THE BOY WITH THE WOOLPACK
HOW ROBERT EDRUPT JOURNEYED WITH THE WOOL-MERCHANTS TO LONDON
N the reign of King Henry II., when as yet there were not factories,
no railways or even coaches, no post-offices and no tea-tables in
England, a boy sat on a hillside not far from Salisbury Plain, with
a great bale of wool by his side. It was not wrapped in paper; it
was packed close and very skillfully bound together with cords,
lengthwise and crosswise, making a network of packthread all over
it. The boy's name was Robert Edrupt, but in the tiny village where
he was born he had always been called Hob. He had been reared
by his grandfather, a shepherd, and now the old shepherd was dead
and he was going to seek his fortune.
The old grandmother, Dame Lysbeth, was still alive, but there was
not much left over for her to live on. She had a few sheep and a little
garden, chickens, a beehive, and one field; and she and her grandson
had decided that he should take the wool, which was just ready for
market when the sudden death of the shepherd took place, and ask
the dealers when they
 came by if they would not take him with them to London. Now he was
waiting, as near the road as he could get, listening hard for the tinkle
of their horse-bells around the shoulder of the down.
WAITING FOR THE WOOL-MERCHANTS.
The road would not really be called a road to-day. It was a track,
trodden out about half way up the slope of the valley in some parts
of it, and now and then running along the top of the long, low hills that
have been called downs as long as the memory of man holds a trace
of them. Sometimes it would make a sharp twist to cross the shallows of
a stream, for there were scarcely any bridges in the country. In some
places it was wide enough for a regiment, and but faintly marked; in others
it was bitten deep into the hillside and so narrow that three men could
hardly have gone abreast upon it. But it did not need to be anything more
than a trail, or bridle-path, because no wagons went that way,—only
travelers afoot or a-horseback. At some seasons there would be wayfarers
all along the road from early in the morning until sunset, and they would
even be found camping by the wayside; at other times of the year one might
walk for hours upon it and meet nobody at all. Robert had been sitting where
he was for about three hours; and he had walked between four and five miles,
woolpack on his shoulder, before he reached the road; he had risen before
the sun that morning. Now he began to wonder if the wool-merchants had
already gone by. It was late in the season, and if they had, there was
hardly any hope of sending the wool to market this year.
But worry never worked aught, as the saying is, and people who take
care of sheep seem to worry less than others; there are many things
that they cannot change, and they are kept
 busy attending to their flocks. Robert, who did not intend to be called
Hob any more, took from his pouch some coarse bread and cheese and
began munching it, for by the sun it was the dinner-hour—nine o'clock.
Meanwhile he made sure that the silver penny in the corner of the pouch,
which hung at his girdle and served him for a pocket, was safe. It was.
It was about the size of a modern halfpenny and had a cross on one side.
A penny such as this could be cut in quarters, and each piece passed as
Just as the last bit of bread and cheese vanished there came, from far away
over the fern, the jingle-jangle of strings of bells on the necks of pack-horses.
A few minutes later the shaggy head and neck of the leader came in sight.
They were strong, not very big horses; and while they were not built for racing,
they were quick walkers. They could travel over rough country at a very good
pace, even when, as they now were, loaded heavily with packs of wool.
Robert stood up, his heart beating fast: he had never seen them so close
before. The merchants were laughing and talking and seemed to be in a
good humor, and he hoped very much that they would speak to him.
"Ho!" said the one who rode nearest to him, "here's another, as I live.
Did you grow out of the ground, and have your roots like the rest of
Robert bowed; he was rather angry, but this was no time to answer
back. "I have wool to sell, so please you," he said, "and—if you
be in need of a horse-boy, I would work my passage to London."
The man who had spoken frowned and pulled at his beard, but the
leader, who had been talking to some one behind him,
 now turned his face toward Robert. He was a kindly-looking,
ruddy-cheeked old fellow, with eyes as sharp as the stars on
a winter night that is clear.
"Hum!" he said genially. "Who are you, and why are you
so fond to go to London, young sheep-dog?"
Robert told his story, as short and straight as he could, for he could
see that some of the merchants were impatient. This was only one
pack of wool, and at the next market-town they would probably find
enough to load all the rest of their train of horses, when they could
push straight on to London and get their money. "If you desire to know
further of what I say," the boy ended his speech, "the landlord of the
Wool-pack will tell you that our fleeces are as fine and as heavy as any in
the market, so please you, master."
"Hum!" the wool-merchant said again. "Give him one of the
spare nags, Gib, and take up the pack, lad, for we must be
getting on. What if I find thee a liar and send thee back from
the inn, hey?"
"If I be a liar, I will go," said Robert joyfully, and he climbed on the
great horse, and the whole company went trotting briskly onward.
Robert found that in course of time, however, that when we have got
what we want, it is not always what we like most heartily. He had been
on a horse before, but had never ridden for any length of time, and
riding all day long on the hard-paced pack-horses over hill and valley was
no play. Then, when they reached the town, and the merchants began to
joke and trade with the shepherds who had brought in their wool for
market-day, and all the people of the inn were bustling about getting supper,
he had to help Gib and Jack, the
 horse-boys, to rub down the horses, take off their packs, and feed and
water them. He nearly got into a terrible pickle for not knowing that
you must not water a horse that has been traveling for hours until it has
had at least half an hour to rest and cool off. When he finally did get his
supper, a bowl of hot stew and some bread and cheese,—and
extremely good it tasted,—it was time for bed. He and the other
serving-lads had to sleep on the woolpacks piled in the open courtyard
of the inn, which was build in a hollow square,—two-story buildings
and stables around the square court where the horses and baggage were
left. This did not trouble Rober, however. He had slept on the open hillside
more than once, and it was a clear night; he could see Arthur's Wain shining
among the other stars, and hear the horses, not far away, contentedly
champing their grain.
The next morning he woke up lame and weary, but that wore off after
a time. Nobody in the company paid attention to aching muscles; what
was occupying the minds of the traffickers was the fear of getting the
wool to London too late to secure their price for it. Italian and Flemish
merchants had their agents there, buying up the fleeces from the great
flocks of the abbeys, and Master Hardel had taken his company further
west than usual, this year. No stop would be made after this, except to
eat and sleep, for the horses were now loaded with all that they could
On the second night, it rained, and every one was wet,—not as
wet as might be supposed, however, considering that no umbrellas and
no rubber coats existed. Each man wore instead of a hat a pointed hood,
with a cap, the front turned back from his eyes. By folding the cape around
him he could
 keep off the worst of the rain, for the cloth had a shaggy nap, and
was close-woven as well. On legs and feet were long woolen hose
which dried when the sun came out; and some had leathern tunics
under their cloaks.
It was rather jolly on the road, even in the rain. The dark-bearded
man, who was called Jeffrey, knew numberless tales and songs, and
when he could turn a jest on any of the party he invariably did. No one
took any especial notice of Robert, except that the man called Gib shifted
as much of his own work on him as possible, and sometimes, when they
were riding in the rear, grumbled viciously about the hard riding and small
pay. There is usually one person of that sort in any company of travelers.
Robert minded neither the hard work nor Gib's scolding. He was as strong
as a young pony, and he was seeing the world, of which he had dreamed
through many a long, thyme-scented day on the Downs, with soft little noises
of sheep cropping turf all about him as he lay. What London would be like he
could not quite make out, for as yet he had seen no town of more than
a thousand people.
At last, near sunset, somebody riding ahead raised a shout and
flung up his arm, and all knew that they were within sight of
London—London, the greatest city in England, with more than
a hundred churches inside its towered city wall. They pushed the
horses hard, hoping to reach the New Gate before eight o'clock, but it
was of no use. They were still nearly a mile away from the walls
when the far sound of bells warned them that they were too late. They
turned back and stayed their steps at an inn called the Shepherd's Bush,
out on the road to the west country over which the drovers and
 the packmen came. A long pole over the door had on its end a bunch
of green boughs and red berries—the "bush" told them that ale
was to be had within. The landlord was a West Country man, and
Robert found to his joy that the landlord's old father had known
Colin Edrupt the shepherd and Dame Lysbeth, and danced at their
wedding, nearly half a century before.
Next morning, with the sun still in their eyes as they trotted briskly
Londonward, they came to the massive gray wall, with the Fleet,
a deep swift river, flowing down beside it to the Thames. They were
waiting outside the New Gate when the watchmen swung open the
great doors, and the crowd of travelers, traders and country folk began
to push in. The men with the woolpacks kept together, edging through
the narrow streets that sloped downward to the river where the tall
ships were anchored. The jingle of the bridle-bells, that rang so loud
and merrilly over the hills, was quite drowned out in the racket of the city
streets where armourers were hammering, horsemen crowding, tradesmen
shouting, and business of every sort was going on. Robert had somehow
supposed that London would be on a great level encircled by hills, but found
with surprise that it itself was on a hill, crowned by the mighty cathedral
St. Paul's, longer than Winchester, with a steeple that seemed climbing to
pierce the clouds. At last the shaggy laden horses came to a halt at a
warehouse by the river, where a little, dried-up-looking man in odd
garments looked the wool over and agreed with Master Hardel on the
price which he would pay. Robert could not understand a word of the
conversation, for the wholesale merchant was a Hollander from
Antwerp, and when he had loaded his ship
 with the wool it would go to Flanders to be made into fine cloth.
Robert was so busy watching the transactions that when the
master spoke to him it made him jump.
"Here is the money for thy wool, my lad," the old man said kindly.
"Hark 'ee, if you choose to ride with us again, meet me at
Shepherd's Bush on the sixth day hence, and you shall have that
good-for-naught Gib's place. And keep thy money safe; this is
a place of thieves."
That was how Robert Edrupt rode from the West Country and
settled in his mind that some day he would himself be a wool-merchant.