Edwitha's Little Bowl
How Edwitha Found Roman Pottery in the Field of a Sussex Farm
U NDER a hawthorn bush, near a white road leading up a hill, in sight of a thatch-roofed farmhouse, two little girls were playing house. Their names were Edwitha and Audrey, and they were cousins. Audrey's father lived in the farmhouse and kept sheep on the Downs, and Edwitha had also lived there nearly all her life. Her father had been lost at sea, and her mother had brought her back to the old home, and died not long after. The two girls had grown up like sisters, for the farmer was not a man who did things by halves, and when he adopted his brother's orphan child he made her his own.
The two children were almost exactly of a size, and within a year of the same age; and both had the milky skin and rose-pink cheeks which make English children look so like flowers. But Audrey's hair was yellow as ripe wheat, and Edwitha's was brown like an oak-leaf in autumn; Audrey's eyes were gray, and Edwitha's were dark and dreamy. They wore homespun linen gowns off the same web of watchet blue, and little clumsy leather shoes like sandals, made by the village shoemaker. This particular place was their favorite play-house. There were two hollows, like dimples in the hill, and the bush bent over one like a roof, while the other had been roofed over by a neighbor-lad, Wilfrid. He had stuck saplings into the ground, bent the tops over and woven branches in and out to hold them. They took root and came out in fine leaf. Wilfrid had seen something like it in a garden, where a walk was roofed in this way and called a "pleached alley." It looked like a bird's nest built on the ground, but it was a very nice little bower.
At this particular hour they were making ready for a feast, setting out the eatables on all their best bits of crockery. Whatever was broken in the house was likely to come to them, and besides this, they found a good many pieces of pottery of different kinds on the farm. This had been, a thousand years before, a part of a Roman governor's country estate. When the men were plowing they often turned up scraps of bronze, tiles, or dishes that had been all that time buried in the earth.
Edwitha was especially fond of the tiles; and she had collected almost enough of them to make a little hearth. The one she intended for the middle had a picture in colors of a little brown rabbit sitting on the grass, nibbling a carrot, with a blue flower and a yellow one growing close by. It was almost whole—only one corner was broken.
Edwitha's dishes were nearly all of the old Roman ware. The fragments were deep red, and some had little black figures and decorations on them. No two fitted together, and there were no pieces large enough for her to make out what the dish had been like. She used to wonder what sort of people had used those dishes, and whether they lived very differently from the Sussex people who came after them. It seemed as if they must have. No dishes made nowadays had any such appearance.
Audrey did not care about such matters. She preferred a bowl and jug she had which came from the pottery, and were whole and would hold milk and honey. When the two girls ate their dinner in their bower, as they sometimes did, they used little wooden bowls with horn spoons.
Wilfrid was the only person Edwitha knew, besides herself, who was at all interested in the unearthed pottery. He had brought her some of the best pieces she had, and had asked the priest at the village whether he knew who had made such things. Father Cuthbert knew that there had been Romans in England, and he told Wilfrid some Roman history, but there was nothing in it about the way in which the Romans really lived.
The very road that ran past the bower had been made by the Romans. It gave its name to the farm—Borstall Farm. It was a track cut deep into the chalk of the hill, not more than ten feet wide, leading to the camp which had once been on the top of the Down. Nothing was there now but the sheep and the gorse and the short, sweet grass of the Downs. On a level terrace-like break in the hillside, overlooking the valley, a Roman villa had stood, a great house with white porticoes, marble columns, tiled floors and painted walls. Mosaic pictures of the gods had been a part of its decorations, and if any one had known it, those buried gods were under the hillside quite uninjured—so firm and strong was the Roman cement, and so thorough the work. Hundreds of guests and relatives and servants had come and gone in the stately palace of the provincial Governor; the farm lands around it had been tilled by hundreds of peasants in its two hundred years of splendor. No wonder there were so many fragments! A great many dishes can be broken in two centuries.
Pincher, the old sheep-dog, had been invited to the feast in the bower, but when it was ready he was busy elsewhere. Edwitha went looking for him, and after she had called several times she heard his answering "Wuff! Wuff!" and caught sight of him down among the brambles at the boundary-line of the next farmstead. He came leaping toward her, and as she looked at the place where he had been, she saw that a piece of the bank had slid into a rabbit-burrow, and something red was sticking out of the earth. It was a little red bowl.
No such bowls are made in these days. They are never seen except on a shelf in some museum. Wise men have called them "Samian ware," because they have been found on the island of Samos, but as some of this ware has been found wherever the Romans went in Gaul or Britain, it would seem that they must have had some secret process in their potteries and made it out of ordinary clay.
The bowl was deep red, and beautifully smooth. Around it was a band of little dancing figures in jet black, so lifelike that it almost seemed as if such figures might come out of the copse and dance away down the hill. Edwitha took some leaves and rubbed off the clay that stuck to the bowl, and the cleaner she made it the prettier it was. Very carefully she carried it back to the bower to show Audrey.
Half way there, a dreadful thought came to her. What if Audrey should want the bowl? It was quite perfect—the only whole one they had found—and Audrey always liked things that were whole, not broken or nicked, better than any sort of imperfect ones. Certainly they could not both have it.
Edwitha came to a stop, and stood quite still, thinking about it. She knew a place, under the roots of an old tree, where she could keep the bowl, and go and look at it when she was alone, and no one would know that she had it. If Audrey wanted the bowl, and took it, she might let it get broken, and then she would be willing that Edwitha should have it; but that would be worse than not having it at all. Edwitha felt as if she could not bear to have anything happen to the pretty thing. It already seemed like something alive—like a strange, mute person whom nobody understood but herself. She was the only person who really wanted it, and she knew that it wanted her.
But under these thoughts which pushed unbidden into Edwitha's mind was her own feeling that it was a meanness even to think them. She and Audrey had all their lives done things together, and Audrey always shared. She always played fair.
Edwitha took the bowl in both hands and walked straight and very fast up to the bower.
"Audrey," she said, holding out the bowl, "see what I found."
Audrey looked at it.
"That's like your other dishes, isn't it?" she commented. "Only it is whole. It is just the thing for the dewberries. They will be prettier than in the basket."
Edwitha set the bowl in the middle of the table and poured the shining dark fruit into it. It did look pretty, and it had a mat of green oak-leaves under it which made it prettier still. Audrey began sticking white blossoms round the edge to set off the red and green.
"I'm glad you found it," she added placidly; "you haven't one dish that is quite whole, and I have a blue one, and a white one, and a jug."
Edwitha touched the bowl caressingly with the tips of her fingers. "I will try to find another for you," she said.
"If you find any more," answered Audrey, pushing Pincher away from the dish of cold meat, "you can have them. I'd rather have our dishes in sets, I think."
Edwitha was poking about in the bank where she had found the bowl, late that afternoon, when Wilfrid came up the bank. There seemed to be no more dishes in sight.
"What have you found?" asked Wilfrid. He held it up in the sunlight, and drew a quick breath of delight. "How beautiful it is!" he exclaimed in a low voice.
Edwitha was silent. She was filled with a great happiness because she had the bowl.
"I wonder how it came to be here," mused Wilfrid, and fell to digging and prodding the earth.
"There isn't another in the hole," said Edwitha. "I've been here a long time."
"This is the only bit I ever saw that was found just here. But see here, Edwitha, this is clay. It is exactly the clay they use at the pottery down by the ford, but finer—I think. I tell you—I believe there was a pottery here once."
He and Edwitha took the bowl and a few lumps of the clay, next morning, to the Master Potter beyond the village. Wilfrid had served his apprenticeship at this pottery and was now a journeyman. The clay proved to be finer and more workable than that near the pottery, and the deposit was close to the high road, so that donkeys and pack-horses could come up easily to be loaded with their earthen pots. It was even possible, so the Master Potter said, that it would make a better grade of ware than they had been able to make hitherto. Finally, and most important from the point of view of Wilfrid and Edwitha, it was on Wilfrid's own farm, he had his mother to support, and this discovery might make it possible for him to have his own pottery and be a Master Potter.
Edwitha often wished that the bowl could speak, and tell her how it was made, and who drew the little dancing figures. In course of time Wilfrid tried some experiments with pottery, ornamenting it with figures in white clay on the colored ground, and searching continually for new and better methods of glazing, baking, and modeling his wares. At last, when the years of his apprenticeship had all been served, and he knew everything that was taught in the old Sussex pottery by the ford, he came one spring twilight to the farmhouse and found Edwitha in the garden.
"It is no use," he said, half-laughing. "I shall never be content to settle down here until I have seen what they are doing in other lands. If there is anywhere a man who can teach things like that bowl of yours, I must learn what he can teach me. It may be that the secret has been lost—if it has, I will come back and work here again. A man was never meant to do less than his best, Edwitha."
"I know," said Edwitha. "Those figures make me feel so too. They always did. I don't want to live anywhere but here—and now Audrey has gone away, uncle and aunt could never do without me —but I wish we could make beautiful things in England."
"Some of the clever ones are in England," Wilfrid answered. "They are doing good work in glass, I know, and in carven stone, and some other things, but that is mostly for the rich abbeys. I shall never be aught but a potter—but I will be as good a one as I can."
Therefore Wilfrid took scrip and staff and went on pilgrimage to France, and there he saw things which made him sure that men had not lost the love of beauty out of the world. But he could hear of no master potters who made anything like the deep red Roman ware. After a year of wandering he came back, full of new plans, and with many tales to tell; but he told Edwitha that in all his travels he had seen nothing which was better looking at than her little Roman bowl.