Mutual Discomfiture

It must not be supposed that I was altogether so thick-headed as Jeremy would have made me out. But it is part of my character that I like other people to think me slow, and to labour hard to enlighten me, while all the time I can say to myself, ‘This man is shallower than I am; it is pleasant to see his shoals come up while he is sounding mine so!’ Not that I would so behave, God forbid, with anybody (be it man or woman) who in simple heart approached me, with no gauge of intellect. But when the upper hand is taken, upon the faith of one’s patience, by a man of even smaller wits (not that Jeremy was that, neither could he have lived to be thought so), why, it naturally happens, that we knuckle under, with an ounce of indignation.

Jeremy’s tale would have moved me greatly both with sorrow and anger, even without my guess at first, and now my firm belief, that the child of those unlucky parents was indeed my Lorna. And as I thought of the lady’s troubles, and her faith in Providence, and her cruel, childless death, and then imagined how my darling would be overcome to hear it, you may well believe that my quick replies to Jeremy Stickles’s banter were but as the flourish of a drum to cover the sounds of pain.

For when he described the heavy coach and the persons in and upon it, and the breaking down at Dulverton, and the place of their destination, as well as the time and the weather, and the season of the year, my heart began to burn within me, and my mind replaced the pictures, first of the foreign lady’s-maid by the pump caressing me, and then of the coach struggling up the hill, and the beautiful dame, and the fine little boy, with the white cockade in his hat; but most of all the little girl, dark-haired and very lovely, and having even in those days the rich soft look of Lorna.

But when he spoke of the necklace thrown over the head of the little maiden, and of her disappearance, before my eyes arose at once the flashing of the beacon-fire, the lonely moors embrowned with the light, the tramp of the outlaw cavalcade, and the helpless child head-downward, lying across the robber’s saddle-bow.

Then I remembered my own mad shout of boyish indignation, and marvelled at the strange long way by which the events of life come round. And while I thought of my own return, and childish attempt to hide myself from sorrow in the sawpit, and the agony of my mother’s tears, it did not fail to strike me as a thing of omen, that the selfsame day should be, both to my darling and myself, the blackest and most miserable of all youthful days.

The King’s Commissioner thought it wise, for some good reason of his own, to conceal from me, for the present, the name of the poor lady supposed to be Lorna’s mother; and knowing that I could easily now discover it, without him, I let that question abide awhile. Indeed I was half afraid to hear it, remembering that the nobler and the wealthier she proved to be, the smaller was my chance of winning such a wife for plain John Ridd. Not that she would give me up: that I never dreamed of. But that others would interfere; or indeed I myself might find it only honest to relinquish her. That last thought was a dreadful blow, and took my breath away from me.

Jeremy Stickles was quite decided—and of course the discovery being his, he had a right to be so—that not a word of all these things must be imparted to Lorna herself, or even to my mother, or any one whatever. ‘Keep it tight as wax, my lad,’ he cried, with a wink of great expression; ‘this belongs to me, mind; and the credit, ay, and the premium, and the right of discount, are altogether mine. It would have taken you fifty years to put two and two together so, as I did, like a clap of thunder. Ah, God has given some men brains; and others have good farms and money, and a certain skill in the lower beasts. Each must use his special talent. You work your farm: I work my brains. In the end, my lad, I shall beat you.’

‘Then, Jeremy, what a fool you must be, if you cudgel your brains to make money of this, to open the barn-door to me, and show me all your threshing.’

‘Not a whit, my son. Quite the opposite. Two men always thresh better than one. And here I have you bound to use your flail, one two, with mine, and yet in strictest honour bound not to bushel up, till I tell you.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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