The Scouring of the White Horse
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“And what did he say of it?”
“Well, he said that five out of the first six verses were very old indeed. He had heard them often when he was a child, and always the same words. The rest was all patch-work, he said, by different hands, and he hardly knew which were the old lines, and which new.”
“I say,” remarked the short scholar, “the Doctor don’t seem to be a bad hand at making the smoke-poison.”
The Doctor blew out a long white cloud, and was about to reply, when a brawny young carter, at a distant table, took his pipe from his lips, and, in answer to the urgings of his neighbours, trolled out the following little piece of sentiment: —
“Oh, I say, that beats all!” said the short scholar, with a shout of laughter. “I must have the words somehow. Let’s see, how did he begin? something about Cubit. What a rum notion to call Cupid, Cubit. What was it, Doctor?”
“You shouldn’t laugh, really, Sir, at our west-country sentiment,” said the Doctor, with astounding gravity. “I don’t think I can conscientiously help you to the words, when I know you’ll only be making fun of them at some wine-party. They are meant for malt drinkers, not for wine drinkers.”
“Fudge, Doctor. Come, now, give us the words, or I shall have to go over and ask the performer for them.”
“I think I can give you them,” said I, looking up from my note-book.
“What a thing it is to write shorthand!” said the Doctor, glancing at my hieroglyphics; “we don’t learn that sort of thing down in these parts.”
“I wonder we haven’t had more sentimental songs,” said the long scholar; “I suppose there are plenty of love-stories going about?”
“Oh yes, plenty,” said the Doctor; “mostly ballads telling how rich young heiresses disdained all good matches, for the sake of a sailor boy with tarry trousers, or a seductive fogger, thereby provoking their cruel match-making parents. For instance: —
“What on earth can ‘increasing nature’s prospects’ mean?” asked the long scholar.
“How can I tell?” said the Doctor, laughing; “I don’t pretend to construe; I only give you the words.But you must allow the moral to be good. It runs: —
“Let’s see,” said the short scholar, “we’ve had specimens of patriotic, legendary, and sentimental ditties; but how about drinking songs? All tuneful nations, since the world began, have sung the praises of good liquor.”
“I don’t know that we have many drinking songs,” said the Doctor; “I suppose it takes wine, or spirits at any rate, to make a man write such stuff as ‘the glasses sparkle,’ or ‘a bumper of Burgundy.’ The bucolic muse only gets smallish beer. But we must see what we can do for you.” So the Doctor beckoned to Peter, and sent him off to the lower tables with a pot of beer, the speedy result of which mission was the following song: —
TOVEY’S TAP. – Air, “Derry down.”
“A good cast, Doctor;” said the long scholar; “but you’ve raised the wrong fish. That isn’t what my friend here meant by a drinking song. He expects a bucolic rendering of one of Moore’s songs, and you serve him out a queer pot-house tale. Is there no enthusiasm for good drink amongst you?”
“I wish there were less,” said the Doctor, with a sigh; “at any rate, less consumption of bad drink. Tippling is our great curse, as it is that of all England; but there’s less of it than there used to be. But for a drinking song such as you mean, I’m at fault. The nearest approach to it that I know of is a song of which I only remember two lines. They run —
“But even here you see, though the poet was meditating on drink, it was in a practical rather than an enthusiastic spirit.”
Just then, a stout old yeoman entered the booth, dressed in a broad straight-cut brown coat with metal buttons, drab breeches, and mahogany tops; and, marching up to the bar, ordered a glass of brandy and water; while his drink was being prepared, he stood with his back to our table, talking to the landlord.
“We’re in luck,” said the Doctor in a low voice, pointing to the new-comer with the end of his pipe; “if he stays, we shall have the best old song in all the west country, sung as it should be.”
“Who is he?” asked the short scholar.
“An old Gloucestershire farmer from Sutherup way, famous for his breed of sheep. He must be near seventy, and has twelve miles to ride home to-night, and won’t think so much of it as you or I would.”
“He looks a tough old blade.”
“You may say that. But he isn’t the man he was, for he has lived pretty hard. He used to be a famous wrestler; and one day, many years ago, an Ilsley dealer came down to buy his flock of two-year olds. They drank six bottles of port over the deal, and got it all straight out except the odd sheep, but they couldn’t make out, cipher it how they would, who the odd sheep belonged to; so they agreed to wrestle for the odd sheep in the farmer’s kitchen, and somehow both of them got hurt, and the old boy has never gone quite right since.”
“What an old sponge! six bottles of port between two of them! no wonder they couldn’t do their sum.”
“Ah, we mustn’t judge of the men of his time by our rules,” said the Doctor; “it was part of a yeoman’s creed in those days to send his friends off drunk, and to be carried to bed himself by his fogger and carter, or else to sleep under his kitchen-table. They lived hard enough, and misused a deal of good liquor meant to strengthen man’s heart, following the example of their betters; but they had their good points. That old man, now, is the best master in all his neighbourhood; and he and the parson keep up the wages in the winter, and never let a man go to the house who will work.”
The old farmer turned round, glass in hand, and came and sat down at the table. “Your sarvant, gen’l’men,” said be, taking off his broad-brimmed beaver. “Why, Doctor,” he went on, recognizing our friend, and holding out his great bony hand, “be main glad to zee ’ee.”
“Thank you, farmer,” said the Doctor, returning the grip; “we haven’t met this long while; I’m glad to see you wearing so well.”
“Yes, I be pretty-feteish, thank God,” said the farmer. “Your health, sir, and gen’l’men.”
After a little judicious talk on the day’s sport, the Doctor suddenly began, “Now, farmer, you must do us a favour, and give us your famous old Gloucestershire song. I’ve been telling all our friends here about it, and they’re keen to hear it.”
“’Spose you means Gaarge Ridler?” said the farmer.
“Of course,” said the Doctor.
“Well, I don’t know as I’ve zung these score o’ months,” said the farmer, “but hows’mever, if you wants it, here goes.” So the farmer finished his brandy and water, cleared his throat, balanced himself on the hind legs of his chair, cast up his eyes and began —
“What’s he saying – what language?” whispered the tall scholar.
“Mad old party,” murmured the short scholar.
“Hush,” whispered the Doctor; “that’s the orthodox way to begin; don’t put him out.”
I couldn’t tell what in the world to write, but the farmer went on with growing emphasis —
There was a moment’s pause, during which the Doctor had much difficulty in keeping order; then the farmer got fairly under weigh, and went on —
Just as the farmer was finishing the song, Master George, with Joe and one or two more behind him, came in. He took up the last verse, and rolled it out as he came up towards our table, and a lot of the rest joined in with him; even the over-worked Peter, I could see stopping for a moment to shout that he would be buried under the tap; I dare say he meant it, only I think he would like it to be always running.
Master George knew most of the people, and made us all merrier even than we were before; and in the next half-hour or so, for which time we stayed in the booth, I should think there must have been a dozen more songs sung. However, I shall only give the one which seemed to be the greatest favourite, for I find that this chapter is running very long. This song was sung by a queer little man, with a twisted face, and a lurcher dog between his knees, who I believe was an earth stopper. He called it
“Well, I must be moving,” said the Doctor at last, looking at his watch; “how do you get home, Mr. Hurst?”
“Bless us! near nine o’clock,” said Joe, following the Doctor’s example; “oh, I ride myself, and my friend here talks of going behind.”
“Better not ride double, the night’s dark,” said the Doctor, hoisting on his overcoat with Peter’s help. “If he likes to take his luck in my gig, I can put him down at your gate. What do you say, Sir?”
I thankfully accepted; for I didn’t at all like the notion of riding behind Joe on the chestnut, and I can’t think how I could ever have been such a fool as to say I would do it. The Doctor had two bright lamps to his gig, which gave us glimpses of the closed booths and camping places of the people who were going to stay on the hill all night, as we drove out of the Castle. I suggested that it must be very bad for the people sleeping out up there.
“For their health?” said he, “not a bit of it, on a fine night like this – do ’em good; I wish they always slept so healthily.”
“I didn’t quite mean that, Sir!”
“Oh, for their morals? Well, I don’t know that there’s much harm done. I’m sorry to say they’re used to crowding – and, after all, very few but the owners of the booths, and the regular tramps, stay up here. Didn’t you see how quiet every thing was?”
I said I had noticed this; and then he began asking me about the sports, for he had only got on to the hill late in the afternoon; and when we came to the wrestling and backsword play, I asked him whether he thought they did any harm.
“No,” said he, “there are very few serious accidents – in fact none – now that drink is not allowed on the stage. There used to be some very brutal play in out-of-the-way places, where the revels were got up by publicans. But that is all over, at least about this part of the country.”
“Then you wouldn’t stop them, Sir?”
“Stop them! not I – I would encourage them, and make the parish clerk and constable perpetual umpires.” And then he went on to say how he should like to see the young fellows in every parish drilled in a company, and taught all sorts of manly exercises, and shooting especially; so that they would make good light troops at a day’s notice, in case of invasion. But he was afraid the great game preservers would never allow this. And in the middle of his talk, which seemed very sensible, we came to Joe’s gate, and I got down, and wished him good night.
I found the family gone to bed, and only Joe and the Parson in the kitchen, and there, over a last pipe, we chatted about the sports.
At last the Parson turned to me, and said, “You saw a good deal of the play on the stage; now, would you stop it if you could?”
I thought a minute over what I had seen, and what the Doctor had said.
“No, Sir,” said I, “I can’t say that I would.”
“That’s candid,” said he. “And now I’ll make an admission. There’s a good deal of the play that wants very close watching. The umpires should be resolute, quick men, and stand no nonsense. I saw one or two bouts to-day that should have been stopped.”
“You see,” said Joe, taking his pipe out of his mouth, “there allus must be.”
“We don’t admit your evidence, Joseph,” interrupted the Parson, “you are a prejudiced witness.”
“But you haven’t changed your mind, Sir,” said I.
“No,” said he, “I should be sorry to hear that these sports had died out, but I should like to hear that people took an interest in them who could manage the men thoroughly.”
“The Doctor,” said I, “as we drove home, said he would have the parish clerk and constable for perpetual umpires.”
“They wouldn’t be so good as the parson or the squire,” said he; “if I were rector of one of the parishes where they are still kept up, I would give prizes for them, but I would always be umpire myself.”
“I wish to goodness you was then,” said Joe, as we lighted our candles.
“You remember, Sir,” said I, “that you promised to write a sermon about the pastime.”
“What! after the fair?” said he.
“’Twill do just as well,” said Joe, “I should mortally like to hear it.”
“Well, it might keep you awake perhaps. He has an hereditary weakness for slumber in church, you must know,” said the Parson, turning to me; “when we wanted to alter the sittings in the church six or seven years ago, his father stood out for his old high box so sturdily, that I took some pains to argue with him, and to find out what it was which made it so dear to him. I found out at last that it was a snug corner, which just fitted his shoulders, where nobody could see him, and where, as soon as the text was given out, in his own words, “I just watches my missus wipe her spectacles, and fix herself to listen, and then I vaulds my arms and thenks o’ nothin’.”
I looked at Joe to see how he would take it, but he only chuckled, and said, “Well, ’tis the parson’s business to keep us awake. But a sermon on our sports, just showing folk about the rights on it, is just what I should amazingly like to have by me.”
The Parson looked at Joe for a moment very curiously, and then said, “Very well, I will write you one. Good night.”
And so we went off to bed.
Miss Lucy couldn’t be spared to go up to the hill on the second day of the pastime, for there was some great operation going on in the cheese room, which she had to overlook. So Mr. Warton drove me up in the four-wheel. I was very anxious to find out, if I could, whether there was any thing more between him and Miss Lucy than friendship, but it wasn’t at all an easy matter. First I began speaking of the young gentleman who had taken my place in the four-wheel; for I thought that would be a touchstone, and that if he were like me he would be glad to get a chance of abusing this Jack. But he only called him a forward boy, and said he was a cousin of the Hursts, who lived in the next parish. Then I spoke of Miss Lucy herself, and he was quite ready to talk about her as much as I liked, and seemed never tired of praising her. She was a thoroughly good specimen of an English yeoman’s daughter; perfectly natural, and therefore perfectly well bred; not above making good puddings and preserves, and proud of the name her brother’s cheeses had won in the market, yet not negligent of other matters, such as the schools, and her garden; never going into follies of dress in imitation of weak women who ought to set better examples, yet having a proper appreciation of her own good looks, and a thorough knowledge of the colours and shapes which suited her best; not particularly clever or well read, but with an open mind and a sound judgment – and so he went on; and the longer he went on the more I was puzzled, and my belief is, that on this subject the Parson got much more out of me than I out of him, on that morning’s drive.
We had a very pleasant day on the hill, but as the sports were all the same as those of the day before (with the exception of jumping in sacks, which was substituted for climbing the pole, and was very good fun), I shall not give any further account of them; especially as the gentlemen who are going to publish my story seem to think already that I am rather too long-winded.
We got down home in capital time for tea, and Joe followed very soon afterwards, in the highest spirits; for, as he said, every thing had gone off so well, and everybody was pleased and satisfied; so we were all very merry, and had another charming evening. I couldn’t tell what had come to me when I got up stairs alone by myself, for I seemed as if a new life were growing up in me, and I were getting all of a sudden into a much bigger world, full of all sorts of work and pleasure, which I had never dreamt of, and of people whom I could get to love and honour, though I might never see or speak to them.
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