From Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard by Eleanor Farjeon
There was once, dear maidens, a shepherd who kept his master's sheep on Amberley Mount. His name was Gerard, and he was always called Young Gerard to distinguish him from the other shepherd who was known as Old Gerard, yet was not, as you might suppose, his father. Their master was the Lord of Combe Ivy that lay in the southern valleys of the hills toward the sea; he owned the grazing on the whole circle of the Downs between the two great roads--on Amberley and Perry and Wepham and Blackpatch and Cockhill and Highdown and Barnsfarm and Sullington and Chantry. But the two Gerards lived together in the great shed behind the copse between Rackham Hill and Kithurst, and the way they came to do so was this.|
One night in April when Old Gerard's gray beard was still brown, the door of the shed was pushed open, letting in not only the winds of Spring but a woman wrapped in a green cloak, with a lining of cherry-color and a border of silver flowers and golden cherries. In one hand she swung a crystal lantern set in a silver frame, but it had no light in it; and in the other she held a small slip of a cherry-tree, but it had no bloom on it. Her dress was white, or had been; for the skirts of it, and her mantle, were draggled and sodden, and her green shoes stained and torn, and her long fair hair lay limp and dank upon her mantle whose hood had fallen away, and the shadows round her blue eyes were as black as pools under hedgerows thawing after a frost, and her lovely face was as white as the snowbanks they bed in. Behind her came another woman in a duffle cloak, a crone with eyes as black as sloes, and a skin as brown as beechnuts, and unkempt hair like the fireless smoke of Old Man's Beard straying where it will on the November woodsides. She too was wet and soiled, but full of life where the young one seemed full of death.
The Shepherd looked at this strange pair and said surlily, "What want ye?"
She pushed the lady, who never spoke, into the shed, and took from her shoulders the wet mantle, and from her hands the lantern and the tree; and led her to the Shepherd's bed and laid her down. Then she spread the mantle over the Shepherd's bench and,
Next she hung the lantern up on a nail in the wall, and,
Last she took the Shepherd's trowel and went outside the shed, and set the cherry-slip beside the door. And she said: "Grow there, till love blossoms ye" After this she came inside and sat down at the bedhead.
Gerard the Shepherd, who had watched her proceedings without word or gesture, said to himself, "They've come through the floods" He looked across at the women and raised his voice to ask, "Did ye come through the floods?" The lady moaned a little, and the crone said, "Let her be and go to sleep. What does it matter where we came from by night? By daybreak we shall both of us be gone no matter whither"
The Shepherd said no more, for though he was both curious and ill-tempered he had not the courage to disturb the lady, knowing by the richness of her attire that she was of the quality; and the iron of serfdom was driven deep into his soul. So he went to sleep on his stool, as he had been bidden. But in the middle of the night he was awakened by a gusty wind and the banging of his door; and he started up rubbing his knuckles in his eyes, saying, "I've been dreaming of strange women, but was it a dream or no?" He peered about the shed, and the crone had vanished utterly, but the lady still lay on his bed. And when he went over to look at her, she was dead. But beside her lay a newborn child that opened its eyes and wailed at him.
Then the Shepherd ran to his open door and stared into the blowing night, but there were no more signs of the crone without than there were within. So he fastened the latch and came back to the bedside. Examining the child, the Shepherd discovered it to be a lusty boy-child, and this rejoiced him, so that while the baby wept he laughed aloud. "It is better to weep for something than for nothing," said he, "and to laugh for something likewise. Tears are for serfs and laughter is for freedmen." For he had conceived the plan of selling the child to his master, the Lord of Combe Ivy, and buying his freedom with the purchase money. So in the morning he carried the body of the lady into the heart of the copse, and there he dug a grave and laid her in it in her white gown. And afterwards he went up hill and down dale to his master, and said he had a man for sale. The Lord of Combe Ivy, who was a jovial lord and a bachelor, laughed at the tale he had to tell; but being always of the humor for a jest he paid the Shepherd a gold piece for the child, and promised him another each midnight on the anniversary of its birth; but on the twenty-first anniversary, he said, the Shepherd was to bring back the twenty-one gold pieces he had received, and instead of adding another to them he would take them again, and make the serf a freedman, and the child his serf.
"For," said the Lord of Combe Ivy, "an infant is a poor deal for a man in his prime, as you are, but a youth come to manhood is a good exchange for a graybeard, as you will be. Therefore rear this babe as you please, and if he live to manhood so much the better for you, but if he die first it's all one to me"
The Shepherd had hoped for a better bargain, but he must needs be content with seeing liberty at a distance. So he returned to his shed on the hills and made a leather purse to keep his gold-piece in, and hung it round his neck, touching it fifty times a day under his shirt to be sure it was still there. And presently he sought among his ewes one who had borne her young, saying, "You shall mother two instead of one." And the baby sucked the ewe like her very lamb, and thrived upon the milk. And the shepherd called the child Gerard after himself, "since," he said, "it is as good a name for a shepherd as another"; and from that time they became the Young and Old Gerards to all who knew them.
So the Young Gerard grew up, and as he grew the cherry-tree grew likewise, but in the strangest fashion; for though it flourished past all expectation, it never put forth either leaf or blossom. This bitterly vexed Old Gerard, who had hoped in time for fruit, and the frustration of his hopes became to him a cause of grievance against the boy. A further grudge was that by no manner of means could he succeed in lighting any wick or candle in the silver lantern, of which he desired to make use.
"But if your tree and your lantern won't work," said he, "it's no reason why you shouldn't." So he put Young Gerard to work, first as sheepboy to his own flock, but later the boy had a flock of his own. There was no love lost between these two, and kicks and curses were the young one's fare; for he was often idle and often a truant, and none was held responsible for him except the old shepherd who was selling him piece-meal, year by year, to their master. Because of what depended on him, Old Gerard was constrained to show him some sort of care when he would liever have wrung his neck. The boy's fits exasperated the man; whether he was cutting strange capers and laughing without reason, as he frequently did, or sitting a whole evening in a morose dream, staring at the fire or at the stars, and saying never a word. The boy's coloring was as mingled as his moods, a blend of light and dark--black hair, brown skin, blue eyes and golden lashes, a very odd anomaly.
Because of their mutual dislike, when the boy was put in charge of his own sheep the two shepherds spent their days apart. The Old Gerard grazed his flock to the east as far as Chantry, but the Young Gerard grazed his flock to the west as far as Amberley, whose lovely dome was dearer to him than all the other hills of Sussex. And here he would sit all day watching the cloud-shadows stalk over the face of the Downs, or slipping along the land below him, with the sun running swiftly after, like a carpet of light unrolling itself upon a dusky floor. And in the evening he watched the smoke going up from the tiny cottages till it was almost dark, and a hundred tiny lights were lit in a hundred tiny windows. Sometimes on his rare holidays, and on other days too, he ran away to the Wildbrooks to watch the herons, or to find in the water-meadows the tallest kingcups in the whole world, and the myriad treasures of the river--the giant comfrey, purple and white, meadowsweet, St. John's Wort, purple loose-strife, willowherb, and the ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-five others, or whatever number else you please, that go to make a myriad. He came to know more about the ways of the Wildbrooks than any other lad of those parts, and one day he rediscovered the Lost Causeway that can be traveled even in the floods, when the land lies under a lake at the foot of the hills. He kept this, like many other things, a secret; but he had one more precious still.
For as he lay and watched the play of sun and shadow on the plains, he fancied a world of strange places he had known, somewhere beyond the veils of light and mist that hung between his vision and the distance, and he fell into a frequent dream of tunes and laughter, and sunlit boughs in blossom, and dancing under the boughs; or of fires burning in the open night, and a wilder singing and dancing in the starlight; and often when his body was lying on the round hill, or by the smoky hearth, his thoughts were running with lithe boys as strong and careless as he was, or playing with lovely free-limbed girls with flowing hair. Sometimes these people were fair and bright-haired and in light and lovely clothing, and at others they were dark, with eyes of mischief, and clad in the gayest rags; and sometimes they came to him in a mingled company, made one by their careless hearts.
One evening in April, on the twelfth anniversary, when Young Gerard came to gather his flock, a lamb was missing; so to escape a scolding he waited awhile on the hills till Old Gerard should be gone about his business. What this was Young Gerard did not know, he only knew that each year on this night the old shepherd left him to his own devices, and returned in the small hours of the morning. Not therefore until he judged that the master must have left the hut, did the boy fold his sheep; and this done he ran out on the hills again, seeking the lost lamb. For careless though he was he cared for his sheep, as he did for all things that ran on legs or flew on wings. So he went swinging his lantern under the stars, singing and whistling and smelling the spring. Now and then he paused and bleated like a ewe; and presently a small whimper answered his signal.
"My lost lamb crying on the hills," said Young Gerard. He called again, but at the sound of his voice the other stopped, and for a moment he stood quite still, listening and perplexed.
He laughed aloud and went forward, and soon discovered a tiny girl cowering under a thorn. When she saw him she ran quickly and grasped his sleeve and hid her face in it and wept. She was small for her years, which were not more than eight.
Young Gerard, who was big for his, picked her up and looked at her kindly and curiously.
Young Gerard set her on his shoulder, and went back the way he had come, till the dark shape of his wretched shed stood big between them and the sky.
He then carried her into the shed, and she looked around eagerly to see what a palace might be like inside; and it was full of flickering lights and shadows and the scent of burning wood, and she did not see how poor and dirty the room was; for the firelight gleamed upon a mass of golden fruit and silver bloom embroidered on the covering of the settle by the hearth, and sparkled against a silver and crystal lantern hanging in the chimney. And between the cracks on the walls Young Gerard had stuck wands of gold and silver palm and branches of snowy blackthorn, and on the floor was a dish full of celandine and daisies, and a broken jar of small wild daffodils. And the child knew that all these things were the treasures of queens and kings.
"Why don't you have that?" she asked, pointing to the crystal lantern as Young Gerard set down his horn one.
"Let me light it!" she begged; so he fetched it from its nail, and thrust a pine twig in the fire and gave her the sweet-smoking torch. But in vain she tried to light the wick, which always spluttered and went out again. So seeing her disappointment Young Gerard hung the lantern up, saying, "Firelight is prettier." And he set her by the fire and filled her lap with cones and dry leaves and dead bracken to burn and make crackle and turn into fiery ferns. And she was pleased.
Then he looked about and found his own wooden cup, and went away and came back with the cup full of milk, set on a platter heaped with primroses, and when he brought it to her she looked at it with shining eyes and asked:
And she drank it eagerly. And while she drank Young Gerard fetched a pipe and began to whistle tunes on it as mad as any thrush, and the child began to laugh, and jumped up, spilling her leaves and primroses, and danced between the fitful lights and shadows as though she were, now a shadow taken shape, and now a flame. Whenever he paused she cried, "Oh, let me dance! Don't stop! Let me go on dancing!" until at the same moment she dropped panting on the hearth and he flung his pipe behind him and fell on his back with his heels in the air, crying, "Pouf! d'you think I've the four quarters of heaven in my lungs, or what?" But as though to prove he had yet a capful of wind under his ribs, he suddenly began to sing a song she'd never heard before, and it went like this:
I looked beyond the sun and wind,
Beyond the rainbow and the snow,
And saw a land I used to know.
The floods rolled up to keep me still
A captive on my heavenly hill,
And on their bright and dangerous glass
Was written, Boy, you shall not pass!
I laughed aloud, You shining seas,
I'll run away the day I please!
I am not winged like any plover
Yet I've a way shall take me over,
I am not finned like any bream
Yet I can cross you, lake and stream.
And I my hidden land shall find
That lies beyond the sun and wind--
Past drowned grass and drowning trees
I'll run away the day I please,
I'll run like one whom nothing harms
With my bonny in my arms.
"I'm sure I don't know," said Young Gerard. He kicked at the dying log on the hearth, and sent a fountain of sparks up the chimney. The child threw a dry leaf and saw it shrivel, and Young Gerard stirred the white ash and blew up the embers, and held a fan of bracken to them, till the fire ran up its veins like life in the veins of a man, and the frond that had already lived and died became a gleaming spirit, and then it too fell in ashes among the ash. Then Young Gerard took a handful of twigs and branches, and began to build upon the ash a castle of many sorts of wood, and the child helped him, laying hazel on his beech and fir upon his oak; and often before their turret was quite reared a spark would catch at the dry fringes of the fir, or the brown oakleaves, and one twig or another would vanish from the castle.
"How quickly wood burns," said the child.
And they watched the fire together, and smelled its smoke, that had as many smells as there were sorts of wood. Sometimes it was like roast coffee, and sometimes like roast chestnuts, and sometimes like incense. And they saw the lichen on old stumps crinkle into golden ferns, or fire run up a dead tail of creeper in a red S, and vanish in mid-air like an Indian boy climbing a rope, or crawl right through the middle of a birch-twig, making hieroglyphics that glowed and faded between the gray scales of the bark. And then suddenly it caught the whole scaffolding of their castle, and blazed up through the fir and oak and spiny thorns and dead leaves, and the bits of old bark all over blue-gray-green rot, and the young sprigs almost budding, and hissing with sap. And for one moment they saw all the skeleton and soul of the castle without its body, before it fell in.
The child sighed a little and yawned a little and said:
For a little while Young Gerard held and watched her in the firelight, and then he rose and wrapped her in the old embroidered mantle on the settle, and went out. And sure-foot as a goat he carried her over the dark hills by the tracks he knew, for roads there were none, and his arms ached with his burden, but he would not wake her till they stood at her father's gates. Then he shook her gently and set her down, and she clung to him a little dazed, trying to remember.
"This is Combe Ivy," he whispered. "You must go in alone. Will you come again?"
He returned through the night up hill and down dale, but did not go back to the shed until he had recovered his lamb. By then it was almost dawn, and he found his master awake and cursing. He had feared the boy had made off, and he had had curt treatment at Combe Ivy, which was in a stir about the loss of the little daughter. Young Gerard showed the lamb as his excuse, nevertheless the old shepherd leathered the young one soundly, as he did six days in seven.
After this when Young Gerard sat dreaming on the hills, he dreamed not only of his happy land and laughing friends, but of the next coming of little Thea. But Combe Ivy was far away, and the months passed and the years, and she did not come again. Meanwhile Young Gerard and his tree grew apace, and the limbs of the boy became longer and stronger, and the branches of the tree spread up to the roof and even began to thrust their way through the holes in the wall; but the boy's life, save for his dreaming, was as friendless as the tree's was flowerless. And of a tree's dreaming who shall speak? Meanwhile Old Gerard thrashed and rated him, and reckoned his gold pieces, and counted the years that still lay between him and his freedom. At last came another April bringing its hour.
For as he sat on the Mount in the early morning, when he was in his seventeenth year, Young Gerard saw a slender girl running over the turf and laughing in the sunlight, sometimes stopping to watch a bird flying, or stooping to pluck one of the tiny Down-flowers at her feet. So she came with a dancing step to the top of the Mount, and then she saw him, and her glee left her and shyness took its place. But a little pride in her prevented her from turning away, and she still came forward until she stood beside him, and said: "Good morning, Shepherd. Is it true that in April the country north of the hills is filled with lakes?"
"I have run away," she told him as they went. "I had to get up very early while they were asleep. I shall be scolded again. But travelers come who talk of the lakes, and I wanted to see them, and to swim in them"
She looked at him quickly and reddened a little, it might have been from shame or pity, Young Gerard did not know which. And her shyness once more enveloped her; it always came over her unexpectedly, taking her breath away like a breaking wave. So she said no more, and they walked together, she looking at the ground, he at the soft brown hair blowing over the curve of her young cheek. She was fine and delicate in every line, and in her color, and in the touch of her too, Young Gerard knew. He wanted to touch her cheek with his finger as he would have touched the petal of a flower. Her neck, the back of it especially, was one of the loveliest bits of her, like a primrose stalk. He fell a step behind so that he could look at it. They did not speak as they went. He did not want to, and she did not know what to say.
When they reached the shed she lingered a moment by the tree, tracing a bare branch with her finger, and he waited, content, till she should speak or act, to watch her. At last she said with her faint smile, "I am very thirsty." Then he went into the shed and came out with his wooden cup filled with milk. She drank and said, "Thank you, shepherd. How pretty the violets are in your copse"
She did not come again that spring. And so the stark lives of the boy and the tree went forward for another year. But one evening in the following April, when the green was quivering on wood and hedgerow, he came to the door of the shed and saw her bending like a flower at the edge of the copse, filling her little basket and singing to herself. She looked up soon and said: "Good evening, shepherd. How does your cherry-tree?"
However, before the summer was over she came again--to swim in the river, she told him, as she passed him on the hills, without lingering. And in the autumn she came to gather blackberries, and he showed her the best place to find them. Any of these things she might have done as easily nearer Combe Ivy, but it seemed she must always offer him some reason for her small truancies--whether to gather berries or flowers, or to swim in the river. He knew that her chief delight lay in escaping from her father's manor.
Winter closed her visits; but Young Gerard was as patient as the earth, and did not begin to look for her till April. As surely as it brought leaves to the trees and flowers to the grass, it would, he knew, bring his little mistress's question, half shy, half smiling, "Is your cherry-tree in blossom, shepherd?" And later her request, smiling and shy, for milk.
They seldom exchanged more than a few words at any time. Sometimes they did not speak at all. For he, who was her father's servant, never spoke first; and she, growing in years and loveliness, grew also in timidity, so that it seemed to cost her more and more to address her greeting or her question even to her father's servant. The sweet quick reddening of her cheek was one of Young Gerard's chief remembrances of her.
But after a while, when they met by those sly chances which she could control and he could not; and when she did not speak, but glanced and hesitated and passed on; or glanced and passed without hesitation; or passed without a glance; he came to know that she would not mind if he arose and walked with her, if he could control the pretext, which she could not. And he did so quietly, having always something to show her.
He showed her his most secret nests and his greatest treasures of flowers, his because he loved them so much. He would have been jealous of showing these things to any one but her. In a great water-meadow in the valley, he had once shown her kingcups making sheets of gold, enameled with every green grass ever seen in spring--thousands of kingcups and a myriad of milkmaids in between, dancing attendance in all their faint shades of silver-white and rosy-mauve. When a breeze blew, this world of milkmaids swayed and curtsied above the kings' daughters in their glory. Then Gerard and Thea looked at each other smiling, because the same delight was in each, and soon she looked away again at the gentle maids and the royal ladies, but he looked still at her, who was both to him.
In silence he showed her what he loved.
But you must not suppose that she came frequently to those hills. She was to be seen no more often than you will see a kingfisher when you watch for it under a willow. Yet because in the season of kingfishers you know you may see one flash at any instant, so to Young Gerard each day of spring and summer was an expectancy; and this it was that kept his lift alight. This and his young troop of friends in a land of fruit in blossom and a sky in stars. For men, dear maids, live by the daily bread of their dreams; on realizations they would starve.
At last came the winter that preceded Young Gerard's twenty-first year. With the stripping of the boughs he stripped his heart of all thoughts of seeing her again till the green of the coming year. The snows came, and he tended his sheep and counted his memories; and Old Gerard tended his sheep and counted his coins. The count was full now, and he dreamed of April and the freeing of his body. Young Gerard also dreamed of April, and the freeing of his heart. And under the ice that bound the flooded meadows doubtless the earth dreamed of the freeing of her waters and the blooming of the land. The snows and the frosts lasted late that year as though the winter would never be done, and to the two Gerards the days crawled like snails; but in time March blew himself off the face of the earth, and April dawned, and the swollen river went rushing to the sea above the banks it had drowned with its wild overflow. And as Old Gerard began to mark the days off on a tally, Young Gerard began to listen on the hills. When the day came whose midnight was to make the old man a freedman, Thea had not appeared.
On the morning of this day, as the two shepherds stood outside their shed before they separated with their flocks, their ears were accosted with shoutings and halloos on the other side of the copse, and soon they saw coming through the trees a man in gay attire. He had a scalloped jerkin of orange leather, and his shoes and cap were of the same, but his sleeves and hose and feather were of a vivid green, like nothing in nature. He looked garish in the sun. Seeing the shepherds he took off his cap, and solemnly thanked heaven for having after all created something besides hills and valleys. "For," said he, "after being lost among them I know not how many hours, with no other company than my own shadow, I had begun to doubt whether I was not the only man on earth, and my name Adam. A curse of all lords who do not live by highroads!"
"Where are you bound for, master?" asked Old Gerard.
Old Gerard nodded, as one little surprised; but to Young Gerard this mention of a wedding at Combe Ivy came as news. It did not stir him much, however, for he was not curious about the doings of the master and the house he never saw; all that concerned him was that to-day, at least, he must cease to listen on the hills, since his young mistress would be at the wedding with the others.
Old Gerard said to the stranger, "Keep the straight track to the south till you come under Wepham, then follow the valley to the east, and so you'll be in time for the feasting, master"
"Would I also were there! But for you," he said, turning on the young man with a sudden snarl, "I should be! Had ye not come a day too late, I'd be a freedman to-night instead of to-morrow, and junketing at the wedding with the rest"
Young Gerard did not understand him. He was not in the habit of questioning the old man, and if he had would not have expected answers. But certain words of the stranger had pricked his attention, and now he said: "Where is Gay Street?"
"Get about your business," shouted the old shepherd with sudden wrath. "Why do ye stare so? You're not drunk. Ah! down yonder they'll be getting drunk without me. Enough of your idling and staring!"
This story is from Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard by Eleanor Farjeon - first published in 1921. My thanks to Batsy Bybell, who has put this volume Online for us to enjoy.
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