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Ch. 4: A Shepherd of the Downs

Caleb Bawcombe--An old shepherd's love of his home--Fifty years'
shepherding--Bawcombe's singular appearance--A tale of a titlark--Caleb
Bawcombe's father--Father and son--A grateful sportsman and Isaac
Bawcombe's pension--Death following death in old married couples--In a
village churchyard--A farm-labourer's gravestone and his story


It is now several years since I first met Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd of
the South Wiltshire Downs, but already old and infirm and past work. I
met him at a distance from his native village, and it was only after I
had known him a long time and had spent many afternoons and evenings in
his company, listening to his anecdotes of his shepherding days, that I
went to see his own old home for myself--the village of Winterbourne
Bishop already described, to find it a place after my own heart. But as
I have said, if I had never known Caleb and heard so much from him about
his own life and the lives of many of his fellow-villagers, I should
probably never have seen this village.

One of his memories was of an old shepherd named John, whose
acquaintance he made when a very young man--John being at that time
seventy-eight years old--on the Winterbourne Bishop farm, where he had
served for an unbroken period of close on sixty years. Though so aged he
was still head shepherd, and he continued to hold that place seven years
longer--until his master, who had taken over old John with the place,
finally gave up the farm and farming at the same time. He, too, was
getting past work and wished to spend his declining years in his native
village in an adjoining parish, where he owned some house and cottage
property. And now what was to become of the old shepherd, since the new
tenant had brought his own men with him?--and he, moreover, considered
that John, at eighty-five, was too old to tend a flock on the hills,
even of tegs. His old master, anxious to help him, tried to get him some
employment in the village where he wished to stay; and failing in this,
he at last offered him a cottage rent free in the village where he was
going to live himself, and, in addition, twelve shillings a week for the
rest of his life. It was in those days an exceedingly generous offer,
but John refused it. "Master," he said, "I be going to stay in my own
native village, and if I can't make a living the parish'll have to keep
I; but keep or not keep, here I be and here I be going to stay, where I
were borned."

From this position the stubborn old man refused to be moved, and there
at Winterbourne Bishop his master had to leave him, although not without
having first made him a sufficient provision.

The way in which my old friend, Caleb Bawcombe, told the story plainly
revealed his own feeling in the matter. He understood and had the
keenest sympathy with old John, dead now over half a century; or rather,
let us say, resting very peacefully in that green spot under the old
grey tower of Winterbourne Bishop church where as a small boy he had
played among the old gravestones as far back in time as the middle of
the eighteenth century. But old John had long survived wife and
children, and having no one but himself to think of was at liberty to
end his days where he pleased. Not so with Caleb, for, although his
undying passion for home and his love of the shepherd's calling were as
great as John's, he was not so free, and he was compelled at last to
leave his native downs, which he may never see again, to settle for the
remainder of his days in another part of the country.

Early in life he "caught a chill" through long exposure to wet and cold
in winter; this brought on rheumatic fever and a malady of the thigh,
which finally affected the whole limb and made him lame for life. Thus
handicapped he had continued as shepherd for close on fifty years,
during which time his sons and daughters had grown up, married, and gone
away, mostly to a considerable distance, leaving their aged parents
alone once more. Then the wife, who was a strong woman and of an
enterprising temper, found an opening for herself at a distance from
home where she could start a little business. Caleb indignantly refused
to give up shepherding in his place to take part in so unheard-of an
adventure; but after a year or more of life in his lonely hut among the
hills and cold, empty cottage in the village, he at length tore himself
away from that beloved spot and set forth on the longest journey of his
life--about forty-five miles--to join her and help in the work of her
new home. Here a few years later I found him, aged seventy-two, but
owing to his increasing infirmities looking considerably more. When he
considered that his father, a shepherd before him on those same
Wiltshire Downs, lived to eighty-six, and his mother to eighty-four, and
that both were vigorous and led active lives almost to the end, he
thought it strange that his own work should be so soon done. For in
heart and mind he was still young; he did not want to rest yet.

Since that first meeting nine years have passed, and as he is actually
better in health to-day than he was then, there is good reason to hope
that his staying power will equal that of his father.

I was at first struck with the singularity of Caleb's appearance, and
later by the expression of his eyes. A very tall, big-boned, lean,
round-shouldered man, he was uncouth almost to the verge of
grotesqueness, and walked painfully with the aid of a stick, dragging
his shrunken and shortened bad leg. His head was long and narrow, and
his high forehead, long nose, long chin, and long, coarse, grey
whiskers, worn like a beard on his throat, produced a goat-like effect.
This was heightened by the ears and eyes. The big ears stood out from
his head, and owing to a peculiar bend or curl in the membrane at the
top they looked at certain angles almost pointed. The hazel eyes were
wonderfully clear, but that quality was less remarkable than the unhuman
intelligence in them--fawn-like eyes that gazed steadily at you as one
may gaze through the window, open back and front, of a house at the
landscape beyond. This peculiarity was a little disconcerting at first,
when, after making his acquaintance out of doors, I went in uninvited
and sat down with him at his own fireside. The busy old wife talked of
this and that, and hinted as politely as she knew how that I was in her
way. To her practical, peasant mind there was no sense in my being
there. "He be a stranger to we, and we be strangers to he." Caleb was
silent, and his clear eyes showed neither annoyance nor pleasure but
only their native, wild alertness, but the caste feeling is always less
strong in the hill shepherd than in other men who are on the land; in
some cases it will vanish at a touch, and it was so in this one. A
canary in a cage hanging in the kitchen served to introduce the subject
of birds captive and birds free. I said that I liked the little yellow
bird, and was not vexed to see him in a cage, since he was cage-born;
but I considered that those who caught wild birds and kept them
prisoners did not properly understand things. This happened to be
Caleb's view. He had a curiously tender feeling about the little wild
birds, and one amusing incident of his boyhood which he remembered came
out during our talk. He was out on the down one summer day in charge of
his father's flock, when two boys of the village on a ramble in the
hills came and sat down on the turf by his side. One of them had a
titlark, or meadow pipit, which he had just caught, in his hand, and
there was a hot argument as to which of the two was the lawful owner of
the poor little captive. The facts were as follows. One of the boys
having found the nest became possessed with the desire to get the bird.
His companion at once offered to catch it for him, and together they
withdrew to a distance and sat down and waited until the bird returned
to sit on the eggs. Then the young birdcatcher returned to the spot, and
creeping quietly up to within five or six feet of the nest threw his hat
so that it fell over the sitting titlark; but after having thus secured
it he refused to give it up. The dispute waxed hotter as they sat there,
and at last when it got to the point of threats of cuffs on the ear and
slaps on the face they agreed to fight it out, the victor to have the
titlark. The bird was then put under a hat for safety on the smooth turf
a few feet away, and the boys proceeded to take off their jackets and
roll up their shirt-sleeves, after which they faced one another, and
were just about to begin when Caleb, thrusting out his crook, turned the
hat over and away flew the titlark.

The boys, deprived of their bird and of an excuse for a fight, would
gladly have discharged their fury on Caleb, but they durst not, seeing
that his dog was lying at his side; they could only threaten and abuse
him, call him bad names, and finally put on their coats and walk off.

That pretty little tale of a titlark was but the first of a long
succession of memories of his early years, with half a century of
shepherding life on the downs, which came out during our talks on many
autumn and winter evenings as we sat by his kitchen fire. The earlier of
these memories were always the best to me, because they took one back
sixty years or more, to a time when there was more wildness in the earth
than now, and a nobler wild animal life. Even more interesting were some
of the memories of his father, Isaac Bawcombe, whose time went back to
the early years of the nineteenth century. Caleb cherished an admiration
and reverence for his father's memory which were almost a worship, and
he loved to describe him as he appeared in his old age, when upwards of
eighty. He was erect and tall, standing six feet two in height, well
proportioned, with a clean-shaved, florid face, clear, dark eyes, and
silver-white hair; and at this later period of his life he always wore
the dress of an old order of pensioners to which he had been admitted--a
soft, broad, white felt hat, thick boots and brown leather leggings, and
a long, grey cloth overcoat with red collar and brass buttons.

According to Caleb, he must have been an exceedingly fine specimen of a
man, both physically and morally. Born in 1800, he began following a
flock as a boy, and continued as shepherd on the same farm until he was
sixty, never rising to more than seven shillings a week and nothing
found, since he lived in the cottage where he was born and which he
inherited from his father. That a man of his fine powers, a
head-shepherd on a large hill-farm, should have had no better pay than
that down to the year 1860, after nearly half a century of work in one
place, seems almost incredible. Even his sons, as they grew up to man's
estate, advised him to ask for an increase, but he would not. Seven
shillings a week he had always had; and that small sum, with something
his wife earned by making highly finished smock-frocks, had been
sufficient to keep them all in a decent way; and his sons were now all
earning their own living. But Caleb got married, and resolved to leave
the old farm at Bishop to take a better place at a distance from home,
at Warminster, which had been offered him. He would there have a cottage
to live in, nine shillings a week, and a sack of barley for his dog. At
that time the shepherd had to keep his own dog--no small expense to him
when his wages were no more than six to eight shillings a week. But
Caleb was his father's favourite son, and the old man could not endure
the thought of losing sight of him; and at last, finding that he could
not persuade him not to leave the old home, he became angry, and told
him that if he went away to Warminster for the sake of the higher wages
and barley for the dog he would disown him! This was a serious matter to
Caleb, in spite of the fact that a shepherd has no money to leave to his
children when he passes away. He went nevertheless, for, though he loved
and reverenced his father, he had a young wife who pulled the other way;
and he was absent for years, and when he returned the old man's heart
had softened, so that he was glad to welcome him back to the old home.

Meanwhile at that humble cottage at Winterbourne Bishop great things had
happened; old Isaac was no longer shepherding on the downs, but living
very comfortably in his own cottage in the village. The change came
about in this way.

The downland shepherds, Caleb said, were as a rule clever poachers; and
it is really not surprising, when one considers the temptation to a man
with a wife and several hungry children, besides himself and a dog, to
feed out of about seven shillings a week. But old Bawcombe was an
exception: he would take no game, furred or feathered, nor, if he could
prevent it, allow another to take anything from the land fed by his
flock. Caleb and his brothers, when as boys and youths they began their
shepherding, sometimes caught a rabbit, or their dog caught and killed
one without their encouragement; but, however the thing came into their
hands, they could not take it home on account of their father. Now it
happened that an elderly gentleman who had the shooting was a keen
sportsman, and that in several successive years he found a wonderful
difference in the amount of game at one spot among the hills and in all
the rest of his hill property. The only explanation the keeper could
give was that Isaac Bawcombe tended his flock on that down where
rabbits, hares, and partridges were so plentiful. One autumn day the
gentleman was shooting over that down, and seeing a big man in a
smock-frock standing motionless, crook in hand, regarding him, he called
out to his keeper, who was with him, "Who is that big man?" and was told
that it was Shepherd Bawcombe. The old gentleman pulled some money out
of his pocket and said, "Give him this half-crown, and thank him for the
good sport I've had to-day." But after the coin had been given the giver
still remained standing there, thinking, perhaps, that he had not yet
sufficiently rewarded the man; and at last, before turning away, he
shouted, "Bawcombe, that's not all. You'll get something more by and
by."

Isaac had not long to wait for the something more, and it turned out not
to be the hare or brace of birds he had half expected. It happened that
the sportsman was one of the trustees of an ancient charity which
provided for six of the most deserving old men of the parish of Bishop;
now, one of the six had recently died, and on this gentleman's
recommendation Bawcombe had been elected to fill the vacant place. The
letter from Salisbury informing him of his election and commanding his
presence in that city filled him with astonishment; for, though he was
sixty years old and the father of three sons now out in the world, he
could not yet regard himself as an old man, for he had never known a
day's illness, nor an ache, and was famed in all that neighbourhood for
his great physical strength and endurance. And now, with his own cottage
to live in, eight shillings a week, and his pensioners' garments, with
certain other benefits, and a shilling a day besides which his old
master paid him for some services at the farm-house in the village,
Isaac found himself very well off indeed, and he enjoyed his prosperous
state for twenty-six years. Then, in 1886, his old wife fell ill and
died, and no sooner was she in her grave than he, too, began to droop;
and soon, before the year was out, he followed her, because, as the
neighbours said, they had always been a loving pair and one could not
'bide without the other.

This chapter has already had its proper ending and there was no
intention of adding to it, but now for a special reason, which I trust
the reader will pardon when he hears it, I must go on to say something
about that strange phenomenon of death succeeding death in old married
couples, one dying for no other reason than that the other has died. For
it is our instinct to hold fast to life, and the older a man gets if he
be sane the more he becomes like a newborn child in the impulse to grip
tightly. A strange and a rare thing among people generally (the people
we know), it is nevertheless quite common among persons of the labouring
class in the rural districts. I have sometimes marvelled at the number
of such cases to be met with in the villages; but when one comes to
think about it one ceases to wonder that it should be so. For the
labourer on the land goes on from boyhood to the end of life in the same
everlasting round, the changes from task to task, according to the
seasons, being no greater than in the case of the animals that alter
their actions and habits to suit the varying conditions of the year.
March and August and December, and every month, will bring about the
changes in the atmosphere and earth and vegetation and in the animals,
which have been from of old, which he knows how to meet, and the old,
familiar task, lambing-time, shearing-time, root and seed crops hoeing,
haymaking, harvesting. It is a life of the extremest simplicity, without
all those interests outside the home and the daily task, the innumerable
distractions, common to all persons in other classes and to the workmen
in towns as well. Incidentally it may be said that it is also the
healthiest, that, speaking generally, the agricultural labourer is the
healthiest and sanest man in the land, if not also the happiest, as some
believe.

It is this life of simple, unchanging actions and of habits that are
like instincts, of hard labour in sun and wind and rain from day to day,
with its weekly break and rest, and of but few comforts and no luxuries,
which serves to bind man and wife so closely. And the longer their life
goes on together the closer and more unbreakable the union grows. They
are growing old: old friends and companions have died or left them;
their children have married and gone away and have their own families
and affairs, so that the old folks at home are little remembered, and to
all others they have become of little consequence in the world. But they
do not know it, for they are together, cherishing the same memories,
speaking of the same old, familiar things, and their lost friends and
companions, their absent, perhaps estranged, children, are with them
still in mind as in the old days. The past is with them more than the
present, to give an undying interest to life; for they share it, and it
is only when one goes, when the old wife gets the tea ready and goes
mechanically to the door to gaze out, knowing that her tired man will
come in no more to take his customary place and listen to all the things
she has stored up in her mind during the day to tell him; and when the
tired labourer comes in at dusk to find no old wife waiting to give him
his tea and talk to him while he refreshes himself, he all at once
realizes his position; he finds himself cut off from the entire world,
from all of his kind. Where are they all? The enduring sympathy of that
one soul that was with him till now had kept him in touch with life, had
made it seem unchanged and unchangeable, and with that soul has vanished
the old, sweet illusion as well as all ties, all common, human
affection. He is desolate, indeed, alone in a desert world, and it is
not strange that in many and many a case, even in that of a man still
strong, untouched by disease and good for another decade or two, the
loss, the awful solitude, has proved too much for him.

Such cases, I have said, are common, but they are not recorded, though
it is possible with labour to pick them out in the church registers; but
in the churchyards you do not find them, since the farm-labourer has
only a green mound to mark the spot where he lies. Nevertheless, he is
sometimes honoured with a gravestone, and last August I came by chance
on one on which was recorded a case like that of Isaac Bawcombe and his
life-mate.

The churchyard is in one of the prettiest and most secluded villages in
the downland country described in this book. The church is ancient and
beautiful and interesting in many ways, and the churchyard, too, is one
of the most interesting I know, a beautiful, green, tree-shaded spot,
with an extraordinary number of tombs and gravestones, many of them
dated in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, inscribed with names
of families which have long died out.

I went on that afternoon to pass an hour in the churchyard, and finding
an old man in labourer's clothes resting on a tomb, I sat down and
entered into conversation with him. He was seventy-nine, he told me, and
past work, and he had three shillings a week from the parish; but he was
very deaf and it fatigued me to talk to him, and seeing the church open
I went in. On previous visits I had had a good deal of trouble to get
the key, and to find it open now was a pleasant surprise. An old woman
was there dusting the seats, and by and by, while I was talking with
her, the old labourer came stumping in with his ponderous, iron-shod
boots and without taking off his old, rusty hat, and began shouting at
the church-cleaner about a pair of trousers he had given her to mend,
which he wanted badly. Leaving them to their arguing I went out and
began studying the inscriptions on the stones, so hard to make out in
some instances; the old man followed and went his way; then the
church-cleaner came out to where I was standing. "A tiresome old man!"
she said. "He's that deaf he has to shout to hear himself speak, then
you've got to shout back--and all about his old trousers!"

"I suppose he wants them," I returned, "and you promised to do them, so
he has some reason for going at you about it."

"Oh no, he hasn't," she replied. "The girl brought them for me to mend,
and I said, 'Leave them and I'll do them when I've time'--how did I know
he wanted them in a hurry? A troublesome old man!"

By and by, taking a pair of spectacles out of her pocket, she put them
on, and going down on her knees she began industriously picking the old,
brown, dead moss out of the lettering on one side of the tomb. "I'd like
to know what it says on this stone," she said.

"Well, you can read it for yourself, now you've got your glasses on."

"I can't read. You see, I'm old--seventy-six years, and when I were
little we were very poor and I couldn't get no schooling. I've got these
glasses to do my sewing, and only put them on to get this stuff out so's
you could read it. I'd like to hear you read it."

I began to get interested in the old dame who talked to me so freely.
She was small and weak-looking, and appeared very thin in her limp, old,
faded gown; she had a meek, patient expression on her face, and her
voice, too, like her face, expressed weariness and resignation.

"But if you have always lived here you must know what is said on this
stone?"

"No, I don't; nobody never read it to me, and I couldn't read it because
I wasn't taught to read. But I'd like to hear you read it."

It was a long inscription to a person named Ash, gentleman, of this
parish, who departed this life over a century ago, and was a man of a
noble and generous disposition, good as a husband, a father, a friend,
and charitable to the poor. Under all were some lines of verse, scarcely
legible in spite of the trouble she had taken to remove the old moss
from the letters.

She listened with profound interest, then said, "I never heard all that
before; I didn't know the name, though I've known this stone since I was
a child. I used to climb on to it then. Can you read me another?"

I read her another and several more, then came to one which she said she
knew--every word of it, for this was the grave of the sweetest, kindest
woman that ever lived. Oh, how good this dear woman had been to her in
her young married life more'n fifty years ago! If that dear lady had
only lived it would not have been so hard for her when her trouble come!

"And what was your trouble?"

"It was the loss of my poor man. He was such a good man, a thatcher; and
he fell from a rick and injured his spine, and he died, poor fellow, and
left me with our five little children." Then, having told me her own
tragedy, to my surprise she brightened up and begged me to read other
inscriptions to her.

I went on reading, and presently she said, "No, that's wrong. There
wasn't ever a Lampard in this parish. That I know."

"You don't know! There certainly was a Lampard or it would not be stated
here, cut in deep letters on this stone."

"No, there wasn't a Lampard. I've never known such a name and I've lived
here all my life."

"But there were people living here before you came on the scene. He died
a long time ago, this Lampard--in 1714, it says. And you are only
seventy-six, you tell me; that is to say, you were born in 1835, and
that would be one hundred and twenty-one years after he died."

"That's a long time! It must be very old, this stone. And the church
too. I've heard say it was once a Roman Catholic church. Is that true?"

"Why, of course it's true--all the old churches were, and we were all of
that faith until a King of England had a quarrel with the Pope and
determined he would be Pope himself as well as king in his own country.
So he turned all the priests and monks out, and took their property and
churches and had his own men put in. That was Henry VIII."

"I've heard something about that king and his wives. But about Lampard,
it do seem strange I've never heard that name before."

"Not strange at all; it was a common name in this part of Wiltshire in
former days; you find it in dozens of churchyards, but you'll find very
few Lampards living in the villages. Why, I could tell you a dozen or
twenty surnames, some queer, funny names, that were common in these
parts not more than a century ago which seem to have quite died out."

"I should like to hear some of them if you'll tell me."

"Let me think a moment: there was Thorr, Pizzie, Gee, Every, Pottle,
Kiddle, Toomer, Shergold, and--"

Here she interrupted to say that she knew three of the names I had
mentioned. Then, pointing to a small, upright gravestone about twenty
feet away, she added, "And there's one."

"Very well," I said, "but don't keep putting me out--I've got more names
in my mind to tell you. Maidment, Marchmont, Velvin, Burpitt, Winzur,
Rideout, Cullurne."

Of these she only knew one--Rideout.

Then I went over to the stone she had pointed to and read the
inscription to John Toomer and his wife Rebecca. She died first, in
March 1877, aged 72; he in July the same year, aged 75.

"You knew them, I suppose?"

"Yes, they belonged here, both of them."

"Tell me about them."

"There's nothing to tell; he was only a labourer and worked on the same
farm all his life."

"Who put a stone over them--their children?"

"No, they're all poor and live away. I think it was a lady who lived
here; she'd been good to them, and she came and stood here when they put
old John in the ground."

"But I want to hear more."

"There's no more, I've said; he was a labourer, and after she died he
died."

"Yes? go on."

"How can I go on? There's no more. I knew them so well; they lived in
the little thatched cottage over there, where the Millards live now."

"Did they fall ill at the same time?"

"Oh no, he was as well as could be, still at work, till she died, then
he went on in a strange way. He would come in of an evening and call his
wife. 'Mother! Mother, where are you?' you'd hear him call, 'Mother, be
you upstairs? Mother, ain't you coming down for a bit of bread and
cheese before you go to bed?' And then in a little while he just died."

"And you said there was nothing to tell!"

"No, there wasn't anything. He was just one of us, a labourer on the
farm."

I then gave her something, and to my surprise after taking it she made
me an elaborate curtsy. It rather upset me, for I had thought we had got
on very well together and were quite free and easy in our talk, very
much on a level. But she was not done with me yet. She followed to the
gate, and holding out her open hand with that small gift in it, she said
in a pathetic voice, "Did you think, sir, I was expecting this? I had no
such thought and didn't want it."

And I had no thought of saying or writing a word about her. But since
that day she has haunted me--she and her old John Toomer, and it has
just now occurred to me that by putting her in my book I may be able to
get her out of my mind.

W. H. Hudson