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Ch. 23: Isaac's Children

Isaac Bawcombe's family--The youngest son--Caleb goes to seek David at
Wilton sheep-fair--Martha, the eldest daughter--Her beauty--She marries
Shepherd Ierat--The name of Ierat--Story of Ellen Ierat--The Ierats go
to Somerset--Martha and the lady of the manor--Martha's travels--Her
mistress dies--Return to Winterbourne Bishop--Shepherd Ierat's end


Caleb was one of five, the middle one, with a brother and sister older
and a brother and sister younger than himself--a symmetrical family. I
have already written incidentally of the elder brother and the youngest
sister, and in this chapter will complete the history of Isaac's
children by giving an account of the eldest sister and youngest brother.

The brother was David, the hot-tempered young shepherd who killed his
dog Monk, and who afterwards followed his brother to Warminster. In
spite of his temper and "want of sense" Caleb was deeply attached to
him, and when as an old man his shepherding days were finished he
followed his wife to their new home, he grieved at being so far removed
from his favourite brother. For some time he managed to make the journey
to visit him once a year. Not to his home near Warminster, but to
Wilton, at the time of the great annual sheep-fair held on 12th
September. From his cottage he would go by the carrier's cart to the
nearest town, and thence by rail with one or two changes by Salisbury to
Wilton.

After I became acquainted with Caleb he was ill and not likely to
recover, and for over two years could not get about. During all this
time he spoke often to me of his brother and wished he could see him. I
wondered why he did not write; but he would not, nor would the other.
These people of the older generation do not write to each other; years
are allowed to pass without tidings, and they wonder and wish and talk
of this and that absent member of the family, trusting it is well with
them, but to write a letter never enters into their minds.

At last Caleb began to mend and determined to go again to Wilton
sheep-fair to look for his beloved brother; to Warminster he could not
go; it was too far. September the 12th saw him once more at the old
meeting-place, painfully making his slow way to that part of the ground
where Shepherd David Bawcombe was accustomed to put his sheep. But he
was not there. "I be here too soon," said Caleb, and sat himself
patiently down to wait, but hours passed and David did not appear, so he
got up and made his way about the fair in search of him, but couldn't
find 'n. Returning to the old spot he got into conversation with two
young shepherds and told them he was waiting for his brother who always
put his sheep in that part. "What be his name?" they asked, and when he
gave it they looked at one another and were silent. Then one of them
said, "Be you Shepherd Caleb Bawcombe?" and when he had answered them
the other said, "You'll not see your brother at Wilton to-day. We've
come from Doveton, and knew he. You'll not see your brother no more. He
be dead these two years."

Caleb thanked them for telling him, and got up and went his way very
quietly, and got back that night to his cottage. He was very tired, said
his wife; he wouldn't eat and he wouldn't talk. Many days passed and he
still sat in his corner and brooded, until the wife was angry and said
she never knowed a man make so great a trouble over losing a brother.
'Twas not like losing a wife or a son, she said; but he answered not a
word, and it was many weeks before that dreadful sadness began to wear
off, and he could talk cheerfully once more of his old life in the
village.

Of the sister, Martha, there is much more to say; her life was an
eventful one as lives go in this quiet downland country, and she was,
moreover, distinguished above the others of the family by her beauty and
vivacity. I only knew her when her age was over eighty, in her native
village where her life ended some time ago, but even at that age there
was something of her beauty left and a good deal of her charm. She had a
good figure still and was of a good height; and had dark, fine eyes,
clear, dark, unwrinkled skin, a finely shaped face, and her grey hair,
once black, was very abundant. Her manner, too, was very engaging. At
the age of twenty-five she married a shepherd named Thomas Ierat--a
surname I had not heard before and which made me wonder where were the
Ierats in Wiltshire that in all my rambles among the downland villages I
had never come across them, not even in the churchyards. Nobody
knew--there were no Ierats except Martha Ierat, the widow, of
Winterbourne Bishop and her son--nobody had ever heard of any other
family of the name. I began to doubt that there ever had been such a
name until quite recently when, on going over an old downland village
church, the rector took me out to show me "a strange name" on a tablet
let into the wall of the building outside. The name was Ierat and the
date the seventeenth century. He had never seen the name excepting on
that tablet. Who, then, was Martha's husband? It was a queer story which
she would never have told me, but I had it from her brother and his
wife.

A generation before that of Martha, at a farm in the village of Bower
Chalk on the Ebble, there was a girl named Ellen Ierat employed as a
dairymaid. She was not a native of the village, and if her parentage and
place of birth were ever known they have long passed out of memory. She
was a good-looking, nice-tempered girl, and was much liked by her master
and mistress, so that after she had been about two years in their
service it came as a great shock to find that she was in the family way.
The shock was all the greater when the fresh discovery was made one day
that another unmarried woman in the house, who was also a valued
servant, was in the same condition. The two unhappy women had kept their
secret from every one except from each other until it could be kept no
longer, and they consulted together and determined to confess it to
their mistress and abide the consequences.

Who were the men? was the first question asked There was only
one--Robert Coombe, the shepherd, who lived at the farm-house, a slow,
silent, almost inarticulate man, with a round head and flaxen hair; a
bachelor of whom people were accustomed to say that he would never marry
because no woman would have such a stolid, dull-witted fellow for a
husband. But he was a good shepherd and had been many years on the farm,
and it was altogether a terrible business. Forthwith the farmer got out
his horse and rode to the downs to have it out with the unconscionable
wretch who had brought that shame and trouble on them. He found him
sitting on the turf eating his midday bread and bacon, with a can of
cold tea at his side, and getting off his horse he went up to him and
damned him for a scoundrel and abused him until he had no words left,
then told his shepherd that he must choose between the two women and
marry at once, so as to make an honest woman of one of the two poor
fools; either he must do that or quit the farm forthwith.

Coombe heard in silence and without a change in his countenance,
masticating his food the while and washing it down with an occasional
draught from his can, until he had finished his meal; then taking his
crook he got up, and remarking that he would "think of it" went after
his flock.

The farmer rode back cursing him for a clod; and in the evening Coombe,
after folding his flock, came in to give his decision, and said he had
thought of it and would take Jane to wife. She was a good deal older
than Ellen and not so good-looking, but she belonged to the village and
her people were there, and everybody knowed who Jane was, an' she was an
old servant an' would be wanted on the farm. Ellen was a stranger among
them, and being only a dairymaid was of less account than the other one.

So it was settled, and on the following morning Ellen, the rejected, was
told to take up her traps and walk.

What was she to do in her condition, no longer to be concealed, alone
and friendless in the world? She thought of Mrs. Poole, an elderly woman
of Winterbourne Bishop, whose children were grown up and away from home,
who when staying at Bower Chalk some months before had taken a great
liking for Ellen, and when parting with her had kissed her and said: "My
dear, I lived among strangers too when I were a girl and had no one of
my own, and know what 'tis." That was all; but there was nobody else,
and she resolved to go to Mrs. Poole, and so laden with her few
belongings she set out to walk the long miles over the downs to
Winterbourne Bishop where she had never been. It was far to walk in hot
August weather when she went that sad journey, and she rested at
intervals in the hot shade of a furze-bush, haunted all day by the
miserable fear that the woman she sought, of whom she knew so little,
would probably harden her heart and close her door against her. But the
good woman took compassion on her and gave her shelter in her poor
cottage, and kept her till her child was born, in spite of all the
women's bitter tongues. And in the village where she had found refuge
she remained to the end of her life, without a home of her own, but
always in a room or two with her boy in some poor person's cottage. Her
life was hard but not unpeaceful, and the old people, all dead and gone
now, remembered Ellen as a very quiet, staid woman who worked hard for a
living, sometimes at the wash-tub, but mostly in the fields, haymaking
and harvesting and at other times weeding, or collecting flints, or with
a spud or sickle extirpating thistles in the pasture-land. She worked
alone or with other poor women, but with the men she had no friendships;
the sharpest women's eyes in the village could see no fault in her in
this respect; if it had not been so, if she had talked pleasantly with
them and smiled when addressed by them, her life would have been made a
burden to her. She would have been often asked who her brat's father
was. The dreadful experience of that day, when she had been cast out and
was alone in the world, when, burdened with her unborn child, she had
walked over the downs in the hot August weather, in anguish of
apprehension, had sunk into her soul. Her very nature was changed, and
in a man's presence her blood seemed frozen, and if spoken to she
answered in monosyllables with her eyes on the earth. This was noted,
with the result that all the village women were her good friends; they
never reminded her of her fall, and when she died still young they
grieved for her and befriended the little orphan boy she had left on
their hands.

He was then about eleven years old, and was a stout little fellow with a
round head and flaxen hair like his father; but he was not so stolid and
not like him in character; at all events his old widow in speaking of
him to me said that never in all his life did he do one unkind or unjust
thing. He came from a long line of shepherds, and shepherding was
perhaps almost instinctive in him; from his earliest boyhood the
tremulous bleating of the sheep and half-muffled clink of the copper
bells and the sharp bark of the sheep-dog had a strange attraction for
him. He was always ready when a boy was wanted to take charge of a flock
during a temporary absence of the shepherd, and eventually, when only
about fifteen, he was engaged as under-shepherd, and for the rest of his
life shepherding was his trade.

His marriage to Martha Bawcombe came as a surprise to the village, for
though no one had any fault to find with Tommy Ierat there was a slur on
him, and Martha, who was the finest girl in the place, might, it was
thought, have looked for some one better. But Martha had always liked
Tommy; they were of the same age and had been playmates in their
childhood; growing up together their childish affection had turned to
love, and after they had waited some years and Tommy had a cottage and
seven shillings a week, Isaac and his wife gave their consent and they
were married. Still they felt hurt at being discussed in this way by the
villagers, so that when Ierat was offered a place as shepherd at a
distance from home, where his family history was not known, he was glad
to take it and his wife to go with him, about a month after her child
was born.

The new place was in Somerset, thirty-five to forty miles from their
native village, and Ierat as shepherd at the manor-house farm on a large
estate would have better wages than he had ever had before and a nice
cottage to live in. Martha was delighted with her new home--the cottage,
the entire village, the great park and mansion close by, all made it
seem like paradise to her. Better than everything was the pleasant
welcome she received from the villagers, who looked in to make her
acquaintance and seemed very much taken with her appearance and nice,
friendly manner. They were all eager to tell her about the squire and
his lady, who were young, and of how great an interest they took in
their people and how much they did for them and how they were loved by
everybody on the estate.

It happens, oddly enough, that I became acquainted with this same man,
the squire, over fifty years after the events I am relating, when he was
past eighty. This acquaintance came about by means of a letter he wrote
me in reference to the habits of a bird or some such small matter, a way
in which I have become acquainted with scores--perhaps I should say
hundreds--of persons in many parts of the country. He was a very fine
man, the head of an old and distinguished county family; an ideal
squire, and one of the few large landowners I have had the happiness to
meet who was not devoted to that utterly selfish and degraded form of
sport which consists in the annual rearing and subsequent slaughter of a
host of pheasants.

Now when Martha was entertaining half a dozen of her new neighbours who
had come in to see her, and exhibited her baby to them and then
proceeded to suckle it, they looked at one another and laughed, and one
said, "Just you wait till the lady at the mansion sees 'ee--she'll soon
want 'ee to nurse her little one."

What did they mean? They told her that the great lady was a mother too,
and had a little sickly baby and wanted a nurse for it, but couldn't
find a woman to please her.

Martha fired up at that. Did they imagine, she asked, that any great
lady in the world with all her gold could tempt her to leave her own
darling to nurse another woman's? She would not do such a thing--she
would rather leave the place than submit to it. But she didn't believe
it--they had only said that to tease and frighten her!

They laughed again, looking admiringly at her as she stood before them
with sparkling eyes, flushed cheeks, and fine full bust, and only
answered, "Just you wait, my dear, till she sees 'ee."

And very soon the lady did see her. The people at the manor were strict
in their religious observances, and it had been impressed on Martha that
she had better attend at morning service on her first Sunday, and a girl
was found by one of her neighbours to look after the baby in the
meantime. And so when Sunday came she dressed herself in her best
clothes and went to church with the others. The service over, the squire
and his wife came out first and were standing in the path exchanging
greetings with their friends; then as the others came out with Martha in
the midst of the crowd the lady turned and fixed her eyes on her, and
suddenly stepping out from the group she stopped Martha and said, "Who
are you?--I don't remember your face."

"No, ma'am," said Martha, blushing and curtsying. "I be the new
shepherd's wife at the manor-house farm--we've only been here a few
days."

The other then said she had heard of her and that she was nursing her
child, and she then told Martha to go to the mansion that afternoon as
she had something to say to her.

The poor young mother went in fear and trembling, trying to stiffen
herself against the expected blandishments.

Then followed the fateful interview. The lady was satisfied that she had
got hold of the right person at last--the one in the world who would be
able to save her precious little one "from to die," the poor pining
infant on whose frail little life so much depended! She would feed it
from her full, healthy breasts and give it something of her own
abounding, splendid life. Martha's own baby would do very well--there
was nothing the matter with it, and it would flourish on "the bottle" or
anything else, no matter what. All she had to do was to go back to her
cottage and make the necessary arrangements, then come to stay at the
mansion.

Martha refused, and the other smiled; then Martha pleaded and cried and
said she would never never leave her own child, and as all that had no
effect she was angry, and it came into her mind that if the lady would
get angry too she would be ordered out and all would be over. But the
lady wouldn't get angry, for when Martha stormed she grew more gentle
and spoke tenderly and sweetly, but would still have it her own way,
until the poor young mother could stand it no longer, and so rushed away
in a great state of agitation to tell her husband and ask him to help
her against her enemy. But Tommy took the lady's side, and his young
wife hated him for it, and was in despair and ready to snatch up her
child and run away from them all, when all at once a carriage appeared
at the cottage, and the great lady herself, followed by a nurse with the
sickly baby in her arms, came in. She had come, she said very gently,
almost pleadingly, to ask Martha to feed her child once, and Martha was
flattered and pleased at the request, and took and fondled the infant in
her arms, then gave it suck at her beautiful breast. And when she had
fed the child, acting very tenderly towards it like a mother, her
visitor suddenly burst into tears, and taking Martha in her arms she
kissed her and pleaded with her again until she could resist no more;
and it was settled that she was to live at the mansion and come once
every day to the village to feed her own child from the breast.

Martha's connexion with the people at the mansion did not end when she
had safely reared the sickly child. The lady had become attached to her
and wanted to have her always, although Martha could not act again as
wet nurse, for she had no more children herself. And by and by when her
mistress lost her health after the birth of a third child and was
ordered abroad, she took Martha with her, and she passed a whole year
with her on the Continent, residing in France and Italy. They came home
again, but as the lady continued to decline in health she travelled
again, still taking Martha with her, and they visited India and other
distant countries, including the Holy Land; but travel and wealth and
all that the greatest physicians in the world could do for her, and the
tender care of a husband who worshipped her, availed not, and she came
home in the end to die; and Martha went back to her Tommy and the boy,
to be separated no more while their lives lasted.

The great house was shut up and remained so for years. The squire was
the last man in England to shirk his duties as landlord and to his
people whom he loved, and who loved him as few great landowners are
loved in England, but his grief was too great for even his great
strength to bear up against, and it was long feared by his friends that
he would never recover from his loss. But he was healed in time, and ten
years later married again and returned to his home, to live there until
nigh upon his ninetieth year. Long before this the Ierats had returned
to their native village. When I last saw Martha, then in her
eighty-second year, she gave me the following account of her Tommy's
end.

He continued shepherding up to the age of seventy-eight. One Sunday,
early in the afternoon, when she was ill with an attack of influenza, he
came home, and putting aside his crook said, "I've done work."

"It's early," she replied, "but maybe you got the boy to mind the sheep
for you."

"I don't mean I've done work for the day," he returned. "I've done for
good--I'll not go with the flock no more."

"What be saying?" she cried in sudden alarm. "Be you feeling bad--what
be the matter?"

"No, I'm not bad," he said. "I'm perfectly well, but I've done work;"
and more than that he would not say.

She watched him anxiously but could see nothing wrong with him; his
appetite was good, he smoked his pipe, and was cheerful.

Three days later she noticed that he had some difficulty in pulling on a
stocking when dressing in the morning, and went to his assistance. He
laughed and said, "Here's a funny thing! You be ill and I be well, and
you've got to help me put on a stocking!" and he laughed again.

After dinner that day he said he wanted a drink and would have a glass
of beer. There was no beer in the house, and she asked him if he would
have a cup of tea.

"Oh, yes, that'll do very well," he said, and she made it for him.

After drinking his cup of tea he got a footstool, and placing it at her
feet sat down on it and rested his head on her knees; he remained a long
time in this position so perfectly still that she at length bent over
and felt and examined his face, only to discover that he was dead.

And that was the end of Tommy Ierat, the son of Ellen. He died, she
said, like a baby that has been fed and falls asleep on its mother's
breast.

W. H. Hudson