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In Chitterne Churchyard

Chitterne is one of those small out-of-the-world villages in the south
Wiltshire downs which attract one mainly because of their isolation and
loneliness and their unchangeableness. Here, however, you discover that
there has been an important change in comparatively recent years--some
time during the first half of the last century. Chitterne, like most
villages, possesses one church, a big building with a tall spire
standing in its central part. Before it was built there were two
churches and two Chitternes--two parishes with one village, each with
its own proper church. These were situated at opposite ends of the one
long street, and were small ancient buildings, each standing in its own
churchyard. One of these disused burying-places, with a part of the old
building still standing in it, is a peculiarly attractive spot, all the
more so because of long years of neglect and of ivy, bramble, and weed
and flower of many kinds that flourish in it, and have long obliterated
the mounds and grown over the few tombs and headstones that still exist
in the ground.

It was an excessively hot August afternoon when I last visited
Chitterne, and, wishing to rest for an hour before proceeding on my
way, I went to this old churchyard, naturally thinking that I should
have it all to myself. But I found two persons there, both old women of
the peasant class, meanly dressed; yet it was evident they had their
good clothes on and were neat and clean, each with a basket on her arm,
probably containing her luncheon. For they were only visitors and
strangers there, and strangers to one another as they were to me--that,
too, I could guess: also that they had come there with some object--
perhaps to find some long unvisited grave, for they were walking about,
crossing and recrossing each other's track, pausing from time to time
to look round, then pulling the ivy aside from some old tomb and
reading or trying to read the worn, moss-grown inscription. I began to
watch their movements with growing interest, and could see that they,
too, were very much interested in each other, although for a long time
they did not exchange a word. Presently I, too, fell to examining the
gravestones, just to get near them, and while pretending to be absorbed
in the inscriptions I kept a sharp eye on their movements. They took no
notice of me. I was nothing to them--merely one of another class, a
foreigner, so to speak, a person cycling about the country who was just
taking a ten minutes' peep at the place to gratify an idle curiosity.
But who was _she_--that other old woman; and what did she want
hunting about there in this old forsaken churchyard? was doubtless what
each of those two was saying to herself. And by-and-by their curiosity
got the better of them; then contrived to meet at one stone which they
both appeared anxious to examine.

I had anticipated this, and no sooner were they together than I was
down on my knees busily pulling the ivy aside from a stone three or
four yards from theirs, absorbed in my business. They bade each other
good day and said something about the hot weather, which led one to
remark that she had found it very trying as she had left home early to
walk to Salisbury to take the train to Codford, and from there she had
walked again to Chitterne. Oddly enough, the other old woman had also
been travelling all day, but from an opposite direction, over Somerset
way, just to visit Chitterne. It seemed an astonishing thing to them
when it came out that they had both been looking forward for years to
this visit, and that it should have been made on the same day, and that
they should have met there in that same forsaken little graveyard. It
seemed stranger still when they came to tell why they had made this
long-desired visit. They were both natives of the village, and had both
left it early in life, one aged seven, the other ten; they had left
much about the same time, and had never returned until now. And they
were now here with the same object--just to find the graves, unmarked
by a stone, where the mother of one of them, the grandparents of both,
and other relatives they still remembered had been buried more than
half a century ago. They were surprised and troubled at their failure
to identify the very spots where the mounds used to be. "It do all look
so different," said one, "an' the old stones be mostly gone." Finally,
when they told their names and their fathers' names--farm-labourers
both--they failed to remember each other, and could only suppose that
they must have forgotten many things about their far-off childhood,
although others were still as well remembered as the incidents of
yesterday.

The old dames had become very friendly and confidential by this time.
"I dare say," I said to myself, "that if I can manage to stay to the
end I shall see them embrace and kiss at parting," and I also thought
that their strange meeting in the old village churchyard would be a
treasured memory for the rest of their lives. I feared they would
suspect me of eavesdropping, and taking out my penknife, I began
diligently scraping the dead black moss from the letters on the stone,
after which I made pretence of copying the illegible inscription in my
notebook. They, however, took no notice of me, and began telling each
other what their lives had been since they left Chitterne. Both had
married working men and had lost their husbands many years ago; one was
sixty-nine, the other in her sixty-sixth year, and both were strong and
well able to work, although they had had hard lives. Then in a tone of
triumph, their faces lighting up with a kind of joy, they informed each
other that they had never had to go to the parish for relief. Each was
anxious to be first in telling how it had come about that she, the poor
widow of a working man, had been so much happier in her old age than so
many others. So eager were they to tell it that when one spoke the
other would cut in long before she finished, and when they talked
together it was not easy to keep the two narratives distinct. One was
the mother of four daughters, all still unmarried, earning their own
livings, one in a shop, another a sempstress, two in service in good
houses, earning good wages. Never had woman been so blessed in her
children! They would never see their mother go to the House! The other
had but one, a son, and not many like him; no son ever thought more of
his mother. He was at sea, but every nine to ten months he was back in
Bristol, and then on to visit her, and never let a month pass without
writing to her and sending money to pay her rent and keep a nice
comfortable home for him.

They congratulated one another; then the mother of four said she always
thanked God for giving her daughters, because they were women and could
feel for a mother. The other replied that it was true, she had often
seen it, the way daughters stuck to their mother--_until they
married_. She was thankful to have a son; a man, she said, is a man
and can go out in the world and do things, and if he is a good son he
will never see his mother want.

The other was nettled at that speech. "Of course a man's a man," she
returned, "but we all know what men are. They are all right till they
pick up with a girl who wants all their wages; then everyone, mother
and all, must be given up." But a daughter was a daughter always; she
had four, she was happy to say.

This made matters worse. "Daughters always daughters!" came the quick
rejoinder. "I never learned that before. What, my son take up with a
girl and leave his old mother to starve or go to the workhouse! I never
heard such a foolish thing said in my life!" And, being now quite
angry, she looked round for her basket and shawl so as to get away as
quickly as possible from that insulting woman; but the other, guessing
her intention, was too quick for her and started at once to the gate,
but after going four or five steps turned and delivered her last shot:
"Say what you like about your son, and I don't doubt he's been good to
you, and I only hope it'll always be the same; but what I say is, give
me a daughter, and I know, ma'am, that if you had a daughter you'd be
easier in your mind!"

Having spoken, she made for the gate, and the other, stung in some
vital part by the last words, stood motionless, white with anger,
staring after her, first in silence, but presently she began talking
audibly to herself. "My son--my son pick up with a girl! My son leave
his mother to go on the parish!"--but I stayed to hear no more; it made
me laugh and--it was too sad.

W. H. Hudson