I had long outgrown unwholesome feeling as to my father's death, and so had Annie; though Lizzie (who must have loved him least) still entertained some evil will, and longing for a punishment. Therefore I was surprised (and indeed, startled would not be too much to say, the moon being somewhat fleecy), to see our Annie sitting there as motionless as the tombstone, and with all her best fallals upon her, after stowing away the dishes.
My nerves, however, are good and strong, except at least in love matters, wherein they always fail me, and when I meet with witches; and therefore I went up to Annie, although she looked so white and pure; for I had seen her before with those things on, and it struck me who she was.
"What are you doing here, Annie?" I inquired rather sternly, being vexed with her for having gone so very near to frighten me.
"Nothing at all," said our Annie shortly. And indeed it was truth enough for a woman. Not that I dare to believe that women are such liars as men say; only that I mean they often see things round the corner, and know not which is which of it. And indeed I never have known a woman (though right enough in their meaning) purely and perfectly true and transparent, except only my Lorna; and even so, I might not have loved her, if she had been ugly.
'Why, how so?' said I; 'Miss Annie, what business have you here, doing nothing at this time of night? And leaving me with all the trouble to entertain our guests!'
'You seem not to me to be doing it, John,' Annie answered softly; 'what business have you here doing nothing, at this time of night?'
I was taken so aback with this, and the extreme impertinence of it, from a mere young girl like Annie, that I turned round to march away and have nothing more to say to her. But she jumped up, and caught me by the hand, and threw herself upon my bosom, with her face all wet with tears.
'Oh, John, I will tell you. I will tell you. Only don't be angry, John.'
'Angry! no indeed,' said I; 'what right have I to be angry with you, because you have your secrets? Every chit of a girl thinks now that she has a right to her secrets.'
'And you have none of your own, John; of course you have none of your own? All your going out at night——'
'We will not quarrel here, poor Annie,' I answered, with some loftiness; 'there are many things upon my mind, which girls can have no notion of.'
'And so there are upon mine, John. Oh, John, I will tell you everything, if you will look at me kindly, and promise to forgive me. Oh, I am so miserable!'
Now this, though she was behaving so badly, moved me much towards her; especially as I longed to know what she had to tell me. Therefore I allowed her to coax me, and to kiss me, and to lead me away a little, as far as the old yew-tree; for she would not tell me where she was.
But even in the shadow there, she was very long before beginning, and seemed to have two minds about it, or rather perhaps a dozen; and she laid her cheek against the tree, and sobbed till it was pitiful; and I knew what mother would say to her for spoiling her best frock so.
'Now will you stop?' I said at last, harder than I meant it, for I knew that she would go on all night, if any one encouraged her: and though not well acquainted with women, I understood my sisters; or else I must be a born fool—except, of course, that I never professed to understand Eliza.
'Yes, I will stop,' said Annie, panting; 'you are very hard on me, John; but I know you mean it for the best. If somebody else—I am sure I don't know who, and have no right to know, no doubt, but she must be a wicked thing—if somebody else had been taken so with a pain all round the heart, John, and no power of telling it, perhaps you would have coaxed, and kissed her, and come a little nearer, and made opportunity to be very loving.'
Now this was so exactly what I had tried to do to Lorna, that my breath was almost taken away at Annie's so describing it. For a while I could not say a word, but wondered if she were a witch, which had never been in our family: and then, all of a sudden, I saw the way to beat her, with the devil at my elbow.
'From your knowledge of these things, Annie, you must have had them done to you. I demand to know this very moment who has taken such liberties.'
'Then, John, you shall never know, if you ask in that manner. Besides, it was no liberty in the least at all, Cousins have a right to do things—and when they are one's godfather——' Here Annie stopped quite suddenly having so betrayed herself; but met me in the full moonlight, being resolved to face it out, with a good face put upon it.
'Alas, I feared it would come to this,' I answered very sadly; 'I know he has been here many a time, without showing himself to me. There is nothing meaner than for a man to sneak, and steal a young maid's heart, without her people knowing it.'
'You are not doing anything of that sort yourself then, dear John, are you?'
'Only a common highwayman!' I answered, without heeding her; 'a man without an acre of his own, and liable to hang upon any common, and no other right of common over it——'
'John,' said my sister, 'are the Doones privileged not to be hanged upon common land?'
At this I was so thunderstruck, that I leaped in the air like a shot rabbit, and rushed as hard as I could through the gate and across the yard, and back into the kitchen; and there I asked Farmer Nicholas Snowe to give me some tobacco, and to lend me a spare pipe.
This he did with a grateful manner, being now some five-fourths gone; and so I smoked the very first pipe that ever had entered my lips till then; and beyond a doubt it did me good, and spread my heart at leisure.
Meanwhile the reapers were mostly gone, to be up betimes in the morning; and some were led by their wives; and some had to lead their wives themselves, according to the capacity of man and wife respectively. But Betty was as lively as ever, bustling about with every one, and looking out for the chance of groats, which the better off might be free with. And over the kneading-pan next day, she dropped three and sixpence out of her pocket; and Lizzie could not tell for her life how much more might have been in it.
Now by this time I had almost finished smoking that pipe of tobacco, and wondering at myself for having so despised it hitherto, and making up my mind to have another trial to-morrow night, it began to occur to me that although dear Annie had behaved so very badly and rudely, and almost taken my breath away with the suddenness of her allusion, yet it was not kind of me to leave her out there at that time of night, all alone, and in such distress. Any of the reapers going home might be gotten so far beyond fear of ghosts as to venture into the churchyard; and although they would know a great deal better than to insult a sister of mine when sober, there was no telling what they might do in their present state of rejoicing. Moreover, it was only right that I should learn, for Lorna's sake, how far Annie, or any one else, had penetrated our secret.
Therefore, I went forth at once, bearing my pipe in a skilful manner, as I had seen Farmer Nicholas do; and marking, with a new kind of pleasure, how the rings and wreaths of smoke hovered and fluttered in the moonlight, like a lark upon his carol. Poor Annie was gone back again to our father's grave, and there she sat upon the turf, sobbing very gently, and not wishing to trouble any one. So I raised her tenderly, and made much of her, and consoled her, for I could not scold her there; and perhaps after all she was not to be blamed so much as Tom Faggus himself was. Annie was very grateful to me, and kissed me many times, and begged my pardon ever so often for her rudeness to me. And then having gone so far with it, and finding me so complaisant, she must needs try to go a little further, and to lead me away from her own affairs, and into mine concerning Lorna. But although it was clever enough of her she was not deep enough for me there; and I soon discovered that she knew nothing, not even the name of my darling; but only suspected from things she had seen, and put together like a woman. Upon this I brought her back again to Tom Faggus and his doings.
'My poor Annie, have you really promised him to be his wife?'
'Then after all you have no reason, John, no particular reason, I mean, for slighting poor Sally Snowe so?'
'Without even asking mother or me! Oh, Annie, it was wrong of you!'
'But, darling, you know that mother wishes you so much to marry Sally; and I am sure you could have her to-morrow. She dotes on the very ground——'
'I dare say he tells you that, Annie, that he dotes on the ground you walk upon—but did you believe him, child?'
'You may believe me, I assure you, John, and half the farm to be settled upon her, after the old man's time; and though she gives herself little airs, it is only done to entice you; she has the very best hand in the dairy John, and the lightest at a turn-over cake——'
'Now, Annie, don't talk nonsense so. I wish just to know the truth about you and Tom Faggus. Do you mean to marry him?'
'I to marry before my brother, and leave him with none to take care of him! Who can do him a red deer collop, except Sally herself, as I can? Come home, dear, at once, and I will do you one; for you never ate a morsel of supper, with all the people you had to attend upon.'
This was true enough; and seeing no chance of anything more than cross questions and crooked purposes, at which a girl was sure to beat me, I even allowed her to lead me home, with the thoughts of the collop uppermost. But I never counted upon being beaten so thoroughly as I was; for knowing me now to be off my guard, the young hussy stopped at the farmyard gate, as if with a brier entangling her, and while I was stooping to take it away, she looked me full in the face by the moonlight, and jerked out quite suddenly,—
'Can your love do a collop, John?'
'No, I should hope not,' I answered rashly; 'she is not a mere cook-maid I should hope.'
'She is not half so pretty as Sally Snowe; I will answer for that,' said Annie.
'She is ten thousand times as pretty as ten thousand Sally Snowes,' I replied with great indignation.
'Oh, but look at Sally's eyes!' cried my sister rapturously.
'Look at Lorna Doone's,' said I; 'and you would never look again at Sally's.'
'Oh Lorna Doone. Lorna Doone!' exclaimed our Annie half-frightened, yet clapping her hands with triumph, at having found me out so: 'Lorna Doone is the lovely maiden, who has stolen poor somebody's heart so. Ah, I shall remember it; because it is so queer a name. But stop, I had better write it down. Lend me your hat, poor boy, to write on.'
'I have a great mind to lend you a box on the ear,' I answered her in my vexation, 'and I would, if you had not been crying so, you sly good-for-nothing baggage. As it is, I shall keep it for Master Faggus, and add interest for keeping.'
'Oh no, John; oh no, John,' she begged me earnestly, being sobered in a moment. 'Your hand is so terribly heavy, John; and he never would forgive you; although he is so good-hearted, he cannot put up with an insult. Promise me, dear John, that you will not strike him; and I will promise you faithfully to keep your secret, even from mother, and even from Cousin Tom himself.'
'And from Lizzie; most of all, from Lizzie,' I answered very eagerly, knowing too well which of my relations would be hardest with me.
'Of course from little Lizzie,' said Annie, with some contempt; 'a young thing like her cannot be kept too long, in my opinion, from the knowledge of such subjects. And besides, I should be very sorry if Lizzie had the right to know your secrets, as I have, dearest John. Not a soul shall be the wiser for your having trusted me, John; although I shall be very wretched when you are late away at night, among those dreadful people.'
'Well,' I replied, 'it is no use crying over spilt milk Annie. You have my secret, and I have yours; and I scarcely know which of the two is likely to have the worst time of it, when it comes to mother's ears. I could put up with perpetual scolding but not with mother's sad silence.'
'That is exactly how I feel, John.' and as Annie said it she brightened up, and her soft eyes shone upon me; 'but now I shall be much happier, dear; because I shall try to help you. No doubt the young lady deserves it, John. She is not after the farm, I hope?'
'She!' I exclaimed; and that was enough, there was so much scorn in my voice and face.
'Then, I am sure, I am very glad,' Annie always made the best of things; 'for I do believe that Sally Snowe has taken a fancy to our dairy-place, and the pattern of our cream-pans; and she asked so much about our meadows, and the colour of the milk——'
'Then, after all, you were right, dear Annie; it is the ground she dotes upon.'
'And the things that walk upon it,' she answered me with another kiss; 'Sally has taken a wonderful fancy to our best cow, "Nipple-pins." But she never shall have her now; what a consolation!'
We entered the house quite gently thus, and found Farmer Nicholas Snowe asleep, little dreaming how his plans had been overset between us. And then Annie said to me very slyly, between a smile and a blush:
'Don't you wish Lorna Doone was here, John, in the parlour along with mother; instead of those two fashionable milkmaids, as Uncle Ben will call them, and poor stupid Mistress Kebby?'
'That indeed I do, Annie. I must kiss you for only thinking of it. Dear me, it seems as if you had known all about us for a twelvemonth.'
'She loves you, with all her heart, John. No doubt about that of course.' And Annie looked up at me, as much as to say she would like to know who could help it.
'That's the very thing she won't do,' said I, knowing that Annie would love me all the more for it, 'she is only beginning to like me, Annie; and as for loving, she is so young that she only loves her grandfather. But I hope she will come to it by-and-by.'
'Of course she must,' replied my sister, 'it will be impossible for her to help it.'
'Ah well! I don't know,' for I wanted more assurance of it. 'Maidens are such wondrous things!
'Not a bit of it,' said Annie, casting her bright eyes downwards: 'love is as simple as milking, when people know how to do it. But you must not let her alone too long; that is my advice to you. What a simpleton you must have been not to tell me long ago. I would have made Lorna wild about you, long before this time, Johnny. But now you go into the parlour, dear, while I do your collop. Faith Snowe is not come, but Polly and Sally. Sally has made up her mind to conquer you this very blessed evening, John. Only look what a thing of a scarf she has on; I should be quite ashamed to wear it. But you won't strike poor Tom, will you?'
'Not I, my darling, for your sweet sake.'
And so dear Annie, having grown quite brave, gave me a little push into the parlour, where I was quite abashed to enter after all I had heard about Sally. And I made up my mind to examine her well, and try a little courting with her, if she should lead me on, that I might be in practice for Lorna. But when I perceived how grandly and richly both the young damsels were apparelled; and how, in their curtseys to me, they retreated, as if I were making up to them, in a way they had learned from Exeter; and how they began to talk of the Court, as if they had been there all their lives, and the latest mode of the Duchess of this, and the profile of the Countess of that, and the last good saying of my Lord something; instead of butter, and cream, and eggs, and things which they understood; I knew there must be somebody in the room besides Jasper Kebby to talk at.
And so there was; for behind the curtain drawn across the window-seat no less a man than Uncle Ben was sitting half asleep and weary; and by his side a little girl very quiet and very watchful. My mother led me to Uncle Ben, and he took my hand without rising, muttering something not over-polite, about my being bigger than ever. I asked him heartily how he was, and he said, 'Well enough, for that matter; but none the better for the noise you great clods have been making.'
'I am sorry if we have disturbed you, sir,' I answered very civilly; 'but I knew not that you were here even; and you must allow for harvest time.'
'So it seems,' he replied; 'and allow a great deal, including waste and drunkenness. Now (if you can see so small a thing, after emptying flagons much larger) this is my granddaughter, and my heiress'—here he glanced at mother—'my heiress, little Ruth Huckaback.'
'I am very glad to see you, Ruth,' I answered, offering her my hand, which she seemed afraid to take, 'welcome to Plover's Barrows, my good cousin Ruth.'
However, my good cousin Ruth only arose, and made me a curtsey, and lifted her great brown eyes at me, more in fear, as I thought, than kinship. And if ever any one looked unlike the heiress to great property, it was the little girl before me.
'Come out to the kitchen, dear, and let me chuck you to the ceiling,' I said, just to encourage her; 'I always do it to little girls; and then they can see the hams and bacon.' But Uncle Reuben burst out laughing; and Ruth turned away with a deep rich colour.
'Do you know how old she is, you numskull?' said Uncle Ben, in his dryest drawl; 'she was seventeen last July, sir.'
'On the first of July, grandfather,' Ruth whispered, with her back still to me; 'but many people will not believe it.'
Here mother came up to my rescue, as she always loved to do; and she said, 'If my son may not dance Miss Ruth, at any rate he may dance with her. We have only been waiting for you, dear John, to have a little harvest dance, with the kitchen door thrown open. You take Ruth; Uncle Ben take Sally; Master Debby pair off with Polly; and neighbour Nicholas will be good enough, if I can awake him, to stand up with fair Mistress Kebby. Lizzie will play us the virginal. Won't you, Lizzie dear?'
'But who is to dance with you, madam?' Uncle Ben asked, very politely. 'I think you must re-arrange your figure. I have not danced for a score of years; and I will not dance now, while the mistress and the owner of the harvest sits aside neglected.'
'Nay, Master Huckaback,' cried Sally Snowe, with a saucy toss of her hair; 'Mistress Ridd is too kind a great deal, in handing you over to me. You take her; and I will fetch Annie to be my partner this evening. I like dancing very much better with girls, for they never squeeze and rumple one. Oh, it is so much nicer!'
'Have no fear for me, my dears,' our mother answered smiling: 'Parson Bowden promised to come back again; I expect him every minute; and he intends to lead me off, and to bring a partner for Annie too, a very pretty young gentleman. Now begin; and I will join you.'
There was no disobeying her, without rudeness; and indeed the girls' feet were already jigging; and Lizzie giving herself wonderful airs with a roll of learned music; and even while Annie was doing my collop, her pretty round instep was arching itself, as I could see from the parlour-door. So I took little Ruth, and I spun her around, as the sound of the music came lively and ringing; and after us came all the rest with much laughter, begging me not to jump over her; and anon my grave partner began to smile sweetly, and look up at me with the brightest of eyes, and drop me the prettiest curtseys; till I thought what a great stupe I must have been to dream of putting her in the cheese-rack. But one thing I could not at all understand; why mother, who used to do all in her power to throw me across Sally Snowe, should now do the very opposite; for she would not allow me one moment with Sally, not even to cross in the dance, or whisper, or go anywhere near a corner (which as I said, I intended to do, just by way of practice), while she kept me, all the evening, as close as possible with Ruth Huckaback, and came up and praised me so to Ruth, times and again, that I declare I was quite ashamed. Although of course I knew that I deserved it all, but I could not well say that.
Then Annie came sailing down the dance, with her beautiful hair flowing round her; the lightest figure in all the room, and the sweetest, and the loveliest. She was blushing, with her fair cheeks red beneath her dear blue eyes, as she met my glance of surprise and grief at the partner she was leaning on. It was Squire Marwood de Whichehalse. I would sooner have seen her with Tom Faggus, as indeed I had expected, when I heard of Parson Bowden. And to me it seemed that she had no right to be dancing so with any other; and to this effect I contrived to whisper; but she only said, 'See to yourself, John. No, but let us both enjoy ourselves. You are not dancing with Lorna, John. But you seem uncommonly happy.'
'Tush,' I said; 'could I flip about so, if I had my love with me?'