The Scouring of the White Horse
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The Committee then marched off, leaving a very large crowd round the stage, all eager for the play to begin.
The two umpires got up on to the stage, and walked round, calling out, “Two old gamesters at backsword, and two old gamesters at wrastlin’, wanted to put to.” But I suppose the chairman’s speech had rather taken the men by surprise, for no one came forward, though there was a crowd twenty deep round the stage.
“Who are the old gamesters?” I asked of the man next me.
“Them as has won or shared a first prize at any revel,” answered he, without looking round.
After a minute the chairman’s brother, who didn’t seem to have much scruple about these sports, jumped up on the stage, and blew an old French hunting-horn, till the young ones began to laugh; and then told the men not to be afraid to come up, for if they didn’t begin at once there wouldn’t be light to play out the ties.
At last there was a stir amongst the knot of Somersetshire men, who stood together at one corner of the stage; and one of them, stepping up, pitched on to it his stumpy black hat, and then climbed up after it himself, spoke a word to the umpires, and began handling the sticks, to choose one which balanced to his mind, while the umpires proclaimed, “An old gamester wanted, to play with John Bunn of Wedmore.”
“There he stands, you see,” said Master George, who was close by me, though I hadn’t seen him before, “the only remaining representative of the old challenger at tourneys ready to meet all comers. He ought to have a herald to spout out his challenge in verse. Why not?”
“I don’t know what he could say more than the umpire has, Sir,” said I.
“He might blow his own trumpet at any rate,” said he; “somehow thus;” and he repeated, after a false start or two, —
THE ZONG OF THE ZUMMERZETSHIRE OWLD GEAMSTER
John Bunn looked by no means a safe man to play with.He stood about five feet eleven, with spare long muscular limbs, a sallow complexion, and thick shock head of black hair, – a good defence in itself against any common blow of a stick. But now that the ice was broken, his challenge was soon answered; and George Gregory, of Stratton, one of the best mowers in the Vale, appeared to uphold the honour of Berks and Wilts. He stood half a head shorter than his opponent, but was, probably, the stronger man of the two, and had a sturdy and confident look, which promised well, and was fair-haired, and, like David, ruddy to look upon.
While they were taking off coats and waistcoats, and choosing sticks, two wrestlers got up on the stage, and showed the shoes in which they were going to wrestle to the umpires, for approval; and stood at the ropes, ready to begin as soon as the first bout at backsword was over. The crowd drew a long breath, while Bunn and Gregory came forward, shook hands; and then throwing up their guards, met in the middle of the stage.
At the first rattle of the sticks, the crowd began cheering again, and pressed in closer to the stage; and I with them, for it was very exciting, that I felt at once. The coolness and resolution in the faces of the two men, as they struck and parried with those heavy sticks, trying all the points of each other’s play in a dozen rapid exchanges; the skill and power which every turn of the wrist showed; and the absolute indifference with which they treated any chance blow which fell on arm or shoulder, made it really a grand sight; and with all my prejudices I couldn’t help greatly admiring the players. “Bout,” cried Bunn, after a minute or so, and down came their guards, and they walked to the side of the stage to collect coppers from the crowd below in the baskets of their sticks, while the two first wrestlers put to in the middle.
I suppose there are more unsettled points in wrestling, or it is harder to see whether the men are playing fair, for the crowd was much more excited now than at the backsword play, a hundred voices shouting to the umpires every moment to stop this or that practice. Besides, the kicking, which is allowed at elbow and collar wrestling, makes it look brutal very often; and so I didn’t like it so much as the backsword play, though the men were fine, good-tempered fellows, and, when most excited, only seemed to want what they called “fair doos.”
I stopped by the stage until Gregory had lost his head. How it happened I couldn’t see, but suddenly the umpires cried out “Blood!” The men stopped; Gregory put up his hand to his hair, found that the blood was really coming, and then dropped his stick and got down, quite as much surprised as I was. And two more old gamesters were called up, the first head being to Somersetshire.
But now I heard that the cart-horse race was just coming off, and so following the crowd, made my way across to the east of the Castle.
I scrambled up to the highest part of the bank, and so got a capital view of the scene below. The course was marked out all the way down to the starting-post by rows of little pink and white flags, and the Committee-men were riding slowly up and down, trying to get the people to keep back behind the flags. The line was, on the whole, pretty well kept; but as the crowd got thicker every minute, every now and then a woman with two or three children would wander out to escape the pressure from behind; or a young couple keeping company would run across, hoping to better their position; or a lot of uproarious boys would start out for a lark, to try the tempers, and very possibly the whips, of the Committee.
Joe presently rode by the place where I was standing, and called out to me to come down and see the mounting. So I slipped out of the crowd, and ran down the back of the line to the starting-place. There I found the Squire and the umpires, passing the men and horses. Five or six were all ready; the great horses in their thill harness, which jingled and rattled with every movement; and the carters perched up in the middle of the wood and leather and brass, in their white smock-frocks, with the brims of their break-of-days turned up in front, and a bunch of ribbons fluttering from the side, and armed with the regular long cart-whip. Just as I came up, Mr. Avery Whitfield’s bay horse, “King of the Isle,” was passed, and took his place with the others. He was one of the three favourites, I heard people say.
“Call the next horse.”
“Mr. Davenport’s gray mare, Dairymaid,” shouts the umpire. Here she comes with old Joe Humphries, the jockey and horse breaker, on her back. He is in full jockey costume – cap, jacket, and tops, with a racing whip and spurs. The umpires look doubtfully at him, and consult the Squire. At first they seem inclined not to let Joe ride at all, but as the owners of the other horses don’t object, they only insist on his taking off his spurs and changing his whip for a common long carter’s whip. Then Dairymaid is passed, and then one other horse; eight in all. Two of the Committee gallop down in front to clear the course for the last time; the word “Off” is given; and away go the great steeds in furious plunging gallop, making the whole hill shake beneath them, and looking (as I heard one of the Oxford scholars remark) like a charge of German knights in some old etching. Close after them came the umpires, the Committee-men, and all the mounted farmers, cheering and shouting pieces of advice to the riders; and the crowd, as they pass, shout and wave their hats, and then rush after the horses. How everybody isn’t killed, and how those men can sit those great beasts in the middle of that rattling mass of harness, were my puzzles, as I scrambled along after the rest.
Meantime, in the race, Dairymaid shoots at once some yards ahead, and improves her lead at every stride; for she is a famous mare, and old Joe Humphries understands the tricks of the course, and can push her and lift her in ways unknown to the honest carters and foggers, who come lumbering behind him – Joe even has time for a contemptuous glance over his shoulder at his pursuers. But the race is not always to the swift, at least not to those who are swiftest at starting. Half-way up the course, Dairymaid ceases to gain; then she shows signs of distress, and scarcely answers to Joe’s persuasions. “King of the Isle” is creeping up to her – the carter shakes his bridle, and begins to ply his long cart-whip – they are crossing the Ridgeway, where stand the carter’s fellow-servants, Mr. Whitfield’s fogger, shepherd, ploughboys, &c. who set up a shout as he passes, which sends the bay right up abreast of the mare. No wonder they are excited, for the master has promised that the three guineas, the price of the new thill harness, shall be divided between them, if the bay wins.
In another fifty yards he is drawing ahead. All old Joe’s efforts are in vain; his jockeyship has only done him harm, whereas the carter’s knowledge of what his steed’s real powers are, has been the making of him, and he rides in, brandishing his long cart-whip, an easy winner.
Dairymaid is second, but only just before the ruck; and old Joe creeps away, let us hope, a humbler and a wiser man.
Of course I couldn’t see all this myself, because I was behind, but Joe told me all about the race directly afterwards. When I got up there was a great crowd round “King of the Isle,” from whose back the carter was explaining something about the race. But I couldn’t stay to listen, for I heard that the races for the “prime coated Berkshire fives” (as they called the cheeses), were just coming off; so I hurried away to the brow of the hill, just above the Horse, where it is steepest; for I wanted of all things to see how men could run down this place, which I couldn’t get up without using both hands.
There stood Mr. William Whitfield, of Uffington, the umpire who had to start the race, in his broad-brimmed beaver, his brown coat and waistcoat with brass buttons, and drab breeches and gaiters. I thought him a model yeoman to look at, but I didn’t envy him his task. Two wild-looking gypsy women, with their elf-locks streaming from under their red handkerchiefs, and their black eyes flashing, were rushing about amongst the runners, trying to catch some of their relations who were going to run; and screaming out that their men should never break their limbs down that break-neck place. The gypsies dodged about, and kept out of their reach, and the farmer remonstrated, but the wild women still persevered. Then, losing all patience, he would turn and poise the wheel, ready to push it over the brow, when a shout from the bystanders warns him to pause, and, a little way down the hill, just in the line of the race, appear two or three giggling lasses, hauled along by their sweethearts, and bent on getting a very good view. Luckily at this moment the Chairman appeared, and rode his white horse down to the front of the line of men, where there seemed to me to be footing for nothing but a goat. Then the course was cleared for a moment, he moved out of the line, making a signal to the farmer, who pushed the wheel at once over the brow, and cried, “Off.” The wheel gained the road in three bounds, cleared it in a fourth monster bound which measured forty yards, and hurried down far away to the bottom of the manger, where the other two umpires were waiting to decide who is the winner of the race.
Away go the fourteen men in hot pursuit, gypsies, shepherds, and light-heeled fellows of all sorts, helter-skelter; some losing their foothold at once, and rolling or slipping down; some still keeping their footing, but tottering at every step; one or two, with their bodies well thrown back, striking their heels firmly into the turf, and keeping a good balance. They are all in the road together, but here several fall on their faces, and others give in; the rest cross it in a moment, and are away down the manger. Here the sheep-walks, which run temptingly along the sides of the manger, but if they would look forward will take the runners very little nearer the bottom where the wheel lies, mislead many; and amongst the rest, the fleetest of the gypsies, who makes off at full speed along one of them. Two or three men go still boldly down the steep descent, falling and picking themselves up again; and Jonathan Legg, of Childrey, is the first of these. He has now gained the flat ground at the bottom, where after a short stagger he brings himself up, and makes straight for the umpires and the wheel. The gypsy now sees his error; and turning short down the hill, comes into the flat, running some twenty yards behind Jonathan. In another hundred yards he would pass him, for he gains at every stride; but it is too late; and we, at the top of the hill, cheer loudly when we see Jonathan, the man who had gone straight all the way, touch the wheel a clear ten yards before his more active rival.
I should have liked to have seen the boys’ races down the manger, but was afraid of missing some other sport, so I left farmer Whitfield at his troublesome post, shouting out the names of the boys and trying to get them into line, and went back into the Castle, where I found a crowd round the greased pole; and when I got up to it, saw a heavy-looking fellow, standing some five feet up the pole, with one foot in a noose of cord depending from a large gimlet, and the other leg hooked round the pole. He held in his right hand another large gimlet, which he was preparing to screw into the pole to support a second noose, and gazed stolidly down at a Committee-man, who was objecting “that this wasn’t fair climbing – that if gimlets and nooses were to be allowed, he could get up himself.” I thought he was right; but public feeling seemed to side with the climber; so the Committee-man gave in, declaring that there would be no more legs of mutton to climb for, if any thing but arms and legs were to be used.
“Rather a slow bit of sport this,” I said to an old gray-headed man, who was leaning on his stick at my side, and staring up at the performer.
“Ees, Zur,” answered he, “I dwon’t knaow but what it be.”
“Do you call it fair climbing, now?”
“Auh, bless’ee, not I. I minds seein’ the young chaps when I wur a buoy, climin’ maypowls a deal higher nor that, dree at a time. But now-a-days ’um be lazy, and afraid o’ spwiling their breeches wi’ the grase.”
“Are there any maypoles about here now?”
“Never a one as I knows on, Zur, for twenty mile round. The last as I remembers wur the Longcott one, and Parson Watts of Uffington had he sawed up nigh forty year ago, for fear lest there should ha’ been some murder done about ’un.”
“Murder about a maypole! Why, how was that?”
“Auh! you see, Zur, this here Longcott maypowl wur the last in all these parts, and a wur the envy of a zight o’ villages round about. Zo, one cluttery3434
“On handspikes! Why, how big was he, then?”
“Augh! a fyeightish sized ’un. How big? whoy a sight bigger, bless’ee, nor that ’un, and all the bottom half on ’un solid oak. When thay cum to put ’un up afore the bar winder of the Crown’d, a reached right up auver the tops o’ the housen. But zoon arter a wur put up, the Uffington chaps cum up, and tuk and carried ’un down ther’. Ther’ was a smartish row or two about ’un at Uffington arter that, but they watched ’un night and day; and when the Lambourn chaps cum arter ’un one night, they chucked scaldin’ water right auver’m. Zo then Parson Watts, he tuk and sawed ’un up, and guv ’un to the owld women at Christmas for virewood.”
I walked away from the pole, turning over in my mind whether Parson Watts was right or wrong in his summary method of restoring peace to his parish, and, somehow or other, found myself again close under the stage. Now, and throughout the day, I found no flagging there; whenever I passed there was the crowd of men standing round, and the old and young gamesters hard at work. So I began to believe what Joe had said, that the countrymen thought more about these games than any thing else, and wouldn’t care to go to the pastime if they were stopped.
I found that the Ashbury men were carrying it all their own way in the wrestling, and that their champion, old Richens (the rat-catcher, an old gamester in his fiftieth year), would probably not even have to wrestle at all; for his own men were throwing all the gamesters of the other parishes, and of course would give up to him when it came to the last ties. The men all wrestle in sides, at least the old gamesters do; so that a man generally plays for his parish, and not for his own head, which is a better thing, I think.
As to the backsword play, the stage was strewed with splinters of sticks and pieces of broken baskets, and many a young gamester has had his first broken head in public. But, for the chief prize, matters are going hard with Berks and Wilts. The Somersetshire old gamesters have won two heads to one; and, as they have six men in, and Berks and Wilts only four, the odds are all in favour of the cider county, and against the beer drinkers.
In good time up gets an old gamester, who looks like the man to do credit to the royal county. It is Harry Seeley, of Shrivenham, the only Berkshire man in; for there has been some difference between Berks and Wilts, and Harry’s two mates haven’t entered at all. So he, being one of the true bull-dog breed, is in for his own head, against all odds, and is up to play the next Somersetshire man.
Harry is a fine specimen of an Englishman. Five feet eight high, with a bullet head, and light blue eye; high-couraged, cool, and with an absolutely imperturbable temper. He plays in a blue shirt, thin from age and wear, through which you may see the play of his splendid arms and chest. His opponent is a much younger man, about the same size; but a great contrast to Harry, for he has a savage and sly look about him.
They shake hands, throw themselves into position, and the bout begins. Harry is clearly the finer player, and his adversary feels this at once; and the shouts of anticipated victory, in the Berkshire tongue, rouse his temper.
Now comes a turn of the savage play, which ought never to be seen on a stage. The Somerset man bends far back, and strikes upper cuts at the face and arms, and then savagely at the body. He is trying to maim and cow, and not to win by fair brave play. The crowd soon begin to get savage too; upper-cutting is not thought fair in Berks and Wilts; a storm begins to brew, hard words are bandied, and a cry of “Foul,” and “Pull him down,” is heard more than once, and the Committee man, who watches from below, is on the point of stopping the bout.
But nothing puts out old Harry Seeley; no upper cut can reach his face, for his head is thrown well back, and his guard is like a rock; and though the old blue shirt is cut through and through, he makes no more of the welts of the heavy stick than if it were a cat’s tail. Between the bouts his face is cheery and confident, and he tells his friends to “hold their noise, and let him alone to tackle the chap,” as he hands round his basket for the abounding coppers.
Now I could see well enough why the parsons don’t like these games. It gave me a turn, to watch the faces round the stage getting savage, and I could see what it might soon get to if there was much of this wild work. And there were Master George, and the two Oxford scholars, at the opposite corner of the stage, shouting till they were hoarse for old Seeley, and as savage and wicked-looking as any of the men round them; setting such a bad example, too, as I thought, – whereas it didn’t matter for a fellow like me, who was nobody, – so I shouted, and threw my coppers to old Seeley, and felt as wild as any of them, I do believe. Three bouts, four bouts pass; Harry’s stick gets in oftener and oftener. Has the fellow no blood in him? There it comes at last! In the fifth bout, Harry’s stick goes flashing in again, a fair down blow from the wrist, which puts the matter beyond all question, as the Somersetshire man staggers back across the stage, the blood streaming from under his hair. Loud are the shouts which greet the fine-tempered old gamester, as he pulls on his velveteen coat, and gets down from the stage.
“Why, Harry, thou’dst broke his yead second bout, mun, surely!” shout his admirers.
“No,” says Harry, dogmatically, “you see, mates, there’s no ’cumulation of blood belongs to thay cider-drinking chaps, as there does to we as drinks beer. Besides, thay drinks vinegar allus for a week afore playin’, which dries up most o’ the blood as they has got; so it takes a ’mazin’ sight of cloutin’ to break their yeads as should be.”
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