Mad Shepherds, and Other Human Studies

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LL.D., F.R.S.


From a Drawing by L. Leslie Brooke




There is nothing that so embases and enthralls the Souls of men, as the dismall and dreadfull thoughts of their own Mortality, which will not suffer them to look beyond this short span of Time, to see an houres length before them, or to look higher than these material Heavens; which though they could be stretch’d forth to infinity, yet would the space be too narrow for an enlightened mind, that will not be confined within the compass of corporeal dimensions. These black Opinions of Death and the Non-entity of Souls (darker than Hell it self) shrink up the free-born Spirit which is within us, which would otherwise be dilating and spreading it self boundlessly beyond all Finite Being: and when these sorry pinching mists are once blown away, it finds this narrow sphear of Being to give way before it; and having once seen beyond Time and Matter, it finds then no more ends nor bounds to stop its swift and restless motion. It may then fly upwards from one heaven to another, till it be beyond all orbe of Finite Being, swallowed up in the boundless Abyss of Divinity, [Greek: hyperanô tês ousias], beyond all that which darker thoughts are wont to represent under the Idea of Essence. This is that [Greek: theion skotos] which the Areopagite speaks of, which the higher our Minds soare into, the more incomprehensible they find it. Those dismall apprehensions which pinion the Souls of men to mortality, churlishly check and starve that noble life thereof, which would alwaies be rising upwards, and spread it self in a free heaven: and when once the Soul hath shaken off these, when it is once able to look through a grave, and see beyond death, it finds a vast Immensity of Being opening it self more and more before it, and the ineffable light and beauty thereof shining more and more into it.

Select Discourses of John Smith,
the Cambridge Platonist, 1660.




Among the four hundred human beings who peopled our parish there were two notable men and one highly gifted woman. All three are dead, and lie buried in the churchyard of the village where they lived. Their graves form a group—unsung by any poet, but worthy to be counted among the resting-places of the mighty.

The woman was Mrs. Abel, the Rector’s wife. None of us knew her origin—I doubt if she knew it herself: beyond her husband and children, assignable relatives she had none.

“Sie war nicht in dem Tal geboren,
Man wusste nicht woher sie kam.”

Her husband met her many years ago at a foreign watering-place, and married her there after a week’s acquaintance—much to the scandal of his family, for the lady was an actress not unknown to fame. Their only consolation was that she had a considerable fortune—the fruit of her professional work.

In all relevant particulars this strange venture had proved a huge success. To leave the fever of the stage for the quiet life of the village had been to Mrs. Abel like the escape of a soul from the flames of purgatory. She had rightly discerned that the Rev. Edward Abel was a man of large heart, high character, and excellent wit—partly clergyman, but mostly man. He, on his part, valued his wife, and his judgment was backed by every humble soul in the village. But the bigwigs of the county, and every clergyman’s wife within a radius of ten miles, were of another mind. She had not been “proper” to begin with—at least, they said so; and as time went on she took no pains to be more “proper” than she was at first. Her improprieties, so far as I could ever learn, arose from nothing more heinous than her possession of an intelligence more powerful and a courage more daring than that to which any of her neighbours could lay claim. Her outspokenness was a stumbling-block to many; and the offence of speaking her mind was aggravated by the circumstance, not always present at such times, that she had a mind to speak. To quote the language in which Farmer Perryman once explained the situation to me: “She’d given all on ’em a taste o’ the whip, and with some on ’em she’d peppered and salted the sore place into the bargain.” Moreover, she sided with many things that a clergyman’s wife ought to oppose: took all sorts of undesirables under her protection, helped those whom everybody else wanted to punish, threw good discretion to the winds, and sometimes mixed in undertakings which no “lady” ought to touch. To all this she added the impertinence of regular attendance at church, where she recited the Creeds in a rich voice that almost drowned her husband’s, turning punctually to the East and bowing at the Sacred Name. That she was a hypocrite trying to save her face was, of course, obvious to every Scribe and Pharisee in the county. But the poor of Deadborough preferred her hypocrisy to the virtuous simplicity of her critics.

Mrs. Abel is too great a subject for such humble portraiture as I can attempt, and she will henceforth appear in these pages only as occasion requires. It is time that we turn to the men.

The first of these was Robert Dellanow, known far and wide as “Snarley Bob,” head shepherd to Sam Perryman of the Upper Farm. I say, the first; for it was he who had the pre-eminence, both as to intelligence and the tragic antagonisms of his life. The man had many singularities, singular at least in shepherds. Perhaps the chief of these was the violence of the affinities and repulsions that broke forth from him towards every personality with whom he came into any, even the slightest, contact. Snarley invariably loved or hated at first sight, or rather at first sound, for he was strangely sensitive to the tones of a human voice. If, as seldom happened, your voice and presence chanced to strike the responsive chord, Snarley became your devoted slave on the spot; the heavy, even brutal, expression that his face often wore passed off like a cloud; you were in the Mount of Transfiguration, and it seemed that Elijah or one of the prophets had come back to earth. If, as was more likely, your manner repelled him, he would show signs of immediate distress; the animality of his features would become more sinister and forbidding; and if, undaunted by the first repulse, you continued to press your attentions upon him, he would presently break out into an ungovernable paroxysm of rage, accompanied by startling language and even by threats of violence, which drove offenders headlong from his presence. In these outbursts he was unrestrained by rank, age, or sex—indeed, his antipathies to certain women were the most violent of all. Curiously enough, it was the presence of humanity of the uncongenial type which alone had power to effect his reversion to the status of the brute. His normal condition was gentle and serene: he was fond of children and certain animals, and he bore the agonies of his old rheumatic limbs without a murmur of complaint.

It was not possible, of course, that such a man, however gifted with intelligence, should “succeed in life.” There were some people who held that he was mad, and proposed that he should be put under restraint; and doubtless they would have gained their end had not Snarley been able to give proofs of his sanity in certain directions such as few men could produce.

Once he had been haled before the magistrate to answer a serious charge of using threats, was fined and compelled to give security for his good behaviour; and it was on this occasion that he narrowly escaped detention as a lunatic. Indeed, I cannot prove that he was sane; but neither could I prove it, if challenged, in regard to myself—a difficulty which the courteous reader, in his own case, will hardly deny that he has to share with me. Mad or sane, it is certain that Snarley, under a kinder Fate, might have been something more splendid than he was. Mystic, star-gazer, dabbler in black or blackish arts, he seemed in his lowly occupation of shepherd to represent some strange miscarriage of Nature’s designs; but Mrs. Abel, who understood the secrets of many hearts, always maintained that Snarley, the breeder of the famous Perryman rams, had found the calling to which he had been fore-ordained from the foundation of the world. Of this the reader must judge from the sequel; for we shall hear much of him anon.

The second man was Tom Hankin, shoemaker. A man of strong contrasts was Tom; an octogenarian when I first knew him, and an atheist, as he proudly boasted, “all his life.” My last interview with him took place a few days before his death, when he knew that he was hovering on the brink of the grave; and it was then that Hankin offered me his complete argument for the non-existence of Deity and the mortality of the soul. Never did dying saint dilate on the raptures of Paradise with greater fervour than that displayed by the old man as he developed his theme. I will not say that Hankin was happy; but he was fierce and unconquered, and totally unafraid. I think also that he was proud—proud, that is, of his ability to hurl defiance into the very teeth of Death. He said that he had always hoped he would be able to die thus; that he had sometimes feared lest in his last illness there should be some weakening towards the end: perhaps his mind would become overclouded, and he would lose grip of his arguments; perhaps he would think that death was something instead of being nothing; perhaps he would be troubled by the thought of impending annihilation. But no, it was all as clear as before, clearer if anything. All that troubled him was “that folks was so blind; that Snarley Bob, in particular, was as obstinate as ever—a man, sir, as ought to ha’ known better; never would listen to no arguments; always shut him up when he tried to reason, and sometimes swore at him; and him with the best head in the whole county, but crammed full of rubbish that was no use to himself nor nobody else, and that nobody could make head nor tail of—no, not even Mrs. Abel, as was always backing him up; and to think of him breedin’ sheep all his life; why, that man, sir, if only he’d learned a bit o’ commonsense reasonin’, might ha’ done wonders, instead o’ wastin’ himself wi’ a lot o’ tomfoolery about stars and spirits, and what all.” Thus he continued to pour forth till a fit of coughing interrupted the torrent.

Hankin was the son of a Chartist, from whom he inherited a small but sufficient collection of books. Tom Paine was there, of course, bearing on every page of him the marks of two generations of Hankin thumbs. He also possessed the works of John Stuart Mill, not excepting the Logic, which he had mastered, even as to the abstruser portions, with a thoroughness such as few professors of the science could boast at the present day. Mill, indeed, was his prophet; and the principle of the Greatest Happiness was his guiding star. Hankin was well abreast of current political questions, and to every one of them he applied his principle and managed by means of it to take a definite side. As he worked at his last he would concentrate his mind on some chosen problem of social reform, and would ponder, with singular pertinacity, the ways and degrees in which alternative solutions of it would affect the happiness of men. He would sometimes spend weeks in meditating thus on a single problem, and, when a solution had been reached according to his method, he made it a regular practice to go down to the Nag’s Head and announce the result, with all the prolixity of its antecedents, over a pot of beer. It was there that I heard Hankin defend “armaments” as conducive to the Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number. Venturing to assail what I thought a preposterous view, I was met by a counter attack of horse, foot, and artillery, so well planned and vigorously sustained that in the end I was utterly beaten from the field. Had Snarley Bob been present, the result would have been different; indeed, there would have been no result to the controversy at all. He would have stopped the argument ab initio by affirming in language of his own, perhaps unprintable, that the whole question was of not the slightest importance to anybody; that “them as built the ships, because someone had argued ’em into doing it, were fools, and them as did the arguing were bigger fools still”; the same for those who refrained from building; that, in short, the only way to get such questions settled was “to leave ’em to them as knows what’s what.” This ignorant and undemocratic attitude never failed to divert Hankin from argument to recrimination, which was all the more bitter because Bob had a way of implying, mainly by the movement of his horse-like eyes, that he himself was one of those who knew precisely what “what” was. The upshot therefore was a row between shepherd and shoemaker—a thing which the shepherd enjoyed in the same degree as he hated the shoemaker’s arguments.

Not the least of Mrs. Abel’s improprieties was her open patronage of Hankin. The shoemaker had established what he called an Ethical Society, which held its meetings on Sunday afternoons in the barn of a sympathetic farmer. These meetings, which were regularly addressed by Hankin, Mrs. Abel used frequently to attend. The effect of this was twofold. On the one hand, it was no small stimulus to Hankin that among the handful of uneducated irreconcilables who gathered to hear him, he might have for auditor one of the keenest and most cultivated minds in England—one who, as he was well aware, had no sympathy with his opinions. I once heard him lecture on one of his favourite topics while she was present, and I must say that I have seldom heard a bad case better argued. On the other hand, Mrs. Abel’s presence served to rob his lectures of much of the force which opinions, when condemned by the rich, invariably have among the poor. She was shrewd enough to perceive that active repression of Hankin, who she well knew could not be repressed, would only swell his following and strengthen his position.

This, of course, was not understood by the local guardians of morality and religion. After vainly appealing to Mr. Abel, who turned an absolutely deaf ear to the petitioners, they proceeded to lay the case before the Bishop, who happened to be, unfortunately for them, one of the most courageous and enlightened prelates of his time. The Bishop, on whom considerable pressure was brought to bear, resolved at last to come down to Deadborough and have an interview with Mrs. Abel. The result was that he and the lady became fast and lifelong friends. He returned to his palace determined to take the risk, and to all further importunities he merely returned a formal answer that he saw no reason to interfere. This was not the least daring of many actions which have distinguished, by their boldness and commonsense, the record of a singularly noble career. The case did not get into the papers; none the less, it was much talked of in clerical circles, and its effect was to give the Bishop a reputation among prelates not unlike that which Mrs. Abel had won among clergymen’s wives.

The Bishop’s intervention having failed, the party of repression now determined on the short and easy way. Hankin’s landlord was Peter Shott, whose holding consisted of two small farms which had been joined together. In the house belonging to one of these farms lived Hankin, a sub-tenant of Shott. To Shott there came, in due course, a hint from an exalted quarter that it would be to his interests to give Hankin notice to quit. Shott was willing enough, and presently the notice was served. It was a serious thing for the shoemaker, for he had a good business, and there was no other house or cottage available in the neighbourhood.

In the interval before the notice expired announcements appeared that the estate to which Shott’s holding belonged was to be sold by auction in lots. Shott himself was well-to-do, and promptly determined to become the purchaser of his farm.

There were several bidders at the sale, and Shott was pushed to the very end of his tether. He managed, however, to outbid them all, though he trembled at his own temerity; and the farm was on the point of being knocked down to him when a lawyer’s clerk at the end of the room went £50 better. Shott took a gulp of whisky to steady his nerve and desperately put the price up fifty more. The lawyer’s clerk immediately countered with another hundred, and looked as though he was ready to go on. That was the knock-down blow. Shott put his hands in his pockets, leaned back in his chair, and dolefully shook his head in response to all the coaxings and blandishments of the auctioneer. The hammer fell. “Name, please,” was called; the lawyer’s clerk passed up a slip of paper, and a thunderbolt fell on the company when the auctioneer read out, “Mr. Thomas Hankin.” Hankin had bought the farms for £4700. “Cheque for deposit,” said the auctioneer. A cheque for £470, previously signed by Hankin, was immediately filled in and passed up by the lawyer’s clerk.

It was, of course, Mrs. Abel who had advanced the money to the shoemaker on prospective mortgage, less a sum of £1000 which he himself contributed—the savings of his life. The situation became interesting. Here was Hankin, under notice to quit, now become the rightful owner of his own house and the landlord of his landlord. Everyone read what had happened as a deep-laid scheme of vengeance on the part of Hankin and Mrs. Abel, of whose part in the transaction no secret whatever was made. It was taken for granted that the evicted man would now retaliate by turning Shott out of his highly cultivated farm and well-appointed house. The jokers of the Nag’s Head were delirious, and drank gin in their beer for a week after the occurrence. Snarley Bob alone drank no gin, and merely contributed the remark that “them as laughs last, laughs best.”

Meanwhile the shoemaker, seated at his last, was carefully pondering the position in the light of the principles of Bentham and Mill. He considered all the possible alternatives and weighed off against one another the various amounts of pleasure and pain involved, resolutely counting himself as “one and not more than one.” He certainly estimated at a large figure the amount of pleasure he himself would derive from paying Shott in his own coin. All consideration of “quality” was strictly eliminated, for in this matter Hankin held rather with Bentham than with Mill. The sum was an extremely complicated one to work, and gave more exercise to Hankin’s powers of moral arithmetic than either armaments, or women’s suffrage, or the State Church. Mrs. Abel had left him free to do exactly as he liked; and he had nearly determined to expel Shott when it occurred to him that by taking the other course he would give a considerable amount of pleasure to the Rector’s wife. And to this must be added the pleasure which he would derive for himself by pleasing her, and further the pleasure of his chief friend and enemy, Snarley Bob, on discovering that both of them were pleased. Then there was the question of his own reflected pleasure in the pleasure of Snarley Bob, and this was considerable also; for though Hankin denounced Bob on every possible occasion, yet secretly he valued his good opinion more than that of any living man. It is true that the figures at which he estimated these personal quantities were very small in proportion to those which he had set down to the more public aspects of the case; for his principles forbade him to reckon either Mrs. Abel or Snarley as “more than one.” Nevertheless, small as these figures were, Hankin found, when he came to add up his totals and strike off the balance of pains, that they were enough to turn the scale. He determined to leave Shott undisturbed, and went to bed with that feeling of perfect mental satisfaction which did duty with him for a conscience at peace.

Notice of this resolution was conveyed next day to the parties concerned, and that night Farmer Shott, who was a pious Methodist and held family prayers, instead of imploring the Almighty “to defeat the wiles of Satan, now active in this village,” put up a lengthy petition for blessings on the heads of Shoemaker Hankin and his family, mentioning each one of them by name, and adding such particulars of his or her special needs as would leave the Divine Benevolence with no excuse for mixing them up.

With all his hard-headedness Hankin combined the graces of a singularly kind and tender heart. He held, of course, that there was nothing like leather, especially for mitigating the distress of the orphan and causing the widow’s heart to sing for joy. Every year he received confidentially from the school-mistress a list of the worst-shod children in the school, from whom he selected a dozen belonging to the poorest families, that he might provide each of them at Christmas with a pair of good, strong shoes. The boots of labourers out of work and of other unfortunates he mended free of cost, regularly devoting to this purpose that part of the Sabbath which was not occupied in proving the non-existence of God. There was, for instance, poor Mary Henson—a loose deserted creature with illegitimate children of various paternity, and another always on the way—rejected by every charity in the parish,—to whom Hankin never failed to send needed footwear both for herself and her brats.

Further, whenever a pair of shoes had to be condemned as “not worth mending,” he endeavoured to retain them for a purpose of his own, sometimes paying a few pence for them as “old leather.” When summer came round he set to work patching the derelicts as best he could, and would sometimes have thirty or forty pairs in readiness by the end of June. This was the season when the neighbourhood was annually invaded by troops of pea-pickers—a very miscellaneous collection of humanity comprising at the one extreme broken army men and university graduates, and at the other the lowest riff-raff of the towns. It was Hankin’s regular custom to visit the camps where these people were quartered, with the avowed object of “studying human nature,” but really for the purpose of spying out the shoeless, or worse than shoeless, feet. He was a notable performer on the concertina, and I well remember seeing him in the middle of a pea-field, surrounded by as sorry a group of human wreckage as civilisation could produce, listening, or dancing to his strains. Hankin’s eyes were on their feet all the time. When the performance was over he went round to one and another, mostly women, and said something which made their eyes glisten.

And here it may be recorded that one day, towards the end of his life, he received a letter from Canada containing a remittance for fifty pounds. The writer, Major —— of the North-West Mounted Police, said that the money was payment for a certain pair of old shoes, the gift of which “had set him on his feet in more senses than one.” He also stated that he had made a small fortune by speculating in town-lots, and, hearing that Hankin was alive, he was prepared to send him any further sum of money that might be necessary to secure him a comfortable old age. Major —— died last year, and left by his will the sum of £300 in Consols to the Rector and churchwardens of Deadborough, the interest to be expended annually at Christmas in providing boots and shoes for the poor of the parish.

In the matter of trade Hankin was prosperous, and fully deserved his prosperity. He has been dead four years, and I am wearing at this moment almost the last pair of boots he ever made. His materials were the best that could be procured, and his workmanship was admirable. His customers were largely the well-to-do people of the neighbourhood, and his standard price for walking-boots was thirty-three shillings. He was by no means incapable of the higher refinements of “style,” so that great people like Lady Passingham or Captain Sorley were often heard to say that they preferred his goods to those of Bond Street. He did a large business in building shooting-boots for the numerous parties which gathered at Deadborough Hall; his customers recommended him in the London clubs, where such things are talked of, and he received orders from all parts of the country and at all times of the year. He might, no doubt, have made his fortune. But he would have no assistance save that of his two sons. He lived for thirty-seven years in the house from which Shott had sought to expel him, refusing all orders which exceeded the limited working forces at his command. He chartered the corns on many noble feet; he measured the gouty toe of a Duke to the fraction of a millimetre, and made a contour map of all its elevations from the main peak to the foot-hills; and it was said that a still more Exalted Personage occasionally walked on leather of his providing.

Hankin neglected nothing which might contribute to the success of his work, and applied himself to its principles with the same thoroughness which distinguished his handling of the Utilitarian Standard. One of his sons had emigrated to the United States and become, in course of time, the manager of a large boot factory in Brockton, Mass. From him Hankin received patterns and lasts and occasional consignments of American leather. This latter he was inclined, in general, to despise. Nevertheless, it had its uses. He found that an outer-sole of hemlock-tanned leather would greatly lengthen the working life of a poor man’s heavy boot; though for want of suppleness it was useless for goods supplied to the “quality.” The American patterns and lasts, on the other hand, he treated with great respect. He held that they embodied a far sounder knowledge of the human foot than did the English variety, and found them a great help to his trade in giving style, comfort, and accuracy of fit. At a time when the great manufacturers of Stafford and Northampton were blundering along with a range of four or five standard patterns, Hankin, in his little shop, was working on much finer intervals and producing nine regular sizes of men’s boots. Indeed, his ready-made goods were so excellent, and their “fit” so certain, that some of his customers preferred them, and ordered him to abandon their lasts.

Such was Hankin’s manner of life and conversation. If there is such a place as heaven, and the reader ever succeeds in getting there, let him look out for Shoemaker Hankin among the highest seats of glory. His funeral oration was pronounced, though not in public, by Snarley Bob. “Shoemaker Hankin were a great man. He’d got hold o’ lots o’ good things; but he’d got some on ’em by the wrong end. He talked more than a man o’ his size ought to ha’ done. He spent his breath in proving that God doesn’t exist, and his life in proving that He does.”


Towards the end of his life there were few persons with whom Snarley would hold converse, for his contempt of the human race was immeasurable. There was Mrs. Abel at the Rectory, whom he adored; there were the Perrymans, whom he loved; and there was myself, whom he tolerated. There was also his old wife, whom he treated as part of himself, neither better nor worse. With other human beings—saving only the children—his intercourse was limited as far as possible to interjectory grunts and snarls—whence his name.

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