In Chitterne Churchyard, by W. H. Hudson

Chitterne is one of those small out-of-the-world villages in the south Wiltshire downs which attract one mainly because of their isolation and loneliness and their unchangeableness. Here, however, you discover that there has been an important change in comparatively recent years—some time during the first half of the last century. Chitterne, like most villages, possesses one church, a big building with a tall spire standing in its central part. Before it was built there were two churches and two Chitternes—two parishes with one village, each with its own proper church. These were situated at opposite ends of the one long street, and were small ancient buildings, each standing in its own churchyard. One of these disused burying-places, with a part of the old building still standing in it, is a peculiarly attractive spot, all the more so because of long years of neglect and of ivy, bramble, and weed and flower of many kinds that flourish in it, and have long obliterated the mounds and grown over the few tombs and headstones that still exist in the ground.

It was an excessively hot August afternoon when I last visited Chitterne, and, wishing to rest for an hour before proceeding on my way, I went to this old churchyard, naturally thinking that I should have it all to myself. But I found two persons there, both old women of the peasant class, meanly dressed; yet it was evident they had their good clothes on and were neat and clean, each with a basket on her arm, probably containing her luncheon. For they were only visitors and strangers there, and strangers to one another as they were to me—that, too, I could guess: also that they had come there with some object—perhaps to find some long unvisited grave, for they were walking about, crossing and recrossing each other's track, pausing from time to time to look round, then pulling the ivy aside from some old tomb and reading or trying to read the worn, moss-grown inscription. I began to watch their movements with growing interest, and could see that they, too, were very much interested in each other, although for a long time they did not exchange a word. Presently I, too, fell to examining the gravestones, just to get near them, and while pretending to be absorbed in the inscriptions I kept a sharp eye on their movements. They took no notice of me. I was nothing to them—merely one of another class, a foreigner, so to speak, a person cycling about the country who was just taking a ten minutes' peep at the place to gratify an idle curiosity. But who was she—that other old woman; and what did she want hunting about there in this old forsaken churchyard? was doubtless what each of those two was saying to herself. And by-and-by their curiosity got the better of them; then contrived to meet at one stone which they both appeared anxious to examine.

I had anticipated this, and no sooner were they together than I was down on my knees busily pulling the ivy aside from a stone three or four yards from theirs, absorbed in my business. They bade each other good day and said something about the hot weather, which led one to remark that she had found it very trying as she had left home early to walk to Salisbury to take the train to Codford, and from there she had walked again to Chitterne. Oddly enough, the other old woman had also been travelling all day, but from an opposite direction, over Somerset way, just to visit Chitterne. It seemed an astonishing thing to them when it came out that they had both been looking forward for years to this visit, and that it should have been made on the same day, and that they should have met there in that same forsaken little graveyard. It seemed stranger still when they came to tell why they had made this long-desired visit. They were both natives of the village, and had both left it early in life, one aged seven, the other ten; they had left much about the same time, and had never returned until now. And they were now here with the same object—just to find the graves, unmarked by a stone, where the mother of one of them, the grandparents of both, and other relatives they still remembered had been buried more than half a century ago. They were surprised and troubled at their failure to identify the very spots where the mounds used to be. "It do all look so different," said one, "an' the old stones be mostly gone." Finally, when they told their names and their fathers' names—farm-labourers both—they failed to remember each other, and could only suppose that they must have forgotten many things about their far-off childhood, although others were still as well remembered as the incidents of yesterday.

The old dames had become very friendly and confidential by this time. "I dare say," I said to myself, "that if I can manage to stay to the end I shall see them embrace and kiss at parting," and I also thought that their strange meeting in the old village churchyard would be a treasured memory for the rest of their lives. I feared they would suspect me of eavesdropping, and taking out my penknife, I began diligently scraping the dead black moss from the letters on the stone, after which I made pretence of copying the illegible inscription in my notebook. They, however, took no notice of me, and began telling each other what their lives had been since they left Chitterne. Both had married working men and had lost their husbands many years ago; one was sixty-nine, the other in her sixty-sixth year, and both were strong and well able to work, although they had had hard lives. Then in a tone of triumph, their faces lighting up with a kind of joy, they informed each other that they had never had to go to the parish for relief. Each was anxious to be first in telling how it had come about that she, the poor widow of a working man, had been so much happier in her old age than so many others. So eager were they to tell it that when one spoke the other would cut in long before she finished, and when they talked together it was not easy to keep the two narratives distinct. One was the mother of four daughters, all still unmarried, earning their own livings, one in a shop, another a sempstress, two in service in good houses, earning good wages. Never had woman been so blessed in her children! They would never see their mother go to the House! The other had but one, a son, and not many like him; no son ever thought more of his mother. He was at sea, but every nine to ten months he was back in Bristol, and then on to visit her, and never let a month pass without writing to her and sending money to pay her rent and keep a nice comfortable home for him.

They congratulated one another; then the mother of four said she always thanked God for giving her daughters, because they were women and could feel for a mother. The other replied that it was true, she had often seen it, the way daughters stuck to their mother—until they married. She was thankful to have a son; a man, she said, is a man and can go out in the world and do things, and if he is a good son he will never see his mother want.

The other was nettled at that speech. "Of course a man's a man," she returned, "but we all know what men are. They are all right till they pick up with a girl who wants all their wages; then everyone, mother and all, must be given up." But a daughter was a daughter always; she had four, she was happy to say.

This made matters worse. "Daughters always daughters!" came the quick rejoinder. "I never learned that before. What, my son take up with a girl and leave his old mother to starve or go to the workhouse! I never heard such a foolish thing said in my life!" And, being now quite angry, she looked round for her basket and shawl so as to get away as quickly as possible from that insulting woman; but the other, guessing her intention, was too quick for her and started at once to the gate, but after going four or five steps turned and delivered her last shot: "Say what you like about your son, and I don't doubt he's been good to you, and I only hope it'll always be the same; but what I say is, give me a daughter, and I know, ma'am, that if you had a daughter you'd be easier in your mind!"

Having spoken, she made for the gate, and the other, stung in some vital part by the last words, stood motionless, white with anger, staring after her, first in silence, but presently she began talking audibly to herself. "My son—my son pick up with a girl! My son leave his mother to go on the parish!"—but I stayed to hear no more; it made me laugh and—it was too sad.