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Mad Shepherds and Other Human Studies

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Among the four hundred human beings who peopled our parish there were two notable men and one highly gifted woman. All three are dead, and lie buried in the churchyard of the village where they lived. Their graves form a group—unsung by any poet, but worthy to be counted among the resting-places of the mighty.

The woman was Mrs. Abel, the Rector's wife. None of us knew her origin—I doubt if she knew it herself: beyond her husband and children, assignable relatives she had none.

"Sie war nicht in dem Tal geboren,Man wusste nicht woher sie kam."

Her husband met her many years ago at a foreign watering-place, and married her there after a week's acquaintance—much to the scandal of his family, for the lady was an actress not unknown to fame. Their only consolation was that she had a considerable fortune—the fruit of her professional work.

In all relevant particulars this strange venture had proved a huge success. To leave the fever of the stage for the quiet life of the village had been to Mrs. Abel like the escape of a soul from the flames of purgatory. She had rightly discerned that the Rev. Edward Abel was a man of large heart, high character, and excellent wit—partly clergyman, but mostly man. He, on his part, valued his wife, and his judgment was backed by every humble soul in the village. But the bigwigs of the county, and every clergyman's wife within a radius of ten miles, were of another mind. She had not been "proper" to begin with—at least, they said so; and as time went on she took no pains to be more "proper" than she was at first. Her improprieties, so far as I could ever learn, arose from nothing more heinous than her possession of an intelligence more powerful and a courage more daring than that to which any of her neighbours could lay claim. Her outspokenness was a stumbling-block to many; and the offence of speaking her mind was aggravated by the circumstance, not always present at such times, that she had a mind to speak. To quote the language in which Farmer Perryman once explained the situation to me: "She'd given all on 'em a taste o' the whip, and with some on 'em she'd peppered and salted the sore place into the bargain." Moreover, she sided with many things that a clergyman's wife ought to oppose: took all sorts of undesirables under her protection, helped those whom everybody else wanted to punish, threw good discretion to the winds, and sometimes mixed in undertakings which no "lady" ought to touch. To all this she added the impertinence of regular attendance at church, where she recited the Creeds in a rich voice that almost drowned her husband's, turning punctually to the East and bowing at the Sacred Name. That she was a hypocrite trying to save her face was, of course, obvious to every Scribe and Pharisee in the county. But the poor of Deadborough preferred her hypocrisy to the virtuous simplicity of her critics.

Mrs. Abel is too great a subject for such humble portraiture as I can attempt, and she will henceforth appear in these pages only as occasion requires. It is time that we turn to the men.

The first of these was Robert Dellanow, known far and wide as "Snarley Bob," head shepherd to Sam Perryman of the Upper Farm. I say, the first; for it was he who had the pre-eminence, both as to intelligence and the tragic antagonisms of his life....