The Scouring of the White Horse
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There never was such a tea and supper (for we had them both together that night, as it was late) in the world; and I don’t think I could have stood out five minutes if I had gone down in the sulks, as I thought of doing at first. The old lady, and Joe, and Miss Lucy, were all in great spirits at getting Mr. Warton down; and he was just like a boy home for his holidays. He joked and rattled away about every thing; except when they talked about any of his old parishioners or scholars, and then he was as kind and tender as a woman, and remembered all their names, and how many children there were in every family, and the sort of mistakes the boys and girls used to make in school. And he drew Miss Lucy out about the school, and Joe about the markets and the labourers, and the old lady about the best way of pickling cabbages, and me about London and my work, and shorthand, which he managed to find out that I could write in no time. So we were all in the best humour in the world, and pleased with one another and with him; and spent half an hour in praising him after he had gone up stairs to finish some writing which he had to do.
Then I asked them about the pastime, and what we should see next day on the hill. Miss Lucy began directly about the stalls and the sights, and the racing and the music; and cold dinner on the hill-side, and seeing all her friends in their best dresses. Joe listened to her for a bit, and then struck in —
“That’s all very well for you women,” said he; “but look here, Dick. If what I hear comes true, we shall have a fine treat on the stage; for they tells me there’s a lot of the best old gamesters in Somersetshire coming up, to put in for the backsword prizes.”
“Then I’m sure I hope they won’t be allowed to play,” said Miss Lucy.
“Not let to play!” said Joe; “who put that into your head? Why, there’s the printed list of the sports, and ?12 prize for backswording, and ?10 for wrestling.”
“Well, it’s a great shame, then,” said Miss Lucy; “for all the respectable people for miles round will be on the hill, and I think the gentlemen ought to stop them.”
“If they do, they’ll spoil the pastime; for there won’t be one man in twenty up there who’ll care to see any thing else. Eh, old fellow?” said Joe, turning to me.
“I agree with Miss Lucy,” said I; “for I’m sure if the women are against these games, they can’t be good for the men, and ought to be put down.”
“Dick, you’re a cockney, and know no better,” said Joe, giving me a great spank on the back, which hurt a good deal and was very disagreeable, only I didn’t say any thing because I knew he meant it kindly; “but as for you, Lucy, you, a west-country yeoman’s daughter, to talk like that! If you don’t take care, you shan’t go up the hill to the pastime to-morrow at all; I’ll leave you at home with mother,” and he shook his great fist at her.
“Won’t I go up though?” said she, laughing; “we’ll see, Master Joe; why, I can walk up by myself, if it comes to that; besides, any of the neighbours will give me a lift – or here’s Mr.Richard, or Mr. Warton. I’m sure – ”
“What’s that you’re saying, Miss Lucy? What am I to do, eh?” and the parson walked in just as I was going to speak. I was vexed at his just coming in, and taking the word out of my mouth.
“Why I was telling Joe that you’ll stop and take me up the hill, if he leaves me behind; won’t you now, Mr. Warton?”
“Leave you behind, indeed! here’s a pretty to do!” said he, laughing. “What in the world are you all talking about?”
“About the wrestling and backsword play,” struck in Joe; “now she says – ”
“Well, now, I’ll leave it to Mr. Warton,” said Miss Lucy, interrupting him; “I know he won’t say it’s right for men to be fighting upon a high stage before all the country side.”
“Stuff and nonsense with your fighting!” said Joe; “you know, Sir, very well that they are old English games, and we sets great store by them down here, though some of our folk as ought to know better does set their faces against them now-a-days.”
“Yes, you know, Joe, that three or four clergymen have been preaching against them only last Sunday,” said Miss Lucy.
“Then they ain’t the right sort, or they’d know better what to preach against. I don’t take all for Gospel that the parsons say, mind you,” said Joe.
Miss Lucy looked shocked, but Mr. Warton only laughed.
“Hullo, Joseph,” said he, “speaking evil of your spiritual pastors! However, I won’t say you’re altogether wrong. Parsons are but men.”
“But, Sir,” said I, quite confidently, “I’m sure no clergyman can stand up for fighting and quarrelling.”
“Of course not,” said he; “but what then?”
“Well, Sir, these sports, as they call them, are just fighting, and nothing else, and lead to all sorts of quarrels and bad blood, and so – ”
“They don’t lead to nothing of the kind,” shouted Joe; “and you know nothing about it, Dick.”
“Now, Joe, at our last feast,” said Miss Lucy, “didn’t Reuben Yates get his head broken, and his arms all black and blue at backsword play?”
“Yes, and didn’t you and mother patch him up with yards of diachylum, and give him his supper every night for a week, to come and be doctored and lectured? Rube liked his suppers well enough, and didn’t mind the plastering and lecturing much; but if he don’t go in to-morrow for the young gamesters’ prize, my name ain’t Joe Hurst.”
“Then he’ll be a very ungrateful, wicked fellow,” said Miss Lucy.
“And you and mother won’t give him any more suppers or diachylum,” said Joe; “but I dare say he won’t break his heart if you don’t give him the preaching by itself. It does seem to me plaguy hard that the women won’t let a man get his own head broke quietly, when he has a mind to it.”
“And there was Simon Withers, too,” went on Miss Lucy, “he sprained his ankle at the wrestling, and was in the house for three weeks, and his poor old mother nearly starving.”
“’Twasn’t at wrestling, though,” said Joe, “’twas at hurdle-racing. He’d much better have been at backsword; for a chap can go to work with a broken head next morning, and feel all the better for it, but he can’t with a sprained ankle.”
“What does Mr. Warton think?” said I; for somehow he was keeping back, and seemed a little on Joe’s side, and if he showed that, I thought he would lose ground with Miss Lucy.
“Oh! I’m sure Mr. Warton is on our side, ain’t you, Sir? Do tell Joe how wrong it is of him to go on talking as he does.”
“No, no, Miss Lucy, I’m not going to be drawn into the quarrel as your knight; you’re quite able to take your own part,” said Mr. Warton.
“I’m sure Mr. Warton is against us in his heart,” said I to Miss Lucy; “only he’s a clergyman, and doesn’t like to say so.”
“Come, now, I can’t stand that,” said he to me; “and you and I must have it out; only mind, Miss Lucy, you mustn’t come in; one at a time is enough for me.”
“I won’t say a word, Sir, if Joe won’t.”
“Very well,” said he, “and now let’s get our ground clear. Do you approve of the other sports, running matches, jumping matches, and all the rest?”
“Yes, Sir, of course I do,” said I.
“And you see no harm in one man beating another in a race for a prize?”
“No, Sir, no harm at all.”
“Well, but I suppose one must have activity and endurance to win in any of them?”
“Yes,” said I, “and good pluck, too, Sir. It takes as much heart, I’m sure, any day, to win a hard race as a bout at backsword.”
“Very good,” said he. “Then putting every thing else aside, tell me which you think the best man, he who doesn’t mind having his head broken, or he who does?”
“Well, Sir,” said I, beginning to fence a bit, for I thought I saw what he was driving at, “that depends on circumstances.”
“No, no,” said he, “I want a short answer. We’ve nothing to do with circumstances. Suppose there were no circumstances in the world, and only two men with heads to be broken?”
“Well, then, Sir,” said I, “I suppose the one who doesn’t mind having his head broken, must be the best man.”
“Hah, hah!” laughed Joe, “that puts me in mind of old Ben Thomson last feast. When he threw up his hat on the stage, he said he could get his pint of beer any day for tuppence, but it wasn’t every day as he could get his pint of beer and a broken head too for the same money.”
“Oh, but Mr. Warton – ” broke in Miss Lucy.
“Now, you were not to say a word, you know,” said he.
“But Joe began, Sir.”
“Joseph, hold your tongue.”
“Very well, Sir,” said Joe, grinning.
“Then we come to this,” said he to me, “a man must have just the same qualities to win at backsword as to win a race; and something else besides, which is good in itself?”
“But, Sir,” said I, “that doesn’t meet the point. What I say is, that backsword is a game in which men are sure to lose their tempers and become brutal.”
“But don’t they sometimes lose their tempers in races?” said he.
“Yes, sometimes, perhaps,” said I, “but not often.”
“And sometimes they don’t lose them at backsword?” said he.
“Well, perhaps not, Sir.”
“Then it seems that all that can be said against backsword is, that it is a harder trial of the temper than other games. Surely that’s no reason for stopping it, but only for putting it under strict rules. The harder the trial the better. I’m sure that’s good English sense.”
I didn’t quite know what to say, but Miss Lucy broke in again.
“Oh, but Mr. Warton, did you ever see any backsword play?”
“Now, Miss Lucy, that is against law,” said he; “but I don’t mind answering. I never did, and I dare say your champion never has.”
“No, Sir,” said I; “but though you may have got the best of me, I don’t believe you really mean that you think us wrong.”
“Would you, really, Sir, preach a sermon now in favour of backsword play and wrestling?” asked Miss Lucy, with a long face.
“What’s that got to do with it, Lucy?” broke in Joe. “We’re not talking about preaching sermons, but about what’s right for country chaps to do at pastimes.”
“Now, Joseph, I’m not going to ride off on any hobby of yours – besides, your sister’s test is right. Several of your clergy about here have preached against these games, as was their duty if they had considered the subject well, and thought them wrong. I have never thought much about the matter till to-night. At present I think your clergy wrong. If I hold to that belief I would preach it; for I hope I never seriously say any thing in the parlour which I wouldn’t say in the pulpit.”
Just then, the tall clock in the passage outside gave a sort of cluck, which meant half-past nine o’clock, and Joe jumped up and opened the door for the servants, and gave Mr. Warton the prayer-book. And then as soon as ever prayers were over, he bustled his mother and sister off to bed, though I could see that Miss Lucy wasn’t half satisfied in her mind about the backsword play and wrestling, and wanted to stay and hear something more from Mr. Warton. But Joe is always in a hurry for his pipe when half-past nine strikes, so we all had to humour him, and Mr. Warton and I went with him into the kitchen to smoke our pipes.
Now when we had fairly lighted up, and Joe had mixed us a glass of gin and water a piece, I felt that it was a very good time for me to have a talk about the White Horse and the scourings. I wasn’t quite satisfied in my mind with all that the old gentleman had told me on the hill; and, as I felt sure that Mr. Warton was a scholar, and would find out directly if there was any thing wrong in what I had taken down, I took out my note-book, and reminded Joe that he had promised to listen to it over his pipe. Joe didn’t half like it, and wanted to put the reading off, but Mr. Warton was very good-natured about it, and said he should like to hear it – so it was agreed that I should go on, and so I began. Joe soon was dozing, and every now and then woke up with a jerk, and pretended he had been listening, and made some remark in broad Berkshire. He always talks much broader when he is excited, or half asleep, than when he is cool and has all his wits about him. But I kept on steadily till I had got through it all, and then Mr. Warton said he had been very much interested, and believed that all I had taken down was quite correct.
“What put it into your head,” said he, “to take so much interest in the Horse?”
“I don’t know, Sir,” said I, “but somehow I can’t think of any thing else now I have been up there and heard about the battle.” This wasn’t quite true, for I thought more of Miss Lucy, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“When I was curate down here,” said he, “I was bitten with the same maggot. Nothing would serve me but to find out all I could about the Horse. Now, Joe here, who’s fast asleep – ”
“No, he bean’t,” said Joe starting, and giving a pull at his pipe, which had gone out.
“Well, then, Joe here, who is wide awake, and the rest, who were born within sight of him, and whose fathers fought at Ashdown, and have helped to scour him ever since, don’t care half so much for him as we strangers do.”
“Oh! I dwon’t allow that, mind you,” said Joe; “I dwon’t know as I cares about your long-tailed words and that; but for keeping the Horse in trim, and as should be, why, I be ready to pay – ”
“Never mind how much, Joseph.”
Joe grinned, and put his pipe in his mouth again. I think he liked being interrupted by the Parson.
“As I was saying, I found out all I could about the Horse, though it was little enough, and I shall be very glad to tell you all I know.”
“Then, Sir,” said I, “may I ask you any questions I have a mind to ask you about it?”
“Certainly,” said he; “but you mustn’t expect to get much out of me.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said I. “A thousand years seems a long time, Sir, doesn’t it? Now, how do we know that the Horse has been there all that time?”
“At any rate,” said he, “we know that the Hill has been called, ‘White Horse Hill,’ and the Vale, the ‘Vale of White Horse,’ ever since the time of Henry the First; for there are cartularies of the Abbey of Abingdon in the British Museum which prove it. So, I think, we may assume that they were called after the figure, and that the figure was there before that time.”
“I’m very glad to hear that, Sir,” said I. “And then about the scourings and the pastime? They must have been going on ever since the Horse was cut out?”
“Yes, I think so,” said he. “You have got quotations there from Wise’s letter, written in 1736. He says that the scouring was an old custom in his time. Well, take his authority for the fact up to that time, and I think I can put you in the way of finding out something, though not much, about most of the Scourings which have been held since.”
And he was as good as his word; for he took me about after the pastime to some old men in the neighbouring parishes, from whom I found out a good deal that I have put down in this chapter. And the Squire, too, when Joe told him what I was about, helped me.
Now I can’t say that I have found out all the Scourings which have been held since 1736, but I did my best to make a correct list, and this seems to be the proper place to set it all down.
Well, the first Scouring, which I could find out any thing about, was held in 1755, and all the sports then seem to have been pretty much the same as those of the present day. But there was one thing which happened which could not very well have happened now. A fine dashing fellow, dressed like a gentleman, got on to the stage, held his own against all the old gamesters, and in the end won the chief prize for backsword-play, or cudgel-play, as they used to call it.
While the play was going on there was plenty of talk as to who this man could be, and some people thought they knew his face. As soon as he had got the prize he jumped on his horse, and rode off. Presently, first one, and then another, said it was Tim Gibbons, of Lambourn, who had not been seen for some years, though strange stories had been afloat about him.
It was the Squire who told me the story about Tim Gibbons; but he took me to see an old man who was a descendant of Tim’s, and so I think I had better give his own account of his ancestor and his doings. We found the old gentleman, a hale, sturdy old fellow, working away in a field at Woolstone, and, as near as I could get it, this was what he had to say about the Scouring of 1755: —
Squire. “Good morning, Thomas. How about the weather? Did the White Horse smoke his pipe this morning?”
Thos. “Mornin’, Sir. I didn’t zee as ’a did. I allus notices he doos it when the wind blaws moor to th’ east’ard. I d’wont bode no rain to day, Sir.”
Squire. “How old are you, Thomas?”
Thos. “Seventy year old this Christmas, Sir. I wur barn at Woolstone, in the hard winter, when I’ve heard tell as volks had to bwile their kettles wi’ the snaw.”
Squire. “I want to know something about your family, Thomas.”
Thos. “Well, Sir, I bean’t no ways ashamed of my family, I can assure ’ee. I’ve a got two zons, and vour daaters. One on ’em, that’s my oldest bwoy, Sir, wur all droo’ the Crimee wars, and never got a scratch. In the Granadier Guards, Sir, he be. A uncommon sprack2525
Squire. “But, Thomas, I want to know about those that came before you. What relation was Timothy Gibbons, whom I’ve heard folks talk about, to you?”
Thos. “I suppose as you means my great-grandvather, Sir.”
Squire. “Perhaps so, Thomas. Where did he live, and what trade did he follow?”
Thos. “I’ll tell ’ee, Sir, all as I knows; but somehow, vather and mother didn’t seem to like to talk to we bwoys about ’un.”
Squire. “Thank ’ee, Thomas. Mind, if he went wrong it’s all the more credit to you, who have gone straight; for there isn’t a more honest man in the next five parishes.”
Thos. “I knows your meanings good, and thank ’ee kindly, Sir, tho’ I be no schollard. Well, Timothy Gibbons, my great grandvather, you see, Sir, foller’d blacksmithing at Lambourn, till he took to highway robbin’, but I can’t give ’ee no account o’ when or wher.’ Arter he’d been out, may be dree or vour year, he and two companions cum to Baydon; and whilst hiding theirselves and baiting their hosses in a barn, the constables got ropes round the barn-yard and lined ’em in. Then all dree drawed cuts2626
Squire. “Thank’ee, Thomas. What a pity he didn’t go soldiering; he might have made a fine fellow then!”
Thos. “Well, Sir, so t’wur, I thinks. Our fam’ly be given to that sort o’ thing. I wur a good hand at elbow and collar wrastling myself, afore I got married; but then I gied up all that, and ha’ stuck to work ever sence.”
Squire. “Well, Thomas, you’ve given me the story I wanted to hear, so it’s fair I should give you a Sunday dinner.”
Thos. “Lord love ’ee, Sir, I never meant nothin’ o’ that sort; our fam’ly” —
We were half-way across the field, when I looked round, and saw old Thomas still looking after us and holding the Squire’s silver in his hand, evidently not comfortable in his mind at having failed in telling us all he had to say about his fam’ly, of which he seemed as proud as any duke can be of his, and I dare say has more reason for his pride than many of them. At last, however, as we got over the stile, he pocketed the affront and went on with his work.
I could find out nothing whatever about the next Scouring; but I was lucky enough to get the printed hand-bill which was published before the one in 1776, which I made out to be the next but one after that at which Tim Gibbons played.
When I showed this old hand-bill to the Parson he was very much tickled. He took up the one which the Committee put out this last time, and looked at them together for a minute, and then tossed them across to me.
“What a queer contrast,” said he, “between those two bills.”
“How do you mean, Sir?” said I; “why the games seem to be nearly the same.”
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