The Scouring of the White Horse
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“To-morrow, didst thou say? methought I heard Horatio say to-morrow. Go to; it is a thing of naught,” and Jem clapped on his hat and began ranting in his way; so I broke in —
“I wish you’d hold that noise, and talk sense,” said I.
“Shakspeare!” said Jem, stopping short and pulling up his collar.
“Gammon!” said Neddy, bursting out laughing.
“That’s right, Neddy,” said I; “he’s always going off with some of his nonsense, and calling it poetry.”
“I didn’t say it was poetry, did I?” said Jem.
“What is it then?” said I.
“Blank verse,” said he.
“What’s the difference?” said I.
“Go up the mill-dam, fall down slam, dat poetry; go up the mill-dam, fall down whoppo’, dat plank verse,” said he. “Go along nigger – had him dere, nigger,” and he turned in his knees and grinned, like one of those poor beggars who black their faces and go about the streets with red striped trowsers, white ties, and banjos.
“You ought to be a nigger yourself, Jem,” said I, “and I should just like to have the driving of you. There, tumble out with you; it’s time for steady folks to turn in.”
So I turned them out and held the candle, while they floundered down stairs, that wretch, Jem, singing, “There’s some ’un in de house wid Dinah,” loud enough to be heard at the Foundling. I was glad to hear my landlady catch him at the bottom of the stairs, and give it him well about “a respectable house,” and “what she was used to with her gents,” while she opened the door; only I don’t see what right she had to give it me all over again next morning at breakfast, and call Jem Fisher a wild young man, and bad company, because that’s just what he isn’t, only a little noisy sometimes. And as if I’m not to have who I please up to my room without her interfering! I pay my rent regular every month, I know. However, I didn’t mind much what she said at breakfast time, because I had got a letter from the country. I don’t get a letter once a month, and it’s very odd this one should have come on this very morning, when I was puzzling where to go for my holiday; and I dare say you’ll think so too, when I tell you what it was about. Let’s see – here it is in my pocket, so you shall have it whole: —
I shouldn’t print Joe’s letter whole, (and as it is I’ve put a good deal of the spelling right,) only I’m quite sure he’ll never read this book, and I hope it may serve as a warning to young fellows to keep up their learning when they go and settle down in the country. For when Joe left the Commercial Academy at Brentford, he could write just as good English as I, and if he had put “many folks seems to think,” or “you’ve only got to write,” in a theme, old Hopkins would have given him a good caning. But nothing wears out learning so quick as living in the country and farming, and Joe came into his farm when he was nineteen, and has been at it ever since. And after all, perhaps, it doesn’t much signify, because nobody makes himself better understood than Joe, in one way or another; and if he wasn’t a little behindhand in his grammar, he wouldn’t think much of me perhaps – and one don’t mind being taken for a scholar, even by those who are not the best judges in the world.
Well, thinks I to myself, as I finished my breakfast, this seems like business. If I go down to Joe’s, and stay there all my holiday, the fares will be only seventeen shillings; and, say a pound for expenses down there; one pound seventeen shillings, say two pounds in all. I shall put three pounds into my pocket, and please an old friend, which will be much better than any thing Jem Fisher and little Neddy Baily will hit out for me in a week from the end of Bradshaw. Besides, it will look well to be able to talk of going to a friend in Berkshire. I’ll write to Joe, and say I’ll be with him in good time on the 15th.
So I went down to the office and told Jem Fisher and little Neddy, that I had made up my mind to go and see my old friend Joe, in Berkshire, before they had had time to get their office coats on.
“What? that jolly fellow with the brown face and red whiskers,” said Jem, “who came up and slept in your room last Christmas cattle-show, and wanted to fight the cabman for a gallon of beer, who charged him half-a-crown from Baker Street to Gray’s Inn Lane?”
“Yes,” said I, “that’s the man.”
“I remember him well,” said Neddy; “and I’m sure you’ll have a good time of it if you go to see him. But, I say, how about supper to-night? You won’t want us and the Bradshaws any more, eh?”
“Oh, he isn’t going to get out of it like that,” said Jem, as he settled to his desk, and got his work out. “I say, Dick, you’re not going to be off now, are you? I know better.”
“I never was on that I know of,” said I; “however, I don’t mind standing supper at the Cheshire Cheese; but I won’t have you fellows up in my room again to-night, kicking up a row on the stairs. No! just catch me at it!”
So I gave them a supper that night, and another the night after I came back from my holiday.
They seemed just the same, but how different I felt. Only two short weeks had passed, but I was as much changed as if it had been ten years. I had found something which I never could get rid of, day or night, and which kept me always in a fret and a struggle. What a life I led with it! Sometimes it cast me down and made me ready to hang myself; and then, again, it would lift me up, and seem to fill me with warmth and sunshine. But, somehow, even when I was at the worst, if an enchanter had come and offered to wipe it all out, and to put me back just where I was the night before my holiday, I should have said “No;” and at all other times I felt that it was the most precious part of my life. What was it? Ah, what was it? Some of you will smile, and some of you will sneer, when you find out, as you will (if you don’t skip) before you get to the end of my story. And I can’t see the least reason why I should help you to it a minute sooner.
Now I do pity all the lords and great gentle-folk with nothing in the world to do except to find out how to make things pleasant, and new places to go to, and new ways of spending their money; at least, I always pity them at the beginning of my holiday, though perhaps when one first comes back to eleven months’ hard grind in town the feeling isn’t quite so strong.
At any rate, I wouldn’t have changed places with the greatest lord in the land on Tuesday morning, September 15th. I was up as soon as it was light, and saw the sun rise over the Gray’s Inn Lane chimney-pots; and I declare they looked quite beautiful. I didn’t know at all before what a fine outline they make when the rays come flat along the roofs; and mean often to get up in time to see them by sunrise next summer; but just now it’s very cold of mornings, and I dare say they don’t look so well. When I put my head out of window it was quite clear and fresh, and I thought I could smell the country.
I hadn’t much to do, for I had packed my bag over night; but I went over all my things again, and changed the places of some of them in my old bureau, (which belonged to my father, who was clerk for forty years in one of the oldest houses in Clement’s Inn,) and locked up all the drawers; and then I set to work to lay breakfast for three, for I had asked my two friends to come and see me off, and they had made it all up with my landlady. So about six o’clock they came in, and we had a capital breakfast; and then we started off to walk up to the Paddington station, carrying my bag between us. I had settled to go by the 7.30 train, because if I hadn’t they couldn’t have come with me; besides, it is the first train which stops at Farringdon-road; and I was very glad when we got into the bustle of the station, for they were rather low, and I felt almost ashamed of being so jolly, though certainly they had had their holiday earlier in the year. But when I saw their faces out of the window of the second-class carriage, just as the starting-bell rang, I should like to have paid their fares out of my own pocket, if they could have gone with me.
However, by the time we got past Wormwood Scrubbs, (which looked so fresh and breezy with the gossamer lying all over it,) I could think of nothing else but the country and my holiday. How I did enjoy the pretty hill with the church at top and the stream at the bottom by Hanwell, and the great old trees about half a mile off on the right before you get to Slough, and the view of Windsor Castle, and crossing the Thames at Maidenhead, with its splendid weeping willows, and the old Bath-road bridge, and the reach beyond with the woods coming down to the bank, and the great lords’ houses up above. And then all the corn-fields, though by this time most of them were only stubble, and Reading town, and the great lasher at Pangbourn, where the water was rushing and dancing through in the sunlight to welcome me into Berkshire; and the great stretches of open land about Wallingford-road and Didcot. And after that came great green pasture-fields, and orchards, and gray-stone farm-houses, and before I could turn round we were at Farringdon-road station, and it was a quarter past eleven. As I got out and gave up my ticket, I couldn’t help thinking of the two lines Jem Fisher would go on saying when we went out walking in Combe Wood and Richmond Park one Sunday this last May —
I know he was laughing, and made them out of his own head, though he declared they were in Chaucer; but they are just as true for all that, whether Jem Fisher or Chaucer made them, though the English isn’t as good as the sense.
There I found Joe waiting for me, with his trap, as he called it, at the door, and the inn ostler standing by the head of the horse, which was a bright chestnut, and looked very fine. I own I very much enjoyed going off in that dark-green high-wheeled carriage.
“In with you, Dick,” cried out Joe, as he took hold of the reins, and patted the horse on the neck. “There, shoot your bag in behind; look alive, she don’t stand well. That’ll do,” he shouted to the ostler, who jumped back and touched his hat just as if Joe owned half the parish. If the horse couldn’t stand well, at any rate she could step out, and away we whirled down the white road; Joe red in the face with holding on, his feet well out to the splash-board, his chest thrown forward, and his elbows down at his side, hauling the chestnut’s head right back, till her nose nearly touched the collar. But for all that, away went her legs right straight out in front, shooting along so fast that I began to feel queer, not being used to horses, and took tight hold of the seat with my left hand, so that Joe shouldn’t see; for the cart jumped sometimes enough to pitch you out.
“Gently there, gently, my beauty,” said Joe, as the chestnut dropped into a little quieter pace. “There, now, ain’t she a pictur’?” said he to me; – “ever see a mare lay down to her work like that? Gently, my beauty! if it wasn’t for the blaze in her face, and the white feet, the Squir’d give me one hundred pounds for her to-morrow. And I won’t sell her under. It’s a mortal shame to drive her. Her mouth’s like a kitten’s.” How Joe could talk so, when he was pulling fit to burst himself at the reins, I don’t know; I thought once or twice where we should go to if one broke, but I didn’t say any thing. I found out afterwards that Joe meant a great white mark, when he talked of the blaze in her face. I suppose men can’t see any faults in their own horses, any more than they can in their children.
After a bit, the pace got quite steady, and then I began to enjoy myself, and could look at the famous rich fields, and the high hedges full of great heavy masses of clematis, and sniff up all the country smells, as we whirled along, and listen to Joe, who was going grinding on about, ‘how badly the parish roads were kept up; and that he had set his mind to have them well mended with flints instead of chalk, and to have all the thistles at the side kept down, which were sowing the whole country round, because their vestry was so stingy they wouldn’t put any men on the road to set it right,’ and I could see that Joe was in the middle of a good quarrel with all the other farmers about it.
When he had done his story, I asked him about the White Horse, and he pointed me out the highest of the hills which ran along on our left hand a mile or two away. There, sure enough, I saw the figure quite plain; but he didn’t know much about it. Only, he said, he had always heard tell that it was cut out by King Alfred the Great, who lived in those parts; and ‘there was a main sight of strange old things up there on the hill, besides the White Horse; and though he didn’t know much about how they got there, he was sort of proud of them, and was glad to pay his pound or two, or double that if it was wanted, to keep them as they should be;’ “for, you see,” said Joe, “we’ve lived about here, father and son, pretty nigh ever since King Alfred’s time, which I reckon is a smartish time ago, though I forget how long.” And though I think Joe, and parties in the counties generally, set too much store by such things, and hold their noses much higher than they’ve any need to do, because their families have never cared to move about, and push on in the world, and so they know where their great-grandfathers were born, I couldn’t help feeling there was something in it after all.
And the more I thought of this strange old White Horse, the more it took hold of me, and I resolved, if I could, while I was down in the country to learn all about it. I knew, you see, that if I could only get people to tell me about it, I should be able to carry it all away; because, besides having a very good memory, I can take down every thing that is said as fast as most people can speak it, and that’s what gives me such an advantage over Jem Fisher and Neddy, who spent all the time it took me to learn shorthand in reading poetry and other rubbish, which will never help to get them on in the world, or do them a bit of good that I can see.
Presently we came in sight of a house with farm buildings behind, which stood some way back from the road; and Joe pulled up opposite a gate which led into the field before the house.
“Here we are, then,” said he; “just jump out, and open the gate, Dick; I’d do it, only I can’t trust you with the ribbons.”
It was a beautiful great green pasture-field which we drove into, with a score of fat sleek cows feeding in it, or lying about chewing the cud; and Joe was very proud of them, and walked the chestnut along slowly while he pointed out his favourites to me, especially one short-horn, whose back he said was like a kitchen-table, though why she should be any the handsomer for that I can’t say. The house was an old brick building, with tall chimneys and latticed windows; in front of it was a nice little flower-garden, with a tall, clipped holly hedge running round it, so thick that you couldn’t see through; and beyond that, a kitchen garden and an orchard. Outside the enclosure stood four such elms as I never saw before, and a walnut-tree nearly as big as they, with queer great branches drooping close to the ground, on which some turkeys were sitting. There was only a little wicket-gate in the holly hedge, and a gravel footpath up to the front door, so we drove into the farm-yard at the back; and while Joe and his man took care of the chestnut, I had time to look about, and think what a snug berth Joe seemed to have fallen upon.
The yard must be sixty yards across, and was full of straw where the pigs were lying with nothing but their snouts out; lots of poultry were scratching and pecking about before the barn-doors, and pigeons were fluttering down amongst them, and then up again to the tops of the barns and stables, which ran all round the yard. The rick-yard, full of long stacks of hay, and round stacks of corn, was beyond. A terrier and spaniel were sleeping in sunny corners, and a grayhound was stalking about and looking at the pigs; and every thing looked sleepy and happy, and as if life went easily along at Elm Close Farm.
Presently Joe came out of the stable, carrying his whip, and took me into the house, calling into the kitchen as we passed to send in dinner directly. There was nobody in the parlour at first, but I saw that the table was laid for three; and, before I could look round at the prints and samples on the wall, Joe’s mother and the dinner came in. She was a good-looking old lady, dressed in black, with a very white lawn cap and collar, and was very kind and civil, but a little deaf. Joe bustled about, and got out I don’t know how many bottles of home-made wine, clary, and raisin, and ginger; all of which he made me drink, besides beer, for he said that no one in the vale had such receipts for wine as his mother. And what with the dairy-fed pork, and black puddings, and a chicken almost as big as a turkey, and the cheese-cakes and tarts afterwards, and the hearty welcome and good example which Joe gave me, I don’t remember when I have made so good a dinner.
The old lady went off directly after dinner, and I could see that Joe wanted to go and see after his men; so I told him not to mind me, for I should enjoy loitering about the place better than any thing. And so I did; first I went into the flower-garden, and watched and listened to the bees working away so busy in the mignonette, and the swallows darting up into their nests under the eaves, and then diving out again, and skimming away over the great pasture; and then round the kitchen-garden, and into the orchard, where the trees were all loaded with apples and pears, and so out into a stubble-field at the back, where there were a lot of young pigs feeding and playing queer tricks, and back through the farm-yard into the great pasture, where I lay down on the grass, under one of the elms, and lighted my pipe; and thought of our hot clerks’ room, and how Jem Fisher and little Neddy were working away there; and watched a flock of little shiny starlings hopping up on to the backs of some old south-down wethers who were feeding near me, and flying backwards and forwards into the old elms and walnut-trees, talking to one another all the while.
And so the time wore on, till a stout lass in a blue cotton print came out, and called the cows in to milking; and they all went trooping slowly by into the farm-yard, some of them just stopping to stare at me with their mild eyes, and smelling so sweet, that I hadn’t the heart to go on smoking, and let my pipe out. And after a bit, I followed into the line of sheds where they were being milked by the lass and a man, who balanced himself on two legs of the milking-stool, and drove his head into the cow’s side; and I thought I had never heard a sweeter sound than the tinkling sound which the milk made in the bright, tin pails.
I soon got into a talk with the lass, who was very pleasant and free spoken; and presently, when her pail was full, I lifted it out for her, all frothing up, and looking not a bit like our London sky-blue; and I told her I didn’t think I had ever tasted real new milk; so she got me a long straw, and while she went on milking, I went down on my knees, and began to suck away through the straw. But I had hardly begun, when I heard a noise behind, and looking round, there stood Joe, laughing all over; and by his side a young woman in a broad, straw hat and a gray jacket; and though, for good manners, she didn’t laugh out like Joe, I could see it was all she could do to keep from going off too.
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