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    Ch. 19: The Dark People of the Village

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    Chapter 19
    Previous Chapter
    How the materials for this book were obtained--The hedgehog-hunter--A
    gipsy taste--History of a dark-skinned family--Hedgehog eaters--Half-bred
    and true gipsies--Perfect health--Eating carrion--Mysterious knowledge
    and faculties--The three dark Wiltshire types--Story of another dark
    man of the village--Account of Liddy--His shepherding--A happy life
    with horses--Dies of a broken heart--His daughter

    I have sometimes laughed to myself when thinking how a large part of the
    material composing this book was collected. It came to me in
    conversations, at intervals, during several years, with the shepherd. In
    his long life in his native village, a good deal of it spent on the
    quiet down, he had seen many things it was or would be interesting to
    hear; the things which had interested him, too, at the time, and had
    fallen into oblivion, yet might be recovered. I discovered that it was
    of little use to question him: the one valuable recollection he
    possessed on any subject would, as a rule, not be available when wanted;
    it would lie just beneath the surface so to speak, and he would pass and
    repass over the ground without seeing it. He would not know that it was
    there; it would be like the acorn which a jay or squirrel has hidden and
    forgotten all about, which he will nevertheless recover some day if by
    chance something occurs to remind him of it. The only method was to talk
    about the things he knew, and when by chance he was reminded of some old
    experience or some little observation or incident worth hearing, to make
    a note of it, then wait patiently for something else. It was a very slow
    process, but it is not unlike the one we practise always with regard to
    wild nature. We are not in a hurry, but are always watchful, with eyes
    and ears and mind open to what may come; it is a mental habit, and when
    nothing comes we are not disappointed--the act of watching has been a
    sufficient pleasure: and when something does come we take it joyfully as
    if it were a gift--a valuable object picked up by chance in our walks.

    When I turned into the shepherd's cottage, if it was in winter and he
    was sitting by the fire, I would sit and smoke with him, and if we were
    in a talking mood I would tell him where I had been and what I had heard
    and seen, on the heath, in the woods, in the village, or anywhere, on
    the chance of its reminding him of something worth hearing in his past

    One Sunday morning, in the late summer, during one of my visits to him,
    I was out walking in the woods and found a man of the village, a farm
    labourer, with his small boy hunting for hedgehogs. He had caught and
    killed two, which the boy was carrying. He told me he was very fond of
    the flesh of hedgehogs--"pigs," he called them for short; he said he
    would not exchange one for a rabbit. He always spent his holidays
    pig-hunting; he had no dog and didn't want one; he found them himself,
    and his method was to look for the kind of place in which they were
    accustomed to live--a thick mass of bramble growing at the side of an
    old ditch as a rule. He would force his way into it and, moving round
    and round, trample down the roots and loose earth and dead leaves with
    his heavy iron-shod boots until he broke into the nest or cell of the
    spiny little beast hidden away under the bush.

    He was a short, broad-faced man, with a brown skin, black hair, and
    intensely black eyes. Talking with the shepherd that evening I told him
    of the encounter, and remarked that the man was probably a gipsy in
    blood, although a labourer, living in the village and married to a woman
    with blue eyes who belonged to the place.

    This incident reminded him of a family, named Targett, in his native
    village, consisting of four brothers and a sister. He knew them first
    when he was a boy himself, but could not remember their parents. "It
    seemed as if they didn't have any," he said. The four brothers were very
    much alike: short, with broad faces, black eyes and hair, and brown
    skins. They were good workers, but somehow they were never treated by
    the farmers like the other men. They were paid less wages--as much as
    two to four shillings a week less per man--and made to do things that
    others would not do, and generally imposed upon. It was known to every
    employer of labour in the place that they could be imposed upon; yet
    they were not fools, and occasionally if their master went too far in
    bullying and abusing them and compelling them to work overtime every
    day, they would have sudden violent outbursts of rage and go off without
    any pay at all. What became of their sister he never knew: but none of
    the four brothers ever married; they lived together always, and two died
    in the village, the other two going to finish their lives in the

    One of the curious things about these brothers was that they had a
    passion for eating hedgehogs. They had it from boyhood, and as boys used
    to go a distance from home and spend the day hunting in hedges and
    thickets. When they captured a hedgehog they would make a small fire in
    some sheltered spot and roast it, and while it was roasting one of them
    would go to the nearest cottage to beg for a pinch of salt, which was
    generally given.

    These, too, I said, must have been gipsies, at all events on one side.
    Where there is a cross the gipsy strain is generally strongest, although
    the children, if brought up in the community, often remain in it all
    their lives; but they are never quite of it. Their love of wildness and
    of eating wild flesh remains in them, and it is also probable that there
    is an instability of character, a restlessness, which the small farmers
    who usually employ such men know and trade on; the gipsy who takes to
    farm work must not look for the same treatment as the big-framed,
    white-skinned man who is as strong, enduring, and unchangeable as a
    draught horse or ox, and constant as the sun itself.

    The gipsy element is found in many if not most villages in the south of
    England. I know one large scattered village where it appears
    predominant--as dirty and disorderly-looking a place as can be imagined,
    the ground round every cottage resembling a gipsy camp, but worse owing
    to its greater litter of old rags and rubbish strewn about. But the
    people, like all gipsies, are not so poor as they look, and most of the
    cottagers keep a trap and pony with which they scour the country for
    many miles around in quest of bones, rags, and bottles, and anything
    else they can buy for a few pence, also anything they can "pick up" for

    This is almost the only kind of settled life which a man with a good
    deal of gipsy blood in him can tolerate; it affords some scope for his
    chaffering and predatory instincts and satisfies the roving passion,
    which is not so strong in those of mixed blood. But it is too
    respectable or humdrum a life for the true, undegenerate gipsy. One wet
    evening in September last I was prowling in a copse near Shrewton,
    watching the birds, when I encountered a young gipsy and recognized him
    as one of a gang of about a dozen I had met several days before near
    Salisbury. They were on their way, they had told me, to a village near
    Shaftesbury, where they hoped to remain a week or so.

    "What are you doing here?" I asked my gipsy.

    He said he had been to Idmiston; he had been on his legs out in the rain
    and wet to the skin since morning. He didn't mind that much as the wet
    didn't hurt him and he was not tired; but he had eight miles to walk yet
    over the downs to a village on the Wylye where his people were staying.

    I remarked that I had thought they were staying over Shaftesbury way.

    He then looked sharply at me. "Ah, yes," he said, "I remember we met you
    and had some talk a fortnight ago. Yes, we went there, but they wouldn't
    have us. They soon ordered us off. They advised us to settle down if we
    wanted to stay anywhere. Settle down! I'd rather be dead!"

    There spoke the true gipsy; and they are mostly of that mind. But what a
    mind it is for human beings in this climate! It is in a year like this
    of 1909, when a long cold winter and a miserable spring, with frosty
    nights lasting well into June, was followed by a cold wet summer and a
    wet autumn, that we can see properly what a mind and body is his--how
    infinitely more perfect the correspondence between organism and
    environment in his case than in ours, who have made our own conditions,
    who have not only houses to live in, but a vast army of sanitary
    inspectors, physicians and bacteriologists to safeguard us from that
    wicked stepmother who is anxious to get rid of us before our time! In
    all this miserable year, during which I have met and conversed with and
    visited many scores of gipsies, I have not found one who was not in a
    cheerful frame of mind, even when he was under a cloud with the police
    on his track; nor one with a cold, or complaining of an ache in his
    bones, or of indigestion.

    The subject of gipsies catching cold connects itself just now in my mind
    with that of the gipsy's sense of humour. He has that sense, and it
    makes him happy when he is reposing in the bosom of his family and can
    give it free vent; but the instant you appear on the scene its gracious
    outward signs vanish like lightning and he is once more the sly, subtle
    animal, watching you furtively, but with intensity. When you have left
    him and he relaxes the humour will come back to him; for it is a humour
    similar to that of some of the lower animals, especially birds of the
    crow family, and of primitive people, only more highly developed, and is
    concerned mainly with the delight of trickery--with getting the better
    of some one and the huge enjoyment resulting from the process.

    One morning, between nine and ten o'clock, during the excessively cold
    spell near the end of November 1909, I paid a visit to some gipsies I
    knew at their camp. The men had already gone off for the day, but some
    of the women were there--a young married woman, two big girls, and six
    or seven children. It was a hard frost and their sleeping accommodation
    was just as in the summer-time--bundles of straw and old rugs placed in
    or against little half-open canvas and rag shelters; but they all
    appeared remarkably well, and some of the children were standing on the
    hard frozen ground with bare feet. They assured me that they were all
    well, that they hadn't caught colds and didn't mind the cold. I remarked
    that I had thought the severe frost might have proved too much for some
    of them in that high, unsheltered spot in the downs, and that if I had
    found one of the children down with a cold I should have given it a
    sixpence to comfort it. "Oh," cried the young married woman, "there's my
    poor six months' old baby half dead of a cold; he's very bad, poor dear,
    and I'm in great trouble about him."

    "He is bad, the darling!" cried one of the big girls. "I'll soon show
    you how bad he is!" and with that she dived into a pile of straw and
    dragged out a huge fat sleeping baby. Holding it up in her arms she
    begged me to look at it to see how bad it was; the fat baby slowly
    opened its drowsy eyes and blinked at the sun, but uttered no sound, for
    it was not a crying baby, but was like a great fat retriever pup pulled
    out of its warm bed.

    How healthy they are is hardly known even to those who make a special
    study of these aliens, who, albeit aliens, are yet more native than any
    Englishman in the land. It is not merely their indifference to wet and
    cold; more wonderful still is their dog-like capacity of assimilating
    food which to us would be deadly. This is indeed not a nice or pretty
    subject, and I will give but one instance to illustrate my point; the
    reader with a squeamish stomach may skip the ensuing paragraph.

    An old shepherd of Chitterne relates that a family, or gang, of gipsies
    used to turn up from time to time at the village; he generally saw them
    at lambing-time, when one of the heads of the party with whom he was
    friendly would come round to see what he had to give them. On one
    occasion his gipsy friend appeared, and after some conversation on
    general subjects, asked him if he had anything in his way. "No, nothing
    this time," said the shepherd. "Lambing was over two or three months ago
    and there's nothing left--no dead lamb. I hung up a few cauls on a beam
    in the old shed, thinking they would do for the dogs, but forgot them
    and they went bad and then dried up."

    "They'll do very well for us," said his friend.

    "No, don't you take them!" cried the shepherd in alarm; "I tell you they
    went bad months ago, and 'twould kill anyone to eat such stuff. They've
    dried up now, and are dry and black as old skin."

    "That doesn't matter--we know how to make them all right," said the
    gipsy. "Soaked with a little salt, then boiled, they'll do very well."
    And off he carried them.

    In reading the reports of the Assizes held at Salisbury from the late
    eighteenth century down to about 1840, it surprised me to find how
    rarely a gipsy appeared in that long, sad, monotonous procession of
    "criminals" who passed before the man sitting with his black cap on his
    head, and were sent to the gallows or to the penal settlements for
    stealing sheep and fowls and ducks or anything else. Yet the gipsies
    were abundant then as now, living the same wild, lawless life,
    quartering the country, and hanging round the villages to spy out
    everything stealable. The man caught was almost invariably the poor,
    slow-minded, heavy-footed agricultural labourer; the light,
    quick-moving, cunning gipsy escaped. In the "Salisbury Journal" for 1820
    I find a communication on this subject, in which the writer says that a
    common trick of the gipsies was to dig a deep pit at their camp in which
    to bury a stolen sheep, and on this spot they would make their camp
    fire. If the sheep was not missed, or if no report of its loss was made
    to the police, the thieves would soon be able to dig it up and enjoy it;
    but if inquiries were made they would have to wait until the affair had
    blown over.

    It amused me to find, from an incident related to me by a workman in a
    village where I was staying lately, that this simple, ancient device is
    still practised by the gipsies. My informant said that on going out at
    about four o'clock one morning during the late summer he was surprised
    at seeing two gipsies with a pony and cart at the spot where a party of
    them had been encamped a fortnight before. He watched them, himself
    unseen, and saw that they were digging a pit on the spot where they had
    had their fire. They took out several objects from the ground, but he
    was too far away to make out what they were. They put them in the cart
    and covered them over, then filled up the pit, trampled the earth well
    down, and put the ashes and burnt sticks back in the same place, after
    which they got into the cart and drove off.

    Of course a man, even a nomad, must have some place to conceal his
    treasures or belongings in, and the gipsy has no cellar nor attic nor
    secret cupboard, and as for his van it is about the last place in which
    he would bestow anything of value or incriminating, for though he is
    always on the move, he is, moving or sitting still, always under a
    cloud. The ground is therefore the safest place to hide things in,
    especially in a country like the Wiltshire Downs, though he may use
    rocks and hollow trees in other districts. His habit is that of the jay
    and magpie, and of the dog with a bone to put by till it is wanted.
    Possibly the rural police have not yet discovered this habit of the
    gipsy. Indeed, the contrast in mind and locomotive powers between the
    gipsy and the village policeman has often amused me; the former most
    like the thievish jay, ever on mischief bent; the other, who has his eye
    on him, is more like the portly Cochin-China fowl of the farmyard, or
    the Muscovy duck, or stately gobbler.

    To go back. When the buried sheep had to be kept too long buried and was
    found "gone bad" when disinterred, I fancy it made little difference to
    the diners. One remembers Thoreau's pleasure at the spectacle of a crowd
    of vultures feasting on the carrion of a dead horse; the fine healthy
    appetite and boundless vigour of nature filled him with delight. But it
    is not only some of the lower animals--dogs and vultures, for
    instance--which possess this power and immunity from the effects of
    poisons developed in putrid meat; the Greenlanders and African savages,
    and many other peoples in various parts of the world, have it as well.

    Sometimes when sitting with gipsies at their wild hearth, I have felt
    curious as to the contents of that black pot simmering over the fire. No
    doubt it often contains strange meats, but it would not have been
    etiquette to speak of such a matter. It is like the pot on the fire of
    the Venezuela savage into which he throws whatever he kills with his
    little poisoned arrows or fishes out of the river. Probably my only
    quarrel with them would be about the little fledgelings: it angers me to
    see them beating the bushes in spring in search of small nesties and the
    callow young that are in them. After all, the gipsies could retort that
    my friends the jays and magpies are at the same business in April and

    It is just these habits of the gipsy which I have described, shocking to
    the moralist and sanitarian and disgusting to the person of delicate
    stomach, it may be, which please me, rather than the romance and poetry
    which the scholar-gipsy enthusiasts are fond of reading into him. He is
    to me a wild, untameable animal of curious habits, and interests me as a
    naturalist accordingly. It may be objected that being a naturalist
    occupied with the appearance of things, I must inevitably miss the one
    thing which others find.

    In a talk I had with a gipsy a short time ago, he said to me: "You know
    what the books say, and we don't. But we know other things that are not
    in the books, and that's what we have. It's ours, our own, and you can't
    know it."

    It was well put; but I was not perhaps so entirely ignorant as he
    imagined of the nature of that special knowledge, or shall we say
    faculty, which he claimed. I take it to be cunning--the cunning of a
    wild animal with a man's brain--and a small, an infinitesimal, dose of
    something else which eludes us. But that something else is not of a
    spiritual nature: the gipsy has no such thing in him; the soul growths
    are rooted in the social instinct, and are developed in those in whom
    that instinct is strong. I think that if we analyse that dose of
    something else, we will find that it is still the animal's cunning, a
    special, a sublimated cunning, the fine flower of his whole nature, and
    that it has nothing mysterious in it. He is a parasite, but free and as
    well able to exist free as the fox or jackal; but the parasitism pays
    him well, and he has followed it so long in his intercourse with social
    man that it has come to be like an instinct, or secret knowledge, and is
    nothing more than a marvellously keen penetration which reveals to him
    the character and degree of credulity and other mental weaknesses of his

    It is not so much the wind on the heath, brother, as the fascination of
    lawlessness, which makes his life an everlasting joy to him; to pit
    himself against gamekeeper, farmer, policeman, and everybody else, and
    defeat them all, to flourish like the parasitic fly on the honey in the
    hive and escape the wrath of the bees.

    I must now return from this long digression to my conversation with the
    shepherd about the dark people of the village.

    There were, I continued, other black-eyed and black-haired people in the
    villages who had no gipsy blood in their veins. So far as I could make
    out there were dark people of three originally distinct and widely
    different races in the Wiltshire Downs. There was a good deal of mixed
    blood, no doubt, and many dark persons could not be identified as
    belonging to any particular race. Nevertheless three distinct types
    could be traced among the dark people, and I took them to be, first, the
    gipsy, rather short of stature, brown-skinned, with broad face and high
    cheek-bones, like the men we had just been speaking of. Secondly, the
    men and women of white skins and good features, who had rather broad
    faces and round heads, and were physically and mentally just as good as
    the best blue-eyed people; these were probably the descendants of the
    dark, broad-faced Wilsetas, who came over at the time when the country
    was being overrun with the English and other nations or tribes, and who
    colonized in Wiltshire and gave it their name. The third type differed
    widely from both the others. They were smallest in size and had narrow
    heads and long or oval faces, and were very dark, with brown skins; they
    also differed mentally from the others, being of a more lively
    disposition and hotter temper. The characters which distinguish the
    ancient British or Iberian race appeared to predominate in persons of
    this type.

    The shepherd said he didn't know much about "all that," but he
    remembered that they once had a man in the village who was like the last
    kind I had described. He was a labourer named Tark, who had several
    sons, and when they were grown up there was a last one born: he had to
    be the last because his mother died when she gave him birth; and that
    last one was like his father, small, very dark-skinned, with eyes like
    sloes, and exceedingly lively and active.

    Tark, himself, he said, was the liveliest, most amusing man he had ever
    known, and the quickest to do things, whatever it was he was asked to
    do, but he was not industrious and not thrifty. The Tarks were always
    very poor. He had a good ear for music and was a singer of the old
    songs--he seemed to know them all. One of his performances was with a
    pair of cymbals which he had made for himself out of some old metal
    plates, and with these he used to play while dancing about, clashing
    them in time, striking them on his head, his breast, and legs. In these
    dances with the cymbals he would whirl and leap about in an astonishing
    way, standing sometimes on his hands, then on his feet, so that half the
    people in the village used to gather at his cottage to watch his antics
    on a summer evening.

    One afternoon he was coming down the village street and saw the
    blacksmith standing near his cottage looking up at a tall fir-tree which
    grew there on his ground. "What be looking at?" cried Tark. The
    blacksmith pointed to a branch, the lowest branch of all, but about
    forty feet from the ground, and said a chaffinch had his nest in it,
    about three feet from the trunk, which his little son had set his heart
    on having. He had promised to get it down for him, but there was no long
    ladder and he didn't know how to get it.

    Tark laughed and said that for half a gallon of beer he would go up legs
    first and take the nest and bring it down in one hand, which he would
    not use in climbing, and would come down as he went up, head first.

    "Do it, then," said the blacksmith, "and I'll stand the half gallon."

    Tark ran to the tree, and turning over and standing on his hands,
    clasped the bole with his legs and then with his arms and went up to the
    branch, when taking the nest and holding it in one hand, he came down
    head first to the ground in safety.

    There were other anecdotes of his liveliness and agility. Then followed
    the story of the youngest son, known as Liddy. "I don't rightly know,"
    said Caleb, "what the name was he was given when they christened 'n; but
    he were always called Liddy, and nobody knowed any other name for him."

    Liddy's grown-up brothers all left home when he was a small boy: one
    enlisted and was sent to India and never returned; the other two went to
    America, so it was said. He was twelve years old when his father died,
    and he had to shift for himself; but he was no worse off on that
    account, as they had always been very poor owing to poor Tark's love of
    beer. Before long he got employed by a small working farmer who kept a
    few cows and a pair of horses and used to buy wethers to fatten them,
    and these the boy kept on the down.

    Liddy was always a "leetel chap," and looked no more than nine when
    twelve, so that he could do no heavy work; but he was a very willing and
    active little fellow, with a sweet temper, and so lively and full of fun
    as to be a favourite with everybody in the village. The men would laugh
    at his pranks, especially when he came from the fields on the old plough
    horse and urged him to a gallop, sitting with his face to the tail; and
    they would say that he was like his father, and would never be much good
    except to make people laugh. But the women had a tender feeling for him,
    because, although motherless and very poor, he yet contrived to be
    always clean and neat. He took the greatest care of his poor clothes,
    washing and mending them himself. He also took an intense interest in
    his wethers, and almost every day he would go to Caleb, tending his
    flock on the down, to sit by him and ask a hundred questions about sheep
    and their management. He looked on Caleb, as head-shepherd on a
    good-sized farm, as the most important and most fortunate person he
    knew, and was very proud to have him as guide, philosopher, and friend.

    Now it came to pass that once in a small lot of thirty or forty wethers
    which the farmer had bought at a sheep-fair and brought home it was
    discovered that one was a ewe--a ewe that would perhaps at some future
    day have a lamb! Liddy was greatly excited at the discovery; he went to
    Caleb and told him about it, almost crying at the thought that his
    master would get rid of it. For what use would it be to him? but what a
    loss it would be! And at last, plucking up courage, he went to the
    farmer and begged and prayed to be allowed to keep the ewe, and the
    farmer laughed at him; but he was a little touched at the boy's feeling,
    and at last consented. Then Liddy was the happiest boy in the village,
    and whenever he got the chance he would go out to Caleb on the down to
    talk about and give him news of the one beloved ewe. And one day, after
    about nineteen or twenty weeks, Caleb, out with his flock, heard shouts
    at a distance, and, turning to look, saw Liddy coming at great speed
    towards him, shouting out some great news as he ran; but what it was
    Caleb could not make out, even when the little fellow had come to him,
    for his excitement made him incoherent. The ewe had lambed, and there
    were twins--two strong healthy lambs, most beautiful to see! Nothing so
    wonderful had ever happened in his life before! And now he sought out
    his friend oftener than ever, to talk of his beloved lambs, and to
    receive the most minute directions about their care. Caleb, who is not a
    laughing man, could not help laughing a little when he recalled poor
    Liddy's enthusiasm. But that beautiful shining chapter in the poor boy's
    life could not last, and when the lambs were grown they were sold, and
    so were all the wethers, then Liddy, not being wanted, had to find
    something else to do.

    I was too much interested in this story to let the subject drop. What
    had been Liddy's after-life? Very uneventful: there was, in fact,
    nothing in it, nor in him, except an intense love for all things,
    especially animals; and nothing happened to him until the end, for he
    has been dead now these nine or ten years. In his next place he was
    engaged, first, as carter's boy, and then under-carter, and all his love
    was lavished on the horses. They were more to him than sheep, and he
    could love them without pain, since they were not being prepared for the
    butcher with his abhorred knife. Liddy's love and knowledge of horses
    became known outside of his own little circle, and he was offered and
    joyfully accepted a place in the stables of a wealthy young gentleman
    farmer, who kept a large establishment and was a hunting man. From
    stable-boy he was eventually promoted to groom. Occasionally he would
    reappear in his native place. His home was but a few miles away, and
    when out exercising a horse he appeared to find it a pleasure to trot
    down the old street, where as a farmer's boy he used to make the village
    laugh at his antics. But he was very much changed from the poor boy, who
    was often hatless and barefooted, to the groom in his neat, well-fitting
    black suit, mounted on a showy horse.

    In this place he continued about thirty years, and was married and had
    several children and was very happy, and then came a great disaster. His
    employer having met with heavy losses sold all his horses and got rid of
    his servants, and Liddy had to go. This great change, and above all his
    grief at the loss of his beloved horses, was more than he could endure.
    He became melancholy and spent his days in silent brooding, and by and
    by, to everybody's surprise, Liddy fell ill, for he was in the prime of
    life and had always been singularly healthy. Then to astonish people
    still more, he died. What ailed him--what killed him? every one asked of
    the doctor; and his answer was that he had no disease--that nothing
    ailed him except a broken heart; and that was what killed poor Liddy.

    In conclusion I will relate a little incident which occurred several
    months later, when I was again on a visit to my old friend the shepherd.
    We were sitting together on a Sunday evening, when his old wife looked
    out and said, "Lor, here be Mrs. Taylor with her children coming in to
    see us." And Mrs. Taylor soon appeared, wheeling her baby in a
    perambulator, with two little girls following. She was a comely, round,
    rosy little woman, with black hair, black eyes, and a singularly sweet
    expression, and her three pretty little children were like her. She
    stayed half an hour in pleasant chat, then went her way down the road to
    her home. Who, I asked, was Mrs. Taylor?

    Bawcombe said that in a way she was a native of their old village of
    Winterbourne Bishop: at least her father was. She had married a man who
    had taken a farm near them, and after having known her as a young girl
    they had been glad to have her again as a neighbour. "She's a daughter
    of that Liddy I told 'ee about some time ago," he said.
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