“Us’ll give ‘ee two bob, Albert, for Roger’s memorial.”
“That’s ‘andsome of ‘ee, Dan’l,” said Albert, and I put the florin in the box he laid on the bar. This was in The Ruggle, which had been Roger’s favoured public for many a year, for all it’s a bit of a step from Lower Town, where he lived most his life.
“Well,” I said, ‘tis the least I could do, seeing as us couldn’t get to the funeral. ‘Twas a good turn out, I heard.”
“Like sardines in Leusdon church. All the fam’ly, course, but the Spitchwick estate and half the South Devon Hunt and all. It’s the Hunt as got up thikky collection.”
“He was a grand servant of the Hunt.”
“That’s what they says. And a character too. Always good for a drop of ale and a song in here, even wet through from the field. I can see ‘en now, standing afore thikky very fire, hands in his weskit pockets, ready to give us Rambling Sailor or some such. Always had the place on a roar. Can’t b’lieve he’s gone.” Albert always was a sentimental sort of chap, but it was true, even so. And Roger Hannaford was eighty when he died. I said,
“I seen ‘en Febr’y, you know, just a week or two afore he went. I was passing up the hill, and I remembered he hadn’t been in here a bit, nor in church neither. So I called in on the off-chance.”
“How was he then?” asked Albert.
“Ailing, I should say. I always thought he was the sort to go sudden, like an old elm bough, but he’d been sick a few weeks. ‘Ere, his missus had a fire lit in the bedroom when I called, he was that bad. And sounded like a proper down pin.”
“No! Not like ‘en.” said Albert.
“No. But he had a bit of brandy in a bottle by the bed and give me a drop. So I thought as there’s life in the old dog yet! But Julia was home from wheresoever ‘tis her’s in service now and her was fussing about with her mother. But at last he got us on our own and he says to me, ‘Dan’l, I don’t think us is going to get Mr Lloyd George’s shillings much longer.’ Meaning the pension of course. “Go on, I says, you’ll be out chopping logs again next week.” ‘Cause Roger worked all his life as a woodsman. Maybe a bit o’ keepering, shepherding at a push, but always at Spitchwick, on they steep old woods as climbs above the Dart. Born in Widecombe and hardly never left the patch. His missus was a Buckland maid, so I s’pose he must have gone there too, if ‘twas only for his wedding!
“Well,” Roger said to me, ”I seen the back of the saw-pit at last, and I have to tell ‘ee as I’m glad o’ that.”
“P’rhaps, but there’s plenty more singing in ‘ee yet.” But I wish now I’d a-kept my trap shut about that. ‘Taint always best to remind a chap of past glories, and Roger was well known for his songs, since Julia was parlourmaid for Mr Baring-Gould. Her got parson over to hear Roger’s songs, and he, meaning parson, stuck ‘em in a book, apparently. So everyone knows about Roger. But Roger only said,
“I reckon that’s all done now.”
Well, that shut us both up for a bit, and I was feeling a tad uncomfortable, thinking I should maybe go, when he leans over from the bed and takes my arm. He said,
“Dan’l, when ‘ee gets my age things plays on your mind. Things as happened years ago as you’m thought was long gone.” I sat quiet, ‘cause there was clearly more to come. He said, “I been ruminating on a few things but I’ll tell ‘ee this un.” He raised hisself a bit on the pillow, and went on:
“When I were a young lad and hadn’t started out in the woods very long, I was still living with my father. One day I was passing by the Church House in Widecombe, and I met with young Billy Holland. Us had a word or two and then he says to me:
‘Here Roger, has your old man still got they antlers nailed up on his linhay?’
‘Tis hardly more ‘n a shippon,’ I says. ‘But ees, them is still there last us looked. Why?’
‘ ‘Cause they might be useful for a bit o’ fun us has in mind.’
‘Oh,’ I says, ‘and what might that be?’
‘Don’t let on,’ he goes,’ but we’re getting up a skimmety for Michael Luscombe.’
‘Go on, you knows, a bit o’ the old rough music, on account of his marrying old Mrs Blackshaw.’
‘Her bain’t that old,’ I says.
‘Ten years more’n ‘en, likely. Her’s been widow six years least.’
‘Not much scandal in that.’ I says.
‘Maybe. But it’s all about the purse, ain’t it? Plenty of pretty little maids he could court in the parish, or abroad, if he chose.’
‘Meaning your sister p’rhaps.’
‘Not if her knows what’s good for her! Her got more sense. No, us reckons young Luscombe has his eye on the cottage. Old Blackshaw left it to his missus, and Luscombe‘s the grubbing sort. Well, you’ll know, you used to work with ‘en. How many arses did he have to lick to get thikky foreman’s job? And at his age. He ain’t no better ‘n ‘ee nor me.’
Now I always rather liked Grace Blackshaw. Her was good when mother was sick few years afore. But Michael Luscombe, he had a fancy to himself, putting on airs. You’m never pop’lar like that, place like Widecombe. But Grace must‘ve seen something in ‘en. Us never considered. Thikky here seemed like a lark. So I told Billy us would see what us could do.
I couldn’t tell my old man, when I borrowed they antlers off of the wall. He knew the Luscombes, and he’d a’been wroth. I slipped ‘em up to Billy when I was passing by his house. The banns had already been called. I think it was just arter Easter. No fancy honeymoons those days neither, just the wedding breakfast and then us got back to work. But Luscombe moved in with Grace right arter the wedding, and Billy and his mates planned a proper bed-ale. They had to ask me along ‘cause of the antlers.
Billy and me and his brother had a drop o’ cider by his old press that evening, and then us went up the church house by the green. It was dark already, so difficult to tell who was there, but maybe ten or twelve. Some of ‘em had their faces blacked with soot, which was a good idea if I’d a’thought of it, and some had come a step, even Amos Norsworthy from over Challacombe. All buyes, course, as even them in women’s gowns had men’s voices. Most all of ‘em had old pans and kettles for making the music, and once us started off, Billy’s brother got out his screechy old fiddle. Lor, what a racket us made, I tell ’ee. The antlers? Billy had stuck ‘em to an old horse’s skull on a pole, and I remember to this day the clacking of the jaws as he pranced about with ‘en in the road, and Amos with a burning brand at the rear. And we went up the Natsworthy road a bit, and back, and round the green a few times, which was to wake up all the village, and some o’ they come out on their steps and mostly had a good laugh. And all they dogs set off howling at the row. Us all thought it a bit o’ fun.
So once us passed thikky cider jug round again, us set off down the road to Blackshaw’s cottage, banging and crashing and hollering fit to bust, but once there us weren’t too sure what the point all was. Us could see the lamp was lit inside, so they two hadn’t gone bed. But as the noise dropped off, Billy steps up with the antlers, and starts singing at the top of his voice, some made-up rummage. It went to the tune of Pegging Awl, and he sung something like:
As Luscombe was walking one morning in May
He met a brisk widow, her gown it was gay.
He stepped up to her and back she did fall...
I wouldn’t stoop to such stuff. And there was a couple more verses that got the skimmety crew on a roar, while them in dresses was cavorting vulgar with the others – you can imagine – till someone picked up a load o’ horse shit from off of the road and flung it at the winder. That done it – Luscombe threw open the door- by Christ, he was in his nightshirt the silly bugger – and shouted, ‘You can Eff off, the lot o’ you! (‘cept he didn’t just say Eff of course).
Well, that just made it worse. ‘A treat, good master, a treat,’ the buyes were shouting.
‘You’m not getting a bloody penny from me,’ he said, and them words produced a whole torrent o’ horseshit and stuff at the door, but he cut back in very nimble and us heard they bolts rattle to. Then Amos’s torch burned out and us was pretty much in the dark.
‘C’mon Michael, just cough it up or us’ll be back every night for a week!’ shouted someone. Then the lamp went out inside, which got some ribald jeers. But that was about it. Us hadn’t planned for anything else. Us stood about a while, some rattling they pans as had ‘em, and the fiddler struck up Rogues’ March, but us knew short o’ dragging Luscombe out o’ the house, that was the end of our frolics for the evening. Us went off down the Ruggle, swearing us would be back the following night, but far as I knows that was it. The last skimmington ‘pon ol’ Dartymoor, I reckon. And a year or two later Billy Holland joined the Devons, the mumphead, and got typhus in the Crimee. Never come back.’
The old man was silent a moment, his mind, I guess, in that past. ‘That was a long time ago, Roger,’ I said. He fixed me with his rheumy eyes.
‘But not to me,’ he said. He looked away. ‘Some things, good or bad, you can’t help but carry ‘long with ‘ee.’
‘Yes,’ I said, doubtful.
‘See, I couldn’t care about ‘en, Michael Luscombe. You know, he tells Bob Elliott years later, ‘There’s many a fine shelter behind an old hedge.’ He was just a greedy sod. But Mrs Luscombe, Grace Blackshaw as was, I saw her the very next week arter this business, walking in the lane down Dunstone. There was no avoiding each other. I touched me ‘at to her, and thought that was it, but arter I’d gone a step, I heard her call my name. When I went about, her said, ‘Roger, I always thought better of ‘ee buye.’ And I could see her was weeping. Truly, ees. And then her just turned and went on.”
The old man sighed from his pillow, and arter a bit said, “They two stayed in thikky house there till her died, maybe in sixty-three or four. Was they happy? I dunno. There’s always talk. But all that time, passing in the road, or by the church door, or at the fair come to that, her never said ‘nother word to me. I always meant to put it right with her, then ‘twas too late. And soon arter, Luscombe sold the cottage and buggered off Chagford. Never seen in the parish since.”
Meaning some kindness, I said, “Them was robust times, Roger.”
“Ees buye,” he says, “but the heart don’t change.”
The rights of Christopher Thomas as author have been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
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