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Ch. 15: The Ellerbys of Doveton

The Bawcombes at Doveton Farm--Caleb finds favour with his master--Mrs.
Ellerby and the shepherd's wife--The passion of a childless wife--The
curse--A story of the "mob"--The attack on the farm--A man transported
for life--The hundred and ninth Psalm--The end of the Ellerbys


Caleb and his wife invariably spoke of their time at Doveton Farm in a
way which gave one the idea that they regarded it as the most important
period of their lives. It had deeply impressed them, and doubtless it
was a great change for them to leave their native village for the first
time in their lives and go long miles from home among strangers to serve
a new master. Above everything they felt leaving the old father who was
angry with them, and had gone to the length of disowning them for taking
such a step. But there was something besides all this which had served
to give Doveton an enduring place in their memories, and after many
talks with the old couple about their Warminster days I formed the idea
that it was more to them than any other place where they had lived,
because of a personal feeling they cherished for their master and
mistress there.

Hitherto Caleb had been in the service of men who were but a little way
removed in thought and feeling from those they employed. They were
mostly small men, born and bred in the parish, some wholly self-made,
with no interest or knowledge of anything outside their own affairs, and
almost as far removed as the labourers themselves from the ranks above.
The Ellerbys were of another stamp, or a different class. If not a
gentleman, Mr. Ellerby was very like one and was accustomed to associate
with gentlemen. He was a farmer, descended from a long line of farmers;
but he owned his own land, and was an educated and travelled man,
considered wealthy for a farmer; at all events he was able to keep his
carriage and riding and hunting horses in his stables, and he was
regarded as the best breeder of sheep in the district. He lived in a
good house, which with its pictures and books and beautiful decorations
and furniture appeared to their simple minds extremely luxurious. This
atmosphere was somewhat disconcerting to them at first, for although he
knew his own value, priding himself on being a "good shepherd," Caleb
had up till now served with farmers who were in a sense on an equality
with him, and they understood him and he them. But in a short time the
feeling of strangeness vanished: personally, as a fellow-man, his master
soon grew to be more to him than any farmer he had yet been with. And he
saw a good deal of his master. Mr. Ellerby cultivated his acquaintance,
and, as we have seen, got into the habit of seeking him out and talking
to him even when he was at a distance out on the down with his flock.
And Caleb could not but see that in this respect he was preferred above
the other men employed on the farm--that he had "found favour" in his
master's eyes.

When he had told me that story about Watch and the corn-crake, it stuck
in my mind, and on the first opportunity I went back to that subject to
ask what it really was that made his master act in such an extraordinary
manner--to go out on a pouring wet day in a summer suit and straw hat,
and walk a mile or two just to stand there in the rain talking to him
about nothing in particular. What secret trouble had he--was it that his
affairs were in a bad way, or was he quarrelling with his wife? No,
nothing of the kind; it was a long story--this secret trouble of the
Ellerbys, and with his unconquerable reticence in regard to other
people's private affairs he would have passed it off with a few general
remarks.

But there was his old wife listening to us, and, woman-like, eager to
discuss such a subject, she would not let it pass. She would tell it and
would not be silenced by him: they were all dead and gone--why should I
not be told if I wanted to hear it? And so with a word put in here and
there by him when she talked, and with a good many words interposed by
her when he took up the tale, they unfolded the story, which was very
long as they told it and must be given briefly here.

It happened that when the Bawcombes settled at Doveton, just as Mr.
Ellerby had taken to the shepherd, making a friend of him, so Mrs.
Ellerby took to the shepherd's wife, and fell into the habit of paying
frequent visits to her in her cottage. She was a very handsome woman, of
a somewhat stately presence, dignified in manner, and she wore her
abundant hair in curls hanging on each side to her shoulders--a fashion
common at that time. From the first she appeared to take a particular
interest in the Bawcombes, and they could not but notice that she was
more gracious and friendly towards them than to the others of their
station on the farm. The Bawcombes had three children then, aged six,
four, and two years respectively, all remarkably healthy, with rosy
cheeks and black eyes, and they were merry-tempered little things. Mrs.
Ellerby appeared much taken with the children; praised their mother for
always keeping them so clean and nicely dressed, and wondered how she
could manage it on their small earnings. The carter and his wife lived
in a cottage close by, and they, too, had three little children, and
next to the carter's was the bailiff's cottage, and he, too, was married
and had children; but Mrs. Ellerby never went into their cottages, and
the shepherd and his wife concluded that it was because in both cases
the children were rather puny, sickly-looking little things and were
never very clean. The carter's wife, too, was a slatternly woman. One
day when Mrs. Ellerby came in to see Mrs. Bawcombe the carter's wife was
just going out of the door, and Mrs. Ellerby appeared displeased, and
before leaving she said, "I hope, Mrs. Bawcombe, you are not going to
mix too freely with your neighbours or let your children go too much
with them and fall into their ways." They also observed that when she
passed their neighbours' children in the lane she spoke no word and
appeared not to see them. Yet she was kind to them too, and whenever she
brought a big parcel of cakes, fruit, and sweets for the children, which
she often did, she would tell the shepherd's wife to divide it into
three lots, one for her own children and the others for those of her two
neighbours. It was clear to see that Mrs. Ellerby had grown fond of her
children, especially of the eldest, the little rosy-cheeked six-year-old
boy. Sitting in the cottage she would call him to her side and would
hold his hand while conversing with his mother; she would also bare the
child's arm just for the pleasure of rubbing it with her hand and
clasping it round with her fingers, and sometimes when caressing the
child in this way she would turn her face aside to hide the tears that
dropped from her eyes.

She had no child of her own--the one happiness which she and her husband
desired above all things. Six times in their ten married years they had
hoped and rejoiced, although with fear and trembling, that their prayer
would be answered, but in vain--every child born to them came lifeless
into the world. "And so 'twould always be, for sure," said the
villagers, "because of the curse."

For it was a cause of wonder to the shepherd and his wife that this
couple, so strong and healthy, so noble-looking, so anxious to have
children, should have been so unfortunate, and still the villagers
repeated that it was the curse that was on them.

This made the shepherd angry. "What be you saying about a curse that is
on them?--a good man and a good woman!" he would exclaim, and taking up
his crook go out and leave them to their gossip. He would not ask them
what they meant; he refused to listen when they tried to tell him; but
in the end he could not help knowing, since the idea had become a fixed
one in the minds of all the villagers, and he could not keep it out.
"Look at them," the gossipers would say, "as fine a couple as you ever
saw, and no child; and look at his two brothers, fine, big, strong,
well-set-up men, both married to fine healthy women, and never a child
living to any of them. And the sisters unmarried! 'Tis the curse and
nothing else."

The curse had been uttered against Mr. Ellerby's father, who was in his
prime in the year 1831 at the time of the "mob," when the introduction
of labour-saving machinery in agriculture sent the poor farm-labourers
mad all over England. Wheat was at a high price at that time, and the
farmers were exceedingly prosperous, but they paid no more than seven
shillings a week to their miserable labourers. And if they were
half-starved when there was work for all, when the corn was reaped with
sickles, what would their condition be when reaping machines and other
new implements of husbandry came into use? They would not suffer it;
they would gather in bands everywhere and destroy the machinery, and
being united they would be irresistible; and so it came about that there
were risings or "mobs" all over the land.

Mr. Ellerby, the most prosperous and enterprising farmer in the parish,
had been the first to introduce the new methods. He did not believe that
the people would rise against him, for he well knew that he was regarded
as a just and kind man and was even loved by his own labourers, but even
if it had not been so he would not have hesitated to carry out his
resolution, as he was a high-spirited man. But one day the villagers got
together and came unexpectedly to his barns, where they set to work to
destroy his new thrashing machine. When he was told he rushed out and
went in hot haste to the scene, and as he drew near some person in the
crowd threw a heavy hammer at him, which struck him on the head and
brought him senseless to the ground.

He was not seriously injured, but when he recovered the work of
destruction had been done and the men had gone back to their homes, and
no one could say who had led them and who had thrown the hammer. But by
and by the police discovered that the hammer was the property of a
shoemaker in the village, and he was arrested and charged with injuring
with intent to murder. Tried with many others from other villages in the
district at the Salisbury Assizes, he was found guilty and sentenced to
transportation for life. Yet the Doveton shoemaker was known to every
one as a quiet, inoffensive young man, and to the last he protested his
innocence, for although he had gone with the others to the farm he had
not taken the hammer and was guiltless of having thrown it.

Two years after he had been sent away Mr. Ellerby received a letter with
an Australian postmark on it, but on opening it found nothing but a long
denunciatory passage from the Bible enclosed, with no name or address.
Mr. Ellerby was much disturbed in his mind, and instead of burning the
paper and holding his peace, he kept it and spoke about it to this
person and that, and every one went to his Bible to find out what
message the poor shoemaker had sent, for it had been discovered that it
was the one hundred and ninth Psalm, or a great portion of it, and this
is what they read:--

"Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the Lord; and let
not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

"Let them be before the Lord continually, that he may cut off the memory
of them from the earth.

"Because that he remembered not to show mercy, but persecuted the poor
and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

"As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he delighted not in
blessing, so let it be far from him.

"As he clothed himself with cursing like as with a garment, so let it
come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.

"Let it be unto him as a garment which covereth him, and for a girdle
wherewith he is girded continually.

"But do Thou for me, O God the Lord, for Thy name's sake. For I am poor
and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

"I am come like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as
the locust.

"My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness."

From that time the hundred and ninth Psalm became familiar to the
villagers, and there were probably not many who did not get it by heart.
There was no doubt in their minds of the poor shoemaker's innocence.
Every one knew that he was incapable of hurting a fly. The crowd had
gone into his shop and swept him away with them--all were in it; and
some person seeing the hammer had taken it to help in smashing the
machinery. And Mr. Ellerby had known in his heart that he was innocent,
and if he had spoken a word for him in court he would have got the
benefit of the doubt and been discharged. But no, he wanted to have his
revenge on some one, and he held his peace and allowed this poor fellow
to be made the victim. Then, when he died, and his eldest son succeeded
him at Doveton Farm, and he and the other sons got married, and there
were no children, or none born alive, they went back to the Psalm again
and read and re-read and quoted the words: "Let his posterity be cut
off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out."
Undoubtedly the curse was on them!

Alas! it was; the curse was their belief in the curse, and the dreadful
effect of the knowledge of it on a woman's mind--all the result of Mr.
Ellerby the father's fatal mistake in not having thrown the scrap of
paper that came to him from the other side of the world into the fire.
All the unhappiness of the "generation following" came about in this
way, and the family came to an end; for when the last of the Ellerbys
died at a great age there was not one person of the name left in that
part of Wiltshire.


W. H. Hudson