The Jovial Beggar
with The Rout of the Blues
At the boundary of the parish William slowed to a walk at last and drew breath. He found he had almost caught up with the shepherd and his flock who had passed the toll gate before him, while behind him the road lay empty. It suddenly seemed a long way to Plymouth, by one unknown parish after another. He told himself you just put the right foot in front of the left, then keep going until you get there, but as soon as the chance arose he turned aside from the road so that familiar paths could lead him out of the Vale. Even after a mile of walking at a steady pace he found he was still sweating. The day had become close, the sky moderating to a glassy grey, the sun, now right overhead, a hazy yellow. The shadows of the trees among the fields were fading slowly. After the drought of weeks there was a new uncertainty.
Eventually William came by the fields to Sturminster. The little town rises gently from pastures by the river – and still does, though there’s a few more houses now. There was the accustomed sour reek from the tanyard at its edge, but shortly he had left this behind and was standing in the market place. It was a quiet day; he recognised none of the people on the street, which he thought a relief. He bought a penny pie, and ate it as he walked down to the river bridge, pausing there to drink from his bottle. The day had taken on the sleepy air of a warm summer afternoon. In the fields the haymakers would just be stirring from their noonday rest and thinking about sharpening their scythes.
There was a troop of six cavalrymen on the river’s far bank, watering their big horses in the shallow. Four were dismounted, leaning against the parapet of the bridge and taking in the view of the mill upstream. They had on uniforms of dark blue, the breeches striped with red. They had mostly laid their helmets down. They seemed happily at rest: the only sound was splashing from the distant mill race, and from the horses themselves, drinking greedily as they stood in the water. As William passed along the bridge behind them the men turned to look, and stepping back the better to see him, one said cheerfully:
-Good day, young sir. He seemed the oldest by his grey hair, which made a curious contrast with an extravagant black moustache. It’s been a fine day for a walk, he added.
-I might rather be riding, replied William, with a nod to the horses.
-Familiar with horses are yow? asked the trooper. He had an accent William couldn’t recognise.
-As much as anyone raised on a farm, I suppose. I know a packhorse from a pastern.
-Then yow’ll have to say these are some of His Majesty’s finest gallopers.
-They look most handsome, William agreed, but quickly he could see where this conversation might be going. We can all have a little diversion here, he thought.
The trooper said: How far have you come today? I’ll warrant you we’ve come much further.
-I don’t doubt it, said William, but it’s a good mile or two up the Vale.
- Well, said the trooper, we took our breakfasts in Beaminster, and now here we are, and my boys have barely broken sweat for all it’s a sticky day. Twenty five miles if it’s one.
-Thirty more like, Corporal, said one of the others.
-As you like. But either way that’s good riding, and at no expense to ourselves, thanks to the beneficence of King George, and the Colonel of our regiment, of course.
- A frolic then, said William.
-O I can’t pretend to that, said the Corporal, we’ve serious King’s business to attend to. After all, we are the men of the Blues, famed from the Boyne to Brunswick. He glanced about him. One of the men grinned and stuck his tongue in his cheek. Yow werrit, it’s the truth, protested the Corporal, as gallant fine fellows as ever you’ll see! And how is life treating yow back on the farm?
Best be cautious, William thought. We all make shift, he said. We don’t lack things to do.
-That’s lucky then, said the Corporal, ‘cause we all know it’s hard times for landsmen right now. Why, back in my bit of country, my own brother has had to leave his poor woman so’s he can work in some forge. He’s fettling iron all day and never sees the daylight. Now what sort of life is that? But here we are, Dorset today, Wiltshire tomorrow, breaking lasses hearts everywhere and a shilling a day and all found. Would I be right to guess yow is a single man?
-Well then, I may be opportunity jumping in your way. I can tell yow, those lads in the south of this county are flocking to the flag ‘cause they see a good chance when it’s presented to ‘em. Tomorrow begins our regimental rout on Salisbury Plain – just over the hill really – and there’ll be near a dozen new men from round Dorchester and Bridport a-joining of us and putting on the blue of His Majesty’s Horse Guards. Have you seen a cavalry regiment on parade? When the sabres flash and they gallop and wheel as one it’s a dainty fine sight, I can tell yow. And in a day or two King George hisself will be making an inspection, for it’s said we may be off to foreign parts, ships all loaded, French horns playing. It’s the life for a man.
William couldn’t resist some mischief. I suppose there’s a bounty? he said.
-There’s a half guinea on listment, spent it how you will.
-Then I don’t doubt the landlords and landladies of Salisbury will be off to the plain to persuade the new men to celebrate?
-The Corporal laughed. Hand in hand! I think they’ve opened the gin bottles ready.
William leaned in to the parapet of the bridge to allow a carrier’s heavy cart to go by. When the rumble of the wheels had passed on the Corporal said:
-That’s a good few hundredweight of best Dorset stocking. Should keep the white limbs of London ladies from the cold awhile. He resumed and became more confidential: Look, I can see yow’s a brisk young lad, stood there with your smart red coat over your shoulder – it looks fit for the foot guards, bless ‘em – so perhaps yow is thinking a soldier’s life is not for yow. If there’s no good wife yet, perhaps there’s a sweetheart? I thought so. Well I expect yow are asking how in these hard times yow might keep her. There’s many a gay young lad has turned out to rob, aye, and swung for it too, for the sake of keeping a woman, yow'll know right 'nuff. When there’s no work to be had, and no money, then pride goes out the window. I’ve seen it, believe me. Some says we’re arrogant, the Blues, but I like to think we’re proud. We know how to keep our families, and do our duty too.
William said: I hear you, but meaning no offence, I have my plans, and they don’t include having my head shot from my shoulders.
-We’re peacetime soldiering now, said the Corporal. And look at me, near thirty years in the Service, and it’s my old head that’s talking to yow this minute.
- And if his Majesty should send me to the Colonies?
-Well then, there’s the chance of glory, and impressing your sweetheart all the more. Of course, she may want to pack up her clothing and come running after, but between yow and me I don’t think that’s really the life for a young lass – and not much for a young fellow who wants a bit of freedom and adventure either, if you take my meaning. I’d be the first to say it’s not the life for a hearth lover. But for a man who likes the open air and a bit of swagger, well there’s none can compare with the Blues.
All young men like to cut a dash when the chance arises, and William had had little enough chance at home. And his life was his own now, he had already broken away, and what for, if not to make an exploit of his life. You had to think, and the Corporal could see him thinking.
-I was about to offer my lads a little nip all round to strengthen us for the road. He pulled a small flask from a pocket in his tunic. Would yow care to join us in drinking a loyal toast? The Corporal drew the cork and offered him the vessel. The waft of neat Hollands was quite enough to waken William.
-Too early in the day for strong spirits, I fear, he said.
-Perhaps yow is an abstainer, said the Corporal. I do respect that. We are all to be tolerant now, sure enough. But here’s success to the Blues. He raised the flask, but his men gathered about him watched him return it untouched to his pocket.
- I have a long way to go, said William in explanation. To Plymouth, where I may be joining a ship. He said this to impress: he was a man of the world.
- I could tell you weren’t just a farm boy, said the Corporal, but a sailor I wouldn’t have guessed. Ships is like a prison they say, but with the excitement of drowning thrown in. I’d rather have a good filly beneath me.
The troopers beside him smirked. Enough, he said to them.
-We must away. It seems to me we must attend the rout without yow. He turned to the men at the waterside. Don’t let them horses fill theirselves, bring ‘em up. William watched the group adjust their tack.
-I’ll wish you good luck then, William said.
-Well indeed. But the Corporal had already lost interest in him and was picking up his helmet.
William left the bridge and turned west. He thought by evening he might come near to Sherborne, the limits of his geography. There might be a barn into which he could creep for the night, or at least a rick he could burrow into, and so spin out his little store of money. He thought the Corporal had lost a good campaigner.
At this time the Pitt family – or Pitt-Rivers as they call themselves now – owned half of that end of Dorset, or so it seemed. Leastways, half the people there owed their living to them one way or another. The mill William passed by as he climbed the little hill into Newton was theirs. Its two wheels grumbled away, grinding out a profit for them with every turn. Where the village straggled along the road the broadcloth weavers in their cottages turned part of good Dorset longwool into rents for the Pitts. When William turned away from the river to leave the village, likely the fields there were in their season producing corn that first paid the tithe and next paid the Pitts. You have to wonder how this happened, he thought, and how in times like these grand new houses with square fronts and fancy windows were newly built along the street, beside the leaning old cots. Sturminster too, he thought.
It was beyond his reckoning, what God had ordained. But there was no call to ponder it more, because he was away and would be his own master now, for good or ill. He was soon along the dusty road with Newton a few miles behind him. The road was just a white track through flinty fields where the barley was green and just bearded, and alone he crossed a wide ford by its stones to reach the church at Lydlinch. There was a rough common with rowan and elderflower beyond, where the road divided. A couple of gaunt longhorns were sat among the furze besides the crossroads, ignoring the black flies that milled about them in the heat of the afternoon. The cows eyed William listlessly and did not stir. Any moment now the rain might start. He took a drink while deciding on the way. Either road might serve, but the left seemed high and bare. It came to him that by the right he might come to a village he had passed through with his father once. It was far from home, but maybe they had been to a fair at Sherborne. They had stopped by an inn, where a man played the fiddle by the stream outside. William was a boy then, barely started on his instrument. The man’s playing had seemed dextrous and sweet to him. He played old stave-dance tunes, and he showed William an old hornpipe, which he couldn’t name. William played it still.
The village climbed a little hill across the Caundle: hence it is Staunton Caundle. The Catherine Wheel Inn is still there, across the little brook that runs down the street. Its doors were fast, waiting for the labourers to come from the fields. There were new houses here, of good freestone, and outside one a knot of small children were playing in the brook. William bid a mother sitting on the step good-day, but she said nothing, and the children stopped and stared as he went by.
There were new fields around the village, square fields with hedges of young hazel and maple atop their banks, still bright with this year’s growth. The old banks and baulks had all been swept away. It was like some foreign god had raged through the landskip, leaving it raw but preserved by a whim of brutal order. The families toiling in the distance were now toiling in fields not their own. Near at hand two men were unloading tiles from a cart to roof a new barn. They directed him by some woods called Goathill to the Sherborne road. It’s a good step yet, one warned as William went on his way. So indeed when he had crossed through the woods and Sherborne lay in the distance before him, his feet were beginning to feel the miles they had covered. And it was getting dark, not just from the approach of night, although that too was coming on, but from black clouds lowering overhead. He needed some shelter and right soon, he thought, and with that the smell of rain on summer dust rose from the road and a cold shiver stirred the branches over his head, He stepped back beneath them as the big drops began, within seconds waxing to a steadfast torrent. It gave no sign of stopping. William thought his father would be glad of it, and the farmers all about if too their hay was in, but it was a mischance for a traveller just set out.
He pulled off his pack and sat himself on a bank beneath a big oak to wait it out. The distant bulk of the Abbey roof at Sherborne had disappeared behind a grey screen of rain. He thought this was the end of his travel for the day, but the rain soon dripped and spat on the leaves at his feet, and then his shoulders, and beads formed on the brim of his hat. He had to find some shelter, but when he rose achingly to his feet, the trees about had already become formless and the spaces between them black. Something brushed his leg.
William jumped back against the tree trunk, but glancing down found a small white dog was looking up at him. It had a piece of old rope braided round its neck. It wagged its tail and gave a bark, as if expecting a game. When William bent to it the dog sniffed his fingers cautiously, then finding no food, jumped away and regarded him playfully.
-I can see you want some sport, William said to it, and finding a stick at his feet threw it into the darkness. The little dog bounded away, its white coat a will o’ the wisp among the bushes before it emerged to drop the stick at his feet.
-You must think I have nothing better to do.
As he bent for a third time, something dark moved at the corner of his sight, further into the brush. William reached for his staff where it lay on his pack. A voice said: Come away Jonathan, and the dog trotted happily off into the gloom.
-What a misbegotten night it’s coming to be, said the same voice from the darkness, while William realized he himself could be seen plain against the edge of the wood.
-Who’s there? William demanded.
-I see I have the advantage of you sir, said the voice. You have made the acquaintance of my little dog, so now let me introduce myself. The voice was a tuneful one, not old or young, but cheering. There was an odd shuffling from the shape in the undergrowth. William saw this thing coming spiderlike, almost sideways, towards him. As he came nearer, William could see a head twisted up the better to view him, from a bent back supported on a crutch. A long coat hung almost to the ground. Said the man:
-I’m just a jovial beggar sir, as goes from town to town. And I watched you a bit, a-sitting there in the dimpsy and the rain and then making friends of my little Jonathan, and I had to think, well, there’s a fellow like myself who might be seeking a dry bed for the night.
-That’s true enough, said William, but where to find one?
-And an inn costs money, you’re thinking?
-I’ve none to waste, and that’s true too.
-Can I ask where you may be going then sir?
-You can, but the answer could be a long story with a sharp point, and in the end we’re both standing here just to get wet.
The man laughed. Yes, he said, and the roads are full of creatures like us now. I have the beggar’s vocation – oh it’s a proper calling – but there’s some tidy competition these days, and they’ve mostly got long stories too. If you can stand to hear ‘em.
-And we’re still getting wet too, said William.
-Then you might do best to come along of me. It’s hardly a step. And it will do all three of us – that’s Jonathan too – for one night for sure.
-I’ve nothing to give you, William warned.
-I’ve not taken you for a mark sir. This here’s in my bounty.
The beggar turned away, and as his coat flicked aside William saw for the first time that the left leg was without a foot, and made of wood, but for all his queer gait the man moved at quite a pace, and then after only a hundred yard or so further into the wood stopped before a huge old tree, an oddity among the younger straighter trees that surrounded it at what felt like a respectful distance. Unlike them, its gnarled branches began low down the trunk, and twisted out wards in all directions. The dog led the way and the beggar ducked beneath the branches and disappeared. His voice said:
-This way sir, and welcome to Davey’s Dive. Me being Davey, and diving below the branches being what you do. William hesitated, but finding no-one else near and thinking he had little enough to lose, he did as he was bid. He found he was facing a black opening in the ancient trunk. The dog’s head was peering out at him. William dropped to his knees and crawled past. Inside he could see only the glimmer of the beggar’s face and the pale shape of the dog.
-You can stand up if you choose, said the beggar. It’s as roomy as a church porch in here.
-A lychgate maybe, said William, for it’s as dark as the grave.
-That’s a good ‘un, said Davey, for it’s about as snug too, though maybe warmer.
There was a smell of must and rot, but the thick layer of leaves that lined the floor was indeed quite dry, and William sat himself down amongst them. Outside the rain pattered through the branches and there was a restless whispering of the wind gathering strength through the tree-tops above them. After a while Davey asked:
-Would you have any eatables about you?
-I have the crust of yesterday’s loaf.
-I’ve a drop of water, no more.
-Well, said Davey, that’s handy, because somewhere in my poke (there was a rustling sound) I’ve got this bit of cheese, and a drop of small the drawer at The Catherine Wheel found for me, out of the goodness of her heart.
-I couldn’t take yours, said William.
-Oh, it’s sharing, not taking, what you’re given for free: that’s the best of charity. If you’ll split up your crust, we’ll make ourselves a feast.
They divided up what there was as best they could in the dark, and the dog snuffled up the few crumbs from the beggar’s hand. The cheese was of a good size, but old and hard, and the beer from the beggar’s flask flat and with a whiff of stale: William took it to be the end of the slop barrel. But he had travelled a long and dusty way.
-There, said Davey, that’ll do to keep body and soul together till we breakfast in the morning,
The dog turned round a few times and settled himself with his head on William’s legs. He’s a friendly chap, said William.
-Too trusting by half, said Davey, but always ready to see the best of anyone – ‘specially if they’ve a bone about them.
-I don’t, said William.
-Well, Jonathan lives in hope.
-And where do you come from then? William asked.
-That depends what you mean. I like to think of myself as a West Country man now, though they say you need a granfer in the local churchyard to call yourself such. I’ve been here long enough that most places know me. I don’t get stoned in the street no more down here.
-Oh, said William.
-No, that was a joke. Mostly.
-William named his home.
-Yes, I’ve been through there. That’s the Foxton’s country. Now they’ve a grand kitchen if you like. And old Squire Foxton, he’s a very fair man. Last time I was up before him – it’s a few years now – he only sent me to the local lock up for a few nights.
-Why, what had you done?
-Just pursuing my vocation. They like to call it vagrancy now, but it’s what I do. You’ve seen me, I was born to it, and it’s a fine trade, the best in England.
-You’ve not served a master, or you’d know.
-I’m a farm boy.
-For sure. Well, if you serve, your time is never your own. Up afore it’s light, dish of tea, and then he’s off, harrying you from pillar to post till bed time. And if it’s not the master then it’s his customers, get this done by Friday, that’s not right, I wanted it turned that way, surely you’re not going to charge me that? It never stops, I can tell you. There’s no rest.
-But begging’s a trade?
-Of course. Some have talent, and some don’t. But you need to start out young, like any good artisan, and it helps to have a natural advantage. I never met my old man, and mother never spoke of him, but he met his end down the start of the Oxford Road – that’s Tyburn you know. And then my mother had to do her best after she had me, which I must have been a disappointment to her, a fright from a runaway horse when she was five months gone, is what she said. Who’s to know? Anyways, she didn’t last but long poor soul, for a consumption took her off when I was maybe four or five.
-So how did you get by?
-Ah,well that’s where fortune smiled, as in general she does I find. My mother had an uncle, lived down Pimlico way – that’s in the fields a bit outside London, you know. He had a little tenement not far from the river, ‘cause his family worked in the osiers, so basket making and such. And he brung me up. Well, I say that, but he wasn’t doing me any favours. In those days, maybe still, the people of fashion used to venture out from town for a bit of sport and play down Hoxton, and my Uncle Wild – for that was his family name – he saw an opportunity. He’d put me to sit outside one of the taverns with a cup in my hand and my little crutch beside me, keeping a good distance himself, but watchful, and the money soon came in. Sometimes he’d have me halt up and down the road, because that was more affecting, and drew the eye, but mostly it was the drinkers we relied on, me begging what they hadn’t pissed away. I learned I had a pretty knack. I could wheedle and cry with the best of ‘em when I must, but I soon found that keeping cheerful served me best. And I am. I’m just that sort of cove, and you make use of what serves your turn.
-So how come you to Dorset? asked William.
-See, seven years I stayed with old Wild. It was just like an apprenticeship, when I think of it, me learning the trade, while from time to time he beat me ragged for crossing him - just like any master. But that’s how you learn all the quicker. And I must have got him a store of pelf over the years. He never wanted, that’s for sure. We got along, share and share alike in his tottery old house. But then he got taken up and sent to the Bridewell, and I had to make out on my own. I discovered that weren’t so bad, the money didn’t have to go two ways and I was in his house and I thought sitting pretty while the landlord weren’t dunning for the rent. But once you’re of an age, it’s not so easy. People don’t see a cripple child no more, say aw, and put their hands to their purses without a thought. You have to work at it. And then I got taken up a couple of times myself – not so bad really, you learn a thing or two in the Bridewell, and it’s still a roof - but finally they stocked me. Can you imagine, a poor one leg lad with my back, and in the stocks? Well, I’d had enough of Middlesex then, and London too.
-So you took your trade on the road?
-Never looked back. See, it struck me early, and on the road like this, if you‘ve got the advantages you might want for little, but have little anyone wants. No-one’s going to plot and plan against you. Who’d be a duke or a king, always wondering when the next bad turn is coming?
-That’s philosophical, remarked William.
-It comes cheap, said the beggar feelingly. It’s what I can afford.
The rain was falling harder than ever. For a while its clatter on the floor of the wood drowned out the conversation, but then it eased and the wind moderated, until there was just a steady drip of water through leaves. The beggar asked:
-What about you, my young friend? A night in a hollow tree in place of a sturdy yeoman’s bed?
William outlined his story. He finished: - and to cap all, I was close to being recruited as I came over the Stour bridge today.
-The cavalry was it? asked Davey. I saw them pass by on the road at Alweston this morning. Stirs the blood to see ‘em. And no more dangerous than the life at sea you’re intending.
-It’s a fancy that I have, said William, and to see a bit of the world, though he felt less secure in it than in the morning’s bright sunshine.
-Follow your uncle’s foosteps? Yes? The beggar paused, and then said: I’ve been in Plymouth a few times. It’s a fair old town right enough, but the trade’s all spoken for there, where the beggars have their own advantages – old sailor sir, cast up on shore, lost my eyes in the service of the King sir, round the Caribbean with Benbow sir, God bless you sir.
-So is this where you make our home?
- Oh no, this only one of my many abodes. I have estates all over the country, town too in the season if I choose. But my main gaff at present is just down the road, other side of Sherborne. If it’s not out of your way, I can take you there tomorrow. We’ll have a bit of company and you can meet my missus.
-Maybe not in the Church, but a man needs a helpmeet I find, and my Sal’s a good girl. Now she herself is a Devon maid: five years we been together since I borrowed her out of a Bedlam at Exeter. Of course, I get about and I’m not saying there haven’t been other lasses I’ve kept from the grass in this long coat – my shape don’t seem to deter them once I’ve talked to ‘em five minutes – but Sal is the one for me.
William felt that perhaps there was some morality that he’d not met before. He had suspected a long time that there might be different ways of living once you were abroad in the country. But he said:
-I’m not sure I should linger.
-Oh you have joined the road now. How long has your Plymouth man been waiting?
-He wrote my father twelve months ago.
-Well, what’s another day or two? You’re just starting out on seeing the world. And tomorrow the Digby family will feed us.
-Because I’m a favourite of their second cook; she has a soft spot for me, you might say, and if we can come by the castle kitchen, then I don’t doubt she’ll see us right.
Sherborne Castle was built by old Walter Raleigh no less, when he was still Queen Bess’s favourite. People think he was a Devon man, but when he wanted a fine house for himself he settled In Dorset. Maybe it was handy for the south coast ports, and nearer London too. But then he fell out with the monarchy and they cut his head off, and the Digbys have had it ever since. They must have spent a pot of money on the house, and the park is very pretty too, with a girt lake where they dammed up the river.
William spent the night wrapped up in his coat under the dry leaves. His knapsack served for a pillow, in part to ensure his fiddle didn’t disappear with Davey in the night. It had occurred to him rather late that the beggar may have had some sneaksman waiting for him. As it was, he awoke to find himself alone, but because Davey was seated outside under the branches, playing with the dog. The rain had become a fine drizzle.
-Good dive, ain’t it, said the beggar. William had to agree.
In the daylight, Davey was younger than he had thought, not yet thirty. He had a tangle of hair like tow which framed his face. Somewhere under there remained a little angel who stirred the pity of the drinkers in Pimlico fields.
-Keeping your poke close I see, said Davey. Very wise, you’ll never know who you’ll meet. He grinned, and William felt a touch confounded. He had taken a risk last night, he knew. You trust in God, but keep your powder dry, wasn't it so?
-The sack has my old fiddle, he said, I’d hate to lose it.
-Musical are you? Now, that’s a big advantage. If you’re any good, you’ll not lack for a penny. My Sal likes a good tune: you’ll have to play for her. Play for the citizens of Sherborne too if you fancy, though the Watch don’t like it. They are a bit quick to move you on at present. Me and Sal are thinking we may have to find a new home in a bit.
They set off and left the wood, the dog going back and fore around them and doing what dogs do.
-He’s another little helpmeet, said Davey. People don’t like the look of you, well they’ll feel sorry for the dog.
-Goes with my Uncle Wild, you know, like Jonathan Wild the old thieftaker, what got so many hanged; and then Jonathan goes with David of course, great friends, like us two. Ain’t we boy? The dog’s arse was projecting from some bushes. He’s my third of that name, said Davey.
The beggar kept up a good pace in his crab-like way, but they had not gone far down the hill when the road came alongside a high stone wall. Davey stopped and looked around. There was no-one on the road. He tossed his crutch over the wall and for all he was a cripple was sitting on top of the stonework before William could see how it was done. Pass the dog up, Davey said, and don’t hang round.
William had no time to consider whether this was a good idea, but did as he was asked, and followed Davey over the wall.
They were back in the woods, but soon came to the edge of an open park dotted with fine trees and below it a lake like grey ribbon. Over the water was the old castle, just ruins since the Parliament men knocked it about, but as they followed the edge of the park the turrets and girt windows of the new castle came in sight this side of the water, and Davey stopped. He secured the dog by a piece of rope, the better to lead it.
-We need to be a bit…mindful… here, he said. His Grace’s agent’s none too keen on visitors, leastways if they look like us, and his keepers are pretty jealous of his rights too.
Indeed, they hadn’t gone much further along the edge of the park before they started up a fallow deer, which bounded away into the undergrowth above them. They paused till all was quiet again. When they came out of the wood, Davey stayed outside the park but kept close under the hedges, and so by briars and nettles they reached within a stone throw of the rear of the house. They were looking across the stable yard, where the cobbles were glistening, but despite the drizzle, servants were passing to and fro, and a groom was unsaddling a glossy black mare. Davey said:
-You walk around by the front of the house. Don’t try to go through the gatehouse beyond, but across the drive you’ll see the end of the lake. You can wait there while I manage the touch. Don’t stop on the way, but just look as if you are meant to be there, and no-one will prevent you, dressed in your fine coat.
William wasn’t so sure, but he set off. He was startled as he passed the corner, for there was a man with a hoe and a wheelbarrow, but he bade the gardener good day and continued without a pause. The front of the house was a dizzy face of towers and chimneys, the like of which William had never seen. Girt casements climbed one over the other four storeys to the roof, and the arch to a barn of a door was protected by two tall wings sheltering the entrance yard. At two windows, candles were burning, for all it was bright day. Outside, the rain streaked the limestone. William went down to the lake’s edge and stopped among the trees.
He stood there a good time. Beyond his shelter the lake was ruffled and dark, where two swans edged among the rushes. Then there was a ruckus. From the stableyard came the beggar with two men – house-servants – either side. They had him by the arms, so his good leg hardly touched the ground, and one carried his crutch. A third man, the head steward maybe, was bellowing words that William couldn’t catch. Davey was not resisting, but when the man, the steward, went back inside all three stopped on the path, not far from William.
-There Davey, said one of the servants. You'm done it now, it’s one time too many. He’ll likely have the watch after 'ee.
-What, for asking a little charity? Come now lads, where’s his conscience to? And what about my little dog?
- He will have to find his own way home. Shouldn’t be no trouble to him if he’s as sharp as 'ee.
They moved on past William further down the lakeside and William followed at a distance. When a little footbridge came in sight above a weir, they stopped again.
-That’s it buye, said the other servant. That’s your path, and we’ll not lug you further. We’re going to stand here till we sees you gone. He thrust the crutch at him.
William caught the beggar up at the edge of the town. The sun had come out. It was suddenly hot, and Davey was sitting on a gate laying his long coat out to dry. There was some traffic on the road, carts and women and horses, all sorts.
-So you had a mite of bother? asked William.
-Oh, that’s just the terms of trade, said Davey. I was getting on fine till that angry bugger put his head in. Look. He rummaged in the pockets of his coat, and came up with a grey half of a pie in several pieces and two wrinkled apples. These must have stored well somewhere, Davey said. He seemed so proud of his pickings that William couldn’t ask if the outcome was worth the trouble, and besides he was hungry and so wolfed up what the beggar passed to him. The pie had a hint of mould about it. Mm, venison I should think, said Davey.
They sat on the ground with their backs against the gate, making the most of the sun. William went to remove his coat to dry it next to the beggar’s, but Davey said:
-Don’t take this amiss, but I think we’d get on better if you set over there. He indicated another gate some yards up the road.
-Use your noddle. Folks don’t want to see me with a sturdy fellow like you.
-William went to sit where he was bidden. The beggar pulled out an old drinking bowl from his pack and put it at his feet, or foot rather. He found two farthings from somewhere and dropped them in the bowl. His crutch lay prominent on his lap. After a few minutes, a packman came out from the town, leading two ponies burdened with bags and baggage.
-Lovely bit o’ sun now, Davey said to him. The man grimaced and went on without a pause. Davey winked at William. In the next half of an hour or so, maybe ten people went by, on foot or mounted. Each got a cheerful grin from the beggar and some a salutation, but no money was forthcoming. William began to think he was wasting his time. Then out of the town came a buxom young maid with a stick in her hand. Her face was hidden under a big bonnet. She scuffled along all priddyshins , weighed down to one side by a girt basket. Davey watched her coming in his friendly fashion, so that as she drew alongside of him, she stopped and plumped the basket to the ground with big puff of breath.
-Didn’t your old man send the trap with you, maid? asked Davey. That would have been a kindness.
-If we had one, she replied from under the bonnet.
-Them shopmen must have closed for the day once you left Sherborne; you look as you spent a pretty penny or two.
-I’ve just sold my spring geese, she said, and that’s paid for all.
-I’ve never got on with geese, said Davey, they don’t take to me much. It must be my old peg. Still, your Ma and Pa will sup well tonight.
The maid eyed the basket, preparing herself to go on. Davey asked: Far to go?
-I wish I could lend you a hand. That mile or two would soon be over, given a little of the right company.
William thought Davey had the look of a crestfallen angel now. Perhaps the girl did too, for she said: I’m sure you would if you could.
-A pretty form would lead me over the hills and far away, miss, if I could but earn my bread.
When the girl had finally struggled out of sight with her basket, Davey jumped up and held up a penny for William’s inspection. William was reminded of how the beggar had mounted the wall that morning: you could hardly see how it was done. He said:
-I suppose you get hardened to the rebuffs?
-It’s like courting, William, replied the beggar. Ask enough pretty girls and you’ll get your leg across sometime, and there’s your effort justified. Here, I think it’s going to rain again – best get into the town.
-What about the little dog?
-Oh, Jonathan knows his way about, or if not, I know where I’m like to find him later.
The two of them set off into Sherborne. They came into Cheap Street by the little market square, where the butter house stands, with its pointy windows like lace. A few stallholders were packing up their goods. Davey thought the two of them were a little late to find much custom for him here, so they walked around the corner and stood at the edge of the green before the golden stone of the old Abbey church. There’s a fine old sundial high up on a gable, but it told them nothing, for the clouds had rolled in again, thick and dark above the massy tower.
-The school’s hard by, said Davey. I thought if you got your fiddle ready you might get a penny from a scholar for a good tune.
William had only been gone from home one day. He had always thought the fiddle might help pay his way, but he was shy of the public street; the quiet close would echo with attention. It felt early to be reduced to such a straight. He was saved from excusing himself by the rain, which began anew, was quickly harder than ever, and had them hurrying beneath the Abbey porch. They stared at the downpour for some time, while puddles formed on the deserted churchyard.
-That’s it for the day, I reckon, said Davey. They’ll all be indoors now, the comfortable citizens. And the roads will be sodden. Come and meet my Sal. She’ll have found something eatable for sure. It will be better tomorrow, and tonight you‘ll at least have a solid roof.
That was a pleasant prospect for a fellow who had spent his first night from home in a hollow tree and now with his stomach empty again and his coat damp on his shoulders. As soon as the rain eased he followed Davey across the green and down the street. They took the turn onto the old Dorchester road and soon came down to the Yeo. The graceful stone bridge led across to green fields. Below, the rain made circles in the muddy water swirling on to Somerset. They crossed together.
-This here’s my gaff, said the beggar, though William could see no sign of a house. And there’s my dog, said Davey, found his way home before us.
The dog had appeared around the bridge parapet. It ran forward and jumped excitedly up and down until the beggar was able to balance his crutch and take it in his arms. There’s a good fellow, said Davey, as it wriggled and licked his face. William couldn’t help but think it might have been Davey’s first wash for a while. This way, said Davey, ducking round the parapet.
Beneath the first arch of the bridge a stoney shelf sloped down to the water’s edge. You could stand on the shelf and touch the arch with an upright arm. A couple of discarded hurdles had been propped up to make a screen, and a few wisps of smoke crept above them from an open fire. William’s first thought was, it’s come to this already.
-Here, said Davey, don’t look disappointed, William. We’ve been here since the Spring. It’s a fine gaff for the summer, and leastways till the floods come down. It only looks a mite gloomy in the rain. Me and my friends are snug as bugs here. There’s water and there’s washing right on hand, and fishing too, if you’ll take a bit of care and not be stupid when you go. And this here’s my Sally.
A woman got up from the fire, where another man was sat sprawled on the sand: he didn't stir. The woman drew ragged clothes about her, but they hardly covered her bosoms. She had a broad open face and the biggest blue eyes, but for all her life in the open, William thought she looked pale as old snow. Who's this pretty gentleman? she asked.
- I thought you'd like him, said Davey. He explained how they met on the road. He added - and he's got a fiddle. If you're kind to him, he might play for you to dance. But before that, what's in the pot?
-Taddies, she said.
-Anything more? Davey reached down and sampled the pot from its ladle. Lacks salt, he said, and drawing a little bag from inside his coat, sprinkled some into the liquid.
-There's a bit of cabbage, and the end of Friday's coney, said the man by the fire. We was hoping you'd had some success.
This man was older than the other two. He had a livid scar which ran from a twisted mouth to his left eye, which in turn was covered by a patch. Davey introduced him.
-This is my old friend Mr Benjamin Turner. Much as I like him, it has to be said he finds begging somewhat demanding. He used to make a good living from the Ranting, when first we met. You wouldn’t believe it – preach for hours at a time, never at a loss. What an advantage that was. A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…and off he’d go. The pelf would roll in.
-My gifts deserted me, said Benjamin.
-It’s another of God’s mysteries, Davey commented.
Benjamin grunted. I make my portion, he said. Now sit down and we can all chaw together.
William sat where he could lean his back on the stonework of the bridge. The woman stepped over Benjamin and squeezed herself into the space between them. Sweet and cosy here now, she said, and smiled up at William. She still had some remarkable white teeth. It occurred to him that she may have been lovely once, maybe not long ago. But her hair was a black tangle already edged with grey.
-Now then Sal, said Davey, allow Mr Parker a bit of space. She can be a bit forward William, but it’s just her way. She don’t mean anything by it. He reached around the fire and squeezed her bare toes, so that she giggled and pouted in a mock of disapproval.
Davey took out his begging bowl, and they ate from that, each a ladleful at a time before passing on the bowl with its single spoon. The food was thin and greasy, potatoes lying in a broth that might once have had some meat, but William was hungry, and it filled his belly.
-Well Sal, said Davey when they had finished, you have exceeded yourself. It’s a wonder what my good girl can do with very little, William. She has a talent, no doubt of it. It was wasted down there in Exeter, weren’t it my dear?
-I never liked them, Davey. They were cruel to me.
-Put some more brush on the fire Sal, and we won’t talk about it. The woman got up and did as she was asked, and while she was about it, Davey leaned forward confidingly to William. She’s had three children, you know. You wouldn’t think it, would you? All passed on of course, or mislaid somewhere. Maybe. I don’t know. She don’t like to say much, and it’s better not to ask. She was chained up when I first saw her. Now then Benji, would you have that end of a bottle about 'ee?
When the bottle reached William, the smell of the spirits almost turned his stomach on end, lined with the grease of his meal as it was. He pretended to drink and passed the bottle on. The rain continued as before, and occasionally a sudden gust would sweep it under the arch, where the hurdle saved them from a soaking. Large and steady drips fell from the crown of their roof into the river at their feet. William pulled his coat about him, and they all dozed for a space. Sally was nestled on her side between him and Benjamin, and curled up with her hands beneath her white face like a child. When he awoke some time later, he saw her hand was in the other man’s breeches, and much occupied. A harlot then. As William turned away, she caught his eye and smiled, but continued as before.
William’s mind was a pother of conflict. Thoughts of home and Nancy, awkward thoughts of Nancy, which he tried to drive from his head with thoughts of the future, the cousin he had yet to meet, the towns, the lands, he had yet to visit. The unknowns that would start tomorrow when he left the county, and all the things that had drawn and driven him on this course, headstrong and stubborn as they all said he was, if it wasn’t foolish and dreamy. He thought he was testing himself, but he couldn’t for now think why. You do, well, what the Good Lord intends for you, even to begging if you must.
The rain had eased. He stood and walked a little up the river bank. The roofs of Sherborne on the other side were grey and glistening, huddled around the Abbey tower. He thought, I should have gone inside, bought some conviction. Then he thought, I’ll be ready tomorrow, when the sun comes back.
Soon the rain began again and drove him under the arch. Davey was sitting up, saw him coming, said: How about a tune on that old fiddle then, my friend?
The other two roused themselves. William drew the fiddle and its bow from his sack and unrolled the bit of blanket that wrapped it. It had been his grandfather’s but who knows from where before that, and from some country maker. William had had to bodge the tuning pegs so it would hold its tune, and he played the first air that came into his head, something betwixt major and minor. It had some words once, which he had largely forgotten. Then he played The Brown Man. Sally at once jumped up to caper to its quick six-eight. The faster he played the more nimble she became, her hands on her hips and her bare feet kicking up her skirts. Davey began to clap in time as she spun round and round, her face a knot of concentration and exertion. Once she reached the water’s edge, teetered beside it, then redeemed herself to swirl round the embers of the fire. William moved into another jig, faster and faster and still she kept going, and when at last he stopped, she subsided into a huge smile, breathless, her breasts immodest, heaving.
-What do you reckon Benji? asked Davey.
-Good as I’ve heard, said Benjamin. I doubt you’ll ever need to starve. Do you know any songs? Dives and Lazarus?
-It’s a fine tune, said William.
-Too solemn, too solemn, cried Davey. I’ll give you The Buxom Dairy Maid. You can find it, I know, he said to William.
Once they found the key between them, William soon got the tune, which jigged along simple enough. The beggar sang sweetly , as sweet as he could talk, a good baritone sort of voice. There were a string of lewd verses, which got Benjamin on a roar, while the woman looked blankly between the men uncomprehending. Then she was ready to dance once more, and off she went to a reel or two, out into the rain till it ran from her wild hair and down her bare shoulders, then she was back beneath the arch, and circled the fire to finish, sprawled laughing on her back between the men. William put his fiddle aside. Truth to tell, he was discomforted: it was music, lust and shame. He was a young chap.
-I think you should thank Mr Parker, said Davey to the woman.
-Oh no. I’ve only played for my supper, William said. But Sally rolled over to lie beside him, and pushed her pale lips forward for a kiss. Shakily he kissed her, but chastely, on the forehead, and drew back his knees from her wandering hand.
-Ah, you’re a diplomatist – ain’t he Benji? said Davey. But Sal’s not so particular, are you maid?
-She has eleemosynary gifts at her disposal, said Benjamin.
-That’s well said, said Davey.
The watch arrived next morning just before the sky grew light, five or six of them. These men wore no plumes or silvered spurs but they wore the ordinary clothes of the country. They dragged Davey and Sally away to some lock-up, and kicked Benjamin and William black and blue. They broke the dog’s neck and threw him in the river. Benjamin disappeared in the dark and William got a final blow from a stave as he grabbed his sack and legged it up the road, away from the bridge and the river and the cursing voices.
The Jovial Beggar
There are innumerable versions of this song, which is not to be confused with The Jolly Beggarman! I have referred principally to an English version, but the only video I can trace is an Irish one from The Corries at https://youtu.be/i3RwlB_Tf4M
The Rout of the Blues
The most notable version of this well-known song remains that of Robin and Barry Dransfield, https://youtu.be/LRi3g_c6Xz4
Dives and Lazarus
To hear this as it should be sung , see the Young Tradition at https://youtu.be/F9hqJTAQyjQ, but there is an acceptable up-tempo version from the ever-delicious Maddy Prior at https://youtu.be/Sl3xFnoDZ_I