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Ch. 18: The Shepherd's Return

Yarnborough Castle sheep-fair--Caleb leaves Doveton and goes into
Dorset--A land of strange happenings--He is home-sick and returns to
Winterbourne Bishop--Joseph, his brother, leaves home--His meeting with
Caleb's old master--Settles in Dorset and is joined by his sister
Hannah--They marry and have children--I go to look for them--Joseph
Bawcombe in extreme old age--Hannah in decline


Caleb's shepherding period in Doveton came to a somewhat sudden
conclusion. It was nearing the end of August and he was beginning to
think about the sheep which would have to be taken to the "Castle"
sheep-fair on 5th October, and it appeared strange to him that his
master had so far said nothing to him on the subject. By "Castle" he
meant Yarnborough Castle, the name of a vast prehistoric earthwork on
one of the high downs between Warminster and Amesbury. There is no
village there and no house near; it is nothing but an immense circular
wall and trench, inside of which the fair is held. It was formerly one
of the most important sheep-fairs in the country, but for the last two
or three decades has been falling off and is now of little account. When
Bawcombe was shepherd at Doveton it was still great, and when he first
went there as Mr. Ellerby's head-shepherd he found himself regarded as a
person of considerable importance at the Castle. Before setting out with
the sheep he asked for his master's instructions, and was told that when
he got to the ground he would be directed by the persons in charge to
the proper place. The Ellerbys, he said, had exhibited and sold their
sheep there for a period of eighty-eight years, without missing a year,
and always at the same spot. Every person visiting the fair on business
knew just where to find the Ellerbys' sheep, and, he added with pride,
they expected them to be the best sheep at the Castle.

One day Mr. Ellerby came to have a talk with his shepherd, and in reply
to a remark of the latter about the October sheep-fair he said that he
would have no sheep to send. "No sheep to send, master!" exclaimed Caleb
in amazement. Then Mr. Ellerby told him that he had taken a notion into
his head that he wanted to go abroad with his wife for a time, and that
some person had just made him so good an offer for all his sheep that he
was going to accept it, so that for the first time in eighty-eight years
there would be no sheep from Doveton Farm at the Castle fair. When he
came back he would buy again; but if he could live away from the farm,
he would probably never come back--he would sell it.

Caleb went home with a heavy heart and told his wife. It grieved her,
too, because of her feeling for Mrs. Ellerby, but in a little while she
set herself to comfort him. "Why, what's wrong about it?" she asked.
"'Twill be more 'n three months before the year's out, and master'll
pay for all the time sure, and we can go home to Bishop and bide a
little without work, and see if that father of yours has forgiven 'ee
for going away to Warminster."

So they comforted themselves, and were beginning to think with pleasure
of home when Mr. Ellerby informed his shepherd that a friend of his, a
good man though not a rich one, was anxious to take him as
head-shepherd, with good wages and a good cottage rent free. The only
drawback for the Bawcombes was that it would take them still farther
from home, for the farm was in Dorset, although quite near the Wiltshire
border.

Eventually they accepted the offer, and by the middle of September were
once more settled down in what was to them a strange land. How strange
it must have seemed to Caleb, how far removed from home and all familiar
things, when even to this day, more than forty years later, he speaks of
it as the ordinary modern man might speak of a year's residence in
Uganda, Tierra del Fuego, or the Andaman Islands! It was a foreign
country, and the ways of the people were strange to him, and it was a
land of very strange things. One of the strangest was an old ruined
church in the neighbourhood of the farm where he was shepherd. It was
roofless, more than half fallen down, and all the standing portion, with
the tower, overgrown with old ivy; the building itself stood in the
centre of a huge round earthwork and trench, with large barrows on the
ground outside the circle. Concerning this church he had a wonderful
story: its decay and ruin had come about after the great bell in the
tower had mysteriously disappeared, stolen one stormy night, it was
believed, by the Devil himself. The stolen bell, it was discovered, had
been flung into a small river at a distance of some miles from the
church, and there in summer-time, when the water was low, it could be
distinctly seen lying half buried in the mud at the bottom. But all the
king's horses and all the king's men couldn't pull it out; the Devil,
who pulled the other way, was strongest. Eventually some wise person
said that a team of white oxen would be able to pull it out, and after
much seeking the white oxen were obtained, and thick ropes were tied to
the sunken bell, and the cattle were goaded and yelled at, and tugged
and strained until the bell came up and was finally drawn right up to
the top of the steep, cliff-like bank of the stream. Then one of the
teamsters shouted in triumph, "Now we've got out the bell, in spite of
all the devils in hell," and no sooner had he spoken the bold words than
the ropes parted, and back tumbled the bell to its old place at the
bottom of the river, where it remains to this day. Caleb had once met a
man in those parts who assured him that he had seen the bell with his
own eyes, lying nearly buried in mud at the bottom of the stream.

The legend is not in the history of Dorset; a much more prosaic account
of the disappearance of the bell is there given, in which the Devil took
no part unless he was at the back of the bad men who were concerned in
the business. But in this strange, remote country, outside of
"Wiltsheer," Bawcombe was in a region where anything might have
happened, where the very soil and pasture were unlike that of his native
country, and the mud adhered to his boots in a most unaccountable way.
It was almost uncanny. Doubtless he was home-sick, for a month or two
before the end of the year he asked his master to look out for another
shepherd.

This was a great disappointment to the farmer: he had gone a distance
from home to secure a good shepherd, and had hoped to keep him
permanently, and now after a single year he was going to lose him. What
did the shepherd want? He would do anything to please him, and begged
him to stay another year. But no, his mind was set on going back to his
own native village and to his own people. And so when his long year was
ended he took his crook and set out over the hills and valleys, followed
by a cart containing his "sticks" and wife and children. And at home
with his old parents and his people he was happy once more; in a short
time he found a place as head-shepherd, with a cottage in the village,
and followed his flock on the old familiar down, and everything again
was as it had been from the beginning of life and as he desired it to be
even to the end.

His return resulted incidentally in other changes and migrations in the
Bawcombe family. His elder brother Joseph, unmarried still although his
senior by about eight years, had not got on well at home. He was a
person of a peculiar disposition, so silent with so fixed and unsmiling
an expression, that he gave the idea of a stolid, thick-skinned man, but
at bottom he was of a sensitive nature, and feeling that his master did
not treat him properly, he gave up his place and was for a long time
without one. He was singularly attentive to all that fell from Caleb
about his wide wanderings and strange experiences, especially in the
distant Dorset country; and at length, about a year after his brother's
return, he announced his intention of going away from his native place
for good to seek his fortune in some distant place where his services
would perhaps be better appreciated. When asked where he intended going,
he answered that he was going to look for a place in that part of Dorset
where Caleb had been shepherd for a year and had been so highly thought
of.

Now Joseph, being a single man, had no "sticks"; all his possessions
went into a bundle, which he carried tied to his crook, and with his
sheep-dog following at his heels he set forth early one morning on the
most important adventure of his life. Then occurred an instance of what
we call a coincidence, but which the shepherd of the downs, nursed in
the old beliefs and traditions, prefers to regard as an act of
providence.

About noon he was trudging along in the turnpike road when he was met by
a farmer driving in a trap, who pulled up to speak to him and asked him
if he could say how far it was to Winterbourne Bishop. Joseph replied
that it was about fourteen miles--he had left Bishop that morning.

Then the farmer asked him if he knew a man there named Caleb Bawcombe,
and if he had a place as shepherd there, as he was now on his way to
look for him and to try and persuade him to go back to Dorset, where he
had been his head-shepherd for the space of a year.

Joseph said that Caleb had a place as head-shepherd on a farm at Bishop,
that he was satisfied with it, and was, moreover, one that preferred to
bide in his native place.

The farmer was disappointed, and the other added, "Maybe you've heard
Caleb speak of his elder brother Joseph--I be he."

"What!" exclaimed the farmer. "You're Caleb's brother! Where be going
then?--to a new place?"

"I've got no place; I be going to look for a place in Dorsetsheer."

"'Tis strange to hear you say that," exclaimed the farmer. He was going,
he said, to see Caleb, and if he would not or could not go back to
Dorset himself to ask him to recommend some man of the village to him;
for he was tired of the ways of the shepherds of his own part of the
country, and his heart was set on getting a man from Caleb's village,
where shepherds understood sheep and knew their work. "Now look here,
shepherd," he continued, "if you'll engage yourself to me for a year
I'll go no farther, but take you right back with me in the trap."

The shepherd was very glad to accept the offer; he devoutly believed
that in making it the farmer was but acting in accordance with the will
of a Power that was mindful of man and kept watch on him, even on His
poor servant Joseph, who had left his home and people to be a stranger
in a strange land.

So well did servant and master agree that Joseph never had occasion to
look for another place; when his master died an old man, his son
succeeded him as tenant of the farm, and he continued with the son until
he was past work. Before his first year was out, his younger sister,
Hannah, came to live with him and keep house, and eventually they both
got married, Joseph to a young woman of the place, and Hannah to a small
working farmer whose farm was about a mile from the village. Children
were born to both, and in time grew up, Joseph's sons following their
father's vocation, while Hannah's were brought up to work on the farm.
And some of them, too, got married in time and had children of their
own.

These are the main incidents in the lives of Joseph and Hannah, related
to me at different times by their brother; he had followed their
fortunes from a distance, sometimes getting a message, or hearing of
them incidentally, but he did not see them. Joseph never returned to his
native village, and the visits of Hannah to her old home had been few
and had long ceased. But he cherished a deep enduring affection for
both; he was always anxiously waiting and hoping for tidings of them,
for Joseph was now a feeble old man living with one of his sons, and
Hannah, long a widow, was in declining health, but still kept the farm,
assisted by one of her sons and two unmarried daughters. Though he had
not heard for a long time it never occurred to him to write, nor did
they ever write to him.

Then, when I was staying at Winterbourne Bishop and had the intention of
shortly paying a visit to Caleb, it occurred to me one day to go into
Dorset and look for these absent ones, so as to be able to give him an
account of their state. It was not a long journey, and arrived at the
village I soon found a son of Joseph, a fine-looking man, who took me to
his cottage, where his wife led me into the old shepherd's room. I found
him very aged in appearance, with a grey face and sunken cheeks, lying
on his bed and breathing with difficulty; but when I spoke to him of
Caleb a light of joy came into his eyes, and he raised himself on his
pillows, and questioned me eagerly about his brother's state and family,
and begged me to assure Caleb that he was still quite well, although too
feeble to get about much, and that his children were taking good care of
him.

From the old brother I went on to seek the young sister--there was a
difference of more than twenty years in their respective ages--and found
her at dinner in the large old farm-house kitchen. At all events she was
presiding, the others present being her son, their hired labourer, the
farm boy, and two unmarried daughters. She herself tasted no food. I
joined them at their meal, and it gladdened and saddened me at the same
time to be with this woman, for she was Caleb's sister, and was
attractive in herself, looking strangely young for her age, with
beautiful dark, soft eyes and but few white threads in her abundant
black hair. The attraction was also in her voice and speech and manner;
but, alas! there was that in her face which was painful to witness--the
signs of long suffering, of nights that bring no refreshment, an
expression in the eyes of one that is looking anxiously out into the dim
distance--a vast unbounded prospect, but with clouds and darkness
resting on it.

It was not without a feeling of heaviness at the heart that I said
good-bye to her; nor was I surprised when, less than a year later, Caleb
received news of her death.

W. H. Hudson