ROUND ABOUT A GREAT ESTATE
'THE GAMEKEEPER AT HOME' 'WILD LIFE IN A SOUTHERN COUNTY' 'THE AMATEUR POACHER' 'GREEN FERNE FARM' 'HODGE AND HIS MASTERS'
LONDON SMITH, ELDER, & CO., 15 WATERLOO PLACE 1880
[All rights reserved]
There is an old story which in respect of a modern application may bear re-telling. Once upon a time in a lonely 'coombe-bottom' of the Downs, where there was neither church, chapel, nor public building of any kind, there lived a cottage-girl who had never seen anything of civilisation. A friend, however, having gone out to service in a market-town some few miles distant, she one day walked in to see her, and was shown the wonders of the place, the railway, the post-office, the hotels, and so forth. In the evening the friend accompanied her a short way on the return journey, and as they went out of the town, they passed the church. Looking suddenly up at the tower, the visitor exclaimed, 'Lard-a-mussy! you've got another moon here. Yourn have got figures all round un!' In her excitement, and prepared to see marvels, she had mistaken the large dial of the church clock for a moon of a different kind to the one which shone upon her native home. This old tale, familiar to country folk as an illustration of simplicity, has to-day a wider meaning. Until recent years the population dwelling in villages and hamlets, and even in little rural towns, saw indeed the sun by day and the moon by night, and learned the traditions and customs of their forefathers, such as had been handed down for generations. But now a new illumination has fallen upon these far-away places. The cottager is no longer ignorant, and his child is well grounded in rudimentary education, reads and writes with facility, and is not without knowledge of the higher sort. Thus there is now another moon with the figures of education all round it. In this book some notes have been made of the former state of things before it passes away entirely. But I would not have it therefore thought that I wish it to continue or return. My sympathies and hopes are with the light of the future, only I should like it to come from nature. The clock should be read by the sunshine, not the sun timed by the clock. The latter is indeed impossible, for though all the clocks in the world should declare the hour of dawn to be midnight, the sun will presently rise just the same.
I. OKEBOURNE CHACE. FELLING TREES. 1
II. CICELY. THE BROOK. 20
III. A PACK OF STOATS. BIRDS. 42
IV. HAMLET FOLK. 61
V. WIND-ANEMONES. THE FISHPOND. 82
VI. A FARMER OF THE OLDEN TIMES. 103
VII. THE CUCKOO-FIELDS. 125
VIII. CICELY'S DAIRY. HILARY'S TALK. 144
IX. THE WATER-MILL. FIELD NAMES. 163
X. THE COOMBE-BOTTOM. CONCLUSION. 183
ROUND ABOUT A GREAT ESTATE.
OKEBOURNE CHACE. FELLING TREES.
The great house at Okebourne Chace stands in the midst of the park, and from the southern windows no dwellings are visible. Near at hand the trees appear isolated, but further away insensibly gather together, and above them rises the distant Down crowned with four tumuli. Among several private paths which traverse the park there is one that, passing through a belt of ash wood, enters the meadows. Sometimes following the hedges and sometimes crossing the angles, this path finally ends, after about a mile, in the garden surrounding a large thatched farmhouse. In the maps of the parish it has probably another name, but from being so long inhabited by the Lucketts it is always spoken of as Lucketts' Place.
The house itself and ninety acres of grass land have been their freehold for many generations; in fact, although there is no actual deed of entail, the property is as strictly preserved in the family and descends from heir to heir as regularly as the great estate and mansion adjacent. Old Hilary Luckett—though familiarly called 'old,' he is physically in the prime of life—is probably about the most independent man in the county. Yet he is on terms of more than goodwill with the great house, and rents one of the largest farms on the estate, somewhere between six and seven hundred acres. He has the right of shooting, and in the course of years privilege after privilege has been granted, till Hilary is now as free of the warren as the owner of the charter himself. If you should be visiting Okebourne Chace, and any question should arise whether of horses, dog, or gun, you are sure to be referred to Hilary. Hilary knows all about it: he is the authority thereabout on all matters concerning game. Is it proposed to plant fresh covers? Hilary's opinion is asked. Is it proposed to thin out some of the older trees; what does Hilary say?
It is a fact that people really believe no part of a partridge is ever taken away after being set before him. Neither bones nor sinews remain: so fond is he of the brown bird. Having eaten the breast, and the juicy leg and the delicate wing, he next proceeds to suck the bones; for game to be thoroughly enjoyed should be eaten like a mince-pie, in the fingers. There is always one bone with a sweeter flavour than the rest, just at the joint or fracture: it varies in every bird according to the chance of the cooking, but, having discovered it, put it aside for further and more strict attention. Presently he begins to grind up the bones in his strong teeth, commencing with the smallest. His teeth are not now so powerful as when in younger days he used to lift a sack of wheat with them, or the full milking-bucket up to the level of the copper in the dairy. Still they gradually reduce the slender skeleton. The feat is not so difficult if the bird has been well hung.
He has the right to shoot, and need take no precautions. But, in fact, a farmer, whether he has liberty or not, can usually amuse himself occasionally in that way. If his labourer sees him quietly slipping up beside the hedge with his double-barrel towards the copse in the corner where a pheasant has been heard several times lately, the labourer watches him with delight, and says nothing. Should anyone in authority ask where that gun went off, the labourer 'thenks it wur th' birdkippur up in th' Dree Vurlong, you.' Presently the pheasant hangs in the farmer's cellar, his long tail sweeping the top of the XXX cask; and the 'servant-wench,' who is in and out all day, also says nothing. Nor can anything exceed the care with which she disposes of the feathers when she picks the bird. There is a thorough sympathy between master and man so far. Hilary himself, with all that great estate to sport over, cannot at times refrain from stepping across the boundary. His landlord once, it is whispered, was out with Hilary shooting, and they became so absent-minded while discussing some interesting subject as to wander several fields beyond the property before they discovered their mistake.
At Lucketts' Place the favourite partridge always comes up for supper: a pleasant meal that nowadays can rarely be had out of a farmhouse. Then the bright light from the burning log outshines the lamp, and glances rosy on the silver tankard standing under a glass shade on a bracket against the wall. Hilary's father won it near half a century since in some heats that were run on the Downs on the old racecourse, before it was ploughed up. For the wicked turnip is responsible for the destruction of old England; far more so than the steam-engine.
Waste lands all glorious with golden blossoming furze, with purple foxglove, or curious orchis hiding in stray corners; wild moor-like lands, beautiful with heaths and honey-bottle; grand stretches of sloping downs where the hares hid in the grass, and where all the horses in the kingdom might gallop at their will; these have been overthrown with the plough because of the turnip. As the root crops came in, the rage began for thinning the hedges and grubbing the double mounds and killing the young timber, besides putting in the drains and driving away the wild-ducks. The wicked turnip put diamonds on the fingers of the farmer's wife, and presently raised his rent. But now some of the land is getting 'turnip-sick,' the roots come stringy and small and useless, so that many let it 'vall down.'
After the last crop it is left alone, the couch grows, the docks spread out from the hedges, every species of weed starts up, till by-and-by the ploughed land becomes green and is called pasture. This is a process going on at the present moment, and to which owners of land should see without delay. Hilary has been looked on somewhat coldly by other tenants for openly calling the lord of the manor's attention to it. He sturdily maintains that arable land if laid down for pasture should be laid down properly—a thing that requires labour and expenditure just the same as other farming operations. So the silver tankard, won when 'cups' were not so common as now, is a memorial of the old times before the plough turned up the sweet turf of the racecourse.
Hilary does not bet beyond the modest 'fiver' which a man would be thought unsociable if he did not risk on the horse that carries the country's colours. But he is very 'thick' with the racing-people on the Downs, and supplies the stable with oats, which is, I believe, not an unprofitable commission. The historical anecdote of the Roman emperor who fed his horse on gilded oats reads a little strange when we first come across it in youth. But many a race-horse owner has found reason since to doubt if it be so wonderful, as his own stud—to judge by the cost—must live on golden fodder. Now, before I found this out about the stable, it happened one spring day that I met Hilary in the fields, and listened to a long tirade which he delivered against 'wuts.'
The wheat was then showing a beautiful flag, the despised oats were coming out in jag, and the black knots on the delicate barley straw were beginning to be topped with the hail. The flag is the long narrow green leaf of the wheat; in jag means the spray-like drooping awn of the oat; and the hail is the beard of the barley, which when it is white and brittle in harvest-time gets down the back of the neck, irritating the skin of those who work among it. According to Hilary, oats do not flourish on rich land; and when he was young (and everything was then done right) a farmer who grew oats was looked upon with contempt, as they were thought only fit for the poorest soil, and a crop that therefore denoted poverty. But nowadays, thundered Hilary in scorn, all farmers grow oats, and, indeed, anything in preference to wheat.
Afterwards, at the Derby that year, methought I saw Hilary as I passed the sign of the 'Carrion Crow:' the dead bird dangles from the top of a tall pole stuck in the sward beside a booth. I lost him in the crowd then. But later on in autumn, while rambling round the Chace, there came on a 'skit' of rain, and I made for one of his barns for shelter. There was Hilary in the barn with his men, as busy as they could well be, winnowing oats. It seemed to me that especial care was being taken, and on asking questions, to which the men silently replied with a grin, Hilary presently blurted out that the dust had to be carefully removed, because the grain was for the racing-stable. The dainty creatures up there must have food free from dust, which makes them too thirsty. The hay supplied, for the same reason, had to be shaken before being used. No oats would do under 40 lb. the bushel, and the heavier the better.
Luckett was a man whom every one knew to be 'square;' but, if the talk of the country-side is to be believed, the farmers who have much to do with the stables do not always come off successful. They sometimes become too sharp, and fancy themselves cleverer than a class of men who, if their stature be not great, are probably the keenest of wit. The farmer who obliges them is invariably repaid with lucrative 'tips;' but if he betrays those 'tips' may possibly find his information in turn untrustworthy, and have to sell by auction, and depart to Texas. Luckett avoids such pitfalls by the simple policy of 'squareness,' which is, perhaps, the wisest of all. When the 'skit' blew past he took his gun from the corner and stepped over the hatch, and came down the path with me, grumbling that all the grain, even where the crop looked well, had threshed out so light.
Farming had gone utterly to the dogs of late seasons; he thought he should give up the land he rented, and live on the ninety acres freehold. In short, to hear him talk, you would think that he was conferring a very great favour upon his landlord in consenting to hold that six or seven hundred acres at a rent which has not been altered these fifty years at least. But the owner was a very good fellow, and as Hilary said, 'There it is, you see.' My private opinion is that, despite the late bad seasons, Hilary has long been doing remarkably well; and as for his landlord, that he would stand by him shoulder to shoulder if defence were needed.
Much as I admired the timber about the Chace, I could not help sometimes wishing to have a chop at it. The pleasure of felling trees is never lost. In youth, in manhood—so long as the arm can wield the axe—the enjoyment is equally keen. As the heavy tool passes over the shoulder the impetus of the swinging motion lightens the weight, and something like a thrill passes through the sinews. Why is it so pleasant to strike? What secret instinct is it that makes the delivery of a blow with axe or hammer so exhilarating? The wilder frenzy of the sword—the fury of striking with the keen blade, which overtakes men even now when they come hand to hand, and which was once the life of battle—seems to arise from the same feeling. Then, as the sharp edge of the axe cuts deep through the bark into the wood, there is a second moment of gratification. The next blow sends a chip spinning aside; and by-the-bye never stand at the side of a woodman, for a chip may score your cheek like a slash with a knife. But the shortness of man's days will not allow him to cut down many trees. In imagination I sometimes seem to hear the sounds of the axes that have been ringing in the forests of America for a hundred years, and envy the joy of the lumbermen as the tall pines toppled to the fall. Of our English trees there is none so pleasant to chop as the lime; the steel enters into it so easily.
In the enclosed portion of the park at Okebourne the boughs of the trees descended and swept the sward. Nothing but sheep being permitted to graze there, the trees grew in their natural form, the lower limbs drooping downwards to the ground. Hedgerow timber is usually 'stripped' up at intervals, and the bushes, too, interfere with the expansion of the branches; while the boughs of trees standing in the open fields are nibbled off by cattle. But in that part of the park no cattle had fed in the memory of man; so that the lower limbs, drooping by their own weight, came arching to the turf. Each tree thus made a perfect bower.
The old woodmen who worked in the Chace told me it used to be said that elm ought only to be thrown on two days of the year—i.e. the 31st of December and the 1st of January. The meaning was that it should be cut in the very 'dead of the year,' when the sap had retired, so that the timber might last longer. The old folk took the greatest trouble to get their timber well seasoned, which is the reason why the woodwork in old houses has endured so well. Passing under some elms one June evening, I heard a humming overhead, and found it was caused by a number of bees and humble-bees busy in the upper branches at a great height from the ground. They were probably after the honey-dew. Buttercups do not flourish under trees; in early summer, where elms or oaks stand in the mowing-grass, there is often a circle around almost bare of them and merely green, while the rest of the meadow glistens with the burnished gold of that beautiful flower.
The oak is properly regarded as a slow-growing tree, but under certain circumstances a sapling will shoot up quickly to a wonderful height. When the woodmen cut down a fir plantation in the Chace there was a young oak among it that overtopped the firs, and yet its diameter was so small that it looked no larger than a pole; and the supporting boughs of the firs being now removed it could not uphold itself, but bent so much from the perpendicular as to appear incapable of withstanding a gale. The bark of the oak, when stripped and stacked, requires fine weather to dry it, much the same as hay, so that a wet season like 1879 is very unfavourable.
In the open glades of the Chace there were noble clumps of beeches, and if you walked quietly under them in the still October days you might hear a slight but clear and distinct sound above you. This was caused by the teeth of a squirrel nibbling the beech-nuts, and every now and then down came pieces of husk rustling through the coloured leaves. Sometimes a nut would fall which he had dropped; and yet, with the nibbling sound to guide the eye, it was not always easy to distinguish the little creature. But his tail presently betrayed him among the foliage, far out on a bough where the nuts grew. The husks, if undisturbed, remain on all the winter and till the tree is in full green leaf again; the young nuts are formed about midsummer.
The black poplars are so much like the aspen as to be easily mistaken, especially as their leaves rustle in the same way. But the true aspen has a smooth bark, while that of the black poplar is scored or rough. Woodmen always call the aspen the 'asp,' dropping the termination. In the spring the young foliage of the black poplar has a yellow tint. When they cut down the alder poles by the water and peeled them, the sap under the bark as it dried turned as red as if stained. The paths in spring were strewn with the sheaths of the young leaves and buds pushing forth; showers of such brown sheaths came off the hawthorn with every breeze. These, with the catkins, form the first fall from tree and bush. The second is the flower, as the May, and the horse-chestnut bloom, whose petals cover the ground. The third fall is that of the leaf, and the fourth the fruit.
On the Scotch fir the young green cones are formed about the beginning of June, and then the catkin adjacent to the cone is completely covered with quantities of pale yellow farina. If handled, it covers the fingers as though they had been dipped in sulphur-flour; shake the branch and it flies off, a little cloud of powdery particles. The scaly bark takes a ruddy tinge, when the sunshine falls upon it, and would then, I think, be worthy the attention of an artist as much as the birch bark, whose peculiar mingling of silvery white, orange, and brown, painters so often endeavour to represent on canvas. There is something in the Scotch fir, crowned at the top like a palm with its dark foliage, which, in a way I cannot express or indeed analyse, suggests to my mind the far-away old world of the geologists.
In the boughs of the birch a mass of twigs sometimes grows so close and entangled together as to appear like a large nest from a distance when the leaves are off. Even as early as December the tomtits attack the buds, then in their sheaths, of the birch, clinging to the very extremities of the slender boughs. I once found a young birch growing on the ledge of a brick bridge, outside the parapet, and some forty or fifty feet from the ground. It was about four feet high, quite a sapling, and apparently flourishing, though where the roots could find soil it was difficult to discover.
The ash tree is slowly disappearing from many places, and owners of hedgerow and copse would do well to plant ash, which affords a most useful wood. Ash poles are plentiful, but ash timber gets scarcer year by year; for as the present trees are felled there are no young ones rising up to take their place. Consequently ash is becoming dearer, as the fishermen find; for many of the pleasure yachts which they let out in summer are planked with ash, which answers well for boats which are often high and dry on the beach, though it would not do if always in the water. These beach-boats have an oak frame, oak stem and stern-post, beech keel, and are planked with ash. When they require repairing, the owners find ash planking scarce and dear.
Trees may be said to change their garments thrice in the season. In the spring the woods at Okebourne were of the tenderest green, which, as the summer drew on, lost its delicacy of hue. Then came the second or 'midsummer shoot,' brightening them with fresh leaves and fresh green. The second shoot of the oak is reddish: there was one oak in the Chace which after midsummer thus became ruddy from the highest to the lowest branch; others did not show the change nearly so much. Lastly came the brown and yellow autumn tints.
CICELY. THE BROOK.
In the kitchen at Lucketts' Place there was a stool made by sawing off about six inches of the butt of a small ash tree. The bark remained on, and it was not smoothed or trimmed in any way. This mere log was Cicely Luckett's favourite seat as a girl; she was Hilary's only daughter. The kitchen had perhaps originally been the house, the rest having been added to it in the course of years as the mode of life changed and increasing civilisation demanded more convenience and comfort. The walls were quite four feet thick, and the one small lattice-window in its deep recess scarcely let in sufficient light, even on a summer's day, to dispel the gloom, except at one particular time.
The little panes, yellow and green, were but just above the ground, looking out upon the road into the rickyard, so that the birds which came searching along among the grasses and pieces of wood thrown carelessly aside against the wall could see into the room. Robins, of course, came every morning, perching on the sill and peering in with the head held on one side. Blackbird and thrush came, but always passed the window itself quickly, though they stayed without fear within a few inches of it on either hand.
There was an old oak table in the centre of the room—a table so solid that young Aaron, the strong labourer, could only move it with difficulty. There was no ceiling properly speaking, the boards of the floor above and a thick beam which upheld it being only whitewashed; and much of that had scaled off. An oaken door led down a few steps into the cellar, and over both cellar and kitchen there sloped a long roof, thatched, whose eaves were but just above the ground.
Now, when there was no one in the kitchen, as in the afternoon, when even the indoor servants had gone out to help in the hayfield, little Cicely used to come in here and sit dreaming on the ash log by the hearth. The rude stool was always placed inside the fireplace, which was very broad for burning wood, faggots and split pieces of timber. Bending over the grey ashes, she could see right up the great broad tunnel of the chimney to the blue sky above, which seemed the more deeply azure, as it does from the bottom of a well. In the evenings when she looked up she sometimes saw a star shining above. In the early mornings of the spring, as she came rushing down to breakfast, the tiny yellow panes of the window which faced the east were all lit up and rosy with the rays of the rising sun.
The beautiful light came through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down, and then for the first hour of the day the room was aglow. For quite two hundred years every visible sunrise had shone in at that window more or less, as the season changed and the sun rose to the north of east. Perhaps it was that sense of ancient homeliness that caused Cicely, without knowing why, to steal in there alone to dream, for nowhere else indoors could she have been so far away from the world of to-day.
Left much to herself, she roamed along the hedgerow as now and then a mild day came, soon after the birds had paired, and saw the arrow-shaped, pointed leaves with black spots rising and unrolling at the sides of the ditches. Many of these seemed to die away presently without producing anything, but from some there pushed up a sharply conical sheath, from which emerged the spadix of the arum with its frill. Thrusting a stick into the loose earth of the bank, she found the root, covered with a thick wrinkled skin which peeled easily and left a white substance like a small potato. Some of the old women who came into the kitchen used to talk about 'yarbs,' and she was told that this was poisonous and ought not to be touched—the very reason why she slipped into the dry ditch and dug it up. But she started with a sense of guilt as she heard the slow rustle of a snake gliding along the mound over the dead, dry leaves of last year.
In August, when the reapers began to call and ask for work, she found the arum stalks, left alone without leaves, surrounded with berries, some green, some ripening red. As the berries ripen, the stalk grows weak and frequently falls prone of its own weight among the grasses. This noisome fruit of clustering berries, like an ear of maize stained red, they told her was 'snake's victuals,' and to be avoided; for, bright as was its colour, it was only fit for a reptile's food.
She knew, too, where to find the first 'crazy Betties,' whose large yellow flowers do not wait for the sun, but shine when the March wind scatters king's ransoms over the fields. These are the marsh marigolds: there were two places where she gathered them, one beside the streamlet flowing through the 'Mash,' a meadow which was almost a water-meadow; and the other inside a withy-bed. She pulled the 'cat's-tails,' as she learned to call the horse-tails, to see the stem part at the joints; and when the mowing-grass began to grow long, picked the cuckoo-flowers and nibbled the stalk and leaflets to essay the cress-like taste. In the garden, which was full of old-fashioned shrubs and herbs, she watched the bees busy at the sweet-scented 'honey-plant,' and sometimes peered under the sage-bush to look at the 'effets' that hid there.
By the footpath through the meadows there were now small places where the mowers had tried their new scythes as they came home, a little warm with ale perhaps, from the market town. They cut a yard or two of grass as they went through the fields, just to get the swing of the scythe and as a hint to the farmer that it was time to begin. With the first June rose in the hedge the haymaking commenced—the two usually coincide—and then Cicely fluctuated between the haymakers and the mowers, now watching one and now the other. One of the haymaking girls was very proud because she had not lost a single wooden tooth out of her rake, for it is easy to break or pull them out. In the next field the mowers, one behind the other in echelon, left each his swathe as he went. The tall bennets with their purplish anthers, the sorrel, and the great white 'moon-daisies' fell before them. Cicely would watch till perhaps the sharp scythe cut a frog, and the poor creature squealed with the pain.
Then away along the hedge to the pond in the corner, all green with 'creed,' or duckweed, when one of the boys about the place would come timidly up to offer a nest of eggs just taken, and if she would speak to him would tell her about his exploits 'a-nisting,' about the bombarrel tit—a corruption apparently of nonpareil—and how he had put the yellow juice of the celandine on his 'wurrut' to cure it. Then they pulled the plantain leaves, those that grew by the path, to see which could draw out the longest 'cat-gut;' the sinews, as it were, of the plant stretching out like the strings of a fiddle.
In the next meadow the cows had just been turned into fresh grass, and were lazily rioting in it. They fed in the sunshine with the golden buttercups up above their knees, literally wading in gold, their horns as they held their heads low just visible among the flowers. Some that were standing in the furrows were hidden up to their middles by the buttercups. Their sleek roan and white hides contrasted with the green grass and the sheen of the flowers: one stood still, chewing the cud, her square face expressive of intense content, her beautiful eye—there is no animal with a more beautiful eye than the cow—following Cicely's motions. At this time of the year, as they grazed far from the pens, the herd were milked in the corner of the field, instead of driving them to the yard.
One afternoon Cicely came quietly through a gap in the hedge by this particular corner, thinking to laugh at Aaron's voice, for he milked there and sang to the cows, when she saw him sitting on the three-legged milking-stool, stooping in the attitude of milking, with the bucket between his knees, but firm asleep, and quite alone in his glory. He had had too much ale, and dropped asleep while milking the last cow, and the herd had left him and marched away in stately single file down to the pond, as they always drink after the milking. Cicely stole away and said nothing; but presently Aaron was missed and a search made, and he was discovered by the other men still sleeping. Poor 'young Aaron' got into nearly as much disgrace through the brown jug as a poaching uncle of his through his ferrets and wires.
When the moon rose full and lit up the Overboro'-road as bright as day, and the children came out from the cottages to their play, Cicely, though she did not join, used to watch their romping dances and picked up the old rhymes they chanted. When the full moon shone in at her bedroom window, Cicely was very careful to turn away or cover her face; for she had heard one of the mowers declare that after sleeping on the hay in the moonlight one night he woke up in the morning almost blind. Besides the meadows around Lucketts' Place, she sometimes wandered further to the edge of Hilary's great open arable fields, where the green corn, before it came out in ear, seemed to flutter, flutter like innumerable tiny flags, as the wind rushed over it.
She learned to rub the ripe ears in her hands to work the grain out of the husk, and then to winnow away the chaff by letting the corn slowly drop in a stream from one palm to the other, blowing gently with her mouth the while. The grain remained on account of its weight, the chaff floating away, and the wheat, still soft though fully formed, could thus be pleasantly tasted. The plaintive notes of the yellowhammer fell from the scanty trees of the wheat-field hedge, and the ploughboy who was put there to frighten away the rooks told her the bird said, repeating the song over and over again, 'A little bit of bread and no cheese.' And indeed these syllables, with a lengthening emphasis on the 'no,' come ludicrously near to represent the notes. The ploughboy understood them very well, for to have only a hunch of bread and little or no cheese was often his own case.
Two meadows distant from the lower woods of the Chace there is what seems from afar a remarkably wide hedge irregularly bordered with furze. But on entering a gateway in it you find a bridge over a brook, which for some distance flows with a hedge on either side. The low parapet of the bridge affords a seat—one of Cicely's favourite haunts—whence in spring it is pleasant to look up the brook; for the banks sloping down from the bushes to the water are yellow with primroses, and hung over with willow boughs. As the brook is straight, the eye can see under these a long way up; and presently a kingfisher, bright with azure and ruddy hues, comes down the brook, flying but just above the surface on which his reflection travels too. He perches for a moment on a branch close to the bridge, but the next sees that he is not alone, and instantly retreats with a shrill cry.
A moorhen ventures forth from under the arches, her favourite hiding-place, and feeds among the weeds by the shore, but at the least movement rushes back to shelter. A wood-pigeon comes over, flying slowly; he was going to alight on the ash tree yonder, but suddenly espying some one under the cover of the boughs increases his pace and rises higher. Two bright bold bullfinches pass; they have a nest somewhere in the thick hawthorn. A jay, crossing from the fir plantations, stays awhile in the hedge, and utters his loud harsh scream like the tearing of linen. For a few hours the winds are still and the sunshine broods warm over the mead. It is a delicious snatch of spring.
Every now and then a rabbit emerges from the burrows which are scattered thickly along the banks, and, passing among the primroses, goes through the hedge into the border of furze, and thence into the meadow-grass. Some way down the brook they are so numerous as to have destroyed the vegetation on the banks, excepting a few ferns, by their constant movements and scratching of the sand; so that there is a small warren on either side of the water. It is said that they occasionally swim across the broad brook, which is much too wide to jump; but I have never seen such a thing but once. A rabbit already stung with shot and with a spaniel at his heels did once leap at the brook here, and, falling short, swam the remainder without apparent trouble, and escaped into a hole on the opposite shore with his wet fur laid close to the body. But they usually cross at the bridge, where the ground bears the marks of their incessant nightly travels to and fro.
Passing now in the other direction, up the stream from the bridge, the hedges after a while cease, and the brook winds through the open fields. Here there is a pond, to which at night the heron resorts; for he does not care to trust himself between the high hedgerows. In the still shallow, but beyond reach, there floats on the surface a small patch of green vegetation formed of the treble leaves of the water crow-foot. Towards June it will be a brilliant white spot. The slender stems uphold the cup-like flowers two or three inches above the surface, the petals of the purest white with a golden centre. They are the silver buttercups of the brook. Where the current flows slowly the long and somewhat spear-shaped leaves of the water-plantain stand up, and in the summer will be surmounted by a tall stalk with three small pale pink petals on its branches. The leaf can be written on with a pencil, the point tracing letters by removing the green colouring where it passes.
Far larger are the leaves of the water-docks; they sometimes attain to immense size. By the bank the 'wild willow,' or water-betony, with its woody stem, willow-shaped leaves, and pale red flowers, grows thickly. Across where there is a mud-bank the stout stems of the willow herb are already tall. They quite cover the shoal, and line the brook like shrubs. They are the strongest and the most prominent of all the brook plants. At the end of March or beginning of April the stalks appear a few inches high, and they gradually increase in size, until in July they reach above the waist, and form a thicket by the shore. Not till July does the flower open, so that, though they make so much show of foliage, it is months before any colour brightens it. The red flower comes at the end of a pod, and has a tiny white cross within it; it is welcome, because by August so many of the earlier flowers are fading. The country folk call it the sod-apple, and say the leaves crushed in the fingers have something of the scent of apple-pie.
Farther up the stream, where a hawthorn bush shelters it, stands a knotted fig-wort with a square stem and many branches, each with small velvety flowers. If handled, the leaves emit a strong odour, like the leaves of the elder-bush; it is a coarse-growing plant, and occasionally reaches to a height of between four and five feet, with a stem more than half an inch square. Some ditches are full of it. By the rushes the long purple spike of the loose-strife rises, and on the mud-banks among the willows there grows a tall plant with bunches of flower, the petals a bright yellow: this is the yellow loose-strife. Near it is a herb with a much-divided leaf, and curious flowers like small yellow buttons. Rub one of these gently, and it will give forth a most peculiar perfume—aromatic, and not to be compared with anything else; the tansy once scented will always be recognised.
The large rough leaves of the wild comfrey grow in bunches here and there; the leaves are attached to the stem for part of their length, and the stem is curiously flanged. The bells are often greenish, sometimes white, occasionally faintly lilac; they are partly hidden under the dark-green leaves. Where undisturbed the comfrey grows to a great size, the stems becoming very thick. Green flags hide and almost choke the shallow mouth of a streamlet that joins the brook coming from the woods. Though green above, the flag where it enters its sheath is white.
Tracing it upwards, the brook becomes narrower and the stream less, though running more swiftly; and here there is a marshy spot with willows, and between them some bulrushes and great bunches of bullpolls. This coarse grass forms tufts or cushions, on which snakes often coil in the sunshine. Yet though so rough, in June the bullpoll sends up tall slender stalks with graceful feathery heads, reed-like, surrounded with long ribbons of grass. In the ditches hereabout, and beside the brook itself, the meadow-sweet scents the air; the country-folk call it 'meadow-soot.' And in those ditches are numerous coarse stems and leaves which, if crushed in the fingers, yield a strong parsnip-like smell. The water-parsnip, which is poisonous, is said to be sometimes gathered for watercress; but the palate must be dull, one would think, to eat it, and the smell is a sure test. The blue flower of the brooklime is not seen here; you must look for it where the springs break forth, where its foliage sometimes quite conceals the tiny rill.
These flowers do not, of course, all appear together; but they may be all found in the summer season along the brook, and you should begin to look for them when the brown scum, that sign of coming warmth, rises from the bottom of the waters. Returning to the pond, it may be noticed that the cart-horses when they walk in of a summer's day paw the stream, as if they enjoyed the cool sound of the splash; but the cows stand quite still with the water up to their knees.
There is a spot by a yet more quiet bridge, where the little water-shrews play to and fro where the bank overhangs. As they dive and move under water the reddish-brown back looks of a lighter colour; when they touch the ground they thrust their tiny nostrils up just above the surface. There are many holes of water-rats, but no one would imagine how numerous these latter creatures are. One of Hilary's sons, Hugh, kept some ferrets, and in the summer was put to it to find them enough food. The bird-keepers brought in a bird occasionally, and there were cruel rumours of a cat having disappeared. Still there was not sufficient till he hit on the idea of trapping the water-rats; and this is how he did it.
He took three small twigs and ran them into the bank of the brook at the mouth of the water-rat's hole and just beneath the surface of the stream. These made a platform upon which the gin was placed—the pan, and indeed all the trap, just under the water, which prevented any scent. Whether the rat came out of his hole and plunged to dive or started to swim, or whether he came swimming noiselessly round the bend and was about to enter the burrow, it made no difference; he was certain to pass over and throw the gin. The instant the teeth struck him he gave a jump which lifted the trap off the twig platform, and it immediately sank in the deep water and soon drowned him; for the water-rat, though continually diving, can only stay a short time under water. It proved a fatal contrivance, chiefly, as was supposed, because the gin, being just under the water, could not be smelt. No fewer than eleven rats were thus captured in succession at the mouth of one hole. Altogether 150 were taken in the course of that summer.
Hugh kept a record of them by drawing a stroke with chalk for every rat on the red brick wall of the stable, near his ferret-hutch. He only used a few traps—one was set not at a hole, but at a sharp curve of the brook—and the whole of these rats were taken in a part of the brook about 250 or 300 yards in length, just where it ran through a single field. The great majority were water-rats, but there were fifteen or twenty house-rats among them: these were very thin though large, and seemed to be caught as they were migrating; for sometimes several were trapped the same day, and then none (of this kind) for a week or more. Three moorhens were also caught; a fourth was only held by its claw in the gin; this one, not being in the least injured, he let go again.
It had been observed previously that the water-rats, either in making their burrows or for food, gnawed off the young withy-stoles underneath the ground in the withy-beds, and thus killed a considerable amount of withy; but after all this slaughter the withy-beds recovered and bore the finest crop they ever grew. But who could have imagined in walking by the brook that only in its course through a single meadow it harboured 150 rats? Probably, though, some of them came up or down the stream. The ferrets fared sumptuously all the summer.
A PACK OF STOATS. BIRDS.
The sweet scent from a beanfield beside the road caused me to linger one summer morning in a gateway under the elms. A gentle south wind came over the beans, bearing with it the odour of their black-and-white bloom. The Overboro' road ran through part of the Okebourne property (which was far too extensive to be enclosed in a ring fence), and the timber had therefore been allowed to grow so that there was an irregular avenue of trees for some distance. I faced the beanfield, which was on the opposite side, leaning back against the gate which led into some of Hilary's wheat. The silence of the highway, the soft wind, the alternate sunshine and shade as the light clouds passed over, induced a dreamy feeling; and I cannot say how long I had been there when something seemed as it were to cross the corners of my half-closed eyes.
Looking up I saw three stoats gallop across the road, not more than ten yards away. They issued from under the footpath, which was raised and had a drain through it to relieve the road of flood-water in storm. The drain was faced with a flat stone, with a small round hole cut in it. Coming from the wheat at my back, the stoats went down into the ditch; thence entered the short tunnel under the footpath, and out at its stone portal, over the road to the broad sward on the opposite side; then along a furrow in the turf to the other hedge, and so into the beanfield. They galloped like racehorses straining for the victory; the first leading, the second but a neck behind, and the third not half a length. The smooth road rising slightly in the centre showed them well; and thus, with the neck stretched out in front and the tail extended in the rear, the stoat appears much longer than on a mound or in the grass.
A second or so afterwards two more started from the same spot; but I was perhaps in the act to move, for before they had gone three yards they saw me and rushed back to the drain. After a few minutes the larger of these two, probably the male, ventured forth again and reached the middle of the road, when he discovered that his more timorous companion had not followed but was only just peeping out. He stopped and elevated his neck some five or six inches, planting the fore-feet so as to lift him up high to see round, while his hindquarters were flush with the road, quite flat in the dust in which his tail was trailing. His reddish body and white neck, the clear-cut head, the sharp ears, and dark eye were perfectly displayed in that erect attitude. As his companion still hesitated he cried twice, as if impatiently, 'check, check'—a sound like placing the tongue against the teeth and drawing it away. But she feared to follow, and he returned to her. Thinking they would attempt to cross again presently, I waited quietly.
A lark came over from the wheat, and, alighting, dusted herself in the road, hardly five yards from the mouth of the drain, and was there some minutes. A robin went still closer—almost opposite the hole; both birds apparently quite unconscious of the bloodthirsty creatures concealed within it. Some time passed, but the two stoats did not come out, and I saw no more of them: they probably retreated to the wheat as I left the gateway, and would remain there till the noise and jar of my footsteps had ceased in the distance. Examining the road, there was a trail where the first three had crossed in quick succession. In the thick white dust their swift feet had left a line drawn roughly yet lightly, the paws leaving not an exact but an elongated, ill-defined impression. But where the fourth stopped, elevated his neck, and cried to his mate, there was a perfect print of the fore-feet side by side. So slight a track would be obliterated by the first cart that came by.
Till that day I had never seen so many as five stoats together hunting in a pack. It would seem as if stoats and weasels had regular routes; for I now recollected that in the previous winter, when the snow was on the ground, I surprised two weasels almost exactly in the same spot. At other times, too, I have seen solitary stoats and weasels (which may have had companions in the hedge) hunting along that mound, both before and since. I was at first going to tell Hilary about the pack, but afterwards refrained, as he would at once proceed to set up gins in the run, while I thought I should like to see the animals again. But I got him to talk about stoats and weasels, and found that he had not himself seen so many together. There was, however, a man about the place who told a tale of some weasels he had seen. It was 'that rascal old Aaron;' but he could not listen to such a fellow. Hilary would tell me nothing further, having evidently a strong dislike to the man.
It seems there were two Aarons—uncle and nephew: old Aaron was the arch-poacher of the parish, young Aaron worked regularly at Lucketts' Place. This young labourer (the man who fell asleep on the milking-stool) was one of the best of his class—a great, powerful fellow, but good-natured, willing, and pleasant to speak to. He was a favourite with many, and with reason, for he had a gentleness of manner beyond his station; and, till you knew his weakness, you could not but take an interest in him. His vice was drink. He was always down at Lucketts' Place; and through him I made acquaintance with his disreputable uncle, who was at first rather shy of me, for he had seen me about with Hilary, and between the two there was a mortal feud. Old Aaron could not keep out of Okebourne Chace, and Hilary was 'down' upon him. Hilary was, indeed, keener than the keepers.
The old poacher saw the weasels in the 'Pitching.' This was a private lane, which ran through the recesses of the Chace where the wood was thickest and most secluded. It had been made for the convenience of communication between the upper and lower farms, and for hauling timber; the gates at each end being kept locked. In one place the lane descended the steepest part of the wooded hill, and in frosty weather it was not easy even to walk down it there. Sarsen stones, gathered out of the way of the plough in the arable fields, had been thrown down in it at various times with the object of making a firm bottom. Rounded and smooth and very hard, these stones, irregularly placed, with gaps and intervals, when slippery with hoar frost were most difficult to walk on. Once or twice men out hunting had been known to gallop down this hill: the extreme of headlong bravado; for if there was any frost it was sure to linger in that shady lane, and a slip of the iron-shod hoof could scarcely fail to result in a broken neck. It was like riding down a long steep flight of steps.
Aaron one day was engaged with his ferret and nets in the Pitching, just at the bottom of the hill, where there grew a quantity of brake-fern as tall as the shoulder. It was shrivelled and yellow, but thick enough to give him very good cover. Every now and then he looked out into the lane to see if any one was about, and on one of these occasions saw what he imagined at first to be a colony of rats migrating; but when they came near, racing down the lane, he found they were weasels. He counted fourteen, and thought there were one or two more.
Aaron also told me a curious incident that happened to him very early one morning towards the beginning of spring. The snow was on the ground and the moon was shining brightly as he got on the railway (a few miles from Okebourne) and walked some distance up it: he did not say what for, but probably as the nearest way to a cover. As he entered a deep cutting where the line came round a sharp curve he noticed strange spots upon the snow, and upon examination found it was blood. For the moment he thought there had been an accident; but shortly afterwards he picked up a hare's pad severed from the leg, and next a hare's head, and presently came on a quantity of similar fragments, all fresh. He collected them, and found they had belonged to six hares which had been cut to pieces by a passing train. The animals were so mutilated as not to be of the least use.
When I told Hilary of this, he at once pronounced it impossible, and nothing but one of Aaron's lies. On reflection, however, I am not so sure that it is impossible, nor can I see any reason why the old poacher should invent a falsehood of the kind. It was just a time of the year when hares are beginning to go 'mad,' and, as they were not feeding but playing together, they might have strayed up the line just as they do along roads. Most persons must have observed how quietly a train sometimes steals up—so quietly as to be inaudible: a fact that has undoubtedly been the death of many unfortunates. Now, just at this spot there was a sharp curve, and if the driver shut off steam as he ran round it the train very likely came up without a sound. The sides of the cutting being very steep, the hares, when at last they perceived their danger, would naturally rush straight away along the metals. Coming at great speed, the engine would overtake and destroy them: a miserable end for the poor creatures in the midst of their moonlight frolic. But what Aaron laid stress on was the fact that he could not even sell the skins, they were so cut to pieces.
The rooks' nests in the Chace were very numerous, and were chiefly built in elm trees, but some in tall spruce firs. It was easy to know when the birds had paired, as a couple of rooks could then be often seen perched gravely side by side upon an old nest in the midst of leafless boughs, deliberating about its repair. There were some poplars near a part of the rookery, and when the nests were fully occupied with young the old birds frequently alighted on the very top of an adjacent poplar. The slender brush-like tip of the tree bent with their weight, curving over like a whip, to spring up when they left.
The rooks were fond of maize, boldly descending among the poultry kept in a rickyard within a short distance of their trees. If any one has a clump of trees in which rooks seem inclined to build and it is desired to encourage them, it would appear a good plan to establish a poultry-yard in the same field. They are certain to visit the spot.
One day I watched a rook pursuing a swift and making every effort to overtake and strike it. The rook displayed great power of wing, twisting and turning, now descending or turning on one side to glide more rapidly, and uttering short 'caws' of eagerness or anger; but, just eluding the heavy rush of its pursuer, the swift doubled and darted away before it, as if tempting the enemy to charge, and then enjoying his disappointment. Several other swifts wheeled above at a distance, apparently watching. These evolutions lasted some minutes, rook and swift rising higher and higher into the air until, tired of being chased, the swift went straight away at full speed, easily outstripping the rook, which soon desisted from the attempt to follow.
When birds are thus combating, the chief aim of each is to get above the other, as any elevation gives an advantage. This may be continually noticed in spring, when fighting is always going on, and is as characteristic of the small birds as the larger. At first I thought it was a crow after the swift, but came to the conclusion that it must be a rook because the battle began over the rookery and afterwards the aggressor sailed away to where some rooks were feeding. Nor would a crow have exhibited such agility of wing. Swallows often buffet a crow; but this was a clear case of a rook attacking.
In the country rooks never perch on houses, and but seldom on sheds, unless fresh thatched, when they come to examine the straw, as also on the ricks. But in Brighton, which is a treeless locality, a rook may sometimes be seen on a chimney-pot in the midst of the town, and the pinnacles of the Pavilion are a favourite resort; a whole flock of rooks and jackdaws often wheel about the domes of that building. At the Chace a rook occasionally mounted on a molehill recently thrown up and scattered the earth right and left with his bill—striking now to one side and now to the other. Hilary admitted that rooks destroyed vast quantities of grubs and creeping things, but was equally positive that they feasted on grain; and indeed it could not be denied that a crop of wheat almost ripe is a very favourite resort of a flock. He had seen rooks carry away ears of wheat detached from the stalk to an open spot for better convenience. They would follow the dibbling machine, taking each grain of seed-wheat in succession, guided to the exact spot by the slight depression made by the dibble.
Every evening all the rooks of the neighbourhood gathered into vast flocks and returned to roost in the woods of the Chace. But one winter afternoon there came on the most dense fog that had been known for a length of time, and a flock of rooks on their way as usual to the Chace stopped all night in a clump of trees on the farm a mile from the roosting-place. This the oldest labourer had never known them do before. In the winter just past (1879-80) there were several very thick fogs during sharp frost. One afternoon I noticed a small flock of starlings which seemed unable to find their way home to the copse where I knew vast numbers of them roosted. This flock as it grew dusk settled in an elm by the roadside, then removed to another, shaking down the rime from the branches, and a third time wheeled round and perched in an oak. At that hour on ordinary days the starlings would all have been flying fast in a straight line for the copse, but these were evidently in doubt and did not know which direction to take.
Hilary disliked to see the wood-pigeons in his wheat-fields: the wood-pigeon beats the grains out of a wheat-ear with the bill, striking it while on the ground. The sparrows, again, clear the standing wheat-ears, which at a little distance look thin and disarranged, and when handled are empty.
There were many missel-thrushes about the Chace; they are fond of a wooded district. They pack together in summer and part in winter—just opposite in that respect to so many other birds, which separate in warm weather and congregate as it grows cold, so that the lower the temperature the larger the flock. In winter and spring the missel-thrushes fly alone or not more than two together. After their young have left the nest they go in small packs. I saw ten or twelve rise from an arable field on the 18th of June last year; there do not often seem to be more than a dozen together. I have counted ten in a pack on the 16th of September, and seven together as late as the 2nd of October. Soon after that they appear to separate and act on their individual wishes. Starlings in like manner pack after their young can fly, but then they do not separate in autumn.
It may be remarked that by autumn the young missel-thrushes would not only fly well, but would have been educated by the old birds, and would have come to maturity. Their natural independence might then come into play. But these are effects rather than causes, besides which I think birds and animals often act from custom rather than for advantage. Among men customs survive for centuries after the original meaning has been lost. I had always been told by country people that the missel-thrush was a solitary bird, and when I first observed a pack and mentioned it some incredulity was expressed. Very naturally in summer people do not see much but hay and wheat. It was noticed on the farms about the Chace in the springs of 1878 and 1879 that the corncrakes, which had formerly been so numerous and proclaimed their presence so loudly, were scarcely heard at all.
It is a little outside my subject, since it did not occur in the Chace, but the other day a friend was telling me how he had been hunted by bucks while riding a bicycle. He was passing through a forest in the summer, when he suddenly became aware of six or seven bucks coming down a glade after him. The track being rough he could not ride at full speed—probably they would have outstripped him even if he had been able to do so—and they were overtaking him rapidly. As they came up he saw that they meant mischief, and fearing a bad fall he alighted by a tree, behind which he thought to dodge them. But no sooner did he touch the ground than the bucks so furiously rushing after him stopped dead in their career; he stepped towards them, and directly they saw him walking they retreated hastily to a distance.
The first berries to go as the autumn approaches are those of the mountain-ash. Both blackbirds and thrushes began to devour the pale-red bunches hanging on the mountain-ashes as early as the 4th of September last year. Starlings are fond of elder-berries: a flock alighting on a bush black with ripe berries will clear the bunches in a very short time. Haws, or peggles, which often quite cover the hawthorn bushes, are not so general a food as the fruit of the briar. Hips are preferred; at least, the fruit of the briar is the first of the two to disappear. The hip is pecked open (by thrushes, redwings, and blackbirds) at the tip, the seeds extracted, and the part where it is attached to the stalk left, just as if the contents had been sucked out. Greenfinches, too, will eat hips.
Haws are often left even after severe frosts; sometimes they seem to shrivel or blacken, and may not perhaps be palatable then. Missel-thrushes and wood-pigeons eat them. Last winter in the stress of the sharp and continued frosts the greenfinches were driven in December to swallow the shrivelled blackberries still on the brambles. The fruity part of the berries was of course gone, and nothing remained but the seeds or pips, dry and hard as wood; they were reduced to feeding on this wretched food. Perhaps the last of the seeds available are those of the docks.
This is well known to bird-fowlers, and on a dry day in January they take two large bunches of docks—'red docks' they call them—tied round the centre like faggots and well smeared at the top with birdlime. These are placed on the ground, by a hedge, and near them a decoy goldfinch in a cage. Goldfinches eat dock-seed, and if any approach the decoy-bird calls. The wild bird descends from the hedge to feed on the dock-seed and is caught. Goldfinches go in pairs all the winter and work along the hedges together. In spring the young green buds upon the hawthorn are called 'cuckoo's bread and cheese' by the ploughboys.
It happened one Sunday morning in June that a swarm of bees issued from a hive in a cottage garden near Okebourne church. The queen at first took up her position in an elm tree just outside the churchyard, where a large cluster of bees quickly depended from a bough. Being at a great height the cottager could not take them, and, anxious not to lose the swarm, he resorted to the ancient expedient of rattling fire-tongs and shovel together in order to attract them by the clatter. The discordant banging of the fire-irons resounded in the church, the doors being open to admit the summer air; and the noise became so uproarious that the clerk presently, at a sign from the rector, went out to stop it, for the congregation were in a grin. He did stop it, the cottager desisting with much reluctance; but, as if to revenge the bee-master's wrongs, in the course of the day the swarm, quitting the elm, entered the church and occupied a post in the roof.
After a while it was found that the swarm had finally settled there, and were proceeding to build combs and lay in a store of honey. The bees, indeed, became such a terror to nervous people, buzzing without ceremony over their heads as they stood up to sing, and caused such a commotion and buffeting with Prayer-books and fans and handkerchiefs, that ultimately the congregation were compelled to abandon their pews. All efforts to dislodge the bees proving for the time ineffectual, the rector had a temporary reading-desk erected in the porch, and there held the service, the congregation sitting on chairs and forms in the yard, and some on the stone tombs, and even on the sward under the shade of the yew tree.
In the warm dry hay-making weather this open-air worship was very pleasant, the flowers in the grass and the roses in the little plots about the tombs giving colour and sweet odours, while the swallows glided gracefully overhead and sometimes a blackbird whistled. The bees, moreover, interfered with the baptisms, and even caused several marriages to be postponed. Inside the porch was a recess where the women left their pattens in winter, instead of clattering iron-shod down the aisle.
Okebourne village was built in an irregular way on both sides of a steep coombe, just at the verge of the hills, and about a mile from the Chace; indeed, the outlying cottages bordered the park wall. The most melancholy object in the place was the ruins of a windmill; the sails and arms had long disappeared, but the wooden walls, black and rotting, remained. The windmill had its genius, its human representative—a mere wreck, like itself, of olden times. There never was a face so battered by wind and weather as that of old Peter, the owner of the ruin. His eyes were so light a grey as to appear all but colourless. He wore a smock-frock the hue of dirt itself, and his hands were ever in his pockets as he walked through rain and snow beside his cart, hauling flints from the pits upon the Downs.
If the history of the cottage-folk is inquired into it will often be found that they have descended from well-to-do positions in life—not from extravagance or crime, or any remarkable piece of folly, but simply from a long-continued process of muddling away money. When the windmill was new, Peter's forefathers had been, for village people well off. The family had never done anything to bring themselves into disgrace; they had never speculated; but their money had been gradually muddled away, leaving the last little better than a labourer. To see him crawling along the road by his load of flints, stooping forward, hands in pocket, and then to glance at the distant windmill, likewise broken down, the roof open, and the rain and winds rushing through it, was a pitiful spectacle. For that old building represented the loss of hope and contentment in life as much as any once lordly castle whose battlements are now visited only by the jackdaw. The family had, as it were, foundered and gone down.
How they got the stray cattle into the pound it is difficult to imagine; for the gate was very narrow, and neither bullocks nor horses like being driven into a box. The copings of the wall on one side had been pushed over, and lay in a thick growth of nettles: this, almost the last of old village institutions, was, too, going by degrees to destruction.
Every hamlet used to have its representative fighting-man—often more than one—who visited the neighbouring villages on the feast days, when there was a good deal of liquor flowing, to vaunt of their prowess before the local champions. These quickly gathered, and after due interchange of speeches not unlike the heroes of Homer, who harangue each other ere they hurl the spear, engaged in conflict dire. There was a regular feud for many years between the Okebourne men and the Clipstone 'chaps;' and never did the stalwart labourers of those two villages meet without falling to fisticuffs with right goodwill. Nor did they like each other at all the worse, and after the battle drank deeply from the same quart cups. Had these encounters found an historian to put them upon record, they would have read something like the wars (without the bloodshed) between the little Greek cities, whose population scarcely exceeded that of a village, and between which and our old villages there exists a certain similarity. A simplicity of sentiment, an unconsciousness as it were of themselves, strong local attachments and hatreds, these they had in common, and the Okebourne and Clipstone men thwacked and banged each other's broad chests in true antique style.
Hilary said that when he was a boy almost all the cottages in the place had a man or woman living in them who had attained to extreme old age. He reckoned up cottage after cottage to me in which he had known old folk up to and over eighty years of age. Of late the old people seemed to have somehow died out: there were not nearly so many now.
Okebourne Wick, a little hamlet of fifteen or twenty scattered houses, was not more than half a mile from Lucketts' Place; on the Overboro' road, which passed it, was a pleasant roadside inn, where, under the sign of The Sun, very good ale was sold. Most of the farmers dropped in there now and then, not so much for a glass as a gossip, and no one from the neighbouring villages or from Overboro' town ever drove past without stopping. In the 'tap' of an evening you might see the labourers playing at 'chuck-board,' which consists in casting a small square piece of lead on to certain marked divisions of a shallow tray-like box placed on the trestle-table. The lead, being heavy, would stay where it fell; the rules I do not know, but the scene reminded me of the tric-trac contests depicted by the old Dutch painters.
Young Aaron was very clever at it. He pottered round the inn of an evening and Saturday afternoons, doing odd jobs in the cellar with the barrels; for your true toping spirit loves to knock the hoops and to work about the cask, and carry the jugs in answer to the cry for some more 'tangle-legs'—for thus they called the strong beer. Sometimes a labourer would toast his cheese on a fork in the flame of the candle. In the old days, before folk got so choice of food and delicate of palate, there really seemed no limit to the strange things they ate. Before the railways were made, herds of cattle had of course to travel the roads, and often came great distances. The drovers were at the same time the hardiest and the roughest of men in that rough and hardy time. As night came on, after seeing their herd safe in a field, they naturally ate their supper at the adjacent inn. Then sometimes, as a dainty treat with which to finish his meal, a drover would call for a biscuit, large and hard, as broad as his hand, and, taking the tallow candle, proceed to drip the grease on it till it was well larded and soaked with the melted fat.
At that date, before the Government stamp had been removed from newspapers, the roadside inn was the centre and focus of all intelligence. When the first railway was constructed up in the North the Okebourne folk, like the rest of the world, were with good reason extremely curious about this wonderful invention, and questioned every passer-by eagerly for information. But no one could describe it, till at last a man, born in the village, but who had been away for some years soldiering, returned to his native place. He had been serving in Canada and came through Liverpool, and thus saw the marvel of the age. At the Sun the folk in the evening crowded round him, and insisted upon knowing what a steam-engine was like. He did his best to describe it, but in vain; they wanted a familiar illustration, and could not be satisfied till the soldier, by a happy inspiration, said the only thing to which he could compare a locomotive was a great cannon on a timber-carriage. To us who are so accustomed to railways it seems a singular idea; but, upon reflection, it was not so inapt, considering that the audience had seen or heard something of cannons, and were well acquainted with timber-carriages. The soldier wished to convey the notion of a barrel or boiler mounted on wheels.
They kept up the institution of the parish constable, as separate and distinct from the policeman, till very recently at Okebourne, though it seems to have lapsed long since in many country places. One year Hilary, with much shrugging of shoulders, was forced into the office; and during his term there was a terrible set-to between two tribes of gipsies in the Overboro' road. They fought like tigers, making the lovely summer day hideous with their cries and shrieks—the women, the fiercer by far, tearing each other's hair. One fiendish creature drew her scissors, and, using them like a stiletto, drove the sharp point into a sister 'gip's' head.
'Where's the constable?' was the cry. Messengers rushed to Lucketts' Place; the barn, the sheds, the hayfield, all were searched in vain—Hilary had quite disappeared. At the very first sound he had slipped away to look at some cattle in Chequer's Piece, the very last and outlying field of the farms, full a mile away, and when the messengers got to Chequer's Piece of course he was up on the Down. So much for the parish constable's office—an office the farmers shirked whenever they could, and would not put in force when compelled to accept it.
How could a resident willingly go into a neighbour's cottage and arrest him without malice and scandal being engendered? If he did his duty he was abused; if he did not do it, it was hinted that he favoured the offender. As for the 'gip' who was stabbed, nothing more was heard of it; she 'traipsed' off with the rest.
Sometimes when the 'tangle-legs' got up into their heads the labourers felt an inclination to resume the ancient practices of their fore-fathers. Then you might see a couple facing each other in the doorway, each with his mug in one hand, and the other clenched, flourishing their knuckles. 'Thee hit I.' 'Thee come out in th' road and I'll let thee knaw.' The one knew very well that the other dared not strike him in the house, and the other felt certain that, however entreated, nothing would induce his opponent to accept the invitation and 'come out into th' road.'
The shadows of the elm have so far to fall that they become enlarged and lose the edge upon reaching the ground. I noticed this one moonlight night in early June while sitting on a stile where the footpath opened on the Overboro' road. Presently I heard voices, and immediately afterwards a group came round the curve of the highway. There were three cottage women, each with a basket and several packages; having doubtless been into Overboro' town shopping, for it was Saturday. They walked together in a row; and in front of them, about five yards ahead, came a burly labourer of the same party, carrying in his arms a large clock.
He had taken too much ale, and staggered as he walked, two steps aside to one forward, and indeed could hardly keep upright. His efforts to save himself and the clock from destruction led to some singular flexures of the body, and his feet traced a maze as he advanced, hugging the clock to his chest. The task was too much for his over-taxed patience: just opposite the stile he stood still, held his load high over his head, and shouting, 'Dang th' clock!' hurled it with all his force thirty feet against the mound, at the same time dropping a-sprawl. The women, without the least excitement or surprise, quietly endeavoured to assist him up; and, as he resisted, one of them remarked in the driest matter-of-fact tone, 'Ourn be just like un—as contrary as the wind.' She alluded to her own husband.
When I mentioned this incident afterwards to Mrs. Luckett, she said the troubles the cottage women underwent on account of the 'beer' were past belief. One woman who did some work at the farmhouse kept her cottage entirely by her own exertions; her husband doing nothing but drink. He took her money from her by force, nor could she hide it anywhere but what he would hunt it out. At last in despair she dropped the silver in the jug on the wash-hand basin, and had the satisfaction of seeing him turn everything topsy-turvy in a vain attempt to find it. As he never washed, it never occurred to him to look in the water-jug.
The cottage women when they went into Overboro' shopping, she said, were the despair of the drapers. A woman, with two or three more to chorus her sentiments, would go into a shop and examine half-a-dozen dress fabrics, rubbing each between her work-hardened fingers and thumb till the shopkeeper winced, expecting to see it torn. After trying several and getting the counter covered she would push them aside, contemptuously remarking, 'I don't like this yer shallygallee (flimsy) stuff. Haven't'ee got any gingham tackle?' Whereat the poor draper would cast down a fresh roll of stoutest material with the reply: 'Here, ma'am. Here's something that will wear like pin-wire.' This did better, but was declared to be 'gallus dear.'
Even within recent years, now and then a servant-girl upon entering service at the farmhouse would refuse to touch butcher's meat. She had never tasted anything but bacon at home, and could only be persuaded to eat fresh meat with difficulty, being afraid she should not like it. One girl who came from a lonely cottage in a distant 'coombe-bottom' of the Downs was observed never to write home or attempt to communicate with her parents. She said it was of no use; no postman came near, and the letters they wrote or the letters written to them never reached their destination. 'Coombe-bottom' is a curious duplication—either word being used to indicate a narrow valley or hollow. An unfortunate child who lived there had never been so well since the stone roller went over his head. She had a lover, but he was 'a gurt hummocksing noon-naw,' so she was not sorry to leave him. The phrase might be translated, 'great loose-jointed idiot.'
They sometimes had lettuce-pudding for dinner, and thought nothing of eating raw bacon. In the snow the men wound hay-bands round their legs to serve as gaiters, and found it answered admirably. One poor girl had been subject to fits ever since a stupid fellow, during the haymaking, jokingly picked up a snake and threw it round her neck. Yet even in that far-away coombe-bottom they knew enough to put an oyster-shell in the kettle to prevent incrustation.
The rules of pronunciation understood about Okebourne seemed to consist in lengthening the syllables that are usually spoken quick, and shortening those that are usually long. Hilary said that years ago it really appeared as if there was something deficient in the organs of the throat among the labourers, for there were words they positively could not pronounce. The word 'reservoir,' for instance, was always 'tezzievoy;' they could not speak the word correctly. He could not explain to me a very common expression among the men when they wished to describe anything unusual or strange for which they had no exact equivalent. It was always 'a sort of a meejick.' By degrees, however, we traced it back to 'menagerie.' The travelling shows of wild beasts at first so much astonished the villagers that everything odd and curious became a menagerie, afterwards corrupted to 'meejick.'
'Caddle no man's cattle' was a favourite proverb with a population who were never in a hurry. 'Like shot out of a show'l,' to express extreme nimbleness, was another. A comfortless, bare apartment was 'gabern;' anything stirred with a pointed instrument was 'ucked'—whether a cow 'ucked' the fogger with her horn or the stable was cleaned out with the fork. The verb 'to uck' was capable indeed of infinite conjugation, and young Aaron, breaking off a bennet, once asked me to kindly 'uck' a grain of hay-dust out of his eye with it. When a heron rose out of the brook 'a moll ern flod away.'
With all their apparent simplicity some of the cottage folk were quite up to the value of appearances. Old Aaron had a little shop; he and his wife sold small packets of tea, tobacco, whipcord, and so forth. Sometimes while his wife was weighing out the sugar, old Aaron—wretched old deceiver—would come in rustling a crumpled piece of paper as if it were a banknote, and handing it to her with much impressiveness of manner whisper loudly, 'Now you take un and put un away; and mind you don't mix um. You put he along with the fives and not with the tens.'
Hilary once showed me the heel of a boot which had just been mended by the hedge carpenter and cobbler who worked for him; and offered to bet that not all the scientific people in Europe, with microscope, spectrum analysis, all their appliances, could tell what leather the new heel-piece was made of. Unable to guess, I gave it up; it was of bacon. A pig that was never a 'good doer' was found in a ditch dead. There is always a competition among the labourers for a dead pig or sheep; it was the cobbler's turn, and he had it, cut it up, and salted it down. But when in course of time he came to partake of his side of bacon, behold it was so tough and dried up that even he could not gnaw it. The side hung in the cottage for months, for he did not like to throw it away, and could not think what to do with it, for the dogs could not eat it. At last the old fellow hit upon the notion of using it as leather to mend shoes; so half his customers walked about the world on bacon heels.
So far as I could discover, the cottage folk did not now use many herbs. They made tea sometimes of the tormentil, whose little yellow flowers appear along the furrows. The leaves of the square-stemmed figwort, which they called 'cresset' or 'cressil,' were occasionally placed on a sore; and the yarrow—locally 'yarra'—was yet held in estimation as a salve or ointment.
It would be possible for any one to dwell a long time in the midst of a village, and yet never hear anything of this kind and obtain no idea whatever of the curious mixture of the grotesque, the ignorance and yet cleverness, which go to make up hamlet life. But so many labourers and labouring women were continually in and out of the kitchen at Lucketts' Place that I had an opportunity of gathering these items from Mrs. Luckett and Cicely. Years since they had employed even more labour, before machinery came into use so much: then as many as twenty-four women might have been counted in one hayfield, all in regular rank like soldiers, turning the hay 'wallows' with their rakes. 'There's one thing now you have forgotten,' said Cicely. 'They pick the canker-roses off the briars and carry them in the pocket as a certain preventive of rheumatism.'
WIND-ANEMONES. THE FISHPOND.
The only spot about the Chace where the wind-anemones grew was in a small detached copse of ash-poles nearly a mile from the great woods. Between the stoles, which were rather far apart, the ground was quite covered in spring with dark-green vegetation, so that it was impossible to walk there without treading down the leaves of bluebells, anemones, and similar woodland plants. But if you wished to see the anemones in their full beauty it was necessary to visit the copse frequently; for if you forgot it, or delayed a fortnight, very likely upon returning you would find that their fleeting loveliness was over. Their slender red stems rise but a few inches, and are surrounded with three leaves; the six white petals of the cup-shaped flower droop a little and have a golden centre. Under the petal is a tinge of purple, which is sometimes faintly visible through it. The leaves are not only three in number, but are each cut deeply thrice; they are hardy, but the flower extremely delicate.
On the banks dividing the copse from the meadows around it the blue dog-violets, which have no perfume, often opened so large and wide as to resemble pansies. They do not appear like this till just as their flowering time is almost over. The meadows by the copse were small, not more than two or three acres each. One which was marshy was white for weeks together with the lady's-smock or cuckoo-flower. The petals of these flowers are silvery white in some places, in others tinted with lilac. The hues of wild flowers vary with their situation: in shady woodlands the toadflax or butter-and-eggs is often pale—a sulphur colour; upon the Downs it is a deep and beautiful yellow. In a ditch, of this marshy meadow was a great bunch of woodruff, above whose green whorls the white flowers were lifted. Over them the brambles arched, their leaves growing in fives, and each leaf prickly. The bramble-shoots, as they touch the ground, take root and rise again, and thus would soon cross a field were they not cut down.
Pheasants were fond of visiting this copse, following the hedgerows to it from the Chace, and they always had one or more nests in it. A green woodpecker took it in his route, though he did not stay long, there not being many trees. These birds seem to have their regular rounds; there are some copses where they are scarcely ever heard. They prefer old trees; where there is much large and decaying timber, there the woodpeckers come. Such little meadows as these about the copse are the favourite resort of birds and the very home of flowers—more so than extensive woods like the Chace, or the open pastures and arable fields. Thick hedgerows attract birds, and behind such cover their motions may be watched. There is, too, more variety of bush and tree.
In one such hedgerow leading from the copse the maple-bushes in spring were hung with the green flowers which, though they depend in their season from so many trees, as the oak, are perhaps rarely observed. The elder-bushes in full white bloom scented the air for yards around both by night and day; the white bloom shows on the darkest evening. Besides several crab-stoles—the buds of the crab might be mistaken for thorns growing pointed at the extreme end of the twigs—there was a large crab tree, which bore a plentiful crop. The lads sharpen their knives by drawing the blade slowly to and fro through a crab-apple; the acid of the fruit eats the steel like aquafortis. They hide stores of these crabs in holes in the hayricks, supposing them to improve by keeping. There, too, they conceal quantities of the apples from the old orchards, for the fruit in them is often almost as hard and not much superior in flavour to the crab. These apples certainly become more mellow after several months in the warm hay.
A wild 'plum,' or bullace, grew in one place; the plum about twice the size of a sloe, with a bloom upon the skin like the cultivated fruit, but lacking its sweetness. Yet there was a distinct difference of taste: the 'plum' had not got the extreme harshness of the sloe. A quantity of dogwood occupied a corner; in summer it bore a pleasing flower; in the autumn, after the black berries appeared upon it, the leaves became a rich bronze colour, and some when the first frosts touched them curled up at the edge and turned crimson. There were two or three guelder-rose bushes—the wild shrub—which were covered in June with white bloom; not in snowy balls like the garden variety, but flat and circular, the florets at the edge of the circle often whitest, and those in the centre greenish. In autumn the slender boughs were weighed down with heavy bunches of large purplish berries, so full of red juice as to appear on the point of bursting. As these soon disappeared they were doubtless eaten by birds.
Besides the hawthorn and briar there were several species of willow—the snake-skin willow, so called because it sheds its bark; the 'snap-willow,' which is so brittle that every gale breaks off its feeble twigs, and pollards. One of these, hollow and old, had upon its top a crowd of parasites. A bramble had taken root there, and hung over the side; a small currant-bush grew freely—both, no doubt, unwittingly planted by birds—and finally the bines of the noxious bitter-sweet or nightshade, starting from the decayed wood, supported themselves among the willow-branches, and in autumn were bright with red berries. Ash-stoles, the buds on whose boughs in spring are hidden under black sheaths; nut-tree stoles, with ever-welcome nuts—always stolen here, but on the Downs, where they are plentiful, staying till they fall; young oak growing up from the butt of a felled tree. On these oak-twigs sometimes, besides the ordinary round galls, there may be found another gall, larger, and formed, as it were, of green scales one above the other.
Where shall we find in the artificial and, to my thinking, tasteless pleasure-grounds of modern houses so beautiful a shrubbery as this old hedgerow? Nor were evergreens wanting, for the ivy grew thickly, and there was one holly-bush—not more, for the soil was not affected by holly. The tall cow-parsnip or 'gicks' rose up through the bushes; the great hollow stem of the angelica grew at the edge of the field, on the verge of the grass, but still sheltered by the brambles. Some reeds early in spring thrust up their slender green tubes, tipped with two spear-like leaves. The reed varies in height according to the position in which it grows. If the hedge has been cut it does not reach higher than four or five feet; when it springs from a deep, hollow corner, or with bushes to draw it up, you can hardly touch its tip with your walking-stick. The leaders of the black bryony, lifting themselves above the bushes, and having just there nothing to cling to, twist around each other, and two bines thus find mutual support where one alone would fall of its own weight.
In the watery places the sedges send up their dark flowers, dusted with light yellow pollen, rising above the triangular stem with its narrow, ribbed leaf. The reed-sparrow or bunting sits upon the spray over the ditch with its carex grass and rushes; he is a graceful bird, with a crown of glossy black. Hops climb the ash and hang their clusters, which impart an aromatic scent to the hand that plucks them; broad burdock leaves, which the mouchers put on the top of their baskets to shield their freshly gathered watercresses from the sunshine; creeping avens, with buttercup-like flowers and long stems that straggle across the ditch, and in autumn are tipped with a small ball of soft spines; mints, strong-scented and unmistakable; yarrow, white and sometimes a little lilac, whose flower is perhaps almost the last that the bee visits. In the middle of October I have seen a wild bee on a last stray yarrow.