All our neighbourhood was surprised that the Doones had not ere now attacked, and probably made an end of us. For we lay almost at their mercy now, having only Sergeant Bloxham, and three men, to protect us, Captain Stickles having been ordered southwards with all his force; except such as might be needful for collecting toll, and watching the imports at Lynmouth, and thence to Porlock. The Sergeant, having now imbibed a taste for writing reports (though his first great effort had done him no good, and only offended Stickles), reported weekly from Plover's Barrows, whenever he could find a messenger. And though we fed not Sergeant Bloxham at our own table, with the best we had (as in the case of Stickles, who represented His Majesty), yet we treated him so well, that he reported very highly of us, as loyal and true-hearted lieges, and most devoted to our lord the King. And indeed he could scarcely have done less, when Lizzie wrote great part of his reports, and furbished up the rest to such a pitch of lustre, that Lord Clarendon himself need scarce have been ashamed of them. And though this cost a great deal of ale, and even of strong waters (for Lizzie would have it the duty of a critic to stand treat to the author), and though it was otherwise a plague, as giving the maid such airs of patronage, and such pretence to politics; yet there was no stopping it, without the risk of mortal offence to both writer and reviewer. Our mother also, while disapproving Lizzie's long stay in the saddle-room on a Friday night and a Saturday, and insisting that Betty should be there, was nevertheless as proud as need be, that the King should read our Eliza' s writings—at least so the innocent soul believed—and we all looked forward to something great as the fruit of all this history. And something great did come of it, though not as we expected; for these reports, or as many of them as were ever opened, stood us in good stead the next year, when we were accused of harbouring and comforting guilty rebels.
Now the reason why the Doones did not attack us was that they were preparing to meet another and more powerful assault upon their fortress; being assured that their repulse of King's troops could not be looked over when brought before the authorities. And no doubt they were right; for although the conflicts in the Government during that summer and autumn had delayed the matter yet positive orders had been issued that these outlaws and malefactors should at any price be brought to justice; when the sudden death of King Charles the Second threw all things into confusion, and all minds into a panic.
We heard of it first in church, on Sunday, the eighth day of February, 1684-5, from a cousin of John Fry, who had ridden over on purpose from Porlock. He came in just before the anthem, splashed and heated from his ride, so that every one turned and looked at him. He wanted to create a stir (knowing how much would be made of him), and he took the best way to do it. For he let the anthem go by very quietly—or rather I should say very pleasingly, for our choir was exceeding proud of itself, and I sang bass twice as loud as a bull, to beat the clerk with the clarionet—and then just as Parson Bowden, with a look of pride at his minstrels, was kneeling down to begin the prayer for the King's Most Excellent Majesty (for he never read the litany, except upon Easter Sunday), up jumps young Sam Fry, and shouts,—
'I forbid that there prai-er.'
'What!' cried the parson, rising slowly, and looking for some one to shut the door: 'have we a rebel in the congregation?' For the parson was growing short-sighted now, and knew not Sam Fry at that distance.
'No,' replied Sam, not a whit abashed by the staring of all the parish; 'no rebel, parson; but a man who mislaiketh popery and murder. That there prai-er be a prai-er for the dead.'
'Nay,' cried the parson, now recognising and knowing him to be our John's first cousin, 'you do not mean to say, Sam, that His Gracious Majesty is dead!'
'Dead as a sto-un: poisoned by they Papishers.' And Sam rubbed his hands with enjoyment, at the effect he had produced.
'Remember where you are, Sam,' said Parson Bowden solemnly; 'when did this most sad thing happen? The King is the head of the Church, Sam Fry; when did he leave her?'
'Day afore yesterday. Twelve o'clock. Warn't us quick to hear of 'un?'
'Can't be,' said the minister: 'the tidings can never have come so soon. Anyhow, he will want it all the more. Let us pray for His Gracious Majesty.'
And with that he proceeded as usual; but nobody cried 'Amen,' for fear of being entangled with Popery. But after giving forth his text, our parson said a few words out of book, about the many virtues of His Majesty, and self-denial, and devotion, comparing his pious mirth to the dancing of the patriarch David before the ark of the covenant; and he added, with some severity, that if his flock would not join their pastor (who was much more likely to judge aright) in praying for the King, the least they could do on returning home was to pray that the King might not be dead, as his enemies had asserted.
Now when the service was over, we killed the King, and we brought him to life, at least fifty times in the churchyard: and Sam Fry was mounted on a high gravestone, to tell every one all he knew of it. But he knew no more than he had told us in the church, as before repeated: upon which we were much disappointed with him, and inclined to disbelieve him; until he happily remembered that His Majesty had died in great pain, with blue spots on his breast and black spots all across his back, and these in the form of a cross, by reason of Papists having poisoned him. When Sam called this to his remembrance (or to his imagination) he was overwhelmed, at once, with so many invitations to dinner, that he scarce knew which of them to accept; but decided in our favour.
Grieving much for the loss of the King, however greatly it might be (as the parson had declared it was, while telling us to pray against it) for the royal benefit, I resolved to ride to Porlock myself, directly after dinner, and make sure whether he were dead, or not. For it was not by any means hard to suppose that Sam Fry, being John's first cousin, might have inherited either from grandfather or grandmother some of those gifts which had made our John so famous for mendacity. At Porlock I found that it was too true; and the women of the town were in great distress, for the King had always been popular with them: the men, on the other hand, were forecasting what would be likely to ensue.
And I myself was of this number, riding sadly home again; although bound to the King as churchwarden now; which dignity, next to the parson's in rank, is with us (as it ought to be in every good parish) hereditary. For who can stick to the church like the man whose father stuck to it before him; and who knows all the little ins, and great outs, which must in these troublous times come across?
But though appointed at last, by virtue of being best farmer in the parish (as well as by vice of mismanagement on the part of my mother, and Nicholas Snowe, who had thoroughly muxed up everything, being too quick-headed); yet, while I dwelled with pride upon the fact that I stood in the King's shoes, as the manager and promoter of the Church of England, and I knew that we must miss His Majesty (whose arms were above the Commandments), as the leader of our thoughts in church, and handsome upon a guinea; nevertheless I kept on thinking how his death would act on me.
And here I saw it, many ways. In the first place, troubles must break out; and we had eight-and-twenty ricks; counting grain, and straw, and hay. Moreover, mother was growing weak about riots, and shooting, and burning; and she gathered the bed-clothes around her ears every night, when her feet were tucked up; and prayed not to awake until morning. In the next place, much rebellion (though we would not own it; in either sense of the verb, to 'own') was whispering, and plucking skirts, and making signs, among us. And the terror of the Doones helped greatly; as a fruitful tree of lawlessness, and a good excuse for everybody. And after this—or rather before it, and first of all indeed (if I must state the true order)—arose upon me the thought of Lorna, and how these things would affect her fate.
And indeed I must admit that it had occurred to me sometimes, or been suggested by others, that the Lady Lorna had not behaved altogether kindly, since her departure from among us. For although in those days the post (as we call the service of letter-carrying, which now comes within twenty miles of us) did not extend to our part of the world, yet it might have been possible to procure for hire a man who would ride post, if Lorna feared to trust the pack-horses, or the troopers, who went to and fro. Yet no message whatever had reached us; neither any token even of her safety in London. As to this last, however, we had no misgivings, having learned from the orderlies, more than once, that the wealth, and beauty, and adventures of young Lady Lorna Dugal were greatly talked of, both at court and among the common people.
Now riding sadly homewards, in the sunset of the early spring, I was more than ever touched with sorrow, and a sense of being, as it were, abandoned. And the weather growing quite beautiful, and so mild that the trees were budding, and the cattle full of happiness, I could not but think of the difference between the world of to-day and the world of this day twelvemonth. Then all was howling desolation, all the earth blocked up with snow, and all the air with barbs of ice as small as splintered needles, yet glittering, in and out, like stars, and gathering so upon a man (if long he stayed among them) that they began to weigh him down to sleepiness and frozen death. Not a sign of life was moving, nor was any change of view; unless the wild wind struck the crest of some cold drift, and bowed it.
Now, on the other hand, all was good. The open palm of spring was laid upon the yielding of the hills; and each particular valley seemed to be the glove for a finger. And although the sun was low, and dipping in the western clouds, the gray light of the sea came up, and took, and taking, told the special tone of everything. All this lay upon my heart, without a word of thinking, spreading light and shadow there, and the soft delight of sadness. Nevertheless, I would it were the savage snow around me, and the piping of the restless winds, and the death of everything. For in those days I had Lorna.
Then I thought of promise fair; such as glowed around me, where the red rocks held the sun, when he was departed; and the distant crags endeavoured to retain his memory. But as evening spread across them, shading with a silent fold, all the colour stole away; all remembrance waned and died.
'So it has been with love,' I thought, 'and with simple truth and warmth. The maid has chosen the glittering stars, instead of the plain daylight.'
Nevertheless I would not give in, although in deep despondency (especially when I passed the place where my dear father had fought in vain), and I tried to see things right and then judge aright about them. This, however, was more easy to attempt than to achieve; and by the time I came down the hill, I was none the wiser. Only I could tell my mother that the King was dead for sure; and she would have tried to cry, but for thought of her mourning.
There was not a moment for lamenting. All the mourning must be ready (if we cared to beat the Snowes) in eight-and-forty hours: and, although it was Sunday night, mother now feeling sure of the thing, sat up with Lizzie, cutting patterns, and stitching things on brown paper, and snipping, and laying the fashions down, and requesting all opinions, yet when given, scorning them; insomuch that I grew weary even of tobacco (which had comforted me since Lorna), and prayed her to go on until the King should be alive again.
The thought of that so flurried her—for she never yet could see a joke—that she laid her scissors on the table and said, 'The Lord forbid, John! after what I have cut up!'
'It would be just like him,' I answered, with a knowing smile: 'Mother, you had better stop. Patterns may do very well; but don't cut up any more good stuff.'
'Well, good lack, I am a fool! Three tables pegged with needles! The Lord in His mercy keep His Majesty, if ever He hath gotten him!'
By this device we went to bed; and not another stitch was struck until the troopers had office-tidings that the King was truly dead. Hence the Snowes beat us by a day; and both old Betty and Lizzie laid the blame upon me, as usual.
Almost before we had put off the mourning, which as loyal subjects we kept for the King three months and a week; rumours of disturbances, of plottings, and of outbreak began to stir among us. We heard of fighting in Scotland, and buying of ships on the continent, and of arms in Dorset and Somerset; and we kept our beacon in readiness to give signals of a landing; or rather the soldiers did. For we, having trustworthy reports that the King had been to high mass himself in the Abbey of Westminster, making all the bishops go with him, and all the guards in London, and then tortured all the Protestants who dared to wait outside, moreover had received from the Pope a flower grown in the Virgin Mary's garden, and warranted to last for ever, we of the moderate party, hearing all this and ten times as much, and having no love for this sour James, such as we had for the lively Charles, were ready to wait for what might happen, rather than care about stopping it. Therefore we listened to rumours gladly, and shook our heads with gravity, and predicted, every man something, but scarce any two the same. Nevertheless, in our part, things went on as usual, until the middle of June was nigh. We ploughed the ground, and sowed the corn, and tended the cattle, and heeded every one his neighbour's business, as carefully as heretofore; and the only thing that moved us much was that Annie had a baby. This being a very fine child with blue eyes, and christened 'John' in compliment to me, and with me for his godfather, it is natural to suppose that I thought a good deal about him; and when mother or Lizzie would ask me, all of a sudden, and treacherously, when the fire flared up at supper-time (for we always kept a little wood just alight in summer-time, and enough to make the pot boil), then when they would say to me, 'John, what are you thinking of? At a word, speak!' I would always answer, 'Little John Faggus'; and so they made no more of me.
But when I was down, on Saturday the thirteenth of June, at the blacksmith's forge by Brendon town, where the Lynn-stream runs so close that he dips his horseshoes in it, and where the news is apt to come first of all to our neighbourhood (except upon a Sunday), while we were talking of the hay-crop, and of a great sheep-stealer, round the corner came a man upon a piebald horse looking flagged and weary. But seeing half a dozen of us, young, and brisk, and hearty, he made a flourish with his horse, and waved a blue flag vehemently, shouting with great glory,—
'Monmouth and the Protestant faith! Monmouth and no Popery! Monmouth, the good King's eldest son! Down with the poisoning murderer! Down with the black usurper, and to the devil with all papists!'
'Why so, thou little varlet?' I asked very quietly; for the man was too small to quarrel with: yet knowing Lorna to be a 'papist,' as we choose to call them—though they might as well call us 'kingists,' after the head of our Church—I thought that this scurvy scampish knave might show them the way to the place he mentioned, unless his courage failed him.
'Papist yourself, be you?' said the fellow, not daring to answer much: 'then take this, and read it.'
And he handed me a long rigmarole, which he called a 'Declaration': I saw that it was but a heap of lies, and thrust it into the blacksmith's fire, and blew the bellows thrice at it. No one dared attempt to stop me, for my mood had not been sweet of late; and of course they knew my strength.
The man rode on with a muttering noise, having won no recruits from us, by force of my example: and he stopped at the ale-house farther down, where the road goes away from the Lynn-stream. Some of us went thither after a time, when our horses were shodden and rasped, for although we might not like the man, we might be glad of his tidings, which seemed to be something wonderful. He had set up his blue flag in the tap-room, and was teaching every one.
'Here coom'th Maister Jan Ridd,' said the landlady, being well pleased with the call for beer and cider: 'her hath been to Lunnon-town, and live within a maile of me. Arl the news coom from them nowadays, instead of from here, as her ought to do. If Jan Ridd say it be true, I will try almost to belave it. Hath the good Duke landed, sir?' And she looked at me over a foaming cup, and blew the froth off, and put more in.
'I have no doubt it is true enough,' I answered, before drinking; 'and too true, Mistress Pugsley. Many a poor man will die; but none shall die from our parish, nor from Brendon, if I can help it.'
And I knew that I could help it; for every one in those little places would abide by my advice; not only from the fame of my schooling and long sojourn in London, but also because I had earned repute for being very 'slow and sure': and with nine people out of ten this is the very best recommendation. For they think themselves much before you in wit, and under no obligation, but rather conferring a favour, by doing the thing that you do. Hence, if I cared for influence—which means, for the most part, making people do one's will, without knowing it—my first step toward it would be to be called, in common parlance, 'slow but sure.'
For the next fortnight we were daily troubled with conflicting rumours, each man relating what he desired, rather than what he had right, to believe. We were told that the Duke had been proclaimed King of England in every town of Dorset and of Somerset; that he had won a great battle at Axminster, and another at Bridport, and another somewhere else; that all the western counties had risen as one man for him, and all the militia had joined his ranks; that Taunton, and Bridgwater, and Bristowe, were all mad with delight, the two former being in his hands, and the latter craving to be so. And then, on the other hand, we heard that the Duke had been vanquished, and put to flight, and upon being apprehended, had confessed himself an impostor and a papist as bad as the King was.
We longed for Colonel Stickles (as he always became in time of war, though he fell back to Captain, and even Lieutenant, directly the fight was over), for then we should have won trusty news, as well as good consideration. But even Sergeant Bloxham, much against his will, was gone, having left his heart with our Lizzie, and a collection of all his writings. All the soldiers had been ordered away at full speed for Exeter, to join the Duke of Albemarle, or if he were gone, to follow him. As for us, who had fed them so long (although not quite for nothing), we must take our chance of Doones, or any other enemies.
Now all these tidings moved me a little; not enough to spoil appetite, but enough to make things lively, and to teach me that look of wisdom which is bred of practice only, and the hearing of many lies. Therefore I withheld my judgment, fearing to be triumphed over, if it should happen to miss the mark. But mother and Lizzie, ten times in a day, predicted all they could imagine; and their prophecies increased in strength according to contradiction. Yet this was not in the proper style for a house like ours, which knew the news, or at least had known it; and still was famous, all around, for the last advices. Even from Lynmouth, people sent up to Plover's Barrows to ask how things were going on: and it was very grievous to answer that in truth we knew not, neither had heard for days and days; and our reputation was so great, especially since the death of the King had gone abroad from Oare parish, that many inquirers would only wink, and lay a finger on the lip, as if to say, 'you know well enough, but see not fit to tell me.' And before the end arrived, those people believed that they had been right all along, and that we had concealed the truth from them.
For I myself became involved (God knows how much against my will and my proper judgment) in the troubles, and the conflict, and the cruel work coming afterwards. If ever I had made up my mind to anything in all my life, it was at this particular time, and as stern and strong as could be. I had resolved to let things pass, —to hear about them gladly, to encourage all my friends to talk, and myself to express opinion upon each particular point, when in the fullness of time no further doubt could be. But all my policy went for nothing, through a few touches of feeling.
One day at the beginning of July, I came home from mowing about noon, or a little later, to fetch some cider for all of us, and to eat a morsel of bacon. For mowing was no joke that year, the summer being wonderfully wet (even for our wet country), and the swathe falling heavier over the scythe than ever I could remember it. We were drenched with rain almost every day; but the mowing must be done somehow; and we must trust to God for the haymaking.
In the courtyard I saw a little cart, with iron brakes underneath it, such as fastidious people use to deaden the jolting of the road; but few men under a lord or baronet would be so particular. Therefore I wondered who our noble visitor could be. But when I entered the kitchen-place, brushing up my hair for somebody, behold it was no one greater than our Annie, with my godson in her arms, and looking pale and tear-begone. And at first she could not speak to me. But presently having sat down a little, and received much praise for her baby, she smiled and blushed, and found her tongue as if she had never gone from us.
'How natural it all looks again! Oh, I love this old kitchen so! Baby dear, only look at it wid him pitty, pitty eyes, and him tongue out of his mousy! But who put the flour-riddle up there. And look at the pestle and mortar, and rust I declare in the patty pans! And a book, positively a dirty book, where the clean skewers ought to hang! Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie!'
'You may just as well cease lamenting,' I said, 'for you can't alter Lizzie's nature, and you will only make mother uncomfortable, and perhaps have a quarrel with Lizzie, who is proud as Punch of her housekeeping.'
'She,' cried Annie, with all the contempt that could be compressed in a syllable. 'Well, John, no doubt you are right about it. I will try not to notice things. But it is a hard thing, after all my care, to see everything going to ruin. But what can be expected of a girl who knows all the kings of Carthage?'
'There were no kings of Carthage, Annie. They were called, why let me see—they were called—oh, something else.'
'Never mind what they were called,' said Annie; 'will they cook our dinner for us? But now, John, I am in such trouble. All this talk is make-believe.'
'Don't you cry, my dear: don't cry, my darling sister,' I answered, as she dropped into the worn place of the settle, and bent above her infant, rocking as if both their hearts were one: 'don't you know, Annie, I cannot tell, but I know, or at least I mean, I have heard the men of experience say, it is so bad for the baby.'
'Perhaps I know that as well as you do, John,' said Annie, looking up at me with a gleam of her old laughing: 'but how can I help crying; I am in such trouble.'
'Tell me what it is, my dear. Any grief of yours will vex me greatly; but I will try to bear it.'
'Then, John, it is just this. Tom has gone off with the rebels; and you must, oh, you must go after him.'