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Ch. 12: The Shepherd and the Bible

Dan'l Burdon, the treasure-seeker--The shepherd's feeling for the
Bible--Effect of the pastoral life--The shepherd's story of Isaac's
boyhood--The village on the Wylye

One of the shepherd's early memories was of Dan'l Burdon, a labourer on
the farm where Isaac Bawcombe was head-shepherd. He retained a vivid
recollection of this person, who had a profound gravity and was the most
silent man in the parish. He was always thinking about hidden treasure,
and all his spare time was spent in seeking for it. On a Sunday morning,
or in the evening after working hours, he would take a spade or pick and
go away over the hills on his endless search after "something he could
not find." He opened some of the largest barrows, making trenches six to
ten feet deep through them, but found nothing to reward him. One day he
took Caleb with him, and they went to a part of the down where there
were certain depressions in the turf of a circular form and six to seven
feet in circumference. Burdon had observed these basin-like depressions
and had thought it possible they marked the place where things of value
had been buried in long-past ages. To begin he cut the turf all round
and carefully removed it, then dug and found a thick layer of flints.
These removed, he came upon a deposit of ashes and charred wood. And
that was all. Burdon without a word set to work to put it all back in
its place again--ashes and wood, and earth and flints--and having trod
it firmly down he carefully replaced the turf, then leaning on his spade
gazed silently at the spot for a space of several minutes. At last he
spoke. "Maybe, Caleb, you've beared tell about what the Bible says of
burnt sacrifice. Well now, I be of opinion that it were here. They
people the Bible says about, they come up here to sacrifice on White
Bustard Down, and these be the places where they made their fires."

Then he shouldered his spade and started home, the boy following.
Caleb's comment was: "I didn't say nothing to un because I were only a
leetel boy and he were a old man; but I knowed better than that all the
time, because them people in the Bible they was never in England at all,
so how could they sacrifice on White Bustard Down in Wiltsheer?"

It was no idle boast on his part. Caleb and his brothers had been taught
their letters when small, and the Bible was their one book, which they
read not only in the evenings at home but out on the downs during the
day when they were with the flock. His extreme familiarity with the
whole Scripture narrative was a marvel to me; it was also strange,
considering how intelligent a man he was, that his lifelong reading of
that one book had made no change in his rude "Wiltsheer" speech.

Apart from the feeling which old, religious country people, who know
nothing about the Higher Criticism, have for the Bible, taken literally
as the Word of God, there is that in the old Scriptures which appeals in
a special way to the solitary man who feeds his flock on the downs. I
remember well in the days of my boyhood and youth, when living in a
purely pastoral country among a semi-civilized and very simple people,
how understandable and eloquent many of the ancient stories were to me.
The life, the outlook, the rude customs, and the vivid faith in the
Unseen, were much the same in that different race in a far-distant age,
in a remote region of the earth, and in the people I mixed with in my
own home. That country has been changed now; it has been improved and
civilized and brought up to the European standard; I remember it when it
was as it had existed for upwards of two centuries before it had caught
the contagion. The people I knew were the descendants of the Spanish
colonists of the seventeenth century, who had taken kindly to the life
of the plains, and had easily shed the traditions and ways of thought of
Europe and of towns. Their philosophy of life, their ideals, their
morality, were the result of the conditions they existed in, and wholly
unlike ours; and the conditions were like those of the ancient people of
which the Bible tells us. Their very phraseology was strongly
reminiscent of that of the sacred writings, and their character in the
best specimens was like that of the men of the far past who lived nearer
to God, as we say, and certainly nearer to nature than it is possible
for us in this artificial state. Among these sometimes grand old men who
were large landowners, rich in flocks and herds, these fine old,
dignified "natives," the substantial and leading men of the district who
could not spell their own names, there were those who reminded you of
Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brethren, and
even of David the passionate psalmist, with perhaps a guitar for a harp.

No doubt the Scripture lessons read in the thousand churches on every
Sunday of the year are practically meaningless to the hearers. These old
men, with their sheep and goats and wives, and their talk about God, are
altogether out of our ways of thought, in fact as far from us--as
incredible or unimaginable, we may say--as the neolithic men or the
inhabitants of another planet. They are of the order of mythical heroes
and the giants of antiquity. To read about them is an ancient custom,
but we do not listen.

Even to myself the memories of my young days came to be regarded as very
little more than mere imaginations, and I almost ceased to believe in
them until, after years of mixing with modern men, mostly in towns, I
fell in with the downland shepherds, and discovered that even here, in
densely populated and ultra-civilized England, something of the ancient
spirit had survived. In Caleb, and a dozen old men more or less like
him, I seemed to find myself among the people of the past, and sometimes
they were so much like some of the remembered, old, sober, and
slow-minded herders of the plains that I could not help saying to
myself, Why, how this man reminds me of Tio Isidoro, or of Don Pascual
of the "Three Poplar Trees," or of Marcos who would always have three
black sheep in a flock. And just as they reminded me of these men I had
actually known, so did they bring back the older men of the Bible
history--Abraham and Jacob and the rest.

The point here is that these old Bible stories have a reality and
significance for the shepherd of the down country which they have lost
for modern minds; that they recognize their own spiritual lineaments in
these antique portraits, and that all these strange events might have
happened a few years ago and not far away.

One day I said to Caleb Bawcombe that his knowledge of the Bible,
especially of the old part, was greater than that of the other shepherds
I knew on the downs, and I would like to hear why it was so. This led to
the telling of a fresh story about his father's boyhood, which he had
heard in later years from his mother. Isaac was an only child and not
the son of a shepherd; his father was a rather worthless if not a wholly
bad man; he was idle and dissolute, and being remarkably dexterous with
his fists he was persuaded by certain sporting persons to make a
business of fighting--quite a common thing in those days. He wanted
nothing better, and spent the greater part of the time in wandering
about the country; the money he made was spent away from home, mostly in
drink, while his wife was left to keep herself and child in the best way
she could at home or in the fields. By and by a poor stranger came to
the village in search of work and was engaged for very little pay by a
small farmer, for the stranger confessed that he was without experience
of farm work of any description. The cheapest lodging he could find was
in the poor woman's cottage, and then Isaac's mother, who pitied him
because he was so poor and a stranger alone in the world, a very silent,
melancholy man, formed the opinion that he had belonged to another rank
in life. His speech and hands and personal habits betrayed it.
Undoubtedly he was a gentleman; and then from something in his manner,
his voice, and his words whenever he addressed her, and his attention to
religion, she further concluded that he had been in the Church; that,
owing to some trouble or disaster, he had abandoned his place in the
world to live away from all who had known him, as a labourer.

One day he spoke to her about Isaac; he said he had been observing him
and thought it a great pity that such a fine, intelligent boy should be
allowed to grow up without learning his letters. She agreed that it was,
but what could she do? The village school was kept by an old woman, and
though she taught the children very little it had to be paid for, and
she could not afford it. He then offered to teach Isaac himself and she
gladly consented, and from that day he taught Isaac for a couple of
hours every evening until the boy was able to read very well, after
which they read the Bible through together, the poor man explaining
everything, especially the historical parts, so clearly and beautifully,
with such an intimate knowledge of the countries and peoples and customs
of the remote East, that it was all more interesting than a fairy tale.
Finally he gave his copy of the Bible to Isaac, and told him to carry it
in his pocket every day when he went out on the downs, and when he sat
down to take it out and read in it. For by this time Isaac, who was now
ten years old, had been engaged as a shepherd-boy to his great
happiness, for to be a shepherd was his ambition.

Then one day the stranger rolled up his few belongings in a bundle and
put them on a stick which he placed on his shoulder, said good-bye, and
went away, never to return, taking his sad secret with him.

Isaac followed the stranger's counsel, and when he had sons of his own
made them do as he had done from early boyhood. Caleb had never gone
with his flock on the down without the book, and had never passed a day
without reading a portion.

The incidents and observations gathered in many talks with the old
shepherd, which I have woven into the foregoing chapters, relate mainly
to the earlier part of his life, up to the time when, a married man and
father of three small children, he migrated to Warminster. There he was
in, to him, a strange land, far away from friends and home and the old
familiar surroundings, amid new scenes and new people, But the few years
he spent at that place had furnished him with many interesting memories,
some of which will be narrated in the following chapters.

I have told in the account of Winterbourne Bishop how I first went to
that village just to see his native place, and later I visited Doveton
for no other reason than that he had lived there, to find it one of the
most charming of the numerous pretty villages in the vale. I looked for
the cottage in which he had lived and thought it as perfect a home as a
quiet, contemplative man who loved nature could have had: a small,
thatched cottage, very old looking, perhaps inconvenient to live in, but
situated in the prettiest spot, away from other houses, near and within
sight of the old church with old elms and beech-trees growing close to
it, and the land about it green meadow. The clear river, fringed with a
luxuriant growth of sedges, flag, and reeds, was less than a
stone's-throw away.

So much did I like the vale of the Wylye when I grew to know it well
that I wish to describe it fully in the chapter that follows.

W. H. Hudson