The Scouring of the White Horse
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“But that will all cure itself then, Sir,” said I; “they won’t plough up any more, if it doesn’t pay; and then the Ridgeway won’t be touched!”
“They are all mad for ploughing, Sir, these blockhead farmers; why, half of them keep their sheep standing on boards all the year round. They would plough and grow mangold-wurzel on their fathers’ graves. The Tenth Legion, Sir, has probably marched along this road; Severus and Agricola have ridden along it, Sir; Augustine’s monks have carried the Cross along it. There is that in that old mound and ditch which the best turnips and oats in the world (if you could get them) can’t replace. There are higher things in this world, Sir, than indifferent oats and d – d bad turnips.”
The old gentleman was all in a blaze again; he brought down his cane sharply on to the cob’s neck, which made him caper up and jump off along the Ridgeway, and it was a hundred yards before they drew up. I followed, thinking that he couldn’t be a clergyman after all, to be swearing like that about nothing. When I got up to him, however, he was quite cool again. He had stopped just below the western entrance to the Castle, and the ground fell rapidly in front of us.
“Now, you can’t have a better point than this,” said he; “you remember what I told you about the armies. The Danes held the higher ground, that is, Uffington Castle, up here, behind us. Alfred, with his division of the Saxon army, lay over there, in that valley to the left, where you see the great wood in the middle of the down. That is Ashdown Park, Lord Craven’s seat, and just on the edge of it there is a circular earthwork, which is called Alfred’s camp. Aubrey says that in his time it was ‘almost quite defaced, by digging for the Sarsden stones to build my Lord Craven’s house in the park;’ but you may still find it if you look. Then, over there, on that point, a mile or more away to the right, is a camp called Hardwell Camp, where ?thelred lay. The crown of the slope you see along which the Ridgeway runs, is midway between the Saxon camps.
“In the early spring morning, the low call to arms passes round the height; the Danish host, marshalled behind the high earthworks, breaks over them, like an overflowing lake, and rushes down the slope. Alfred’s division of the Saxon army is already on foot, and there he sits, the sickly stripling on the white horse, untried save in one luckless fight. How will he guide such a battle? See, his host is in motion; scouts fly out, riding for life across to ?thelred’s camp. ‘Come up, my brother! the Pagan is upon us – while I live they shall not divide us – I will hold the crest of the Ridgeway, come life, come death.’ The vans are together with a wild shout, squadron by squadron the hosts close up, the fight sways slowly backwards and forwards, the life’s blood of a brave man pays for every inch won or lost. The Saxons are but one to three, the Pagans slowly overlap them – are on their flanks. The white horse and his rider dash from side to side, faster and faster, as the over-matched Christians faint, reel, give back – now here, now there, along the line.When will the mass be over? Cut it short, as thou art Saxon man, oh priest! and get thee to sword and buckler.
“At last they come, ?thelred and his host – they are upon the right flank of the Pagan, and the fight is restored; and with many an ebb and pause, but steadily, through the long morning hours, rolls up the hill towards the camp and the fatal thorn.”
“Is that the old thorn-tree, then, do you think, Sir?” said I, pointing to one which was growing by itself some way off.
“I fear not, Sir, I fear not; the ‘unica spinosa arbor’ is gone. It must have stood somewhere up here, on the slope just below the Castle, the stronghold of the Danish robbers. Here the grim Pagan turns to bay for the last time. King B?gseeg lies dead, a hundred yards below; by his side his standard-bearer and Earl Fr?na; Halfdene is still unhurt, but near him Osbert totters under his shield; Harold can scarce back his charger, and the life-blood trickles slowly down his leg, and falls, drop by drop, on the trampled turf, as they still make front against ?thelred yonder – there on the right. But here, here the field must be won! This way, you Saxon men, kings-thane, and alderman! Whoever hath stout heart and whole body left.
“It is the old sea-king, Sidroc, ‘the ancient one of evil days;’ mark him, as he bestrides his black war-horse, there by the old twisted thorn. His heavy sword drips with blood, his sword-arm is steeped in blood to the elbow – the dint of long and fierce battle is on horse and man; but the straight thin lips are set like flint in the midst of that gray beard, and the eyes glow and gleam under that fearful brow – eyes that have never quailed before conquering foe, or softened to the fallen – lips that have never opened to say the word ‘Spare.’ By his side the young Sidroc, grim son of grim sire. Ashdown crows must feast on those eyes, and Ashdown wolves pick those bones, if the Pagans are to be beaten this day. Round them rally the Danes as they are driven up the slope. Again and again the advancing Saxons reel back from the stunted thorn, before the shock of the two Boersirkir. He comes! it is the sickly prince, the stripling on the white horse, trampling fetlock-deep in blood. Round him a chosen band of yellow-bearded men of Wessex. One moment’s pause, and they meet in a last death-grapple. Bite, Saxon blade; pierce, Saxon spear! Think of your homes, my countrymen; think of the walls of Reading, of Ethelwulf and his last war-cry, ‘Our commander, Christ, is braver than they!’ The black horse is down; young Sidroc springs over the brute, lashing out in death agony, and covers his father. His head is cleft to the chin – a half-armed gaunt cowherd drives his spear through the chest of the old sea-king. Away over their bodies up the hill go white horse, and stripling prince, and yellow-bearded men; rushing through the camp gate, scrambling over the banks pell-mell with the flying Pagan. The camp is ours; now slay while light is left – for there is no shelter for a Pagan between this and Reading. ‘Then were the horse-hoofs broken by the means of the prancings, of the prancings of their mighty ones. Oh my soul, thou hast trodden down strength!’”
The old gentleman stopped at last, and took off his hat and wiped his face, and then looked down at me as if he were half-ashamed —
“I see you think I’m mad – ” he began.
“Indeed, sir – ” said I, stammering a little.
“Well, well! never mind,” he said; “the fact is, I live a good deal in those old times. I’ve been up here, and sat and gone over the fight so often, that when I get on the hill-side, I think I saw it all. In the autumn evenings at twilight, when the southwest wind blows wild, and the mist comes drifting over the broad downs, many a time, as I have stolen down the silent hill-side, I have seen the weird old Pagan king and the five earls, sitting one on each of the giants’ seats, and looking mournfully out over the Vale, waiting – waiting – waiting for a thousand years, all but fourteen. It’s a long time, sir, a long time; but you and I may have to wait for a longer over the scene of some of our doings. Who can say?”
I really now did begin to think the old gentleman a little crazy, so I said nothing. Presently he went on in his old quiet voice: —
“There, now I have dismounted my hobby, and am sane again. I live in a wild, lonely part of the world down west, and for the last thirty years have read little else but the Bible, and books 200 years old and upwards. Every man has his madness – that’s mine – I don’t get a chance of letting it out once a-year. I have spent a very pleasant day with you, Sir; and if you ever come down to these parts again, and like to come on and see me, I shall be very glad. There is my name and address;” and he gave me his card, but he didn’t say that I might publish it.
“Thank you, Sir,” said I, putting it into my pocket-book; “but I hope you will be up on the hill to-morrow?”
“Yes, I shall just ride up,” he said, “to see how they have used my old friend; he wanted scouring sadly. The games I don’t much care about, though I’m glad they go on. But not one man in a thousand who will be on the hill to-morrow will know what the meaning of it all is; and that makes it a melancholy sight to me, Sir, on the whole.”
“But what a pity,” said I, “that they are not told. It would interest everybody else, I’m sure, just as it has me. Why don’t you tell it then, Sir, in a book or a newspaper?”
“Nobody would read my old-world stuff,” said he. “No: a man must understand and be in sympathy with his own generation to coax it into caring about an older one. But now I must be going. If you have time to walk down to that little clump of trees over there, towards ?thelred’s camp, you will find an old Druidical cromlech well worth examining. It is called Wayland Smith’s cave. Walter Scott, who should have known better, says that the Danish king killed at Ashdown was buried there. He was no more buried there than in Westminster Abbey. Good-bye.” And so he put his cob into a canter, and went off along the Ridgeway.
When he was gone I walked down to the clump of trees and went into the cave; and then sat down on the great flat stone which covers it over, and finished putting down all I had heard from the old gentleman; and thought what odd people a man finds about the world, and how many things there are which one never heard of that other folk are spending their lives over. Then I went up to the camp again to find Joe, for the afternoon was getting on. True enough, as he had said, when I got back there I found it all getting into order. All along the north side were the theatres and peep-shows, and acrobats, and the pink-eyed lady, and the other shows. On the west side were the publicans’ booths, some of them all ready, and others half up, but all with their places settled; and the great street of hucksters’ stalls and cheap-Jacks was all set out along the south side, and as more and more of them came up they went off to the end of the line and pitched regularly. The gypsies and people with no regular business were all got away into a corner, behind the stalls. On the west side the county police were pitching their large tent close away by the bank, out of the way of everybody; and, some way in front of them, Lord Craven’s people had put up two military-looking tents which I heard had belonged to the 42d Regiment, with a great flagstaff close by them. About the middle of the camp stood a large stage about six feet high, roped round for the backswording and wrestling. There was plenty of room now, and all the people, who were not working at the booths and stalls, were sitting about boiling kettles and getting their food. It was a very cheerful, pretty sight, up there out of the way of every thing.
I soon found Joe amongst a group of farmers and one or two young gentlemen, some on horseback and some on foot, standing round the Squire. They were talking over the arrangements before going home; and I stood a little way off, so as not to interrupt them or to seem to be pushing myself into their company.
“Now I think we have done all we can to-day,” said the Squire, gathering up his reins; “but some of us must be up early to-morrow to get the lists made, and settle every thing about the games.”
“About ten o’clock, Sir?”
“Yes, that will do capitally. Now I shall just go and see how they have done the Horse.”
So he rode out of the camp, and we all followed over the brow of the hill till we came to a good point for seeing the figure, which looked as bright and clean as a new sixpence.
“I think he’ll do very well,” said the Squire.
“Listen to the scourers,” said one of the young gentlemen.
They had finished their work, and were sitting in a group round a large can of beer which the Squire had sent down to them; and one of them was singing a rumbling sort of ditty, with a tol-de-rol chorus, in which the rest joined lazily.
One of these young gentlemen gave me what he said were the words they were singing, afterwards, when I came to know him (as you will hear in the next chapter); and it seems he had found out that I was collecting all I could about the Horse. But I don’t quite know whether he wasn’t cutting his jokes upon me, for he is “amazin’ found of fun,” as Joe said; and for my part, I could never quite tell, when I was with him, whether he was in jest or earnest. However, here are the words he gave me: —
BALLAD OF THE SCOURING OF THE WHITE HORSE
When we had done looking at the Horse, some went one way and some another, and Joe and I down the hill to the Swan Inn, where we got the trap and started away for Elm Close.
“Why, Dick, how did you manage to pick up the old gentleman who was treating you at dinner?” said Joe; “I suppose he’s one of your London folk.”
“’Twas he who picked me up,” said I, “for I never set eyes on him before. But I can tell you he is a very learned party, and very kind too. He told me all about the battle of Ashdown, and ever so many more old stories. I should think he must have been two hours and more telling them.”
“Sooner you than I,” said Joe. “Well, I thought I knew his face. He must be the old gent as was poking about our parish last fall, and sort of walking the bounds. Though there isn’t any call for that, I’m sure, for we walk the bounds ourselves every year. The men as he hired told me he was looking after some old stone, the play stone I think he called it, and would have it he knew more about the names of the fields, and why they were called so, than they as had lived there all their lives. However, he stood ’em something handsome for their trouble. I expect he isn’t quite right up here,” said he, touching his forehead and looking at me.
“Just as right as you,” said I, “and I’ve no doubt he does know more about your parish than all of you put together. I think he must be some great antiquary.”
“Ah! that’s what the Squire said when I told him. A great angular Saxon scholar he called him.”
“Anglo-Saxon, Joe,” said I, “not angular.”
“Well, Anglo or angular, it’s no odds,” said Joe; “I calls it angular – that’s good English at any rate.”
“But, Joe,” said I, “I’ve taken down all he said, and should like to read it to you. I’m sure it would interest you.”
“Well, after supper to-night, over a pipe, perhaps,” said Joe; “I ain’t much of a hand at your old-world talk, you see. Or, I’ll tell you what, you shall read it to Lu; she takes to book-learning and all that better than I.”
“I shall be very glad indeed to read it to your sister,” said I; “and I daresay she can tell me something more.”
“May be,” said Joe, drawing his whip gently over the mare’s loins; and then he began telling me about the talk he had had with the Squire.
He seemed to have been telling him all about his quarrel at the vestry with the other farmers, about keeping up the parish roads; and the Squire had smoothed him down, and given him some good advice as to how to get the roads made and the fences kept up without losing his temper. Joe owned to me that he was often falling out with some of his neighbours, or his hired men, when he couldn’t get things quite his own way (for that’s what it came to, and Joe is a warm-tempered fellow), and that he would sooner come six miles to get the Squire to “tackle it,” than go to any other justice who lived nearer; “for he knows our ways, and manages one way or another to get it out all straight without making a Sessions job of it,” said Joe, as we drove up to his gate; and though I was looking out to catch a sight of Miss Lucy, and hoping she might be out in the garden, I couldn’t help allowing to myself that perhaps the country mightn’t get on so much better after all if the unpaid magistracy were done away with.
Joe went off to the stable to see after his precious chestnut, and seemed to pity me because I didn’t go with him. But I was off round the house and into the garden, to try and find Miss Lucy. When I did find her though, I wasn’t quite pleased at first, as you may fancy when you hear what she was doing.
There is a trellis-work about eight feet high, between the little flower-garden and the kitchen-garden, and in it a wicket-gate, through which runs a nice green walk by which you get from one to the other. The trellis-work is so covered with roses, and jessamine, and other creepers, that you can’t see through, at least not in summer time; and I heard merry voices on the other side, but they couldn’t hear me on the turf. So I hurried up to the wicket-gate; and the moment I got through, there I saw Miss Lucy, and close by her side a young man in a black coat, dark gray trousers, and a white tie. He had a great ribstone-pippin apple in one hand, off the best tree in the orchard, out of which he had taken a great bite or two, which I thought rather vulgar; and there he was, holding up his bitten apple and some of the creepers against the trellis-work, with both hands above Miss Lucy’s head. And she stood there in her pretty white-straw hat, with the ribbons dangling loose over her shoulders, tying up the creepers to the trellis-work close to his face. I could see, too, that she was very well dressed, for she had on a pretty embroidered collar, as white as snow, with a nice bow of fresh pink ribbon in front; and the sleeves of her gown were loose, and fell back a little as she reached up with the string to tie the creepers, and showed her nice, white, round arms, which looked very pretty, only I wished she had waited for me to hold up the creepers instead of him. At her feet lay a basket full of apples and pears, and lavender and mignonette; so they must have been going about together for some time, picking fruit and flowers.
I stopped at the gate, and felt half inclined to go back; but he said something to her, and then she turned round and called me, so I walked up feeling rather sheepish. By the time I got up to them they had finished tying up the creeper, and she introduced me to Mr. Warton, of London. He held out his hand, and said he had often heard Joseph speak of me, and was very glad to meet an old friend of his friend Hurst. So we shook hands, and he began eating his apple again, and she picked up her basket, and we walked together towards the house; but they were so free and pleasant together, and laughed and joked so, that it made me feel rather low, and I couldn’t talk easily, though I did manage to say something about the White Horse, and how well it looked, and what a wonderful place it was up on the hill, when they asked me about it.
I wasn’t sorry when she went in to look after the tea, and he sat down to write a letter. So I went round to the farm-yard to look for Joe, that I might find out from him about this Mr. Warton. I found Joe with his fogger,2424
“No! is he?” said he; “I’m so glad. I was afraid he couldn’t come down as he didn’t answer my last letter.”
“Who is he, Joe?” said I.
“Haven’t I told you?” said he; “why, he’s a parson up somewhere in London, and a real right sort. He was curate here for five years before he went up to town.”
“He seems to know you and Miss Lucy very well,” said I.
“Bless you, yes!” said Joe; “Lu was in his school, and he prepared her for confirmation. He’s the best company in the world, and not a bit proud, like some parsons. When he was down here, he used to drop in of an evening two or three times a week, and take his tea, or a bit of supper, just like you might.”
“He’s a good bit older than we, though,” said I.
“Well, four or five years, maybe,” said Joe, looking rather surprised at me; “I should say he was about thirty last grass, but I never asked him; what does it matter?” and so we got to the front door, and I went up-stairs to my room to wash my hands before tea. I made myself as smart as I could, but I own I didn’t half like the way this Mr. Warton went on. However, I thought Miss Lucy must see he was too old for her.
As I was dressing, I turned the matter over with myself, how I was to behave down stairs. First, I thought I would try to ride the high horse, and be silent and vexed, and make them all uncomfortable; but then, thought I, will Miss Lucy see why I do it? It may be all out of love for her, and jealousy of this Mr. Warton; and they say no young woman dislikes to see men jealous about her. But suppose she shouldn’t see it in that light? Mightn’t she only think, perhaps, that I was a very changeable and disagreeable sort of fellow? That would never do. Besides, after all, thought I, I’m down here at Joe’s house, and I owe it to him to be as pleasant as I can. How’s he to know that I am in love with his sister already? And this Mr. Warton, too; he’s a clergyman, and seems a very good sort, as Joe said; and then he has known them all so well, for so long; why am I to give myself airs because he likes talking to Miss Lucy? So I settled it in my own mind to go down with a smiling face, and to do all I could to make all the rest happy; and I felt much better myself when I had made up my mind.
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