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Ch. 19: The Dark People of the Village

How the materials for this book were obtained--The hedgehog-hunter--A
gipsy taste--History of a dark-skinned family--Hedgehog eaters--Half-bred
and true gipsies--Perfect health--Eating carrion--Mysterious knowledge
and faculties--The three dark Wiltshire types--Story of another dark
man of the village--Account of Liddy--His shepherding--A happy life
with horses--Dies of a broken heart--His daughter


I have sometimes laughed to myself when thinking how a large part of the
material composing this book was collected. It came to me in
conversations, at intervals, during several years, with the shepherd. In
his long life in his native village, a good deal of it spent on the
quiet down, he had seen many things it was or would be interesting to
hear; the things which had interested him, too, at the time, and had
fallen into oblivion, yet might be recovered. I discovered that it was
of little use to question him: the one valuable recollection he
possessed on any subject would, as a rule, not be available when wanted;
it would lie just beneath the surface so to speak, and he would pass and
repass over the ground without seeing it. He would not know that it was
there; it would be like the acorn which a jay or squirrel has hidden and
forgotten all about, which he will nevertheless recover some day if by
chance something occurs to remind him of it. The only method was to talk
about the things he knew, and when by chance he was reminded of some old
experience or some little observation or incident worth hearing, to make
a note of it, then wait patiently for something else. It was a very slow
process, but it is not unlike the one we practise always with regard to
wild nature. We are not in a hurry, but are always watchful, with eyes
and ears and mind open to what may come; it is a mental habit, and when
nothing comes we are not disappointed--the act of watching has been a
sufficient pleasure: and when something does come we take it joyfully as
if it were a gift--a valuable object picked up by chance in our walks.

When I turned into the shepherd's cottage, if it was in winter and he
was sitting by the fire, I would sit and smoke with him, and if we were
in a talking mood I would tell him where I had been and what I had heard
and seen, on the heath, in the woods, in the village, or anywhere, on
the chance of its reminding him of something worth hearing in his past
life.

One Sunday morning, in the late summer, during one of my visits to him,
I was out walking in the woods and found a man of the village, a farm
labourer, with his small boy hunting for hedgehogs. He had caught and
killed two, which the boy was carrying. He told me he was very fond of
the flesh of hedgehogs--"pigs," he called them for short; he said he
would not exchange one for a rabbit. He always spent his holidays
pig-hunting; he had no dog and didn't want one; he found them himself,
and his method was to look for the kind of place in which they were
accustomed to live--a thick mass of bramble growing at the side of an
old ditch as a rule. He would force his way into it and, moving round
and round, trample down the roots and loose earth and dead leaves with
his heavy iron-shod boots until he broke into the nest or cell of the
spiny little beast hidden away under the bush.

He was a short, broad-faced man, with a brown skin, black hair, and
intensely black eyes. Talking with the shepherd that evening I told him
of the encounter, and remarked that the man was probably a gipsy in
blood, although a labourer, living in the village and married to a woman
with blue eyes who belonged to the place.

This incident reminded him of a family, named Targett, in his native
village, consisting of four brothers and a sister. He knew them first
when he was a boy himself, but could not remember their parents. "It
seemed as if they didn't have any," he said. The four brothers were very
much alike: short, with broad faces, black eyes and hair, and brown
skins. They were good workers, but somehow they were never treated by
the farmers like the other men. They were paid less wages--as much as
two to four shillings a week less per man--and made to do things that
others would not do, and generally imposed upon. It was known to every
employer of labour in the place that they could be imposed upon; yet
they were not fools, and occasionally if their master went too far in
bullying and abusing them and compelling them to work overtime every
day, they would have sudden violent outbursts of rage and go off without
any pay at all. What became of their sister he never knew: but none of
the four brothers ever married; they lived together always, and two died
in the village, the other two going to finish their lives in the
workhouse.

One of the curious things about these brothers was that they had a
passion for eating hedgehogs. They had it from boyhood, and as boys used
to go a distance from home and spend the day hunting in hedges and
thickets. When they captured a hedgehog they would make a small fire in
some sheltered spot and roast it, and while it was roasting one of them
would go to the nearest cottage to beg for a pinch of salt, which was
generally given.

These, too, I said, must have been gipsies, at all events on one side.
Where there is a cross the gipsy strain is generally strongest, although
the children, if brought up in the community, often remain in it all
their lives; but they are never quite of it. Their love of wildness and
of eating wild flesh remains in them, and it is also probable that there
is an instability of character, a restlessness, which the small farmers
who usually employ such men know and trade on; the gipsy who takes to
farm work must not look for the same treatment as the big-framed,
white-skinned man who is as strong, enduring, and unchangeable as a
draught horse or ox, and constant as the sun itself.

The gipsy element is found in many if not most villages in the south of
England. I know one large scattered village where it appears
predominant--as dirty and disorderly-looking a place as can be imagined,
the ground round every cottage resembling a gipsy camp, but worse owing
to its greater litter of old rags and rubbish strewn about. But the
people, like all gipsies, are not so poor as they look, and most of the
cottagers keep a trap and pony with which they scour the country for
many miles around in quest of bones, rags, and bottles, and anything
else they can buy for a few pence, also anything they can "pick up" for
nothing.

This is almost the only kind of settled life which a man with a good
deal of gipsy blood in him can tolerate; it affords some scope for his
chaffering and predatory instincts and satisfies the roving passion,
which is not so strong in those of mixed blood. But it is too
respectable or humdrum a life for the true, undegenerate gipsy. One wet
evening in September last I was prowling in a copse near Shrewton,
watching the birds, when I encountered a young gipsy and recognized him
as one of a gang of about a dozen I had met several days before near
Salisbury. They were on their way, they had told me, to a village near
Shaftesbury, where they hoped to remain a week or so.

"What are you doing here?" I asked my gipsy.

He said he had been to Idmiston; he had been on his legs out in the rain
and wet to the skin since morning. He didn't mind that much as the wet
didn't hurt him and he was not tired; but he had eight miles to walk yet
over the downs to a village on the Wylye where his people were staying.

I remarked that I had thought they were staying over Shaftesbury way.

He then looked sharply at me. "Ah, yes," he said, "I remember we met you
and had some talk a fortnight ago. Yes, we went there, but they wouldn't
have us. They soon ordered us off. They advised us to settle down if we
wanted to stay anywhere. Settle down! I'd rather be dead!"

There spoke the true gipsy; and they are mostly of that mind. But what a
mind it is for human beings in this climate! It is in a year like this
of 1909, when a long cold winter and a miserable spring, with frosty
nights lasting well into June, was followed by a cold wet summer and a
wet autumn, that we can see properly what a mind and body is his--how
infinitely more perfect the correspondence between organism and
environment in his case than in ours, who have made our own conditions,
who have not only houses to live in, but a vast army of sanitary
inspectors, physicians and bacteriologists to safeguard us from that
wicked stepmother who is anxious to get rid of us before our time! In
all this miserable year, during which I have met and conversed with and
visited many scores of gipsies, I have not found one who was not in a
cheerful frame of mind, even when he was under a cloud with the police
on his track; nor one with a cold, or complaining of an ache in his
bones, or of indigestion.

The subject of gipsies catching cold connects itself just now in my mind
with that of the gipsy's sense of humour. He has that sense, and it
makes him happy when he is reposing in the bosom of his family and can
give it free vent; but the instant you appear on the scene its gracious
outward signs vanish like lightning and he is once more the sly, subtle
animal, watching you furtively, but with intensity. When you have left
him and he relaxes the humour will come back to him; for it is a humour
similar to that of some of the lower animals, especially birds of the
crow family, and of primitive people, only more highly developed, and is
concerned mainly with the delight of trickery--with getting the better
of some one and the huge enjoyment resulting from the process.

One morning, between nine and ten o'clock, during the excessively cold
spell near the end of November 1909, I paid a visit to some gipsies I
knew at their camp. The men had already gone off for the day, but some
of the women were there--a young married woman, two big girls, and six
or seven children. It was a hard frost and their sleeping accommodation
was just as in the summer-time--bundles of straw and old rugs placed in
or against little half-open canvas and rag shelters; but they all
appeared remarkably well, and some of the children were standing on the
hard frozen ground with bare feet. They assured me that they were all
well, that they hadn't caught colds and didn't mind the cold. I remarked
that I had thought the severe frost might have proved too much for some
of them in that high, unsheltered spot in the downs, and that if I had
found one of the children down with a cold I should have given it a
sixpence to comfort it. "Oh," cried the young married woman, "there's my
poor six months' old baby half dead of a cold; he's very bad, poor dear,
and I'm in great trouble about him."

"He is bad, the darling!" cried one of the big girls. "I'll soon show
you how bad he is!" and with that she dived into a pile of straw and
dragged out a huge fat sleeping baby. Holding it up in her arms she
begged me to look at it to see how bad it was; the fat baby slowly
opened its drowsy eyes and blinked at the sun, but uttered no sound, for
it was not a crying baby, but was like a great fat retriever pup pulled
out of its warm bed.

How healthy they are is hardly known even to those who make a special
study of these aliens, who, albeit aliens, are yet more native than any
Englishman in the land. It is not merely their indifference to wet and
cold; more wonderful still is their dog-like capacity of assimilating
food which to us would be deadly. This is indeed not a nice or pretty
subject, and I will give but one instance to illustrate my point; the
reader with a squeamish stomach may skip the ensuing paragraph.

An old shepherd of Chitterne relates that a family, or gang, of gipsies
used to turn up from time to time at the village; he generally saw them
at lambing-time, when one of the heads of the party with whom he was
friendly would come round to see what he had to give them. On one
occasion his gipsy friend appeared, and after some conversation on
general subjects, asked him if he had anything in his way. "No, nothing
this time," said the shepherd. "Lambing was over two or three months ago
and there's nothing left--no dead lamb. I hung up a few cauls on a beam
in the old shed, thinking they would do for the dogs, but forgot them
and they went bad and then dried up."

"They'll do very well for us," said his friend.

"No, don't you take them!" cried the shepherd in alarm; "I tell you they
went bad months ago, and 'twould kill anyone to eat such stuff. They've
dried up now, and are dry and black as old skin."

"That doesn't matter--we know how to make them all right," said the
gipsy. "Soaked with a little salt, then boiled, they'll do very well."
And off he carried them.

In reading the reports of the Assizes held at Salisbury from the late
eighteenth century down to about 1840, it surprised me to find how
rarely a gipsy appeared in that long, sad, monotonous procession of
"criminals" who passed before the man sitting with his black cap on his
head, and were sent to the gallows or to the penal settlements for
stealing sheep and fowls and ducks or anything else. Yet the gipsies
were abundant then as now, living the same wild, lawless life,
quartering the country, and hanging round the villages to spy out
everything stealable. The man caught was almost invariably the poor,
slow-minded, heavy-footed agricultural labourer; the light,
quick-moving, cunning gipsy escaped. In the "Salisbury Journal" for 1820
I find a communication on this subject, in which the writer says that a
common trick of the gipsies was to dig a deep pit at their camp in which
to bury a stolen sheep, and on this spot they would make their camp
fire. If the sheep was not missed, or if no report of its loss was made
to the police, the thieves would soon be able to dig it up and enjoy it;
but if inquiries were made they would have to wait until the affair had
blown over.

It amused me to find, from an incident related to me by a workman in a
village where I was staying lately, that this simple, ancient device is
still practised by the gipsies. My informant said that on going out at
about four o'clock one morning during the late summer he was surprised
at seeing two gipsies with a pony and cart at the spot where a party of
them had been encamped a fortnight before. He watched them, himself
unseen, and saw that they were digging a pit on the spot where they had
had their fire. They took out several objects from the ground, but he
was too far away to make out what they were. They put them in the cart
and covered them over, then filled up the pit, trampled the earth well
down, and put the ashes and burnt sticks back in the same place, after
which they got into the cart and drove off.

Of course a man, even a nomad, must have some place to conceal his
treasures or belongings in, and the gipsy has no cellar nor attic nor
secret cupboard, and as for his van it is about the last place in which
he would bestow anything of value or incriminating, for though he is
always on the move, he is, moving or sitting still, always under a
cloud. The ground is therefore the safest place to hide things in,
especially in a country like the Wiltshire Downs, though he may use
rocks and hollow trees in other districts. His habit is that of the jay
and magpie, and of the dog with a bone to put by till it is wanted.
Possibly the rural police have not yet discovered this habit of the
gipsy. Indeed, the contrast in mind and locomotive powers between the
gipsy and the village policeman has often amused me; the former most
like the thievish jay, ever on mischief bent; the other, who has his eye
on him, is more like the portly Cochin-China fowl of the farmyard, or
the Muscovy duck, or stately gobbler.

To go back. When the buried sheep had to be kept too long buried and was
found "gone bad" when disinterred, I fancy it made little difference to
the diners. One remembers Thoreau's pleasure at the spectacle of a crowd
of vultures feasting on the carrion of a dead horse; the fine healthy
appetite and boundless vigour of nature filled him with delight. But it
is not only some of the lower animals--dogs and vultures, for
instance--which possess this power and immunity from the effects of
poisons developed in putrid meat; the Greenlanders and African savages,
and many other peoples in various parts of the world, have it as well.

Sometimes when sitting with gipsies at their wild hearth, I have felt
curious as to the contents of that black pot simmering over the fire. No
doubt it often contains strange meats, but it would not have been
etiquette to speak of such a matter. It is like the pot on the fire of
the Venezuela savage into which he throws whatever he kills with his
little poisoned arrows or fishes out of the river. Probably my only
quarrel with them would be about the little fledgelings: it angers me to
see them beating the bushes in spring in search of small nesties and the
callow young that are in them. After all, the gipsies could retort that
my friends the jays and magpies are at the same business in April and
May.

It is just these habits of the gipsy which I have described, shocking to
the moralist and sanitarian and disgusting to the person of delicate
stomach, it may be, which please me, rather than the romance and poetry
which the scholar-gipsy enthusiasts are fond of reading into him. He is
to me a wild, untameable animal of curious habits, and interests me as a
naturalist accordingly. It may be objected that being a naturalist
occupied with the appearance of things, I must inevitably miss the one
thing which others find.

In a talk I had with a gipsy a short time ago, he said to me: "You know
what the books say, and we don't. But we know other things that are not
in the books, and that's what we have. It's ours, our own, and you can't
know it."

It was well put; but I was not perhaps so entirely ignorant as he
imagined of the nature of that special knowledge, or shall we say
faculty, which he claimed. I take it to be cunning--the cunning of a
wild animal with a man's brain--and a small, an infinitesimal, dose of
something else which eludes us. But that something else is not of a
spiritual nature: the gipsy has no such thing in him; the soul growths
are rooted in the social instinct, and are developed in those in whom
that instinct is strong. I think that if we analyse that dose of
something else, we will find that it is still the animal's cunning, a
special, a sublimated cunning, the fine flower of his whole nature, and
that it has nothing mysterious in it. He is a parasite, but free and as
well able to exist free as the fox or jackal; but the parasitism pays
him well, and he has followed it so long in his intercourse with social
man that it has come to be like an instinct, or secret knowledge, and is
nothing more than a marvellously keen penetration which reveals to him
the character and degree of credulity and other mental weaknesses of his
subject.

It is not so much the wind on the heath, brother, as the fascination of
lawlessness, which makes his life an everlasting joy to him; to pit
himself against gamekeeper, farmer, policeman, and everybody else, and
defeat them all, to flourish like the parasitic fly on the honey in the
hive and escape the wrath of the bees.

I must now return from this long digression to my conversation with the
shepherd about the dark people of the village.

There were, I continued, other black-eyed and black-haired people in the
villages who had no gipsy blood in their veins. So far as I could make
out there were dark people of three originally distinct and widely
different races in the Wiltshire Downs. There was a good deal of mixed
blood, no doubt, and many dark persons could not be identified as
belonging to any particular race. Nevertheless three distinct types
could be traced among the dark people, and I took them to be, first, the
gipsy, rather short of stature, brown-skinned, with broad face and high
cheek-bones, like the men we had just been speaking of. Secondly, the
men and women of white skins and good features, who had rather broad
faces and round heads, and were physically and mentally just as good as
the best blue-eyed people; these were probably the descendants of the
dark, broad-faced Wilsetas, who came over at the time when the country
was being overrun with the English and other nations or tribes, and who
colonized in Wiltshire and gave it their name. The third type differed
widely from both the others. They were smallest in size and had narrow
heads and long or oval faces, and were very dark, with brown skins; they
also differed mentally from the others, being of a more lively
disposition and hotter temper. The characters which distinguish the
ancient British or Iberian race appeared to predominate in persons of
this type.

The shepherd said he didn't know much about "all that," but he
remembered that they once had a man in the village who was like the last
kind I had described. He was a labourer named Tark, who had several
sons, and when they were grown up there was a last one born: he had to
be the last because his mother died when she gave him birth; and that
last one was like his father, small, very dark-skinned, with eyes like
sloes, and exceedingly lively and active.

Tark, himself, he said, was the liveliest, most amusing man he had ever
known, and the quickest to do things, whatever it was he was asked to
do, but he was not industrious and not thrifty. The Tarks were always
very poor. He had a good ear for music and was a singer of the old
songs--he seemed to know them all. One of his performances was with a
pair of cymbals which he had made for himself out of some old metal
plates, and with these he used to play while dancing about, clashing
them in time, striking them on his head, his breast, and legs. In these
dances with the cymbals he would whirl and leap about in an astonishing
way, standing sometimes on his hands, then on his feet, so that half the
people in the village used to gather at his cottage to watch his antics
on a summer evening.

One afternoon he was coming down the village street and saw the
blacksmith standing near his cottage looking up at a tall fir-tree which
grew there on his ground. "What be looking at?" cried Tark. The
blacksmith pointed to a branch, the lowest branch of all, but about
forty feet from the ground, and said a chaffinch had his nest in it,
about three feet from the trunk, which his little son had set his heart
on having. He had promised to get it down for him, but there was no long
ladder and he didn't know how to get it.

Tark laughed and said that for half a gallon of beer he would go up legs
first and take the nest and bring it down in one hand, which he would
not use in climbing, and would come down as he went up, head first.

"Do it, then," said the blacksmith, "and I'll stand the half gallon."

Tark ran to the tree, and turning over and standing on his hands,
clasped the bole with his legs and then with his arms and went up to the
branch, when taking the nest and holding it in one hand, he came down
head first to the ground in safety.

There were other anecdotes of his liveliness and agility. Then followed
the story of the youngest son, known as Liddy. "I don't rightly know,"
said Caleb, "what the name was he was given when they christened 'n; but
he were always called Liddy, and nobody knowed any other name for him."

Liddy's grown-up brothers all left home when he was a small boy: one
enlisted and was sent to India and never returned; the other two went to
America, so it was said. He was twelve years old when his father died,
and he had to shift for himself; but he was no worse off on that
account, as they had always been very poor owing to poor Tark's love of
beer. Before long he got employed by a small working farmer who kept a
few cows and a pair of horses and used to buy wethers to fatten them,
and these the boy kept on the down.

Liddy was always a "leetel chap," and looked no more than nine when
twelve, so that he could do no heavy work; but he was a very willing and
active little fellow, with a sweet temper, and so lively and full of fun
as to be a favourite with everybody in the village. The men would laugh
at his pranks, especially when he came from the fields on the old plough
horse and urged him to a gallop, sitting with his face to the tail; and
they would say that he was like his father, and would never be much good
except to make people laugh. But the women had a tender feeling for him,
because, although motherless and very poor, he yet contrived to be
always clean and neat. He took the greatest care of his poor clothes,
washing and mending them himself. He also took an intense interest in
his wethers, and almost every day he would go to Caleb, tending his
flock on the down, to sit by him and ask a hundred questions about sheep
and their management. He looked on Caleb, as head-shepherd on a
good-sized farm, as the most important and most fortunate person he
knew, and was very proud to have him as guide, philosopher, and friend.

Now it came to pass that once in a small lot of thirty or forty wethers
which the farmer had bought at a sheep-fair and brought home it was
discovered that one was a ewe--a ewe that would perhaps at some future
day have a lamb! Liddy was greatly excited at the discovery; he went to
Caleb and told him about it, almost crying at the thought that his
master would get rid of it. For what use would it be to him? but what a
loss it would be! And at last, plucking up courage, he went to the
farmer and begged and prayed to be allowed to keep the ewe, and the
farmer laughed at him; but he was a little touched at the boy's feeling,
and at last consented. Then Liddy was the happiest boy in the village,
and whenever he got the chance he would go out to Caleb on the down to
talk about and give him news of the one beloved ewe. And one day, after
about nineteen or twenty weeks, Caleb, out with his flock, heard shouts
at a distance, and, turning to look, saw Liddy coming at great speed
towards him, shouting out some great news as he ran; but what it was
Caleb could not make out, even when the little fellow had come to him,
for his excitement made him incoherent. The ewe had lambed, and there
were twins--two strong healthy lambs, most beautiful to see! Nothing so
wonderful had ever happened in his life before! And now he sought out
his friend oftener than ever, to talk of his beloved lambs, and to
receive the most minute directions about their care. Caleb, who is not a
laughing man, could not help laughing a little when he recalled poor
Liddy's enthusiasm. But that beautiful shining chapter in the poor boy's
life could not last, and when the lambs were grown they were sold, and
so were all the wethers, then Liddy, not being wanted, had to find
something else to do.

I was too much interested in this story to let the subject drop. What
had been Liddy's after-life? Very uneventful: there was, in fact,
nothing in it, nor in him, except an intense love for all things,
especially animals; and nothing happened to him until the end, for he
has been dead now these nine or ten years. In his next place he was
engaged, first, as carter's boy, and then under-carter, and all his love
was lavished on the horses. They were more to him than sheep, and he
could love them without pain, since they were not being prepared for the
butcher with his abhorred knife. Liddy's love and knowledge of horses
became known outside of his own little circle, and he was offered and
joyfully accepted a place in the stables of a wealthy young gentleman
farmer, who kept a large establishment and was a hunting man. From
stable-boy he was eventually promoted to groom. Occasionally he would
reappear in his native place. His home was but a few miles away, and
when out exercising a horse he appeared to find it a pleasure to trot
down the old street, where as a farmer's boy he used to make the village
laugh at his antics. But he was very much changed from the poor boy, who
was often hatless and barefooted, to the groom in his neat, well-fitting
black suit, mounted on a showy horse.

In this place he continued about thirty years, and was married and had
several children and was very happy, and then came a great disaster. His
employer having met with heavy losses sold all his horses and got rid of
his servants, and Liddy had to go. This great change, and above all his
grief at the loss of his beloved horses, was more than he could endure.
He became melancholy and spent his days in silent brooding, and by and
by, to everybody's surprise, Liddy fell ill, for he was in the prime of
life and had always been singularly healthy. Then to astonish people
still more, he died. What ailed him--what killed him? every one asked of
the doctor; and his answer was that he had no disease--that nothing
ailed him except a broken heart; and that was what killed poor Liddy.

In conclusion I will relate a little incident which occurred several
months later, when I was again on a visit to my old friend the shepherd.
We were sitting together on a Sunday evening, when his old wife looked
out and said, "Lor, here be Mrs. Taylor with her children coming in to
see us." And Mrs. Taylor soon appeared, wheeling her baby in a
perambulator, with two little girls following. She was a comely, round,
rosy little woman, with black hair, black eyes, and a singularly sweet
expression, and her three pretty little children were like her. She
stayed half an hour in pleasant chat, then went her way down the road to
her home. Who, I asked, was Mrs. Taylor?

Bawcombe said that in a way she was a native of their old village of
Winterbourne Bishop: at least her father was. She had married a man who
had taken a farm near them, and after having known her as a young girl
they had been glad to have her again as a neighbour. "She's a daughter
of that Liddy I told 'ee about some time ago," he said.

W. H. Hudson