The Scouring of the White Horse
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Joe beckoned me in, and I went round to the back of the table and looked on. As the men came up from the group round the door, when their names were called out, the umpires said a few words to each of them, and then gave them their prizes, and most of them made some sort of speech in answer; for they were much less shy than in the morning, I suppose from the sense of having earned their right to hold up their heads by winning. The owner of the successful donkey was just carrying out the flitch of bacon when I arrived; after him the Somersetshire backsword players were called in to take the first three prizes for that sport, they having beaten all the Wiltshire men; while old Seeley, the only Berkshire man entered, to everybody’s surprise had not played out his tie, but had given his head (as they said) to his second opponent. Therefore, although entitled to the last prize for having won his first bout, he had not done all his duty in the eyes of the umpires, who gently complained, while handing him over his four half-crowns, and wondered that so gallant an old gamester, and a Yale man, should not have played out his ties for the honour of the county.
“Well, gen’l’men,” said old Seeley, giving a hitch with his shoulders, “I’ll just tell you how it was. You see, ther wur six Somersetshire old gamesters come up to play, and ther wur six of our side to play ’em; dree Wiltshire and dree Barkshire, if so be as we could have made a party. But the dree from Wiltshire they wouldn’t go in along wi’ we, and turned their backs on me and my two mates; so my two mates wouldn’t go in at all, and wanted me to give out too. But you see, gen’l’men, I’d a spent a matter of a pound over getting myself a little better food, and making myself lissom; so thinks I, I must go up and have a bout, let it be how t’wool. And you saw, gen’l’men, as I played a good stick. When it cum’ to playing off the ties, there wur dree Somersetshire tiers, and two of our side, that’s Slade and me. But when a man turns his back on me, gen’l’men, why I turns my back on him; so I guv my head to young Mapstone, and left Slade to win if he could. Though I thinks, if thay Wiltshire chaps had behaved theirselves as thay should, we might ha’ had the prize, for I knows as I never played freer in my life. And I hopes, gen’l’men, as you don’t think I wur afeard of any man as ever got on that stage. Bless you!” said old Seeley, warming up, “I be that fond o’ thay sticks, I assure you, gen’l’men, I’d as lief meet a man as is a man for a bout wi’ thay sticks, as I would – a joint of roast beef.”
Old Seeley’s speech carried conviction, for there could be no mistake about the tone in which he drew his last comparison, after a moment’s pause to think of the thing he liked best, and he retired from the tent in high favour, as I think he deserved to be.
After watching these doings for some time, I began to feel very hungry, for I had eaten hardly any thing at tea, so I told Joe that he would find me over in the great booth getting some supper, and went out.It was getting quite dark, and the stage and poles looked black and melancholy as I passed by them. But the publicans’ booths were all lighted up inside, and looked very cheerful, and were full of holiday folk, fortifying themselves with all sorts of meat and drink before starting for the descent of the hill, and the walk home in the dark.
I pushed my way through the crowd round the door, and reached the bar, where the landlord recognized me directly, and handed me over to Peter, who soon landed me at the table in the recess, which was still well supplied with cold joints and bread and cheese. While he went off to get my plate and ale, I had time to look round. The booth was much gayer than the day before; every post was decked more or less with flowers and evergreens, and the flags had been brought inside. The whole place was lighted with dips and flickering oil lamps, which gave light enough to let one see all parts of the tent pretty clearly.
There were a good many tables ranged about; the one nearest to ours wasn’t yet occupied, but at all the others were groups of men drinking beer, and some smoking, and talking eagerly over the events of the day. Those nearest the high table seemed under some little restraint, and spoke low; but from the farther tables rose a loud hum of the broadest Berkshire, and an occasional scrap of a song. A few women were scattered here and there – mostly middle-aged, hard-working housewives – watching their good men, and anxious to carry them off in good time, and before too much of the harvest-savings had found its way to the landlord’s till. About the entrance was a continually-changing crowd, and the atmosphere of the whole was somewhat close, and redolent of not very fragrant tobacco.
At the supper-table where I was, were seven or eight men. The one just opposite me was a strong-built, middle-aged man, in a pepper-and-salt riding-coat and waistcoat, with an open, weather-beaten face, and keen, deep-set, gray eyes, who seemed bent on making a good supper. Next above him were the two Oxford scholars, but they didn’t take the least notice of me, which I thought they might have done, after our morning’s ride together. They had finished supper, and were smoking cigars, and chatting with one another, and with the pepper-and-salt man, whom they called Doctor. But my observations were soon cut short by Peter, who came back with my plate and knife and fork, and a foaming pewter of ale, and I set to work as heartily as the Doctor himself.
“You’ll find some of this lettuce and watercress eat well with your beef, Sir,” said he, pushing across a dish.
“Thank you, Sir,” said I; “I find that watching the games makes one very hungry.”
“The air, Sir, all the downs air,” said the Doctor; “I call them Doctor Downs. Do more for the appetite in six hours than I can in a week. Here, Peter, get this gentleman some of your mistress’s walnut pickles.”
And then the good-natured Doctor fell to upon his beef again, and chatted away with the scholars and me, and soon made me feel myself quite at home. I own that I had done my neighbours a little injustice; for they were pleasant enough when the ice was once broken, and I daresay didn’t mean to be rude after all.
As soon as I had finished my supper, the shorter of the scholars handed me a large cigar, the first whiff of which gave me a high idea of the taste of my contemporaries of the upper classes in the matter of tobacco.
Just then the verse of a song, in which two or three men were joining, rose from the other end of the tent, from amidst the hum of voices.
“I wish those fellows would sing out,” said the short scholar; “I can’t make out more than a word or two.”
“You wouldn’t be any the wiser if you could,” said the other; “we have ceased to be a singing nation. The people have lost the good old ballads, and have got nothing in their place.”
“How do you know?” said the short scholar; “I should like to hear for myself, at any rate.”
“What sort of ballads do you mean, Sir?” said I to the long scholar.
“Why, those in the Robin Hood Garland, for instance,” said he. “Songs written for the people, about their heroes, and, I believe, by the people. There’s nothing of the sort now.”
“What do you say to ‘There’s a Good Time Coming’?” asked the short scholar.
“Well, it’s the best of them, I believe,” said the other; “but you know it was written by Mackay, an LL.D. Besides, it’s essentially a town song.”
“It’s a tip-top one, at any rate,” said the short scholar; “I wish I could write such another.”
“What I say, is, that the popular songs now are written by litterateurs in London, Is there any life or go in ‘Woodman spare that Tree,’ or ‘The Old Arm-Chair’? and they are better than the slip-slop sentimental stuff most in vogue.”
“What a discontented old bird you are!” said the short scholar; “you’re never pleased with any product of this enlightened century.”
“Let the century get a character, then; when it does, we shall get some good staves. I’m not particular; a brave story, or a quaint story, or a funny story, in good rough verse, that’s all I ask for. But, where to find one? Here’s the Doctor for umpire. I say, Doctor, don’t you agree with me, now?”
“Not quite,” said the Doctor, looking up from his cold beef. “I dare say you wouldn’t think them worth much; but there are plenty of ballads sung about which you never hear.”
“What! real modern ballads, written by some of the masses, in this century, for instance? Where did you ever hear one, Doctor? What are they like, now?”
“Well, my work takes me a good deal about in queer places, and at queer times, amongst the country folk, and I hear plenty of them. Will one about Lord Nelson suit you? There’s an old patient of mine at the next table who owns a little coal wharf on the canal; he fell into the lock one night, broke his arm, and was nearly drowned, and I attended him. He takes a trip in the barges now and then, which makes him fancy himself half a sailor. I dare say I can set him off, if he hasn’t had too much beer.”
So the Doctor walked over to a lower table, and spoke to a grisly-headed old man in a velveteen coat and waistcoat, and a blue birdseye-neckerchief, who seemed pleased, and drew his sleeve across his mouth, and cleared his throat. Then there was a rapping on the table, and the old bargee began in a rumbling bass voice: —
THE DEATH OF LORD NELSON
The short scholar was in raptures; he shouted in the chorus; he banged the table till he upset and broke his tumbler, which the vigilant landlady from behind the casks duly noted, and scored up to him.
I worked away at my note-book, and managed to get all the song, except one verse between the second and third, which I couldn’t catch.
“Bravo, Doctor! Here, waiter, get me another tumbler, and some more gin-punch. What a stunning call. Couldn’t the old bird give us another bit of history? It’s as good as reading ‘Southey’s Life,’ and much funnier,” rattled away the short scholar.
“What a quaint old grisly party it is!” said the long scholar; “I shall stand him a pot of beer.”
“Well, he won’t object to that,” said the Doctor, working away at the beef and pickles.
“Here, waiter, take a pot of beer, with my compliments, over to that gentleman,” said the long scholar, pointing to the old bargeman, “and say how much obliged we are to him for his song.”
So Peter trotted across with the liquor, and the old man telegraphed his acknowledgments.
“By the way, Doctor,” said the short scholar, “as you seem to know a good deal about these things, can you tell me what ‘Vicar of Bray’ means? I saw two men quarrelling just after the games, and it was all their wives could do to keep them from fighting, and I heard it was because one had called the other ‘Vicar of Bray.’”
“It means ‘turn-coat’ in Berkshire,” answered the Doctor. “I didn’t think they used the name now; but I remember the time when it was the common term of reproach. I dare say you know Bray, gentlemen?”
“I should think so,” said the short scholar; “pretty village just below Maidenhead. I pulled by it on my way to town last June.”
“Yes, and it’s hard on such a pretty village to have had such a bad parson,” said the Doctor.
“I say, Doctor, give us the ‘Vicar of Bray,’ now, it will set off some of the singing birds at the other end of the booth; I can see they’re getting into prime piping order.”
“Very good, if you like it,” said the Doctor, pushing away his plate, and taking a finishing pull at his pewter, “only the song is in print, I know, somewhere; so you mustn’t think you’ve found much of a prize, Sir,” added he to me, for my use of pencil and note-book hadn’t escaped him.
“No, Sir,” said I; “but I should like to hear it, of all things.”
So the Doctor, without further preface, began in his jolly clear voice —
THE VICAR OF BRAY
The short scholar was right as to the effect of the Doctor’s song. It was hailed with rapturous applause by the lower tables, though you would have said, to look at them, that scarcely a man of the audience, except those close round the singer, could have appreciated it. People don’t always like best what they fully understand; and I don’t know which is the greatest mistake, to fancy yourself above your audience, or to try to come down to them. The little stiffness which the presence of strangers belonging to the broad-cloth classes had at first created amongst the pastime folk was wearing off, and several songs were started at once from the distant parts of the booth, all of which, save one, came to untimely ends in the course of the first verse or so, leaving the field clear to a ruddy-faced, smock-frocked man, who, with his eyes cast up to the tent-top, droned through his nose the following mournful ditty: —
THE BARKSHIRE TRAGEDY
“The Barkshire Tragedy, indeed! Now, Doctor, what have you to tell us about this? When did it happen? Who was the lady? Was she drowned in the Thames, the Kennet, or where?”
“Oh, I don’t know. All I can say is, she was drowned before my time; for I remember hearing the song when I was a little chap in petticoats. But the story seems a common one. There’s a north-country ballad founded on it, I know, but I don’t remember the name just now.”
“‘The Bonny Mill-dams of Binnorie,’ is not it?” said the long scholar.
“Aye, that’s the name, I think.”
“Well, it’s very odd, for we’ve got the same story, all but the miller, and his daughter as fair as any gilly-flower (why are millers’ daughters always pretty, by the way?), on the Welsh marshes,” said the long scholar.
“Then, Sir, I must call on you to sing it. The call is with me at our end of the booth,” said the Doctor. “And, Peter, bring me a little cold gin-and-water, and a pipe. If I must breathe smoke-poison, I may as well make it myself, at any rate.”
“Well, singing’s rather more than I bargained for. However, I suppose I mustn’t spoil sport; so here goes.”
THE DROWNED LADY
Qy. another version of the Barkshire Tragedy?
“Thank you, Sir,” said the Doctor; “that’s a queer tune though. I don’t know that I ever heard one at all like it. But I shouldn’t say all that song was old now.”
“Well, I believe you’re right. But I can say, as you said of the Barkshire Tragedy, it’s all older than my time, for I remember my father singing it just as I’ve sung it to you as long as I can remember any thing.”
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