A MERRY MEETING A SAD ONE
Now the business I had most at heart (as every one knows by this time) was to marry Lorna as soon as might be, if she had no objection, and then to work the farm so well, as to nourish all our family. And herein I saw no difficulty; for Annie would soon be off our hands, and somebody might come and take a fancy to little Lizzie (who was growing up very nicely now, though not so fine as Annie); moreover, we were almost sure to have great store of hay and corn after so much snow, if there be any truth in the old saying,--
"A foot deep of rain
And although it was too true that we had lost a many cattle, yet even so we had not lost money; for the few remaining fetched such prices as were never known before. And though we grumbled with all our hearts, and really believed, at one time, that starvation was upon us, I doubt whether, on the whole, we were not the fatter, and the richer, and the wiser for that winter. And I might have said the happier, except for the sorrow which we felt at the failures among our neighbours. The Snowes lost every sheep they had, and nine out of ten horned cattle; and poor Jasper Kebby would have been forced to throw up the lease of his farm, and perhaps to go to prison, but for the help we gave him.
However, my dear mother would have it that Lorna was too young, as yet, to think of being married: and indeed I myself was compelled to admit that her form was becoming more perfect and lovely; though I had not thought it possible. And another difficulty was, that as we had all been Protestants from the time of Queen Elizabeth, the maiden must be converted first, and taught to hate all Papists. Now Lorna had not the smallest idea of ever being converted. She said that she loved me truly, but wanted not to convert me; and if I loved her equally, why should I wish to convert her? With this I was tolerably content, not seeing so very much difference between a creed and a credo, and believing God to be our Father, in Latin as well as English. Moreover, my darling knew but little of the Popish ways--whether excellent or otherwise--inasmuch as the Doones, though they stole their houses, or at least the joiner's work, had never been tempted enough by the devil to steal either church or chapel.
Lorna came to our little church, when Parson Bowden reappeared after the snow was over; and she said that all was very nice, and very like what she had seen in the time of her Aunt Sabina, when they went far away to the little chapel, with a shilling in their gloves. It made the tears come into her eyes, by the force of memory, when Parson Bowden did the things, not so gracefully nor so well, yet with pleasant imitation of her old Priest's sacred rites.
'He is a worthy man,' she said, being used to talk in the service time, and my mother was obliged to cough: 'I like him very much indeed: but I wish he would let me put his things the right way on his shoulders.'
Everybody in our parish, who could walk at all, or hire a boy and a wheelbarrow, ay, and half the folk from Countisbury, Brendon, and even Lynmouth, was and were to be found that Sunday, in our little church of Oare. People who would not come anigh us, when the Doones were threatening with carbine and with fire-brand, flocked in their very best clothes, to see a lady Doone go to church. Now all this came of that vile John Fry; I knew it as well as possible; his tongue was worse than the clacker of a charity-school bell, or the ladle in the frying-pan, when the bees are swarming.
However, Lorna was not troubled; partly because of her natural dignity and gentleness; partly because she never dreamed that the people were come to look at her. But when we came to the Psalms of the day, with some vague sense of being stared at more than ought to be, she dropped the heavy black lace fringing of the velvet hat she wore, and concealed from the congregation all except her bright red lips, and the oval snowdrift of her chin. I touched her hand, and she pressed mine; and we felt that we were close together, and God saw no harm in it.
As for Parson Bowden (as worthy a man as ever lived, and one who could shoot flying), he scarcely knew what he was doing, without the clerk to help him. He had borne it very well indeed, when I returned from London; but to see a live Doone in his church, and a lady Doone, and a lovely Doone, moreover one engaged to me, upon whom he almost looked as the Squire of his parish (although not rightly an Armiger), and to feel that this lovely Doone was a Papist, and therefore of higher religion--as all our parsons think--and that she knew exactly how he ought to do all the service, of which he himself knew little; I wish to express my firm belief that all these things together turned Parson Bowden's head a little, and made him look to me for orders.
My mother, the very best of women, was (as I could well perceive) a little annoyed and vexed with things. For this particular occasion, she had procured from Dulverton, by special message to Ruth Huckaback (whereof more anon), a head-dress with a feather never seen before upon Exmoor, to the best of every one's knowledge. It came from a bird called a flaming something--a flaming oh, or a flaming ah, I will not be positive--but I can assure you that it did flame; and dear mother had no other thought, but that all the congregation would neither see nor think of any other mortal thing, or immortal even, to the very end of the sermon.
Herein she was so disappointed, that no sooner did she get home, but upstairs she went at speed, not even stopping at the mirror in our little parlour, and flung the whole thing into a cupboard, as I knew by the bang of the door, having eased the lock for her lately. Lorna saw there was something wrong; and she looked at Annie and Lizzie (as more likely to understand it) with her former timid glance; which I knew so well, and which had first enslaved me.
'I know not what ails mother,' said Annie, who looked very beautiful, with lilac lute-string ribbons, which I saw the Snowe girls envying; 'but she has not attended to one of the prayers, nor said "Amen," all the morning. Never fear, darling Lorna, it is nothing about you. It is something about our John, I am sure; for she never worries herself very much about anybody but him.' And here Annie made a look at me, such as I had had five hundred of.
'You keep your opinions to yourself,' I replied; because I knew the dear, and her little bits of jealousy; 'it happens that you are quite wrong, this time. Lorna, come with me, my darling.'
'Oh yes, Lorna; go with him,' cried Lizzie, dropping her lip, in a way which you must see to know its meaning; 'John wants nobody now but you; and none can find fault with his taste, dear.'
'You little fool, I should think not,' I answered, very rudely; for, betwixt the lot of them, my Lorna's eyelashes were quivering; 'now, dearest angel, come with me; and snap your hands at the whole of them.'
My angel did come, with a sigh, and then with a smile, when we were alone; but without any unangelic attempt at snapping her sweet white fingers.
These little things are enough to show that while every one so admired Lorna, and so kindly took to her, still there would, just now and then, be petty and paltry flashes of jealousy concerning her; and perhaps it could not be otherwise among so many women. However, we were always doubly kind to her afterwards; and although her mind was so sensitive and quick that she must have suffered, she never allowed us to perceive it, nor lowered herself by resenting it.
Possibly I may have mentioned that little Ruth Huckaback had been asked, and had even promised to spend her Christmas with us; and this was the more desirable, because she had left us through some offence, or sorrow, about things said of her. Now my dear mother, being the kindest and best-hearted of all women, could not bear that poor dear Ruth (who would some day have such a fortune), should be entirely lost to us. 'It is our duty, my dear children,' she said more than once about it, 'to forgive and forget, as freely as we hope to have it done to us. If dear little Ruth has not behaved quite as we might have expected, great allowance should be made for a girl with so much money. Designing people get hold of her, and flatter her, and coax her, to obtain a base influence over her; so that when she falls among simple folk, who speak the honest truth of her, no wonder the poor child is vexed, and gives herself airs, and so on. Ruth can be very useful to us in a number of little ways; and I consider it quite a duty to pardon her freak of petulance.'
Now one of the little ways in which Ruth had been very useful, was the purchase of the scarlet feathers of the flaming bird; and now that the house was quite safe from attack, and the mark on my forehead was healing, I was begged, over and over again, to go and see Ruth, and make all things straight, and pay for the gorgeous plumage. This last I was very desirous to do, that I might know the price of it, having made a small bet on the subject with Annie; and having held counsel with myself, whether or not it were possible to get something of the kind for Lorna, of still more distinguished appearance. Of course she could not wear scarlet as yet, even if I had wished it; but I believed that people of fashion often wore purple for mourning; purple too was the royal colour, and Lorna was by right a queen; therefore I was quite resolved to ransack Uncle Reuben's stores, in search of some bright purple bird, if nature had kindly provided one.
All this, however, I kept to myself, intending to trust Ruth Huckaback, and no one else in the matter. And so, one beautiful spring morning, when all the earth was kissed with scent, and all the air caressed with song, up the lane I stoutly rode, well armed, and well provided.
Now though it is part of my life to heed, it is no part of my tale to tell, how the wheat was coming on. I reckon that you, who read this story, after I am dead and gone (and before that none shall read it), will say, 'Tush! What is his wheat to us? We are not wheat: we are human beings: and all we care for is human doings.' This may be very good argument, and in the main, I believe that it is so. Nevertheless, if a man is to tell only what he thought and did, and not what came around him, he must not mention his own clothes, which his father and mother bought for him. And more than my own clothes to me, ay, and as much as my own skin, are the works of nature round about, whereof a man is the smallest.
And now I will tell you, although most likely only to be laughed at, because I cannot put it in the style of Mr. Dryden--whom to compare to Shakespeare! but if once I begin upon that, you will never hear the last of me--nevertheless, I will tell you this; not wishing to be rude, but only just because I know it; the more a man can fling his arms (so to say) round Nature's neck, the more he can upon her bosom, like an infant, lie and suck,--the more that man shall earn the trust and love of all his fellow men.
In this matter is no jealousy (when the man is dead); because thereafter all others know how much of the milk be had; and he can suck no longer; and they value him accordingly, for the nourishment he is to them. Even as when we keep a roaster of the sucking-pigs, we choose, and praise at table most, the favourite of its mother. Fifty times have I seen this, and smiled, and praised our people's taste, and offered them more of the vitals.
Now here am I upon Shakespeare (who died, of his own fruition, at the age of fifty-two, yet lived more than fifty thousand men, within his little span of life), when all the while I ought to be riding as hard as I can to Dulverton. But, to tell the truth, I could not ride hard, being held at every turn, and often without any turn at all, by the beauty of things around me. These things grow upon a man if once he stops to notice them.
It wanted yet two hours to noon, when I came to Master Huckaback's door, and struck the panels smartly. Knowing nothing of their manners, only that people in a town could not be expected to entertain (as we do in farm-houses), having, moreover, keen expectation of Master Huckaback's avarice, I had brought some stuff to eat, made by Annie, and packed by Lorna, and requiring no thinking about it.
Ruth herself came and let me in, blushing very heartily; for which colour I praised her health, and my praises heightened it. That little thing had lovely eyes, and could be trusted thoroughly. I do like an obstinate little woman, when she is sure that she is right. And indeed if love had never sped me straight to the heart of Lorna (compared to whom, Ruth was no more than the thief is to the candle), who knows but what I might have yielded to the law of nature, that thorough trimmer of balances, and verified the proverb that the giant loves the dwarf?
'I take the privilege, Mistress Ruth, of saluting you according to kinship, and the ordering of the Canons.' And therewith I bussed her well, and put my arm around her waist, being so terribly restricted in the matter of Lorna, and knowing the use of practice. Not that I had any warmth--all that was darling Lorna's--only out of pure gallantry, and my knowledge of London fashions. Ruth blushed to such a pitch at this, and looked up at me with such a gleam; as if I must have my own way; that all my love of kissing sunk, and I felt that I was wronging her. Only my mother had told me, when the girls were out of the way, to do all I could to please darling Ruth, and I had gone about it accordingly.
Now Ruth as yet had never heard a word about dear Lorna; and when she led me into the kitchen (where everything looked beautiful), and told me not to mind, for a moment, about the scrubbing of my boots, because she would only be too glad to clean it all up after me, and told me how glad she was to see me, blushing more at every word, and recalling some of them, and stooping down for pots and pans, when I looked at her too ruddily--all these things came upon me so, without any legal notice, that I could only look at Ruth, and think how very good she was, and how bright her handles were; and wonder if I had wronged her. Once or twice, I began--this I say upon my honour--to endeavour to explain exactly, how we were at Plover's Barrows; how we all had been bound to fight, and had defeated the enemy, keeping their queen amongst us. But Ruth would make some great mistake between Lorna and Gwenny Carfax, and gave me no chance to set her aright, and cared about nothing much, except some news of Sally Snowe.
What could I do with this little thing? All my sense of modesty, and value for my dinner, were against my over-pressing all the graceful hints I had given about Lorna. Ruth was just a girl of that sort, who will not believe one word, except from her own seeing; not so much from any doubt, as from the practice of using eyes which have been in business.
I asked Cousin Ruth (as we used to call her, though the cousinship was distant) what was become of Uncle Ben, and how it was that we never heard anything of or from him now. She replied that she hardly knew what to make of her grandfather's manner of carrying on, for the last half-year or more. He was apt to leave his home, she said, at any hour of the day or night; going none knew whither, and returning no one might say when. And his dress, in her opinion, was enough to frighten a hodman, of a scavenger of the roads, instead of the decent suit of kersey, or of Sabbath doeskins, such as had won the respect and reverence of his fellow- townsmen. But the worst of all things was, as she confessed with tears in her eyes, that the poor old gentleman had something weighing heavily on his mind.
'It will shorten his days, Cousin Ridd,' she said, for she never would call me Cousin John; 'he has no enjoyment of anything that he eats or drinks, nor even in counting his money, as he used to do all Sunday; indeed no pleasure in anything, unless it be smoking his pipe, and thinking and staring at bits of brown stone, which he pulls, every now and then, out of his pockets. And the business he used to take such pride in is now left almost entirely to the foreman, and to me.'
'And what will become of you, dear Ruth, if anything happens to the old man?'
'I am sure I know not,' she answered simply; 'and I cannot bear to think of it. It must depend, I suppose, upon dear grandfather's pleasure about me.'
'It must rather depend,' said I, though having no business to say it, 'upon your own good pleasure, Ruth; for all the world will pay court to you.'
'That is the very thing which I never could endure. I have begged dear grandfather to leave no chance of that. When he has threatened me with poverty, as he does sometimes, I have always met him truly, with the answer that I feared one thing a great deal worse than poverty; namely, to be an heiress. But I cannot make him believe it. Only think how strange, Cousin Ridd, I cannot make him believe it.'
'It is not strange at all,' I answered; 'considering how he values money. Neither would any one else believe you, except by looking into your true, and very pretty eyes, dear.'
Now I beg that no one will suspect for a single moment, either that I did not mean exactly what I said, or meant a single atom more, or would not have said the same, if Lorna had been standing by. What I had always liked in Ruth, was the calm, straightforward gaze, and beauty of her large brown eyes. Indeed I had spoken of them to Lorna, as the only ones to be compared (though not for more than a moment) to her own, for truth and light, but never for depth and softness. But now the little maiden dropped them, and turned away, without reply.
'I will go and see to my horse,' I said; 'the boy that has taken him seemed surprised at his having no horns on his forehead. Perhaps he will lead him into the shop, and feed him upon broadcloth.'
'Oh, he is such a stupid boy,' Ruth answered with great sympathy: 'how quick of you to observe that now: and you call yourself "Slow John Ridd!" I never did see such a stupid boy: sometimes he spoils my temper. But you must be back in half an hour, at the latest, Cousin Ridd. You see I remember what you are; when once you get among horses, or cows, or things of that sort.'
'Things of that sort! Well done, Ruth! One would think you were quite a Cockney.'
Uncle Reuben did not come home to his dinner; and his granddaughter said she had strictest orders never to expect him. Therefore we had none to dine with us, except the foreman of the shop, a worthy man, named Thomas Cockram, fifty years of age or so. He seemed to me to have strong intentions of his own about little Ruth, and on that account to regard me with a wholly undue malevolence. And perhaps, in order to justify him, I may have been more attentive to her than otherwise need have been; at any rate, Ruth and I were pleasant; and he the very opposite.
'My dear Cousin Ruth,' I said, on purpose to vex Master Cockram, because he eyed us so heavily, and squinted to unluckily, 'we have long been looking for you at our Plover's Barrows farm. You remember how you used to love hunting for eggs in the morning, and hiding up in the tallat with Lizzie, for me to seek you among the hay, when the sun was down. Ah, Master Cockram, those are the things young people find their pleasure in, not in selling a yard of serge, and giving twopence-halfpenny change, and writing "settled" at the bottom, with a pencil that has blacked their teeth. Now, Master Cockram, you ought to come as far as our good farm, at once, and eat two new-laid eggs for breakfast, and be made to look quite young again. Our good Annie would cook for you; and you should have the hot new milk and the pope's eye from the mutton; and every foot of you would become a yard in about a fortnight.' And hereupon, I spread my chest, to show him an example. Ruth could not keep her countenance: but I saw that she thought it wrong of me; and would scold me, if ever I gave her the chance of taking those little liberties. However, he deserved it all, according to my young ideas, for his great impertinence in aiming at my cousin.
But what I said was far less grievous to a man of honest mind than little Ruth's own behaviour. I could hardly have believed that so thoroughly true a girl, and one so proud and upright, could have got rid of any man so cleverly as she got rid of Master Thomas Cockram. She gave him not even a glass of wine, but commended to his notice, with a sweet and thoughtful gravity, some invoice which must be corrected, before her dear grandfather should return; and to amend which three great ledgers must be searched from first to last. Thomas Cockram winked at me, with the worst of his two wrong eyes; as much as to say, 'I understand it; but I cannot help myself. Only you look out, if ever'--and before he had finished winking, the door was shut behind him. Then Ruth said to me in the simplest manner, 'You have ridden far today, Cousin Ridd; and have far to ride to get home again. What will dear Aunt Ridd say, if we send you away without nourishment? All the keys are in my keeping, and dear grandfather has the finest wine, not to be matched in the west of England, as I have heard good judges say; though I know not wine from cider. Do you like the wine of Oporto, or the wine of Xeres?'
'I know not one from the other, fair cousin, except by the colour,' I answered: 'but the sound of Oporto is nobler, and richer. Suppose we try wine of Oporto.'
The good little creature went and fetched a black bottle of an ancient cast, covered with dust and cobwebs. These I was anxious to shake aside; and indeed I thought that the wine would be better for being roused up a little. Ruth, however, would not hear a single word to that purport; and seeing that she knew more about it, I left her to manage it. And the result was very fine indeed, to wit, a sparkling rosy liquor, dancing with little flakes of light, and scented like new violets. With this I was so pleased and gay, and Ruth so glad to see me gay, that we quite forgot how the time went on; and though my fair cousin would not be persuaded to take a second glass herself, she kept on filling mine so fast that it was never empty, though I did my best to keep it so.
'What is a little drop like this to a man of your size and strength, Cousin Ridd?' she said, with her cheeks just brushed with rose, which made her look very beautiful; 'I have heard you say that your head is so thick--or rather so clear, you ought to say--that no liquor ever moves it.'
'That is right enough,' I answered; 'what a witch you must be, dear Ruth, to have remembered that now!'
'Oh, I remember every word I have ever heard you say, Cousin Ridd; because your voice is so deep, you know, and you talk so little. Now it is useless to say "no". These bottles hold almost nothing. Dear grandfather will not come home, I fear, until long after you are gone. What will Aunt Ridd think of me, I am sure? You are all so dreadfully hospitable. Now not another "no," Cousin Ridd. We must have another bottle.'
'Well, must is must,' I answered, with a certain resignation. 'I cannot bear bad manners, dear; and how old are you next birthday?'
'Eighteen, dear John;' said Ruth, coming over with the empty bottle; and I was pleased at her calling me 'John,' and had a great mind to kiss her. However, I thought of my Lorna suddenly, and of the anger I should feel if a man went on with her so; therefore I lay back in my chair, to wait for the other bottle.
'Do you remember how we danced that night?' I asked, while she was opening it; 'and how you were afraid of me first, because I looked so tall, dear?'
'Yes, and so very broad, Cousin Ridd. I thought that you would eat me. But I have come to know, since then, how very kind and good you are.'
'And will you come and dance again, at my wedding, Cousin Ruth?'
She nearly let the bottle fall, the last of which she was sloping carefully into a vessel of bright glass; and then she raised her hand again, and finished it judiciously. And after that, she took the window, to see that all her work was clear; and then she poured me out a glass and said, with very pale cheeks, but else no sign of meaning about her, 'What did you ask me, Cousin Ridd?'
'Nothing of any importance, Ruth; only we are so fond of you. I mean to be married as soon as I can. Will you come and help us?'
'To be sure I will, Cousin Ridd--unless, unless, dear grandfather cannot spare me from the business.' She went away; and her breast was heaving, like a rick of under-carried hay. And she stood at the window long, trying to make yawns of sighs.
For my part, I knew not what to do. And yet I could think about it, as I never could with Lorna; with whom I was always in a whirl, from the power of my love. So I thought some time about it; and perceived that it was the manliest way, just to tell her everything; except that I feared she liked me. But it seemed to me unaccountable that she did not even ask the name of my intended wife. Perhaps she thought that it must be Sally; or perhaps she feared to trust her voice.
'Come and sit by me, dear Ruth; and listen to a long, long story, how things have come about with me.'
'No, thank you, Cousin Ridd,' she answered; 'at least I mean that I shall be happy--that I shall be ready to hear you--to listen to you, I mean of course. But I would rather stay where I am, and have the air--or rather be able to watch for dear grandfather coming home. He is so kind and good to me. What should I do without him?'
Then I told her how, for years and years, I had been attached to Lorna, and all the dangers and difficulties which had so long beset us, and how I hoped that these were passing, and no other might come between us, except on the score of religion; upon which point I trusted soon to overcome my mother's objections. And then I told her how poor, and helpless, and alone in the world, my Lorna was; and how sad all her youth had been, until I brought her away at last. And many other little things I mentioned, which there is no need for me again to dwell upon. Ruth heard it all without a word, and without once looking at me; and only by her attitude could I guess that she was weeping. Then when all my tale was told, she asked in a low and gentle voice, but still without showing her face to me,--
'And does she love you, Cousin Ridd? Does she say that she loves you with--with all her heart?'
'Certainly, she does,' I answered. 'Do you think it impossible for one like her to do so?'
She said no more; but crossed the room before I had time to look at her, and came behind my chair, and kissed me gently on the forehead.
'I hope you may be very happy, with--I mean in your new life,' she whispered very softly; 'as happy as you deserve to be, and as happy as you can make others be. Now how I have been neglecting you! I am quite ashamed of myself for thinking only of grandfather: and it makes me so low-spirited. You have told me a very nice romance, and I have never even helped you to a glass of wine. Here, pour it for yourself, dear cousin; I shall be back again directly.'
With that she was out of the door in a moment; and when she came back, you would not have thought that a tear had dimmed those large bright eyes, or wandered down those pale clear cheeks. Only her hands were cold and trembling: and she made me help myself.
Uncle Reuben did not appear at all; and Ruth, who had promised to come and see us, and stay for a fortnight at our house (if her grandfather could spare her), now discovered, before I left, that she must not think of doing so. Perhaps she was right in deciding thus; at any rate it had now become improper for me to press her. And yet I now desired tenfold that she should consent to come, thinking that Lorna herself would work the speediest cure of her passing whim.
For such, I tried to persuade myself, was the nature of Ruth's regard for me: and upon looking back I could not charge myself with any misconduct towards the little maiden. I had never sought her company, I had never trifled with her (at least until that very day), and being so engrossed with my own love, I had scarcely ever thought of her. And the maiden would never have thought of me, except as a clumsy yokel, but for my mother's and sister's meddling, and their wily suggestions. I believe they had told the little soul that I was deeply in love with her; although they both stoutly denied it. But who can place trust in a woman's word, when it comes to a question of match-making?
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