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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

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BOOK: Testimonies: A Novel
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I should very much like to describe her, but what is there to say? She was rather less than my height, slim of course, and she looked taller than she was because she was so straight. Her hair was black, black as hair can be, with a deep luster; it was straight. Her face was pale—nothing pink and white about it, and I should have said olive, but for its extraordinary purity. There is a head of one of the Pharaohs in the British Museum: it has a full, serene mouth and eyes, the lines simplified as if they were drawn. It was the same with her, the great wide eyes and her mouth the same: in both it was the line that counted and the pure planes; and with her there was the living color.

That was her in rest, but there was so much as well; the spring of her back, the lovely poise of her head, the way she moved, the timbre of her voice. It is no good—that or a list of virtues.

I was very simple, I suppose. I had no idea that I was there at all until I was in love so deep that it was a pain in my heart. I had thought it was the pleasure of looking at her, the pleasure of joining that good and kind family circle (good in spite of the bad undercurrent that I suspected) and talking about country things with Emyr and the old man. Then one day it was upon me. I knew then what was the matter, and why nothing had seemed profitable but the evenings I spent there; she came in, just as I had seen her the first time, and my heart leaped up and I knew that Emyr was talking but I could not link his words together.

I left soon after. I was afraid of giving myself away; though perhaps I had been gaping at her like a moon-calf for weeks before.

There may be things more absurd than a middle-aged man in the grip of a high-flung romantic passion: a boy can behave more foolishly, but at least in him it is natural.

I kept away. I read Burton and walked the mountains. We had a spell of idyllic weather, and the soft loving wind was a torment to me.

I would not pass those days again. I knew I was a ludicrous figure, and it hurt all the more. I did not eat. I could not read, I could not sleep. I walked and walked, and when one day I broke a tooth on a fruit stone I welcomed the pain.

Long before I had engaged to help with the yearly gathering of the sheep for the shearing, and now the time came round. The boy came up to ask if I would meet Emyr on the quarry road early the next morning. I wondered how I should face him, but there was nothing for it and I said I should be very glad.

He was there in the gray morning, surrounded by his dogs. He was anxious and preoccupied: this was the most important day in the farming year for him and he was afraid it was going to be spoiled by the low-hanging cloud that hid the top half of the mountains. We did not talk much as we went up the road. It was just as well, because I could not make my voice sound natural; even the most trivial words sounded forced and overdone: I wondered that he did not notice it.

As we climbed higher we reached the cloud. It blew in irregular wisps between us and the higher rocks: they would appear, gaunt, outlined dramatically against the streaming cloud behind them, and then vanish.

The aim of the morning’s work was to gather all the sheep scattered on the mountain and to drive them down to be shorn. Already a dozen of the other farmers had set out for prearranged points on the limit of the mountain, to be ready at a given hour to start driving the sheep inwards to the gathering place. This was a co-operative task, like the threshing, and some of the farmers came from miles away.

The wind increased as the sun mounted, and before we had reached the top of the road the last streams of cloud had been torn off the round top of Penmawr. Emyr’s mind grew lighter: he explained to me that these shearing days were fixed long before at a farmer’s meeting, and that if the day turned out rainy (a wet sheep cannot be shorn) or cloudy, so that the sheep cannot be gathered, there is no help for it; the day is lost, and the farm must wait until all the others have had their turn, and then the whole business of the year is unsettled. And the great preparation is wasted: there are perhaps twenty shearers to be fed (friends, neighbors, relations—there are no men to be hired) apart from the hangers-on, and it is a great point of honor among the farms to feed them well. A good wether is killed, a whole ham cut up, innumerable puddings made—a hundred preparations that go to waste if there is no one there to eat them.

However, the cloud had lifted, and it did not look as if it were going to rain. I was posted at a place where the sheep had a habit of plunging down the scree and breaking back into the mountain when they were driven: I was to head them to the pens at the top of the road.

A long wait alone in the cold wind: I allowed fantasies to take shape in my mind and when the first sheep appeared I was not ready for them. They were trotting uneasily toward my gap. Already they were quite close: when I came from the shelter of my rock, shouting and waving my stick to send them back, I was on their flank; the foremost bolted for the gap and the others followed him, rushing along with quick, springing bounces so near past me that I could have struck the last.

This was very bad. I hoped that no one had seen me. Other sheep began to come over the skyline, white strings of a dozen ewes and their lambs. It was easy enough to deal with them if they saw me early enough, but twice a lamb came suddenly through the rocks at my side, bolted down the gap, and then the ewe would follow whatever I might do.

There were more and more: they were coming from new directions now, as the other drivers got nearer to the gathering place. I saw the first of the dogs, and some minutes later the men began to show on the skyline, scattered all along the edge above me. There was a last flurry of warding off the sheep and then abler men with dogs took over my place and the sheep, milling hundreds of them now, were urged into the labyrinth of stone pens at the head of the road.

As I walked down by myself, behind the ordered flock, I realized that these last hours, while I had been herding in the gap, were the first that I had spent without pain for Bronwen since that night—so long ago it seemed.

Down at the farm, with the sheep penned in the yard, my place was not with the shearers: it takes natural dexterity and years of practice to shear a sheep. I was given the task of marking them. Emyr brought me a pail of the semi-liquid pigment, the iron stamp with his father’s initials, and showed me the way to use it. Nothing could have been simpler; he wetted the iron, pressed it to the side of the bound sheep, and it was done: the only complication was that sheep of a certain category (they were already marked with a splash of metallic pink on their rumps) were to be stamped on their right sides, and the others on the left.

The sequence of operations did not vary: Emyr or his father would take a sheep from the pen and carry it to one of the fifteen shearers who sat in a semi-circle astraddle on long benches; the shearer, embracing the sheep as it lay half on his lap, half on its back on the bench, would tie its struggling feet with a long thin band of cloth: from that moment the animal would lie motionless and unresisting while the man sheared all the wool from its body: a few minutes, and the fleece, a coherent rug of wool, gray outside and white within, rolled down to the ground at the side of the bench. A woman would pick it up and roll it into a tight ball, and it was my duty to take the sheep, carry it by the feet to the place in the middle where I had my pail and stamp, search it for cuts (I had a black oil for wounds), stamp it on the right or the left, and release its feet.

After a few minutes, while the first batch of sheep were being shorn, I was plunged into unceasing activity. Six or seven sheep came simultaneously from the hands of the quickest shearers; I had to disembarrass their benches at once, so I had a row of sheep lying in the middle. Emyr, as he saw me staggering with a big wether, asked me anxiously if I could manage it. I had never been so close to a sheep before, and its smell and warmth repelled me, and the give of its paunch against my body and the feel of the bones of its legs under their thin shifting skin as I lifted it. I might have cried off in other circumstances, but Bronwen was there in the yard, somewhere behind me. The women of the house were well ahead with their cooking and they had already come out to see the shearers and to roll a few fleeces.

I worked with hard, close concentration. Sometimes an awkward knot on a sheep’s feet would delay me, and the sheep would pile up at the benches. Once or twice a sheep, newly released and kicking for its foothold, knocked my bucket over—they often kicked and I had some painful blows from them. Sometimes I could not quickly determine which was the right or the left side of the animal—it is not so easy, with the sheep lying with their heads in every direction: once I untied a sheep before I had marked it, and it had to be caught again. There was the continual necessity of watching the benches, trying to keep pace so that there should be no pile of sheep in the middle. Some boys came. They helped to distribute the
llinens
, the cloth bands the shearers needed for each sheep, and they brought a few of the sheep that were ready to the middle. They were sickeningly brutal to the poor beasts; it was their manliness, and nobody minded.

The sun crept higher and the wind dropped; the noise of the penned sheep was so continuous that I hardly heard it any more, any more than I smelled the all-pervading reek or tasted the dust that came into my throat each time I bent over a sheep—and I bent twice to each, once to pick it up from the bench or the side of the bench, and once to put it down.

Now and then Emyr would come to suggest that I should stamp the sheep more evenly, or higher, and on these occasions, or when I called him to doctor a bad cut, he would do my work with great speed and I would draw ahead of the shearers. Sometimes then for a few minutes I had time to straighten my back and blow some of the stench and dust out of my nose and throat. The group of meager, white, shorn ewes was growing: they wandered wretchedly in the outer yard, calling their lambs. They looked like stunted camels. The initials I had stamped on them stared out on the white, often askew.

Each pause ended with a rush of bound sheep piling up in the middle. Halfway through the morning the pace grew worse, because of the arrival of some shearers who had been delayed. The cries of
Cneu
—a fleece and a sheep ready—and
Llinen
became almost continuous: any small accident, a bad knot, the mark growing too thick, the stamp getting clogged with wool, anything like this threw me behind and submerged me. I had never known that men could work so hard. There was no sense of time any more: it was lifting sheep, sheep and still sheep, the awful belly-strain of it and the tottering walk under the weight to the middle. I had long ceased wondering when they would stop and whether I could keep it up, when the end came. Suddenly there were no more sheep on the benches, only a row of them in the middle, and the shearers were getting up, stretching their legs and straddling about.

I finished and sat down for a moment out of sight by the well with my head between my knees.

Emyr was looking for me to bring me in to dinner. I washed and went with him. The great kitchen was full: long tables end to end with a cloth the length of them and close rows of men down each side. Nain and Bronwen were handing full plates to the men, standing behind the rows. I sat down with Emyr and we began. No one talked. The young men, shy and awkward, whispered and guffawed for a moment and then everybody was eating. They ate fast, with knife and fork together, bent low to the table; the plates were empty and refilled. In ten minutes they had eaten a sheep. Then it was pudding, three sorts of pudding on the plate: slower now, and with a few scraps of talk, but still very fast.

The clatter of spoons died: each man as he finished pushed away his plate. They got slowly to their feet and walked out.

I had done my best to keep pace with them: I was clogged with food, but still I was behind. Bronwen gave me a cup of tea. She said they would be sharpening their shears, and that they would not be ready for a few minutes. I thought she looked at me doubtfully. I had no conversation.

It was a very good cup of tea: I drank it boiling hot and it did a great deal to settle me inside. When I walked out to the shearing place I no longer felt that it was quite impossible to go on. There was a continual shish-shish as they sharpened their shears with little gray hones: some were smoking. They all looked quite fresh.

The afternoon was a repetition of the morning: the sun was hotter and there was even more dust. After some time the women came out, and now I was glad that I had grown a little more adept. The rolled fleeces piled up on the big stack-cover in the middle, and children played in the mountain of wool, jumping into it as they do into hay, and screaming; I was never very fond of children of that age, and now their din irritated me to distraction. From time to time the old man would gather the corners of the sheet and walk off with the wool. The load was much bigger than myself and it looked like those allegorical burdens in pictures. At first I counted them, but as I grew more and more tired I had no attention for anything but the work under my hands. The little boy Gerallt took to pestering me: he wanted to physic the sheep. He took a beastly delight in the wounds that the shearers made, pink triangular flap, and once a ewe’s teat shorn clean off. Gentle words had no effect on him, and I was wondering whether I could give him an unseen slap when Bronwen took him away.

Exhaustion came sooner this time. The session went on, went on until it had lasted longer than the morning, and now the shearers were working with surly concentration: they leaned back and rested as each sheep was done—before they had talked and joked, a sound of voices above the noise of the sheep and the snip-snip-snip of the shears.

On and on: sheep and more sheep. I had been doing this forever. My stomach and my back were giving me a great deal of pain, the first from the pounds of food I had stuffed into it, the second from the bend and lift, bend and lift that had been going on the length of this unending day.

BOOK: Testimonies: A Novel
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