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   Chapter 23 THE ENGLEBOURN CONSTABLE

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 30364

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


On the afternoon of a splendid day in the early part of June, some four or five days after the Sunday on which the morning service at Englebourn was interrupted by the fire at Farmer Groves', David Johnson, tailor and constable of the parish, was sitting at his work in a small erection, half shed, half summer-house, which leaned against the back of his cottage. Not that David had not a regular workshop, with a window looking into the village street, and a regular counter close under it, on which passersby might see him stitching, and from which he could gossip with them easily, as was his wont. But although the constable kept the king's peace and made garments of all kinds for his livelihood-from the curate's frock down to the ploughboy's fustians-he was addicted for his pleasure and solace to the keeping of bees. The constable's bees inhabited a row of hives in the narrow strip of garden which ran away at the back of the cottage. This strip of garden was bordered along the whole of one side by the rector's premises. Now honest David loved gossip well, and considered it a part of his duty as constable to be well up in all events and rumours which happened or arose within his liberties. But he loved his bees better than gossip, and, as he was now in hourly expectation that they would be swarming, was working, as has been said, in his summer-house, that he might be at hand at the critical moment. The rough table on which he was seated commanded a view of the hives; his big scissors and some shreds of velveteen lay near him on the table, also the street-door key and an old shovel, of which the uses will appear presently.

On his knees lay the black velveteen coat, the Sunday garment of Harry Winburn, to which he was fitting new sleeves. In his exertions at the top of the chimney in putting out the fire, Harry had grievously damaged the garment in question. The farmer had presented him with five shillings on the occasion, which sum was quite inadequate to the purchase of a new coat, and Harry, being too proud to call the farmer's attention to the special damage which he had suffered in his service, had contented himself with bringing his old coat to be new sleeved.

Harry was a favorite with the constable on account of his intelligence and independence, and because of his relations with the farmers of Englebourn on the allotment question. Although by his office the representative of law and order in the parish, David was a man of the people, and sympathized with the peasantry more than with the farmers. He had passed some years of his apprenticeship at Reading, where he had picked up notions on political and social questions much ahead of the Englebourn worthies. When he returned to his native village, being a wise man, he had kept his new lights in the background, and consequently had succeeded in the object of his ambition, and had been appointed constable. His reason for seeking the post was a desire to prove that the old joke as to the manliness of tailors had no application to his case, and this he had established to the satisfaction of all the neighborhood by the resolute manner in which, whenever called on, he performed his duties. And, now that his character was made and his position secure, he was not so careful of betraying his leanings, and had lost some custom amongst the farmers in consequence of them.

The job on which he was employed naturally turned his thoughts to Harry. He stitched away, now weighing in his mind whether he should not go himself to Farmer Groves, and represent to him that he ought to give Harry a new coat; now rejoicing over the fact that the rector had decided to let Harry have another acre of the allotment land, now speculating on the attachment of his favorite to the gardener's daughter, and whether he could do any thing to forward his suit. In the pursuit of which thoughts he had forgotten all about his bees, when suddenly a great humming arose, followed by a rush through the air like the passing of an express train, which recalled him to himself. He jumped from the table, casting aside the coat, and seizing the key and shovel, hurried out into the garden, beating the two together with all his might.

The process in question, known in country phrase as "tanging", is founded upon the belief that the bees will not settle unless under the influence of this peculiar music; and the constable, holding faithfully to the popular belief, rushed down his garden, "tanging" as though his life depended upon it, in the hopes that the soothing sound would induce the swarm to settle at once on his own apple trees.

Is "tanging" a superstition or not? People learned in bees ought to know, but I never happened to meet one who had settled the question. It is curious how such beliefs or superstitions fix themselves in the popular mind of a countryside, and are held by wise and simple alike. David the constable was a most sensible and open-minded man of his time and class, but Kemble or Akerman, or other learned Anglo-Saxon scholars would have vainly explained to him that "tang", is but the old word for "to hold", and that the object of "tanging" is, not to lure the bees with sweet music of key and shovel, but to give notice to the neighbours that they have swarmed, and that the owner of the maternal hive means to hold on to his right to the emigrants. David would have listened to the lecture with pity, and have retained unshaken belief in his music.

In the present case, however, the tanging was of little avail, for the swarm, after wheeling once or twice in the air, disappeared from the eyes of the constable over the rector's wall. He went on "tanging" violently for a minute or two, and then paused to consider what was to be done. Should he get over the wall into the rector's garden at once, or should he go round and ask leave to carry his search into the parsonage grounds? As a man and bee-fancier he was on the point of following straight at once, over wall and fence; but the constable was also strong within him. He was not on the best of terms with old Simon, the rector's gardener, and his late opposition to Miss Winter in the matter of the singing also came into his mind. So he resolved that the parish constable would lose caste by disregarding his neighbour's boundaries, and was considering what to do next, when he heard a footstep and short cough on the other side of the wall which he recognized.

"Be you there, Maester Simon?" he called out. Where upon the walker on the other side pulled up, and after a second appeal answered shortly-

"E'es."

"Hev'ee seed ought o' my bees? Thaay've a bin' and riz, and gone off somweres athert the wall."

"E'es, I seen 'em."

"Wer' be 'em then?"

"Aal-amang wi' ourn in the limes."

"Aal-amang wi'yourn," exclaimed the constable. "Drattle 'em.

Thaay be more trouble than they be wuth."

"I knowd as thaay wur yourn zoon as ever I sot eyes on 'em," old

Simon went on.

"How did'ee know 'em then?" asked the constable.

"'Cause thine be aal zettin' crass-legged," said Simon, with a chuckle. "Thee medst cum and pick 'em all out if thee'st a mind to 't."

Simon was mollified by his own joke, and broke into a short, dry cachinnation, half laugh, half cough; while the constable, who was pleased and astonished to find his neighbour in such a good humour, hastened to get an empty hive and a pair of hedger's gloves-fortified with which he left his cottage and made the best of his way up street towards the Rectory gate, hard by which stood Simon's cottage.

The old gardener was of an impatient nature, and the effect of the joke had almost time to evaporate, and Simon was fast relapsing into his usual state of mind towards his neighbour before the latter made his appearance.

"Wher' hast been so long?" he exclaimed, when the constable joined him.

"I seed the young missus and t'other young lady a standin' talkin' afore the door," said David; "so I stopped back, so as not to dlsturve 'em."

"Be 'em gone in? Who was 'em talkin' to?"

"To thy missus, and thy daarter too, I b'lieve 'twas. Thaay be both at whoam, bean't 'em?"

"Like enough. But what was 'em zayin'?"

"I couldn't heer nothin' partic'lar, but I judged as 'twas summat about Sunday and the fire."

"'Tis na use for thaay to go on fillin' our place wi' bottles. I dwon't mean to take no mwore doctor's stuff."

Simon, it may be said, by the way, had obstinately refused to take any medicine since his fall, and had maintained a constant war on the subject, both with his own women and Miss Winter, whom he had impressed more than ever with a belief in his wrongheadedness.

"Ah! and how be'ee, tho', Maester Simon?" said David, "I didn't mind to ax afore'. You dwon't feel no wus for your fall, I hopes?"

"I feels a bit stiffish like, and as if summat wur cuttin' m' at times, when I lifts up my arms."

"'Tis a mercy 'tis no wus," said David; "we bean't so young nor lissom as we was; Maester Simon."

To which remark Simon replied by a grunt. He disliked allusions to his age-a rare dislike amongst his class in that part of the country. Most of the people are fond of making themselves out older than they are, and love to dwell on their experiences, and believe, as firmly as the rest of us, that everything has altered for the worse in the parish and district since their youth.

But Simon, though short of words and temper, and an uncomfortable acquaintance in consequence, was inclined to be helpful enough in other ways. The constable, with his assistance, had very soon hived his swarm of cross-legged bees.

Then the constable insisted on Simon's coming with him and taking a glass of ale, which, after a little coquetting, Simon consented to do. So, after carrying his re-capture safely home, and erecting the hive on a three-legged stand of his own workmanship, he hastened to rejoin Simon, and the two soon found themselves in the bar of the "Red Lion."

The constable wished to make the most of this opportunity, and so began at once to pump Simon as to his intentions with regard to his daughter. But Simon was not easy to lead in anyway whatever, and seemed in a more than usually no-business-of-yours line about his daughter. Whether he had anyone in his eye for her or not, David could not make out; but one thing he did make out, and it grieved him much. Old Simon was in a touchy and unfriendly state of mind against Harry, who, he said, was falling into bad ways, and beginning to think much too much of his self. Why was he to be wanting more allotment ground than anyone else? Simon had himself given Harry some advice on the point, but not to much purpose, it would seem, as he summed up his notions on the subject by the remark that, "'Twas waste of soap to lather an ass."

The constable now and then made a stand for his young friend, but very judiciously; and, after feeling his way for some time, he came to the conclusion-as, indeed, the truth was-that Simon was jealous of Harry's talent for growing flowers, and had been driven into his present frame of mind at hearing Miss Winter and her cousin talking about the flowers, at Dame Winburn's under his very nose for the last four or five days. They had spoken thus to interest the old man, meaning to praise Harry to him. The fact was, that the old gardener was one of those men who never can stand hearing other people praised, and think that all such praise must be meant in depreciation of themselves.

When they had finished their ale, the afternoon was getting on, and the constable rose to go back to his work; while old Simon declared his intention of going down to the hay-field, to see how the mowing was getting on. He was sure that the hay would never be made properly, now that he couldn't be about as much as usual.

In another hour the coat was finished, and the constable being uneasy in his mind, resolved to carry the garment home himself at once, and to have a talk with Dame Winburn. So he wrapped the coat in a handkerchief, put it under his arm, and set off down the village.

He found the dame busy with her washing; and after depositing his parcel, sat down on the settle to have a talk with her. They soon got on the subject which was always uppermost in her mind, her son's prospects, and she poured out to the constable her troubles. First there was this sweet-hearting after old Simon's daughter,-not that Dame Winburn was going to say anything against her, though she might have her thoughts as well as other folk, and for her part she liked to see girls that were fit for something besides dressing themselves up like their betters,-but what worried her was to see how Harry took it to heart. He wasn't like himself, and she couldn't see how it was all to end. It made him fractious, too, and he was getting into trouble about his work. He had left his regular place, and was gone mowing with a gang, most of them men out of the parish that she knew nothing about, and likely not to be the best of company. And it was all very well in harvest time, when they could go and earn good wages at mowing and reaping any where about, and no man could earn better than her Harry, but when it came to winter again she didn't see but what he might find the want of a regular place, and then the farmers mightn't take him on; and his own land, that he had got, and seemed to think so much of, mightn't turn out all he thought it would. And so in fact the old lady was troubled in her mind, and only made the constable more uneasy. He had a vague sort of impression that he was in some way answerable for Harry, who was a good deal with him, and was fond of coming about his place. And although his cottage happened to be next to old Simon's, which might account for the fact to some extent, yet the constable was conscious of having talked to his young friend on many matters in a way which might have unsettled him, and encouraged his natural tendency to stand up for his own rights and independence, and he knew well enough that this temper was not the one which was likely to keep a labouring man out of trouble in the parish.

He did not allow his own misgivings, however, to add to the widow's troubles, but, on the contrary, cheered her by praising up Harry as much as even she could desire, and prophesying that all would come right, and that those that lived would see her son as respected as any man in the parish; he shouldn't be surprised, indeed, if he were church-warden before he died. And then, astonished at his own boldness, and feeling that he was not capable of any higher flight of imagination, the constable rose to take his leave. He asked where Harry was working, and, finding that he was at mowing in the Danes' Close, set off to look after him. The kind-hearted constable could not shake off the feeling that something was going to happen to Harry which would get him into trouble, and he wanted to assure himself that as yet nothing had gone wrong. Whenever one has this sort of vague feeling about a friend, there is a natural and irresistible impulse to go and look after him, and to be with him.

The Danes' Close wa

s a part of the glebe, a large field of some ten acres or so in extent, close to the village. Two footpaths ran across it, so that it was almost common property, and the village children considered it as much their playground as the green itself. They trampled the grass a good deal more than seemed endurable in the eyes of Simon, who managed the rector's farming operations as well as the garden; but the children had their own way, notwithstanding the threats he sometimes launched at them. Miss Winter would have sooner lost all the hay than have narrowed their amusements. It was the most difficult piece of mowing in the parish, in consequence of the tramplings and of the large crops it bore. The Danes, or some other unknown persons, had made the land fat, perhaps with their carcasses, and the benefit had lasted to the time of our story. At any rate, the field bore splendid crops, and the mowers always got an extra shilling an acre for cutting it, by Miss Winter's special order, which was paid by Simon in the most ungracious manner, and with many grumblings that it was enough to ruin all the mowers in the countryside.

As the constable got over the stile into the hay-field, a great part of his misgivings passed out of his head. He was a simple kindly man, whose heart lay open to all influences of scene and weather, and the Danes' Close, full of life and joy and merry sounds, as seen under the slanting rays of the evening sun, was just the place to rub all the wrinkles out of him.

The constable, however, is not singular in this matter. What man amongst us all, if he will think the matter over calmly and fairly, can honestly say that there is any one spot on the earth's surface in which he has enjoyed so much real, wholesome, happy life as in a hay field? He may have won renown on horseback or on foot at the sports and pastimes in which Englishmen glory; he may have shaken off all rivals, time after time, across the vales of Aylesbury, or of Berks, or any other of our famous hunting counties; he may have stalked the oldest and shyest buck in Scotch forests, and killed the biggest salmon of the year in the Tweed, and the trout in the Thames; he may have made topping averages in first-rate matches of cricket; or have made long and perilous marches, dear to memory, over boggy moor, or mountain, or glacier; he may have successfully attended many breakfast-parties, within drive of Mayfair, on velvet lawns, surrounded by all the fairyland of pomp, and beauty, and luxury, which London can pour out; he may have shone at private theatricals and at-homes; his voice may have sounded over hushed audiences at St. Stephen's, or in the law courts; or he may have had good times in any other scenes of pleasure or triumph open to Englishmen; but I much doubt whether, on putting his recollections fairly and quietly together, he would not say at last that the fresh mown hay field is the place where he has spent the most hours which he would like to live over again, the fewest which he would wish to forget.

As children, we stumble about the new-mown hay, revelling in the many colors of the prostrate grass and wild flowers, and in the power of tumbling where we please without hurting ourselves; as small boys, we pelt one another and the village schoolgirls and our nursemaids and young lady cousins with the hay, till, hot and weary, we retire to tea or syllabub beneath the shade of some great oak or elm, standing up like a monarch out of the fair pasture; or, following the mowers, we rush with eagerness on the treasures disclosed by the scythe-stroke,-the nest of the unhappy late laying titlark, or careless field-mouse; as big boys, we toil ambitiously with the spare forks and rakes, or climb into the wagons and receive with open arms the delicious load as it is pitched up from below, and rises higher and higher as we pass along the long lines of haycocks; a year or two later we are strolling there with our first sweethearts, our souls and tongues, loaded with sweet thoughts and soft speeches; we take a turn with the scythe as the bronzed mowers lie in the shade for their short rest, and willingly pay our footing for the feat. Again, we come back with book in pocket, and our own children tumbling about as we did before them; now romping with them, and smothering them with the sweet-smelling load-now musing and reading and dozing away the delicious summer evenings. And so shall we not come back to the end, enjoying as grandfathers the lovemaking and the rompings of younger generations yet?

Were any of us ever really disappointed or melancholy in a hay-field? Did we ever lie fairly back on a haycock and look up into the blue sky and listen to the merry sounds, the whetting of scythes and the laughing prattle of women and children, and think evil thoughts of the world and of or our brethren? Not we! Or if we have so done, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, and deserve never to be out of town again during hay-harvest.

There is something in the sights and sounds of a hay-field which seems to touch the same chord in one as Lowell's lines in the "Lay of Sir Launfal," which end-

"For a cap and bells our lives we pay;

We wear out our lives with toiling and tasking;

It is only Heaven that is given away;

It is only God may be had for the asking.

There is no price set on the lavish summer,

And June may be had by the poorest comer."

But the philosophy of the hay-field remains to be written. Let us hope that whoever takes the subject in hand will not dissipate all its sweetness in the process of the inquiry wherein the charm lies.

The constable had not the slightest notion of speculating on his own sensations, but was very glad, nevertheless, to find his spirits rising as he stepped into the Danes' Close. All the hay was down, except a small piece in the further corner, which the mowers were upon. There were groups of children in many parts of the field, and women to look after them, mostly sitting on the fresh swarth, working and gossiping, while the little ones played about. He had not gone twenty yards before he was stopped by the violent crying of a child; and turning toward the voice, he saw a little girl of six or seven, who had strayed from her mother, scrambling out of the ditch, and wringing her hands in an agony of pain and terror. The poor little thing had fallen into a bed of nettles, and was very much frightened, and not a little hurt. The constable caught her up in his arms, soothing her as well as he could, and hurrying along till he found some dock-leaves, sat down with her on his knee, and rubbed her hands with the leaves, repeating the old saw-

"Our nettle,

In dock;

Dock shall ha'

A new smock;

Nettle shan't

Ha' narrun'."

What with the rubbing, and the constable's kind manner, and listening to the doggerel rhyme, and feeling that nettle would get her deserts, the little thing soon ceased crying. But several groups had been drawn towards the place, and amongst the rest came Miss Winter and her cousin, who had been within hearing of the disaster. The constable began to feel very nervous and uncomfortable, when he looked up from his charitable occupation, and suddenly found the rector's daughter close to him. But his nervousness was uncalled for. The sight of what he was about, and of the tender way in which he was handling the child, drove all remembrance of his heresies and contumaciousness in the matter of psalmody out of her head. She greeted him with frankness and cordiality, and presently-when he had given up his charge to the mother, who was inclined at first to be hard with the poor little sobbing truant-came up, and said she wished to speak a few words to him.

David was highly delighted at Miss Winter's manner; but he walked along at her side not quite comfortable in his mind, for fear lest she should start the old subject of dispute, and then his duty as a public man would have to be done at all risk of offending her. He was much comforted when she began by asking him whether he had seen much of Widow Winburn's son lately.

David admitted that he generally saw him every day.

Did he know that he had left his place, and had quarrelled with

Mr. Tester?

Yes, David knew that Harry had had words with Farmer Tester; but Farmer Tester was a sort that was very hard not to have words with.

"Still, it is very bad, you know, for so young a man to be quarrelling with the farmers," said Miss Winter.

"'Twas the varmer as quarreled wi' he, you see, miss," David answered, "which makes all the odds. He cum to Harry all in a fluster, and said as how he must drow up the land as he'd a'got, or he's place-one or t'other on 'em. And so you see, Miss, as Harry wur kind o' druv to it. 'Twarn't likely as he wur to drow up the land now as he were just reppin' the benefit ov it, and all for Varmer Tester's place, wich be no sich gurt things, miss, arter all."

"Very likely not; but I fear it may hinder his getting employment. The other farmers will not take him on now if they can help it."

"No; thaay falls out wi' one another bad enough, and calls all manner o' names. But thaay can't abide a poor man to speak his mind, nor take his own part, not one on 'em," said David, looking at Miss Winter, as if doubtful how she might take his strictures; but she went on without any show of dissent,-

"I shall try to get him work for my father, but I am sorry to find that Simon does not seem to like the idea of taking him on. It is not easy always to make out Simon's meaning. When I spoke to him, he said something about a bleating sheep losing a bite; but I should think this young man is not much of a talker in general?"-she paused.

"That's true, miss," said David, energetically; "there ain't a quieter spoken or steadier man at his work in the parish."

"I'm very glad to hear you say so," said Miss Winter, "and I hope we may soon do something for him. But what I want you to do just now is to speak a word to him about the company he seems to be getting into."

The constable looked somewhat aghast at this speech of Miss Winter's, but did not answer, not knowing to what she was alluding. She saw that he did not understand, and went on-

"He is mowing to-day with a gang from the heath and the next parish; I am sure they are very bad men for him to be with. I was so vexed when I found Simon had given them the job; but he said they would get it all down in a day, and be done with it, and that was all he cared for."

"And 'tis a fine day's work, miss, for five men," said David, looking over the field; "and 'tis good work too, you mind the swarth else," and he picked up a handful of the fallen grass to show her how near the ground it was cut.

"Oh, yes, I have no doubt they are very good mowers, but they are not good men, I'm sure. There, do you see now who it is that is bringing them beer? I hope you will see Widow Winburn's son, and speak to him, and try to keep him out of bad company. We should be all so sorry if he were to get into trouble."

David promised to do his best, and Miss Winter wished him good evening, and rejoined her cousin.

"Well, Katie, will he do your behest?"

"Yes, indeed; and I think he is the best person to do it. Widow

Winburn thinks her son minds him more than any one."

"Do you know, I don't think it will ever go right. I'm sure she doesn't care the least for him."

"Oh, you have only just seen her once for two or three minutes."

"And then that wretched old Simon is so perverse about it," said the cousin. "You will never manage him."

"He is very provoking, certainly; but I get my own way generally, in spite of him. And it is such a perfect plan, isn't it!"

"Oh, charming! if you can only bring it about."

"Now we must be really going home; papa will be getting restless." So the young ladies left the hay-field deep in castle-building for Harry Winburn and the gardener's daughter, Miss Winter being no more able to resist a tale of true love than her cousin, or the rest of her sex. They would have been more or less than woman if they had not taken an interest in so absorbing a passion as poor Harry's. By the time they reached the Rectory gate they had installed him in the gardener's cottage with his bride and mother (for there would be plenty of room for the widow, and it would be so convenient to have the laundry close at hand) and had pentioned old Simon, and sent him and his old wife to wrangle away the rest of their time in the widow's cottage. Castle-building is a delightful and harmless exercise.

Meantime David the constable had gone towards the mowers, who were taking a short rest before finishing off the last half-acre which remained standing. The person whose appearance had so horrified Miss Winter was drawing beer for them from a small barrel. This was an elderly raw-boned woman with a skin burnt as brown as that of any of the mowers. She wore a man's hat and spencer and had a strong harsh voice, and altogether was not a prepossessing person. She went by the name of Daddy Cowell in the parish, and had been for years a proscribed person. She lived up on the heath, often worked in the fields, took in lodgers, and smoked a short clay pipe. These eccentricities, when added to her half-made clothing, were quite enough to account for the sort of outlawry in which she lived. Miss Winter, and other good people of Englebourn, believed her capable of any crime, and the children were taught to stop talking and playing, and run away when she came near them; but the constable, who had had one or two search-warrants to execute in her house, and had otherwise had frequent occasions of getting acquainted with her in the course of his duties, had by no means so evil an opinion of her. He had never seen much harm in her, he had often been heard to say, and she never made pretence to much good. Nevertheless, David was by no means pleased to see her acting as purveyor to the gang which Harry had joined. He knew how such contact would damage him in the eyes of all the parochial respectabilities, and was anxious to do his best to get him clear of it.

With these views he went up to the men, who were resting under a large elm tree, and complimented them on their day's work. They were themselves well satisfied with it, and with one another. When men have had sixteen hours or so hard mowing in company, and none of them can say that the others have not done their fair share, they are apt to respect one another more at the end of it. It was Harry's first day with this gang, who were famous for going about the neighbourhood, and doing great feats in hay and wheat harvest. They were satisfied with him and he with them, none the less so probably in his present frame of mind, because they also were loose on the world, servants of no regular master. It was a bad time to make his approaches, the constable saw; so, after sitting by Harry until the gang rose to finish off their work in the cool of the evening, and asking him to come round by his cottage on his way home, which Harry promised to do, he walked back to the village.

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