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Ch. 22: The Master of the Village

Moral effect of the great man--An orphaned village--The masters of the
village.--Elijah Raven--Strange appearance and character--Elijah's
house--The owls--Two rooms in the house--Elijah hardens with time--The
village club and its arbitrary secretary--Caleb dips the lambs and falls
ill--His claim on the club rejected--Elijah in court


In my roamings about the downs it is always a relief--a positive
pleasure in fact--to find myself in a village which has no squire or
other magnificent and munificent person who dominates everybody and
everything, and, if he chooses to do so, plays providence in the
community. I may have no personal objection to him--he is sometimes
almost if not quite human; what I heartily dislike is the effect of his
position (that of a giant among pigmies) on the lowly minds about him,
and the servility, hypocrisy, and parasitism which spring up and
flourish in his wide shadow whether he likes these moral weeds or not.
As a rule he likes them, since the poor devil has this in common with
the rest of us, that he likes to stand high in the general regard. But
how is he to know it unless he witnesses its outward beautiful signs
every day and every hour on every countenance he looks upon? Better, to
my mind, the severer conditions, the poverty and unmerited sufferings
which cannot be relieved, with the greater manliness and self-dependence
when the people are left to work out their own destiny. On this account
I was pleased to make the discovery on my first visit to Caleb's native
village that there was no magnate, or other big man, and no gentleman
except the parson, who was not a rich man. It was, so to speak, one of
the orphaned villages left to fend for itself and fight its own way in a
hard world, and had nobody even to give the customary blankets and sack
of coals to its old women. Nor was there any very big farmer in the
place, certainly no gentleman farmer; they were mostly small men, some
of them hardly to be distinguished in speech and appearance from their
hired labourers.

In these small isolated communities it is common to find men who have
succeeded in rising above the others and in establishing a sort of
mastery over them. They are not as a rule much more intelligent than the
others who are never able to better themselves; the main difference is
that they are harder and more grasping and have more self-control. These
qualities tell eventually, and set a man a little apart, a little higher
than the others, and he gets the taste of power, which reacts on him
like the first taste of blood on the big cat. Henceforward he has his
ideal, his definite goal, which is to get the upper hand--to be on top.
He may be, and generally is, an exceedingly unpleasant fellow to have
for a neighbour--mean, sordid, greedy, tyrannous, even cruel, and he may
be generally hated and despised as well, but along with these feelings
there will be a kind of shamefaced respect and admiration for his
courage in following his own line in defiance of what others think and
feel. It is after all with man as with the social animals: he must have
a master--not a policeman, or magistrate, or a vague, far-away,
impersonal something called the authorities or the government; but a
head of the pack or herd, a being like himself whom he knows and sees
and hears and feels every day. A real man, dressed in old familiar
clothes, a fellow-villager, who, wolf or dog-like, has fought his way to
the mastership.

There was a person of this kind at Winterbourne Bishop who was often
mentioned in Caleb's reminiscences, for he had left a very strong
impression on the shepherd's mind--as strong, perhaps, though in a
disagreeable way, as that of Isaac his father, and of Mr. Ellerby of
Doveton. For not only was he a man of great force of character, but he
was of eccentric habits and of a somewhat grotesque appearance. The
curious name of this person was Elijah Raven. He was a native of the
village and lived till extreme old age in it, the last of his family, in
a small house inherited from his father, situated about the centre of
the village street. It was a quaint, old, timbered house, little bigger
than a cottage, with a thatched roof, and behind it some outbuildings, a
small orchard, and a field of a dozen or fifteen acres. Here he lived
with one other person, an old man who did the cooking and housework, but
after this man died he lived alone. Not only was he a bachelor, but he
would never allow any woman to come inside his house. Elijah's one idea
was to get the advantage of others--to make himself master in the
village. Beginning poor, he worked in a small, cautious, peddling way at
farming, taking a field or meadow or strip of down here and there in the
neighbourhood, keeping a few sheep, a few cows, buying and selling and
breeding horses. The men he employed were those he could get at low
wages--poor labourers who were without a place and wanted to fill up a
vacant time, or men like the Targetts described in a former chapter who
could be imposed upon; also gipsies who flitted about the country,
working in a spasmodic way when in the mood for the farmers who could
tolerate them, and who were paid about half the wages of an ordinary
labourer. If a poor man had to find money quickly, on account of illness
or some other cause, he could get it from Elijah at once--not borrowed,
since Elijah neither lent nor gave--but he could sell him anything he
possessed--a horse or cow, or sheepdog, or a piece of furniture; and if
he had nothing to sell, Elijah would give him something to do and pay
him something for it. The great thing was that Elijah had money which he
was always willing to circulate. At his unlamented death he left several
thousands of pounds, which went to a distant relation, and a name which
does not smell sweet, but is still remembered not only at Winterbourne
Bishop but at many other villages on Salisbury Plain.

Elijah was short of stature, broad-shouldered, with an abnormally big
head and large dark eyes. They say that he never cut his hair in his
life. It was abundant and curly, and grew to his shoulders, and when he
was old and his great mass of hair and beard became white it was said
that he resembled a gigantic white owl. Mothers frightened their
children into quiet by saying, "Elijah will get you if you don't behave
yourself." He knew and resented this, and though he never noticed a
child, he hated to have the little ones staring in a half-terrified way
at him. To seclude himself more from the villagers he planted holly and
yew bushes before his house, and eventually the entire building was
hidden from sight by the dense evergreen thicket. The trees were cut
down after his death: they were gone when I first visited the village
and by chance found a lodging in the house, and congratulated myself
that I had got the quaintest, old rambling rooms I had ever inhabited. I
did not know that I was in Elijah Raven's house, although his name had
long been familiar to me: it only came out one day when I asked my
landlady, who was a native, to tell me the history of the place. She
remembered how as a little girl, full of mischief and greatly daring,
she had sometimes climbed over the low front wall to hide under the
thick yew bushes and watch to catch a sight of the owlish old man at his
door or window.

For many years Elijah had two feathered tenants, a pair of white
owls--the birds he so much resembled. They occupied a small garret at
the end of his bedroom, having access to it through a hole under the
thatch. They bred there in peace, and on summer evenings one of the
common sights of the village was Elijah's owls flying from the house
behind the evergreens and returning to it with mice in their talons. At
such seasons the threat to the unruly children would be varied to "Old
Elijah's owls will get you." Naturally, the children grew up with the
idea of the birds and the owlish old man associated in their minds.

It was odd that the two very rooms which Elijah had occupied during all
those solitary years, the others being given over to spiders and dust,
should have been assigned to me when I came to lodge in the house. The
first, my sitting-room, was so low that my hair touched the ceiling when
I stood up my full height; it had a brick floor and a wide old fireplace
on one side. Though so low-ceilinged it was very large and good to be in
when I returned from a long ramble on the downs, sometimes wet and cold,
to sit by a wood fire and warm myself. At night when I climbed to my
bedroom by means of the narrow, crooked, worm-eaten staircase, with two
difficult and dangerous corners to get round, I would lie awake staring
at the small square patch of greyness in the black interior made by the
latticed window; and listening to the wind and rain outside, would
remember that the sordid, owlish old man had slept there and stared
nightly at that same grey patch in the dark for very many years. If, I
thought, that something of a man which remains here below to haunt the
scene of its past life is more likely to exist and appear to mortal eyes
in the case of a person of strong individuality, then there is a chance
that I may be visited this night by Elijah Raven his ghost. But his
owlish countenance never appeared between me and that patch of pale dim
light; nor did I ever feel a breath of cold unearthly air on me.

Elijah did not improve with time; the years that made him long-haired,
whiter, and more owl-like also made him more penurious and grasping, and
anxious to get the better of every person about him. There was scarcely
a poor person in the village--not a field labourer nor shepherd nor
farmer's boy, nor any old woman he had employed, who did not consider
that they had suffered at his hands. The very poorest could not escape;
if he got some one to work for fourpence a day he would find a reason to
keep back a portion of the small sum due to him. At the same time he
wanted to be well thought of, and at length an opportunity came to him
to figure as one who did not live wholly for himself but rather as a
person ready to go out of his way to help his neighbours.

There had long existed a small benefit society or club in the village to
which most of the farm-hands in the parish belonged, the members
numbering about sixty or seventy. Subscriptions were paid quarterly, but
the rules were not strict, and any member could take a week or a
fortnight longer to pay; when a member fell ill he received half the
amount of his wages a week from the funds in hand, and once a year they
had a dinner. The secretary was a labourer, and in time he grew old and
infirm and could not hold a pen in his rheumaticky fingers, and a
meeting was held to consider what was to be done in the matter. It was
not an easy one to settle. There were few members capable of keeping the
books who would undertake the duty, as it was unpaid, and no one among
them well known and trusted by all the members. It was then that Elijah
Raven came to the rescue. He attended the meeting, which he was allowed
to do owing to his being a person of importance--the only one of that
description in the village; and getting up on his legs he made the offer
to act as secretary himself. This came as a great surprise, and the
offer was at once and unanimously accepted, all unpleasant feelings
being forgotten, and for the first time in his life Elijah heard himself
praised as a disinterested person, one it was good to have in the
village.

Things went on very well for a time, and at the yearly dinner of the
club, a few months later, Elijah gave an account of his stewardship,
showing that the club had a surplus of two hundred pounds. Shortly after
this trouble began; Elijah, it was said, was making use of his position
as secretary for his own private interests and to pay off old scores
against those he disliked. When a man came with his quarterly
subscription Elijah would perhaps remember that this person had refused
to work for him or that he had some quarrel with him, and if the
subscription was overdue he would refuse to take it; he would tell the
man that he was no longer a member, and he also refused to give sick pay
to any applicant whose last subscription was still due, if he happened
to be in Elijah's black book. By and by he came into collision with
Caleb, one of the villagers against whom he cherished a special grudge,
and this small affair resulted in the dissolution of the club.

At this time Caleb was head-shepherd at Bartle's Cross, a large farm
above a mile and a half from the village. One excessively hot day in
August he had to dip the lambs; it was very hard work to drive them from
the farm over a high down to the stream a mile below the village, where
there was a dipping place, and he was tired and hot, and in a sweat when
he began the work. With his arms bared to the shoulders he took and
plunged his first lamb into the tank. When engaged in dipping, he said,
he always kept his mouth closed tightly for fear of getting even a drop
of the mixture in it, but on this occasion it unfortunately happened
that the man assisting him spoke to him and he was compelled to reply,
but had no sooner opened his mouth to speak than the lamb made a violent
struggle in his arms and splashed the water over his face and into his
mouth. He got rid of it as quickly as he could, but soon began to feel
bad, and before the work was over he had to sit down two or three times
to rest. However, he struggled on to the finish, then took the flock
home and went to his cottage. He could do no more. The farmer came to
see what the matter was, and found him in a fever, with face and throat
greatly swollen. "You look bad," he said; "you must be off to the
doctor." But it was five miles to the village where the doctor lived,
and Bawcombe replied that he couldn't go. "I'm too bad--I couldn't go,
master, if you offered me money for it," he said.

Then the farmer mounted his horse and went himself, and the doctor came.
"No doubt," he said, "you've got some of the poison into your system and
took a chill at the same time." The illness lasted six weeks, and then
the shepherd resumed work, although still feeling very shaky. By and by
when the opportunity came, he went to claim his sick pay--six shillings
a week for the six weeks, his wages being then twelve shillings. Elijah
flatly refused to pay him; his subscription, he said, had been due for
several weeks and he had consequently forfeited his right to anything.
In vain the shepherd explained that he could not pay when lying ill at
home with no money in the house and receiving no pay from the farmer.
The old man remained obdurate, and with a very heavy heart the shepherd
came out and found three or four of the villagers waiting in the road
outside to hear the result of the application.

They, too, were men who had been turned away from the club by the
arbitrary secretary. Caleb was telling them about his interview when
Elijah came out of the house and, leaning over the front gate, began to
listen. The shepherd then turned towards him and said in a loud voice:
"Mr. Elijah Raven, don't you think this is a tarrible hard case! I've
paid my subscription every quarter for thirty years and never had
nothing from the fund except two weeks' pay when I were bad some years
ago. Now I've been bad six weeks, and my master giv' me nothing for that
time, and I've got the doctor to pay and nothing to live on. What am I
to do?"

Elijah stared at him in silence for some time, then spoke: "I told you
in there I wouldn't pay you one penny of the money and I'll hold to what
I said--in there I said it indoors, and I say again that indoors I'll
never pay you--no, not one penny piece. But if I happen some day to meet
you out of doors then I'll pay you. Now go."

And go he did, very meekly, his wrath going down as he trudged home; for
after all he would have his money by and by, although the hard old man
would punish him for past offences by making him wait for it.

A week or so went by, and then one day while passing through the village
he saw Elijah coming towards him, and said to himself, Now I'll be paid!
When the two men drew near together he cried out cheerfully, "Good
morning, Mr. Raven." The other without a word and without a pause passed
by on his way, leaving the poor shepherd gazing crestfallen after him.

After all he would not get his money! The question was discussed in the
cottages, and by and by one of the villagers who was not so poor as most
of them, and went occasionally to Salisbury, said he would ask an
attorney's advice about the matter. He would pay for the advice out of
his own pocket; he wanted to know if Elijah could lawfully do such
things.

To the man's astonishment the attorney said that as the club was not
registered and the members had themselves made Elijah their head he
could do as he liked--no action would lie against him. But if it was
true and it could be proved that he had spoken those words about paying
the shepherd his money if he met him out of doors, then he could be made
to pay. He also said he would take the case up and bring it into court
if a sum of five pounds was guaranteed to cover expenses in case the
decision went against them.

Poor Caleb, with twelve shillings a week to pay his debts and live on,
could guarantee nothing, but by and by when the lawyer's opinion had
been discussed at great length at the inn and in all the cottages in the
village, it was found that several of Bawcombe's friends were willing to
contribute something towards a guarantee fund, and eventually the sum of
five pounds was raised and handed over to the person who had seen the
lawyer.

His first step was to send for Bawcombe, who had to get a day off and
journey in the carrier's cart one market-day to Salisbury. The result
was that action was taken, and in due time the case came on. Elijah
Raven was in court with two or three of his friends--small working
farmers who had some interested motive in desiring to appear as his
supporters. He, too, had engaged a lawyer to conduct his case. The
judge, said Bawcombe, who had never seen one before, was a tarrible
stern-looking old man in his wig. The plaintiff's lawyer he did open the
case and he did talk and talk a lot, but Elijah's counsel he did keep on
interrupting him, and they two argued and argued, but the judge he never
said no word, only he looked blacker and more tarrible stern. Then when
the talk did seem all over, Bawcombe, ignorant of the forms, got up and
said, "I beg your lordship's pardon, but may I speak?" He didn't rightly
remember afterwards what he called him, but 'twere your lordship or your
worship, he was sure. "Yes, certainly, you are here to speak," said the
judge, and Bawcombe then gave an account of his interview with Elijah
and of the conversation outside the house.

Then up rose Elijah Raven, and in a loud voice exclaimed, "Lord, Lord,
what a sad thing it is to have to sit here and listen to this man's
lies!"

"Sit down, sir," thundered the judge; "sit down and hold your tongue, or
I shall have you removed."

Then Elijah's lawyer jumped up, and the judge told him he'd better sit
down too because he knowed who the liar was in this case. "A brutal
case!" he said, and that was the end, and Bawcombe got his six weeks'
sick pay and expenses, and about three pounds besides, being his share
of the society's funds which Elijah had been advised to distribute to
the members.

And that was the end of the Winterbourne Bishop club, and from that time
it has continued without one.

W. H. Hudson