There had been some trouble in our own home during the previous autumn, while yet I was in London. For certain noted fugitives from the army of King Monmouth (which he himself had deserted, in a low and currish manner), having failed to obtain free shipment from the coast near Watersmouth, had returned into the wilds of Exmoor, trusting to lurk, and be comforted among the common people. Neither were they disappointed, for a certain length of time; nor in the end was their disappointment caused by fault on our part. Major Wade was one of them; an active and well-meaning man; but prone to fail in courage, upon lasting trial; although in a moment ready. Squire John Whichehalse (not the baron) and Parson Powell caught him (two or three months before my return) in Farley farmhouse, near Brendon. He had been up at our house several times; and Lizzie thought a great deal of him. And well I know that if at that time I had been in the neighbourhood, he should not have been taken so easily.
John Birch, the farmer who had sheltered him, was so fearful of punishment, that he hanged himself, in a few days' time, and even before he was apprehended. But nothing was done to Grace Howe, of Bridgeball, who had been Wade's greatest comforter; neither was anything done to us; although Eliza had added greatly to mother's alarm and danger by falling upon Rector Powell, and most soundly rating him for his meanness, and his cruelty, and cowardice, as she called it, in setting men with firearms upon a poor helpless fugitive, and robbing all our neighbourhood of its fame for hospitality. However, by means of Sergeant Bloxham, and his good report of us, as well as by virtue of Wade's confession (which proved of use to the Government) my mother escaped all penalties.
It is likely enough that good folk will think it hard upon our neighbourhood to be threatened, and sometimes heavily punished, for kindness and humanity; and yet to be left to help ourselves against tyranny, and base rapine. And now at last our gorge was risen, and our hearts in tumult. We had borne our troubles long, as a wise and wholesome chastisement; quite content to have some few things of our own unmeddled with. But what could a man dare to call his own, or what right could he have to wish for it, while he left his wife and children at the pleasure of any stranger?
The people came flocking all around me, at the blacksmith's forge, and the Brendon alehouse; and I could scarce come out of church, but they got me among the tombstones. They all agreed that I was bound to take command and management. I bade them go to the magistrates, but they said they had been too often. Then I told them that I had no wits for ordering of an armament, although I could find fault enough with the one which had not succeeded. But they would hearken to none of this.
All they said was 'Try to lead us; and we will try not to run away.'
This seemed to me to be common sense, and good stuff, instead of mere bragging; moreover, I myself was moved by the bitter wrongs of Margery, having known her at the Sunday-school, ere ever I went to Tiverton; and having in those days, serious thoughts of making her my sweetheart; although she was three years my elder. But now I felt this difficulty—the Doones had behaved very well to our farm, and to mother, and all of us, while I was away in London. Therefore, would it not be shabby, and mean, for me to attack them now?
Yet being pressed still harder and harder, as day by day the excitement grew (with more and more talking over it, and no one else coming forward to undertake the business, I agreed at last to this; that if the Doones, upon fair challenge, would not endeavour to make amends by giving up Mistress Margery, as well as the man who had slain the babe, then I would lead the expedition, and do my best to subdue them. All our men were content with this, being thoroughly well assured from experience, that the haughty robbers would only shoot any man who durst approach them with such proposal.
And then arose a difficult question—who was to take the risk of making overtures so unpleasant? I waited for the rest to offer; and as none was ready, the burden fell on me, and seemed to be of my own inviting. Hence I undertook the task, sooner than reason about it; for to give the cause of everything is worse than to go through with it.
It may have been three of the afternoon, when leaving my witnesses behind (for they preferred the background) I appeared with our Lizzie's white handkerchief upon a kidney-bean stick, at the entrance to the robbers' dwelling. Scarce knowing what might come of it, I had taken the wise precaution of fastening a Bible over my heart, and another across my spinal column, in case of having to run away, with rude men shooting after me. For my mother said that the Word of God would stop a two-inch bullet, with three ounces of powder behind it. Now I took no weapons, save those of the Spirit, for fear of being misunderstood. But I could not bring myself to think that any of honourable birth would take advantage of an unarmed man coming in guise of peace to them.
And this conclusion of mine held good, at least for a certain length of time; inasmuch as two decent Doones appeared, and hearing of my purpose, offered, without violence, to go and fetch the Captain; if I would stop where I was, and not begin to spy about anything. To this, of course, I agreed at once; for I wanted no more spying, because I had thorough knowledge of all ins and outs already. Therefore, I stood waiting steadily, with one hand in my pocket feeling a sample of corn for market; and the other against the rock, while I wondered to see it so brown already.
Those men came back in a little while, with a sharp short message that Captain Carver would come out and speak to me by-and-by, when his pipe was finished. Accordingly, I waited long, and we talked about the signs of bloom for the coming apple season, and the rain that had fallen last Wednesday night, and the principal dearth of Devonshire, that it will not grow many cowslips—which we quite agreed to be the prettiest of spring flowers; and all the time I was wondering how many black and deadly deeds these two innocent youths had committed, even since last Christmas.
At length, a heavy and haughty step sounded along the stone roof of the way; and then the great Carver Doone drew up, and looked at me rather scornfully. Not with any spoken scorn, nor flash of strong contumely; but with that air of thinking little, and praying not to be troubled, which always vexes a man who feels that he ought not to be despised so, and yet knows not how to help it.
'What is it you want, young man?' he asked, as if he had never seen me before.
In spite of that strong loathing which I always felt at sight of him, I commanded my temper moderately, and told him that I was come for his good, and that of his worshipful company, far more than for my own. That a general feeling of indignation had arisen among us at the recent behaviour of certain young men, for which he might not be answerable, and for which we would not condemn him, without knowing the rights of the question. But I begged him clearly to understand that a vile and inhuman wrong had been done, and such as we could not put up with; but that if he would make what amends he could by restoring the poor woman, and giving up that odious brute who had slain the harmless infant, we would take no further motion; and things should go on as usual. As I put this in the fewest words that would meet my purpose, I was grieved to see a disdainful smile spread on his sallow countenance. Then he made me a bow of mock courtesy, and replied as follows,—
'Sir John, your new honours have turned your poor head, as might have been expected. We are not in the habit of deserting anything that belongs to us; far less our sacred relatives. The insolence of your demand well-nigh outdoes the ingratitude. If there be a man upon Exmoor who has grossly ill-used us, kidnapped our young women, and slain half a dozen of our young men, you are that outrageous rogue, Sir John. And after all this, how have we behaved? We have laid no hand upon your farm, we have not carried off your women, we have even allowed you to take our Queen, by creeping and crawling treachery; and we have given you leave of absence to help your cousin the highwayman, and to come home with a title. And now, how do you requite us? By inflaming the boorish indignation at a little frolic of our young men; and by coming with insolent demands, to yield to which would ruin us. Ah, you ungrateful viper!'
As he turned away in sorrow from me, shaking his head at my badness, I became so overcome (never having been quite assured, even by people's praises, about my own goodness); moreover, the light which he threw upon things differed so greatly from my own, that, in a word—not to be too long—I feared that I was a villain. And with many bitter pangs—for I have bad things to repent of—I began at my leisure to ask myself whether or not this bill of indictment against John Ridd was true. Some of it I knew to be (however much I condemned myself) altogether out of reason; for instance, about my going away with Lorna very quietly, over the snow, and to save my love from being starved away from me. In this there was no creeping neither crawling treachery; for all was done with sliding; and yet I was so out of training for being charged by other people beyond mine own conscience, that Carver Doone's harsh words came on me, like prickly spinach sown with raking. Therefore I replied, and said,—
'It is true that I owe you gratitude, sir, for a certain time of forbearance; and it is to prove my gratitude that I am come here now. I do not think that my evil deeds can be set against your own; although I cannot speak flowingly upon my good deeds as you can. I took your Queen because you starved her, having stolen her long before, and killed her mother and brother. This is not for me to dwell upon now; any more than I would say much about your murdering of my father. But how the balance hangs between us, God knows better than thou or I, thou low miscreant, Carver Doone.'
I had worked myself up, as I always do, in the manner of heavy men; growing hot like an ill-washered wheel revolving, though I start with a cool axle; and I felt ashamed of myself for heat, and ready to ask pardon. But Carver Doone regarded me with a noble and fearless grandeur.
'I have given thee thy choice, John Ridd,' he said in a lofty manner, which made me drop away under him; 'I always wish to do my best with the worst people who come near me. And of all I have ever met with thou art the very worst, Sir John, and the most dishonest.'
Now after all my labouring to pay every man to a penny, and to allow the women over, when among the couch-grass (which is a sad thing for their gowns), to be charged like this, I say, so amazed me that I stood, with my legs quite open, and ready for an earthquake. And the scornful way in which he said 'Sir John,' went to my very heart, reminding me of my littleness. But seeing no use in bandying words, nay, rather the chance of mischief, I did my best to look calmly at him, and to say with a quiet voice, 'Farewell, Carver Doone, this time, our day of reckoning is nigh.'
'Thou fool, it is come,' he cried, leaping aside into the niche of rock by the doorway; 'Fire!'
Save for the quickness of spring, and readiness, learned in many a wrestling bout, that knavish trick must have ended me; but scarce was the word 'fire!' out of his mouth ere I was out of fire, by a single bound behind the rocky pillar of the opening. In this jump I was so brisk, at impulse of the love of life (for I saw the muzzles set upon me from the darkness of the cavern), that the men who had trained their guns upon me with goodwill and daintiness, could not check their fingers crooked upon the heavy triggers; and the volley sang with a roar behind it, down the avenue of crags.
With one thing and another, and most of all the treachery of this dastard scheme, I was so amazed that I turned and ran, at the very top of my speed, away from these vile fellows; and luckily for me, they had not another charge to send after me. And thus by good fortune, I escaped; but with a bitter heart, and mind at their treacherous usage.
Without any further hesitation; I agreed to take command of the honest men who were burning to punish, ay and destroy, those outlaws, as now beyond all bearing. One condition, however, I made, namely, that the Counsellor should be spared if possible; not because he was less a villain than any of the others, but that he seemed less violent; and above all, had been good to Annie. And I found hard work to make them listen to my wish upon this point; for of all the Doones, Sir Counsellor had made himself most hated, by his love of law and reason.
We arranged that all our men should come and fall into order with pike and musket, over against our dung-hill, and we settled early in the day, that their wives might come and look at them. For most of these men had good wives; quite different from sweethearts, such as the militia had; women indeed who could hold to a man, and see to him, and bury him—if his luck were evil—and perhaps have no one afterwards. And all these women pressed their rights upon their precious husbands, and brought so many children with them, and made such a fuss, and hugging, and racing after little legs, that our farm-yard might be taken for an out-door school for babies rather than a review ground.
I myself was to and fro among the children continually; for if I love anything in the world, foremost I love children. They warm, and yet they cool our hearts, as we think of what we were, and what in young clothes we hoped to be; and how many things have come across. And to see our motives moving in the little things that know not what their aim or object is, must almost or ought at least, to lead us home, and soften us. For either end of life is home; both source and issue being God.
Nevertheless, I must confess that the children were a plague sometimes. They never could have enough of me—being a hundred to one, you might say—but I had more than enough of them; and yet was not contented. For they had so many ways of talking, and of tugging at my hair, and of sitting upon my neck (not even two with their legs alike), and they forced me to jump so vehemently, seeming to court the peril of my coming down neck and crop with them, and urging me still to go faster, however fast I might go with them; I assure you that they were sometimes so hard and tyrannical over me, that I might almost as well have been among the very Doones themselves.
Nevertheless, the way in which the children made me useful proved also of some use to me; for their mothers were so pleased by the exertions of the 'great Gee-gee'—as all the small ones entitled me—that they gave me unlimited power and authority over their husbands; moreover, they did their utmost among their relatives round about, to fetch recruits for our little band. And by such means, several of the yeomanry from Barnstaple, and from Tiverton, were added to our number; and inasmuch as these were armed with heavy swords, and short carabines, their appearance was truly formidable.
Tom Faggus also joined us heartily, being now quite healed of his wound, except at times when the wind was easterly. He was made second in command to me; and I would gladly have had him first, as more fertile in expedients; but he declined such rank on the plea that I knew most of the seat of war; besides that I might be held in some measure to draw authority from the King. Also Uncle Ben came over to help us with his advice and presence, as well as with a band of stout warehousemen, whom he brought from Dulverton. For he had never forgiven the old outrage put upon him; and though it had been to his interest to keep quiet during the last attack, under Commander Stickles—for the sake of his secret gold mine—yet now he was in a position to give full vent to his feelings. For he and his partners when fully-assured of the value of their diggings, had obtained from the Crown a licence to adventure in search of minerals, by payment of a heavy fine and a yearly royalty. Therefore they had now no longer any cause for secrecy, neither for dread of the outlaws; having so added to their force as to be a match for them. And although Uncle Ben was not the man to keep his miners idle an hour more than might be helped, he promised that when we had fixed the moment for an assault on the valley, a score of them should come to aid us, headed by Simon Carfax, and armed with the guns which they always kept for the protection of their gold.
Now whether it were Uncle Ben, or whether it were Tom Faggus or even my own self—for all three of us claimed the sole honour—is more than I think fair to settle without allowing them a voice. But at any rate, a clever thing was devised among us; and perhaps it would be the fairest thing to say that this bright stratagem (worthy of the great Duke himself) was contributed, little by little, among the entire three of us, all having pipes, and schnapps-and-water, in the chimney-corner. However, the world, which always judges according to reputation, vowed that so fine a stroke of war could only come from a highwayman; and so Tom Faggus got all the honour, at less perhaps than a third of the cost.
Not to attempt to rob him of it—for robbers, more than any other, contend for rights of property—let me try to describe this grand artifice. It was known that the Doones were fond of money, as well as strong drink, and other things; and more especially fond of gold, when they could get it pure and fine. Therefore it was agreed that in this way we should tempt them; for we knew that they looked with ridicule upon our rustic preparations; after repulsing King's troopers, and the militia of two counties, was it likely that they should yield their fortress to a set of ploughboys? We, for our part, felt of course, the power of this reasoning, and that where regular troops had failed, half-armed countrymen must fail, except by superior judgment and harmony of action. Though perhaps the militia would have sufficed, if they had only fought against the foe, instead of against each other. From these things we took warning; having failed through over-confidence, was it not possible now to make the enemy fail through the selfsame cause?
Hence, what we devised was this; to delude from home a part of the robbers, and fall by surprise on the other part. We caused it to be spread abroad that a large heap of gold was now collected at the mine of the Wizard's Slough. And when this rumour must have reached them, through women who came to and fro, as some entirely faithful to them were allowed to do, we sent Captain Simon Carfax, the father of little Gwenny, to demand an interview with the Counsellor, by night, and as it were secretly. Then he was to set forth a list of imaginary grievances against the owners of the mine; and to offer partly through resentment, partly through the hope of gain, to betray into their hands, upon the Friday night, by far the greatest weight of gold as yet sent up for refining. He was to have one quarter part, and they to take the residue. But inasmuch as the convoy across the moors, under his command, would be strong, and strongly armed, the Doones must be sure to send not less than a score of men, if possible. He himself, at a place agreed upon, and fit for an ambuscade, would call a halt, and contrive in the darkness to pour a little water into the priming of his company's guns.
It cost us some trouble and a great deal of money to bring the sturdy Cornishman into this deceitful part; and perhaps he never would have consented but for his obligation to me, and the wrongs (as he said) of his daughter. However, as he was the man for the task, both from his coolness and courage, and being known to have charge of the mine, I pressed him, until he undertook to tell all the lies we required. And right well he did it too, having once made up his mind to it; and perceiving that his own interests called for the total destruction of the robbers.
- Not our parson Bowden, nor any more a friend of his. Our Parson Bowden never had naught whatever to do with it; and never smoked a pipe with Parson Powell after it.—J.R.