The Scouring of the White Horse
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Why was I ashamed of being caught? I don’t know, but I was ashamed; and as I stuck there on my knees in the deep straw with the pail before me looking at them, the blood rushed up to my head and made my ears sing, so that I couldn’t hear a word that Joe said. But I could see he did say something, and then went off into another great roar of laughter; and the lass and the man left off milking and began laughing too, till I thought they would have dropped off the stools. Then the young woman who was with Joe said something to him, and I thought I heard the words “What a shame!” and “your oldest friend;” and then she caught up a straw, and came and knelt on the opposite side of the milk-pail, and began to suck away herself without looking at me. In another moment Joe plumped down too, clapping me on the back.
“I say,” said he, “start fair! Here, make room for me; you and Lucy ain’t going to have it all to yourselves,” and he began sucking away too; and then I recovered myself, and we all went on for a minute, when Joe took his straw out of his mouth, and said, “This is my sister Lucy, Dick; there, shake hands over the pail, and then let’s go in to tea.”
So she looked up, and blushed, and gave me her hand, her merry blue eyes twinkling with mirth, though she tried to keep grave. But I was all right now, and went off myself, and Joe followed, and then she, with the clearest, brightest laugh you ever heard; and then the man and the lass, and by the time we had done, I felt as if I had known them all for years. But as for Miss Lucy, as we walked away to the house to tea, I felt as if I could have given her my skin, if she would only have had a pair of shoes made out of it for her dear little feet.
The old lady was sitting at the tea-table in great force, with plates of buttered toast and cake, and pots of blackberry and red-currant jam, and the great loaf all set out ready; and after tea, we three walked out again till the sun set, and then came in to supper, at which I was surprised to find myself eating away just as if I had had nothing all day; country air does give one such an appetite. After supper, the old lady sat in her chair knitting and telling stories, till she nodded off and the spectacles fell on to the end of her nose, and her hands into her lap, but still holding the needles; and every now and then giving a catch with her head, and making belief to go on for a stitch or two. And Miss Lucy sat stitching at a patch-work coverlet, fitting in all sorts of scraps of silk in the prettiest patterns in the world, and we on the other side of the table watching her, and talking quite low not to disturb the old lady. But what made it so pleasant was, that I had pretty near all the talking, for they seemed never tired of hearing about London, and how people lived there, and what they thought; especially Miss Lucy, who had never been out of Berkshire in her life. I thought Joe a great fidget, when soon after nine he began to walk about and waked his mother, and got the servants in to prayers, and bustled them off to bed; but I believe it was all because he wanted to have his pipe, which he wouldn’t smoke in the parlour.So we went into the kitchen and finished the day there, under half a score of great brown sides of bacon, and tufts of sweet herbs which hung drying from the corners of the rack, and opposite to the dresser with its rows of pewter plates as bright as silver, till I went to bed in sheets smelling of lavender, and dreamt of Miss Lucy.
I dare say that, though I should never be tired of telling about every thing that happened to me at Elm Close, some people may get tired of reading about it. So I shall only begin my story of the next day after breakfast, when Joe had the trap out again, and carried me off to see what was doing up on White Horse Hill.
We had a very pleasant drive through the Vale to Uffington, which lies at the foot of the hill, and here Joe put up the trap, at the Swan, and we set off on foot to walk up. It was very hot, and the white road glared as we tramped along it, but very soon we came to broad strips of turf on each side, and then it was pleasant enough; so we plodded up a gentle rise called Sour Hill, and crossed the Iceldon or Iggleton way, which I’ve found out since was an old Roman road; and then the ascent became quite steep, and every thing was clear hill and down before us, not a fence to be seen, and a fresh breeze came sweeping over the hill.
The road now became very bad, with ruts in the chalk like water-courses. On our left hand there was a deep, narrow valley like a little bay running up into the hill, on the opposite side of which valley a large wood hung along the steepest part of the hill-side, which Joe informed me was Uffington wood, a well-known meet for the hounds; it made me giddy to look at the places which he declared the huntsman, and any one who wanted to be sure of a good place when the hounds broke cover, had to ride along.
And now the great, green hill seemed to be hanging right over us, as we came to a curious round mound on our right hand, up which Joe scrambled, and I after him, till we both pulled up out of breath on the flat top, some fifty yards across.
“This is Dragon’s Hill,” said Joe, pulling off his hat and mopping his face with his handkerchief, “where St. George killed the Dragon in the old times. Leastways so they says about here, only they calls him King George instead of Saint George. And this bare place is where his blood ran out, and nothing’ll grow on it since, not so much as a thistle.”
Of course I knew better than to believe that, but it is a beautiful place; for just below it another little deep valley, like the one on the left, only narrower and steeper at the sides, runs right up into the hill-side. The road we had left winds round the head of this gorge, for any one to drive along who isn’t particular about breaking his neck, for the hill is like a wall up above, and down below, with nothing but a little bank between you and the descent.
“Those are the giants’ seats opposite,” said Joe, pointing across the valley to a set of beautiful great green slopes, like huge ridges and furrows, which went sweeping down into the valley one after another as far as I could see; “and this is the Manger, this great hole in the hill-side, because it lies right under the old Horse’s nose. Come along, let’s get up to him; there he is, you see, right above us.”
So we scrambled down the side of Dragon’s Hill, crossed the road, and then started up a row of steps cut in the turf. I’m sure it must be twice as steep as the hill in Greenwich Park, and I don’t mind confessing that I shouldn’t have liked to look round just at first, and wouldn’t have minded giving myself a help with my hands if I hadn’t been afraid of Joe’s seeing me and laughing. I should think we must have gone up two hundred steps, when all of a sudden Joe stopped just above me, and called out, “Here we are;” and in about four steps I came to a trench cut into the chalk about two feet deep, which ran up the hill-side right ahead of us. The chalk in the trench was all hard and flat, and seemed to have been scraped and brushed up quite lately.
“This is his tail,” said Joe. “Come on; look, they’re scouring him up above; we’re in luck – I thought they’d have done before this; and there’s the Squire too with ’em.”
So I looked up; and there, some way above, I saw a lot of men with shovels, and besoms, and barrows, cleaning away at the trench, which, now that I began to look at it, certainly came out more and more like a horse galloping; and there amongst them, working away as hard as any one, was a person in yellow leather gaiters, who I saw at once must be the Squire, though I had never seen a squire before. I own I had a great prejudice against a country squire when I went down into Berkshire; which was natural enough, you see, because I had never been farther from town than Twickenham (except by boat to Margate), and had belonged to a debating society near Farringdon-market ever since I left school, where we take in three liberal papers, and once a week have as good speaking as they get in the House of Commons. I haven’t been to the debates much lately, myself; but when I was an active member, we used to have a regular go in about once a quarter at the unpaid magistracy. How we did give it them! They were bloated aristocrats, who by the time they were thirty had drunk out all the little brains they ever had, and spent their time in preserving and killing game and foxes at the expense of the farmers, and sending every good man in their villages either to the Bastile (as we called the workhouse), as a pauper, or to the county jail as a poacher.
Joe and I very nearly quarrelled over one of those debates to which I took him, like a great gaby as I was, when he came up to see me at the time of a cattle-show. He would get up to speak, all I could do to stop him; and began, all red in the face, pitching into one of our best speakers who had just finished, calling him a cockney, and asking him what right he had to jaw about squires when he talked about a fox’s ears and tail, and didn’t know mangold-wurzel from swedes. And then all our fellows began to shout and hiss, and Joe began to swear, and wanted to take his coat off, and fight all who had spoken; “one down, and t’other come on,” as he said. I got him out and took him home; but his blood was up, and he would go on at our Society, and call us a set of quill-driving jackanapes. And I couldn’t stand that, so I began at the landed interest, and said all the bad of them I could think of, about the Poor-Laws, game preserving, and the Corn-laws. Joe was very near going off in a huff, but we shook hands over it at last, and agreed that we neither of us knew much about the sort of life the other led, and so had better not talk about it as if we did.
Well, this was the first squire I had ever seen, so I looked at him with all my eyes; and if all squires were like him, I don’t wonder at Joe’s getting in a passion at our talk in Farringdon-market. I should think he must be about forty-five years old, and stands not far short of six feet high; for when he came to stand by Joe, I could see he was the taller of the two; but he didn’t look so tall quite when he stood by himself – I suppose because his figure was so good. For you never saw such a clean made man; he was for all the world like a well-rounded wedge from his shoulders down, and his neck and head put on like a statue. He looked just as if he could have jumped the highest five-barred gate in the Vale, and then have carried it off on his shoulders, and run up the hill with it. And his face, which was well browned, was so manly and frank, and his voice so cheery, and he looked you so straight in the face, that you felt he wasn’t ashamed of any thing, or afraid of anybody; and so you looked him back and spoke out, and were twice as good a man at once yourself while you were talking to him.
Well, when the Squire saw Joe, he stopped working away with his shovel, and called out to him; and so Joe went up and shook hands with him, and began talking to him, and in another minute the Squire called for his coat – a gray tweed shooting-jacket it was – and put it on, and took up his riding-whip, and told the men to look alive and get their job done, and then to send up to the Castle for some beer and bread and cheese which he would order for them.
Then Joe and the Squire walked away along the hill-side talking, and I went and sat down on a little mound, just above the Horse’s ears, and watched the men working, and looked at the view. How I did enjoy myself! The turf was as soft as a feather bed, and as springy as horsehair; and it was all covered with thistle down, which came drifting along like snow with the south wind; and all down below the country looked so rich and peaceful, stretching out for miles and miles at my feet in the hazy sunshine, and the larks right up overhead sang so sweetly, that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I should have liked to have had a turn at the besoms and shovels with the men, who seemed very good-tempered, only I was too shy, and I couldn’t make out half they said. So I took out my pipe and lighted it, and sat looking on at the work, and thinking of nothing.
Presently a gentleman whom I hadn’t noticed, but who was poking about the place, came and sat down near me. He was dressed in dark clothes, very quiet; I suppose he was a parson from some of the villages near. And we began talking about the weather, and what chance there was of having fine days for the pastime. He was a very grave, elderly man, but easy and pleasant, and had a keen look in his gray eyes, and a sort of twinkle about his mouth, which made me put my best leg foremost, and take care what I said.
Well, when we had done about the weather, thinks I, “This is just the sort of gentleman to tell me what I want to know about the White Horse and all the rest of it,” and you’ll see as you go on that I never made a better guess in my life. So I got my note-book out quietly, so that he shouldn’t take much notice of what I was about, and began, “I suppose, Sir,” said I, “that it’s all right about Alfred, and that he really did cut out this figure after winning a great battle up here?”
“Yes,” said he, “I think so myself, because there has always been a tradition in the country side that this was so. And where antiquaries differ, a tradition of this sort may always be pretty safely believed. Country folk hold on to such stories, and hand them down in a very curious manner; but you know, I dare say, that it is claimed by some as a Druidical, or at any rate a British monument, which would make it several hundred years older at least.”
I didn’t know any thing about it, but why should I tell him so. “I shouldn’t like to think so, Sir,” said I, “because one wouldn’t care so much about it if it wasn’t made by the Saxons and their great king. The Druids don’t seem akin to us somehow; and then one would lose all about the great battle, which was certainly fought up here, wasn’t it, Sir?”
“I have no doubt about it,” said he; “there are many signs of it – above all, graves enough to hold the harvest of many battles. You are lying on one.”
“No! am I really, though?” said I, sitting up and looking at the ground; “how do you know?”
“Well, it isn’t very hard when the eye gets used to them,” said he; “there’s another;” and he pointed to a small mound a few yards off, and just like the one I was sitting on. “That larger mound, too, down below, across the road, you were on it just now – ”
“Yes, Sir,” said I, interrupting him, and pointing at it, “Dragon’s Hill.”
“Exactly so,” said he; “that’s another burial-place; a larger and grander affair, you see, than these. Probably a king or other very noble person is buried there.”
“The people say, Sir, don’t they,” said I, “that St. George killed the Dragon there?”
“They do,” said he, “and that his blood made a pool on the top, and ran down the steps on the other side, where the grass has never grown since. This is another curious instance of the tenacity of tradition; but here I think our good folk in the Vale have held on to the name, or a part of it, and forgotten the meaning, just as they have in the case of another village over there in Oxfordshire, the name of which is Stanton Harcourt.”
“How was that, Sir?” said I, when he paused.
“Well,” said he, laughing, “an old man in that village told me that a battle was fought there, which the English were very near losing, when the general rode up to one of his captains, named Harcourt, who was in the thick of it, and called out, ‘Stan’ to un, Harcourt, stan’ to un, Harcourt;’ and that Harcourt won the battle, and the village has been called Stanton Harcourt ever since. Now, as to that mound, I believe it’s right name to be Pendragon’s Hill. Pendragon, you know, is only a name common to those of the kings of the ancient Britons, who were chosen leaders in the time of national distress, and means nothing more than ‘caput regum,’ ‘the chief of kings.’ According to some, ‘Arthur’ is the same or a like word, being ‘Ardh-reg’ or ‘Ard-heer,’ and meaning ‘summus Rex’ (whence the ‘Arviragus’ of Juvenal; but I lay no stress on this). Now we know of at least three Pendragons. There was Cassibelan, who was chosen Pendragon at the time of Julius C?sar’s invasion, Uter Pendragon, and Arthur Pendragon; which Uter and Arthur were, without doubt, chosen to resist the Saxons, who had won already the eastern part of the island. And if Arthur and Pendragon are the same words, doubtless (as has been well supposed), there were many Arthurs at this time, one of whom was probably slain in battle and buried here.22
My goodness! I couldn’t make out head or tail of his long words, and was staring at him with my mouth open; but when he turned round I shut it pretty quick, and looked as wise as I could. “Well, Sir,” said I, “I hardly know; but it doesn’t look unlikely, does it?”
“Of course not,” said he, quite pleased; “and as the Britons were not driven from these parts till the middle of the sixth century, I should put the throwing up of Dragon’s Hill in the beginning, say the first half, of that century. Now, in the year A.D. 520, according to Gildas and Bede, Arthur gained his twelfth victory at ‘Mons Badonicus,’ which might very well be Baydon Hill, which you see over there.” And he pointed to a hill three or four miles off.
“But then, Sir,” said I, “if he gained the victory, he wasn’t killed there, I suppose, and so he couldn’t be buried here.”
“But he was killed in battle at last,” said he; “and, as I told you, there must have been many Arthurs or Pendragons just at that time, and many battles fought between this and Bath – why, the Britons gained a battle at Wanborough, over there, as late as A.D. 581.”
“But, Sir,” said I, “if Pendragon was buried down there, wouldn’t they have been very likely to cut out the horse up here just above, as another monument, at the same time; and then what becomes of King Alfred and the Danes?”
“There is no instance of two such monuments over one chief,” answered he, quite positive; but I thought I saw him give a twinkle with his mouth, as if he felt I had been pretty near him. “Besides, as I said before, the tradition as to the White Horse is too strong to be upset by conjecture.”
“I didn’t mean to conjecture, I’m sure, Sir,” said I; and I thought, though I didn’t say so, it was he who had been conjecturing pretty freely, if it came to that. “The battle of Ashdown, Sir, was a very great battle then,” I went on, for I liked to hear him talk about those old times, though I didn’t quite understand all he said.
“The greatest battle probably in which Alfred ever was,” said he.
“Please, Sir,” said I, “I hope you won’t think me troublesome, but if you would only tell me about the battle I should be so much obliged to you.”
“Sir,” said he, looking at me rather surprised, “it is seldom that I can get any of the youth of this day to take an interest in these matters, the study of which would greatly benefit their manners and morals. I shall be pleased to do what you wish. Are you a good listener?”
“Yes, Sir,” said I, “you will get tired of talking long before I shall of listening. And you wouldn’t mind, I hope, my taking notes of the story?”
“By no means,” said he; “I see you are ready with your pen. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you so much about Pendragon and Natan-leod if I had seen that you were taking me down; but now I will be careful to give you nothing which is not to be found in the most trustworthy chroniclers. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Sir,” said I; and then he settled himself in the turf, and pulled a couple of old brown books out of his long coat-tail pockets, to which he sometimes referred, and looking out over the Vale, as if he were travelling in his mind far away from me and every thing about us on the hill-side, began as follows.
“As for old B?gseek, I should chuck him overboard at once, and assume that our friend Uter Pendragon’s remains had been originally deposited here, but that he had been disturbed in his repose by the decapitation of the barrow, which at some unknown time has undoubtedly taken place. It is unfortunate, however, that a Roman coin of the time of Constans turned up from among the d?bris, and the fragments of pottery also were chiefly of Roman manufacture, mixed with some of earlier date. It will therefore perhaps be difficult to reconcile these matters one with the other; but on turning them over in your mind, you will, I dare say, theorize with a very agreeable correctness!” What is a wretched compiler to do, who gets such letters from those who should be his aiders and abettors?
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