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And now, while they are climbing the pole in another part of the field, and muzzling in a flour-tub in another, the old farmer, whose house, as has been said, overlooks the field, and who is master of the revels, gets up the steps on to the stage and announ. ces to all whom it may concern, that a half-sovereign in money will be forthcoming for the old gamester who breaks most heads; to which the Squire and he have added a new hat.
The amount of the prize is sufficient to stimulate the men of the immediate neighbourhood, but not enough to bring any very high talent from a distance; so, after a glance or two round, a tall fellow, who is a. down shepherd, chucks his hat on to the stage and climbs up the steps, looking rather sheepish; the crowd of course first cheer, and then chaff as usual, as he picks up his hat and begins handling the sticks to see which will suit him.
“ Wooy, Willum Smith, thee canst plaay wi’ he arra daay," says his companion to the blacksmith's apprentice, a stout young fellow of nineteen or twenty. Willum's sweetheart is in the “ veast” somewhere, and has strictly enjoined him not to get his head broke at backswording, on pain of her highest displeasure ; but as she is not to be seen, (the women pretend not to like to see the backsword p.ay, and keep away from the stage,) and his hat is decidedly getting old, he chucks it on to the stage, and follows himself, hoping that he will only have to break other people's heads, or that, after all, Rachel won't really mind.
Then follows the greasy cap lined with fur, of a
half-gipsey, poaching, loafing fellow, who travels the Vale not for much good I fancy :
“Full twenty times was Peter feared
For once that Peter was respected" in fact. And then three or four other hats, including the glossy castor of Joe Willis, the self-elected and would-be champion of the neighbourhood, a wellto-do young butcher of twenty-eight or thereabouts, and a great strapping fellow with his full allowance of bluster. This is a capital show of gamesters, considering the amount of the prize; so while they are picking their sticks and drawing their lots, I think I must tell you as shortly as I can how the noble old game of backsword is played; for it is sadly gone out of late, even in the Vale, and may-be you have never seen it.
The weapon is a good stout ash-stick with a large basket handle, heavier and somewhat shorter than a common single-stick. The players are called 6 old gamesters," — why, I can't tell you, and their object is simply to break one another's heads : for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime, if the men don't play on purpose, and savagely, at the body and arms of their adversaries. The old gamester going into action only takes off his hat and coat, and arms himself with a stick; he then loops the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap which he fastens round his left leg, measuring the length, so
ARMS AND ACCOUTREMENTS
JOE AND THE GIPSEY. 45
that when he draws it tight with his left elbow in the air, that elbow shall just reach as high as his crown. Thus you see, so long as he chooses to keep his left elbow up, regardless of cuts, he has a perfect guard for the left side of his head. Then he advances his right hand above and in front of his head, holding his stick across so that its point projects an inch or two over his left elbow, and thus his whole head is completely guarded, and he faces his man armed in like manner, and they stand some three feet apart, often nearer, and feint, and strike, and return at one another's heads, until one cries “ hold,” or blood flows; in the first case they are allowed a minute's time, and go on again; in the latter, another pair of gamesters are called on. If good men are playing, the quickness of the returns is marvellous ; you hear the rattle like that a boy makes drawing his stick along palings, only heavier, and the closeness of the men in action to one another gives it a strange interest, and makes a spell at backswording a very noble sight.
They all are suited now with sticks, and Joe Willis and the gipsey man have drawn first lot. So the rest lean against the rails of the stage, and Joe and the dark man meet in the middle, the boards having been strewed with sawdust; Joe's white shirt and spotless drab breeches and boots contrasting with the gipsey's coarse blue shirt and dirty green velveteen breeches and leather gaiters. Joe is evidently turning up his nose at the other, and half insulted at having to break his head.
The gipsey is a tough active fellow, but not very
WILL SMITH AND THE SHEPHERD.
skilful, with his weapon, so that Joe's weight and strength tell in a minute ; he is too heavy metal for him : whack, whack, whack, come his blows, breaking down the gipsey's guard, and threatening to reach his head every moment. There it is at last — 6 Blood, blood !” shout the spectators as a thin stream oozes out slowly from the roots of his hair, and the umpire calls to them to stop. The gipsey scowls at Joe under his brows in no pleasant manner, while Master Joe swaggers about, and makes attitudes, and thinks himself, and shows that he thinks himself, the greatest man in the field.
Then follow several stout sets-to between the other candidates for the new hat, and at last come the shepherd and Willum Smith. This is the crack set-to of the day. They are both in famous wind, and there is no crying “hold;" the shepherd is an old hand and up to all the dodges; he tries them one after another, and very nearly gets at Willum's head by coming in near, and playing over his guard at the half-stick, but somehow Willum blunders through, catching the stick on his shoulders, neck, sides every now and then, anywhere but on his head, and his returns are heavy and straight, and he is the youngest gamester, and a favourite in the parish, and his gallant stand brings down shouts and cheers, and the knowing ones think he'll win if he keeps steady, and Tom on the groom's shoulders holds his hands together, and can hardly breathe for excitement.
Alas for Willum! his sweetheart, getting tired of female companionship, has been hunting the booths
JOE HAS ALL THE LUCK.
to see where he can have got to, and now catches sight of him on the stage in full combat. She flushes and turns pale ; her old aunt catches hold of her, saying, “ Bless 'ee, child, doan't'ee go a’nigst it;” but she breaks away, and runs towards the stage calling his name. Willum keeps up his guard stoutly, but glances for a moment towards the voice. No guard will do it, Willum, without the eye. The shepherd steps round and strikes, and the point of his stick just grazes Willum's forehead, fetching off the skin, and the blood flows, and the umpire cries “hold,” and poor Willum's chance is up for the day. But he takes it very well, and puts on his old hat and coat, and goes down to be scolded by his sweetheart, and led away out of mischief. Tom hears him say coaxingly, as he walks off
“ Now doan’t’ee, Rachel! I wouldn't ha' done it, I only wanted summut to buyee a fairing wi', and I be as vlush o' money as a twod o' veathers.”
“ Thee mind what I tells 'ee,” rejoins Rachel, saucily, “and doan't ’ee kep blethering about fairings.”' Tom resolves in his heart to give Willum the remainder of his two shillings after the backswording.
Joe Willis has all the luck to-day. His next bout ends in an easy victory, while the shepherd has a tough job to break his second head; and when Joe and the shepherd meet, and the whole circle expect and hope to see him get a broken crown, the shepherd slips in the first round and falls against the rails, hurting himself so that the old farmer will not let him go on, much as he wishes to try; and that impostor Joe (for he is certainly not the best man)