The Scouring of the White Horse
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I should think a dozen parties, in all sorts of odd go-carts and other vehicles, or on foot, must have passed the Blowing-Stone in the ten minutes which I spent on the bench. So I got quite eager to be up at the Castle, and paid for my beer and started again. It is a very long stiff pull up Blowing-Stone Hill, and the road is not a very good one; so I soon began to pass the gigs and carts, most of which had to stop every hundred yards or so, to let the horses and donkeys get their wind. Half-way up, in the worst part of the hill, I found an old huckstering woman and a boy in great trouble. They had a little cart laden with poles and boards for a stall, and two great sacks of nuts and sweet-stuff; and only one donkey in the shafts, who had got one wheel of the cart into a deep chalk rut, and stood there like a post. The woman and boy were quite beat with dragging at his head, and trying to lift the wheel out of the rut, and as I came up she was “fairly giving out.”
Well, I couldn’t go by and leave her there, though I didn’t half like having to stop; so I helped to lift the wheel out, and then we pushed the cart up a few yards, and the old donkey tried to sidle it into another rut, and we had another fight with him. My blood got up at his obstinacy; I don’t believe there ever was another such a donkey in the world; so the more he backed and sidled, the more I and the old woman and the boy fought. And then the people that passed us began to laugh and joke at us, and I got very angry at them, and the old woman, and everybody; but I set my teeth, and made up my mind to get him up to the top if I stayed there all day.
I should think we must have been nearly half an hour at work, and had got on about three hundred yards or so, when a fine dog-cart on high wheels came up. I heard the gentlemen in it talking and laughing as they came near us; but I didn’t look up, and kept working away at the donkey, for I was afraid they would only joke at us.
“Oh deary me, deary me, Master Gaarge, be that you?” I heard the old woman call out; “now do’ee stop some o’ the chaps, and tell ’em to help. I be nigh caddled to death wi’ this drattled old jackass – oh dear, oh dear!”
“Why, Betty! what in the world are you after?” said a merry voice, which I thought I had heard before; and, looking up, I saw the young gentleman who had promised me the song.
“Oh, you see, Master Gaarge, I thought as I might turn a honest penny if I could only win up to the pastime wi’ some nuts and brandy-balls. So I loaned neighbour Tharne’s cart as he fetches coals from the canal wi’, and his ass – and if ’twas Balaam’s ass hisself he couldn’t be no wus – and here I be; and if it hadn’t a been for this kind gentleman” —
“Well, stop your talk, Betty, and take hold of his head,” said he, jumping out of his dog-cart and giving the reins to the one who was beside him.“Ah, good morning,” nodding to me, as he came to the back of the cart, “now then, with a will! shove away!”
So we shoved the cart hard against the donkey’s legs. “Don’t pull, Betty, let him have his head; just keep hold of the reins. Look out, boy; stop him making for the ditch;” and away went Master Neddy scrambling up hill, for he found that the cart was coming over his back if he didn’t move on. Master George was as strong as a ballast heaver, and the donkey seemed to find it out quick enough, for we were up the hill in no time.
“Bless your kind heart, Master Gaarge!” almost sobbed the old woman; “I be all straight now. Do’ee hev summat to suck now, or some nuts, and this kind gentleman too; you allus wur fond o’ suck;” and she began untying the neck of one of her sacks.
“Oh, Betty, you wicked old lone woman!” said he, “haven’t you made me ill often enough with your nastinesses fifteen years ago?”
“Dwont’ee, now, call ’em names, Master Gaarge.”
“Good-bye, Betty, and make haste up to the Castle before all the small boys are poisoned. I can give you a lift, Sir,” said he to me, “if you’ll jump up behind.”
I thanked him, and got up behind, by the side of one of the other young gentlemen, who I thought didn’t seem much to like having me there; and I felt very pleased, as we bowled along the Ridgeway, passing all the people who had been laughing at me and the donkey, that they should see that I was in such good company, and should be up at the Castle before any of them.
The whole Ridgeway was alive with holiday folk, some walking with their coats and bonnets off, some in great wagons, some in all sorts of strange vehicles, such as I had never seen before (many of which Master George declared had been impressed by Alfred’s commissariat and hospital staff, in his wars against the Danes, when they were strong young traps); but from one and all there rose up a hum of broad Berkshire, and merry laughter, as we shot by them. Sometimes a yeoman in his gig, or on his stout hackney, would try to keep up with us, or to stop us from passing him, but Master George was a reckless driver, and somehow or another, galloping or trotting, on the right side or the wrong, he would pass; so in about ten minutes we had got over the two miles of downs, and were close up to the Castle.
Here the first thing I saw was Joe, with two other farmers, carrying a lot of little white and pink flags, and measuring ground.
“Please put me down, Sir,” said I, “there’s my friend.”
“Ah, yes,” said Master George, pulling up, “I see – you’re staying with Farmer Hurst. Well, I’m much obliged to you for helping poor old Betty – she’s a good struggling old widow body in our village; I’ve known her ever since I could walk and suck. Good morning, Mr. Hurst; likely to be a good muster to-day.”
“Mornin’, Sir,” said Joe, touching his hat, “I think so – there’s a smart lot of folk in the Castle already.”
“Well, I hope we may meet again,” said Master George to me, “I won’t forget the song for you,” – and away he drove towards the Castle.
“Why, Dick man, where’s the old horse?” said Joe, looking as if I had come from the moon.
“Oh, I walked,” said I, “I prefer it, when I have time.”
“Come own it, Dick,” said he, “thou wast ashamed of the old horse’s long rough coat – I didn’t think thou hadst been such a dandy.”
“Upon my honour it was nothing of the sort,” said I, glad enough that he wasn’t on the right scent.
“And how did you get along with one of our young squires?” said he.
“Oh, he offered me a lift,” said I; and then I told him my story.
“Well, you always seem to fall on your legs,” said he; “who are they with him?”
“Oxford scholars, I think,” said I, “from their talk; but I didn’t get on much with them, they’re not so free spoken as he is. But what are you about here, Joe?”
“Oh, helping the umpires to measure out the course for the cart-horse race; look, there are the flags right along for half a mile, and the finish is to be up there by the side of the Castle, for all the folk to see. But come along, for I must be after the umpires; I see they want me.”
“I think,” said I, “I should like to go and see what’s going on in the Castle.”
“Very good,” said he, “then I’ll look after you when we’ve done this job;” and away he went.
I wouldn’t take time to go round by either of the entrances, but made straight across to the nearest point of the great earthworks, and scrambled over the outer bank, and down into the deep ditch, and up the inner bank, and stood there on the top, looking down on all the fun of the fair; for fair it was already, though it was very little past eleven o’clock in the morning.
There was the double line of booths and stalls which I had seen putting up the day before, making a long and broad street, and all decked out with nuts and apples, and ginger-bread, and all sorts of sucks and food, and children’s toys, and cheap ribbons, knives, braces, straps, and all manner of gaudy-looking articles. Opposite, on the north side, all the shows had got their great pictures up of the wonders which were to be seen inside, and the performers were strutting about on the stages outside, and before one of them an acrobat was swinging backwards and forwards on the slack rope, and turning head over heels at the end of each swing. And every show had its own music, if it were only a drum and pan pipes, and all the musicians were playing, as loud as they could play, different tunes. Then, on the east side, were the great booths of the publicans, all decked out now with flowers and cheap flags, with their skittle-grounds behind; and lots of gypsies, and other tramps, with their “three sticks a penny,” and other games. The west side was only occupied, as I said before, by the great white tent of the County Police, where the Committee were sitting, and Lord Craven’s tents some way in front; but these looked pretty and gay now, for they had hoisted some good flags; and there in the middle stood the great ugly stage, and the greasy pole. The whole space was filled with all sorts of people, from ladies looking as if they had just come from Kensington Gardens, down to the ragged little gypsy children, with brown faces and brick-coloured hair, all moving about, and looking very much as if they were enjoying themselves. So after looking a minute, I got down into the crowd, and set to work to see every thing I could.
I hadn’t been pushing about amongst the rest above five minutes, when two men stopped close by me, one (who was the Wantage crier, I found out afterwards) with his hand full of papers, and the other carrying a gong, which he began to beat loud enough to deafen one. When the crowd had come round him, the crier began, and I should think he might have been heard at Elm Close: —
“Oh yes! oh yes! by order of the Committee, all persons who mean to play for prizes, must enter their names on the umpires’ lists. Oh yes! oh yes! the umpires’ lists are open in the tent, and names may be entered from now till half-past twelve. Oh yes! a list of the umpires for the different games and sports may be seen on the board outside the tent-door. God save the Queen!”
As soon as he had done, he and the man with the gong went off to another part of the Castle, but I could see some of the men and boys, who had been standing round, sidling off towards the great tent to enter for some of the games, as I guessed. So I followed across the Castle to the space in front of the tent.
I could see, through the entrance, two or three of the Committee sitting at a table, with paper and pens and ink before them; and every now and then, from the little groups which were standing about, some man would make a plunge in, and go up to the table; and, after a word or two with them, would enter his name on one or more of the lists, and then come out, sometimes grinning, but generally looking as if he were half ashamed of himself. I remarked more and more through the day what a shy, shamefaced fellow the real countryman was, while the gypsies and racing boys and tramps, who entered for the races, but not for the backsword or wrestling prizes, were all as bold as brass, and stood chattering away to the Committee-men, till they were almost ordered out of the tent.
I sat down on the turf outside the tent to watch; for I felt very much interested in the games, and liked to see the sort of men who came to enter. There were not many very stout or tall men amongst them; I should say they averaged about eleven stone in weight, and five feet eight inches in height; but they looked a very tough race; and I could quite believe, while looking at them, what Joe told me one day – “Though there’s plenty of quicker men, and here and there stronger ones, scarce any man that ever comes down our way – either at navigator’s work or loafing about, like the gypsies and tramps – can ever come up to our chaps in last, whether at fighting or working.”
There was one man amongst them who struck me particularly, I suppose because he wore a Crimean medal with four clasps, and went quite lame on a crutch. I found out his history. Old Mattingly, the blacksmith of Uffington, had three sons when the Russian war broke out. They all went for soldiers. The first was shot through the hand, as that gray, deadly dawn broke over Inkermann, on the 5th of November, 1854. Had he gone to the rear he would probably have lived. He fought till the last Russian vanished along the distant road, and over the bridge heaped with slain, like a gallant Berkshire lad – and then went to hospital and died of his wounds within a week. The second lies before Sebastopol in the advanced trenches of the right attack. The third, the young artilleryman, went through the whole war, and after escaping bayonet and shot and shell, was kicked by the horse of a wounded officer, and probably lamed for life. According to the rules of the service, my informant seemed to think, he was not entitled to a pension for life, “but they had given him one for eighteen months after his discharge, so that he had almost a year of it to run; and perhaps he might learn blacksmith-work in that time, if he could stand at all, for that was mostly arm-work.”
I didn’t know what the regulations as to pensions were, or how long young Mattingly would take to learn blacksmith-work, but I did feel rather ashamed that England couldn’t afford to do a little more for such as he; and should be glad for my part to pay something towards it, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or somebody, would find out a way to set this right. Or perhaps if this should ever meet the eye of the Commander-in-Chief, or of any of the gentlemen who were made K.C.B’s in the war-time, or of any other person who has interest in the army, they may see whether any thing more can be done for young Mattingly.
Many of the younger ones I could see hadn’t made up their minds whether or no they should enter, and were larking and pushing one another about; and I saw several good trials of strength, and got an idea of what the wrestling was like before the lists were closed.
“Bi’st in for young geamsters prize at wrastlin’, shepherd?” asked a young carter with his hat full of ribbons, of a tight-made, neatly-dressed fellow, who had already won a second prize, I heard, at his village revel.
The shepherd nodded.
“Mose, mun,” went on the carter, “thee shouldst go in. Thee bi’st big enough.”
Moses was an overgrown, raw-boned fellow, of about eighteen, in a short smock-frock and a pair of very dilapidated militia-trousers. He had been turning the matter over in his own mind for some time, and now, after looking the shepherd over for a minute, pulled his great hands out of his pockets, hunched up his shoulders, and grunted out —
The bystanders all cheered. Moses, the militiaman, was rather a joke to them. The shepherd looked scornful, but was ready to try a file; but he stipulated that Mose must borrow some shoes instead of his great, iron-clouted high-lows, (no man is allowed to wrestle, I found, with any iron on his shoes.)
This seemed likely to stop the fun. Moses pulled off his high-lows, and appeared in sinkers,3131
In another minute I saw the militiaman in the tent before the table.
“Plaze, Sur, put down Moses Tilling – young geamster – wrastlin’.”
After watching the tent till the lists were just closing, I started off to see if I could find Miss Lucy, who ought to have been up by this time, and to get something to eat before the sports began. The luncheon I managed easily enough, for I went over to the great booth in which I had dined the day before, and sat down at the long table, where Peter welcomed me, and soon gave me as much as I could eat and drink. But when I had finished, and went out to look for my friends, I found it a very difficult business, and no wonder, for there were more than 20,000 people up on the Hill.
First I went to the outside of the Castle, where all the carriages were drawn up in long rows, to see if I could find the four-wheel amongst them. As I was poking about, I came close to a fine open carriage, and hearing a shout of merry laughter, looked up. There were a party at lunch; two ladies and some quite young girls inside, some boys on the box, and several gentlemen standing round, holding bottles and sandwiches; and they were all eating and drinking, and laughing at an old gypsy woman, who was telling the fortune of one of the ladies.
“Love’ll never break your heart, my pretty lady,” said the old woman; “let the Norwood gypsy see your hand, my pretty lady.”
The lady held out her right hand, and the little girls glanced at the lady, and one another, brimming with fun.
“It’s the other hand the gypsy ought to see. Ah, well, then, never mind,” she went on, as the lady looked quietly in her face, without moving a muscle, “the old Norwood gypsy can read it all in your eyes. There’s a dark gentleman, and a light gentleman, who’ll both be coming before long; there’ll be sore hearts over it, but the richest will win before a year’s out – ” Here the girls clapped their hands, and burst into shouts, and the lady showed her other hand with a wedding-ring on, and went on quietly with her lunch.
“Ah! I never said she wasn’t married!” said the gipsy to the girls, who only laughed the more. I had got quite close up to the carriage, and at this moment caught the eye of the lady, who was laughing too; then I felt awkward all at once, and as if I was where I had no right to be. But she didn’t look the least annoyed, and I was passing on, when I saw that Mr. Warton was amongst the gentlemen on the other side of the carriage. “Ah,” thought I, “I wonder if he’ll know me now he’s with his fine friends?” But the next minute I was ashamed of myself for doubting, for I heard him wish them good-bye, and before I was ten yards from the carriage, he put his arm in mine.
“Well, you never rode after all,” he began.
“No, Sir,” said I. “But where are they? I haven’t seen Joe this two hours.”
“Oh, not far off,” said he; “feeding, like the rest of us.”
And further down the line we found Joe, and Miss Lucy, and several friends of theirs, lunching on the turf by the four-wheel. So we sat down with them, but I didn’t half like the way in which Miss Lucy was running on with two young farmers, one on each side of her. She told me afterwards that she had known them ever since they were children together, but somehow that didn’t seem to me to mend the matter much. And then again, when Joe got up, and said it was time to move, for the sports would be just beginning, nothing would serve her but to walk off to Wayland Smith’s cave. I wonder whether she did it a little bit to provoke me; for she knew that I had been to see it the day before, and that I wanted particularly to see all the sports. But I don’t think it could have been that after all, for when I said I should stay with Joe, she was just as pleasant as ever, and didn’t seem to mind a bit whether I or any one else went with her or not.
I am afraid I shall make a very poor hand at telling about the sports, because I couldn’t be in five or six places at once; and so I was kept running about, from the stage in the middle of the Castle out on to the downs to see the cart-horse race, and then back again into the Castle for the jingling match, and then out on the other side to the manger for the cheese races, and so on backwards and forwards; seeing the beginning of one sport, and the end of another, and the middle of a third. I wish the Committee would let the sports begin earlier, and then one might be able to see them all. However I must do the best I can, and just put down what I saw myself.
The first move for the sports was made a little before one, just as I got back into the Castle, after seeing Miss Lucy start for Wayland Smith’s cave. The Committee came out of their tent in a body, each man carrying the lists of the entries for the sports over which he was to preside. But instead of going different ways, each to his own business, they walked across in a body to the stage, and stopped just underneath it, in the middle of a great crowd of men and boys; and then they shouted for silence, and the chairman spoke: —
“We wish to say a few words, my men, to those who are going to play with the sticks or wrestle to-day. There has been a good deal of talk about these sports, as you all know; and many persons think they shouldn’t be allowed at all now-a-days – that the time for them has gone by. They say, that men always lose their tempers and get brutal at these sports. We have settled, however, to give the old-fashioned games a fair trial; and it will rest with yourselves whether we shall ever be able to offer prizes for them again. For, depend upon it, if there is any savage work to-day, if you lose your tempers, and strike or kick one another unfairly, you will never see any more wrestling or backsword on White Horse Hill. But we are sure we can trust you, and that there won’t be any thing to find fault with. Only remember again, you are on your trial, and the stage will be cleared at once, and no prizes given, if any thing objectionable happens. And now, you can put to as soon as you like.”
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