It was the beginning of wheat-harvest, when I came to Dunster town, having walked all the way from London, and being somewhat footsore. For though five pounds was enough to keep me in food and lodging upon the road, and leave me many a shilling to give to far poorer travellers, it would have been nothing for horse-hire, as I knew too well by the prices Jeremy Stickles had paid upon our way to London. Now I never saw a prettier town than Dunster looked that evening; for sooth to say, I had almost lost all hope of reaching it that night, although the castle was long in view. But being once there, my troubles were gone, at least as regarded wayfaring; for mother's cousin, the worthy tanner (with whom we had slept on the way to London), was in such indignation at the plight in which I came back to him, afoot, and weary, and almost shoeless—not to speak of upper things—that he swore then, by the mercy of God, that if the schemes abrewing round him, against those bloody Papists, should come to any head or shape, and show good chance of succeeding, he would risk a thousand pounds, as though it were a penny.
I told him not to do it, because I had heard otherwise, but was not at liberty to tell one-tenth of what I knew, and indeed had seen in London town. But of this he took no heed, because I only nodded at him; and he could not make it out. For it takes an old man, or at least a middle-aged one, to nod and wink, with any power on the brains of other men. However, I think I made him know that the bad state in which I came to his town, and the great shame I had wrought for him among the folk round the card-table at the Luttrell Arms, was not to be, even there, attributed to King Charles the Second, nor even to his counsellors, but to my own speed of travelling, which had beat post-horses. For being much distraught in mind, and desperate in body, I had made all the way from London to Dunster in six days, and no more. It may be one hundred and seventy miles, I cannot tell to a furlong or two, especially as I lost my way more than a dozen times; but at any rate there in six days I was, and most kindly they received me. The tanner had some excellent daughters, I forget how many; very pretty damsels, and well set up, and able to make good pastry. But though they asked me many questions, and made a sort of lord of me, and offered to darn my stockings (which in truth required it), I fell asleep in the midst of them, although I would not acknowledge it; and they said, 'Poor cousin! he is weary', and led me to a blessed bed, and kissed me all round like swan's down.
In the morning all the Exmoor hills, the thought of which had frightened me at the end of each day's travel, seemed no more than bushels to me, as I looked forth the bedroom window, and thanked God for the sight of them. And even so, I had not to climb them, at least by my own labour. For my most worthy uncle (as we oft call a parent's cousin), finding it impossible to keep me for the day, and owning indeed that I was right in hastening to my mother, vowed that walk I should not, even though he lost his Saturday hides from Minehead and from Watchett. Accordingly he sent me forth on the very strongest nag he had, and the maidens came to wish me God-speed, and kissed their hands at the doorway. It made me proud and glad to think that after seeing so much of the world, and having held my own with it, I was come once more among my own people, and found them kinder, and more warm-hearted, ay and better looking too, than almost any I had happened upon in the mighty city of London.
But how shall I tell you the things I felt, and the swelling of my heart within me, as I drew nearer, and more near, to the place of all I loved and owned, to the haunt of every warm remembrance, the nest of all the fledgling hopes—in a word, to home? The first sheep I beheld on the moor with a great red J.R. on his side (for mother would have them marked with my name, instead of her own as they should have been), I do assure you my spirit leaped, and all my sight came to my eyes. I shouted out, 'Jem, boy!'—for that was his name, and a rare hand he was at fighting—and he knew me in spite of the stranger horse; and I leaned over and stroked his head, and swore he should never be mutton. And when I was passed he set off at full gallop, to call the rest of the J.R.'s together, and tell them young master was come home at last.
But bless your heart, and my own as well, it would take me all the afternoon to lay before you one-tenth of the things which came home to me in that one half-hour, as the sun was sinking, in the real way he ought to sink. I touched my horse with no spur nor whip, feeling that my slow wits would go, if the sights came too fast over them. Here was the pool where we washed the sheep, and there was the hollow that oozed away, where I had shot three wild ducks. Here was the peat-rick that hid my dinner, when I could not go home for it, and there was the bush with the thyme growing round it, where Annie had found a great swarm of our bees. And now was the corner of the dry stone wall, where the moor gave over in earnest, and the partridges whisked from it into the corn lands, and called that their supper was ready, and looked at our house and the ricks as they ran, and would wait for that comfort till winter.
And there I saw—but let me go—Annie was too much for me. She nearly pulled me off my horse, and kissed the very mouth of the carbine.
"I knew you would come. Oh John! Oh John! I have waited here every Saturday night; and I saw you for the last mile or more, but I would not come round the corner, for fear that I should cry, John, and then not cry when I got you. Now I may cry as much as I like, and you need not try to stop me, John, because I am so happy. But you mustn't cry yourself, John; what will mother think of you? She will be so jealous of me.'
What mother thought I cannot tell; and indeed I doubt if she thought at all for more than half an hour, but only managed to hold me tight, and cry, and thank God now and then, but with some fear of His taking me, if she should be too grateful. Moreover she thought it was my own doing, and I ought to have the credit of it, and she even came down very sharply upon John's wife, Mrs. Fry, for saying that we must not be too proud, for all of it was the Lord's doing. However, dear mother was ashamed of that afterwards, and asked Mrs. Fry's humble pardon; and perhaps I ought not to have mentioned it.
Old Smiler had told them that I was coming—all the rest, I mean, except Annie—for having escaped from his halter-ring, he was come out to graze in the lane a bit; when what should he see but a strange horse coming with young master and mistress upon him, for Annie must needs get up behind me, there being only sheep to look at her. Then Smiler gave us a stare and a neigh, with his tail quite stiff with amazement, and then (whether in joy or through indignation) he flung up his hind feet and galloped straight home, and set every dog wild with barking.
Now, methinks, quite enough has been said concerning this mighty return of the young John Ridd (which was known up at Cosgate that evening), and feeling that I cannot describe it, how can I hope that any one else will labour to imagine it, even of the few who are able? For very few can have travelled so far, unless indeed they whose trade it is, or very unsettled people. And even of those who have done so, not one in a hundred can have such a home as I had to come home to.
Mother wept again, with grief and some wrath, and so did Annie also, and even little Eliza, and all were unsettled in loyalty, and talked about a republic, when I told them how I had been left without money for travelling homeward, and expected to have to beg my way, which Farmer Snowe would have heard of. And though I could see they were disappointed at my failure of any promotion, they all declared how glad they were, and how much better they liked me to be no more than what they were accustomed to. At least, my mother and Annie said so, without waiting to hear any more; but Lizzie did not answer to it, until I had opened my bag and shown the beautiful present I had for her. And then she kissed me, almost like Annie, and vowed that she thought very little of captains.
For Lizzie's present was the best of all, I mean, of course, except Lorna's (which I carried in my breast all the way, hoping that it might make her love me, from having lain so long, close to my heart). For I had brought Lizzie something dear, and a precious heavy book it was, and much beyond my understanding; whereas I knew well that to both the others my gifts would be dear, for mine own sake. And happier people could not be found than the whole of us were that evening.