Now while I was riding home that evening, with a tender conscience about Ruth, although not a wounded one, I guessed but little that all my thoughts were needed much for my own affairs. So however it proved to be; for as I came in, soon after dark, my sister Eliza met me at the corner of the cheese-room, and she said, 'Don't go in there, John,' pointing to mother's room; 'until I have had a talk with you.'
'In the name of Moses,' I inquired, having picked up that phrase at Dulverton; 'what are you at about me now? There is no peace for a quiet fellow.'
'It is nothing we are at,' she answered; 'neither may you make light of it. It is something very important about Mistress Lorna Doone.'
'Let us have it at once,' I cried; 'I can bear anything about Lorna, except that she does not care for me.'
'It has nothing to do with that, John. And I am quite sure that you never need fear anything of that sort. She perfectly wearies me sometimes, although her voice is so soft and sweet, about your endless perfections.'
'Bless her little heart!' I said; 'the subject is inexhaustible.'
'No doubt ' replied Lizzie, in the driest manner; 'especially to your sisters. However this is no time to joke. I fear you will get the worst of it, John. Do you know a man of about Gwenny's shape, nearly as broad as he is long, but about six times the size of Gwenny, and with a length of snow-white hair, and a thickness also; as the copses were last winter. He never can comb it, that is quite certain, with any comb yet invented.'
'Then you go and offer your services. There are few things you cannot scarify. I know the man from your description, although I have never seen him. Now where is my Lorna? '
'Your Lorna is with Annie, having a good cry, I believe; and Annie too glad to second her. She knows that this great man is here, and knows that he wants to see her. But she begged to defer the interview, until dear John's return.'
'What a nasty way you have of telling the very commonest piece of news!' I said, on purpose to pay her out. 'What man will ever fancy you, you unlucky little snapper? Now, no more nursery talk for me. I will go and settle this business. You had better go and dress your dolls; if you can give them clothes unpoisoned.' Hereupon Lizzie burst into a perfect roar of tears; feeling that she had the worst of it. And I took her up, and begged her pardon; although she scarcely deserved it; for she knew that I was out of luck, and she might have spared her satire.
I was almost sure that the man who was come must be the Counsellor himself; of whom I felt much keener fear than of his son Carver. And knowing that his visit boded ill to me and Lorna, I went and sought my dear; and led her with a heavy heart, from the maiden's room to mother's, to meet our dreadful visitor.
Mother was standing by the door, making curtseys now and then, and listening to a long harangue upon the rights of state and land, which the Counsellor (having found that she was the owner of her property, and knew nothing of her title to it) was encouraged to deliver it. My dear mother stood gazing at him, spell-bound by his eloquence, and only hoping that he would stop. He was shaking his hair upon his shoulders, in the power of his words, and his wrath at some little thing, which he declared to be quite illegal.
Then I ventured to show myself, in the flesh, before him; although he feigned not to see me; but he advanced with zeal to Lorna; holding out both hands at once.
'My darling child, my dearest niece; how wonderfully well you look! Mistress Ridd, I give you credit. This is the country of good things. I never would have believed our Queen could have looked so royal. Surely of all virtues, hospitality is the finest, and the most romantic. Dearest Lorna, kiss your uncle; it is quite a privilege.'
'Perhaps it is to you, sir,' said Lorna, who could never quite check her sense of oddity; 'but I fear that you have smoked tobacco, which spoils reciprocity.'
'You are right, my child. How keen your scent is! It is always so with us. Your grandfather was noted for his olfactory powers. Ah, a great loss, dear Mrs. Ridd, a terrible loss to this neighbourhood! As one of our great writers says—I think it must be Milton—"We ne'er shall look upon his like again." '
'With your good leave sir,' I broke in, 'Master Milton could never have written so sweet and simple a line as that. It is one of the great Shakespeare.'
'Woe is me for my neglect!' said the Counsellor, bowing airily; 'this must be your son, Mistress Ridd, the great John, the wrestler. And one who meddles with the Muses! Ah, since I was young, how everything is changed, madam! Except indeed the beauty of women, which seems to me to increase every year.' Here the old villain bowed to my mother; and she blushed, and made another curtsey, and really did look very nice.
'Now though I have quoted the poets amiss, as your son informs me (for which I tender my best thanks, and must amend my reading), I can hardly be wrong in assuming that this young armiger must be the too attractive cynosure to our poor little maiden. And for my part, she is welcome to him. I have never been one of those who dwell upon distinctions of rank, and birth, and such like; as if they were in the heart of nature, and must be eternal. In early youth, I may have thought so, and been full of that little pride. But now I have long accounted it one of the first axioms of political economy—you are following me, Mistress Ridd?'
'Well, sir, I am doing my best; but I cannot quite keep up with you.'
'Never mind, madam; I will be slower. But your son's intelligence is so quick—'
'I see, sir; you thought that mine must be. But no; it all comes from his father, sir. His father was that quick and clever——'
'Ah, I can well suppose it, madam. And a credit he is to both of you. Now, to return to our muttons—a figure which you will appreciate—I may now be regarded, I think, as this young lady's legal guardian; although I have not had the honour of being formally appointed such. Her father was the eldest son of Sir Ensor Doone; and I happened to be the second son; and as young maidens cannot be baronets, I suppose I am "Sir Counsellor." Is it so, Mistress Ridd, according to your theory of genealogy?'
'I am sure I don't know, sir,' my mother answered carefully; 'I know not anything of that name, sir, except in the Gospel of Matthew: but I see not why it should be otherwise.'
'Good, madam! I may look upon that as your sanction and approval: and the College of Heralds shall hear of it. And in return, as Lorna's guardian, I give my full and ready consent to her marriage with your son, madam.'
'Oh, how good of you, sir, how kind! Well, I always did say, that the learnedest people were, almost always, the best and kindest, and the most simple-hearted.'
'Madam, that is a great sentiment. What a goodly couple they will be! and if we can add him to our strength——'
'Oh no, sir, oh no!' cried mother: 'you really must not think of it. He has always been brought up so honest——'
'Hem! that makes a difference. A decided disqualification for domestic life among the Doones. But, surely, he might get over those prejudices, madam?'
'Oh no, sir! he never can: he never can indeed. When he was only that high, sir, he could not steal even an apple, when some wicked boys tried to mislead him.'
'Ah,' replied the Counsellor, shaking his white head gravely; 'then I greatly fear that his case is quite incurable. I have known such cases; violent prejudice, bred entirely of education, and anti-economical to the last degree. And when it is so, it is desperate: no man, after imbibing ideas of that sort, can in any way be useful.'
'Oh yes, sir, John is very useful. He can do as much work as three other men; and you should see him load a sledd, sir.'
'I was speaking, madam, of higher usefulness,—power of the brain and heart. The main thing for us upon earth is to take a large view of things. But while we talk of the heart, what is my niece Lorna doing, that she does not come and thank me, for my perhaps too prompt concession to her youthful fancies? Ah, if I had wanted thanks, I should have been more stubborn.'
Lorna, being challenged thus, came up and looked at her uncle, with her noble eyes fixed full upon his, which beneath his white eyebrows glistened, like dormer windows piled with snow.
'For what am I to thank you, uncle?'
'My dear niece, I have told you. For removing the heaviest obstacle, which to a mind so well regulated could possibly have existed, between your dutiful self and the object of your affections.'
'Well, uncle, I should be very grateful, if I thought that you did so from love of me; or if I did not know that you have something yet concealed from me.'
'And my consent,' said the Counsellor, 'is the more meritorious, the more liberal, frank, and candid, in the face of an existing fact, and a very clearly established one; which might have appeared to weaker minds in the light of an impediment; but to my loftier view of matrimony seems quite a recommendation.'
'What fact do you mean, sir? Is it one that I ought to know?'
'In my opinion it is, good niece. It forms, to my mind, so fine a basis for the invariable harmony of the matrimonial state. To be brief—as I always endeavour to be, without becoming obscure—you two young people (ah, what a gift is youth! one can never be too thankful for it) you will have the rare advantage of commencing married life, with a subject of common interest to discuss, whenever you weary of—well, say of one another; if you can now, by any means, conceive such a possibility. And perfect justice meted out: mutual goodwill resulting, from the sense of reciprocity.'
'I do not understand you, sir. Why can you not say what you mean, at once?'
'My dear child, I prolong your suspense. Curiosity is the most powerful of all feminine instincts; and therefore the most delightful, when not prematurely satisfied. However, if you must have my strong realities, here they are. Your father slew dear John's father, and dear John's father slew yours.'
Having said thus much, the Counsellor leaned back upon his chair, and shaded his calm white-bearded eyes from the rays of our tallow candles. He was a man who liked to look, rather than to be looked at. But Lorna came to me for aid; and I went up to Lorna and mother looked at both of us.
Then feeling that I must speak first (as no one would begin it), I took my darling round the waist, and led her up to the Counsellor; while she tried to bear it bravely; yet must lean on me, or did.
'Now, Sir Counsellor Doone,' I said, with Lorna squeezing both my hands, I never yet knew how (considering that she was walking all the time, or something like it); 'you know right well, Sir Counsellor, that Sir Ensor Doone gave approval.' I cannot tell what made me think of this: but so it came upon me.
'Approval to what, good rustic John? To the slaughter so reciprocal?'
'No, sir, not to that; even if it ever happened; which I do not believe. But to the love betwixt me and Lorna; which your story shall not break, without more evidence than your word. And even so, shall never break; if Lorna thinks as I do.'
The maiden gave me a little touch, as much as to say, 'You are right, darling: give it to him, again, like that.' However, I held my peace, well knowing that too many words do mischief.
Then mother looked at me with wonder, being herself too amazed to speak; and the Counsellor looked, with great wrath in his eyes, which he tried to keep from burning.
'How say you then, John Ridd, ' he cried, stretching out one hand, like Elijah; 'is this a thing of the sort you love? Is this what you are used to?'
'So please your worship, ' I answered; 'no kind of violence can surprise us, since first came Doones upon Exmoor. Up to that time none heard of harm; except of taking a purse, maybe, or cutting a strange sheep's throat. And the poor folk who did this were hanged, with some benefit of clergy. But ever since the Doones came first, we are used to anything.'
'Thou varlet,' cried the Counsellor, with the colour of his eyes quite changed with the sparkles of his fury; 'is this the way we are to deal with such a low-bred clod as thou? To question the doings of our people, and to talk of clergy! What, dream you not that we could have clergy, and of the right sort, too, if only we cared to have them? Tush! Am I to spend my time arguing with a plough-tail Bob?'
'If your worship will hearken to me,' I answered very modestly, not wishing to speak harshly, with Lorna looking up at me; 'there are many things that might be said without any kind of argument, which I would never wish to try with one of your worship's learning. And in the first place it seems to me that if our fathers hated one another bitterly, yet neither won the victory, only mutual discomfiture; surely that is but a reason why we should be wiser than they, and make it up in this generation by goodwill and loving——'
'Oh, John, you wiser than your father!' mother broke upon me here; 'not but what you might be as wise, when you come to be old enough.'
'Young people of the present age,' said the Counsellor severely, 'have no right feeling of any sort, upon the simplest matter. Lorna Doone, stand forth from contact with that heir of parricide; and state in your own mellifluous voice, whether you regard this slaughter as a pleasant trifle.'
'You know, without any words of mine,' she answered very softly, yet not withdrawing from my hand, 'that although I have been seasoned well to every kind of outrage, among my gentle relatives, I have not yet so purely lost all sense of right and wrong as to receive what you have said, as lightly as you declared it. You think it a happy basis for our future concord. I do not quite think that, my uncle; neither do I quite believe that a word of it is true. In our happy valley, nine-tenths of what is said is false; and you were always wont to argue that true and false are but a blind turned upon a pivot. Without any failure of respect for your character, good uncle, I decline politely to believe a word of what you have told me. And even if it were proved to me, all I can say is this, if my John will have me, I am his for ever.'
This long speech was too much for her; she had overrated her strength about it, and the sustenance of irony. So at last she fell into my arms, which had long been waiting for her; and there she lay with no other sound, except a gurgling in her throat.
'You old villain,' cried my mother, shaking her fist at the Counsellor, while I could do nothing else but hold, and bend across, my darling, and whisper to deaf ears; 'What is the good of the quality; if this is all that comes of it? Out of the way! You know the words that make the deadly mischief; but not the ways that heal them. Give me that bottle, if hands you have; what is the use of Counsellors?'
I saw that dear mother was carried away; and indeed I myself was something like it; with the pale face upon my bosom, and the heaving of the heart, and the heat and cold all through me, as my darling breathed or lay. Meanwhile the Counsellor stood back, and seemed a little sorry; although of course it was not in his power to be at all ashamed of himself.
'My sweet love, my darling child,' our mother went on to Lorna, in a way that I shall never forget, though I live to be a hundred; 'pretty pet, not a word of it is true, upon that old liar's oath; and if every word were true, poor chick, you should have our John all the more for it. You and John were made by God and meant for one another, whatever falls between you. Little lamb, look up and speak: here is your own John and I; and the devil take the Counsellor.'
I was amazed at mother's words, being so unlike her; while I loved her all the more because she forgot herself so. In another moment in ran Annie, ay and Lizzie also, knowing by some mystic sense (which I have often noticed, but never could explain) that something was astir, belonging to the world of women, yet foreign to the eyes of men. And now the Counsellor, being well-born, although such a heartless miscreant, beckoned to me to come away; which I, being smothered with women, was only too glad to do, as soon as my own love would let go of me.
'That is the worst of them,' said the old man; when I had led him into our kitchen, with an apology at every step, and given him hot schnapps and water, and a cigarro of brave Tom Faggus: 'you never can say much, sir, in the way of reasoning (however gently meant and put) but what these women will fly out. It is wiser to put a wild bird in a cage, and expect him to sit and look at you, and chirp without a feather rumpled, than it is to expect a woman to answer reason reasonably.' Saying this, he looked at his puff of smoke as if it contained more reason.
'I am sure I do not know, sir,' I answered according to a phrase which has always been my favourite, on account of its general truth: moreover, he was now our guest, and had right to be treated accordingly: 'I am, as you see, not acquainted with the ways of women, except my mother and sisters.'
'Except not even them, my son, said the Counsellor, now having finished his glass, without much consultation about it; 'if you once understand your mother and sisters—why you understand the lot of them.'
He made a twist in his cloud of smoke, and dashed his finger through it, so that I could not follow his meaning, and in manners liked not to press him.
'Now of this business, John,' he said, after getting to the bottom of the second glass, and having a trifle or so to eat, and praising our chimney-corner; 'taking you on the whole, you know, you are wonderfully good people; and instead of giving me up to the soldiers, as you might have done, you are doing your best to make me drunk.'
'Not at all, sir,' I answered; 'not at all, your worship. Let me mix you another glass. We rarely have a great gentleman by the side of our embers and oven. I only beg your pardon, sir, that my sister Annie (who knows where to find all the good pans and the lard) could not wait upon you this evening; and I fear they have done it with dripping instead, and in a pan with the bottom burned. But old Betty quite loses her head sometimes, by dint of over-scolding.'
'My son,' replied the Counsellor, standing across the front of the fire, to prove his strict sobriety: 'I meant to come down upon you to-night; but you have turned the tables upon me. Not through any skill on your part, nor through any paltry weakness as to love (and all that stuff, which boys and girls spin tops at, or knock dolls' noses together), but through your simple way of taking me, as a man to be believed; combined with the comfort of this place, and the choice tobacco and cordials. I have not enjoyed an evening so much, God bless me if I know when!'
'Your worship,' said I, 'makes me more proud than I well know what to do with. Of all the things that please and lead us into happy sleep at night, the first and chiefest is to think that we have pleased a visitor.'
'Then, John, thou hast deserved good sleep; for I am not pleased easily. But although our family is not so high now as it hath been, I have enough of the gentleman left to be pleased when good people try me. My father, Sir Ensor, was better than I in this great element of birth, and my son Carver is far worse. Ætas parentum, what is it, my boy? I hear that you have been at a grammar-school.'
'So I have, your worship, and at a very good one; but I only got far enough to make more tail than head of Latin.'
'Let that pass,' said the Counsellor; 'John, thou art all the wiser.' And the old man shook his hoary locks, as if Latin had been his ruin. I looked at him sadly, and wondered whether it might have so ruined me, but for God's mercy in stopping it.