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Ch. 24: Living in the Past

Evening talks--On the construction of sheep-folds--Making
hurdles--Devil's guts--Character in sheep-dogs--Sally the spiteful
dog--Dyke the lost dog who returned--Strange recovery of a lost
dog--Badger the playful dog--Badger shepherds the fowls--A ghost
story--A Sunday-evening talk--Parsons and ministers--Noisy
religion--The shepherd's love of his calling--Mark Dick and the
giddy sheep--Conclusion


During our frequent evening talks, often continued till a late hour, it
was borne in on Caleb Bawcombe that his anecdotes of wild creatures
interested me more than anything else he had to tell; but in spite of
this, or because he could not always bear it in mind, the conversation
almost invariably drifted back to the old subject of sheep, of which he
was never tired. Even in his sleep he does not forget them; his dreams,
he says, are always about sheep; he is with the flock, shifting the
hurdles, or following it out on the down. A troubled dream when he is
ill or uneasy in his sleep is invariably about some difficulty with the
flock; it gets out of his control, and the dog cannot understand him or
refuses to obey when everything depends on his instant action. The
subject was so much to him, so important above all others, that he would
not spare the listener even the minutest details of the shepherd's life
and work. His "hints on the construction of sheep-folds" would have
filled a volume; and if any farmer had purchased the book he would not
have found the title a misleading one and that he had been defrauded of
his money. But with his singular fawn-like face and clear eyes on his
listener it was impossible to fall asleep, or even to let the attention
wander; and incidentally even in his driest discourse there were little
bright touches which one would not willingly have missed.

About hurdles he explained that it was common for the downland shepherds
to repair the broken and worn-out ones with the long woody stems of the
bithywind from the hedges; and when I asked what the plant was he
described the wild clematis or traveller's-joy; but those names he did
not know--to him the plant had always been known as _bithywind_ or
else _Devil's guts_. It struck me that bithywind might have come by
the transposition of two letters from withybind, as if one should say
flutterby for butterfly, or flagondry for dragonfly. Withybind is one of
the numerous vernacular names of the common convolvulus. Lilybind is
another. But what would old Gerarde, who invented the pretty name of
traveller's-joy for that ornament of the wayside hedges, have said to
such a name as Devil's guts?

There was, said Caleb, an old farmer in the parish of Bishop who had a
peculiar fondness for this plant, and if a shepherd pulled any of it out
of one of his hedges after leafing-time he would be very much put out;
he would shout at him, "Just you leave my Devil's guts alone or I'll not
keep you on the farm." And the shepherds in revenge gave him the
unpleasant nickname of "Old Devil's Guts," by which he was known in that
part of the country.

As a rule, talk about sheep, or any subject connected with sheep, would
suggest something about sheepdogs individual dogs he had known or
possessed, and who always had their own character and peculiarities,
like human beings. They were good and bad and indifferent; a really bad
dog was a rarity; but a fairly good dog might have some trick or vice or
weakness. There was Sally, for example, a stump-tail bitch, as good a
dog with sheep as he ever possessed, but you had to consider her
feelings. She would keenly resent any injustice from her master. If he
spoke too sharply to her, or rebuked her unnecessarily for going a
little out of her way just to smell at a rabbit burrow, she would nurse
her anger until an opportunity came of inflicting a bite on some erring
sheep. Punishing her would have made matters worse: the only way was to
treat her as a reasonable being and never to speak to her as a dog--a
mere slave.

Dyke was another dog he remembered well. He belonged to old Shepherd
Matthew Titt, who was head-shepherd at a farm near Warminster, adjacent
to the one where Caleb worked. Old Mat and his wife lived alone in their
cottage out of the village, all their children having long grown up and
gone away to a distance from home, and being so lonely "by their two
selves" they loved their dog just as others love their relations. But
Dyke deserved it, for he was a very good dog. One year Mat was sent by
his master with lambs to Weyhill, the little village near Andover, where
a great sheep-fair is held in October every year. It was distant over
thirty miles, but Mat though old was a strong man still and greatly
trusted by his master. From this journey he returned with a sad heart,
for he had lost Dyke. He had disappeared one night while they were at
Weyhill. Old Mrs. Titt cried for him as she would have cried for a lost
son, and for many a long day they went about with heavy hearts.

Just a year had gone by when one night the old woman was roused from
sleep by loud knocks on the window-pane of the living-room below. "Mat!
Mat!" she cried, shaking him vigorously, "wake up--old Dyke has come
back to us!" "What be you talking about?" growled the old shepherd. "Lie
down and go to sleep--you've been dreaming." "'Tain't no dream; 'tis
Dyke--I know his knock," she cried, and getting up she opened the window
and put her head well out, and there sure enough was Dyke, standing up
against the wall and gazing up at her, and knocking with his paw against
the window below.

Then Mat jumped up, and going together downstairs they unbarred the door
and embraced the dog with joy, and the rest of the night was spent in
feeding and caressing him, and asking him a hundred questions, which he
could only answer by licking their hands and wagging his tail.

It was supposed that he had been stolen at the fair, probably by one of
the wild, little, lawless men called "general dealers," who go flying
about the country in a trap drawn by a fast-trotting pony; that he had
been thrown, muffled up, into the cart and carried many a mile away, and
sold to some shepherd, and that he had lost his sense of direction. But
after serving a stranger a full year he had been taken with sheep to
Weyhill Fair once more, and once there he knew where he was, and had
remembered the road leading to his old home and master, and making his
escape had travelled the thirty long miles back to Warminster.

The account of Dyke's return reminded me of an equally good story of the
recovery of a lost dog which I heard from a shepherd on the Avon. He had
been lost over a year, when one day the shepherd, being out on the down
with his flock, stood watching two drovers travelling with a flock on
the turnpike road below, nearly a mile away, and by and by hearing one
of their dogs bark he knew at that distance that it was his dog. "I
haven't a doubt," he said to himself, "and if I know his bark he'll know
my whistle." With that he thrust two fingers in his mouth and blew his
shrillest and longest whistle, then waited the result. Presently he
spied a dog, still at a great distance, coming swiftly towards him; it
was his own dog, mad with joy at finding his old master.

Did ever two friends, long sundered by unhappy chance, recognize each
other's voices at such a distance and so come together once more!

Whether the drovers had seen him desert them or not, they did not follow
to recover him, nor did the shepherd go to them to find out how they had
got possession of him; it was enough that he had got his dog back.

No doubt in this case the dog had recognized his old home when taken by
it, but he was in another man's hands now, and the habits and discipline
of a life made it impossible for him to desert until that old, familiar,
and imperative call reached his ears and he could not disobey.

Then (to go on with Caleb's reminiscences) there was Badger, owned by a
farmer and worked for some years by Caleb--the very best stump-tail he
ever had to help him. This dog differed from others in his vivacious
temper and ceaseless activity. When the sheep were feeding quietly and
there was little or nothing to do for hours at a time, he would not lie
down and go to sleep like any other sheep-dog, but would spend his
vacant time "amusing of hisself" on some smooth slope where he could
roll over and over; then run back and roll over again and again, playing
by himself just like a child. Or he would chase a butterfly or scamper
about over the down hunting for large white flints, which he would bring
one by one and deposit them at his master's feet, pretending they were
something of value and greatly enjoying the game. This dog, Caleb said,
would make him laugh every day with his games and capers.

When Badger got old his sight and hearing failed; yet when he was very
nearly blind and so deaf that he could not hear a word of command, even
when it was shouted out quite close to him, he was still kept with the
flock because he was so intelligent and willing. But he was too old at
last; it was time for him to be put out of the way. The farmer, however,
who owned him, would not consent to have him shot, and so the wistful
old dog was ordered to keep at home at the farm-house. Still he refused
to be superannuated, and not allowed to go to the flock he took to
shepherding the fowls. In the morning he would drive them out to their
run and keep them there in a flock, going round and round them by the
hour, and furiously hunting back the poor hens that tried to steal off
to lay their eggs in some secret place. This could not be allowed, and
so poor old Badger, who would have been too miserable if tied up, had to
be shot after all.

These were always his best stories--his recollections of sheep-dogs, for
of all creatures, sheep alone excepted, he knew and loved them best. Yet
for one whose life had been spent in that small isolated village and on
the bare down about it, his range was pretty wide, and it even included
one memory of a visitor from the other world. Let him tell it in his own
words.

"Many say they don't believe there be such things as ghosties. They
niver see'd 'n. An' I don't say I believe or disbelieve what I hear
tell. I warn't there to see. I only know what I see'd myself: but I
don't say that it were a ghostie or that it wasn't one. I was coming
home late one night from the sheep; 'twere close on 'leven o'clock, a
very quiet night, with moonsheen that made it a'most like day. Near th'
end of the village I come to the stepping-stones, as we call 'n, where
there be a gate and the road, an' just by the road the four big white
stones for people going from the village to the copse an' the down on
t'other side to step over the water. In winter 'twas a stream there, but
the water it dried in summer, and now 'twere summer-time and there wur
no water. When I git there I see'd two women, both on 'em tall, with
black gowns on, an' big bonnets they used to wear; an' they were
standing face to face so close that the tops o' their bonnets wur a'most
touching together. Who be these women out so late? says I to myself.
Why, says I, they be Mrs. Durk from up in the village an' Mrs. Gaarge
Durk, the keeper's wife down by the copse. Then I thought I know'd how
'twas: Mrs. Gaarge, she'd a been to see Mrs. Durk in the village, and
Mrs. Durk she were coming out a leetel way with her, so far as the
stepping-stones, and they wur just having a last leetel talk before
saying Good night. But mind, I hear'd no talking when I passed 'n. An'
I'd hardly got past 'n before I says, Why, what a fool be I! Mrs. Durk
she be dead a twelvemonth, an' I were in the churchyard and see'd her
buried myself. Whatever be I thinking of? That made me stop and turn
round to look at 'n agin. An' there they was just as I see'd 'n at
first--Mrs. Durk, who was dead a twelvemonth, an' Mrs. Gaarge Durk from
the copse, standing there with their bonnets a'most touching together.
An' I couldn't hear nothing--no talking, they were so still as two
posties. Then something came over me like a tarrible coldness in the
blood and down my back, an' I were afraid, and turning I runned faster
than I ever runned in my life, an' never stopped--not till I got to the
cottage."

It was not a bad ghost story: but then such stories seldom are when
coming from those who have actually seen, or believe they have seen, an
immaterial being. Their principal charm is in their infinite variety;
you never find two real or true ghost stories quite alike, and in this
they differ from the weary inventions of the fictionist.

But invariably the principal subject was sheep.

"I did always like sheep," said Caleb. "Some did say to me that they
couldn't abide shepherding because of the Sunday work. But I always
said, Someone must do it; they must have food in winter and water in
summer, and must be looked after, and it can't be worse for me to do
it."

It was on a Sunday afternoon, and the distant sound of the church bells
had set him talking on this subject. He told me how once, after a long
interval, he went to the Sunday morning service in his native village,
and the vicar preached a sermon about true religion. Just going to
church, he said, did not make men religious. Out there on the downs
there were shepherds who seldom saw the inside of a church, who were
sober, righteous men and walked with God every day of their lives. Caleb
said that this seemed to touch his heart because he knowed it was true.

When I asked him if he would not change the church for the chapel, now
he was ill and his vicar paid him no attention, while the minister came
often to see and talk to him, as I had witnessed, he shook his head and
said that he would never change. He then added: "We always say that the
chapel ministers are good men: some say they be better than the parsons;
but all I've knowed--all them that have talked to me--have said bad
things of the Church, and that's not true religion: I say that the Bible
teaches different."

Caleb could not have had a very wide experience, and most of us know
Dissenting ministers who are wholly free from the fault he pointed out;
but in the purely rural districts, in the small villages where the small
men are found, it is certainly common to hear unpleasant things said of
the parish priest by his Nonconformist rival; and should the parson have
some well-known fault or make a slip, the other is apt to chuckle over
it with a very manifest and most unchristian delight.

The atmosphere on that Sunday afternoon was very still, and by and by
through the open window floated a strain of music; it was from the brass
band of the Salvationists who were marching through the next village,
about two miles away. We listened, then Caleb remarked: "Somehow I never
cared to go with them Army people. Many say they've done a great good,
and I don't disbelieve it, but there was too much what I call--NOISE;
if, sir, you can understand what I mean."

I once heard the great Dr. Parker speak the word imagination, or, as he
pronounced it, im-madge-i-na-shun, with a volume of sound which filled a
large building and made the quality he named seem the biggest thing in
the universe. That in my experience was his loftiest oratorical feat;
but I think the old shepherd rose to a greater height when, after a long
pause during which he filled his lungs with air, he brought forth the
tremendous word, dragging it out gratingly, so as to illustrate the
sense in the prolonged harsh sound.

To show him that I understood what he meant very well, I explained the
philosophy of the matter as follows: He was a shepherd of the downs, who
had lived always in a quiet atmosphere, a noiseless world, and from
lifelong custom had become a lover of quiet. The Salvation Army was born
in a very different world, in East London--the dusty, busy, crowded
world of streets, where men wake at dawn to sounds that are like the
opening of hell's gates, and spend their long strenuous days and their
lives in that atmosphere peopled with innumerable harsh noises, until
they, too, acquire the noisy habit, and come at last to think that if
they have anything to say to their fellows, anything to sell or advise
or recommend, from the smallest thing--from a mackerel or a cabbage or a
penn'orth of milk, to a newspaper or a book or a picture or a
religion--they must howl and yell it out at every passer-by. And the
human voice not being sufficiently powerful, they provide themselves
with bells and gongs and cymbals and trumpets and drums to help them in
attracting the attention of the public.

He listened gravely to this outburst, and said he didn't know exactly
'bout that, but agreed that it was very quiet on the downs, and that he
loved their quiet. "Fifty years," he said, "I've been on the downs and
fields, day and night, seven days a week, and I've been told that it's a
poor way to spend a life, working seven days for ten or twelve, or at
most thirteen shillings. But I never seen it like that; I liked it, and
I always did my best. You see, sir, I took a pride in it. I never left a
place but I was asked to stay. When I left it was because of something I
didn't like. I couldn't never abide cruelty to a dog or any beast. And I
couldn't abide bad language. If my master swore at the sheep or the dog
I wouldn't bide with he--no, not for a pound a week. I liked my work,
and I liked knowing things about sheep. Not things in books, for I never
had no books, but what I found out with my own sense, if you can
understand me.

"I remember, when I were young, a very old shepherd on the farm; he had
been more 'n forty years there, and he was called Mark Dick. He told me
that when he were a young man he was once putting the sheep in the fold,
and there was one that was giddy--a young ewe. She was always a-turning
round and round and round, and when she got to the gate she wouldn't go
in but kept on a-turning and turning, until at last he got angry and,
lifting his crook, gave her a crack on the head, and down she went, and
he thought he'd killed her. But in a little while up she jumps and
trotted straight into the fold, and from that time she were well. Next
day he told his master, and his master said, with a laugh, 'Well, now
you know what to do when you gits a giddy sheep.' Some time after that
Mark Dick he had another giddy one, and remembering what his master had
said, he swung his stick and gave her a big crack on the skull, and down
went the sheep, dead. He'd killed it this time, sure enough. When he
tells of this one his master said, 'You've cured one and you've killed
one; now don't you try to cure no more,' he says.

"Well, some time after that I had a giddy one in my flock. I'd been
thinking of what Mark Dick had told me, so I caught the ewe to see if I
could find out anything. I were always a tarrible one for examining
sheep when they were ill. I found this one had a swelling at the back of
her head; it were like a soft ball, bigger 'n a walnut. So I took my
knife and opened it, and out ran a lot of water, quite clear; and when I
let her go she ran quite straight, and got well. After that I did cure
other giddy sheep with my knife, but I found out there were some I
couldn't cure. They had no swelling, and was giddy because they'd got a
maggot on the brain or some other trouble I couldn't find out."

Caleb could not have finished even this quiet Sunday afternoon
conversation, in the course of which we had risen to lofty matters,
without a return to his old favourite subjects of sheep and his
shepherding life on the downs. He was long miles away from his beloved
home now, lying on his back, a disabled man who would never again follow
a flock on the hills nor listen to the sounds he loved best to hear--the
multitudinous tremulous bleatings of the sheep, the tinklings of
numerous bells, and crisp ringing bark of his dog. But his heart was
there still, and the images of past scenes were more vivid in him than
they can ever be in the minds of those who live in towns and read books.
"I can see it now," was a favourite expression of his when relating some
incident in his past life. Whenever a sudden light, a kind of smile,
came into his eyes, I knew that it was at some ancient memory, a touch
of quaintness or humour in some farmer or shepherd he had known in the
vanished time--his father, perhaps, or old John, or Mark Dick, or Liddy,
or Dan'l Burdon, the solemn seeker after buried treasure.

After our long Sunday talk we were silent for a time, and then he
uttered these impressive words: "I don't say that I want to have my life
again, because 'twould be sinful. We must take what is sent. But if
'twas offered to me and I was told to choose my work, I'd say, Give me
my Wiltsheer Downs again and let me be a shepherd there all my life long."

W. H. Hudson