left hand on his thigh; and this one had his back to me, and seemed to be the stouter. The other leaned more against the rock, half sitting and half astraddle, and wearing leathern overalls, as if newly come from riding. I could see his face quite clearly by the light of the open lanthorn, and a handsomer or a bolder face I had seldom, if ever, set eyes upon; insomuch that it made me very unhappy to think of his being so near my Lorna.
'How long am I to stand crouching here?' I asked of myself, at last, being tired of hearing them cry, 'score one,' 'score two,' 'No, by --, Charlie,' 'By --, I say it is, Phelps.' And yet my only chance of slipping by them unperceived was to wait till they quarrelled more, and came to blows about it. Presently, as I made up my mind to steal along towards them (for the cavern was pretty wide, just there), Charlie, or Charleworth Doone, the younger and taller man, reached forth his hand to seize the money, which he swore he had won that time. Upon this, the other jerked his arm, vowing that he had no right to it; whereupon Charlie flung at his face the contents of the glass he was sipping, but missed him and hit the candle, which sputtered with a flare of blue flame (from the strength perhaps of the spirit) and then went out completely. At this, one swore, and the other laughed; and before they had settled what to do, I was past them and round the corner.
And then, like a giddy fool as I was, I needs must give them a startler--the whoop of an owl, done so exactly, as John Fry had taught me, and echoed by the roof so fearfully, that one of them dropped the tinder box; and the other caught up his gun and cocked it, at least as I judged by the sounds they made. And then, too late, I knew my madness, for if either of them had fired, no doubt but what all the village would have risen and rushed upon me. However, as the luck of the matter went, it proved for my advantage; for I heard one say to the other,--
'Curse it, Charlie, what was that? It scared me so, I have dropped my box; my flint is gone, and everything. Will the brimstone catch from your pipe, my lad?'
'My pipe is out, Phelps, ever so long. Damn it, I am not afraid of an owl, man. Give me the lanthorn, and stay here. I'm not half done with you yet, my friend.'
'Well said, my boy, well said! Go straight to Carver's, mind you. The other sleepy heads be snoring, as there is nothing up to-night. No dallying now under Captain's window. Queen will have nought to say to you; and Carver will punch your head into a new wick for your lanthorn.'
'Will he though? Two can play at that.' And so after some rude jests, and laughter, and a few more oaths, I heard Charlie (or at any rate somebody) coming toward me, with a loose and not too sober footfall. As he reeled a little in his gait, and I would not move from his way one inch, after his talk of Lorna, but only longed to grasp him (if common sense permitted it), his braided coat came against my thumb, and his leathern gaiters brushed my knee. If he had turned or noticed it, he would have been a dead man in a moment; but his drunkenness saved him.
So I let him reel on unharmed; and thereupon it occurred to me that I could have no better guide, passing as he would exactly where I wished to be; that is to say under Lorna's window. Therefore I followed him without any especial caution; and soon I had the pleasure of seeing his form against the moonlit sky. Down a steep and winding path, with a handrail at the corners (such as they have at Ilfracombe), Master Charlie tripped along--and indeed there was much tripping, and he must have been an active fellow to recover as he did--and after him walked I, much hoping (for his own poor sake) that be might not turn and espy me.
But Bacchus (of whom I read at school, with great wonder about his meaning--and the same I may say of Venus) that great deity preserved Charlie, his pious worshipper, from regarding consequences. So he led me very kindly to the top of the meadow land, where the stream from underground broke forth, seething quietly with a little hiss of bubbles. Hence I had fair view and outline of the robbers' township, spread with bushes here and there, but not heavily overshadowed. The moon, approaching now the full, brought the forms in manner forth, clothing each with character, as the moon (more than the sun) does, to an eye accustomed.
I knew that the Captain's house was first, both from what Lorna had said of it, and from my mother's description, and now again from seeing Charlie halt there for a certain time, and whistle on his fingers, and hurry on, fearing consequence. The tune that he whistled was strange to me, and lingered in my ears, as having something very new and striking, and fantastic in it. And I repeated it softly to myself, while I marked the position of the houses and the beauty of the village. For the stream, in lieu of any street, passing between the houses, and affording perpetual change, and twinkling, and reflections moreover by its sleepy murmur soothing all the dwellers there, this and the snugness of the position, walled with rock and spread with herbage, made it look, in the quiet moonlight, like a little paradise. And to think of all the inmates there, sleeping with good consciences, having plied their useful trade of making others work for them, enjoying life without much labour, yet with great renown.
Master Charlie went down the village, and I followed him carefully, keeping as much as possible in the shadowy places, and watching the windows of every house, lest any light should be burning. As I passed Sir Ensor's house, my heart leaped up, for I spied a window, higher than the rest above the ground, and with a faint light moving. This could hardly fail to be the room wherein my darling lay; for here that impudent young fellow had gazed while he was whistling. And here my courage grew tenfold, and my spirit feared no evil--for lo, if Lorna had been surrendered to that scoundrel, Carver, she would not have been at her grandfather's house, but in Carver's accursed dwelling.
Warm with this idea, I hurried after Charleworth Doone, being resolved not to harm him now, unless my own life required it. And while I watched from behind a tree, the door of the farthest house was opened; and sure enough it was Carver's self, who stood bareheaded, and half undressed in the doorway. I could see his great black chest, and arms, by the light of the lamp he bore.
'Who wants me this time of night?' he grumbled, in a deep gruff voice; 'any young scamp prowling after the maids shall have sore bones for his trouble.'
'All the fair maids are for thee, are they, Master Carver?' Charlie answered, laughing; 'we young scamps must be well-content with coarser stuff than thou wouldst have.'
'Would have? Ay, and will have,' the great beast muttered angrily. 'I bide my time; but not very long. Only one word for thy good, Charlie. I will fling thee senseless into the river, if ever I catch thy girl-face there again.'
'Mayhap, Master Carver, it is more than thou couldst do. But I will not keep thee; thou art not pleasant company to-night. All I want is a light for my lanthorn, and a glass of schnapps, if thou hast it.'
'What is become of thy light, then? Good for thee I am not on duty.'
'A great owl flew between me and Phelps, as we watched beside the culvern, and so scared was he at our fierce bright eyes that he fell and knocked the light out.'
'Likely tale, or likely lie, Charles! We will have the truth to-morrow. Here take thy light, and be gone with thee. All virtuous men are in bed now.'
'Then so will I be, and why art thou not? Ha, have I earned my schnapps now?'
'If thou hast, thou hast paid a bad debt; there is too much in thee already. Be off! my patience is done with.'
Then he slammed the door in the young man's face, having kindled his lanthorn by this time: and Charlie went up to the watchplace again, muttering as he passed me, 'Bad look-out for all of us, when that surly old beast is Captain. No gentle blood in him, no hospitality, not even pleasant language, nor a good new oath in his frowsy pate! I've a mind to cut the whole of it; and but for the girls I would so.'
My heart was in my mouth, as they say, when I stood in the shade by Lorna's window, and whispered her name gently. The house was of one story only, as the others were, with pine-ends standing forth the stone, and only two rough windows upon that western side of it, and perhaps both of them were Lorna's. The Doones had been their own builders, for no one should know their ins and outs; and of course their work was clumsy. As for their windows, they stole them mostly from the houses round about. But though the window was not very close, I might have whispered long enough, before she would have answered me; frightened as she was, no doubt by many a rude overture. And I durst not speak aloud because I saw another watchman posted on the western cliff, and commanding all the valley. And now this man (having no companion for drinking or for gambling) espied me against the wall of the house, and advanced to the brink, and challenged me.
'Who are you there? Answer! One, two, three; and I fire at thee.'
The nozzle of his gun was pointed full upon me, as I could see, with the moonlight striking on the barrel; he was not more than fifty yards off, and now he began to reckon. Being almost desperate about it, I began to whistle, wondering how far I should get before I lost my windpipe: and as luck would have it, my lips fell into that strange tune I had practised last; the one I had heard from Charlie. My mouth would scarcely frame the notes, being parched with terror; but to my surprise, the man fell back, dropped his gun, and saluted. Oh, sweetest of all sweet melodies!
That tune was Carver Doone's passport (as I heard long afterwards), which Charleworth Doone had imitated, for decoy of Lorna. The sentinel took me for that vile Carver; who was like enough to be prowling there, for private talk with Lorna; but not very likely to shout forth his name, if it might be avoided. The watchman, perceiving the danger perhaps of intruding on Carver's privacy, not only retired along the cliff, but withdrew himself to good distance.
Meanwhile he had done me the kindest service; for Lorna came to the window at once, to see what the cause of the shout was, and drew back the curtain timidly. Then she opened the rough lattice; and then she watched the cliff and trees; and then she sighed very sadly.
'Oh, Lorna, don't you know me?' I whispered from the side, being afraid of startling her by appearing over suddenly.
Quick though she always was of thought, she knew me not from my whisper, and was shutting the window hastily when I caught it back, and showed myself.
'John!' she cried, yet with sense enough not to speak aloud: 'oh, you must be mad, John.'
'As mad as a March hare,' said I, 'without any news of my darling. You knew I would come: of course you did.'
'Well, I thought, perhaps--you know: now, John, you need not eat my hand. Do you see they have put iron bars across?'
'To be sure. Do you think I should be contented, even with this lovely hand, but for these vile iron bars. I will have them out before I go. Now, darling, for one moment--just the other hand, for a change, you know.'
So I got the other, but was not honest; for I kept them both, and felt their delicate beauty trembling, as I laid them to my heart.
'Oh, John, you will make me cry directly'--she had been crying long ago--'if you go on in that way. You know we can never have one another; every one is against it. Why should I make you miserable? Try not to think of me any more.'
'And will you try the same of me, Lorna?'
'Oh yes, John; if you agree to it. At least I will try to try it.'
'Then you won't try anything of the sort,' I cried with great enthusiasm, for her tone was so nice and melancholy: 'the only thing we will try to try, is to belong to one another. And if we do our best, Lorna, God alone can prevent us.'
She crossed herself, with one hand drawn free as I spoke so boldly; and something swelled in her little throat, and prevented her from answering.
'Now tell me,' I said; 'what means all this? Why are you so pent up here? Why have you given me no token? Has your grandfather turned against you? Are you in any danger?'
'My poor grandfather is very ill: I fear that he will not live long. The Counsellor and his son are now the masters of the valley; and I dare not venture forth, for fear of anything they might do to me. When I went forth, to signal for you, Carver tried to seize me; but I was too quick for him. Little Gwenny is not allowed to leave the valley now; so that I could send no message. I have been so wretched, dear, lest you should think me false to you. The tyrants now make sure of me. You must watch this house, both night and day, if you wish to save me. There is nothing they would shrink from; if my poor grandfather--oh, I cannot bear to think of myself, when I ought to think of him only; dying without a son to tend him, or a daughter to shed a tear.'
'But surely he has sons enough; and a deal too many,' I was going to say, but stopped myself in time: 'why do none of them come to him?'
'I know not. I cannot tell. He is a very strange old man; and few have ever loved him. He was black with wrath at the Counsellor, this very afternoon--but I must not keep you here--you are much too brave, John; and I am much too selfish: there, what was that shadow?'
'Nothing more than a bat, darling, come to look for his sweetheart. I will not stay long; you tremble so: and yet for that very reason, how can I leave you, Lorna?'
'You must--you must,' she answered; 'I shall die if they hurt you. I hear the old nurse moving. Grandfather is sure to send for me. Keep back from the window.'
However, it was only Gwenny Carfax, Lorna's little handmaid: my darling brought her to the window and presented her to me, almost laughing through her grief.
'Oh, I am so glad, John; Gwenny, I am so glad you came. I have wanted long to introduce you to my "young man," as you call him. It is rather dark, but you can see him. I wish you to know him again, Gwenny.'
'Whoy!' cried Gwenny, with great amazement, standing on tiptoe to look out, and staring as if she were weighing me: 'her be bigger nor any Doone! Heared as her have bate our Cornish champion awrastling. 'Twadn't fair play nohow: no, no; don't tell me, 'twadn't fair play nohow.'
'True enough, Gwenny,' I answered her; for the play had been very unfair indeed on the side of the Bodmin champion; 'it was not a fair bout, little maid; I am free to acknowledge that.' By that answer, or rather by the construction she put upon it, the heart of the Cornish girl was won, more than by gold and silver.
'I shall knoo thee again, young man; no fear of that,' she answered, nodding with an air of patronage. 'Now, missis, gae on coortin', and I wall gae outside and watch for 'ee.' Though expressed not over delicately, this proposal arose, no doubt, from Gwenny's sense of delicacy; and I was very thankful to her for taking her departure.
'She is the best little thing in the world,' said Lorna, softly laughing; 'and the queerest, and the truest. Nothing will bribe her against me. If she seems to be on the other side, never, never doubt her. Now no more of your "coortin'," John! I love you far too well for that. Yes, yes, ever so much! If you will take a mean advantage of me. And as much as ever you like to imagine; and then you may double it, after that. Only go, do go, good John; kind, dear, darling John; if you love me, go.'
'How can I go without settling anything?' I asked very sensibly. 'How shall I know of your danger now? Hit upon something; you are so quick. Anything you can think of; and then I will go, and not frighten you.'
'I have been thinking long of something,' Lorna answered rapidly, with that peculiar clearness of voice which made every syllable ring like music of a several note, 'you see that tree with the seven rooks' nests bright against the cliffs there? Can you count them, from above, do you think? From a place where you will be safe, dear'--
'No doubt, I can; or if I cannot, it will not take me long to find a spot, whence I can do it.'
'Gwenny can climb like any cat. She has been up there in the summer, watching the young birds, day by day, and daring the boys to touch them. There are neither birds, nor eggs there now, of course, and nothing doing. If you see but six rooks' nests; I am in peril and want you. If you see but five, I am carried off by Carver.'
'Good God!' said I, at the mere idea; in a tone which frightened Lorna.
'Fear not, John,' she whispered sadly, and my blood grew cold at it: 'I have means to stop him; or at least to save myself. If you can come within one day of that man's getting hold of me, you will find me quite unharmed. After that you will find me dead, or alive, according to circumstances, but in no case such that you need blush to look at me.'
Her dear sweet face was full of pride, as even in the gloom I saw: and I would not trespass on her feelings by such a thing, at such a moment, as an attempt at any caress. I only said, 'God bless you, darling!' and she said the same to me, in a very low sad voice. And then I stole below Carver's house, in the shadow from the eastern cliff; and knowing enough of the village now to satisfy all necessity, betook myself to my well-known track in returning from the valley; which was neither down the waterslide (a course I feared in the darkness) nor up the cliffs at Lorna's bower; but a way of my own inventing, which there is no need to dwell upon.
A weight of care was off my mind; though much of trouble hung there still. One thing was quite certain--if Lorna could not have John Ridd, no one else should have her. And my mother, who sat up for me, and with me long time afterwards, agreed that this was comfort.
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