The Foggy Foggy Dew
with The Sheep Stealer
(Note: The Foggy Dew is a late poetic substitution in the broadsides for the Bogle-bo of earlier versions)
William found that it was a steep old road through Shillingford to the top of Haldon Hill. For all that it was the chief way to Plymouth, the Trust took little enough care of it until, years later, they made the new road that goes by way of Kenn. The old road was damp and dark too, for the Trust rarely troubled to cut back the trees and hedges beside it, and now grey cloud rolled in to mantle the hilltop, so that in the still air cold drops formed on branches and bushes and dappled William’s coat. He took a breath at the ridge’s crest, but then discovered he was shivering, but whether from the damp or from some other cause he couldn’t say. The scenes he had witnessed just a few hours before still clung to him, like the mist about the road. Now and then figures mounted or afoot would emerge from the sullen day and pass him by, but they gave him barely a word. The reputation of this grey heath reduced all commerce to wary glances. This was a bleak journey, it seemed to him in that moment.
Then he came out of the cloud by Whiteway House. It’s a Parker Family seat. No family of William’s as he knew of: these people were kin to Lord Boringdon, down at Plymouth. In fact one of them around this time was the Sheriff of Devon, no less. The girt square house was pretty much hidden away from sight by a rolling park, which was as well, for near enough across the road from the gates had made their venturesome home a parcel of beggars. They were squatting on the rough waste that rightly would have belonged to their neighbour, unless it was the Haldon Commoners’. Their home was a cott of borrowed wood and green thatch, from which a wisp of smoke crept out. A large woman sat in the doorway mending. When several dogs bounded up snarling around William she paid them no heed. He was not disposed to linger. But as he continued down the hill, he mulled on this seeming affront to the Honourable Mr Parker. These people were beneath a gentleman’s notice, was that it? William found the old tune of Dives and Lazarus creeping round in his head.
So it was with the song of the rich man and the poor that William came to himself in Chudleigh. This little town had a fine history once; wool and farming made it, like much of the West Country. But now it was more a place on the way to somewhere else. So it had a goodly collection of inns that catered to the posting trade, though they all looked a bit rich for William’s pocket, and he only wanted to wet his whistle and rest his feet a bit. In the end he turned into a little ale-house along from the church. He set his pot of small beer down beside him and laid his coat on the back of a bench to dry out. He sat and looked about him.
It being the early afternoon, William almost had the room to himself. But there was one other customer, who was sat on a ledge before the window. He caught William’s eye.
-That’s a fine piece of broadcloth you have there, said the man, and pointed at the drying coat.
This fellow was, William guessed, about forty. He had a lean face made the more so by a woollen cap pulled down about his ears. He was grey-whiskered somewhere between unshaven and a beard. His clothes, his face too come to that, all were tired. The two men exchanged pleasantries. They talked about the weather as Englishmen will, shared complaints about the condition of the roads. When William said he had come out of Exeter that morning, the man asked:
- Was you at the hangings then?
William confessed it, but before he could justify his attendance as he felt it needed the man moved on.
-I s’pose ‘ee come over Haldon? They squatters still up Whiteways? Two year now – more – they been there. The Commoners up there are spitting, but they can’t seem to shift ‘em. They got a few geese and maybe a pony. Well, no-one ‘ud mind that, but it’s their bleddy girt pig as does the damage, and course them has taken quite a bit of timber now too, in all that time. Each time I come back here to see my old father, folk still driving on about it, leastways them with rights up there. Makes me laugh really, but ‘taint proper for all that.
-Where did they come from? asked William.
-Moreton way, I b'lieve. Somewhere out of the parish. But some says as the woman’s a Chudleigh maid, and her says her has some rights on it. Who knows? But the Commoners will have fire and brimstone down on her next if it goes on longer. Her will have to pay then. Where ‘ee biding to then?
William gave a modest account of his journey and its hoped-for ending; the account was shortening with each retelling and growing stale to him.
-Well, said the man when William finished, I never been on the sea myself. Never had the urge to go neither. But I don’t doubt a brisk young fellow like ‘ee will make out. I follows the weaving trade myself – why I took to your fine red coat, I hope ‘ee didn’t take offence - but such work’s near dead in Chudleigh now – why my old man sent me Ashburton to learn the trade. All serge down there, you know, what they send to China and such places, if ‘ee can believe it. So you’m not stopping Chudleigh then?
-Not once I finish my ale.
-Oh now, said the weaver, I’m going home to Ashburton myself – that’s on the Plymouth road you know – and if you want I can set ‘ee on the way. Once us gets going, it may be your young legs will get on a bit faster’n me, but that don’t matter, and till then us can have a jaw. But if you likes your own company, I won’t be grieved.
-How far is that, Ashburton?
-Six miles, seven? Couple of hours.
Once again William bethought him of his resolution; maybe once more fate was knocking. And it had been a lonely old morning since he left Heavitree with just his thoughts for company. He was glad to accept the proposal. So when they were both done, the two men dropped down the hill together to cross the Teign at Chudleigh Bridge. It was a narrow time-worn old bridge in those days, but they stood a minute watching the water idling under the trees of bent oak and sycamore. It looked dark and cold under that still-grey sky. A heron rose lazily from the pebbles, circled and just as lazily returned. It seemed to eye their witness like some resentful spirit of the place, and then it went back to its fishing.
Until then the weaver had been talkative enough while they conversed about vagaries of trade and the merits of sheep, but as they set off again, he fell silent. It was like the scene at the bridge had set something off in him. They walked beside the wandering river, and he said nary a word for the next mile. William was beginning to think his company was no longer needed. They came through the few houses that sit before the waste that’s called Bovey Heath, and then at last the weaver said:
-So you’re a single chap, young master? At your liberty to come and go?
-I suppose so.
-That’s your good fortune, and you make most of it, and that’s my advice.
-You speak feelingly, sir.
The weaver sighed. He said: we must all count our blessings, you know. I’m sure as I do. But I were a young fellow like to ‘ee once.
-And something went wrong for you, sir?
-Wrong? The only thing I ever done wrong, and it were my doing I confess, was to court a young maid. The weaver was thoughtful and then said: I’ll tell you more, if you’ve a mind.
They had entered country of heather and yellow furze and the few trees were scrubby willow and alder, those that like wet ground. The road made its muddy way by cart-ruts through land of a sticky white clay. In a few years this clay, cut and shipped away and spun into pots and crocks to decorate a fine table would make riches for some and, yes, give work to many; but today there was only a line of tired packhorses laden under panniers of this unlikely treasure. The bunch were led by a man atop one of these loads. This driver waved at them cheerily enough and passed on. Behind him the edges of Dartmoor lowered under cloud.
-This young maid, began the weaver, her name was Peggy. Buxom, you know, like the Devon girls, but full of mischief. She made me laugh, the things her come out with: sometimes you’d think her weren’t the full ell, but then you’d spot the twinkle in her eye, and it was just her carrying on. My old man had put me to work with my uncle his brother, who had a lean-to behind his little cottage in Ashburton as ‘ee go out on the Buckland road. None of these flying shuttles then; you needed two to work the broadloom, and it happened that the previous help had buggered off somewhere and left my uncle stuck, he being an old bachelor with no family. So he were well made up when I come along. I got a pallet in the shed, and all found, and set about learning the trade. Well, I been there a few years when Peg caught my eye. Her would have been sixteen or so then, and I first saw her passing down the street outside the house from time to time. Her parents had a cottage on Mr Woodleigh’s estate, Owlacombe way, so her come past regular, for market or whatnot. The first time I noticed her I was taking a draw on the pipe while a-sitting on my uncle’s front step. She was with some friend, and they passed a remark or two which I didn’t catch, but I knew it was about me ‘cause the little witch turned round and grinned. Damn me if her didn’t wink at me and all.
-Of course, soon after that I was seeing her everywhere. I’d be standing in church of a Sunday, and I’d see her leaning round and her would catch me looking and I’d glance away quick, like I was really looking for something else. You know how it is. And pretty soon she was under my skin, and we hadn’t even spoke a word. Then somehow us collided on the market hall steps, her was going up with a basket or something, and I was a-coming down, and she told me to watch your step, Tom Luscombe, so she’d already learned my name, and it weren’t long arter that we was walking out together.
-In a bit I’d walk up to visit her on a Sunday afternoon, so I met her ma and pa, and her little sister, Mary, and it was all fine and dandy. They were good people. Then it got that I’d help out with feeding the chickens, mending the fences and other little jobs round the courtlage, and I could see that they thought that this brisk young weaver might be a good catch for their daughter. But that’s when it started to go wrong, I s’pose. I courted her a few months through that summer, and she‘d let me steal the odd smack or two, or wrap me arm about her waist, but she wouldn’t permit any liberties. If I tried it on, for all she’d seemed a mite forward, her would jump away, saying her father wouldn’t approve, and it was quite wrong unless a couple was serious. I didn’t know what to think, but I was in a fair state about her.
-Well, one Sunday come the autumn, and the summer just broke, I was visiting the cottage in what had got to be the regular way. But it had been a thundery old day, and when it was near time for me to go home, the sky just opened. Christ, didn’t it pour, and showed no sign of stopping, And it was almost dark.
-Oh, says her old man, looking at Peggy, young Tom can’t go home in all this.
-You’ll catch your death, says her mother, looking at me.
Now this cottage weren’t no bigger than most, in fact it was already divided between two families, so that Peggy and her sister slept in a truckle downstairs near the fire, and her parents squeezed into a tallet sort of place overhead. So her father rubbed his chin, and he says to me:
-You been visiting our maid a good bit now, and her likes ‘ee right enough. I’ve no doubt but that you’re a vitty fellow. I think you can bide here the night, if ‘ee choose, but seeing there’s no other bed, you’ll have to sleep by the fire. We can put a something down for Mary in the corner, so you and our Peggy will be cosy side by side, but as to your part you’m to keep your clouts on and your arse outside the blankets.
-And don’t you be waking our Mary, says the mother. Though no one asked Mary what she thought I’m sure. And that’s how it come to pass. When the old folks took themselves upstairs with the candle, Peggy and me was left in the dimpsey by the fire, with just the sister asleep for company. So in a bit, Peg bids me look away and strips down to her shift, and climbs into the little bed, and I disposes myself outside of it. Well. I had good intentions but us weren’t in the dark two minutes when I felt the maid’s hand in my hair, and one thing led to another among shushings and whisperings, and while I kept my arse outside the blankets, nothing had been said about hands, and there was a deal of roaming and fondling, and kissing too. Fired up and baffled and thwarted us were all at once. It’s a sort of happy cruelty this manner of carrying on. But finally wore out with it us fell asleep, like them babies in the wood.
-Years later I heard from a reading in Church that old story of Ruth and Boaz, how her tarried the night with him and they knew not each other. So then he marries her, and that turned out for good. But when I heard the story, I thought, oh, that’s just what Peg’s old man had in mind! Still, much as I liked the maid, I weren’t sure I was ripe for marriage. I was only just starting out and enjoying the drinking and skittles and company down the Rose and Crown of an evening. This new excitement had me in two minds. But I could see it suited young Peg. I guess she had set her cap at me, as the saying goes, and most Sundays her would find some excuse for me to stop over, and her parents didn’t seem loth either. So we carried on like this for a bit, and each time it happened us would go bit further, till at last I got my hand onto her secret thing, and it seemed it was only the bit of blanket that made an end of this courting. But these doings were leaving me wappered and I could hardly stand to the loom next morning I tell ‘ee.
William and the weaver had by now left the heath behind them. They were walking through green fields purple with vetch and thistle and the last of foxgloves and starting on the long old hill that climbs up to Bickington church. The weaver stopped and drew out a leather flask. He said:
-I’m not a-going too slow for ‘ee, am I? I got so ‘sorbed in my story I didn’t think to ask afore. Have a wet?
It was cider, of course, putting William in mind of the female waggoner that was just a few days before.
-I’m learning all manner of stories on this road, William said. I’m getting very partial. It’s as good as an education.
-So you’ll be a scholar when you reaches Plymouth, I don’t doubt. Good for ‘ee.
-I’d be happy to learn what happened next.
-Happy? Well maybe. Weren’t so happy for me. But when ‘ee look back twenty-odd years you’m bound to wonder how things might have turned out different. You ask yourself if ‘ee might have been happy less or more if things had come out otherwise. He put the flask away and the two men set off again. The afternoon was wearing on.
-If you’m from out the county, I don’t ‘spect ‘ee have heard ‘bout Cutty Dyer.
William said he had not.
-Cutty Dyer - it’s an old woman’s tale this, to affright the children at bedtime – Cutty Dyer is s’posed to live in the Ashburn river, where the town gets its name. Cutty from Christopher who forded the river with Our Lord, and Dyer, well, we’re a wool town. He’s a sort of Bogle, who lives under the bridges in the daytime, and comes out at night to drink blood and whatnot. Ha! There’s not a bridge near the town with a gullet higher than five foot, but ‘tis said as he’s ten foot tall with flashing green eyes and girt jagged teeth. Used to be that every pixie-led bugger who fell in the river after the ale-house closed had been dragged in by this Bogle-Bo. And what’s this to do with a chain of wool you’re asking. I’ll tell ‘ee.
- I been seeing this maid right through the summer, and like I said as the autumn or winter come on, there was me shuttling back and fore out Owlacombe. Things were getting a bit hot, and I didn’t quite know what I should do. But then it happened one Saturday e’en. Her come to Ashburton to visit her friend Jane, well supposedly. But in fact us passed the time together, in the Rose and Crown with Jane and her young man. We’d taken a few pots, and all was pretty merry but then came time for home. I hadn’t given a thought to how her would get herself back up the hill to Owlacombe in the dark, and when us come out it was not only fair mizzling, but there was a thick old fog too.
-Caw, how ‘ee be getting home in this, maid? says Jane to Peg. ‘Tis a proper Cutty Dyer night.
-Well them two gals looked at each other, and I should have guessed something was up.
-Ooh, that old Bogle-bo, says Peg, I couldn’t go by Cuttyford in this. He’d have me in the river for certain.
-Silly young bugger as I was, I said to her, I ’spect the house would loan ‘ee a lanthorn, and her give a pout.
-Lot of use that would be, said Jane.
-The bogle’s got shoulders of a barn door, and horry girt arms, said Peg. I’m mighty afeared of drowning.
I couldn’t guess if her was serious. And the river’s only two foot deep up Cuttyford best of times. There was a long silence while the rain dripped down, and I think I was s’posed to say something, but it was a longish walk up to Owlacombe and back in that weather. I was still mulling on it when Jane sighed loudly and said:
-Well maid, ‘ee had best bide with me tonight then, and go home in the morning.
-Both these maids glanced at each other and arched their eyebrows, and I remember, Jane’s young man just grinned at me. It was like some jape that I weren’t a part of.
-What? I said. But all three turned off and walked up East Street, and left me to find my way home in the dark.
-Well I got back home, and crept round to the shed so as not to wake my uncle, and got into my bed. I lay there in the dark for a bit, you know, a-wondering what I should do about this maid and her family and this pickle. I might have had a bit of a doze, but the next thing, there’s something tapping on the window. I falls out of my bed and unlatches the casement – half of Dartmoor’s best fog come in with it – and there’s Peg standing there. For all the dark night, I can see she’s got her finger to her lips. Shush, she whispers.
-Christamazes maid, I whispered back, what you doing here?
-I be ‘fraid of the Bogle-bo, was what her said.
-You was going to stop Jane’s.
- Well, leastways you can let me in out of this mizzle, and I’ll tell ‘ee ‘bout it.
-So I opens the door and her steps in and gives me a great buss straight on the lips. I said, your gown is soaked.
-Yes, I been in the river already. Got dragged in by the Bogle.
-No ‘ee never. Christ, Peg, you are a proper fool.
-Then there’s two of ‘em here. Look, I been up and down East Street and then all the way up here, and that’s what’s got me wet. Now help me out of my petticoats afore I die of a chill.
-Oh. That’s all I could say.
-Good God in heaven Tom, she said, what’s the matter with ‘ee? Us been courting many a month and I ‘m done with bundling and all that pulling and pawing. Tonight I’m… I’m resolved as I’ll sleep with ‘ee and nothing between us. And oh my lord, her put both hands to my face and gives me another girt smacker. But her could feel me hesitating still, ‘cause I really didn’t know weft from warp. Her sunk down to sit on my little bed and I could hear her start sniffling in the dark. Well, I’m not made of stone, no more’n any man is. That’s where the maids got us, you know. And what her was offering, well I couldn’t go perching for faults too long. So next thing, I’m sitting down beside her, and one thing led to another, and when we was done her still had her stockings on and my britches was round my ankles. And her laughed and said, us is a sight would drive old Cutty Dyer out. I’m pretty sure as I loved her then.
-But there, us had made a start, so it was sport and play for half the night, and we slept away the rest. But it were different in the morning. I woke up just as the light crept in, and what woke me was the old bed quivering and shaking, and there she was, sitting up with tears rolling down her chaps. Oh Lord, Tom, her says, I’m proper undone now.
- Was ever a maid so contrary? You should have thought o’ that, I wanted to say, but I was too tender for her. I dug her in the ribs and tried to laugh her out of it. Hey, I says, the old bogle’s gone now, so ‘ee can stop the rowing.
-Suppose I have a cheel? her says. Damn me, if her didn’t blow her nose on the bedclothes. You’d ha’ thought it were me as prevailed on her. Well, I says before I could stop myself – it just slipped out - that’s what happens with man and wife. At which she flung her arms around my neck and sniffled happily in my chest. So that’s done it, I thought. But maybe I was a bit relieved too. But I didn’t think she’d fall just on the first go, so I says:
-Suppose you do have a cheel, that ‘ud make ‘ee laugh and smile a bit, and then ‘ee might have another, or another.
-Oh Lord, her sighs. Like her just thought what all this was about. Like I said, somehow her weren’t quite all there. It was difficult to tell. Her sniffed again, so to cheer her up, I said:
- You can always blame old Cutty Dyer. And that did get her laughing.
-Well, a few weeks went by, and of course, it turns out as her is in the breeding way arter all. I think her was pleased, and I knew us had to make the best of what us had done. So her old man hurries down to St Andrew’s, and us got fixed up, and as there weren’t room for all of us out Owlacombe, my uncle takes her in, and finds us a space that weren’t just the shed. I was taking on more work then, and Mr Fabyan, the clothier, he seemed to like my stuff. And he particularly liked that he weren’t sold short neither. You wouldn’t believe what goes on in the wool trade, but that’s by-the-by. Leastwise, I thought me and Peg would make a go.
The two men were walking down the hill that leads out of Bickington now, down to where the toll road meets the road from Newton Bushell. But as they climbed up to the crossroad, William saw a sight that caused his gorge to rise with its reminder of the morning: the gibbet, and, suspended by a chain, a blackened shrunken figure that had once been a man. Two black crows strutted the cross-tree, just as if they owned it. As the men drew near the birds flapped away, their wings noisy in the still and slatey afternoon. I’ve seen enough today, said William.
-No doubt, said the weaver, and stared up at the remains above his head. After a moment, he said: Death’s a commonplace thing, young master, but never less than terrible to us, for all that. Let us both walk on up to the toll house yonder, and us can take another drop. And as they set off again, he added: It’s the Reckoning you know.
-That rogue, a-swinging there, old Bill Roberts. I knew him. His father kept oxen and sheep out Ilsington, but Bill had a little fold up Rora Down, which is ‘cross the road from here and up a bit, on the way to the Moor. Thought it was pretty private, so he done a deal o’ work night-times. Mostly on other men’s ground.
-I’m talking of the sheep-stealing. He had a quick way with the knife, ‘twas said, and he’d have the ewe butchered and in the pot for his family – and there is a parcel of them – afore the owner knew it were gone. Well, o’ course they got a liking for other men’s mutton, and then the fool tried to sell the fleeces, so it weren’t so long afore Mr Tozer the mag’strate got hold of it and two constables come out from Newton. I knows one o’them, Charlie Reed, ‘cause he were the watch in Ashburton for a bit, years ago. Old Charlie had a warrant that Mr Tozer give him, but Roberts wouldn’t let him in the door. Bill just stood there with his shotgun: I’m damned if you’re coming in, he said, all I have is me own. Well Charlie and his fellow tried a bit to persuade , but when Roberts weren’t having any, Charlie went to push past the door, and one way or t’other the shotgun went off and took off Charlie’s left foot. Oh Jesus, says Roberts, I’m going to swing. And so he did, just three months later. ‘Cause they found a pile of fleeces that didn’t belong to him inside, and three or four sheep in the fold that had come from different homes. And the shooting of poor Charlie, well that was just aggravation, with him a constable and whatnot. Now Charlie, he‘s got himself a wood leg already, and the parish give him half-pay, so he’s doing well by it. But Bill Roberts – the weaver pointed behind with his thumb – he’s paid the Reckoning.
The two men had reached the toll house. The keeper came out briefly, had one look and went back inside without a word. They sat on the wall by the gate and took some cider. Ashburton was now in view, a mile or so down the hill, or leastways the spire and the tower that marked it out above the hedgerows, while the roofs of the town peeped out betwixt two green hills.
-You got to feel sorry for the poor creatures his family, said the weaver. Roberts’ father took in the youngest three, but his missus and the rest o’ them was on the parish last I knowed. Newton Bushell poor house. They don’t have to go by their father’s corpse too often, I s’pose. But it’s the likes of you and me as keeps ‘em now. Least the Ratepayers. I guess there’s a Reckoning for them too. Hardly seems fair though, do it?
This toll house is on a sort of divide between the valleys of the Teign and the Dart. While the weaver was speaking, a large waggon with a canvas top was hauling up from Ashburton. Its four horses were labouring with the climb. They were lathered and needed no encouragement to stop before the gate. The toll-keeper appeared again, and was going through the usual little ritual with the waggoner, when the last glanced over from the horses and caught sight of the weaver. ‘Ere, Tom Luscombe, the waggoner said, how ‘ee fadging, buye?
-Oh Amos, says the weaver walking over to him, well enough. What ‘ee carrying?
-Load of cloth for finishing up Exeter.
-None of Fabyan’s then?
-He’s all out for East India now, seems. Exeter can go hang.
-Says the weaver: Mr Fabyan, he wants us to work in his new mill when it’s ready. But I don’t know. Can’t be chained to the same oar all day. But he won’t give out the work else, I s’pose. Ben’s minded to go.
-Your buye’s all growed up now, I reckon. Saw him Ashburton market Tuesday last. Handsome lad, my missus always says.
-Oh, says the weaver, takes arter his mother, you know. I sees it each time I looks at him. Long time now, but it don’t get easy. Always seems like just yesterday.
There was a measured silence, like the waggoner couldn’t think what to say. Then the toll-keeper called: Amos, I’m not going to hold this bleddy gate open all evening. And the waggoner turned away and climbed up behind his horses. The chariot was soon rumbling down the hill towards Bickington.
-Not far to go now, says the weaver turning back to William. That yonder is the little spire of St Lawrence. Shall us step it out?
William hoisted his pack and they set off. The weaver was quiet again, so William said by way of talk: So you’ve a son in the weaving line too then, Mr Luscombe?
-Yes, said the weaver, and that’s the sad and happy end of my story. Old Roberts took my mind clean off of it. I’ll tell ‘ee how it was. See, at first Peg was a-going to be a proper helpmate at the weaving. My uncle was getting on in years - though in the end he passed on to his reward only two year ago last Easter - and Peg was able to stand in his shoes when he wanted a breath, and that way learned the work so it looked like her could take it on when Uncle weren’t limber anymore. We’d have a family and all, so it could be a good provider. Course, this was afore the American War, when the trade was still a good ‘un. I liked it: us could work when us liked and stop if us liked, and no man to call master, long as the rent was paid. But meanwhile Peg were getting fuller. I confess, when us were hitched, for my part it were making what folks call a virtue of necessity. But as the months passed by, I’d see my Peggy a-climbing into bed alongside ‘o me at night, with the baby growing rounder and bigger in her belly, and Peg always so comical, and there was a funny pride in me for her. You know. And she‘d snuggle up close and say: where’s that old bogle Cutty Dyer tonight?
The weaver stopped in the road. He blew out his cheeks. He said: Am I running on too much for ‘ee? See, ‘tis always on my mind, what happened.
William could not think to stop him now. No, no, he said.
The two men had to step aside to let pass two fine horses, the one ridden by a gentleman, the other by a young woman, William remembered later, her, side-saddle, a blue habit, a jaunty silk cap. He touched his hat to her as she came by.
-Well, said the weaver, you’ll want the fump of the story, to take ‘ee on to Plymouth, I guess. He had stood back beside a gate in the hedge and now leaned against it, his hands deep in the pockets of his old coat. He went on:
-Peg was near her time. Us had a bargain with Mrs Slope as lived down St Lawrence Lane and was well thought of for lying-ins. There were no women in our house, and Peg’s mother, being up Owlacombe, couldn’t be fetched quick. Then this thing us have thought about and prepared for all that time, suddenly it happens and Lord, I find I’m not prepared at all. Peg sits up in the bed, middle o’ the night, and lets out a girt skirling groan. What’s up with you? I asks still asleep and as should have known better. It’s coming! her says, and lets out another girt howl. Christ, I’m out o’ the bed and running round in my old night-shirt not thinking what to do.
- Get ‘ee dressed, she says, and wake up your uncle – and she gives another few querks likely to have waken him already – and then off down Mother Slope’s with ‘ee.
-No time to light a candle, and I’m there in the dark trying to get my boots and britches on, and Peg still groaning, till she says: Get on with it, Tom. I wouldn’t have been like this if it weren’t for ‘ee.
-See, them’s the words that have stuck in my head. I often tell myself it was one of the maid’s little jokes. But it was dark. I couldn’t know, and what she said was true enough, the weaver sighed.
-Anyways, at last I’m out of the house and hurrying down the dark old street and then banging on Mother Slope’s door fit to wake the dead. Lord, did her seem to take her time, and half the neighbours leaning out the windows by the time her’s ready. Then us is back at the Bull-ring, the middle of town, and the woman’s forgot something, and has to go back to get it, and I could see then that her had probably taken a drop, but can’t be helped now, and finally us gets back to my uncle’s house. He’s standing there with a lanthorn.
-Where’s the maid to, then? asks Mrs Slope, so he points her up the stairs and I’m set to follow, ‘cause there were another girt querk from above, but her says: you bain’t no use up there buye. You best bide here, and I’ll shout if I need ‘ee. So I sits with my uncle in the little kitchen, well, not sitting for more than a minute, but up and down and pacing about, till at last my uncle finds a bottle of sherry wine and us shares that between us. And in a bit, just as it’s getting light, down comes Mrs Slope for a pail of water which I carries upstairs for her, but her won’t let me in and I just sees poor Peg’s face between her knees, and Christ help me, her looked wappered and frightened too. ‘Tis always to my mind, you see. Girt big eyes, but couldn’t look at me.
-If you want to help, says Mother Slope, you best go and fetch a neighbour, or better, the poor maid’s mother. This is likely a long old job.
-Course, I felt sick to the stomach, and useless too, but when I gets down stairs, Mrs Whiddon from the next house but one is standing on the step with my uncle to learn what’s what, so she goes rushing up, and I sets off up Owlacombe for Peg’s ma. And you know, as I goes by Cuttyford I thinks o’ that Cutty Dyer, and says to myself: You old bastard.
-Well, it’s two hours up and down to Owlacombe if you’m quick, but when I gets back, with Peg’s ma some way arter me, there’s no change, but a little knot of neighbours gathered afore the door. And I remember, as I come by, they all stood aside to let me enter without a word said. Nary a word, like there’d been a death. And inside my uncle looked pale and he stood up and said: Tom, ‘tis going hard with her. I wanted to go up that instant, but he put his hand on my shoulder and said I would just be in the way, and better let the women do their part. So we sat in that little kitchen the best part of the day, and Peg’s pa come down from Owlacombe and joined us, and us just had to listen to that skirling upstairs, and I couldn’t even go out for air for fear of the looks I might get and the questions. And in the end, you know, her died. Yes. My poor Peggy.
William knew now why the waggoner had been silent. There is some grief that cannot be lightened. William was silent too.
-We must walk on, said the weaver. You’ll not find a bed else. I hope as I’ve not delayed ‘ee.
After a few hundred yards without a word spoke, William felt able to ask: I wonder, sir, if your Benjamin has been a comfort to you?
-My right arm, young master. He were dragged from the maid like a stubborn calf, but he were lusty for all that and not a mark upon him. Mrs Slope found us a wet nurse, and then later my uncle and I raised him up by hand between us. But born in sorrow, he was, and so us named him. But most days I sees him, and I think, I’ve paid my Reckoning and all.
-The Reckoning for what, sir, do you think?
-Why, young master, ‘tis the bill for being loved.
They parted in the Bull-ring as it’s called, below the rickety stairs of the old market house where the weaver and his Peggy first engaged. It’s long gone now, and the old Rose and Crown beside it. All for improvement, you see.
It’s a longish old walk from Exeter, and William’s feet felt each mile in them. But there were a couple of hours daylight yet, so he determined to walk on a mite, sure he could find in this green valley a rick or some such that he could burrow into. As indeed he did, near where the Ashburn meets the noisy Dart. The new hay was fragrant of the life still within it.
The Foggy Foggy Dew.
This song is NOT to be confused with the Irish Rebel song, The Foggy Dew, which derives from it via John McCormack. It is firmly English, but sadly is then largely known only in the Benjamin Britten arrangement. There are numerous versions of the latter on You-tube, which bowdlerise and patronise the original as classical singers will. It is quite difficult to find a genuine traditional version, despite most people professing familiarity with this song. There is an interesting version by Martin Carthy at https://youtu.be/ySEB_-b-Txc , where he rightly calls it the archetypal English folk-song; but he eschews the well known tune, and is not at his best. The most straightforward take seems to be a chap called Alan Roseveare at youtu.be/cWTbGOm4p8 , almost too likeable.
The Sheep Stealer.
There is a plain and unadorned version by Bob Berry at https://youtu.be/ymSvzevJCDc which is much to my taste! The version by Faustus at https://youtu.be/zvFTNa9iYTY is at funeral pace; perhaps they needed a contrast in their set. I first found this song sung by the late Mike Waterson, on The Waterson's album Green Fields, where it is called The Brisk Lad.
Dives and Lazarus.
One of the most borrowed of tunes; the Irish even manage to make something quite cheerful of it with The Star of the County Down, It remains essentially English however and as such my prejudices lean to the Young Tradition at https://youtu.be/F9hqJTAQyjQ If you like June Tabor's uncharacteristic version at https://youtu.be/3eCObX1__SI then sadly that's the sort of thing you like. But this song is generally well-served. You might like Maddy Prior, or Martin Simpson on https://youtu.be/U8p1yZYmKhY