What the Shepherd Saw

Thomas Hardy


First night

The Christmas moon was showing her cold face to the low hills called the Marlbury Downs, in the southwestern part of England known as Mid-Wessex. Here sheep were kept out on the hills all year round, and lambs were born as early as December. Shepherds needed to be on the hills day and night at this time of year, and often used small wheeled huts where they could rest and keep warm, while keeping a careful eye on the sheep.

On a high piece of land one of these huts stood inside a little circle of trees, which kept it out of the icy wind and also hidden from any passersby. The hut was made of wood, and had a door and two windows. The north one looked out on the eight hundred sheep which were in the shepherd's care, and the south window gave a view of three ancient stones, built in the shape of a doorway. These great stones, which village people called the Devil's Door, had been there for over two thousand years. They were worn and weather-beaten, but tonight looked almost new in the silver light of the moon.

Inside the hut a young shepherd boy was waiting for his master, who entered at that moment.

'Are ye sleepy?' asked the old man crossly.

'N - no, master,' replied the boy, who was a little frightened of the shepherd and his heavy stick.

'The sheep should be all right until the morning now,' said the shepherd, 'but one of us must stay here, so I'll leave ye, do ye hear? I'll go home and sleep for a few hours. Run down to my cottage and fetch me if anything happens. Ye can have a bit of a sleep in the chair by the stove but only for a few minutes, mind! Make sure ye stay awake the rest of the time, and don't let that fire go out!'

The old man closed the door, and disappeared. The boy went out to check on the sheep and newborn lambs, then came back into the hut and sat down by the warm stove. Soon his eyes closed, his head dropped, and he was asleep.

When he woke up, he could hear down in the valley the clock at Shakeforest Towers striking eleven. The sound carried well in the cold night air. He looked out of the north window and saw the sheep, lying on the grass as quietly as before. He next looked out of the opposite window, towards the stones of the Devil's Door, white and ghostly in the moonlight. And in front of them stood a man.