by Hesba Stretton
Just upon the border of Wales, but within one of the English counties, there is a cluster of hills, rising one above the other in gradual slopes, until the summits form a long, broad tableland, many miles across. This tableland is not so flat that all of it can be seen at once, but here and there are little dells, shaped like deep basins, which the country folk call hollows; and every now and then there is a rock or hillock covered with yellow gorse bushes, from the top of which can be seen the wide, outspread plains, where hundreds of sheep and ponies are feeding, which belong to the farmers and cottagers dwelling in the valley below. Besides the chief valley, which divides the mountains into two groups, and which is broad enough for a village to be built in, there are long, narrow glens, stretching up into the very heart of the tableland, and draining away the waters which gather there by the melting of snow in the winter and the rain of thunderstorms in summer. Down every glen flows a noisy mountain stream, dashing along its rocky course with so many tiny waterfalls and impatient splashes, that the gurgling and bubbling of brooks come up even into the quietness of the tableland and mingle with the singing of the birds and the humming of the bees among the heather. There are not many paths across the hills, except the narrow sheep-walks worn by the tiny feet of the sheep as they follow one another in long, single lines, winding in and out through the clumps of gorse; and few people care to explore the solitary plains, except the shepherds who have the charge of the flocks, and tribes of village children who go up every summer to gather the fruit of the wild and hardy bilberry wires.
The whole of this broad tableland, as well as the hills, are common pasture for the inhabitants of the valleys, who have an equal right to keep sheep and ponies on the uplands with the lord of the manor. But the property of the soil belongs to the latter, and he only has the power of enclosing the waste so as to make fields and plant woods upon it, provided always that he leaves a sufficient portion for the use of the villagers. In times gone by, however, when the lord of the manor and his agent were not very watchful, it was the practice of poor persons, who did not care how uncomfortably they lived, to seek out some distant hollow, or the farthest and most hidden side of a hillock, and there build themselves such a low, small hut, as should escape the notice of any passer-by, should they chance to go that way. Little by little, making low fences which looked like the surrounding gorse bushes, they enclosed small portions of the waste land, or, as it is called, encroached upon the common; and if they were able to keep their encroachment without having their hedges broken down, or if the lord of the manor neglected to demand rent for it for the space of twenty years, their fields and gardens became securely and legally their own. Because of this right, therefore, are to be found here and there little farms of three or four fields apiece, looking like islands, with the wide, open common around them; and some miles away over the breezy uplands there is even a little hamlet of these poor cottages, all belonging to the people who dwell in them.
Many years ago, even many years before my story begins, a poor woman--who was far worse off than a widow, for her husband had just been sentenced to transportation for twenty-one years--strayed down to these mountains upon her sorrowful way home to her native place. She had her only child with her, a boy five years of age; and from some reason or other, perhaps because she could not bear to go home in shame and disgrace, she sought out a very lonely hiding-place among the hills, and with her own bands reared rough walls of turf and stones, until she had formed such a rude hut as would just give shelter to her and her boy. There they lived, uncared for and solitary, until the husband came back, after suffering his twenty-one years' punishment, and entered into a little spot of land entirely his own. Then, with the assistance of his son, a strong, full-grown young man, he rebuilt the cottage, though upon a scale not much larger or much more commodious than his wife's old hut.
Like other groups of mountains, the highest and largest are those near the centre, and from them the land descends in lower and lower levels, with smaller hills and smoother valleys, until at length it sinks into the plain. Then they are almost like children's hills and valleys; the slopes are not too steep for very little feet to climb, and the rippling brooks are not in so much hurry to rush on to the distant river, but that boys and girls at play can stop them for a little time with slight banks of mud and stones. In just such a smooth, sloping dell, down in a soft green basin, called Fern's Hollow, was the hiding-place where the convict's sad wife had found an unmolested shelter.
This dwelling, the second one raised by the returned convict and his son, is built just below the brow of the bill, so that the back of the hut is formed of the hill itself, and only the sides and front are real walls. These walls are made of rubble, or loose, unhewn stones, piled together with a kind of mortar, which is little more than clay baked hard in the heat of the sun. The chimney is a bit of old stove-pipe, scarcely rising above the top of the hill behind; and, but for the smoke, we could look down the pipe, as through the tube of a telescope, upon the family sitting round the hearth within. The thatch, overgrown with moss, appears as a continuation of the slope of the hill itself, and might almost deceive the simple sheep grazing around it. Instead of a window there is only a square hole, covered by a shutter when the light is not urgently needed; and the door is so much too small for its sill and lintels as to leave large chinks, through which adventurous bees and beetles may find their way within. You may see at a glance that there is but one room, and that there can be no upstairs to the hut, except that upper storey of the broad, open common behind it, where the birds sleep softly in their cosy nests. Before the house is a garden; and beyond that a small field sown with silver oats, which are dancing and glistening in the breeze and sunshine; while before the garden wicket, but not enclosed from the common, is a warm, sunny valley, in the very middle of which a slender thread of a brook widens into a lovely little basin of a pool, clear and cold, the very place for the bill ponies to come and drink
Looking steadily up this pleasant valley from the threshold of the cottage, we can just see a fine, light film of white smoke against the blue sky. Two miles away, right down off the mountains, there is a small coal-field and a quarry of limestone. In a distant part of the country there are large tracts of land where coal and iron pits are sunk on every side, and their desolate and barren pit-banks extend for miles round, while a heavy cloud of smoke hangs always in the air. But here, just at the foot of these mountains, there is one little seam of coal, as if placed for the express use of these people, living so far away from the larger coal-fields. The Botfield lime and coal works cover only a few acres of the surface; but underground there are long passages bored beneath the pleasant pastures and the yellow cornfields. From the mountains, Botfield looks rather like a great blot upon the fair landscape, with its blackened engine-house and banks of coal-dust, its long range of limekilns, sultry and quivering in the summer sunshine, and its heavy, groaning water-wheel, which pumps up the water from the pits below. But the colliers do not think it so, nor their wives in the scattered village beyond; they do not consider the lime and coal works a blot, for their living depends upon them, and they may rightly say, 'As for the earth, out of it cometh bread: and under it is turned up as it were fire.'
Even Stephen Fern, who would a thousand times rather work out on the free hill-side than in the dark passages underground, does not think it a pity that the Botfield pit has been discovered at the foot of the mountains. It is nearly seven o'clock in the evening, and he is coming over the brow of the green dell, with his long shadow stretching down it. A very long shadow it is for so small a figure to cast, for if we wait a minute or two till Stephen draws nearer, we shall see that he is no strong, large man, but a slight, thin, stooping boy, bending rather wearily under a sack of coals, which he is carrying on his shoulders, and pausing now and then to wipe his heated forehead with the sleeve of his collier's flannel jacket. When he lifts up the latch of his home we will enter with him, and see the inside of the hut at Fern's Hollow.
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Page created 21 November 2002 and last updated 21 November 2002
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