Shepherd's Boy, by Richard Middleton
The path climbed up and up and threatened to carry me over the
highest point of the downs till it faltered before a sudden
outcrop of chalk and swerved round the hill on the level. I was
grateful for the respite, for I had been walking all day and my
knapsack was growing heavy. Above me in the blue pastures of the
skies the cloud-sheep were grazing, with the sun on their snowy
backs, and all about me the grey sheep of earth were cropping
the wild pansies that grew wherever the chalk had won a covering
Presently I came upon the shepherd standing erect by the path, a
tall, spare man with a face that the sun and the wind had robbed of
all expression. The dog at his feet looked more intelligent than he.
"You've come up from the valley," he said as I passed; "perhaps
you'll have seen my boy?"
"I'm sorry, I haven't," I said, pausing.
"Sorrow breaks no bones," he muttered, and strode away with his dog
at his heels. It seemed to me that the dog was apologetic for his
I walked on to the little hill-girt village, where I had made up my
mind to pass the night. The man at the village shop said he would put
me up, so I took off my knapsack and sat down on a sackful of cattle
cake while the bacon was cooking.
"If you came over the hill, you'll have met shepherd," said the man,
"and he'll have asked you for his boy."
"Yes, but I hadn't seen him."
The shopman nodded. "There are clever folk who say you can see him,
and clever folk who say you can't. The simple ones like you and me,
we say nothing, but we don't see him. Shepherd hasn't got no boy."
"What! is it a joke?"
"Well, of course it may be," said the shop-man guardedly, "though I
can't say I've heard many people laughing at it yet. You see,
shepherd's boy he broke his neck. . . .
"That was in the days before they built the fence above the big
chalk-pit that you passed on your left coming down. A dangerous
place it used to be for the sheep, so shepherd's boy he used to lie
along there to stop them dropping into it, while shepherd's dog he
stopped them from going too far. And shepherd he used to come down
here and have his glass, for he took it then like you or me. He's
blue ribbon now.
"It was one night when the mists were out on the hills, and maybe
shepherd had had a glass too much, or maybe he got a bit lost in the
smoke. But when he went up there to bring them home, he starts
driving them into the pit as straight as could be. Shepherd's boy he
hollered out and ran to stop them, but four-and-twenty of them went
over, and the lad he went with them. You mayn't believe me, but five
of them weren't so much as scratched, though it's a sixty feet drop.
Likely they fell soft on top of the others. But shepherd's boy he was
"Shepherd he's a bit spotty now, and most times he thinks the boy's
still with him. And there are clever folk who'll tell you that
they've seen the boy helping shepherd's dog with the sheep. That
would be a ghost now, I shouldn't wonder. I've never seen it, but
then I'm simple, as you might say.
"But I've had two boys myself, and it seems to me that a boy like
that, who didn't eat and didn't get into mischief, and did his work,
would be the handiest kind of boy to have about the place."