Gateway to the Classics: In the Days of the Guild by Louise Lamprey
In the Days of the Guild by  Louise Lamprey

A Dyke in the Danelaw

How David le Saumond Changed the Course of an Ancient Nuisance

F ARMER APPLEBY was in what he called a fidget. He did not look nervous, and was not. But the word, along with several others he sometimes used, had come down to him from Scandinavian forefathers. The very name with its ending "by" showed that his farm was a part of the Danelaw.

Along the coast, and in the part of England fronting the North Sea, Danish invaders had imposed their own laws and customs on the country, and were strong enough to hold their own even in the face of a Saxon King. It was only a few years since the Danegeld, the tax collected from all England to ward off the raids of Danish sea-rovers, had been abolished. But Ralph Appleby was as good an Englishman as any.

Little by little the Danelaw was yielding to the common law of England, but that did not worry an Appleby. He did not trouble the law courts, nor did they molest him. The cause of his fidget was a certain law of nature by which water seeks the shortest way down. One side of his farm lay along the river. Like most of the Danish, Norse, Icelandic or Swedish colonists, his long-ago ancestor had settled on a little river in a marsh. First he made camp on an island; then he built a house on the higher bank. Then the channel on the near side of the island filled up, and he planted the rich soil that the river had brought with orchards, and pastured fat cattle in the meadows. Three hundred years later the Applebys owned one of the most prosperous farms in the neighborhood.

Now and then, however, the river remembered that it had a claim on that land. The soil, all bound and matted with tough tree-roots and quitch-grass, could not be washed away, but the waters took their toll in produce. The year before the orchards had been flooded and two-thirds of the crop floated off. A day or two later, when the flood subsided, the apples were left to fatten Farmer Kettering's hogs, rooting about on the next farm. Hob Kettering's stubborn little Saxon face was all a-grin when he met Barty Appleby and told of it. It speaks well for the friendship of the two boys that there was not a fight on the spot.

That was not all. The stone dyke between the river and the lowlands had been undermined by the tearing current, and must be rebuilt, and there were no stone-masons in the neighborhood. Each farmer did his own repairing as well as he could. The houses were of timber, plaster, some brick and a little rude masonry. There were not enough good masons in the country to supply the demand, and even in building castles and cathedrals the stone was sometimes brought, ready cut, from France. In some parts of England the people used stone from old Roman walls, or built on old foundations, but in Roman times this farm had been under water in the marsh. The building of Lincoln Cathedral meant a procession of stone-barges going up the river loaded with stone for the walls, quarried in Portland or in France. When landed it was carried up the steep hill to the site of the building, beyond reach of floods that might sap foundations. It was slow work building cathedrals in marsh lands.

The farmer was out in his boat now, poling up and down along the face of the crumbling wall, trying to figure on the amount of stone that would be needed. He never picked a stone out of his fields that was not thrown on a heap for possible wall-building, but most of them were small. It would take several loads to replace what the river had stolen—and then the whole thing might sink into the mud in a year or two.

"Hech, master!" said a voice overhead "Are ye wantin' a stone-mason just now?"

Ralph Appleby looked up. On the little bridge, peering down, was a freckled, high-cheek-boned man with eyes as blue as his own, and with a staff in one big, hard-muscled hand. He wore a rough, shabby cloak of ancient fashion and had a bundle on his shoulder.

"I should say I be," said the surprised farmer. "Be you wanting the job?"

The stranger was evidently a Scot, from his speech, and Scots were not popular in England then. Still, if he could build a wall he was worth day's wages. "What's yer name?" Appleby added.

"Just David," was the answer. I'm frae Dunedin. There's muckle stone work there."

"I make my guess they've better stuff for building than that pile o' pebbles," muttered the farmer, leaping ashore and kicking with his foot the heap of stone on the bank. "I've built that wall over again three times, now."

The newcomer grinned, not doubtfully but confidently, as if he knew exactly what the trouble was. "We'll mend all that," he said, striding down to peer along the water-course. The wriggling stream looked harmless enough now.

"You've been in England some time?" queried Appleby.

"Aye," said David. "I learned my trade overseas and then I came to the Minster, but I didna stay long. Me and the master mason couldna make our ideas fit."

Barty, sorting over the stones, gazed awestruck at the stranger. Such independence was unheard-of.

"What seemed to be the hitch?" asked the farmer coolly.

"He was too fond o'making rubble serve for buildin' stone," said David. "Then he'd face it with Portland ashlars to deceive the passer-by."

"Ye'll have not cause to worry over that here," said Ralph Appleby dryly. "I'm not using ashlars or whatever ye call them, in my orchard wall. Good masonry will do."

"Ashlar means a building stone cut and dressed," explained David. "I went along that wall of yours before you came. If you make a culvert up stream with a stone-arched bridge in place of the ford yonder, ye'll divert the course of the waters from your land."

"If I put a bridge over the Wash, I could make a weir to catch salmon," said the startled farmer. "I've no cut stone for arches."

"We'll use good mortar and plenty of it, that's all," said David. "I'll show ye."

The things that David accomplished with rubble, or miscellaneous scrap-stone, seemed like magic to Barty. He trotted about at the heels of the mason, got very tired and delightfully dirty, asked numberless questions, which were always answered, and considered David the most interesting man he had ever met. David solved the building-stone problem by concocting mortar after a recipe of his own and using plenty of it between selected stones. Sometimes there seemed to be almost as much mortar as there was stone, but the wedge-shaped pieces were so fitted that the greater the pressure on the arch the firmer it would be. Laborers were set to work digging a channel to let the stream through this gully under the arches, and it seemed glad to go.

"When I'm a man, David," announced Barty, lying over the bridge-rail on his stomach and looking down at the waters that tore through the new channel, "I shall be a mason just like you. The river can't get our apples now, can it?"

David grinned. "Water never runs up hill," he said. "And it will run down hill if it takes a thousand years. You learn that first, if you want to be a mason, lad."

"But everybody knows that," Barty protested.

"Two and two mak' four, but if you and me had twa aipples each, and I ate one o' mine, and pit the ither with yours to mak' fower and you didna find it out it wad be a sign ye didna know numbers," retorted David, growing more and more Scotch as he explained. "And when I see a mason lay twa-three stones to twa-three mair and fill in the core wi' rubble I ken he doesna reckon on the water seeping in."

"But you've put rubble in those arches, David," said Barty, using his eyes to help his argument.

"Spandrel, spandrel, ye loon," grunted David. "Ye'll no learn to be a mason if ye canna mind the names o' things. The space between the arch and the beam's filled wi' rubble and good mortar, but the weight doesna rest on that—it's mostly on the arches where we used the best of our stanes. And there's no great travel ower the brig forbye. It's different with a cathedral like yon. Ye canna build siccan a mighty wall wi' mortar alone. The water's aye searchin' for a place to enter. When the rocks freeze under the foundations they crumble where the water turns to ice i' the seams. When the rains come the water'll creep in if we dinna make a place for it to rin awa' doon the wa.' That's why we carve the little drip-channels longways of the arches, ye see. A wall's no better than the weakest stane in it, lad, and when you've built her you guard her day and night, summer and winter, frost, fire and flood, if you want her to last. And a Minster like York or Lincoln—the sound o' the hammer about her walls winna cease till Judgment Day."

Barty looked rather solemnly at the little, solid, stone-arched bridge, and the stone-walled culvert. While it was a-building David had explained that if the stream overflowed here it would be over the reedy meadows near the river, which would be none the worse for a soaking. The orchards and farm lands were safe. The work that they had done seemed to link itself in the boy's mind to cathedral towers and fortress-castles and the dykes of Flanders of which David had told.

The loose stone from the ruined wall was used to finish a wall in a new place, across the corner of the land by which the river still flowed. This would make a wharf for the boats.

"This mortar o' yours might ha' balked the Flood o' Noah, belike," said Farmer Appleby, when they were mixing the last lot.

"I wasna there, and I canna say," said David. "But there's a way to lay the stones that's worth knowing for a job like this. Let's see if ye ken your lesson, young chap."

David's amusement at Barty's intense interest in the work had changed to genuine liking. The boy showed a judgment in what he did, which pleased the mason. He had always built walls and dams with the stones he gathered when his father set him at work. His favorite playground was the stone-heap. Now he laid selected stones so deftly and skillfully that the tiny wall he was raising was almost as firm as it mortar had been used.

"You lay the stones in layers or courses," he explained, "the stretcher stones go lengthwise of the wall and the headstones with the end on the face of the wall, and you lay first one and then the other, 'cordin' as you want them. When the big stones and the little ones are fitted so that the top of the layer is pretty level it's coursed rubble, and that's better than just building anyhow."

"What wey is better?" interposed David.

Barty pondered. "It looks better anyhow. And then, if you want to put cut stone, or beams, on top, you're all ready. Besides, it takes some practice to lay a wall that way, and you might as well be practicing all you can."

The two men chuckled. A part of this, of course, Farmer Appleby already knew, but he had never explained to Barty.

The boy went on. "The stones ought to be fitted so that the face of the wall is laid to a true line. If you slope it a little it's stronger, because that makes it wider at the bottom. But if you slope it too much the water won't run off and the snow will lie. If you've got any big stones put them where they will do the most good, 'cause you want the wall to be strong everywhere. A bigger stone that is pretty square, like this, can be a bond stone, and if you use one here and there it holds the wall together. David says the English gener'lly build a stone wall with a row of headers and then a row of stretchers, but in Flanders they lay a header and then a stretcher in every row."

"How many loads of stone will it take for this wall?" asked David. Barty hesitated, measured with his eye, and then made a guess. "How much mortar?" He guessed again. The estimate was so near Farmer Appleby's own figures that he was betrayed into a whistle of surprise.

"He's gey canny for a lad," said David, grinning. "He's near wise as me. We've been at that game for a month."

"Never lat on, but aye lat owre,

Twa and twa they aye mak' fowre."

Barty quoted a rhyme from David.

"I reckon you've earned over and above your pay," said Farmer Appleby. He foresaw the usefulness of all this lore when Barty was a little older. The boy could direct a gang of heavy-handed laborers nearly as well as he could.

"Any mason that's worth his salt will dae that," said David, unconcernedly.

Barty was experimenting with his stone-laying when a hunting-party of strangers came down the bridle-path from the fens, where they had been hawking for a day. The fame of the Appleby culvert had spread through the country, and people often came to look at it, so that no one was surprised. The leader of the group was a middle-aged stout man, with close-clipped reddish hair, a full curly beard and a masterful way of speaking; he had a bow in his hand, and paced to and fro restlessly even when he was talking.

"Who taught you to build walls, my boy?" asked a young man with bright eyes and a citole over his shoulder.

"David," said Barty. "He's a Scot. When he was in France they called him David Saumond because of his leaping. He can dance fine."

"And who taught David?" inquired the stranger.

"The birds," Barty answered with a grin. "There's a song."

"Let's have it," laughed the minstrel, and Barty sang.

"I gaed awa' to Holyrood, and there I bug a kirk,

And a' the birds o' a' the air they helpit me to work.

The whaaup wi' her lang bill she pried out the stane,

The dove wi' her short bill she brought them hame,

The pyet was a wily bird and bug up the wa',

The corby was a silly bird and pu'd it down ava,

And then cam' auld Tod Lowrie and skelpit them a'."

"What's all that, Ranulph?" queried the masterful man, pausing in his walk. Ranulph translated, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, for there was more in the song than Barty knew. Each of the birds stood for one or another of the Scotch lords who had figured in the recent trouble between William of Scotland and the English King, and Tod Lowrie is the popular Scotch name for the red fox. It is not every king who cares to hear himself called a fox to his face, even if he behaves like one. David and Farmer Appleby, coming through the orchard, were rather aghast.

As they came to a halt, and made proper obeisance to their superiors, the King addressed David in Norman such as the common folk used.

"So you hold it folly to pull down a wall? There's not one stone left on another in Milan since Frederick Barbarossa took the city."

"Ou ay," said David coolly. "If he had to build it up again he'd no be so blate, I'm thinkin'."

The King laughed and so did the others. "I wish I had had you seven years ago," he said, "when we dyked the Loire. There were thirty miles of river bank at Angers, flooded season after season, when a well-built river wall would have saved the ruin. A man that can handle rubble in a marsh like this ought to be doing something better."

"I learned my trade on that dyke," said David. "They Norman priors havena all learned theirs yet. I was at the Minster yonder, and if I'd built my piers like they said, the water would ha' creppit under in ten years' time."

"And in ten years, that Prior hopes to be Archbishop without doubt," said the King with a shrug. "Was that all?"

"Nay," said David. "Their ashlars are set up for vanity and to be seen o' men. Ye must have regard to the disposition of the building-stone when ye build for good an' all. It doesna like to be stood up just anyhow. Let it lie as it lay in the quarry, and it's content."

Barty was watching the group, his blue eyes blazing and the apple-red color flushing his round cheeks. The King was talking to David as if he were pleased, and David, though properly respectful, was not in the least afraid. The Plantagenets were a race of building Kings. They all knew a master mason when they saw him.

"So you changed the ancient course of the flood into that culvert, did you?" the King inquired, with a glance at the new channel.

"Aye," said David. "No man can rule the waters of the heavens, and it's better to dyke a flood than to dam it, if ye can." The King, with a short laugh, borrowed tablet and ink-horn from his scribe and made a note or two.

"When I find a Scotch mason with an English apprentice building Norman arches in the Danelaw," said Henry, "it is time to set him building for England. I hear that William, whom they call the Englishman, is at work in Canterbury. When you want work you may give him this, and by the sight of God have a care that there is peace among the building-stones."


'It is time to set him building for England.'

David must have done so, for on one of the stones in a world-famed cathedral may be seen the mason's mark of David le Saumond and the fish which is his token.

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