It was on a cold and drenching afternoon in October that I spent an hour at Woon Gate: for in all the homeless landscape this little round-house offers the only shelter, its windows looking east and west along the high-road and abroad upon miles of moorland, hedgeless, dotted with peat-ricks, inhabited only by flocks of grey geese and a declining breed of ponies, the chartered vagrants of Woon Down. Two miles and more to the north, and just under the rim of the horizon, straggle the cottages of a few tin-streamers, with their backs to the wind. These look down across an arable country, into which the women descend to work at seed-time and harvest, and whence, returning, they bring some news of the world. But Woon Gate lies remoter. It was never more than a turnpike; and now the gate is down, the toll-keeper dead, and his widow lives alone in the round-house. She opened the door to me–a pleasant-faced old woman of seventy, in a muslin cap, red turnover, and grey gown hitched very high. She wore no shoes inside her cottage, but went about in a pair of coarse worsted stockings on all days except the very rawest, when the chill of the lime-ash floor struck into her bones.
“May I wait a few minutes till the weather lifts?” I asked.
She smiled and seemed almost grateful.
“You’m kindly welcome, be sure: that’s if you don’t mind the Vaccination.”
I suppose that my face expressed some wonder: for she went on, shaking my dripping hat and hanging it on a nail by the fire–
“Doctor Rodda’ll be comin’ in half-an-hour’s time. ‘Tis district Vaccination to-day, and he always inoculates here, ’tis so handy.”
She nodded her head at half a dozen deal chairs and a form arrayed round the wall under a row of sacred texts and tradesmen’s almanacks.
“There’ll be nine to-day, as I makes it out. I counted ’em up several times last night.”
It was evidently a great day in her eyes.
“But you’ve allowed room for many more than nine,” I pointed out.
“Why, of course. There’s some brings their elder childer for a treat–an’ there’s always ‘Melia Penaluna.”
I was on the point of asking who Amelia Penaluna might be, when my attention was drawn to the small eastern window. Just outside, and but a dozen paces from the house, there stretched a sullen pond, over which the wind drove in scuds and whipped the sparse reeds that encroached around its margin. Beside the further bank of the pond the high-road was joined by a narrow causeway that led down from the northern fringe of Woon Down; and along this causeway moved a procession of women and children.
They were about twenty in all, and, as they skirted the pond, their figures were sharply silhouetted against the grey sky. Each of the women held a baby close to her breast and bent over it as she advanced against the wind, that beat her gown tightly against her legs and blew it out behind in bellying folds. Yet beneath their uncouth and bedraggled garments they moved like mothers of a mighty race, tall, large-limbed, broad of hip, hiding generous breasts beneath the shawls–red, grey, and black–that covered their babes from the wind and rain. A few of the children struggled forward under ricketty umbrellas; but the mothers had their hands full, and strode along unsheltered. More than one, indeed, faced the storm without bonnet or covering for the head; and all marched along the causeway like figures on some sculptured frieze, their shadows broken beneath them on the ruffled surface of the pond. I said that each of the women carried a babe: but there was one who did not–a plain, squat creature, at the tail of the procession, who wore a thick scarf round her neck, and a shawl of divers bright colours. She led a small child along with one hand, and with the other attempted to keep a large umbrella against the wind.