The Boy with the Woolpack
How Robert Edrupt Journeyed with the Wool-Merchants to London
I N the reign of King Henry II., when as yet there were no factories, no railways or even coaches, no post-offices and no tea-tables in England, a boy sat on a hillside not far from Salisbury Plain, with a great bale of wool by his side. It was not wrapped in paper; it was packed close and very skillfully bound together with cords, lengthwise and crosswise, making a network of packthread all over it. The boy's name was Robert Edrupt, but in the tiny village where he was born he had always been called Hob. He had been reared by his grandfather, a shepherd, and now the old shepherd was dead and he was going to seek his fortune.
The old grandmother, Dame Lysbeth, was still alive, but there was not much left for her to live on. She had a few sheep and a little garden, chickens, a beehive, and one field; and she and her grandson had decided that he should take the wool, which was just ready for market when the sudden death of the shepherd took place, and ask the dealers when they came by if they would not take him with them to London. Now he was waiting, as near the road as he could get, listening hard for the tinkle of their horse-bells around the shoulder of the down.
The road would not really be called a road to-day. It was a track, trodden out about half way up the slope of the valley in some parts of it, and now and then running along the top of the long, low hills that have been called downs as long as the memory of man holds a trace of them. Sometimes it would make a sharp twist to cross the shallows of a stream, for there were scarcely any bridges in the country. In some places it was wide enough for a regiment, and but faintly marked; in others it was bitten deep into the hillside and so narrow that three men could hardly have gone abreast upon it. But it did not need to be anything more than a trail, or bridle-path, because no wagons went that way,—only travelers afoot or a-horseback. At some seasons there would be wayfarers all along the road from early in the morning until sunset, and they would even be found camping by the wayside; at other times of the year one might walk for hours upon it and meet nobody at all. Robert had been sitting where he was for about three hours; and he had walked between four and five miles, woolpack on his shoulder, before he reached the road; he had risen before the sun that morning. Now he began to wonder if the wool-merchants had already gone by. It was late in the season, and if they had, there was hardly any hope of sending the wool to market this year.
But worry never worked aught, as the saying is, and people who take care of sheep seem to worry less than others; there are many things that they cannot change, and they are kept busy attending to their flocks. Robert, who did not intend to be called Hob any more, took from his pouch some coarse bread and cheese and began munching it, for by the sun it was the dinner-hour—nine o'clock. Meanwhile he made sure that the silver penny in the corner of the pouch, which hung at his girdle and served him for a pocket, was safe. It was. It was about the size of a modern halfpenny and had a cross on one side. A penny such as this could be cut in quarters, and each piece passed as a coin.
Just as the last bit of bread and cheese vanished there came, from far away over the fern, the jingle‑jink‑jing of strings of bells on the necks of pack-horses. A few minutes later the shaggy head and neck of the leader came in sight. They were strong, not very big horses; and while they were not built for racing, they were quick walkers. They could travel over rough country at a very good pace, even when, as they now were, loaded heavily with packs of wool. Robert stood up, his heart beating fast: he had never seen them so close before. The merchants were laughing and talking and seemed to be in a good humor, and he hoped very much that they would speak to him.
"Ho!" said the one who rode nearest to him, "here's another, as I live. Did you grow out of the ground, and have you roots like the rest of them, bumpkin?"
Robert bowed; he was rather angry, but this was no time to answer back. "I have wool to sell, so please you," he said, "and—and—if you be in need of a horse-boy, I would work my passage to London."
The man who had spoken frowned and pulled at his beard, but the leader, who had been talking to some one behind him, now turned his face toward Robert. He was a kindly-looking, ruddy-cheeked old fellow, with eyes as sharp as the stars on a winter night that is clear.
"Hum!" he said genially. "Who are you, and why are you so fond to go to London, young sheep-dog?"
Robert told his story, as short and straight as he could, for he could see that some of the merchants were impatient. This was only one pack of wool, and at the next market-town they would probably find enough to load all the rest of their train of horses, when they could push straight on to London and get their money. "If you desire to know further of what I say," the boy ended his speech, "the landlord of the Woolpack will tell you that our fleeces are as fine and as heavy as any in the market, so please you, master."
"Hum!" the wool-merchant said again. "Give him one of the spare nags, Gib, and take up the pack, lad, for we must be getting on. What if I find thee a liar and send thee back from the inn, hey?"
"If I be a liar, I will go," said Robert joyfully, and he climbed on the great horse, and the whole company went trotting briskly onward.
Robert found that in course of time, however, that when we have got what we want, it is not always what we like most heartily. He had been on a horse before, but had never ridden for any length of time, and riding all day long on the hard-paced pack-horses over hill and valley was no play. Then, when they reached the town, and the merchants began to joke and trade with the shepherds who had brought in their wool for market-day, and all the people of the inn were bustling about getting supper, he had to help Gib and Jack, the horse-boys, to rub down the horses, take off their packs, and feed and water them. He nearly got into a terrible pickle for not knowing that you must not water a horse that has been traveling for hours until it has had at least half an hour to rest and cool off. When he finally did get his supper, a bowl of hot stew and some bread and cheese,—and extremely good it tasted,—it was time for bed. He and the other serving-lads had to sleep on the woolpacks piled in the open courtyard of the inn, which was build in a hollow square,—two-story buildings and stables around the square court where the horses and baggage were left. This did not trouble Robert, however. He had slept on the open hillside more than once, and it was a clear night; he could see Arthur's Wain shining among the other stars, and hear the horses, not far away, contentedly champing their grain.
The next morning he woke up lame and weary, but that wore off after a time. Nobody in the company paid attention to aching muscles; what was occupying the minds of the traffickers was the fear of getting the wool to London too late to secure their price for it. Italian and Flemish merchants had their agents there, buying up the fleeces from the great flocks of the abbeys, and Master Hardel had taken his company further west than usual, this year. No stop would be made after this, except to eat and sleep, for the horses were now loaded with all that they could carry.
On the second night, it rained, and every one was wet,—not as wet as might be supposed, however, considering that no umbrellas and no rubber coats existed. Each man wore instead of a hat a pointed hood, with a cape, the front turned back from his eyes. By folding the cape around him he could keep off the worst of the rain, for the cloth had a shaggy nap, and was close-woven as well. On legs and feet were long woolen hose which dried when the sun came out; and some had leathern tunics under their cloaks.
It was rather jolly on the road, even in the rain. The dark-bearded man, who was called Jeffrey, knew numberless tales and songs, and when he could turn a jest on any of the party he invariably did. No one took any especial notice of Robert, except that the man called Gib shifted as much of his own work on him as possible, and sometimes, when they were riding in the rear, grumbled viciously about the hard riding and small pay. There is usually one person of that sort in any company of travelers.
Robert minded neither the hard work nor Gib's scolding. He was as strong as a young pony, and he was seeing the world, of which he had dreamed through many a long, thyme-scented day on the Downs, with soft little noises of sheep cropping turf all about him as he lay. What London would be like he could not quite make out, for as yet he had seen no town of more than a thousand people.
At last, near sunset, somebody riding ahead raised a shout and flung up his arm, and all knew that they were within sight of London—London, the greatest city in England, with more than a hundred churches inside its towered city wall. They pushed the horses hard, hoping to reach the New Gate before eight o'clock, but it was of no use. They were still nearly a mile from the walls when the far sound of bells warned them that they were too late. They turned back and stayed their steps at an inn called the Shepherd's Bush, out on the road to the west country over which the drovers and the packmen came. A long pole over the door had on its end a bunch of green boughs and red berries—the "bush" told them that ale was to be had within. The landlord was a West Country man, and Robert found to his joy that the landlord's old father had known Colin Edrupt the shepherd and Dame Lysbeth, and danced at their wedding, nearly half a century before.
Next morning, with the sun still in their eyes as they trotted briskly Londonward, they came to the massive gray wall, with the Fleet, a deep swift river, flowing down beside it to the Thames. They were waiting outside the New Gate when the watchmen swung open the great doors, and the crowd of travelers, traders and country folk began to push in. The men with the woolpacks kept together, edging through the narrow streets that sloped downward to the river where the tall ships were anchored. The jingle of the bridle-bells, that rang so loud and merrilly over the hills, was quite drowned out in the racket of the city streets where armorers were hammering, horsemen crowding, tradesmen shouting, and business of every sort was going on. Robert had somehow supposed that London would be on a great level encircled by hills, but he found with surprise that it was itself on a hill, crowned by the mighty cathedral St. Paul's, longer than Winchester, with a steeple that seemed climbing to pierce the clouds. At last the shaggy laden horses came to a halt at a warehouse by the river, where a little, dried-up-looking man in odd garments looked the wool over and agreed with Master Hardel on the price which he would pay. Robert could not understand a word of the conversation, for the wholesale merchant was a Hollander from Antwerp, and when he had loaded his ship with the wool it would go to Flanders to be made into fine cloth. Robert was so busy watching the transactions that when the master spoke to him it made him jump.
"Here is the money for thy wool, my lad," the old man said kindly. "Hark 'ee, if you choose to ride with us again, meet me at Shepherd's Bush on the sixth day hence, and you shall have that good-for-naught Gib's place. And keep thy money safe; this is a place of thieves."
That was how Robert Edrupt rode from the West Country and settled in his mind that some day he would himself be a wool-merchant.