Things at this time so befell me, that I cannot tell one half; but am like a boy who has left his lesson (to the master's very footfall) unready, except with false excuses. And as this makes no good work, so I lament upon my lingering, in the times when I might have got through a good page, but went astray after trifles. However, every man must do according to his intellect; and looking at the easy manner of my constitution, I think that most men will regard me with pity and goodwill for trying, more than with contempt and wrath for having tried unworthily. Even as in the wrestling ring, whatever man did his best, and made an honest conflict, I always laid him down with softness, easing off his dusty fall.
But the thing which next betided me was not a fall of any sort; but rather a most glorious rise to the summit of all fortune. For in good truth it was no less than the return of Lorna—my Lorna, my own darling; in wonderful health and spirits, and as glad as a bird to get back again. It would have done any one good for a twelve-month to behold her face and doings, and her beaming eyes and smile (not to mention blushes also at my salutation), when this Queen of every heart ran about our rooms again. She did love this, and she must see that, and where was our old friend the cat? All the house was full of brightness, as if the sun had come over the hill, and Lorna were his mirror.
My mother sat in an ancient chair, and wiped her cheeks, and looked at her; and even Lizzie's eyes must dance to the freshness and joy of her beauty. As for me, you might call me mad; for I ran out and flung my best hat on the barn, and kissed mother Fry, till she made at me with the sugar-nippers.
What a quantity of things Lorna had to tell us! And yet how often we stopped her mouth—at least mother, I mean, and Lizzie—and she quite as often would stop her own, running up in her joy to some one of us! And then there arose the eating business—which people now call 'refreshment,' in these dandyfied days of our language—for how was it possible that our Lorna could have come all that way, and to her own Exmoor, without being terribly hungry?
'Oh, I do love it all so much,' said Lorna, now for the fiftieth time, and not meaning only the victuals: 'the scent of the gorse on the moors drove me wild, and the primroses under the hedges. I am sure I was meant for a farmer's—I mean for a farm-house life, dear Lizzie'—for Lizzie was looking saucily—'just as you were meant for a soldier's bride, and for writing despatches of victory. And now, since you will not ask me, dear mother, in the excellence of your manners, and even John has not the impudence, in spite of all his coat of arms—I must tell you a thing, which I vowed to keep until tomorrow morning; but my resolution fails me. I am my own mistress—what think you of that, mother? I am my own mistress!'
'Then you shall not be so long,' cried I; for mother seemed not to understand her, and sought about for her glasses: 'darling, you shall be mistress of me; and I will be your master.'
'A frank announcement of your intent, and beyond doubt a true one; but surely unusual at this stage, and a little premature, John. However, what must be, must be.' And with tears springing out of smiles, she fell on my breast, and cried a bit.
When I came to smoke a pipe over it (after the rest were gone to bed), I could hardly believe in my good luck. For here was I, without any merit, except of bodily power, and the absence of any falsehood (which surely is no commendation), so placed that the noblest man in England might envy me, and be vexed with me. For the noblest lady in all the land, and the purest, and the sweetest—hung upon my heart, as if there was none to equal it.
I dwelled upon this matter, long and very severely, while I smoked a new tobacco, brought by my own Lorna for me, and next to herself most delicious; and as the smoke curled away, I thought, 'Surely this is too fine to last, for a man who never deserved it.'
Seeing no way out of this, I resolved to place my faith in God; and so went to bed and dreamed of it. And having no presence of mind to pray for anything, under the circumstances, I thought it best to fall asleep, and trust myself to the future. Yet ere I fell asleep the roof above me swarmed with angels, having Lorna under it.
In the morning Lorna was ready to tell her story, and we to hearken; and she wore a dress of most simple stuff; and yet perfectly wonderful, by means of the shape and her figure. Lizzie was wild with jealousy, as might be expected (though never would Annie have been so, but have praised it, and craved for the pattern), and mother not understanding it, looked forth, to be taught about it. For it was strange to note that lately my dear mother had lost her quickness, and was never quite brisk, unless the question were about myself. She had seen a great deal of trouble; and grief begins to close on people, as their power of life declines. We said that she was hard of hearing; but my opinion was, that seeing me inclined for marriage made her think of my father, and so perhaps a little too much, to dwell on the courting of thirty years agone. Anyhow, she was the very best of mothers; and would smile and command herself; and be (or try to believe herself) as happy as could be, in the doings of the younger folk, and her own skill in detecting them. Yet, with the wisdom of age, renouncing any opinion upon the matter; since none could see the end of it.
But Lorna in her bright young beauty, and her knowledge of my heart, was not to be checked by any thoughts of haply coming evil. In the morning she was up, even sooner than I was, and through all the corners of the hens, remembering every one of them. I caught her and saluted her with such warmth (being now none to look at us), that she vowed she would never come out again; and yet she came the next morning.
These things ought not to be chronicled. Yet I am of such nature, that finding many parts of life adverse to our wishes, I must now and then draw pleasure from the blessed portions. And what portion can be more blessed than with youth, and health, and strength, to be loved by a virtuous maid, and to love her with all one's heart? Neither was my pride diminished, when I found what she had done, only from her love of me.
Earl Brandir's ancient steward, in whose charge she had travelled, with a proper escort, looked upon her as a lovely maniac; and the mixture of pity and admiration wherewith he regarded her, was a strange thing to observe; especially after he had seen our simple house and manners. On the other hand, Lorna considered him a worthy but foolish old gentleman; to whom true happiness meant no more than money and high position.
These two last she had been ready to abandon wholly, and had in part escaped from them, as the enemies of her happiness. And she took advantage of the times, in a truly clever manner. For that happened to be a time—as indeed all times hitherto (so far as my knowledge extends), have, somehow, or other, happened to be—when everybody was only too glad to take money for doing anything. And the greatest money-taker in the kingdom (next to the King and Queen, of course, who had due pre-eminence, and had taught the maids of honour) was generally acknowledged to be the Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys.
Upon his return from the bloody assizes, with triumph and great glory, after hanging every man who was too poor to help it, he pleased his Gracious Majesty so purely with the description of their delightful agonies, that the King exclaimed, 'This man alone is worthy to be at the head of the law.' Accordingly in his hand was placed the Great Seal of England.
So it came to pass that Lorna's destiny hung upon Lord Jeffreys; for at this time Earl Brandir died, being taken with gout in the heart, soon after I left London. Lorna was very sorry for him; but as he had never been able to hear one tone of her sweet silvery voice, it is not to be supposed that she wept without consolation. She grieved for him as we ought to grieve for any good man going; and yet with a comforting sense of the benefit which the blessed exchange must bring to him.
Now the Lady Lorna Dugal appeared to Lord Chancellor Jeffreys so exceeding wealthy a ward that the lock would pay for turning. Therefore he came, of his own accord, to visit her, and to treat with her; having heard (for the man was as big a gossip as never cared for anybody, yet loved to know all about everybody) that this wealthy and beautiful maiden would not listen to any young lord, having pledged her faith to the plain John Ridd.
Thereupon, our Lorna managed so to hold out golden hopes to the Lord High Chancellor, that he, being not more than three parts drunk, saw his way to a heap of money. And there and then (for he was not the man to dally long about anything) upon surety of a certain round sum—the amount of which I will not mention, because of his kindness towards me—he gave to his fair ward permission, under sign and seal, to marry that loyal knight, John Ridd; upon condition only that the King's consent should be obtained.
His Majesty, well-disposed towards me for my previous service, and regarding me as a good Catholic, being moved moreover by the Queen, who desired to please Lorna, consented, without much hesitation, upon the understanding that Lorna, when she became of full age, and the mistress of her property (which was still under guardianship), should pay a heavy fine to the Crown, and devote a fixed portion of her estate to the promotion of the holy Catholic faith, in a manner to be dictated by the King himself. Inasmuch, however, as King James was driven out of his kingdom before this arrangement could take effect, and another king succeeded, who desired not the promotion of the Catholic religion, neither hankered after subsidies, whether French or English), that agreement was pronounced invalid, improper, and contemptible. However, there was no getting back the money once paid to Lord Chancellor Jeffreys.
But what thought we of money at this present moment; or of position, or anything else, except indeed one another? Lorna told me, with the sweetest smile, that if I were minded to take her at all, I must take her without anything; inasmuch as she meant, upon coming of age, to make over the residue of her estates to the next-of-kin, as being unfit for a farmer's wife. And I replied with the greatest warmth and a readiness to worship her, that this was exactly what I longed for, but had never dared to propose it. But dear mother looked most exceeding grave; and said that to be sure her opinion could not be expected to count for much, but she really hoped that in three years' time we should both he a little wiser, and have more regard for our interests, and perhaps those of others by that time; and Master Snowe having daughters only, and nobody coming to marry them, if anything happened to the good old man—and who could tell in three years' time what might happen to all or any of us?—why perhaps his farm would be for sale, and perhaps Lady Lorna's estates in Scotland would fetch enough money to buy it, and so throw the two farms into one, and save all the trouble about the brook, as my poor father had longed to do many and many a time, but not having a title could not do all quite as he wanted. And then if we young people grew tired of the old mother, as seemed only too likely, and was according to nature, why we could send her over there, and Lizzie to keep her company.
When mother had finished, and wiped her eyes, Lorna, who had been blushing rosily at some portions of this great speech, flung her fair arms around mother's neck, and kissed her very heartily, and scolded her (as she well deserved) for her want of confidence in us. My mother replied that if anybody could deserve her John, it was Lorna; but that she could not hold with the rashness of giving up money so easily; while her next-of-kin would be John himself, and who could tell what others, by the time she was one-and-twenty?
Hereupon, I felt that after all my mother had common sense on her side; for if Master Snowe's farm should be for sale, it would be far more to the purpose than my coat of arms, to get it; for there was a different pasture there, just suited for change of diet to our sheep as well as large cattle. And beside this, even with all Annie's skill (and of course yet more now she was gone), their butter would always command in the market from one to three farthings a pound more than we could get for ours. And few things vexed us more than this. Whereas, if we got possession of the farm, we might, without breach of the market-laws, or any harm done to any one (the price being but a prejudice), sell all our butter as Snowe butter, and do good to all our customers.
Thinking thus, yet remembering that Farmer Nicholas might hold out for another score of years—as I heartily hoped he might—or that one, if not all, of his comely daughters might marry a good young farmer (or farmers, if the case were so)—or that, even without that, the farm might never be put up for sale; I begged my Lorna to do as she liked; or rather to wait and think of it; for as yet she could do nothing.