It was for poor Annie's sake that I had spoken my mind to her husband so freely, and even harshly. For we all knew she would break her heart, if Tom took to evil ways again. And the right mode of preventing this was, not to coax, and flatter, and make a hero of him (which he did for himself, quite sufficiently), but to set before him the folly of the thing, and the ruin to his own interests.
They would both be vexed with me, of course, for having left them so hastily, and especially just before dinner-time; but that would soon wear off; and most likely they would come to see mother, and tell her that I was hard to manage, and they could feel for her about it.
Now with a certain yearning, I know not what, for softness, and for one who could understand me—for simple as a child though being, I found few to do that last, at any rate in my love-time—I relied upon Kickum's strength to take me round by Dulverton. It would make the journey some eight miles longer, but what was that to a brisk young horse, even with my weight upon him? And having left Squire Faggus and Annie much sooner than had been intended, I had plenty of time before me, and too much, ere a prospect of dinner. Therefore I struck to the right, across the hills, for Dulverton.
Pretty Ruth was in the main street of the town, with a basket in her hand, going home from the market.
'Why, Cousin Ruth, you are grown, I exclaimed; 'I do believe you are, Ruth. And you were almost too tall, already.'
At this the little thing was so pleased, that she smiled through her blushes beautifully, and must needs come to shake hands with me; though I signed to her not to do it, because of my horse's temper. But scarcely was her hand in mine, when Kickums turned like an eel upon her, and caught her by the left arm with his teeth, so that she screamed with agony. I saw the white of his vicious eye, and struck him there with all my force, with my left hand over her right arm, and he never used that eye again; none the less he kept his hold on her. Then I smote him again on the jaw, and caught the little maid up by her right hand, and laid her on the saddle in front of me; while the horse being giddy and staggered with blows, and foiled of his spite, ran backward. Ruth's wits were gone; and she lay before me, in such a helpless and senseless way that I could have killed vile Kickums. I struck the spurs into him past the rowels, and away he went at full gallop; while I had enough to do to hold on, with the little girl lying in front of me. But I called to the men who were flocking around, to send up a surgeon, as quick as could be, to Master Reuben Huckaback's.
The moment I brought my right arm to bear, the vicious horse had no chance with me; and if ever a horse was well paid for spite, Kickums had his change that day. The bridle would almost have held a whale and I drew on it so that his lower jaw was well-nigh broken from him; while with both spurs I tore his flanks, and he learned a little lesson. There are times when a man is more vicious than any horse may vie with. Therefore by the time we had reached Uncle Reuben's house at the top of the hill, the bad horse was only too happy to stop; every string of his body was trembling, and his head hanging down with impotence. I leaped from his back at once, and carried the maiden into her own sweet room.
Now Cousin Ruth was recovering softly from her fright and faintness; and the volley of the wind from galloping so had made her little ears quite pink, and shaken her locks all round her. But any one who might wish to see a comely sight and a moving one, need only have looked at Ruth Huckaback, when she learned (and imagined yet more than it was) the manner of her little ride with me. Her hair was of a hazel-brown, and full of waving readiness; and with no concealment of the trick, she spread it over her eyes and face. Being so delighted with her, and so glad to see her safe, I kissed her through the thick of it, as a cousin has a right to do; yea, and ought to do, with gravity.
'Darling,' I said; 'he has bitten you dreadfully: show me your poor arm, dear.'
She pulled up her sleeve in the simplest manner, rather to look at it herself, than to show me where the wound was. Her sleeve was of dark blue Taunton staple; and her white arm shone, coming out of it, as round and plump and velvety, as a stalk of asparagus, newly fetched out of the ground. But above the curved soft elbow, where no room was for one cross word (according to our proverb), three sad gashes, edged with crimson, spoiled the flow of the pearly flesh. My presence of mind was lost altogether; and I raised the poor sore arm to my lips, both to stop the bleeding and to take the venom out, having heard how wise it was, and thinking of my mother. But Ruth, to my great amazement, drew away from me in bitter haste, as if I had been inserting instead of extracting poison. For the bite of a horse is most venomous; especially when he sheds his teeth; and far more to be feared than the bite of a dog, or even of a cat. And in my haste I had forgotten that Ruth might not know a word about this, and might doubt about my meaning, and the warmth of my osculation. But knowing her danger, I durst not heed her childishness, or her feelings.
'Don't be a fool, Cousin Ruth,' I said, catching her so that she could not move; 'the poison is soaking into you. Do you think that I do it for pleasure?'
The spread of shame on her face was such, when she saw her own misunderstanding, that I was ashamed to look at her; and occupied myself with drawing all the risk of glanders forth from the white limb, hanging helpless now, and left entirely to my will. Before I was quite sure of having wholly exhausted suction, and when I had made the holes in her arm look like the gills of a lamprey, in came the doctor, partly drunk, and in haste to get through his business.
'Ha, ha! I see,' he cried; 'bite of a horse, they tell me. Very poisonous; must be burned away. Sally, the iron in the fire. If you have a fire, this weather.'
'Crave your pardon, good sir,' I said; for poor little Ruth was fainting again at his savage orders: 'but my cousin's arm shall not be burned; it is a great deal too pretty, and I have sucked all the poison out. Look, sir, how clean and fresh it is.'
'Bless my heart! And so it is! No need at all for cauterising. The epidermis will close over, and the cutis and the pellis. John Ridd, you ought to have studied medicine, with your healing powers. Half my virtue lies in touch. A clean and wholesome body, sir; I have taught you the Latin grammar. I leave you in excellent hands, my dear, and they wait for me at shovel-board. Bread and water poultice cold, to be renewed, tribus horis. John Ridd, I was at school with you, and you beat me very lamentably, when I tried to fight with you. You remember me not? It is likely enough: I am forced to take strong waters, John, from infirmity of the liver. Attend to my directions; and I will call again in the morning.'
And in that melancholy plight, caring nothing for business, went one of the cleverest fellows ever known at Tiverton. He could write Latin verses a great deal faster than I could ever write English prose, and nothing seemed too great for him. We thought that he would go to Oxford and astonish every one, and write in the style of Buchanan; but he fell all abroad very lamentably; and now, when I met him again, was come down to push-pin and shovel-board, with a wager of spirits pending.
When Master Huckaback came home, he looked at me very sulkily; not only because of my refusal to become a slave to the gold-digging, but also because he regarded me as the cause of a savage broil between Simon Carfax and the men who had cheated him as to his Gwenny. However, when Uncle Ben saw Ruth, and knew what had befallen her, and she with tears in her eyes declared that she owed her life to Cousin Ridd, the old man became very gracious to me; for if he loved any one on earth, it was his little granddaughter.
I could not stay very long, because, my horse being quite unfit to travel from the injuries which his violence and vice had brought upon him, there was nothing for me but to go on foot, as none of Uncle Ben's horses could take me to Plover's Barrows, without downright cruelty: and though there would be a harvest-moon, Ruth agreed with me that I must not keep my mother waiting, with no idea where I might be, until a late hour of the night. I told Ruth all about our Annie, and her noble furniture; and the little maid was very lively (although her wounds were paining her so, that half her laughter came 'on the wrong side of her mouth,' as we rather coarsely express it); especially she laughed about Annie's new-fangled closet for clothes, or standing-press, as she called it. This had frightened me so that I would not come without my stick to look at it; for the front was inlaid with two fiery dragons, and a glass which distorted everything, making even Annie look hideous; and when it was opened, a woman's skeleton, all in white, revealed itself, in the midst of three standing women. 'It is only to keep my best frocks in shape,' Annie had explained to me; 'hanging them up does ruin them so. But I own that I was afraid of it, John, until I had got all my best clothes there, and then I became very fond of it. But even now it frightens me sometimes in the moonlight.'
Having made poor Ruth a little cheerful, with a full account of all Annie's frocks, material, pattern, and fashion (of which I had taken a list for my mother, and for Lizzie, lest they should cry out at man's stupidity about anything of real interest), I proceeded to tell her about my own troubles, and the sudden departure of Lorna; concluding with all the show of indifference which my pride could muster, that now I never should see her again, and must do my best to forget her, as being so far above me. I had not intended to speak of this, but Ruth's face was so kind and earnest, that I could not stop myself.
'You must not talk like that, Cousin Ridd,' she said, in a low and gentle tone, and turning away her eyes from me; 'no lady can be above a man, who is pure, and brave, and gentle. And if her heart be worth having, she will never let you give her up, for her grandeur, and her nobility.'
She pronounced those last few words, as I thought, with a little bitterness, unperceived by herself perhaps, for it was not in her appearance. But I, attaching great importance to a maiden's opinion about a maiden (because she might judge from experience), would have led her further into that subject. But she declined to follow, having now no more to say in a matter so removed from her. Then I asked her full and straight, and looking at her in such a manner that she could not look away, without appearing vanquished by feelings of her own—which thing was very vile of me; but all men are so selfish——
'Dear cousin, tell me, once for all, what is your advice to me?'
'My advice to you,' she answered bravely, with her dark eyes full of pride, and instead of flinching, foiling me,—'is to do what every man must do, if he would win fair maiden. Since she cannot send you token, neither is free to return to you, follow her, pay your court to her; show that you will not be forgotten; and perhaps she will look down—I mean, she will relent to you.'
'She has nothing to relent about. I have never vexed nor injured her. My thoughts have never strayed from her. There is no one to compare with her.'
'Then keep her in that same mind about you. See now, I can advise no more. My arm is swelling painfully, in spite of all your goodness, and bitter task of surgeonship. I shall have another poultice on, and go to bed, I think, Cousin Ridd, if you will not hold me ungrateful. I am so sorry for your long walk. Surely it might be avoided. Give my love to dear Lizzie: oh, the room is going round so.'
And she fainted into the arms of Sally, who was come just in time to fetch her: no doubt she had been suffering agony all the time she talked to me. Leaving word that I would come again to inquire for her, and fetch Kickums home, so soon as the harvest permitted me, I gave directions about the horse, and striding away from the ancient town, was soon upon the moorlands.
Now, through the whole of that long walk—the latter part of which was led by starlight, till the moon arose—I dwelt, in my young and foolish way, upon the ordering of our steps by a Power beyond us. But as I could not bring my mind to any clearness upon this matter, and the stars shed no light upon it, but rather confused me with wondering how their Lord could attend to them all, and yet to a puny fool like me, it came to pass that my thoughts on the subject were not worth ink, if I knew them.
But it is perhaps worth ink to relate, so far as I can do so, mother's delight at my return, when she had almost abandoned hope, and concluded that I was gone to London, in disgust at her behaviour. And now she was looking up the lane, at the rise of the harvest-moon, in despair, as she said afterwards. But if she had despaired in truth, what use to look at all? Yet according to the epigram made by a good Blundellite,—
"Despair was never yet so deep
In sinking as in seeming;
Despair is hope just dropped asleep
For better chance of dreaming.
And mother's dream was a happy one, when she knew my step at a furlong distant; for the night was of those that carry sound thrice as far as day can. She recovered herself, when she was sure, and even made up her mind to scold me, and felt as if she could do it. But when she was in my arms, into which she threw herself, and I by the light of the moon descried the silver gleam on one side of her head (now spreading since Annie's departure), bless my heart and yours therewith, no room was left for scolding. She hugged me, and she clung to me; and I looked at her, with duty made tenfold, and discharged by love. We said nothing to one another; but all was right between us.
Even Lizzie behaved very well, so far as her nature admitted; not even saying a nasty thing all the time she was getting my supper ready, with a weak imitation of Annie. She knew that the gift of cooking was not vouchsafed by God to her; but sometimes she would do her best, by intellect to win it. Whereas it is no more to be won by intellect than is divine poetry. An amount of strong quick heart is needful, and the understanding must second it, in the one art as in the other. Now my fare was very choice for the next three days or more; yet not turned out like Annie's. They could do a thing well enough on the fire; but they could not put it on table so; nor even have plates all piping hot. This was Annie's special gift; born in her, and ready to cool with her; like a plate borne away from the fireplace. I sighed sometimes about Lorna, and they thought it was about the plates. And mother would stand and look at me, as much as to say, 'No pleasing him'; and Lizzie would jerk up one shoulder, and cry, 'He had better have Lorna to cook for him'; while the whole truth was that I wanted not to be plagued about any cookery; but just to have something good and quiet, and then smoke and think about Lorna.
Nevertheless the time went on, with one change and another; and we gathered all our harvest in; and Parson Bowden thanked God for it, both in church and out of it; for his tithes would be very goodly. The unmatched cold of the previous winter, and general fear of scarcity, and our own talk about our ruin, had sent prices up to a grand high pitch; and we did our best to keep them there. For nine Englishmen out of every ten believe that a bitter winter must breed a sour summer, and explain away topmost prices. While according to my experience, more often it would be otherwise, except for the public thinking so. However, I have said too much; and if any farmer reads my book, he will vow that I wrote it for nothing else except to rob his family.
"A maid with an elbow sharp, or knee,
Hath cross words two, out of every three.