THE AMATEUR POACHER
The following pages are arranged somewhat in the order of time, beginning with the first gun, and attempts at shooting. Then come the fields, the first hills, and woods explored, often without a gun, or any thought of destruction: and next the poachers, and other odd characters observed at their work. Perhaps the idea of shooting with a matchlock, or wheel-lock, might, if put in practice, at least afford some little novelty.
I. THE FIRST GUN
II. THE OLD PUNT: A CURIOUS 'TURNPIKE'
III. TREE-SHOOTING: A FISHING EXPEDITION
IV. EGG-TIME: A 'GIP'-TRAP
V. WOODLAND TWILIGHT: TRAITORS ON THE GIBBET
VI. LURCHER-LAND: 'THE PARK'
VII. OBY, AND HIS SYSTEM: THE MOUCHER'S CALENDAR
VIII. CHURCHYARD PHEASANTS: BEFORE THE BENCH
IX. LUKE, THE RABBIT-CONTRACTOR: THE BROOK PATH.
X. FARMER WILLUM'S PLACE: SNIPE-SHOOTING
XI. FERRETING: A RABBIT-HUNTER
XII. A WINTER NIGHT: OLD TRICKS: PHEASANT-STALKING: MATCHLOCK VERSUS BREECH-LOADER: CONCLUSION
THE AMATEUR POACHER
THE FIRST GUN
They burned the old gun that used to stand in the dark corner up in the garret, close to the stuffed fox that always grinned so fiercely. Perhaps the reason why he seemed in such a ghastly rage was that he did not come by his death fairly. Otherwise his pelt would not have been so perfect. And why else was he put away up there out of sight?—and so magnificent a brush as he had too. But there he stood, and mounted guard over the old flintlock that was so powerful a magnet to us in those days. Though to go up there alone was no slight trial of moral courage after listening to the horrible tales of the carters in the stable, or the old women who used to sit under the hedge in the shade, on an armful of hay, munching their crusts at luncheon time.
The great cavernous place was full of shadows in the brightest summer day; for the light came only through the chinks in the shutters. These were flush with the floor and bolted firmly. The silence was intense, it being so near the roof and so far away from the inhabited parts of the house. Yet there were sometimes strange acoustical effects—as when there came a low tapping at the shutters, enough to make your heart stand still. There was then nothing for it but to dash through the doorway into the empty cheese-room adjoining, which was better lighted. No doubt it was nothing but the labourers knocking the stakes in for the railing round the rickyard, but why did it sound just exactly outside the shutters? When that ceased the staircase creaked, or the pear-tree boughs rustled against the window. The staircase always waited till you had forgotten all about it before the loose worm-eaten planks sprang back to their place.
Had it not been for the merry whistling of the starlings on the thatch above, it would not have been possible to face the gloom and the teeth of Reynard, ever in the act to snap, and the mystic noises, and the sense of guilt—for the gun was forbidden. Besides which there was the black mouth of the open trapdoor overhead yawning fearfully—a standing terror and temptation; for there was a legend of a pair of pistols thrown up there out of the way—a treasure-trove tempting enough to make us face anything. But Orion must have the credit of the courage; I call him Orion because he was a hunter and had a famous dog. The last I heard of him he had just ridden through a prairie fire, and says the people out there think nothing of it.
We dragged an ancient linen-press under the trapdoor, and put some boxes on that, and finally a straight-backed oaken chair. One or two of those chairs were split up and helped to do the roasting on the kitchen hearth. So, climbing the pile, we emerged under the rafters, and could see daylight faintly in several places coming through the starlings' holes. One or two bats fluttered to and fro as we groped among the lumber, but no pistols could be discovered; nothing but a cannon-ball, rusty enough and about as big as an orange, which they say was found in the wood, where there was a brush in Oliver's time.
In the middle of our expedition there came the well-known whistle, echoing about the chimneys, with which it was the custom to recall us to dinner. How else could you make people hear who might be cutting a knobbed stick in the copse half a mile away or bathing in the lake? We had to jump down with a run; and then came the difficulty; for black dusty cobwebs, the growth of fifty years, clothed us from head to foot. There was no brushing or picking them off, with that loud whistle repeated every two minutes.
The fact where we had been was patent to all; and so the chairs got burned—but one, which was rickety. After which a story crept out, of a disjointed skeleton lying in a corner under the thatch. Though just a little suspicious that this might be a ruse to frighten us from a second attempt, we yet could not deny the possibility of its being true. Sometimes in the dusk, when I sat poring over 'Koenigsmark, the Robber,' by the little window in the cheese-room, a skull seemed to peer down the trapdoor. But then I had the flintlock by me for protection.
There were giants in the days when that gun was made; for surely no modern mortal could have held that mass of metal steady to his shoulder. The linen-press and a chest on the top of it formed, however, a very good gun-carriage; and, thus mounted, aim could be taken out of the window at the old mare feeding in the meadow below by the brook, and a 'bead' could be drawn upon Molly, the dairymaid, kissing the fogger behind the hedge, little dreaming that the deadly tube was levelled at them. At least this practice and drill had one useful effect—the eye got accustomed to the flash from the pan, instead of blinking the discharge, which ruins the shooting. Almost everybody and everything on the place got shot dead in this way without knowing it.
It was not so easy as might be supposed to find proper flints. The best time to look for them was after a heavy storm of rain had washed a shallow channel beside the road, when you might select some hardy splinters which had lain hidden under the dust. How we were found out is not quite clear: perhaps the powder left a smell of sulphur for any one who chanced to go up in the garret.
But, however that may be, one day, as we came in unexpectedly from a voyage in the punt, something was discovered burning among the logs on the kitchen hearth; and, though a desperate rescue was attempted, nothing was left but the barrel of our precious gun and some crooked iron representing the remains of the lock. There are things that are never entirely forgotten, though the impression may become fainter as years go by. The sense of the cruel injustice of that act will never quite depart.
But they could not burn the barrel, and we almost succeeded in fitting it to a stock of elder. Elder has a thick pith running down the centre: by removing that the gouge and chisel had not much work to do to make a groove for the old bell-mouthed barrel to lie in. The matchlock, for as such it was intended, was nearly finished when our hopes were dashed to the ground by a piece of unnatural cunning. One morning the breechpiece that screwed in was missing. This was fatal. A barrel without a breechpiece is like a cup without a bottom. It was all over.
There are days in spring when the white clouds go swiftly past, with occasional breaks of bright sunshine lighting up a spot in the landscape. That is like the memory of one's youth. There is a long dull blank, and then a brilliant streak of recollection. Doubtless it was a year or two afterwards when, seeing that the natural instinct could not be suppressed but had better be recognised, they produced a real gun (single-barrel) for me from the clock-case.
It stood on the landing just at the bottom of the dark flight that led to the garret. An oaken case six feet high or more, and a vast dial, with a mysterious picture of a full moon and a ship in full sail that somehow indicated the quarters of the year, if you had been imitating Rip Van Winkle and after a sleep of six months wanted to know whether it was spring or autumn. But only to think that all the while we were puzzling over the moon and the ship and the queer signs on the dial a gun was hidden inside! The case was locked, it is true; but there are ways of opening locks, and we were always handy with tools.
This gun was almost, but not quite so long as the other. That dated from the time between Stuart and Hanover; this might not have been more than seventy years old. And a beautiful piece of workmanship it was: my new double breechloader is a coarse common thing to compare with it. Long and slender and light as a feather, it came to the shoulder with wonderful ease. Then there was a groove on the barrel at the breech and for some inches up which caught the eye and guided the glance like a trough to the sight at the muzzle and thence to the bird. The stock was shod with brass, and the trigger-guard was of brass, with a kind of flange stretching half-way down to the butt and inserted in the wood. After a few minutes' polishing it shone like gold, and to see the sunlight flash on it was a joy.
You might note the grain of the barrel, for it had not been browned; and it took a good deal of sand to get the rust off. By aid of a little oil and careful wiping after a shower it was easy to keep it bright. Those browned barrels only encourage idleness. The lock was a trifle dull at first, simply from lack of use. A small screwdriver soon had it to pieces, and it speedily clicked again sweet as a flute. If the hammer came back rather far when at full-cock, that was because the lock had been converted from a flint, and you could not expect it to be absolutely perfect. Besides which, as the fall was longer the blow was heavier, and the cap was sure to explode.
By old farmhouses, mostly in exposed places (for which there is a reason), one or more huge walnut trees may be found. The provident folk of those days planted them with the purpose of having their own gunstocks cut out of the wood when the tree was thrown. They could then be sure it was really walnut, and a choice piece of timber thoroughly well seasoned. I like to think of those times, when men settled themselves down, and planted and planned and laid out their gardens and orchards and woods, as if they and their sons and sons' sons, to the twentieth generation, were sure to enjoy the fruit of their labour.
The reason why the walnuts are put in exposed places, on the slope of a rise, with open aspect to the east and north, is because the walnut is a foolish tree that will not learn by experience. If it feels the warmth of a few genial days in early spring, it immediately protrudes its buds; and the next morning a bitter frost cuts down every hope of fruit for that year, leaving the leaf as black as may be. Wherefore the east wind is desirable to keep it as backward as possible.
There was a story that the stock of this gun had been cut out of a walnut tree that was thrown on the place by my great-grandfather, who saw it well seasoned, being a connoisseur of timber, which is, indeed, a sort of instinct in all his descendants. And a vast store of philosophy there is in timber if you study it aright.
After cleaning the gun and trying it at a mark, the next thing was to get a good shot with it. Now there was an elm that stood out from the hedge a little, almost at the top of the meadow, not above five-and-twenty yards from the other hedge that bounded the field. Two mounds could therefore be commanded by any one in ambush behind the elm, and all the angular corner of the mead was within range.
It was not far from the house; but the ground sank into a depression there, and the ridge of it behind shut out everything except just the roof of the tallest hayrick. As one sat on the sward behind the elm, with the back turned on the rick and nothing in front but the tall elms and the oaks in the other hedge, it was quite easy to fancy it the verge of the prairie with the backwoods close by.
The rabbits had scratched the yellow sand right out into the grass—it is always very much brighter in colour where they have just been at work—and the fern, already almost yellow too, shaded the mouths of their buries. Thick bramble bushes grew out from the mound and filled the space between it and the elm: there were a few late flowers on them still, but the rest were hardening into red sour berries. Westwards, the afternoon sun, with all his autumn heat, shone full against the hedge and into the recess, and there was not the shadow of a leaf for shelter on that side.
The gun was on the turf, and the little hoppers kept jumping out of the grass on to the stock: once their king, a grasshopper, alighted on it and rested, his green limbs tipped with red rising above his back. About the distant wood and the hills there was a soft faint haze, which is what Nature finishes her pictures with. Something in the atmosphere which made it almost visible: all the trees seemed to stand in a liquid light—the sunbeams were suspended in the air instead of passing through. The butterflies even were very idle in the slumberous warmth; and the great green dragon-fly rested on a leaf, his tail arched a little downwards, just as he puts it when he wishes to stop suddenly in his flight.
The broad glittering trigger-guard got quite hot in the sun, and the stock was warm when I felt it every now and then. The grain of the walnut-wood showed plainly through the light polish: it was not varnished like the stock of the double-barrel they kept padlocked to the rack over the high mantelpiece indoors. Still you could see the varnish. It was of a rich dark horse-chestnut colour, and yet so bright and clear that if held close you could see your face in it. Behind it the grain of the wood was just perceptible; especially at the grip, where hard hands had worn it away somewhat. The secret of that varnish is lost—like that of the varnish on the priceless old violins.
But you could feel the wood more in my gun: so that it was difficult to keep the hand off it, though the rabbits would not come out; and the shadowless recess grew like a furnace, for it focussed the rays of the sun. The heat on the sunny side of a thick hedge between three and four in the afternoon is almost tropical if you remain still, because the air is motionless: the only relief is to hold your hat loose; or tilt it against your head, the other edge of the brim on the ground. Then the grass-blades rise up level with the forehead. There is a delicious smell in growing grass, and a sweetness comes up from the earth.
Still it got hotter and hotter; and it was not possible to move in the least degree, lest a brown creature sitting on the sand at the mouth of his hole, and hidden himself by the fern, should immediately note it. And Orion was waiting in the rickyard for the sound of the report, and very likely the shepherd too. We knew that men in Africa, watched by lions, had kept still in the sunshine till, reflected from the rock, it literally scorched them, not daring to move; and we knew all about the stoicism of the Red Indians. But Ulysses was ever my pattern and model: that man of infinite patience and resource.
So, though the sun might burn and the air become suffocating in that close corner, and the quivering line of heat across the meadow make the eyes dizzy to watch, yet not a limb must be moved. The black flies came in crowds; but they are not so tormenting if you plunge your face in the grass, though they titillate the back of the hand as they run over it. Under the bramble bush was a bury that did not look much used; and once or twice a great blue fly came out of it, the buzz at first sounding hollow and afar off and becoming clearer as it approached the mouth of the hole. There was the carcass of a dead rabbit inside no doubt.
A humble-bee wandering along—they are restless things—buzzed right under my hat, and became entangled in the grass by my ear. Now we knew by experience in taking their honey that they could sting sharply if irritated, though good-tempered by nature. How he 'burred' and buzzed and droned!—till by-and-by, crawling up the back of my head, he found an open space and sailed away. Then, looking out again, there was a pair of ears in the grass not ten yards distant: a rabbit had come out at last. But the first delight was quickly over: the ears were short and sharply pointed, and almost pinkly transparent.
What would the shepherd say if I brought home one of his hated enemies no bigger than a rat? The young rabbit made waiting still more painful, being far enough from the hedge to get a clear view into the recess if anything attracted his notice. Why the shepherd hated rabbits was because the sheep would not feed where they had worn their runs in the grass. Not the least movement was possible now—not even that little shifting which makes a position just endurable: the heat seemed to increase; the thought of Ulysses could hardly restrain the almost irresistible desire to stir.
When, suddenly, there was a slight rustling among the boughs of an oak in the other hedge, as of wings against twigs: it was a woodpigeon, better game than a rabbit. He would, I knew, first look round before he settled himself to preen his feathers on the branch, and, if everything was still while that keen inspection lasted, would never notice me. This is their habit—and the closer you are underneath them the less chance of their perceiving you: for a pigeon perched rarely looks straight downwards. If flying, it is just the reverse; for then they seem to see under them quicker than in any other direction.
Slowly lifting the long barrel of the gun—it was fortunate the sunlight glancing on the bright barrel was not reflected towards the oak—I got it to bear upon the bird; but then came a doubt. It was all eight-and-twenty yards across the angle of the meadow to the oak—a tremendous long shot under the circumstances. For they would not trust us with the large copper powder-flask, but only with a little pistol-flask (it had belonged to the pair of pistols we tried to find), and we were ordered not to use more than a charge and a half at a time. That was quite enough to kill blackbirds. (The noise of the report was always a check in this way; such a trifle of powder only made a slight puff.)
Shot there was in plenty—a whole tobacco-pipe bowl full, carefully measured out of the old yellow canvas money-bag that did for a shot belt. A starling could be knocked off the chimney with this charge easily, and so could a blackbird roosting in a bush at night. But a woodpigeon nearly thirty yards distant was another matter; for the old folk (and the birdkeepers too) said that their quills were so hard the shot would glance aside unless it came with great force. Very likely the pigeon would escape, and all the rabbits in the buries would be too frightened to come out at all.
A beautiful bird he was on the bough, perched well in view and clearly defined against the sky behind; and my eye travelled along the groove on the breech and up the barrel, and so to the sight and across to him; and the finger, which always would keep time with the eye, pulled at the trigger.
A mere puff of a report, and then a desperate fluttering in the tree and a cloud of white feathers floating above the hedge, and a heavy fall among the bushes. He was down, and Orion's spaniel (that came racing like mad from the rickyard the instant he heard the discharge) had him in a moment. Orion followed quickly. Then the shepherd came up, rather stiff on his legs from rheumatism, and stepped the distance, declaring it was thirty yards good; after which we all walked home in triumph.
Molly the dairymaid came a little way from the rickyard, and said she would pluck the pigeon that very night after work. She was always ready to do anything for us boys; and we could never quite make out why they scolded her so for an idle hussy indoors. It seemed so unjust. Looking back, I recollect she had very beautiful brown eyes.
'You mind you chaws the shot well, measter,' said the shepherd, 'afore you loads th' gun. The more you chaws it the better it sticks the-gither, an' the furder it kills um;' a theory of gunnery that which was devoutly believed in in his time and long anticipated the wire cartridges. And the old soldiers that used to come round to haymaking, glad of a job to supplement their pensions, were very positive that if you bit the bullet and indented it with your teeth, it was perfectly fatal, no matter to what part of the body its billet took it.
In the midst of this talk as we moved on, I carrying the gun at the trail with the muzzle downwards, the old ramrod, long disused and shrunken, slipped half out; the end caught the ground, and it snapped short off in a second. A terrible disaster this, turning everything to bitterness: Orion was especially wroth, for it was his right next to shoot. However, we went down to the smithy at the inn, to take counsel of the blacksmith, a man of knowledge and a trusty friend. 'Aha!' said he, 'it's not the first time I've made a ramrod. There's a piece of lancewood in the store overhead which I keep on purpose; it's as tough as a bow—they make carriage-shafts of it; you shall have a better rod than was ever fitted to a Joe Manton.' So we took him down some pippins, and he set to work on it that evening.
THE OLD PUNT: A CURIOUS 'TURNPIKE'
The sculls of our punt, being short and stout, answered very well as levers to heave the clumsy old craft off the sand into which it sank so deeply. That sheltered corner of the mere, with a shelving sandy shore, and a steep bank behind covered with trees, was one of the best places to fish for roach: you could see them playing under the punt in shoals any sunny day.
There was a projecting bar almost enclosing the creek, which was quite still, even when the surf whitened the stony strand without, driven before a wet and stormy south-wester. It was the merest routine to carry the painter ashore and twist the rotten rope round an exposed root of the great willow tree; for there was not the slightest chance of that ancient craft breaking adrift. All our strength and the leverage of the sculls could scarcely move her, so much had she settled. But we had determined to sail that lovely day to visit the island of Calypso, and had got all our arms and munitions of war aboard, besides being provisioned and carrying some fruit for fear of scurvy. There was of course the gun, placed so as not to get wet; for the boat leaked, and had to be frequently baled out with a tin mug—one that the haymakers used.
Indeed, if we had not caulked her with some dried moss and some stiff clay, it is doubtful if she would have floated far. The well was full of dead leaves that had been killed by the caterpillars and the blight, and had fallen from the trees before their time; and there were one or two bunches of grass growing at the stern part from between the decaying planks.
Besides the gun there was the Indian bow, scooped out inside in a curious way, and covered with strange designs or coloured hieroglyphics: it had been brought home by one of our people years before. There was but one man in the place who could bend that bow effectually; so that though we valued it highly we could not use it. By it lay another of briar, which was pliable enough and had brought down more than one bird.
Orion hit a rabbit once; but though sore wounded it got to the bury, and, struggling in, the arrow caught the side of the hole and was drawn out. Indeed, a nail filed sharp is not of much avail as an arrowhead; you must have it barbed, and that was a little beyond our skill. Ikey the blacksmith had forged us a spearhead after a sketch from a picture of a Greek warrior; and a rake-handle served as a shaft. It was really a dangerous weapon. He had also made us a small anchor according to plan; nor did he dip too deeply into our pocket-money.
Then the mast and square-sail, fitted out of a window-blind, took up a considerable space; for although it was perfectly calm, a breeze might arise. And what with these and the pole for punting occasionally, the deck of the vessel was in that approved state of confusion which always characterises a ship on the point of departure. Nor must Orion's fishing-rod and gear be forgotten, nor the cigar-box at the stern (a present from the landlady at the inn) which contained a chart of the mere and a compass.
With a 'yeo—heave-ho!' we levered her an inch at a time, and then loosened her by working her from side to side, and so, panting and struggling, shoved the punt towards the deep. Slowly a course was shaped out of the creek—past the bar and then along the edge of the thick weeds, stretching so far out into the water that the moorhen feeding near the land was beyond reach of shot. From the green matted mass through which a boat could scarcely have been forced came a slight uncertain sound, now here now yonder, a faint 'suck-sock;' and the dragon-flies were darting to and fro.
The only ripple of the surface, till broken by the sculls, was where the swallows dipped as they glided, leaving a circle of tiny wavelets that barely rolled a yard. Past the low but steep bluff of sand rising sheer out of the water, drilled with martins' holes and topped by a sapling oak in the midst of a great furze bush: yellow bloom of the furze, tall brake fern nestling under the young branches, woodbine climbing up and bearing sweet coronals of flower.
Past the barley that came down to the willows by the shore—ripe and white under the bright sunshine, but yonder beneath the shadow of the elms with a pale tint of amber. Past broad rising meadows, where under the oaks on the upper ground the cattle were idly lying out of the sultry heat.
Then the barren islands, strewn with stone and mussel-shells glistening in the sunshine, over which in a gale the waves made a clean sweep, rendered the navigation intricate; and the vessel had to be worked in and out, now scraping against rocky walls of sandstone, now grounding and churning up the bottom, till presently she floated in the bay beneath the firs. There a dark shadow hung over the black water—still and silent, so still that even the aspens rested from their rustling.
Out again into the sunshine by the wide mouth of the Green River, as the chart named the brook whose level stream scarce moved into the lake. A streak of blue shot up it between the banks, and a shrill pipe came back as the kingfisher hastened away. By the huge boulder of sarsen, whose shoulder projected but a few inches—in stormy times a dangerous rock to mariners—and then into the unknown narrow seas between the endless osier-beds and withy-covered isles.
There the chart failed; and the known landmarks across the open waters—the firs and elms, the green knoll with the cattle—were shut out by thick branches on either hand. In and out and round the islets, sounding the depth before advancing, winding now this way, now that, till all idea of the course was lost, and it became a mere struggle to get forward. Drooping boughs swept along the gunwales, thick-matted weeds cumbered the way; 'snags,' jagged stumps of trees, threatened to thrust their tops through the bottom; and, finally, panting and weary of poling through the maze, we emerged in a narrow creek all walled in and enclosed with vegetation.
Running her ashore on the soft oozy ground, we rested under a great hawthorn bush that grew at the very edge, and, looking upwards, could see in the canopy above the black interlaced twigs of a dove's nest. Tall willow poles rose up all around, and above them was the deep blue of the sky. On the willow stems that were sometimes under water the bark had peeled in scales; beneath the surface bunches of red fibrous roots stretched out their slender filaments tipped with white, as if feeling like a living thing for prey.
A dreamy, slumberous place, where the sedges slept, and the green flags bowed their pointed heads. Under the bushes in the distant nook the moorhen, reassured by the silence, came out from the grey-green grass and the rushes. Surely Calypso's cave could not be far distant, where she
with work and song the time divides, And through, the loom the golden shuttle guides.
For the Immortals are hiding somewhere still in the woods; even now I do not weary searching for them.
But as we rested a shadow fell from a cloud that covered the sun, and immediately a faint sigh arose from among the sedges and the reeds, and two pale yellow leaves fell from the willows on the water. A gentle breeze followed the cloud, chasing its shadow. Orion touched his rod meaningly. So I stepped ashore with the gun to see if a channel could be found into the open water, and pushed through the bush. Briar and bramble choked the path, and hollow willow stoles; but, holding the gun upright, it was possible to force through, till, pushing between a belt of reeds and round an elder thicket, I came suddenly on a deep, clear pool—all but walking into it. Up rose a large bird out of the water with a bustling of wings and splashing, compelled to 'rocket' by the thick bushes and willow poles. There was no time to aim; but the old gun touched the shoulder and went off without conscious volition on my part.
The bird flew over the willows, but the next moment there was a heavy splash somewhere beyond out of sight. Then came an echo of the report sent back from the woods adjoining, and another, and a third and fourth, as the sound rolled along the side of the hill, caught in the coombes and thrown to and fro like a ball in a tennis-court. Wild with anxiety, we forced the punt at the bulrushes, in the corner where it looked most open, and with all our might heaved it over the weeds and the mud, and so round the islet into the next pool, and thence into the open water. It was a wild duck, and was speedily on board.
Stepping the mast and hoisting the sail, we drifted before the faint breath of air that now just curled the surface, steering straight across the open for the stony barren islands at the mouth of the bay. The chart drawn in pencil—what labour it cost us!—said that there, a few yards from the steep shore, was a shoal with deep water round it. For some reason there always seemed a slight movement or current—a set of the water there, as if it flowed into the little bay.
In swimming we often came suddenly out of a cold into a stratum of warm water (at the surface); and perhaps the difference in the temperature may have caused the drift, for the bay was in shadow half the day. Now, wherever there is motion there will fish assemble; so as the punt approached the shoal the sail was doused, and at twenty yards' distance I put the anchor into the water—not dropping it, to avoid the splash—and let it slip gently to the bottom.
Then, paying out the cable, we drifted to the edge of the shoal without the least disturbance, and there brought up. Orion had his bait ready—he threw his line right to windward, so that the float might drag the worm naturally with the wind and slight current towards the shoal.
The tiny blue buoy dances up and down on the miniature waves; beyond it a dazzling path of gold stretches away to the distant osier-islands—a path down which we came without seeing it till we looked back. The wavelets strike with a faint 'sock-sock' against the bluff overhanging bow, and then roll on to the lee-shore close at hand.
It rises steep; then a broad green ledge; and after that, still steeper, the face of a long-deserted sand-pit, where high up a rabbit sits at the mouth of his hole, within range, but certain to escape even if hit, and therefore safe. On the turf below is a round black spot, still showing, though a twelvemonth has gone by since we landed with half a dozen perch, lit a fire and cooked the fishes. For Molly never could 'a-bear' perch, because of the hardness of the scales, saying she would as soon 'scrape a vlint;' and they laughed to scorn our idea of skinning them as you do moorhens, whose 'dowl' no fingers can pick.
So we lit a fire and blew it up, lying on the soft short grass in a state of nature after a swim, there being none to see us but the glorious sun. The skinned perch were sweeter than any I have tasted since.
'Look!' whispers Orion, suddenly. The quill above the blue buoy nods as it lifts over the wavelets—nods again, sinks a little, jerks up, and then goes down out of sight. Orion feels the weight. 'Two pounds, if he's an ounce!' he shouts: soon after a splendid perch is in the boat, nearer three pounds perhaps than two. Flop! whop! how he leaps up and down on the planks, soiled by the mud, dulling his broad back and barred sides on the grit and sand.
Roaming about like this with the gun, now on the water in the punt, and now on land, we gradually came to notice very closely the game we wished to shoot. We saw, for instance, that the rabbit when feeding or moving freely, unless quickened by alarm, has a peculiar way of dwelling upon his path. It almost resembles creeping; for both fore feet stop while the hinder come up—one hinder foot slightly behind the other, and rather wide apart.
When a fall of snow presents a perfect impression of his passage, it appears as if the animal had walked slowly backwards. This deceives many who at such times go out to pick up anything that comes in their way; for they trace the trail in the wrong direction. The truth is, that when the rabbit pauses for the hinder feet to come up he again rests momentarily upon these before the two foremost are put forth, and so presses not only the paw proper but the whole first joint of the hind leg upon the snow. A glance at the hind feet of a rabbit will show what I mean: they will be found to display plain signs of friction against the ground.
The habit has given the creature considerable power of standing up on the hinder feet; he can not only sit on his haunches, but raise himself almost upright, and remain in that position to listen for some little time. For the same reason he can bark the ash saplings higher up than would be imagined: where he cannot reach, the mice climb up and nibble straight lines across the young pole, as if done with a single stroke from a saw that scraped away the rind but did not reach the wood.
In front of a large rabbit bury the grass will be found discoloured with sand at some distance from the mouth of the hole. This is explained by particles adherent to the rabbits' hind feet, and rubbing off against the grass blades. Country people call this peculiar gait 'sloppetting;' and one result of it is that the rabbits wear away the grass where they are numerous almost as much as they eat it away.
There was such a space worn by the attrition of feet sprinkled with sand before the extensive burrow at the top of the meadow where I shot the woodpigeon. These marks suggested to us that we should attempt some more wholesale system of capture than shooting. It was not for the mere desire of destruction, but for a special purpose, that we turned our attention to wiring. The punt, though much beloved, was, like all punts, a very bad sailer. A boat with a keel that could tack, and so work into the wind's eye, was our ambition.
The blacksmith Ikey readily purchased every rabbit we obtained at sixpence each. Rabbits were not so dear then as now; but of course he made a large profit even then. The same rabbits at present would be worth fifteen or eighteen pence. Every sixpence was carefully saved, but it was clear that a long time must elapse before the goal was attained. The blacksmith started the idea of putting up a 'turnpike'—i.e. a wire—but professed ignorance as to the method of setting it. That was a piece of his cunning—that he might escape responsibility.
The shepherd, too, when obliquely questioned, shook his head, pursed his lips, threw his pitching-bar over his shoulder, and marched off with a mysterious hint that our friend Ikey would some day put his 'vut in it.' It did not surprise us that the shepherd should turn his back on anything of the kind; for he was a leading man among the 'Ranters,' and frequently exhorted them in his cottage.
The carter's lad was about at the time, and for the moment we thought of applying to him. He was standing on the threshold of the stable, under the horseshoes and weasles' feet nailed up to keep the witches away, teasing a bat that he had found under the tiles. But suddenly the dusky thing bit him sharply, and he uttered an oath; while the creature, released, flew aimlessly into the elms. It was better to avoid him.
Indoors, they would have put a very heavy hand upon the notion had they known of it: so we had to rely solely upon the teaching of experiment. In the first attempt, a stick that had been put by for the thatcher, but which he had not yet split, was cut short and sharpened for the plug that prevents the animal carrying away the wire when snared. This is driven into the earth; at the projecting end a notch was cut to hold the string attached to the end of the wire away from the run.
A smaller stick supported the wire above the ground; this latter only just sufficiently thrust into the sward to stand firmly upright. Willow was used for this at first; but it is a feeble wood: it split too much, or bent and gave way instead of holding the wire in its place. The best for the purpose we found were the nut-tree rods that shoot up among the hazel thickets, no larger than the shaft of an arrow, and almost as straight. A slit about half an inch deep was made in the upper end, and in this slit the shank of the wire was sunk. Once or twice the upright was peeled; but this was a mistake, for the white wand was then too conspicuous. The bark should be left on.
Three copper wires twisted tight formed the snare itself; we twisted them like the strands of a rope, thinking it would give more strength. The wire projected horizontally, the loop curling downwards. It was first set up at a spot where a very broad and much-worn run—more like a footpath than a rabbit track—forked into several lesser runs, and at about five yards from the hedge. But though adjusted, as we thought, with the utmost nicety, no rabbit would put his neck into it—not even in the darkness of the night. By day they all played round it in perfect safety.
After waiting some time it was removed and reset just over a hole—the loop close to the opening. It looked scarcely possible for a rabbit to creep out without being caught, the loop being enlarged to correspond with the mouth of the hole. For a while it seemed as if the rabbits declined to use the hole at all; presently, however, the loop was pushed back, showing that one must have got his nose between it and the bank and so made a safe passage sideways. A run that crossed the field was then selected, and the wire erected at about the middle of it, equidistant from either hedge. Near the entrance of the buries the rabbits moved slowly, sniffing their way along and pausing every yard or so. But they often increased their speed farther away, and sometimes raced from one mound to the other. When going at that rate it appeared natural to conclude that they would be less careful to pick and choose their road.
The theory proved so far correct that next day the upright was down, but the wire had snapped and the rabbit was gone. The character of the fracture clearly indicated how it had happened: the rabbit, so soon as he found his head in the noose, had rolled and tumbled till the wire, already twisted tight, parted. Too much twisting, therefore, weakened instead of strengthening. Next a single wire, somewhat thicker, was used, and set up nearly in the same place; but it broke again.
Finally, two strands of medium size, placed side by side, but only twisted once—that is, just enough to keep them together—were employed. The lesser loop—the slip-knot, as it might be called—was at the same time eased in order to run quicker and take a closer grip. Experiments with the hand proved that this style of wire would bear a great strain, and immediately answered to a sudden jerk. The running noose slipped the more easily because the wires were smooth; when twisted the strands checked the noose, the friction causing a slight sound. The wire itself seemed nearly perfect; but still no rabbit was caught.
Various runs were tried in succession; the size of the loop, too, was now enlarged and now decreased; for once it seemed as if a rabbit's ears had struck it aside, and on another as if, the loop being too large or too low down, one of the fore feet had entered and drawn it. Had it been the hind leg the noose would have held, because of the crook of the leg; but the fore foot came through, leaving the noose drawn up to a size not much larger than a finger-ring. To decide the point accurately, a full-grown rabbit was shot, and Orion held it in a position as near as possible to that taken in running, while I adjusted the wire to fit exactly. Still no success.
At last the secret was revealed by a hare. One day, walking up the lane with the gun, and peeping over into the ploughed field, I saw a hare about sixty yards away. The distance was too great to risk a shot, or rather it was preferable to wait for the chance of his coming nearer. Stepping back gently behind the bushes, I watched him run to and fro, gradually approaching in a zig-zag line that must carry him right across in front. I was positive that he had not seen me, and felt sure of bagging him; when suddenly—without any apparent cause—up went his head, he glanced round, and was off like the wind.
Yet there had not been the faintest noise, and I could not understand it, till all at once it occurred to me that it must be the scent. The slight, scarcely perceptible, breeze blew in that direction: instantly he crossed the current from me he detected it and fled. Afterwards I noticed that in the dusky twilight, if the wind is behind him, a hare will run straight at you as if about to deliberately charge your legs. This incident by the ploughed field explained the failure of the wire. Every other care had been taken, but we had forgotten to allow for the extreme delicacy of a wild animal's sense of smell.
In walking to the spot selected for the snare it is best to avoid even stepping on the run, and while setting it up to stand back as far as convenient and lean forward. The grass that grows near must not be touched by the hand, which seems to impart a very strong scent. The stick that has been carried in the hand must not be allowed to fall across the run: and be careful that your handkerchief does not drop out of your pocket on or near it. If a bunch of grass grows very tall and requires parting, part it with the end (not the handle) of your stick.
The same holds good with gins, especially if placed for a rat. Some persons strew a little freshly plucked grass over the pan and teeth of the trap, thinking to hide it; but it not only smells of the hand, but withers up and turns brown, and acts as a warning to that wary creature. It is a better plan if any dead leaves are lying near to turn them over and over with the end of a twig till they fall on the trap, that is if they are dry: if wet (unless actually raining at the time), should one chance to be left with the drier under surface uppermost, the rat may pause on the brink. Now that the remotest chance of leaving a scent was avoided the wire became a deadly instrument. Almost every morning two or three rabbits were taken: we set up a dozen snares when we had mastered the trick. They were found lying at full length in the crisp white grass, for we often rose to visit the wires while yet the stars were visible. Thus extended a person might have passed within a few yards and never noticed them, unless he had an out-of-doors eye; for the whiter fur of the belly as they lay aside was barely distinguishable from the hoar frost. The blacksmith Ikey sauntered down the lane every evening, and glanced casually behind the ash tree—the northern side of whose trunk was clothed with dark green velvet-like moss—to see if a bag was lying for him there among the nettles in the ditch. The rabbits were put in the bag, which was pushed through the hedge.
TREE-SHOOTING: A FISHING EXPEDITION
Just on the verge and borderland of the territory that could be ranged in safety there grew a stunted oak in a mound beside the brook. Perhaps the roots had been checked by the water; for the tree, instead of increasing in bulk, had expended its vigour in branches so crooked that they appeared entangled in each other. This oak was a favourite perching-place, because of its position: it could also be more easily climbed than straight-grown timber, having many boughs low down the trunk. With a gun it is difficult to ascend a smooth tree; these boughs therefore were a great advantage.
One warm afternoon late in the summer I got up into this oak; and took a seat astride a large limb, with the main trunk behind like the back of a chair and about twenty feet above the mound. Some lesser branches afforded a fork on which the gun could be securely lodged, and a limb of considerable size came across in front. Leaning both arms on this, a view could be obtained below and on three sides easily and without effort.
The mound immediately beneath was grown over with thick blackthorn, a species of cover that gives great confidence to game. A kick or blow upon the bushes with a stick will not move anything in an old blackthorn thicket. A man can scarcely push through it: nothing but a dog can manage to get about. On the meadow side there was no ditch, only a narrow fringe of tall pointed grass and rushes, with one or two small furze bushes projecting out upon the sward. Behind such bushes, on the slope of the mound, is rather a favourite place for a rabbit to sit out, or a hare to have a form.
The brook was shallow towards the hedge, and bordered with flags, among which rose up one tall bunch of beautiful reeds. Some little way up the brook a pond opened from it. At the entrance the bar of mud had hardly an inch of water; within there was a clear small space, and the rest all weeds, with moorhens' tracks. The farther side of the pond was covered with bramble bushes. It is a good plan to send the dogs into bushes growing on the banks of ponds; for though rabbits dislike water itself they are fond of sitting out in such cover near it. A low railing enclosed the side towards me: the posts had slipped by the giving way of the soil, and hung over the still pool.
One of the rails—of willow—was eaten out into hollow cavities by the wasps, which came to it generation after generation for the materials of their nests. The particles they detach are formed into a kind of paste or paper: in time they will quite honeycomb a pole. The third side of the pond shelved to the 'leaze,' that the cattle might drink. From it a narrow track went across the broad field up the rising ground to the distant gateway leading to the meadows, where they grazed on the aftermath. Marching day by day, one after the other in single file, to the drinking-place, the hoofs of the herd had cut a clean path in the turf, two or three inches deep and trodden hard. The reddish soil thus exposed marked the winding line athwart the field, through the tussocky bunches.
By the pond stood a low three-sided merestone or landmark, the initials on which were hidden under moss. Up in the tree, near the gun, there was a dead branch that had decayed in the curious manner that seems peculiar to oak. Where it joined the trunk the bark still remained, though covered with lichen, and for a foot or so out; then there was a long space where the bark and much of the wood had mouldered away; finally, near the end the bough retained its original size and the bark adhered. At the junction with the trunk and at the extremity its diameter was perhaps three inches; in the middle rather less than half as much. The grey central piece, larger and darker at either end, suggested the thought of the bare neck of a vulture.
Far away, just rising above the slope of the leaze, the distant tops of elms, crowded with rooks' nests (not then occupied), showed the site of the residence of an old gentleman of whom at that time we stood in much fear. The 'Squire' of Southlands alarmed even the hardened carters' lads as much by the prestige of a singular character as by the chastisement he personally gave those who ventured into his domain. Not a bird's nest, not a nut, must be touched: still less anything that could be called game. The watch kept was so much the stricter because he took a personal part in it, and was often round the fields himself armed with a great oak staff. It seemed, indeed, as if the preservation of the game was of far greater importance to him than the shooting of it afterwards. All the fowls of the air flocked to Southlands, as if it had been a refuge; yet it was not a large estate. Into the forest we had been, but Southlands was a mystery, a forbidden garden of delight, with the terror of an oaken staff (and unknown penalties) turning this way and that. Therefore the stunted old oak on the verge—the moss-grown merestone by the pond marked the limit—was so favourite a perching-place.
That beautiful afternoon I leaned both arms idly on the great bough that crossed in front of the seat and listened to the 'Caw—caw!' of the rooks as they looked to see if the acorns were yet ripening. A dead branch that had dropped partly into the brook was swayed continually up and down by the current, the water as it chafed against it causing a delicious murmur. This lulled me to sleep.
I woke with a start, and had it not been for the bough crossing in front must have fallen twenty feet. Looking down into the meadow as soon as my eyes were thoroughly open, I instantly noticed a covey of young partridges a little way up beside the hedge among the molehills. The neighbourhood of those hillocks has an attraction for many birds, especially in winter. Then fieldfares, redwings, starlings, and others prefer the meadows that are dotted with them. In a frost if you see a thrush on a molehill it is very likely to thaw shortly. Moles seem to feel the least change in the temperature of the earth; if it slackens they begin to labour, and cast up, unwittingly, food for the thrushes.
It would have been easy to kill three or four of the covey, which was a small one, at a single shot; but it had been a late summer, and they were not full-grown. Besides which, they roosted, I knew, about the middle of the meadow, and to shoot them near the roost would be certain to break them up, and perhaps drive them into Southlands. 'Good poachers preserve their own game:' so the birds fed safely, though a pot shot would not have seemed, the crime then that it would now. While I watched them suddenly the old bird 'quat,' and ran swiftly into the hedge, followed by the rest. A kestrel was hovering in the next meadow: when the beat of his wings ceased he slid forward and downwards, then rose and came over me in a bold curve. Well those little brown birds in the blackthorn knew that, fierce as he was, he dared not swoop even on a comparatively open bush, much less such thick covert, for fear of ruffling his proud feathers and beating them out. Nor could he follow them through the intricate hidden passages.
In the open water of the pond a large jack was basking in the sunshine, just beneath the surface; and though the shot would scatter somewhat before reaching him, he was within range. If a fish lies a few inches under water he is quite safe from shot unless the muzzle of the gun is so close that the pellets travel together like a bullet. At a distance the shot is supposed to glance as it strikes the water at an angle; for that reason the elevation of the tree was an advantage, since from it the charge would plunge into the pool. A jack may be killed in some depth of water when the gun is nearly perpendicularly above the mark; but in any case the aim must be taken two inches or more, according to circumstances, beneath the apparent position of the fish, to allow for refraction.
Sometimes the jack when hit comes to the surface belly upwards, but sometimes keeps down or sinks, and floats a considerable distance away from the spot; so that in the muddy water disturbed by the shot it is difficult to find him. If a snake be shot at while swimming he will sometimes sink like a stone, and can be seen lying motionless at the bottom. After we got hold of a small deer rifle we used to practise at the snakes in the mere—aiming at the head, which is about the size of a nut, and shows above the surface wobbling as they move. I recollect cutting a snake's head clean off with a ball from a pistol as he hastened away through the grass.
In winter, when the jacks came up and lay immediately under the ice, they could be easily shot. The pellets cut a round hole through an inch and a half of ice. The jack now basking in the pond was the more tempting because we had often tried to wire him in vain. The difficulty was to get him if hit. While I was deliberating a crow came flying low down the leaze, and alighted by the pond. His object, no doubt, was a mussel. He could not have seen me, and yet no sooner did he touch the ground than he looked uneasily about, sprang up, and flew straight away, as if he had smelt danger. Had he stayed he would have been shot, though it would have spoiled my ambush: the idea of the crows picking out the eyes of dying creatures was always peculiarly revolting to me.
If the pond was a haunt of his, it was too near the young partridges, which were weakly that season. A kestrel is harmless compared to a crow. Surely the translators have wrongly rendered Don Quixote's remark that the English did not kill crows, believing that King Arthur, instead of dying, was by enchantment turned into one, and so fearing to injure the hero. Must he not have meant a rook? [Note: It has since been pointed out to me that the Don may have meant a raven]
Soon afterwards something moved out of the mound into the meadow a long distance up: it was a hare. He came slowly along beside the hedge towards me—now stopping and looking into it as if seeking a convenient place for a form, having doubtless been disturbed from that he had first chosen. It was some minutes before he came within range: had I been on the ground most likely he would have scented me, the light air going that way; but being in, the tree the wind that passed went high over him. For this reason a tree ambush is deadly. It was necessary to get the line of sight clear of twigs, which check and divert shot, and to take a steady aim; for I had no second barrel, no dog, and had to descend the tree before running. Some leaves were blackened by the flame: the hare simply fell back, stretched his hind legs, quivered, and lay still. Part of the leaf of a plant was fixed in his teeth; he had just had a nibble.
With this success I was satisfied that day; but the old oak was always a favourite resort, even when nothing particular was in hand. From thence, too, as a base of operations, we made expeditions varying in their object with the season of the year.
Some distance beyond the stunted oak the thick blackthorn hedge was succeeded by a continuous strip of withy-bed bordering the brook. It often occurred to us that by entering these withies it would be possible to reconnoitre one side of Southlands; for the stream skirted the lower grounds: the tall willows would conceal any one passing through them. So one spring morning the attempt was made.
It was necessary to go on hands and knees through the mowing grass for some yards while passing an open space where the blackthorn cover ended, and then to leap a broad ditch that divided the withy-beds from the meadow. The lissom willow wands parted easily and sprang back to their places behind, leaving scarce a trace. Their slender tops rose overhead; beneath, long dead grasses, not yet quite supplanted by the spring growth, filled the space between. These rustled a little under foot, but so faint a sound could scarcely have been audible outside; and had any one noticed it it would have been attributed to a hare or a fox moving: both are fond of lying in withy-beds when the ground is dry.
The way to walk noiselessly is to feel with the foot before letting your weight press on it; then the dead stick or fallen hemlock is discovered and avoided. A dead stick cracks; the dry hollow hemlock gives a splintering sound when crushed. These old hemlock stems were numerous in places, together with 'gicksies,' as the haymakers call a plant that resembles it, but has a ribbed or fluted instead of a smooth stalk. The lads use a long 'gicks' cut between the joints as a tube to blow haws or peggles at the girls. When thirsty, and no ale is handy, the men search for one to suck up water with from the brook. It is difficult to find one free from insects, which seem to be remarkably fond of anything hollow. The haymakers do not use the hemlock, thinking it would poison the water; they think, too, that drinking through a tube is safer when they are in a great heat from the sun than any other way.
Nor is it so easy to drink from a stream without this simple aid. If the bank be flat it is wet, and what looks like the grass of the meadow really grows out of the water; so that there it is not possible to be at full length. If the bank be dry the level of the water is several inches lower, and in endeavouring to drink the forehead is immersed; often the water is so much lower than its banks that it is quite impossible to drink from it lying. By the edge grasses, water-plantains, forget-me-nots, frequently fill the space within reach. If you brush these aside it disturbs the bottom, and the mud rises, or a patch of brown 'scum' comes up and floats away. A cup, though gently used, generally draws some insects in with the water, though the liquid itself be pure. Lapping with the hollowed palm requires practice, and, unless the spot be free from weeds and of some little depth, soon disturbs the bottom. But the tube can be inserted in the smallest clear place, and interferes with nothing.
Each of us carried a long hazel rod, and the handle of a 'squailer' projected from Orion's coat-pocket. For making a 'squailer' a teacup was the best mould: the cups then in use in the country were rather larger than those at present in fashion. A ground ash sapling with the bark on, about as thick as the little finger, pliant and tough, formed the shaft, which was about fifteen inches long. This was held upright in the middle of a teacup, while the mould was filled with molten lead. It soon cooled, and left a heavy conical knob on the end of the stick. If rightly thrown it was a deadly missile, and would fly almost as true as a rifle ball. A rabbit or leveret could thus be knocked over; and it was peculiarly adapted for fetching a squirrel out of a tree, because, being so heavy at one end, it rarely lodged on the boughs, as an ordinary stick would, but overbalanced and came down.
From the outlook of the oak some aspen trees could be seen far up in the withy-beds; and it had been agreed that there the first essay of the stream should be made. On arriving at these trees we paused, and began to fix the wires on the hazel rods. The wire for fish must slip very easily, and the thinner it is, if strong enough, the better, because it takes a firmer grip. A single wire will do; but two thin ones are preferable. Thin copper wire is as flexible as thread. Brass wire is not so good; it is stiffer, and too conspicuous in the water.
At the shank end a stout string is attached in the middle of its length. Then the wire is placed against the rod, lying flat upon it for about six inches. The strings are now wound round tightly in opposite directions, binding it to the stick, so that at the top the ends cross and are in position to tie in the slight notch cut for the purpose. A loop that will allow four fingers to enter together is about large enough, though of course it must be varied according to the size of the jack in view. Heavy jacks are not often wired, and scarcely ever in brooks.
For jack the shape of the loop should be circular; for trout it should be oval, and considerably larger in proportion to the apparent bulk of the fish. Jack are straight-grown and do not thicken much in the middle; with trout it is different. The noose should be about six inches from the top of the rod. Orion said he would go twenty yards farther up; I went direct from the centre of the withy-bed to the stream.
The bank rose a little above the level of the withy-bed; it was a broad mound full of ash stoles and willow—the sort that is grown for poles. At that spot the vines of wild hops had killed all the underwood, leaving open spaces between the stoles; the vines were matted so thickly that they hid the ground. This was too exposed a place, so I went back and farther up till I could just hear Orion rustling through the hemlocks. Here the dead grass and some elder bushes afforded shelter, and the water could be approached unseen.
It was about six or eight inches deep; the opposite shore was bordered for several yards out with flags and rushes. The cattle nibbled their tender tops off, as far as they could reach; farther out they were pushing up straight and pointed. The rib and groove of the flag so closely resemble those of the ancient bayonet that it might be supposed the weapon was modelled from the plant. Indoors among the lumber there was a rusty old bayonet that immediately called forth the comparison: the modern make seem more triangular.
The rushes grew nearer the shore of the meadow—the old ones yellow, the young green: in places this fringe of rush and sedge and flag must have been five or six yards wide, and it extended as far as could be seen up the brook. No doubt the cattle trod in the edge of the firm ground by degrees every year to get at the water, and thus widened the marsh. It was easy to understand now why all the water-fowl, teal and duck, moorhen and snipe, seemed in winter to make in this direction.
The ducks especially exercised all our ingenuity and quite exhausted our patience in the effort to get near them in winter. In the large water-meadows a small flock sometimes remained all day: it was possible to approach near enough by stalking behind the hedges to see the colour of the mallards; but they were always out of gunshot. This place must be full of teal then; as for moorhens, there were signs of them everywhere, and several feeding in the grass. The thought of the sport to be got here when the frosty days came was enough to make one wild.
After a long look across, I began to examine the stream near at hand: the rushes and flags had forced the clear sweet current away from the meadow, so that it ran just under the bank. I was making out the brown sticks at the bottom, when there was a slight splash—caused by Orion about ten yards farther up—and almost at the same instant something shot down the brook towards me. He had doubtless landed a jack, and its fellow rushed away. Under a large dead bough that had fallen across its top in the stream I saw the long slender fish lying a few feet from the bank, motionless save for the gentle curving wave of the tail edges. So faint was that waving curl that it seemed caused rather by the flow of the current than the volition of the fish. The wings of the swallow work the whole of the longest summer day, but the fins of the fish in running water are never still: day and night they move continuously.
By slow degrees I advanced the hazel rod, keeping it at first near to and parallel with the bank, because jack do not like anything that stretches across them; and I imagine other fish have the same dislike to right angles. The straight shadow even seems to arouse suspicion—no boughs are ever straight. Perhaps, if it were possible to angle without a rod, there would be more success, particularly in small streams. But after getting the stick almost out far enough, it became evident that the dead branch would not let me slip the wire into the water in front of the jack in the usual way. So I had to draw it back again as gradually as it had been put forth.
With fish everything must be done gradually and without a jerk. A sudden jerking movement immediately alarms them. If you walk gently by they remain still, but start or lift the arm quickly and they dart for deep water. The object of withdrawing the rod was to get at and enlarge the loop in order that it might be slipped over his tail, since the head was protected by the bough. It is a more delicate operation to pass the wire up from behind; it has to go farther before the spot that allows a firm grip is reached, and fish are well aware that natural objects such as twigs float down with the current. Anything, therefore, approaching from behind or rubbing upwards is suspicious. As this fish had just been startled, it would not do to let the wire touch him at all.
After enlarging the loop I put the rod slowly forth again, worked the wire up stream, slipped the noose over his tail, and gently got it up to the balance of the fish. Waiting a moment to get the elbow over the end of the rod so as to have a good leverage, I gave a sudden jerk upwards, and felt the weight instantly. But the top of the rod struck the overhanging bough, and there was my fish, hung indeed, but still in the water near the surface. Nor could I throw it on the bank, because of the elder bushes. So I shortened the rod, pulling it in towards me quickly and dragging the jack through the water. The pliant wire had cut into the scales and skin—he might have been safely left suspended over the stream all day; but in the eagerness of the moment I was not satisfied till I had him up on the mound.
We did not see much of Southlands, because the withy-beds were on the lowest ground; but there were six jacks strung on a twisted withy when we got back to the stunted oak and rested there tasting acid sorrel leaves.
EGG-TIME. A 'GIP'-TRAP
There is no sweeter time in the woods than just before the nesting begins in earnest. Is it the rising sap that causes a pleasant odour to emanate from every green thing? Idling along the hedgerows towards the woodlands there may perchance be seen small tufts of white rabbit's fur in the grass, torn from herself by the doe to form a warm lining to the hole in which her litter will appear: a 'sign' this that often guides a robber to her nest.
Yonder on the rising ground, towering even in their fall over the low (lately cut) ash plantation, lie the giant limbs of the mighty oaks, thrown just as they felt the quickening heat. The bark has been stripped from the trunk and branches; the sun has turned the exposed surface to a deep buff colour, which contrasts with the fresh green of the underwood around and renders them visible afar.
When the oak first puts forth its buds the woods take a ruddy tint. Gradually the background of green comes to the front, and the oak-apples swell, streaked with rosy stains, whence their semblance to the edible fruit of the orchard. All unconscious of the white or red cross daubed on the rough bark, the tree prepares its glory of leaf, though doomed the while by that sad mark to the axe.
Cutting away the bushes with his billhook, the woodman next swings the cumbrous grub-axe, whose wide edge clears the earth from the larger roots. Then he puts his pipe in his pocket, and settles to the serious work of the 'great axe,' as he calls it. I never could use this ungainly tool aright: a top-heavy, clumsy, awkward thing, it rules you instead of you ruling it. The handle, too, is flat—almost with an edge itself sometimes—and is quite beyond the grasp of any but hands of iron. Now the American axe feels balanced like a sword; this is because of the peculiar curve of the handle. To strike you stand with the left foot slightly forward, and the left hand uppermost: the 'S' curve (it is of course not nearly so crooked as the letter) of the American axe adjusts itself to the anatomy of the attitude, so to speak.
The straight English handle does not; it is stiff, and strains the muscles; but the common 'great axe' has the advantage that it is also used for splitting logs and gnarled 'butts.' An American axe is too beautiful a tool for that rude work. The American was designed to strike at the trunk of the tree several feet from the ground, the English axe is always directed to the great roots at the base.
A dexterous woodman can swing his tool alternately left hand or right hand uppermost. The difference looks trifling; but try it, and you will be astonished at the difficulty. The blows echo and the chips fly, till the base of the tree, that naturally is much larger, is reduced to the size of the trunk or less. Now a pause, while one swarms up to 'line' it—i.e. to attach a rope as high as possible to guide the 'stick' in its fall.
It is commonly said that in climbing it is best to look up—a maxim that has been used for moral illustrations; but it is a mistake. In ascending a tree you should never look higher than the brim of your hat, unless when quite still and resting on a branch; temporary blindness would be the penalty in this case. Particles of decayed bark, the borings of insects in dead wood, dust, and fragments of twigs, rush down in little streams and fill the eyes. The quantity of woody powder that adheres to a tree is surprising; every motion dislodges it from a thousand minute crevices. As for firs, in climbing a fir one cannot look up at all—dead sticks, needles, and dust pour down, and the branches are so thick together that the head has to be forced through them. The line fixed, the saw is applied, and by slow degrees the butt cut nearly through. Unless much overbalanced on one side by the limbs, an oak will stand on a still day when almost off.
Some now seize the rope, and alternately pull and slacken, which gives the tree a tottering movement. One more daring than the rest drives a wedge into the saw-cut as it opens when the tree sways. It sways—it staggers; a loud crack as the fibres part, then with a slow heave over it goes, and, descending, twists upon the base. The vast limbs plough into the sward; the twigs are crushed; the boughs, after striking the earth, rebound and swish upwards. See that you stand clear, for the least branch will thresh you down. The flat surface of the exposed butt is blue with stains from the steel of the saw.
Light taps with a small sharp axe, that cut the rind but no deeper, ring the trunk at intervals. Then the barking irons are inserted; they are rods of iron forged at the top something like a narrow shallow spoon. The bark from the trunk comes off in huge semi-cylinders almost large enough for a canoe. But that from the branches is best. You may mark how at the base the bark is two inches thick, lessening to a few lines on the topmost boughs. If it sticks a little, hammer it with the iron: it peels with a peculiar sound, and the juicy sap glistens white between. It is this that, drying in the sun, gives the barked tree its colour: in time the wood bleaches paler, and after a winter becomes grey. Inside, the bark is white streaked with brown; presently it will be all brown. While some strip it, others collect the pieces, and with them build toy-like sheds of bark, which is the manner of stacking it.
From the peeled tree there rises a sweet odour of sap: the green mead, the green underwood and hawthorn around, are all lit up with the genial sunbeams. The beautiful wind-anemones are gone, too tender and lovely for so rude an earth; but the wild hyacinths droop their blue bells under the wood, and the cowslips rise in the grass. The nightingale sings without ceasing; the soft 'coo-coo' of the dove sounds hard by; the merry cuckoo calls as he flies from elm to elm; the wood-pigeons rise and smite their wings together over the firs. In the mere below the coots are at play; they chase each other along the surface of the water and indulge in wild evolutions. Everything is happy. As the plough-boys stroll along they pluck the young succulent hawthorn leaves and nibble them.
It is the sweetest time of all for wandering in the wood. The brambles have not yet grown so bushy as to check the passage; the thistles that in autumn will be as tall as the shoulder and thick as a walking-stick are as yet no bar; burrs do not attach themselves at every step, though the broad burdock leaves are spreading wide. In its full development the burdock is almost a shrub rather than a plant, with a woody stem an inch or more in diameter.
Up in the fir trees the nests of the pigeons are sometimes so big that it appears as if they must use the same year after year, adding fresh twigs, else they could hardly attain such bulk. Those in the ash-poles are not nearly so large. In the open drives blue cartridge-cases lie among the grass, the brass part tarnished by the rain, thrown hurriedly aside from the smoking breech last autumn. But the guns are silent in the racks, though the keeper still carries his gun to shoot the vermin, which are extremely busy at this season. Vermin, however, do not quite agree among themselves: weasels and stoats are deadly enemies of mice and rats. Where rats are plentiful there they are sure to come; they will follow a rat into a dwelling-house.
Here the green drive shows traces of the poaching it received from the thick-planted hoofs of the hunt when the leaves were off and the blast of the horn sounded fitfully as the gale carried the sound away. The vixen is now at peace, though perhaps it would scarcely be safe to wander too near the close-shaven mead where the keeper is occupied more and more every day with his pheasant-hatching. And far down on the lonely outlying farms, where even in fox-hunting England the music of the hounds is hardly heard in three years (because no great coverts cause the run to take that way), foul murder is sometimes done on Reynard or his family. A hedge-cutter marks the sleeping-place in the withies where the fox curls up by day; and with his rusty gun, that sometimes slaughters a roaming pheasant, sends the shot through the red side of the slumbering animal. Then, thrust ignobly into a sack, he shoulders the fox and marches round from door to door, tumbling the limp body rudely down on the pitching stones to prove that the fowls will now be safe, and to be rewarded with beer and small coin. A dead fox is profit to him for a fortnight. These evil deeds of course are cloaked as far as possible.
Leaving now the wood for the lane that wanders through the meadows, a mower comes sidling up, and, looking mysteriously around with his hand behind under his coat, 'You med have un for sixpence,' he says, and produces a partridge into whose body the point of the scythe ran as she sat on her nest in the grass, and whose struggles were ended by a blow from the rubber or whetstone flung at her head. He has got the eggs somewhere hidden under a swathe.
The men that are so expert at finding partridges' eggs to sell to the keepers know well beforehand whereabouts the birds are likely to lay. If a stranger who had made no previous observations went into the fields to find these eggs, with full permission to do so, he would probably wander in vain. The grass is long, and the nest has little to distinguish it from the ground; the old bird will sit so close that one may pass almost over her. Without a right of search in open daylight the difficulty is of course much greater. A man cannot quarter the fields when the crop is high and leave no trail.
Farmers object to the trampling and damage of their property; and a keeper does not like to see a labourer loafing about, because he is not certain that the eggs when found will be conscientiously delivered to him. They may be taken elsewhere, or they may even be broken out of spite if the finder thinks he has a grudge to repay. Now that every field is enclosed, and for the most part well cultivated and looked after, the business of the egg-stealer is considerably diminished. He cannot roam over the country at his fancy; his egg-finding is nearly restricted to the locality of which he possesses minute knowledge.
Thus workmen engaged in the towns, but sleeping several miles out in the villages, can keep a register of the slight indications they observe morning after morning as they cross the fields by the footpath to their labour. Early in the spring they notice that the partridges have paired: as time advances they see the pair day after day in the same meadow, and mark the spot. Those who work in the fields, again, have still better opportunities: the bird-keeping lads too have little else to do at that season than watch for nests. In the meadows the labourer as he walks to and fro with the 'bush' passes over every inch of the ground. The 'bush' is a mass of thorn bushes fixed in a frame and drawn by a horse; it acts like a light harrow, and leaves the meadow in strips like the pile of green velvet, stroked in narrow bands, one this way, one that, laying the grass blades in the directions it travels. Solitary work of this kind—for it requires but one man—is very favourable to observation. When the proper time arrives the searcher knows within a little where the nest must be, and has but a small space to beat.
The pheasant being so large a bird, its motions are easy to watch; and the nest is speedily found, because, being in the hedge or under bushes, there is a definite place in which to look, instead of the broad surface of the field. Pheasants will get out of the preserves in the breeding season and wander into the mounds, so that the space the keeper has to range is then enlarged threefold. Both pheasants and partridges are frequently killed on their nests; when the eggs are hard the birds remain to the last moment, and are often knocked over.
Besides poachers, the eggs have to run the chance of being destroyed by carrion crows, and occasionally by rooks. Rooks, though generally cleanly feeders, will at times eat almost anything, from a mussel to a fledgeling bird. Magpies and jays are accused of being equally dangerous enemies of eggs and young birds, and so too are snakes. Weasels, stoats, and rats spare neither egg, parents, nor offspring. Some of the dogs that run wild will devour eggs; and hawks pounce on the brood if they see an opportunity. Owls are said to do the same. The fitchew, the badger, and the hedgehog have a similarly evil reputation; but the first is rare, the second almost exterminated in many districts; the third—the poor hedgehog—is common, and some keepers have a bitter dislike to them. Swine are credited, with the same mischief as the worst of vermin at this particular season; but nowadays swine are not allowed to run wild in cultivated districts, except in the autumn when the acorns are falling.
As the nests are on the ground they are peculiarly accessible, and the eggs, being large, are tempting. Perhaps the mowing machine is as destructive as anything; and after all these there is the risk of a wet season and of disease. Let the care exercised be never so great, a certain amount of mortality must occur.
While the young partridges gradually become strong and swift, the nuts are increasing in size, and ripening upon the bough. The very hazel has a pleasant sound—not a nut-tree hedge existed in the neighbourhood that we did not know and visit. We noted the progress of the bushes from the earliest spring, and the catkins to the perfect nut.
There are threads of brilliant scarlet upon the hazel in February, though the gloom of winter lingers and the 'Shuck—a—sheck!' of the fieldfare fleeing before the snow sounds overhead. On the slender branches grow green ovals, from whose tips tiny scarlet plumes rise and curl over.
It often happens that while the tall rods with speckled bark grow vigorously the stole is hollow and decaying when the hardy fern flourishes around it. Before the summer ricks are all carted the nuts are full of sweet milky matter, and the shell begins to harden. A hazel bough with a good crook is then sought by the men that are thinking of the wheat harvest: they trim it for a 'vagging' stick, with which to pull the straw towards them. True reaping is now never seen: 'vagging' makes the short stubble that forces the partridges into the turnips. Maple boughs, whose bark is so strongly ribbed, are also good for 'vagging' sticks.
Nut-tree is used for bonds to tie up faggots, and split for the shepherds' hurdles. In winter sometimes a store of nuts and acorns may be seen fallen in a stream down the side of a bank, scratched out from a mouse's hole, as they say, by Reynard, who devours the little provident creature without regard for its wisdom. So that man and wild animals derive pleasure or use from the hazel in many ways. When the nuts are ripe the carters' lads do not care to ride sideways on the broad backs of the horses as they jog homewards along the lane, but are ever in the hedges.
There were plenty in the double-mounds to which we had access; but the shepherd, who had learned his craft on the Downs, said that the nuts grew there in such immense quantities as determined us to see them. Sitting on the felled ash under the shade of the hawthorn hedge, where the butcher-birds every year used to stick the humble-bees on the thorns, he described the route—a mere waggon track—and the situation of the largest copses.
The waggon track we found crossed the elevated plains close under and between the Downs, following at the foot, as it seemed, for an endless distance the curve of a range. The slope bounded the track on one side: on the other it was enclosed by a low bank covered with dead thorn thickly entangled, which enclosed the cornfields. The space between the hedge and the hill was as far as we could throw one of the bleached flints lying on the sward. It was dotted with hawthorn trees and furze, and full of dry brown grass. A few scattered firs, the remnants of extinct plantations, grew on the slope, and green 'fairy rings' marked it here and there.
These fairy rings have a somewhat different appearance from the dark green semicircles found in the meadows and called by the same name: the latter are often only segments of circles, are found near hedges, and almost always either under a tree or where a tree has been. There were more mushrooms on the side of the hill than we cared to carry. Some eat mushrooms raw—fresh as taken from the ground, with a little salt: to me the taste is then too strong. Of the many ways of cooking them the simplest is the best; that is, on a gridiron over wood embers on the hearth.
Every few minutes a hare started out of the dry grass: he always scampered up the Down and stopped to look at us from the ridge. The hare runs faster up hill than down. By the cornfields there were wire nettings to stop them; but nothing is easier than for any passer-by who feels an interest in hares and rabbits, and does not like to see them jealously excluded, to open a gap. Hares were very numerous—temptingly so. Not far from where the track crossed a lonely road was a gipsy encampment; that swarthy people are ever about when anything is going on, and the reapers were busy in the corn. The dead dry thorns of the hedge answered very well to boil their pot with. Their tents, formed by thrusting the ends of long bent rods like half-hoops into the turf, looked dark like the canvas of a barge.
These 'gips'—country folk do not say gipsy—were unknown to us; but we were on terms with some members of a tribe who called at our house several times in the course of the year to buy willow. The men wore golden earrings, and bought 'Black Sally,' a withy that has a dark bark, for pegs, and 'bolts' of osier for basket-making. A bolt is a bundle of forty inches in circumference. Though the women tell fortunes, and mix the 'dark man' and the 'light man,' the 'journey' and the 'letter' to perfection, till the ladies half believe, I doubt if they know much of true palmistry. The magic of the past always had a charm for me. I had learned to know the lines, from that which winds along at the base of the thumb-ball and if clear means health and long life, to that which crosses close to the fingers and indicates the course of love, and had traced them on many a delicate palm. So that the 'gips' could tell me nothing new.
The women are the hardiest in the country; they simply ignore the weather. Even the hedgers and ditchers and the sturdiest labourers choose the lee side of the hedge when they pause to eat their luncheons; but the 'gips' do not trouble to seek such shelter. Passing over the hills one winter's day, when the Downs looked all alike, being covered with snow, I came across a 'gip' family sitting on the ground in a lane, old and young exposed to the blast. In that there was nothing remarkable, but I recollect it because the young mother, handsome in the style of her race, had her neck and brown bust quite bare, and the white snowflakes drove thickly aslant upon her. Their complexion looks more dusky in winter, so that the contrast of the colours made me wish for an artist to paint it. And he might have put the grey embers of a fire gone out, and the twisted stem of a hawthorn bush with red haws above.
A mile beyond the gipsy tents we entered among the copses: scattered ash plantations, and hazel thickets with narrow green tracks between. Further in, the nut-tree bushes were more numerous, and we became separated though within call. Presently a low whistle like the peewit's (our signal) called me to Orion. On the border of a thicket, near an open field of swedes, he had found a hare in a wire. It was a beauty—the soft fur smooth to stroke, not so much as a shot-hole in the black-marked ears. Wired or netted hares and rabbits are much preferred by the dealers to those that have been shot—and so, too, netted partridges—because they look so clean and tempt the purchaser. The blacksmith Ikey, who bought our rabbits, used to sew up the shot wounds when they were much knocked about, and trimmed up the shattered ones in the cleverest way.
To pull up the plug and take wire and hare too was the first impulse; yet we hesitated. Why did the man who set the snare let his game lie till that hour of the day? He should have visited it long before: it had a suspicious look altogether. It would also have been nearly impossible to carry the hare so many miles by daylight and past villages: even with the largest pockets it would have been doubtful, for the hare had stiffened as he lay stretched out. So, carefully replacing him just as we found him, we left the spot and re-entered the copse.
The shepherd certainly was right; the quantity of nuts was immense: the best and largest bunches grew at the edge of the thickets, perhaps because they received more air and light than the bushes within that were surrounded by boughs. It thus happened that we were in the green pathway when some one suddenly spoke from behind, and, turning, there was a man in a velveteen jacket who had just stepped out of the bushes. The keeper was pleasant enough and readily allowed us to handle his gun—a very good weapon, though a little thin at the muzzle—for a man likes to see his gun admired. He said there were finer nuts in a valley he pointed out, and then carefully instructed us how to get back into the waggon track without returning by the same path. An old barn was the landmark; and, with a request from him not to break the bushes, he left us.
Down in the wooded vale we paused. The whole thing was now clear: the hare in the wire was a trap laid for the 'gips' whose camp was below. The keeper had been waiting about doubtless where he could command the various tracks up the hill, had seen us come that way, and did not wish us to return in the same direction; because if the 'gip' saw any one at all he would not approach his snare. Whether the hare had actually been caught by the wire, or had been put in by the keeper, it was not easy to tell.
We wandered on in the valley wood, going from bush to bush, little heeding whither we went. There are no woods so silent as the nut-tree; there is scarce a sound in them at that time except the occasional rustle of a rabbit, and the 'thump, thump' they sometimes make underground in their buries after a sudden fright. So that the keen plaintive whistle of a kingfisher was almost startling. But we soon found the stream in the hollow. Broader than a brook and yet not quite a river, it flowed swift and clear, so that every flint at the bottom was visible. The nut-tree bushes came down to the edge: the ground was too firm for much rush or sedge; the streams that come out of the chalk are not so thickly fringed with vegetation as others.
Some little way along there was a rounded sarsen boulder not far from shore, whose brown top was so nearly on a level with the surface that at one moment the water just covered it, and the next left it exposed. By it we spied a trout; but the hill above gave 'Velvet' the command of the hollow; and it was too risky even to think of. After that the nuts were tame; there was nothing left but to turn homewards. As for trout-fishing, there is nothing so easy. Take the top joint off the rod, and put the wire on the second, which is stronger, fill the basket, and replace the fly. There were fellows who used to paddle in canoes up a certain river (not this little stream), pick out the largest trout, and shoot them with pistols, under pretence of practising at water-rats.
WOODLAND TWILIGHT: TRAITORS ON THE GIBBET
In a hedge that joined a wood, and about a hundred yards from it, there was a pleasant hiding-place beside a pollard ash. The bank was hollow with rabbit-buries: the summer heat had hardened the clay of the mound and caused it to crack and crumble wherever their excavations left a precipitous edge. Some way up the trunk of the tree an immense flat fungus projected, roughly resembling the protruding lip of a savage enlarged by the insertion of a piece of wood. If formed a black ledge standing out seven or eight inches, two or three inches thick, and extending for a foot or more round the bark. The pollard, indeed, was dead inside, and near the ground the black touch-wood showed. Ash timber must become rarer year by year: for, being so useful, it is constantly cut down, while few new saplings are planted or encouraged to become trees.
In front a tangled mass of bramble arched over the dry ditch; it was possible to see some distance down the bank, for nothing grew on the top itself, the bushes all rising from either side—a peculiarity of clay mounds. This narrow space was a favourite promenade of the rabbits; they usually came out there for a few minutes first, looking about before venturing forth into the meadows. Except a little moss, scarcely any vegetation other than underwood clothed the bare hard soil of the mound; and for this reason every tiny aperture that suited their purpose was occupied by wasps.
They much prefer a clear space about the entrance to their nests, affording an unencumbered passage: there were two nests within a few yards of the ash. Though so generally dreaded, wasps are really inoffensive insects, never attacking unless previously buffeted. You may sit close to a wasps' nest for hours, and, if you keep still, receive no injury. Humble-bees, too, congregate in special localities: along one hedge half a dozen nests may be found, while other fields are searched for them in vain.
The best time to enter such a hiding-place is a little before the sun sinks: for as his beams turn red all the creatures that rest during the day begin to stir. Then the hares start down from the uplands and appear on the short stubble, where the level rays throw exaggerated shadows behind them. When six or eight hares are thus seen near the centre of a single field, they and their shadows seem to take possession of and occupy it.
Pheasants, though they retire to roost on the trees, often before rising come forth into the meadows adjacent to the coverts. The sward in front of the pollard ash sloped upwards gradually to the foot of a low hill planted with firs, and just outside these about half a dozen pheasants regularly appeared in the early evening. As the sun sank below the hill, and the shadow of the great beeches some distance away began to extend into the mead, they went back one by one into the firs. There they were nearly safe, for no trees give so much difficulty to the poacher. It is not easy even to shoot anything inside a fir plantation at night: as for the noose, it is almost impossible to use it. The lowest pheasant is taken first, and then the next above, like fowls perched on the rungs of a ladder; and, indeed, it is not unlikely that those who excel in this kind of work base their operations upon previous experiences in the hen roost.
The wood pigeons begin to come home, and the wood is filled with their hollow notes: now here, now yonder, for as one ceases another takes it up. They cannot settle for some time: each as he arrives perches awhile, and then rises and tries a fresh place, so that there is a constant clattering. The green woodpecker approaches at a rapid pace—now opening, now closing his wings, and seeming to throw himself forward rather than to fly. He rushes at the trees in the hedge as though he could pierce the thick branches like a bullet. Other birds rise over or pass at the side: he goes through, arrow-like, avoiding the boughs. Instead of at once entering the wood, he stays awhile on the sward of the mead in the open.
As the pheasants generally feed in a straight line along the ground, so the lesser pied woodpecker travels across the fields from tree to tree, rarely staying on more than one branch in each, but, after examining it, leaves all that may be on other boughs and seeks another ahead. He rises round and round the dead branch in the elm, tapping it with blows that succeed each other with marvellous rapidity. He taps for the purpose of sounding the wood to see if it be hollow or bored by grubs, and to startle the insects and make them run out for his convenience. He will ascend dead branches barely half an inch thick that vibrate as he springs from them, and proceeds down the hedge towards the wood. The 'snop-top' sounds in every elm, and grows fainter as he recedes. The sound is often heard, but in the thick foliage of summer the bird escapes unseen, unless you are sitting almost under the tree when he arrives in it.
Then the rooks come drifting slowly to the beeches: they are uncertain in their hour at this season—some, indeed, scarce care to return at all; and even when quite dusk and the faint stars of summer rather show themselves than shine, twos and threes come occasionally through the gloom. A pair of doves pass swiftly, flying for the lower wood, where the ashpoles grow. The grasshoppers sing in the grass, and will continue till the dew descends. As the little bats flutter swiftly to and fro just without the hedge, the faint sound of their wings is audible as they turn: their membranes are not so silent as feathers, and they agitate them with extreme velocity. Beetles go by with a loud hum, rising from those isolated bunches of grass that may be seen in every field; for the cows will not eat the rank green blades that grow over and hide dried dung.
A large white spot, ill-defined and shapeless in the distance and the dimness, glides along the edge of the wood, then across in front before the fir plantation, next down the hedge to the left, and presently passes within two yards, going towards the wood again along this mound. It is a white owl: he flies about five feet from the ground and absolutely without a sound. So when you are walking at night it is quite startling to have one come overhead, approaching from behind and suddenly appearing. This owl is almost fearless; unless purposely alarmed he will scarcely notice you, and not at all if you are still.
As he reaches the wood he leaves the hedge, having gone all round the field, and crosses to a small detached circular fir plantation in the centre. There he goes out of sight a minute or two; but presently appears skirting the low shed and rickyard yonder, and is finally lost behind the hedges. This round he will go every evening, and almost exactly at the same time—that is, in reference to the sun, which is the clock of nature.
Step never so quietly out from the mound, the small birds that unnoticed have come to roost in the bushes will hear it and fly off in alarm. The rabbits that are near the hedge rush in; those that are far from home crouch in the furrows and the bunches. Crossing the open field, they suddenly start as it seems from under your feet—one white tail goes dapping up and down this way, another jerks over the 'lands' that way. The moonbeams now glisten on the double-barrel; and a bright sparkle glitters here and there as a dewdrop catches a ray.
Upon the grass a faint halo appears; it is a narrow band of light encircling the path, an oval ring—perhaps rather horseshoe shape than oval. It glides in front, keeping ever at the same distance as you walk, as if there the eye was focussed. This is only seen when the grass is wet with dew, and better in short grass than long. Where it shines the grass looks a paler green. Passing gently along a hedge thickly timbered with oak and elms, a hawk may perhaps start forth: hawks sometimes linger by the hedges till late, but it is not often that you can shoot one at roost except in spring. Then they invariably return to roost in the nest tree, and are watched there, and so shot, a gunner approaching on each side of the hedge. In the lane dark objects—rabbits—hasten away, and presently the footpath crosses the still motionless brook near where it flows into the mere.