Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/Back o' the Moon/Introduction

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pp. 1–8.



The first thing that the new parson noticed, as he rode up the narrow, precipitous street late in the October afternoon, was that the muffled knock-knocking that proceeded from tha houses ceased as he ascended; and the next was that he had never in his life seen so many mongrel dogs as prowled and sniffed at his heels. He had left his grey galloway in Horwick Town, three miles back; he now saw the reason why they had laughed, and advised him that he might as well sell it there and then. Wadsworth Shelf had been steep; Wadsworth Street was precipitous; and at the head of the street rose Wadsworth Scout, dark and mountainous. The Scout was thinly wooded here and there with birch and mountain-ash. It overshadowed the village beneath it; and as the parson reached the small square at its foot he saw, over an irregular row of roofs, the squat belfry of the little church that was now his charge. A ramshackle inn, with a long horse-trough in front of it, occupied the lower side of the square.

As the knock-knocking ceased entirely, the parson became conscious that men and women had come softly out into the street behind him, and he knew without looking that behind every blind and shutter there was a pair of eyes. A raw-boned fellow lounged against the horse-trough of the inn, and he had taken off one of his wood-soled clogs and was peering into it as if for a stone. The parson had been warned that few in his new cure were known by their baptismal names, and had been told the name by which he must seek his own verger and bellringer. Approaching the fellow with the clog, he asked where he should find one Pim o' Cuddy. The fellow jerked his head in the direction of the church under the dark Scout, and continued to peer into the clog. The dogs trailed after the parson as he crossed the square.

An hour later he returned. He had, apparently, learned which of the houses standing back up a stone-walled lane had been made ready for him, for he made for it without so much as a glance round him. He passed beneath the lanternless arch of wrought-iron that spanned his gateway. Very soon the old body who had made his house ready came out, sought a lad, and bade him go to Pim o' Cuddy at the church. The lad and Pim o' Cuddy (a wizened little man, who walked like a pair of callipers), returned across the square, carrying between them a small heavy chest. The chest contained, as the village knew, what remained of the papers and parchments that for so long had strewn the vestry. Later, the housekeeper reported that the parson had sat up with these half the night.

The weavers of Wadsworth and beyond have a sort of thwarted sense of the droll, and first they smiled sourly, and then guffawed, as the full humour of the parson's coming broke on them. They chuckled at the looms that had been the cause of the knock-knocking, caught their fellows' eyes in the steep street and roared again. For Pim o' Cuddy's pigeons knew their way home through the broken louver-boards of the squat belfry by this. If sometimes a ferret refused to come out of the air-hole by the buttress into which he had been put (and the church “lifted,” as they said, with rats), well, it was cheaper to take up a floorboard or two than to pull the church down. As for the unhinged church-door, it was a wit from Booth, over the moors far beyond the mountainous Scout, who observed that doorways were made to let folk into church and not to keep them out; and for the rest—the broken windows, the hen-coops in the aisle, the parchments taken by the lads to make kites, and the single elm of the churchyard that had been cut down to furnish galley-baulks for the looms of they knew whom—the responsibility for these things rested somewhere between Pim o' Cuddy and the bishop of the diocese.

On the first Sunday morning of his incumbency, save for a preliminary scrubbing and cleaning and moving out of the hen-coops and so forth, the parson preached in the church as it was; and then, at his own cost, he set half a dozen men to work. He paid them at the end of the week in good coin from a canvas bag. Thereupon a ripple of excitement passed through the village. The winks and amused stares ceased. The parson was favoured with nods in the square and street, and awkward greetings were passed. A man came down from a loom-loft one morning and asked him whether he had half a guinea in exchange for silver; and the parson, in his own room, made a little sound of contempt that a few round pieces of gold should thus buy civility.

Then began the parson's observations of his new parish.

And first of all, he found that he might regard this hamlet of Wadsworth either as barbarous or civilised, and be, in a sense, right either way. It was rougher by several degrees than Horwick Town, where the Thursday cloth-market was held—the town where he had left the grey galloway; on the other hand, its manners passed as gentle and gracious by comparison with certain places away over the well-nigh impassable Scout—Holdsworth, Booth, Brotherton, Fluett, and other nooks lost in the wilds that stretched a dozen miles and more to Trawden Forest in Lancashire. This westerly district went by the name of Back o' the Moon, or, as they had it, “Back o' th' Mooin” (for they put the “i” into that and similar words—the “Goose,” the Wadsworth inn, was invariably the “Gooise,” and there was scarce a long open vowel but they made a diphthong of it). This mountainous and inaccessible country was cut up into innumerable short deep valleys and Slacks, thinly-wooded Deans, stony Shelves, leagues of sweeping heather, and rocks, and Scouts and Ridges past counting. The best part of a winter might pass and a Holdsworth man would not be seen in Brotherton nor a Brotherton man in Booth; while Fluett, save for the Pack Causeway that, creeping by a roundabout route out of Horwick, gained the high land and crossed the whole district, would have been utterly isolated. One geographical fact especially impressed the parson: that was, that the nature of the country had determined the passing of special Acts of Parliament for the protection of the weavers of Back o' th' Mooin. A man could not, up and down such a country, carry on his back more than three or four stone of cloth. He was thus under certain disabilities as compared with those in the valleys; and it had been necessary to limit by enactment the buying-powers of the Horwick merchants, in order that the occupation of the three-and four-stone men should not be entirely gone.

Now the parson was a man of his eyes and ears, and of his tongue withal; and of one of the earliest of his observations of Back o' th' Mooin he had, by a witty stroke, made a sort of parable. It was a common saying that in Wadsworth they were “All Raikeses—th' Eastwoods an' all,” just as in Holdsworth they were all Bentleys, including the Murgatroyds, and in Brotherton Benns, not excepting the Deans. Now it happened that a Murgatroyd of Holdsworth was famous for a certain run of fighting-dogs of extraordinary tenacity, and this man (his nickname, by the way, was “Mish”) hung about Wadsworth a good deal during the summer months—after a hoyden of a girl, it was said, one of the innumerable Raikeses. He had turned up one afternoon with one of his dogs in a leash, that it might not brawl with the tag-rag of Wadsworth, and a little group of men in the square were now jesting with him about the girl and now discussing the dog.

The parson chanced to pass as they were badgering this Mish for the secret of his breeding, and to hear Mish's reply—something about “in and in and in.” He stopped abruptly before Murgatroyd.

“Yes,” he interposed; “and in again on top of that, Murgatroyd, till they're wrong in their heads and afraid of nothing. Look——

He pointed to a sackless lad who lolled his tongue over by the horse-trough. “Yes,” he muttered, half to himself, “there's little doubt it's your Slacks and Scouts and Ridges do it; you'll not go courting far from your firesides in the winter ... maybe your metallic water is the cause of all this goître, too ... in and in and in ...”

He shook his head and passed on his way.

And though the winter that was drawing near proved afterwards to be a green and mild one, the parson seemed able to guess without knowing what these same Scouts and hills would be like when the snow lay thick on them, and the packmen went before the horses with spades, seeking for the black-topped guide-posts, and of each hamlet it became true that there was “one way in and none out.”

The first time there came to the parson's ears, faintly over the hills, the clanging of hammers by night, he made an inquiry, and was told that the Forge on the moor, “where they shod the pack-horses,” was at work. On a later occasion, he put himself to the trouble to climb the precipitous Scout and to walk a mile or so along the Causeway in the direction of a low glow that seemed to come from a distant fold of the moor. Two figures, rising suddenly from the dark heather, stopped him and demanded his errand; and they conducted him back in silence by the way he had come. Then, about the middle of November, when the moors grew heavy with rain, the nightly clanging ceased, and the parson had other matters to occupy him. The winter set in, cold and raw and gusty; it was the winter of 1778; and the parson had time enough on his hands to speculate on breeding-in, physical geography, goître, or whatever else pleased him. Once only during that dead time, journeying on a December afternoon to Horwick, and meeting there one of the resident magistrates, John Emmason by name, did he speak of this noise of hammers; he was counselled to confine his attention to God's law and to leave man's alone. The Wadsworth looms knock-knocked lazily during the short days; the Horwick Thursday was thinly attended; now and then, but rarely, a Back o' th' Mooiner from Holdsworth or Brotherton or Booth would appear in Wadsworth with his dog, his staff, and his budget of cloth; and of any other staple of the district than that of the weaving of kerseys and shalloons the parson knew nothing.

In that ignorance he was, however, quite alone.