Lorna Doone/Chapter 71
Having resolved on a night-assault (as our undisciplined men, three-fourths of whom had never been shot at, could not fairly be expected to march up to visible musket-mouths), we cared not much about drilling our forces, only to teach them to hold a musket, so far as we could supply that weapon to those with the cleverest eyes; and to give them familiarity with the noise it made in exploding. And we fixed upon Friday night for our venture, because the moon would be at the full; and our powder was coming from Dulverton on the Friday afternoon.
Uncle Reuben did not mean to expose himself to shooting, his time of life for risk of life being now well over and the residue too valuable. But his counsels, and his influence, and above all his warehousemen, well practised in beating carpets, were of true service to us. His miners also did great wonders, having a grudge against the Doones; as indeed who had not for thirty miles round their valley?
It was settled that the yeomen, having good horses under them, should give account (with the miners' help) of as many Doones as might be despatched to plunder the pretended gold. And as soon as we knew that this party of robbers, be it more or less, was out of hearing from the valley, we were to fall to, ostensibly at the Doone-gate (which was impregnable now), but in reality upon their rear, by means of my old water-slide. For I had chosen twenty young fellows, partly miners, and partly warehousemen, and sheep farmers, and some of other vocations, but all to be relied upon for spirit and power of climbing. And with proper tools to aid us, and myself to lead the way, I felt no doubt whatever but that we could all attain the crest where first I had met with Lorna.
Upon the whole, I rejoiced that Lorna was not present now. It must have been irksome to her feelings to have all her kindred and old associates (much as she kept aloof from them) put to death without ceremony, or else putting all of us to death. For all of us were resolved this time to have no more shilly-shallying; but to go through with a nasty business, in the style of honest Englishmen, when the question comes to 'Your life or mine.'
There was hardly a man among us who had not suffered bitterly from the miscreants now before us. One had lost his wife perhaps, another had lost a daughter—according to their ages, another had lost his favourite cow; in a word, there was scarcely any one who had not to complain of a hayrick; and what surprised me then, not now, was that the men least injured made the greatest push concerning it. But be the wrong too great to speak of, or too small to swear about, from poor Kit Badcock to rich Master Huckaback, there was not one but went heart and soul for stamping out these firebrands.
The moon was lifting well above the shoulder of the uplands, when we, the chosen band, set forth, having the short cut along the valleys to foot of the Bagworthy water; and therefore having allowed the rest an hour, to fetch round the moors and hills; we were not to begin our climb until we heard a musket fired from the heights on the left-hand side, where John Fry himself was stationed, upon his own and his wife's request; so as to keep out of action. And that was the place where I had been used to sit, and to watch for Lorna. And John Fry was to fire his gun, with a ball of wool inside it, so soon as he heard the hurly-burly at the Doone-gate beginning; which we, by reason of waterfall, could not hear, down in the meadows there.
We waited a very long time, with the moon marching up heaven steadfastly, and the white fog trembling in chords and columns, like a silver harp of the meadows. And then the moon drew up the fogs, and scarfed herself in white with them; and so being proud, gleamed upon the water, like a bride at her looking-glass; and yet there was no sound of either John Fry, or his blunderbuss.
I began to think that the worthy John, being out of all danger, and having brought a counterpane (according to his wife's directions, because one of the children had a cold), must veritably have gone to sleep; leaving other people to kill, or be killed, as might be the will of God; so that he were comfortable. But herein I did wrong to John, and am ready to acknowledge it; for suddenly the most awful noise that anything short of thunder could make, came down among the rocks, and went and hung upon the corners.
'The signal, my lads,' I cried, leaping up and rubbing my eyes; for even now, while condemning John unjustly, I was giving him right to be hard upon me. 'Now hold on by the rope, and lay your quarter-staffs across, my lads; and keep your guns pointing to heaven, lest haply we shoot one another.'
'Us shan't never shutt one anoother, wi' our goons at that mark, I reckon,' said an oldish chap, but as tough as leather, and esteemed a wit for his dryness.
'You come next to me, old Ike; you be enough to dry up the waters; now, remember, all lean well forward. If any man throws his weight back, down he goes; and perhaps he may never get up again; and most likely he will shoot himself.'
I was still more afraid of their shooting me; for my chief alarm in this steep ascent was neither of the water nor of the rocks, but of the loaded guns we bore. If any man slipped, off might go his gun, and however good his meaning, I being first was most likely to take far more than I fain would apprehend.
For this cause, I had debated with Uncle Ben and with Cousin Tom as to the expediency of our climbing with guns unloaded. But they, not being in the way themselves, assured me that there was nothing to fear, except through uncommon clumsiness; and that as for charging our guns at the top, even veteran troops could scarcely be trusted to perform it properly in the hurry, and the darkness, and the noise of fighting before them.
However, thank God, though a gun went off, no one was any the worse for it, neither did the Doones notice it, in the thick of the firing in front of them. For the orders to those of the sham attack, conducted by Tom Faggus, were to make the greatest possible noise, without exposure of themselves; until we, in the rear, had fallen to; which John Fry was again to give the signal of.
Therefore we, of the chosen band, stole up the meadow quietly, keeping in the blots of shade, and hollow of the watercourse. And the earliest notice the Counsellor had, or any one else, of our presence, was the blazing of the log-wood house, where lived that villain Carver. It was my especial privilege to set this house on fire; upon which I had insisted, exclusively and conclusively. No other hand but mine should lay a brand, or strike steel on flint for it; I had made all preparations carefully for a goodly blaze. And I must confess that I rubbed my hands, with a strong delight and comfort, when I saw the home of that man, who had fired so many houses, having its turn of smoke, and blaze, and of crackling fury.
We took good care, however, to burn no innocent women or children in that most righteous destruction. For we brought them all out beforehand; some were glad, and some were sorry; according to their dispositions. For Carver had ten or a dozen wives; and perhaps that had something to do with his taking the loss of Lorna so easily. One child I noticed, as I saved him; a fair and handsome little fellow, whom (if Carver Doone could love anything on earth beside his wretched self) he did love. The boy climbed on my back and rode; and much as I hated his father, it was not in my heart to say or do a thing to vex him.
Leaving these poor injured people to behold their burning home, we drew aside, by my directions, into the covert beneath the cliff. But not before we had laid our brands to three other houses, after calling the women forth, and bidding them go for their husbands, and to come and fight a hundred of us. In the smoke and rush, and fire, they believed that we were a hundred; and away they ran, in consternation, to the battle at the Doone-gate.
'All Doone-town is on fire, on fire!' we heard them shrieking as they went; 'a hundred soldiers are burning it, with a dreadful great man at the head of them!'
Presently, just as I expected, back came the warriors of the Doones; leaving but two or three at the gate, and burning with wrath to crush under foot the presumptuous clowns in their valley. Just then the waxing fire leaped above the red crest of the cliffs, and danced on the pillars of the forest, and lapped like a tide on the stones of the slope. All the valley flowed with light, and the limpid waters reddened, and the fair young women shone, and the naked children glistened.
But the finest sight of all was to see those haughty men striding down the causeway darkly, reckless of their end, but resolute to have two lives for every one. A finer dozen of young men could not have been found in the world perhaps, nor a braver, nor a viler one.
Seeing how few there were of them, I was very loath to fire, although I covered the leader, who appeared to be dashing Charley; for they were at easy distance now, brightly shone by the fire-light, yet ignorant where to look for us. I thought that we might take them prisoners—though what good that could be God knows, as they must have been hanged thereafter—anyhow I was loath to shoot, or to give the word to my followers.
But my followers waited for no word; they saw a fair shot at the men they abhorred, the men who had robbed them of home or of love, and the chance was too much for their charity. At a signal from old Ikey, who levelled his own gun first, a dozen muskets were discharged, and half of the Doones dropped lifeless, like so many logs of firewood, or chopping-blocks rolled over.
Although I had seen a great battle before, and a hundred times the carnage, this appeared to me to be horrible; and I was at first inclined to fall upon our men for behaving so. But one instant showed me that they were right; for while the valley was filled with howling, and with shrieks of women, and the beams of the blazing houses fell, and hissed in the bubbling river; all the rest of the Doones leaped at us, like so many demons. They fired wildly, not seeing us well among the hazel bushes; and then they clubbed their muskets, or drew their swords, as might be; and furiously drove at us.
For a moment, although we were twice their number, we fell back before their valorous fame, and the power of their onset. For my part, admiring their courage greatly, and counting it slur upon manliness that two should be down upon one so, I withheld my hand awhile; for I cared to meet none but Carver; and he was not among them. The whirl and hurry of this fight, and the hard blows raining down—for now all guns were empty—took away my power of seeing, or reasoning upon anything. Yet one thing I saw, which dwelled long with me; and that was Christopher Badcock spending his life to get Charley's.
How he had found out, none may tell; both being dead so long ago; but, at any rate, he had found out that Charley was the man who had robbed him of his wife and honour. It was Carver Doone who took her away, but Charleworth Doone was beside him; and, according to cast of dice, she fell to Charley's share. All this Kit Badcock (who was mad, according to our measures) had discovered, and treasured up; and now was his revenge-time.
He had come into the conflict without a weapon of any kind; only begging me to let him be in the very thick of it. For him, he said, life was no matter, after the loss of his wife and child; but death was matter to him, and he meant to make the most of it. Such a face I never saw, and never hope to see again, as when poor Kit Badcock spied Charley coming towards us.
We had thought this man a patient fool, a philosopher of a little sort, or one who could feel nothing. And his quiet manner of going about, and the gentleness of his answers (when some brutes asked him where his wife was, and whether his baby had been well-trussed), these had misled us to think that the man would turn the mild cheek to everything. But I, in the loneliness of our barn, had listened, and had wept with him.
Therefore was I not surprised, so much as all the rest of us, when, in the foremost of red light, Kit went up to Charleworth Doone, as if to some inheritance; and took his seisin of right upon him, being himself a powerful man; and begged a word aside with him. What they said aside, I know not; all I know is that without weapon, each man killed the other. And Margery Badcock came, and wept, and hung upon her poor husband; and died, that summer, of heart-disease.
Now for these and other things (whereof I could tell a thousand) was the reckoning come that night; and not a line we missed of it; soon as our bad blood was up. I like not to tell of slaughter, though it might be of wolves and tigers; and that was a night of fire and slaughter, and of very long-harboured revenge. Enough that ere the daylight broke upon that wan March morning, the only Doones still left alive were the Counsellor and Carver. And of all the dwellings of the Doones (inhabited with luxury, and luscious taste, and licentiousness) not even one was left, but all made potash in the river.
This may seem a violent and unholy revenge upon them. And I (who led the heart of it) have in these my latter years doubted how I shall be judged, not of men—for God only knows the errors of man's judgments—but by that great God Himself, the front of whose forehead is mercy.