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    Ch. 12: The Shepherd and the Bible

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    Chapter 12
    Previous Chapter
    Dan'l Burdon, the treasure-seeker--The shepherd's feeling for the
    Bible--Effect of the pastoral life--The shepherd's story of Isaac's
    boyhood--The village on the Wylye

    One of the shepherd's early memories was of Dan'l Burdon, a labourer on
    the farm where Isaac Bawcombe was head-shepherd. He retained a vivid
    recollection of this person, who had a profound gravity and was the most
    silent man in the parish. He was always thinking about hidden treasure,
    and all his spare time was spent in seeking for it. On a Sunday morning,
    or in the evening after working hours, he would take a spade or pick and
    go away over the hills on his endless search after "something he could
    not find." He opened some of the largest barrows, making trenches six to
    ten feet deep through them, but found nothing to reward him. One day he
    took Caleb with him, and they went to a part of the down where there
    were certain depressions in the turf of a circular form and six to seven
    feet in circumference. Burdon had observed these basin-like depressions
    and had thought it possible they marked the place where things of value
    had been buried in long-past ages. To begin he cut the turf all round
    and carefully removed it, then dug and found a thick layer of flints.
    These removed, he came upon a deposit of ashes and charred wood. And
    that was all. Burdon without a word set to work to put it all back in
    its place again--ashes and wood, and earth and flints--and having trod
    it firmly down he carefully replaced the turf, then leaning on his spade
    gazed silently at the spot for a space of several minutes. At last he
    spoke. "Maybe, Caleb, you've beared tell about what the Bible says of
    burnt sacrifice. Well now, I be of opinion that it were here. They
    people the Bible says about, they come up here to sacrifice on White
    Bustard Down, and these be the places where they made their fires."

    Then he shouldered his spade and started home, the boy following.
    Caleb's comment was: "I didn't say nothing to un because I were only a
    leetel boy and he were a old man; but I knowed better than that all the
    time, because them people in the Bible they was never in England at all,
    so how could they sacrifice on White Bustard Down in Wiltsheer?"

    It was no idle boast on his part. Caleb and his brothers had been taught
    their letters when small, and the Bible was their one book, which they
    read not only in the evenings at home but out on the downs during the
    day when they were with the flock. His extreme familiarity with the
    whole Scripture narrative was a marvel to me; it was also strange,
    considering how intelligent a man he was, that his lifelong reading of
    that one book had made no change in his rude "Wiltsheer" speech.

    Apart from the feeling which old, religious country people, who know
    nothing about the Higher Criticism, have for the Bible, taken literally
    as the Word of God, there is that in the old Scriptures which appeals in
    a special way to the solitary man who feeds his flock on the downs. I
    remember well in the days of my boyhood and youth, when living in a
    purely pastoral country among a semi-civilized and very simple people,
    how understandable and eloquent many of the ancient stories were to me.
    The life, the outlook, the rude customs, and the vivid faith in the
    Unseen, were much the same in that different race in a far-distant age,
    in a remote region of the earth, and in the people I mixed with in my
    own home. That country has been changed now; it has been improved and
    civilized and brought up to the European standard; I remember it when it
    was as it had existed for upwards of two centuries before it had caught
    the contagion. The people I knew were the descendants of the Spanish
    colonists of the seventeenth century, who had taken kindly to the life
    of the plains, and had easily shed the traditions and ways of thought of
    Europe and of towns. Their philosophy of life, their ideals, their
    morality, were the result of the conditions they existed in, and wholly
    unlike ours; and the conditions were like those of the ancient people of
    which the Bible tells us. Their very phraseology was strongly
    reminiscent of that of the sacred writings, and their character in the
    best specimens was like that of the men of the far past who lived nearer
    to God, as we say, and certainly nearer to nature than it is possible
    for us in this artificial state. Among these sometimes grand old men who
    were large landowners, rich in flocks and herds, these fine old,
    dignified "natives," the substantial and leading men of the district who
    could not spell their own names, there were those who reminded you of
    Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brethren, and
    even of David the passionate psalmist, with perhaps a guitar for a harp.

    No doubt the Scripture lessons read in the thousand churches on every
    Sunday of the year are practically meaningless to the hearers. These old
    men, with their sheep and goats and wives, and their talk about God, are
    altogether out of our ways of thought, in fact as far from us--as
    incredible or unimaginable, we may say--as the neolithic men or the
    inhabitants of another planet. They are of the order of mythical heroes
    and the giants of antiquity. To read about them is an ancient custom,
    but we do not listen.

    Even to myself the memories of my young days came to be regarded as very
    little more than mere imaginations, and I almost ceased to believe in
    them until, after years of mixing with modern men, mostly in towns, I
    fell in with the downland shepherds, and discovered that even here, in
    densely populated and ultra-civilized England, something of the ancient
    spirit had survived. In Caleb, and a dozen old men more or less like
    him, I seemed to find myself among the people of the past, and sometimes
    they were so much like some of the remembered, old, sober, and
    slow-minded herders of the plains that I could not help saying to
    myself, Why, how this man reminds me of Tio Isidoro, or of Don Pascual
    of the "Three Poplar Trees," or of Marcos who would always have three
    black sheep in a flock. And just as they reminded me of these men I had
    actually known, so did they bring back the older men of the Bible
    history--Abraham and Jacob and the rest.

    The point here is that these old Bible stories have a reality and
    significance for the shepherd of the down country which they have lost
    for modern minds; that they recognize their own spiritual lineaments in
    these antique portraits, and that all these strange events might have
    happened a few years ago and not far away.

    One day I said to Caleb Bawcombe that his knowledge of the Bible,
    especially of the old part, was greater than that of the other shepherds
    I knew on the downs, and I would like to hear why it was so. This led to
    the telling of a fresh story about his father's boyhood, which he had
    heard in later years from his mother. Isaac was an only child and not
    the son of a shepherd; his father was a rather worthless if not a wholly
    bad man; he was idle and dissolute, and being remarkably dexterous with
    his fists he was persuaded by certain sporting persons to make a
    business of fighting--quite a common thing in those days. He wanted
    nothing better, and spent the greater part of the time in wandering
    about the country; the money he made was spent away from home, mostly in
    drink, while his wife was left to keep herself and child in the best way
    she could at home or in the fields. By and by a poor stranger came to
    the village in search of work and was engaged for very little pay by a
    small farmer, for the stranger confessed that he was without experience
    of farm work of any description. The cheapest lodging he could find was
    in the poor woman's cottage, and then Isaac's mother, who pitied him
    because he was so poor and a stranger alone in the world, a very silent,
    melancholy man, formed the opinion that he had belonged to another rank
    in life. His speech and hands and personal habits betrayed it.
    Undoubtedly he was a gentleman; and then from something in his manner,
    his voice, and his words whenever he addressed her, and his attention to
    religion, she further concluded that he had been in the Church; that,
    owing to some trouble or disaster, he had abandoned his place in the
    world to live away from all who had known him, as a labourer.

    One day he spoke to her about Isaac; he said he had been observing him
    and thought it a great pity that such a fine, intelligent boy should be
    allowed to grow up without learning his letters. She agreed that it was,
    but what could she do? The village school was kept by an old woman, and
    though she taught the children very little it had to be paid for, and
    she could not afford it. He then offered to teach Isaac himself and she
    gladly consented, and from that day he taught Isaac for a couple of
    hours every evening until the boy was able to read very well, after
    which they read the Bible through together, the poor man explaining
    everything, especially the historical parts, so clearly and beautifully,
    with such an intimate knowledge of the countries and peoples and customs
    of the remote East, that it was all more interesting than a fairy tale.
    Finally he gave his copy of the Bible to Isaac, and told him to carry it
    in his pocket every day when he went out on the downs, and when he sat
    down to take it out and read in it. For by this time Isaac, who was now
    ten years old, had been engaged as a shepherd-boy to his great
    happiness, for to be a shepherd was his ambition.

    Then one day the stranger rolled up his few belongings in a bundle and
    put them on a stick which he placed on his shoulder, said good-bye, and
    went away, never to return, taking his sad secret with him.

    Isaac followed the stranger's counsel, and when he had sons of his own
    made them do as he had done from early boyhood. Caleb had never gone
    with his flock on the down without the book, and had never passed a day
    without reading a portion.

    The incidents and observations gathered in many talks with the old
    shepherd, which I have woven into the foregoing chapters, relate mainly
    to the earlier part of his life, up to the time when, a married man and
    father of three small children, he migrated to Warminster. There he was
    in, to him, a strange land, far away from friends and home and the old
    familiar surroundings, amid new scenes and new people, But the few years
    he spent at that place had furnished him with many interesting memories,
    some of which will be narrated in the following chapters.

    I have told in the account of Winterbourne Bishop how I first went to
    that village just to see his native place, and later I visited Doveton
    for no other reason than that he had lived there, to find it one of the
    most charming of the numerous pretty villages in the vale. I looked for
    the cottage in which he had lived and thought it as perfect a home as a
    quiet, contemplative man who loved nature could have had: a small,
    thatched cottage, very old looking, perhaps inconvenient to live in, but
    situated in the prettiest spot, away from other houses, near and within
    sight of the old church with old elms and beech-trees growing close to
    it, and the land about it green meadow. The clear river, fringed with a
    luxuriant growth of sedges, flag, and reeds, was less than a
    stone's-throw away.

    So much did I like the vale of the Wylye when I grew to know it well
    that I wish to describe it fully in the chapter that follows.
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 12
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