In the ditches, under the shade of the brambles, the hart's-tongue fern extended its long blade of dark glossy green. By the decaying stoles the hardy fern flourished, under the trees on the mounds the lady fern could be found, and farther up nearer the wood the tall brake almost supplanted the bushes. Oak and ash boughs reached across: in the ash the wood-pigeons lingered. Every now and then the bright colours of the green woodpeckers flashed to and fro their nest in a tree hard by. They would not have chosen it had not the place been nearly as quiet as the wood itself.
Blackthorn bushes jealously encroached on the narrow stile that entered the lane from a meadow—a mere rail thrust across a gap. The gates, set in deep recesses—short lanes themselves cut through the mounds—were rotten and decayed, so as to scarcely hold together, and not to be moved without care. Hawthorn branches on each side pushed forward and lessened the opening; on the ground, where the gateposts had rotted nearly off, fungi came up in thick bunches.
The little meadows to which they led were rich in oaks, growing on the 'shore' of the ditches, tree after tree. The grass in them was not plentiful, but the flowers were many; in the spring the orchis sent up its beautiful purple, and in the heat of summer the bird's-foot lotus flourished in the sunny places. Farther up, nearer the wood, the lane became hollow—worn down between high banks, at first clothed with fern, and then, as the hill got steeper, with fir trees.
Where firs are tall and thick together the sunbeams that fall aslant between them seem to be made more visible than under other trees, by the motes or wood dust in the air. Still farther the banks became even steeper, till nothing but scanty ash stoles could grow upon them, the fir plantations skirting along the summit. Then suddenly, at a turn, the ground sank into a deep hollow, where in spring the eye rested with relief and pleasure on the tops of young firs, acre after acre, just freshly tinted with the most delicate green. From thence the track went into the wood.
By day all through the summer months there was always something to be seen in the lane—a squirrel, a stoat; always a song-bird to listen to, a flower or fern to gather. By night the goatsucker visited it, and the bat, and the white owl gliding down the slope. In winter when the clouds hung low the darkness in the hollow between the high banks, where the light was shut out by the fir trees, was like that of a cavern. It was then that night after night a strange procession wended down it.
First came an old man, walking stiffly—not so much from age as rheumatism—and helping his unsteady steps on the slippery sarsen stones with a stout ground-ash staff. Behind him followed a younger man, and in the rear a boy. Sometimes there was an extra assistant, making four; sometimes there was only the old man and one companion. Each had a long and strong ash stick across his shoulder, on which a load of rabbits was slung, an equal number in front and behind, to balance. The old fellow, who was dressed shabbily even for a labourer, was the contractor for the rabbits shot or ferreted in these woods.
He took the whole number at a certain fixed price all round, and made what he could out of them. Every evening in the season he went to the woods to fetch those that had been captured during the day, conveying them to his cottage on the outskirts of the village. From thence they went by carrier's cart to the railway. Old Luke's books, such as they were, were quite beyond the understanding of any one but himself and his wife; nor could even they themselves tell you exactly how many dozen he purchased in the year. But in his cups the wicked old hypocrite had often been known to boast that he paid the lord of the manor as much money as the rent of a small farm.
One of Luke's eyes was closed with a kind of watery rheum, and was never opened except when he thought a rabbit was about to jump into a net. The other was but half open, and so overhung with a thick grey eyebrow as to be barely visible. His cheeks were the hue of clay, his chin scrubby, and a lanky black forelock depended over one temple. A battered felt hat, a ragged discoloured slop, and corduroys stained with the clay of the banks completed his squalid costume.
A more miserable object or one apparently more deserving of pity it would be hard to imagine. To see him crawl with slow and feeble steps across the fields in winter, gradually working his way in the teeth of a driving rain, was enough to arouse compassion in the hardest heart: there was something so utterly woebegone in his whole aspect—so weather-beaten, as if he had been rained upon ever since childhood. He seemed humbled to the ground—crushed and spiritless.
Now and then Luke was employed by some of the farmers to do their ferreting for them and to catch the rabbits in the banks by the roadside. More than once benevolent people driving by in their cosy cushioned carriages, and seeing this lonely wretch in the bitter wind watching a rabbit's hole as if he were a dog well beaten and thrashed, had been known to stop and call the poor old fellow to the carriage door. Then Luke would lay his hand on his knee, shake his head, and sorrowfully state his pains and miseries: 'Aw, I be ter-rable bad, I be,' he would say; 'I be most terrable bad: I can't but just drag my leg out of this yer ditch. It be a dull job, bless 'ee, this yer.' The tone, the look of the man, the dreary winter landscape all so thoroughly agreed together that a few small silver coins would drop into his hand, and Luke, with a deep groaning sigh of thankfulness, would bow and scrape and go back to his 'dull job.'
Luke, indeed, somehow or other was always in favour with the 'quality.' He was as firmly fixed in his business as if he had been the most clever courtier. It was not of the least use for any one else to offer to take the rabbits, even if they would give more money. No, Luke was the trusty man; Luke, and nobody else, was worthy. So he grovelled on from year to year, blinking about the place. When some tenant found a gin in the turnip field, or a wire by the clover, and quietly waited till Luke came fumbling by and picked up the hare or rabbit, it did not make the slightest difference though he went straight to the keeper and made a formal statement.
Luke had an answer always ready: he had not set the wire, but had stumbled on it unawares, and was going to take it to the keeper; or he had noticed a colony of rats about, and had put the gin for them. Now, the same excuse might have been made by any other poacher; the difference lay in this—that Luke was believed. At all events, such little trifles were forgotten, and Luke went on as before. He did a good deal of the ferreting in the hedges outside the woods himself: if he took home three dozen from the mound and only paid for two dozen, that scarcely concerned the world at large.
If in coming down the dark and slippery lane at night somebody with a heavy sack stepped out from the shadow at the stile, and if the contents of the sack were rapidly transferred to the shoulder-sticks, or the bag itself bodily taken along—why, there was nobody there to see. As for the young man and the boy who helped, those discreet persons had always a rabbit for their own pot, or even for a friend; and indeed it was often remarked that old Luke could always get plenty of men to work for him. No one ever hinted at searching the dirty shed at the side of his cottage that was always locked by day, or looking inside the disused oven that it covered. But if fur or feathers had been found there, was not he the contractor? And clearly if a pheasant was there he could not be held responsible for the unauthorised acts of his assistants.
The truth was that Luke was the most thorough-paced poacher in the place—or, rather, he was a wholesale receiver. His success lay in making it pleasant for everybody all round. It was pleasant for the keeper, who could always dispose of a few hares or pheasants if he wanted a little money. The keeper, in ways known to himself, made it pleasant for the bailiff. It was equally pleasant for the under-keepers, who had what they wanted (in reason), and enjoyed a little by-play on their own account. It was pleasant for his men; and it was pleasant—specially pleasant—at a little wayside inn kept by Luke's nephew, and, as was believed, with Luke's money. Everybody concerned in the business could always procure refreshment there, including the policeman.
There was only one class of persons whom Luke could not conciliate; and they were the tenants. These very inconsiderate folk argued that it was the keepers' and Luke's interest to maintain a very large stock of rabbits, which meant great inroads on their crops. There seemed to be even something like truth in their complaints; and once or twice the more independent carried their grievances to headquarters so effectually as to elicit an order for the destruction of the rabbits forthwith on their farms. But of what avail was such an order when the execution of it was entrusted to Luke himself?
In time the tenants got to put up with Luke; and the wiser of them turned round and tried to make it still more pleasant for him: they spoke a good word for him; they gave him a quart of ale, and put little things in his way, such as a chance to buy and sell faggots at a small profit. Not to be ungrateful, Luke kept their rabbits within reasonable bounds; and he had this great recommendation—that whether they bullied him or whether they gave him ale and bread-and-cheese, Luke was always humble and always touched his hat.
His wife kept a small shop for the sale of the coarser groceries and a little bacon. He had also rather extensive gardens, from which he sold quantities of vegetables. It was more than suspected that the carrier's cart was really Luke's—that is, he found the money for horsing it, and could take possession if he liked. The carrier's cart took his rabbits, and the game he purchased of poachers, to the railway, and the vegetables from the gardens to the customers in town.
At least one cottage besides his own belonged to him; and some would have it that this was one of the reasons of his success with the 'quality.' The people at the great house, anxious to increase their influence, wished to buy every cottage and spare piece of land. This was well known, and many small owners prided themselves upon spiting the big people at the great house by refusing to sell, or selling to another person. The great house was believed to have secured the first 'refuse' of Luke's property, if ever he thought of selling. Luke, in fact, among the lower classes was looked upon as a capitalist—a miser with an unknown hoard. The old man used to sit of a winter's evening, after he had brought down the rabbits, by the hearth, making rabbit-nets of twine. Almost everybody who came along the road, home from the market town, stopped, lifted the latch without knocking, and looked in to tell the news or hear it. But Luke's favourite manoeuvre was to take out his snuff-box, tap it, and offer it to the person addressing him. This he would do to a farmer, even though it were the largest tenant of all. For this snuff-box was a present from the lady at the great house, who took an interest in poor old Luke's infirmities, and gave him the snuff-box, a really good piece of workmanship, well filled with the finest snuff, to console his wretchedness.
Of this box Luke was as proud as if it had been the insignia of the Legion of Honour, and never lost an opportunity of showing it to every one of standing. When the village heard of this kindly present it ran over in its mind all that it knew about the stile, and the sacks, and the disused oven. Then the village very quietly shrugged its shoulders, and though it knew not the word irony, well understood what that term conveys.
At the foot of the hill on which the Upper Woods were situate there extended a level tract of meadows with some cornfields. Through these there flowed a large slow brook, often flooded in winter by the water rushing down from the higher lands. It was pleasant in the early year to walk now and then along the footpath that followed the brook, noting the gradual changes in the hedges.
When the first swallow of the spring wheels over the watery places the dry sedges of last year still stand as they grew. They are supported by the bushes beside the meadow ditch where it widens to join the brook, and the water it brings down from the furrows scarcely moves through the belt of willow lining the larger stream. As the soft west wind runs along the hedge it draws a sigh from the dead dry stalks and leaves that will no more feel the rising sap.
By the wet furrows the ground has still a brownish tint, for there the floods lingered and discoloured the grass. Near the ditch pointed flags are springing up, and the thick stems of the marsh marigold. From bunches of dark green leaves slender stalks arise and bear the golden petals of the marsh buttercups, the lesser celandine. If the wind blows cold and rainy they will close, and open again to the sunshine.
At the outside of the withies, where the earth is drier, stand tall horse-chestnut trees, aspen, and beech. The leaflets of the horse-chestnut are already opening; but on the ground, half-hidden under beech leaves not yet decayed, and sycamore leaves reduced to imperfect grey skeletons, there lies a chestnut shell. It is sodden, and has lost its original green—the prickles, too, have decayed and disappeared; yet at a touch it falls apart, and discloses two chestnuts, still of a rich, deep polished brown.
On the very bank of the brook there grows a beech whose bare boughs droop over, almost dipping in the water, where it comes with a swift rush from the narrow arches of a small bridge whose bricks are green with moss. The current is still slightly turbid, for the floods have not long subsided, and the soaked meadows and ploughed fields send their rills to swell the brook and stain it with sand and earth. On the surface float down twigs and small branches forced from the trees by the gales: sometimes an entangled mass of aquatic weeds—long, slender green filaments twisted and matted together—comes more slowly because heavy and deep in the water.
A little bird comes flitting silently from the willows and perches on the drooping beech branch. It is a delicate little creature, the breast of a faint and dull yellowy green, the wings the lightest brown, and there is a pencilled streak over the eye. The beak is so slender it scarce seems capable of the work it should do, the legs and feet so tiny that they are barely visible. Hardly has he perched than the keen eyes detect a small black speck that has just issued from the arch, floating fast on the surface of the stream and borne round and round in a tiny whirlpool.
He darts from the branch, hovers just above the water, and in a second has seized the black speck and returned to the branch. A moment or two passes, and again he darts and takes something—this time invisible—from the water. A third time he hovers, and on this occasion just brushes the surface. Then, suddenly finding that these movements are watched, he flits—all too soon—up high into the beech and away into the narrow copse. The general tint and shape of the bird are those of the willow wren, but it is difficult to identify the species in so brief a glance and without hearing its note.
The path now trends somewhat away from the stream and skirts a ploughed field, where the hedges are cropped close and the elms stripped of the lesser boughs about the trunks, that the sparrows may not find shelter. But all the same there are birds here too—one in the thick low hedge, two or three farther on, another in the ditch perching on the dead white stems of last year's plants that can hardly support an ounce weight, and all calling to each other. It is six marsh tits, as busy as they can well be.
One rises from the ditch to the trunk of an elm where the thick bark is green with lichen: he goes up the tree like a woodpecker, and peers into every crevice. His little beak strikes, peck, peck, at a place where something is hidden: then he proceeds farther up the trunk: next he descends a few steps in a sidelong way, and finally hops down some three inches head foremost, and alights again on the all but perpendicular bark. But his tail does not touch the tree, and in another minute down he flies again to the ditch.
A shrill and yet low note that sounds something like 'skeek-skeek' comes from a birch, and another 'skeek-skeek' answers from an elm. It is like the friction of iron against iron without oil on the bearings. This is the tree-climber calling to his mate. He creeps over the boles of the birch, and where the larger limbs join the trunk, trailing his tail along the bark, and clinging so closely that but for the sharp note he would be passed. Even when that has called attention, the colour of his back so little differs from the colour of bark that if he is some height up the tree it is not easy to detect him.
The days go on and the hedges become green—the sun shines, and the blackbirds whistle in the trees. They leave the hedge, and mount into the elm or ash to deliver their song; then, after a pause, dive down again to the bushes. Up from the pale green corn that is yet but a few inches high rises a little brown bird, mounting till he has attained to the elevation of the adjacent oak. Then, beginning his song, he extends his wings, lifts his tail, and gradually descends slanting forward—slowly, like a parachute—sing, sing, singing all the while till the little legs, that can be seen against the sky somewhat depending, touch the earth and the wheat hides him. Still from the clod comes the finishing bar of his music.
In a short time up he rises again, and this time from the summit of his flight sinks in a similar manner singing to a branch of the oak. There he sings again; and, again rising, comes back almost to the same bough singing as he descends. But he is not alone: from an elm hard by come the same notes, and from yet another tree they are also repeated. They cannot rest—now one flits from the topmost bough of an elm to another topmost bough; now a second comes up from feeding, and cries from the branches. They are tree-pipits; and though the call is monotonous, yet it is so cheerful and pleasing that one cannot choose but stay and listen.
Suddenly, two that have been vigorously calling start forward together and meet in mid-air. They buffet each other with their wings; their little beaks fiercely strike; their necks are extended; they manoeuvre round each other, trying for an advantage. They descend, heedless in the rage of their tiny hearts, within a few yards of the watcher, and then in alarm separate. But one flies to the oak branch and defiantly calls immediately.
Over the meadows comes the distant note of the cuckoo. When he first calls his voice is short and somewhat rough, but in a few days it gains power. Then the second syllable has a mellow ring: and as he cries from the tree, the note, swiftly repeated and echoed by the wood, dwells on the ear something like the 'hum' or vibration of a beautiful bell.
As the hedges become green the ivy leaves turn brown at the edge and fall; the wild ivy is often curiously variegated. At the foot of the tree up which it climbs the leaves are five-angled, higher up they lose the angles and become rounded, though growing on the same plant. Sometimes they have a grey tint, especially those that trail along the bank; sometimes the leaves are a reddish brown with pale green ribs.
By the brook now the meadow has become of a rich bright green, the stream has sunk and is clear, and the sunlight dances on the ripples. The grasses at the edge—the turf—curl over and begin to grow down the steep side that a little while since was washed by the current. Where there is a ledge of mud and sand the yellow wagtail runs; he stands on a stone and jerks his tail.
The ploughed field that comes down almost to the brook—a mere strip of meadow between—is green too with rising wheat, high enough now to hide the partridges. Before it got so tall it was pleasant to watch the pair that frequent it; they were so confident that they did not even trouble to cower. At any other time of year they would have run, or flown; but then, though scarcely forty yards away and perfectly visible, they simply ceased feeding but showed no further alarm.
Upon the plough birds in general should look as their best friend, for it provides them with the staff of life as much as it does man. The earth turned up under the share yields them grubs and insects and worms: the seed is sown and the clods harrowed, and they take a second toll; the weeds are hoed or pulled up, and at their roots there are more insects; from the stalk and ears and the bloom of the rising corn they seize caterpillars; when it is ripe they enjoy the grain; when it is cut and carried there are ears in the stubble, and they can then feast on the seeds of the innumerable plants that flowered among it; finally comes the plough again. It is as if the men and horses worked for the birds.
The horse-chestnut trees in the narrow copse bloom; the bees are humming everywhere and summer is at hand. Presently the brown cockchafers will come almost like an army of locusts, as suddenly appearing without a sign. They seem to be particularly numerous where there is much maple in the hedges.
Resting now on the sward by the stream—contracted in seeming by the weeds and flags and fresh sedges—there comes the distant murmur of voices and the musical laugh of girls. The ear tries to distinguish the words and gather the meaning; but the syllables are intertangled—it is like listening to a low sweet song in a language all unknown. This is the water falling gently over the mossy hatch and splashing faintly on the stones beneath; the blue dragon-flies dart over the smooth surface or alight on a broad leaf—these blue dragon-flies when thus resting curl the tail upwards.
Farther up above the mere there is a spot where the pool itself ends, or rather imperceptibly disappears among a vast mass of aquatic weeds. To these on the soft oozy mud succeed acres of sedge and rush and great turfs of greyish grass. Low willows are scattered about, and alder at the edge and where the ground is firmer. This is the home of the dragon-flies, of the coots, whose white bald foreheads distinguish them at a distance, and of the moorhens.
A narrow lane crosses it on a low bank or causeway but just raised above the level of the floods. It is bordered on either side by thick hawthorn hedges, and these again are further rendered more impassable by the rankest growth of hemlocks, 'gicks,' nettles, hedge-parsley, and similar coarse plants. In these the nettle-creeper (white-throat) hides her nest, and they have so encroached that the footpath is almost threatened. This lane leads from the Upper Woods across the marshy level to the cornfields, being a branch from that down which Luke the contractor carried his rabbits.
Now a hare coming from the uplands beyond the woods, or from the woods, and desirous of visiting the cornfields of the level grounds below, found it difficult to pass the water. For besides the marsh itself, the mere, and the brook, another slow, stagnant stream, quite choked with sedges and flags, uncut for years, ran into it, or rather joined it, and before doing so meandered along the very foot of the hill-side over which the woods grew. To a hare or a rabbit, therefore, there was but one path or exit without taking to the water in this direction for nearly a mile, and that was across this narrow raised causeway. The pheasants frequently used it, as if preferring to walk than to fly. Partridges came too, to seat themselves in the dry dust—a thing they do daily in warm weather.
Hares were constantly passing from the cornfields to the wood, and the wood to the cornfields; and they had another reason for using this track, because so many herbs and plants, whose leaves they like better than grass, flourished at the sides of the hedges. No scythe cuts them down, as it does by the hedges in the meadows; nor was a man sent round with a reaping hook to chop them off, as is often done round the arable fields. There was, therefore, always a feast here, to which, also, the rabbits came.
The poachers were perfectly well aware of all this, and as a consequence this narrow lane became a most favourite haunt of theirs. A wire set in the runs that led to the causeway, or in the causeway itself, was almost certain to be thrown. At one time it was occasionally netted; and now and then a bolder fellow hid himself in the bushes with a gun, and took his choice of pheasant, partridge, hare, or rabbit. These practices were possible, because although so secluded, there was a public right-of-way along the lane.
But of recent years, as game became more valued and the keepers were increased, a check was put upon it, though even now wires are frequently found which poachers have been obliged to abandon. They are loth to give up a place that has a kind of poaching reputation. As if in revenge for the interference, they have so ransacked the marsh every spring for the eggs of the waterfowl that the wild duck will not lay there, but seek spots safer from such enemies. The marsh is left to the coots and moorhens that from thence stock the brooks.
FARMER WILLUM'S PLACE: SNIPE SHOOTING
One October morning towards the end of the month, Orion and I started to beat over Redcote Farm upon the standing invitation of the occupier. There was a certainty of sport of some kind, because the place had remained almost unchanged for the last century. It is 'improvement' that drives away game and necessitates the pheasant preserve.
The low whitewashed walls of the house were of a dull yellowish hue from the beating of the weather. They supported a vast breadth of thatched roof drilled by sparrows and starlings. Under the eaves the swallows' nests adhered, and projecting shelves were fixed to prevent any inconvenience from them. Some of the narrow windows were still darkened with the black boarding put up in the days of the window tax.
In the courtyard a number of stout forked stakes were used for putting the dairy buckets on, after being cleaned, to dry. No attempt was made to separate the business from the inner life of the house. Here in front these oaken buckets, scoured till nearly white, their iron handles polished like silver, were close under the eyes of any one looking out. By the front door a besom leaned against the wall that every comer might clean the mud from his boots; and you stepped at once from the threshold into the sitting-room. A lane led past the garden, if that could be called a lane which widened into a field and after rain was flooded so deeply as to be impassable to foot passengers.
The morning we had chosen was fine; and after shaking hands with old Farmer 'Willum,' whose shooting days were over, we entered the lane, and by it the fields. The meadows were small, enclosed with double-mounds, and thickly timbered, so that as the ground was level you could not see beyond the field in which you stood, and upon looking over the gate might surprise a flock of pigeons, a covey of partridges, or a rabbit out feeding. Though the tinted leaves were fast falling, the hedges were still full of plants and vegetation that prevented seeing through them. The 'kuck-kuck' of the redwings came from the bushes—the first note of approaching winter—and the tips of the rushes were dead. Red haws on the hawthorn and hips on the briar sprinkled the hedge with bright spots of colour.
The two spaniels went with such an eager rush into a thick double-mound, dashing heedlessly through the nettles and under the brambles, that we hastened to get one on each side of the hedge. A rustling—a short bark; another, then a movement among the rushes in the ditch, evidently not made by the dogs; then a silence. But the dogs come back, and as they give tongue the rabbit rushes past a bare spot on the slope of the bank. I fire—a snap shot—and cut out some fur, but do no further harm; the pellets bury themselves in the earth. But, startled and perhaps just stung by a stray shot, the rabbit bolts fairly at last twenty yards in front of Orion, the spaniel tearing at his heels.
Up goes the double-barrel with a bright gleam as the sunlight glances on it. A second of suspense: then from the black muzzle darts a cylinder of tawny flame and an opening cone of white smoke: a sharp report rings on the ear. The rabbit rolls over and over, and is dead before the dog can seize him. After harling the rabbit, Orion hangs him high on a projecting branch, so that the man who is following us at a distance may easily find the game. He is a labourer, and we object to have him with us, as we know he would be certain to get in the way.
We then tried a corner where two of these large mounds, meeting, formed a small copse in which grew a quantity of withy and the thick grasses that always border the stoles. A hare bolted almost directly the dogs went in: hares trust in their speed, rabbits in doubling for cover. I fired right and left, and missed: fairly missed with both barrels. Orion jumped upon the mound from the other side, and from that elevation sent a third cartridge after her.
It was a long, a very long shot, but the hare perceptibly winced. Still, she drew easily away from the dogs, going straight for a distant gateway. But before it was reached the pace slackened; she made ineffectual attempts to double as the slow spaniels overtook her, but her strength was ebbing, and they quickly ran in. Reloading, and in none of the best of tempers, I followed the mound. The miss was of course the gun's fault—it was foul; or the cartridges, or the bad quality of the powder.
We passed the well-remembered hollow ash pollard, whence, years before, we had taken the young owls, and in which we had hidden the old single-barrel gun one sultry afternoon when it suddenly came on to thunder. The flashes were so vivid and the discharges seemingly so near that we became afraid to hold the gun, knowing that metal attracted electricity. So it was put in the hollow tree out of the wet, and with it the powder-flask, while we crouched under an adjacent hawthorn till the storm ceased.
Then by the much-patched and heavy gate where I shot my first snipe, that rose out of the little stream and went straight up over the top bar. The emotion, for it was more than excitement, of that moment will never pass from memory. It was the bird of all others that I longed to kill, and certainly to a lad the most difficult. Day after day I went down into the water-meadows; first thinking over the problem of the snipe's peculiar twisting flight. At one time I determined that I would control the almost irresistible desire to fire till the bird had completed his burst of zig-zag and settled to something like a straight line. At another I as firmly resolved to shoot the moment the snipe rose before he could begin to twist. But some unforeseen circumstance always interfered with the execution of these resolutions.
Now the snipe got up unexpectedly right under foot; now one rose thirty yards ahead; now he towered straight up, forced to do so by the tall willows; and occasionally four or five rising together and calling 'sceap, sceap' in as many different directions, made me hesitate at which to aim. The continual dwelling upon the problem rendered me nervous, so that I scarcely knew when I pulled the trigger.
But one day, in passing this gateway, which was a long distance from the particular water-meadows where I had practised, and not thinking of snipes, suddenly one got up, and with a loud 'sceap' darted over the gate. The long slender gun—the old single-barrel—came to the shoulder instinctively, without premeditation, and the snipe fell.
Coming now to the brook, which was broad and bordered by a hedge on the opposite side, I held Orion's gun while he leaped over. The bank was steep and awkward, but he had planned his leap so as to alight just where he could at once grasp an ash branch and so save himself from falling back into the water. He could not, however, stay suspended there, but had to scramble over the hedge, and then called for his gun. I leaned mine against a hollow withy pollard, and called 'ready.'
Taking his gun a few inches above the trigger guard (and with the guard towards his side), holding it lightly just where it seemed to balance in a perpendicular position, I gave it a slow heave rather than a throw, and it rose into the air. This peculiar feeling hoist, as it were, caused it to retain the perpendicular position as it passed over brook and hedge in a low curve. As it descended it did indeed slope a little, and Orion caught it with one hand easily. The hedge being low he could see it coming; but guns are sometimes heaved in this way over hedges that have not been cropped for years. Then the gun suddenly appears in the air, perhaps fifteen feet high, while the catch depends not only upon the dexterity of the hand but the ear—to judge correctly where the person who throws it is standing, as he is invisible.
The spaniels plunged in the brook among the flags, but though they made a great splashing nothing came of it till we approached a marshy place where was a pond. A moorhen then rose and scuttled down the brook, her legs dragging along the surface some distance before she could get up, and the sunshine sparkling on the water that dropped from her. I fired and knocked her over: at the sound of the discharge a bird rose from the low mound by the pond some forty yards ahead. My second barrel was empty in an instant.
Both Orion's followed; but the distance, the intervening pollard willows, or our excitement spoilt the aim. The woodcock flew off untouched, and made straight away from the territories we could beat into those that were jealously guarded by a certain keeper with whom Farmer 'Willum' had waged war for years. 'Come on!' shouted Orion as soon as he had marked the cock down in a mound two fields away. Throwing him my gun, I leaped the brook; and we at first raced, but on second thoughts walked slowly, for the mound. Running disturbs accuracy of fire, and a woodcock was much too rare a visitor for the slightest chance to be lost.
As we approached we considered that very probably the cock would either lie close till we had walked past, and get up behind, or he would rise out of gunshot. What we were afraid of was his making for the preserves, which were not far off. So we tossed for the best position, and I lost. I had therefore to get over on the side of the hedge towards the preserves and to walk down somewhat faster than Orion, who was to keep (on his side) about thirty yards behind. The object was to flush the cock on his side, so that if missed the bird might return towards our territories. In a double-mound like this it is impossible to tell what a woodcock will do, but this was the best thing we could think of.
About half-way down the hedge I heard Orion fire both barrels in quick succession—the mound was so thick I could not see through. The next instant the cock came over the top of the hedge just above my head. Startled at seeing me so close, he flew straight down along the summit of the bushes—a splendid chance to look at from a distance; but in throwing up the gun a projecting briar caught the barrels, and before I could recover it the bird came down at the side of the hedge.
It was another magnificent chance; but again three pollard willows interfered, and as I fired the bark flew off one of them in small strips. Quickened by the whistling pellets, the cock suddenly lifted himself again to the top of the hedge to go over, and for a moment came full in view, and quite fifty yards away. I fired a snap shot as a forlorn hope, and lost sight of him; but the next instant I heard Orion call, 'He's down!' One single chance pellet had dropped the cock—he fell on the other side just under the hedge.
We hastened back to the brook, thinking that the shooting would attract the keepers, and did not stay to look at the bird till safe over the water. The long beak, the plumage that seems painted almost in the exact tints of the dead brown leaves he loves so well, the eyes large by comparison and so curiously placed towards the poll of the head as if to see behind him—there was not a point that did not receive its share of admiration. We shot about half a dozen rabbits, two more hares, and a woodpigeon afterwards; but all these were nothing compared with the woodcock.
How Farmer 'Willum' chuckled over it—especially to think that we had cut out the game from the very batteries of the enemy! It was the one speck of bitterness in the old man's character—his hatred of this keeper. Disabled himself by age and rheumatism from walking far, he heard daily reports from his men of this fellow coming over the boundary to shoot, or drive pheasant or partridge away. It was a sight to see Farmer 'Willum' stretch his bulky length in his old armchair, right before the middle of the great fire of logs on the hearth, twiddling his huge thumbs, and every now and then indulging in a hearty laugh, followed by a sip at the 'straight-cup.'
There was a stag's horn over the staircase: 'Willum' loved to tell how it came there. One severe winter long since, the deer in the forest many miles away broke cover, forced by hunger, and came into the rickyards and even the gardens. Most of them were got back, but one or two wandered beyond trace. Those who had guns were naturally on the look-out; indeed, a regular hunt was got up—'Willum,' then young and active, in it of course. This chase was not successful; but early one morning, going to look for wild geese in the water-meadow with his long-barrelled gun, he saw something in a lonely rickyard. Creeping cautiously up, he rested the heavy gun on an ash stole, and the big duck-shot tore its way into the stag's shoulder. Those days were gone, but still his interest in shooting was unabated.
Nothing had been altered on the place since he was a boy: the rent even was the same. But all that is now changed—swept away before modern improvements; and the rare old man is gone too, and I think his only enemy also.
There was nothing I used to look forward to, as the summer waned, with so much delight as the snipe shooting. Regularly as the swallow to the eaves in spring, the snipe comes back with the early frosts of autumn to the same well-known spots—to the bend of the brook or the boggy corner in the ploughed field—but in most uncertain numbers. Sometimes flocks of ten or twenty, sometimes only twos and threes are seen, but always haunting particular places.
They have a special affection for peaty ground, black and spongy, where every footstep seems to squeeze water out of the soil with a slight hissing sound, and the boot cuts through the soft turf. There, where a slow stream winds in and out, unmarked by willow or bush, but fringed with green aquatic grasses growing on a margin of ooze, the snipe finds tempting food; or in the meadows where a little spring breaks forth in the ditch and does not freeze—for water which has just bubbled out of the earth possesses this peculiarity, and is therefore favourable to low forms of insect or slug life in winter—the snipe may be found when the ponds are bound with ice.
Some of the old country folk used to make as much mystery about this bird as the cuckoo. Because it was seldom seen till the first fogs the belief was that it had lost its way in the mist at sea, and come inland by mistake.
Just as in the early part of the year green buds and opening flowers welcome swallow and cuckoo, so the colours of the dying leaf prepare the way for the second feathered immigration in autumn. Once now and then the tints of autumn are so beautiful that the artist can hardly convey what he sees to canvas. The maples are aglow with orange, the oaks one mass of buff, the limes light gold, the elms a soft yellow. In the hawthorn thickets bronze spots abound; here and there a bramble leaf has turned a brilliant crimson (though many bramble leaves will remain a dull green all the winter through); the edible chestnut sheds leaves of a dark fawn hue, but all, scattered by the winds, presently resolve into a black pulp upon the earth. Noting these signs the sportsman gets out his dust-shot for the snipe, and the farmer, as he sees the fieldfare flying over after a voyage from Norway, congratulates himself that last month was reasonably dry, and enabled him to sow his winter seed.
'Sceap—sceap!' and very often the snipe successfully carries out the intention expressed in his odd-sounding cry, and does escape in reality. Although I could not at first put my theory into practice, yet I found by experience that it was correct. He is the exception to the golden rule that the safest way lies in the middle, and that therefore you should fire not too soon nor too late, but half-way between. But the snipe must either be knocked over the instant he rises from the ground, and before he has time to commence his puzzling zig-zag flight, or else you must wait till he has finished his corkscrew burst.
Then there is a moment just before he passes out of range when he glides in a straight line and may be hit. This singular zig-zag flight so deceives the eye as almost to produce the idea of a spiral movement. No barrel can ever be jerked from side to side swiftly enough, no hair-trigger is fine enough, to catch him then, except by the chance of a vast scattering over-charge, which has nothing to do with sport. If he rises at some little distance, then fire instantly, because by the time the zig-zag is done the range will be too great; if he starts up under your feet, out of a bunch of rushes, as is often the case, then give him law till his eccentric twist is finished.
When the smoke has cleared away in the crisp air, there he lies, the yet warm breast on the frozen ground, to be lifted up not without a passing pity and admiration. The brown feathers are exquisitely shaded, and so exactly resemble the hue of the rough dead aquatic grass out of which he sprang that if you cast the bird among it you will have some trouble to find it again. To discover a living snipe on the ground is indeed a test of good eyesight; for as he slips in and out among the brown withered flags and the grey grass it requires not only a quick eye but the inbred sportsman's instinct of perception (if such a phrase is permissible) to mark him out.
If your shot has missed and merely splashed up the water or rattled against bare branches, then step swiftly behind a tree-trunk, and stay in ambuscade, keeping a sharp watch on him as he circles round high up in the air. Very often in a few minutes he will come back in a wide sweep, and drop scarcely a gun-shot distant in the same watercourse, when a second shot may be obtained. The little jack snipe, when flushed, will never fly far, if shot at several times in succession, still settling fifty or sixty yards farther on, and is easily bagged.
Coming silently as possible round a corner, treading gently on the grass still white with hoar-frost in the shadow of the bushes, you may chance to spring a stray woodcock, which bird, if you lose a moment, will put the hedge between him and you. Artists used to seek for certain feathers which he carries, one in each wing, thinking to make of them a more delicate brush than the finest camel's hair.
In the evening I used to hide in the osier-beds on the edge of a great water-meadow; for now that the marshes are drained, and the black earth of the fens yields a harvest of yellow corn, the broad level meads which are irrigated to fertilise them are among the chief inland resorts of wild fowl. When the bright moon is rising, you walk in among the tapering osier-wands, the rustling sedges, and dead dry hemlock stems, and wait behind an aspen tree.
In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight glitter on his eye. Presently comes a whistling noise of wings, and a loud 'quack, quack!' as a string of ducks, their long necks stretched out, pass over not twenty yards high, slowly slanting downwards to the water. This is the favourable moment for the gun, because their big bodies are well defined against the sky, and aim can be taken; but to shoot anything on the ground at night, even a rabbit, whose white tail as he hops away is fairly visible, is most difficult.
The baffling shadows and the moonbeams on the barrel, and the faint reflection from the dew or hoar-frost on the grass, prevent more than a general direction being given to the gun, even with the tiny piece of white paper which some affix to the muzzle-sight as a guide. From a punt with a swivel gun it is different, because the game is swimming and visible as black dots on the surface, and half a pound of shot is sure to hit something. But in the water-meadows the ducks get among the grass, and the larger water-carriers where they can swim usually have small raised banks, so that at a distance only the heads of the birds appear above them.
So that the best time to shoot a duck is just as he slopes down to settle—first, because he is distinctly visible against the sky; next, because he is within easy range; and lastly, his flight is steady. If you attempt to have ducks driven towards you, though they may go right overhead, yet it will often be too high—for they rise at a sharp angle when frightened; and men who are excellent judges of distance when it is a hare running across the fallow, find themselves all at fault trying to shoot at any elevation. Perhaps this arises from the peculiarity of the human eye which draughtsmen are fond of illustrating by asking a tyro to correctly bisect a vertical line: a thing that looks easy, and is really only to be done by long practice.
To make certain of selecting the right spot in the osiers over which the ducks will pass, for one or two evenings previously a look-out should be kept and their usual course observed; for all birds and animals, even the wildest wild fowl, are creatures of habit and custom, and having once followed a particular path will continue to use it until seriously disturbed. Evening after evening the ducks will rise above the horizon at the same place and almost at the same time, and fly straight to their favourite feeding place.
If hit, the mallard falls with a thud on the earth, for he is a heavy bird; and few are more worthy of powder and shot either for his savoury flavour, far surpassing the tame duck, or the beauty of his burnished neck. With the ducks come teal and widgeon and moorhen, till the swampy meadow resounds with their strange cries. When ponds and lakes are frozen hard is the best time for sport in these irrigated fields. All day long the ducks will stand or waddle to and fro on the ice in the centre of the lake or mere, far out of reach and ready to rise at the slightest alarm. But at night they seek the meadow where the water, running swiftly in the carriers, never entirely freezes, and where, if the shallow spots become ice, the rising current flows over it and floods another place.
There is, moreover, never any difficulty in getting the game when hit, because the water, except in the main carriers, which you can leap across, hardly rises to the ankle, and ordinary water-tight boots will enable you to wade wherever necessary. This is a great advantage with wild fowl, which are sometimes shot and lost in deep ooze and strong currents and eddies, and on thin ice where men cannot go and even good dogs are puzzled.
FERRETING: A RABBIT-HUNTER
The ferreting season commences when the frosts have caused the leaves to drop, and the rabbits grow fat from feeding on bark. Early one December morning, Orion and I started, with our man Little John, to ferret a double-mound for our old friend Farmer 'Willum' at Redcote.
Little John was a labourer—one of those frequently working at odd times for Luke, the Rabbit-Contractor. We had nicknamed him Little John because of his great size and unwieldy proportions. He was the most useful man we knew for such work; his heart was so thoroughly in it.
He was waiting for us before we had finished breakfast, with his tools and implements, having carefully prepared these while yet it was dark at home in his cottage. The nets require looking to before starting, as they are apt to get into a tangle, and there is nothing so annoying as to have to unravel strings with chilled fingers in a ditch. Some have to be mended, having been torn; some are cast aside altogether because weak and rotten. The twine having been frequently saturated with water has decayed. All the nets are of a light yellow colour from the clay and sand that has worked into the string.
These nets almost filled a sack, into which he also cast a pair of 'owl-catchers,' gloves of stout white leather, thick enough to turn a thorn while handling bushes, or to withstand the claws of an owl furiously resisting capture. His ferrets cost him much thought, which to take and which to leave behind. He had also to be particular how he fed them—they must be eager for prey, and yet they must not be starved, else they would gorge on the blood of the first rabbit, and become useless for hunting.
Two had to be muzzled—an operation of some difficulty that generally results in a scratched hand. A small piece of small but strong twine is passed through the jaws behind the tusk-like teeth, and tightly tied round, so tightly as almost to cut into the skin. This is the old way of muzzling a ferret, handed down from generations: Little John scorns the muzzles that can be bought at shops, and still more despises the tiny bells to hang round the neck. The first he says often come off, and the second embarrass the ferret and sometimes catch in projecting rootlets and hold it fast. He has, too, a line—many yards of stout twine wound about a short stick—to line a ferret if necessary.
The ferrets are placed in a smaller bag, tightly tied at the top—for they will work through and get out if any aperture be left. Inside the bag is a little hay for them to lay on. He prefers the fitchew ferret as he calls it; that is the sort that are coloured like a polecat. He says they are fiercer, larger of make and more powerful. But he has also a couple of white ones with pink eyes. Besides the sack of nets, the bag of ferrets, and a small bundle in a knotted handkerchief—his 'nuncheon'—which in themselves make a tolerable load, he has brought a billhook, and a 'navigator,' or draining-tool.
This is a narrow spade of specially stout make; the blade is hollow and resembles an exaggerated gouge, and the advantage is that in digging out a rabbit the tool is very apt to catch under a root, when an ordinary spade may bend and become useless. The 'navigator' will stand anything, and being narrow is also more handy. All these implements Little John has prepared by the dim light of a horn lantern in the shed at the back of his cottage. A mug of ale while we get our guns greatly cheers him, and unlooses his tongue.
All the way to Redcote he impresses on us the absolute necessity of silence while ferreting, and congratulates us on having a nearly still day. He is a little doubtful about Orion's spaniel and whether it will keep quiet or not.
When we reach the double-mound, his talk entirely ceases: he is as silent and as rugged as a pollard oak. By the top of the mound the sack of nets is thrown down on the sward and opened. As there are more holes on the other side of the hedge Orion goes over with Little John, and I proceed to set up the nets on mine.
I found some difficulty in getting at the bank, the bushes being so thick, and had to use the billhook and chop a way in: I heard Little John growling about this in a whisper to Orion. Very often before going with the ferrets, people send a man or two a few hours previously to chop and clear the bushes. The effect is that the rabbits will not bolt freely. They hear the men chopping, and the vibration of the earth as they clumsily climb over the banks, and will not come out till absolutely forced. If it is done at all, it should be done a week beforehand. That was why Little John grumbled at my chopping though he knew it was necessary.
To set up a rabbit net you must arrange it so that it covers the whole of the mouth of the hole, for if there is any opening between it and the bank the rabbit will slip through. He will not face the net unless obliged to. Along the upper part, if the bank is steep, so that the net will not lie on it of itself, two or three little twigs should be thrust through the meshes into the earth to suspend it.
These twigs should be no larger than are used by birds in constructing their nests; just strong enough to hold the net in place and no more. On the other hand, care must be taken that no stout projecting root catches a corner of the net, else it will not draw up properly and the rabbit will escape.
Little John, not satisfied with my assurance that I had netted all the holes my side, now came over—crawling on hands and knees that he might not jar the bank—to examine for himself. His practised eye detected two holes that I had missed: one on the top of the mound much overhung by dead grass, and one under a stole. These he attended to. He then crawled up on the mound two or three yards below the end of the bury, and with his own hands stretched a larger net right across the top of the bank, so that if a rabbit did escape he would run into this. To be still more sure he stretched another similar net across the whole width of the mound at the other end of the bury.
He then undid the mouth of the ferret-bag, holding it between his knees—the ferrets immediately attempted to struggle out: he selected two and then tied it up again. With both these in his own hands, for he would trust nothing to another, he slipped quietly back to Orion's side, and so soon as he saw I was standing well back placed them in different holes.
Almost the next instant one came out my side disarranging a net. I got into the ditch, hastily reset the net, and put the ferret to an adjacent hole, lifting up the corner of the net there for it to creep in. Unlike the weasel, a ferret once outside a hole seems at a loss, and wanders slowly about, till chance brings him to a second. The weasel used to hunting is no sooner out of one hole than he darts away to the next. But this power the ferret has partially lost from confinement.
For a moment the ferret hesitated inside the hole, as if undecided which of two passages to take: then he started, and I lost sight of his tail. Hardly had I got back to my stand than I heard Little John leap into the ditch his side: the next minute I saw the body of the rabbit which he had killed thrown out into the field.
I stood behind a somewhat advanced bush that came out into the meadow like a buttress, and kept an eye on the holes along the bank. It is essential to stand well back from the holes, and, if possible, out of sight. In a few moments something moved, and I saw the head of a rabbit at the mouth of a hole just behind the net. He looked through the meshes as through a lattice, and I could see his nostrils work, as he considered within himself how to pass this thing. It was but for a moment; the ferret came behind, and wild with hereditary fear, the rabbit leaped into the net.
The force of the spring not only drew the net together, but dragged out the peg, and rabbit and net inextricably entangled rolled down the bank to the bottom of the ditch. I jumped into the ditch and seized the net; when there came a hoarse whisper: 'Look sharp you, measter: put up another net fust—he can't get out; hould un under your arm, or in your teeth.'
I looked up, and saw Little John's face peering over the mound. He had thrust himself up under the bushes; his hat was off; his weather-beaten face bleeding from a briar, but he could not feel the scratch so anxious was he that nothing should escape. I pulled another net from my pocket, and spread it roughly over the hole; then more slowly took the rabbit from the other net.
You should never hold a rabbit up till you have got fast hold of his hind legs; he will so twist and work himself as to get free from any other grasp. But when held by the hind legs and lifted from the ground he can do nothing. I now returned to my buttress of bushes and waited. The rabbits did not bolt my side again for a while. Every now and then I saw, or heard, Orion or Little John leap into their ditch, and well knew what it meant before the dead rabbit was cast out to fall with a helpless thud upon the sward.
Once I saw a rabbit's head at the mouth of a hole, and momentarily expected him to dart forth driven by the same panic fear. But either the ferret passed, or there was another side-tunnel—the rabbit went back. Some few minutes afterwards Little John exclaimed: 'Look out, you; ferret's out!' One of the ferrets had come out of a hole and was aimlessly—as it appeared—roaming along the bank.
As he came nearest my side, I got quietly into the ditch and seized him, and put him into a hole. To my surprise he refused to go in—I pushed him: he returned and continued to try to come out till I gave him a sharp fillip with the finger, when he shook the dust and particles of dry earth from his fur with a shiver, as if in protest, and slowly disappeared inside the hole.
As I was creeping out of the deep ditch on hands and knees, I heard Orion call angrily to the spaniel to come to heel. Hitherto the spaniel had sat on his haunches behind Orion fairly quiet and still, though not without an occasional restless movement. But now he broke suddenly from all control, and disregarding Orion's anger—though with hanging tail—rushed into the hedge, and along the top of the mound where there was a thick mass of dead grass. Little John hurled a clod of clay at him, but before I was quite out of the ditch the spaniel gave tongue, and at the same moment I saw a rabbit come from the ditch and run like mad across the field.
The dog gave chase—I rushed for my gun, which was some yards off, placed against a hollow withy tree. The haste disconcerted the aim—the rabbit too was almost fifty yards away when I fired. But the shot broke one hind leg—it trailed behind—and the spaniel had him instantly. 'Look at yer nets,' said Little John in a tone of suppressed indignation, for he disliked the noise of a gun, as all other noises.
I did look, and found that one net had been partly pushed aside; yet to so small an extent that I should hardly have believed it possible for the rabbit to have crept through. He must have slipped out without the slightest sound and quietly got on the top of the mound without being seen. But there, alas! he found a wide net stretched right across the bank so that to slip down the mound on the top was impossible. This would certainly have been his course had not the net been there.
It was now doubtless that the spaniel caught wind of him, and the scent was so strong that it overcame his obedience. The moment the dog got on the bank, the rabbit slipped down into the rushes in the ditch—I did not see him because my back was turned in the act to scramble out. Then, directly the spaniel gave tongue the rabbit darted for the open, hoping to reach the buries in the hedge on the opposite side of the meadow.
This incident explained why the ferret seemed so loth to go back into the hole. He had crept out some few moments behind the rabbit and in his aimless uncertain manner was trying to follow the scent along the bank. He did not like being compelled to give up this scent and to search again for another. 'Us must be main careful how us fixes our nets, you,' said Little John, going as far as he could in reproof of my negligence.
The noise of the gun, the barking, and talking was of course heard by the rabbits still in the bury, and as if to show that Little John was right, for a while they ceased to bolt. Standing behind the bushes—against which I now placed the gun to be nearer at hand—I watched the nets till my eye was caught by the motions of the ferret-bag. It lay on the grass and had hitherto been inert. But now the bag reared itself up, and then rolled over, to again rise and again tumble. The ferrets left in it in reserve were eager to get out—sharp set on account of a scanty breakfast—and their motions caused the bag to roll along a short distance.
I could see Orion on the other side of the mound tolerably well because he was standing up and the leaves had fallen from the upper part of the bushes. Little John was crouched in the ditch: the dead grasses, 'gicks,' withered vines of bryony, the thistles, and dark shrivelled fern concealed him.
There was a round black sloe on the blackthorn beside me, the beautiful gloss, or bloom, on it made it look like a tiny plum. It tasted not only sour, but seemed to positively fill the mouth with a rough acid. Overhead light grey clouds, closely packed but not rainy, drifted very slowly before a N.E. upper current. Occasionally a brief puff of wind came through the bushes rustling the dead leaves that still remained on the oaks.
Despite the cold, something of Little John's intense concentration communicated itself to us: we waited and watched with eager patience. After a while he got out of the ditch where he had been listening with his ear close against the bank, and asked me to pass him the ferret-bag. He took out another ferret and lined it—that is, attached one end of a long string to its neck, and then sent it in.
He watched which way the ferret turned, and then again placed his head upon the hard clay to listen. Orion had to come and hold the line, while he went two or three yards farther down, got into the ditch and once more listened carefully. 'He be about the middle of the mound you,' he said to me; he be between you and I. Lor! look out.'
There was a low rumbling sound—I expected to see a rabbit bolt into one of my nets, I heard Little John moving some leaves, and then he shouted, 'Give I a net, you—quick. Lor! here be another hole: he's coming!' I looked over the mound and saw Little John, his teeth set and staring at a hole which had no net, his great hands open ready to pounce instantly like some wild animal on its prey. In an instant the rabbit bolted—he clutched it and clasped it tight to his chest. There was a moment of struggling, the next the rabbit was held up for a moment and then cast across his knee.
It was always a sight to see Little John's keen delight in 'wristing' their necks. He affected utter unconsciousness of what he was doing, looked you in the face, and spoke about some indifferent subject. But all the while he was feeling the rabbit's muscles stretch before the terrible grasp of his hands, and an expression of complacent satisfaction flitted over his features as the neck gave with a sudden looseness, and in a moment what had been a living straining creature became limp.
The ferret came out after the rabbit; he immediately caught it and thrust it into his pocket. There were still two ferrets in—one that was suspected to be gorging on a rabbit in a cul de sac, and the other lined, and which had gone to join that sanguinary feast. The use of the line was to trace where the loose ferret lay. 'Chuck I the show'l, measter,' said Little John.
I gave the 'navigator' tool a heave over the hedge; it fell and stuck upright in the sward. Orion handed it to him. He first filled up the hole from which a rabbit had just bolted with a couple of 'spits,' i.e. spadefuls, and then began to dig on the top of the mound.
This digging was very tedious. The roots of the thorn bushes and trees constantly impeded it, and had to be cut. Then upon at last getting down to the hole, it was found that the right place had not been hit by several feet. Here was the line and the lined ferret—he had got hitched in a projecting root, and was furiously struggling to go forward to the feast of blood.
Another spell of digging—this time still slower because Little John was afraid lest the edge of his tool should suddenly slip through and cut his ferret on the head, and perhaps kill it. At last the place was reached and the ferret drawn forth still clinging to its victim. The rabbit was almost beyond recognition as a rabbit. The poor creature had been stopped by a cul de sac, and the ferret came upon him from behind.
As the hole was small the rabbit's body completely filled it, and the ferret could not scramble past to get at the spot behind the ear where it usually seizes. The ferret had therefore deliberately gnawn away the hindquarters and so bored a passage. The ferret being so gorged was useless for further hunting and was replaced in the bag. But Little John gave him a drink of water first from the bottom of the ditch.
Orion and I, wearied with the digging, now insisted on removing to the next bury, for we felt sure that the remaining rabbits in this one would not bolt. Little John had no choice but to comply, but he did so with much reluctance and many rueful glances back at the holes from which he took the nets. He was sure, he said, that there were at least half-a-dozen still in the bury: he only wished he might have all that he could get out of it. But we imperiously ordered a removal.
We went some thirty yards down the mound, passing many smaller buries, and chose a spot perfectly drilled with holes. While Little John was in the ditch putting up nets, we slily undid the ferret-bag and turned three ferrets at once loose into the holes. 'Lor! measter, measter, what be you at?' cried Little John, quite beside himself. 'You'll spoil all on it. Lor!'
A sharp report as Orion fired at a rabbit that bolted almost under Little John's fingers drowned his remonstrances, and he had to scramble out of the way quick. Bang! bang! right and left: the firing became rapid. There being no nets to alarm the rabbits and three ferrets hunting them, they tumbled out in all directions as fast as we could load. Now the cartridges struck branches and shattered them. Now the shot flattened itself against sarsen stones imbedded in the mound. The rabbits had scarce a yard to bolt from one hole to another, so that it was sharp work.
Little John now gave up all hope, and only pleaded piteously for his ferrets. 'Mind as you doan't hit 'em, measter; doant'ee shoot into a hole, you.' For half an hour we had some really good shooting: then it began to slacken, and we told him to catch his ferrets and go on to the next bury. I am not sure that he would not have rebelled outright but just then a boy came up carrying a basket of provisions, and a large earthenware jar with a bung cork, full of humming ale. Farmer Willum had sent this, and the strong liquor quite restored Little John's good humour. It really was ale—such as is not to be got for money.
The boy said that he had seen Farmer Willum's hereditary enemy, the keeper, watching us from his side of the boundary, doubtless attracted by the sound of the firing. He said also that there was a pheasant in a little copse beside the brook. We sent him out again to reconnoitre: he returned and repeated that the keeper had gone, and that he thought he saw him enter the distant fir plantations. So we left the boy to help Little John at the next bury—a commission that made him grin with delight, and suited the other very well, since the noisy guns were going away, and he could use his nets.
We took the lined ferret with us, and started after the pheasant. Just as we approached the copse, the spaniel gave tongue on the other side of the hedge. Orion had tied him up to a bush, wishing to leave him with Little John. But the spaniel tore and twisted till he got loose and had followed us—keeping out of sight—till now crossing the scent of a rabbit he set up his bark. We called him to heel, and I am afraid he got a kick. But the pheasant was alarmed, and rose before we could properly enfilade the little copse, where we should most certainly have had him. He flew high and straight for the fir plantations, where it was useless to follow.
However, we leaped the brook and entered the keeper's territory under shelter of a thick double-mound. We slipped the lined ferret into a small bury, and succeeded in knocking over a couple of rabbits. The object of using the lined ferret was because we could easily recover it. This was pure mischief, for there were scores of rabbits on our own side. But then there was just a little spice of risk in this, and we knew Willum would gloat over it.
After firing these two shots we got back again as speedily as possible, and once more assisted Little John. We could not, however, quite resist the pleasure of shooting a rabbit occasionally and so tormenting him. We left one hole each side without a net, and insisted on the removal of the net that stretched across the top of the bank. This gave us a shot now and then, and the removal of the cross net allowed the rabbit some little law.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks—to him—Little John succeeded in making a good bag. He stayed till it was quite dark to dig out a ferret that had killed a rabbit in the hole. He took his money for his day's work with indifference: but when we presented him with two couple of clean rabbits his gratitude was too much for him to express. The gnawn and 'blown' rabbits [by shot] were his perquisite, the clean rabbits an unexpected gift. It was not their monetary value; it was the fact that they were rabbits.
The man's instinct for hunting was so strong that it seemed to overcome everything else. He would walk miles—after a long day's farm work—just to help old Luke, the rabbit contractor, bring home the rabbits in the evening from the Upper Woods. He worked regularly for one farmer, and did his work well: he was a sober man too as men go, that is he did not get drunk more than once a month. A strong man must drink now and then: but he was not a sot, and took nine-tenths of his money faithfully home to his wife and children.
In the winter when farm work is not so pressing he was allowed a week off now and then, which he spent in ferreting for the farmers, and sometimes for Luke, and of course he was only too glad to get such an engagement as we gave him. Sometimes he made a good thing of his ferreting: sometimes when the weather was bad it was a failure. But although a few shillings were of consequence to him, it really did not seem to be the money-value but the sport that he loved. To him that sport was all-absorbing.
His ferrets were well looked after, and he sometimes sold one for a good price to keepers. As a rule a man who keeps ferrets is suspected: but Little John was too well understood, and he had no difficulty in begging a little milk for them.
His tenacity in pursuit of a rabbit was always a source of wonder to me. In rain, in wind, in frost; his feet up to the ankle in the ice-cold slush at the bottom of a ditch: no matter what the weather or how rough, he patiently stood to his nets. I have known him stand the whole day long in a snowstorm—the snow on the ground and in the holes, the flakes drifting against his face—and never once show impatience. All he disliked was wind—not on account of discomfort, but because the creaking of the branches and the howling of the blast made such a noise that it was impossible to tell where the rabbit would bolt.
He congratulated himself that evening because he had recovered all his ferrets. Sometimes one will lie in and defy all efforts to bring it out. One plan is to place a dead fresh rabbit at the mouth of the hole which may tempt the ferret to come and seize it. In large woods there are generally one or more ferrets wandering loose in the season, that have escaped from the keepers or poachers.
If the keeper sees one he tries to catch it; failing that, he puts a charge of shot into it. Some keepers think nothing of shooting their own ferrets if they will not come when called by the chirrup with the lips, or displease them in other ways. They do not care, because they can have as many as they like. Little John made pets of his: they obeyed him very well as a rule.
Poaching men are sometimes charged with stealing ferrets, i.e. with picking up and carrying off those that keepers have lost. A ferret is, however, a difficult thing to identify and swear to.
Those who go poaching with ferrets choose a moonlight night: if it is dark it is difficult to find the holes. Small buries are best because so much more easily managed, and the ferret is usually lined. If a large bury is attempted, they take the first half-dozen that bolt and then move on to another. The first rabbits come out rapidly; the rest linger as if warned by the fate of their companions. Instead of wasting time over them it is best to move to another place.
Unless a keeper should chance to pass up the hedgerow there is comparatively little risk, for the men are in the ditch and invisible ten yards away under the bushes and make no noise. It is more difficult to get home with the game: but it is managed. Very small buries with not more than four or five holes may be ferreted even on the darkest nights by carefully observing beforehand where the holes are situate.
A WINTER NIGHT: OLD TRICKS: PHEASANT-STALKING: MATCHLOCK versus BREECH-LOADER: CONCLUSION
When the moon is full and nearly at the zenith it seems to move so slowly that the shadows scarcely change their position. In winter, when the branches are bare, a light that is nearly vertical over a tree can cast but little shadow, and that falls immediately around the trunk. So that the smallness of the shadow itself and the slowness of its motion together tend to conceal it.
The snow on the ground increases the sense of light, and in approaching the wood the scene is even more distinct than during the gloomy day. The tips of the short stubble that has not yet been ploughed in places just protrude above the surface, and the snow, frozen hard, crunches with a low sound under foot. But for that all is perfectly still. The level upland cornfields stretch away white and vacant to the hills—white, too, and clear against the sky. The plain is silent, and nothing that can be seen moves upon its surface.
On the verge of the wood which occupies the sloping ground there stands a great oak tree, and down one side of its trunk is a narrow white streak of snow. Leaning against the oak and looking upwards, every branch and twig is visible, lit up by the moon. Overhead the stars are dimmed, but they shine more brightly yonder above the hills. Such leaves as have not yet fallen hang motionless: those that are lying on the ground are covered by the snow, and thus held fast from rustling even were the wind to blow. But there is not the least breath—a great frost is always quiet, profoundly quiet—and the silence is undisturbed even by the fall of a leaf. The frost that kills them holds the leaves till it melts, and then they drop.
The tall ash poles behind in the wood stand stark and straight, pointing upwards, and it is possible to see for some distance between them. No lesser bats flit to and fro outside the fence under the branches; no larger ones pass above the tops of the trees. There seems, indeed, a total absence of life. The pheasants are at roost in the warmer covers; and the woodpigeons are also perched—some in the detached oaks of the hedgerows, particularly those that are thickly grown with ivy about the upper branches. Up in the great beeches the rooks are still and silent; sometimes the boughs are encrusted with rime about their very claws.
Leaving the oak now and skirting the wood, after a while the meadows on the lower ground are reached; and here perhaps the slight scampering sound of a rabbit may be heard. But as they can see and hear you so far in the bright light and silence, they will most likely be gone before you can get near. They are restless—very restless; first because of the snow, and next because of the moonlight. The hares, unable to find anything on the hills or the level white plain above, have come down here and search along the sheltered hedgerows for leaf and blade. To-night the rabbits will run almost like the hares, to and fro, hither and thither.
In the thickest hawthorns the blackbirds and lesser feathered creatures are roosting, preferring the hedgerow to the more open wood. Some of the lesser birds have crept into the ivy around the elms, and which crowns the tops of the withy pollards. Wrens and sparrows have gone to the hayricks, roosting in little holes in the sides under the slightly projecting thatch. They have taken refuge too in the nest-holes made in the thatched eaves of the sheds: tits are there also; and sometimes two or three of the latter are captured at once in such holes.
A dark line across the lower meadows marks the course of the brook; it is dark because the snow falling on the water melted. Even now there is a narrow stream unfrozen; though the banks against which it chafes are hard, and will not take the impression of the moorhen's foot. The water-rats that in summertime played and fed along the margin among the flags are rarely seen in winter. In walking in daylight by the brook now their plunge into the water will not be heard, nor can they be seen travelling at the bottom.
They lay up a store of food in a hole away from the stream, generally choosing the banks or higher ground in the withy-beds—places that are not often flooded. Their ordinary holes, which are half, and sometimes quite, under water, will not do for winter; they would be frozen in them, and perhaps their store of food would be spoiled; besides which the floods cause the stream to rise above its banks, and they could not exist under water for weeks together.
Still further down, where the wood ends in scattered bushes and withy-beds, the level shore of the shallow mere succeeds. The once soft, oozy ground is now firm; the rushes are frozen stiff, and the ice for some distance out is darkened by the aquatic weeds frozen in it. From here the wood, rising up the slope, comes into view at once—the dark trees, the ash poles, the distant beeches, the white crest of the hill—all still and calm under the moonlight. The level white plain of ice behind stretches away, its real extent concealed by the islands of withy and the dark pines along the distant shore; while elsewhere the ice is not distinguishable from the almost equally level fields that join it. Looking now more closely on the snow, the tracks of hares and rabbits that have crossed and recrossed the ice are visible.
In passing close to the withy-beds to return to the wood some branches have to be pushed aside and cause a slight noise. Immediately a crowd of birds rise out of the withies, where they have been roosting, and scatter into the night. They are redwings and thrushes; every withy-bed is full of them. After wheeling about in the air they will presently return—first one, then three or four, and finally the flock, to their roosting-place.
It is easy now to walk through the wood without making a noise: there is room to pass between the stoles of ash; and the dead sticks that would have cracked under foot are covered with snow. But be careful how you step; for in some places the snow has fallen upon a mass of leaves filling a swampy hollow. Above there is a thin crust of snow, but under the leaves the oozy ground is still soft.
Upon the dark pines the snow has lodged, making the boughs bend downwards. Where the slope becomes a hill the ash stoles and nut-tree bushes are far apart and thinner, so that there are wide white spaces around them. Regaining now the top of the hill where the plain comes to the verge of the wood, there is a clear view down across the ash poles to the withies, the white mere, and the meadows below. Everywhere silence, stillness, sleep.
In the high trees slumbering creatures; in the hedgerows, in the bushes, and the withies birds with feathers puffed out, slumbering; in the banks, under the very ground, dormant animals. A quiet cold that at first does not seem cold because it is so quiet, but which gradually seizes on and stills the sap of plants and the blood of living things. A ruthless frost, still, subtle, and irresistible, that will slay the bird on its perch and weaken the swift hare.
The most cruel of all things this snow and frost, because of the torture of hunger which the birds must feel even in their sleep. But how beautiful the round full moon, the brilliant light, the white landscape, the graceful lines of the pine brought out by the snow, the hills yonder, and the stars rising above them!
It was on just such a night as this that some years since a most successful raid was made upon this wood by a band of poachers coming from a distance. The pheasants had been kept later than usual to be shot by a Christmas party, and perhaps this had caused a relaxation of vigilance. The band came in a cart of some kind; the marks of the wheels were found on the snow where it had been driven off the highway and across a field to some ricks. There, no doubt, the horse and cart were kept out of sight behind the ricks, while the men, who were believed to have worn smock-frocks, entered the wood.
The bright moonlight made it easy to find the pheasants, and they were potted in plenty. Finding that there was no opposition, the gang crossed from the wood to some outlying plantations and continued their work there. The keeper never heard a sound. He was an old man—a man who had been on the estate all his life—and had come in late in the evening after a long round. He sat by the fire of split logs and enjoyed the warmth after the bitter cold and frost; and, as he himself confessed, took an extra glass in consideration of the severity of the weather.
His wife was old and deaf. Neither of them heard the guns nor the dogs. Those in the kennels close to the cottage, and very likely one or more indoors, must have barked at the noise of the shooting. But if any dim sense of the uproar did reach the keeper's ear he put it down to the moon, at which dogs will bay. As for his assistants, they had quietly gone home, so soon as they felt sure that the keeper was housed for the night. Long immunity from attack had bred over-confidence; the staff also was too small for the extent of the place, and this had doubtless become known. No one sleeps so soundly as an agricultural labourer; and as the nearest hamlet was at some distance it is not surprising that they did not wake.
In the early morning a fogger going to fodder his cattle came across a pheasant lying dead on the path, the snow stained with its blood. He picked it up, and put it under his smock-frock, and carried it to the pen, where he hid it under some litter, intending to take it home. But afterwards, as he crossed the fields towards the farm, he passed near the wood and observed the tracks of many feet and a gap in the fence. He looked through the gap and saw that the track went into the preserves. On second thoughts he went back for the pheasant and took it to his master.
The farmer, who was sitting down to table, quietly ate his breakfast, and then strolled over to the keeper's cottage with the bird. This was the first intimation: the keeper could hardly believe it, till he himself went down and followed the trail of foot-marks. There was not the least difficulty in tracing the course of the poachers through the wood; the feathers were lying about; the scorched paper (for they used muzzle-loaders), broken boughs, and shot-marks were all too plain. But by this time the gang were well away, and none were captured or identified.
The extreme severity of the frost naturally caused people to stay indoors, so that no one noticed the cart going through the village; nor could the track of its wheels be discerned from others on the snow of the highway beaten down firm. Even had the poachers been disturbed, it is doubtful if so small a staff of keepers could have done anything to stop them. As it was, they not only made a good haul—the largest made for years in that locality—but quite spoiled the shooting.
There are no white figures passing through the peaceful wood to-night and firing up into the trees. It is perfectly still. The broad moon moves slow, and the bright rays light up tree and bush, so that it is easy to see through, except where the brambles retain their leaves and are fringed with the dead ferns.
The poaching of the present day is carried on with a few appliances only. An old-fashioned poacher could employ a variety of 'engines,' but the modern has scarcely any choice. There was, for instance, a very effective mode of setting a wire with a springe or bow. A stout stick was thrust into the ground, and then bent over into an arch. When the wire was thrown it instantly released the springe, which sprang up and drew it fast round the neck of the hare or rabbit, whose fore feet were lifted from the earth. Sometimes a growing sapling was bent down for the bow if it chanced to stand conveniently near a run. The hare no sooner put her head into the noose than she was suspended and strangled.
I tried the springe several times for rabbits, and found it answer; but the poacher cannot use it because it is so conspicuous. The stick itself, rising above the grass, is visible at some distance, and when thrown it holds the hare or rabbit up for any one to see that passes by. With a wire set in the present manner the captured animal lies extended, and often rolls into a furrow and is further hidden.
The springe was probably last employed by the mole-catchers. Their wooden traps were in the shape of a small tunnel, with a wire in the middle which, when the mole passed through, set free a bent stick. This stick pulled the wire and hung the mole. Such mole-catchers' bows or springes used to be seen in every meadow, but are now superseded by the iron trap.
Springes with horsehair nooses on the ground were also set for woodcocks and for wild ducks. It is said that a springe of somewhat similar construction was used for pheasants. Horsehair nooses are still applied for capturing woodpeckers and the owls that spend the day in hollow trees, being set round the hole by which they leave the tree. A more delicate horsehair noose is sometimes set for finches and small birds. I tried it for bullfinches, but did not succeed from lack of the dexterity required. The modes of using bird-lime were numerous, and many of them are in use for taking song-birds.
But the enclosure of open lands, the strict definition of footpaths, closer cultivation, and the increased value of game have so checked the poacher's operations with nets that in many districts the net may be said to be extinct. It is no longer necessary to bush the stubbles immediately after reaping. Brambles are said to have been the best for hindering the net, which frequently swept away an entire covey, old birds and young together. Stubbles are now so short that no birds will lie in them, and the net would not be successful there if it were tried.
The net used to be so favourite an 'engine' because partridges and pheasants will run rather than fly. In the case of partridges the poacher had first to ascertain the haunt of the covey, which he could do by looking for where they roost at night: the spot is often worn almost bare of grass and easily found. Or he could listen in the evening for the calling of the birds as they run together. The net being set, he walked very slowly down the wind towards the covey. It could not be done too quietly or gently, because if one got up all the rest would immediately take wing; for partridges act in concert. If he took his time and let them run in front of him he secured the whole number. That was the principle; but the nets were of many kinds: the partridges were sometimes driven in by a dog. The partridges that appear in the market on the morning of the 1st of September are said to be netted, though probably by those who have a right to do so. These birds by nature lend themselves to such tricks, being so timid. It is said that if continually driven to and fro they will at last cower, and can be taken by hand or knocked over with a stick.
The sight of a paper kite in the air makes them motionless till forced to rise; and there was an old dodge of ringing a bell at night, which so alarmed the covey that they remained still till the net was ready, when a sudden flash of light drove them into it. Imagine a poacher ringing a bell nowadays! Then, partridges were peculiarly liable to be taken; now, perhaps, they escape better than any other kind of game. Except with a gun the poacher can hardly touch them, and after the coveys have been broken up it is not worth his while to risk a shot very often. If only their eggs could be protected there should be little difficulty with partridges.
Pheasants are more individual in their ways, and act less together; but they have the same habit of running instead of flying, and if a poacher did but dare he could take them with nets as easily as possible. They form runs through the woods—just as fowls will wander day after day down a hedge, till they have made quite a path. So that, having found the run and knowing the position of the birds, the rest is simplicity itself. The net being stretched, the pheasants were driven in. A cur dog was sometimes sent round to disturb the birds. Being a cur, he did not bark, for which reason a strain of cur is preferred to this day by the mouchers who keep dogs. Now that the woods are regularly watched such a plan has become impracticable. It might indeed be done once, but surely not twice where competent keepers were about.
Nets were also used for hares and rabbits, which were driven in by a dog; but, the scent of these animals being so good, it was necessary to work in such a manner that the wind might not blow from the net, meeting them as they approached it. Pheasants, as every one knows, roost on trees, but often do not ascend very high; and, indeed, before the leaves are off they are said to be sometimes taken by hand—sliding it along the bough till the legs are grasped, just as you might fowls perched at night on a rail across the beams of a shed.
The spot where they roost is easily found out, because of the peculiar noise they make upon flying up; and with a little precaution the trees may be approached without startling them. Years ago the poacher carried a sulphur match and lit it under the tree, when the fumes, ascending, stupefied the birds, which fell to the ground. The process strongly resembled the way in which old-fashioned folk stifled their bees by placing the hive at night, when the insects were still, over a piece of brown paper dipped in molten brimstone and ignited. The apparently dead bees were afterwards shaken out and buried; but upon moving the earth with a spade some of them would crawl out, even after two or three days.
Sulphur fumes were likewise used for compelling rabbits to bolt from their buries without a ferret. I tried an experiment in a bury once with a mixture the chief component of which was gunpowder, so managed as to burn slowly and give a great smoke. The rabbits did, indeed, just hop out and hop in again; but it is a most clumsy expedient, because the fire must be lit on the windward side, and the rabbits will only come out to leeward. The smoke hangs, and does not penetrate into half the tunnels; or else it blows through quickly, when you must stop half the holes with a spade. It is a wretched substitute for a ferret.
When cock-fighting was common the bellicose inclinations of the cock-pheasants were sometimes excited to their destruction. A gamecock was first armed with the sharp spur made from the best razors, and then put down near where a pheasant-cock had been observed to crow. The pheasant cock is so thoroughly game that he will not allow any rival crowing in his locality, and the two quickly met in battle. Like a keen poniard the game-cock's spur either slew the pheasant outright or got fixed in the pheasant's feathers, when he was captured.
A pheasant, too, as he ran deeper into the wood upon an alarm, occasionally found his neck in a noose suspended across his path. For rabbiting, the lurcher was and is the dog of all others. He is as cunning and wily in approaching his game as if he had a cross of feline nature in his character. Other dogs trust to speed; but the lurcher steals on his prey without a sound. He enters into the purpose of his master, and if any one appears in sight remains quietly in the hedge with the rabbit or leveret in his mouth till a sign bids him approach. If half the stories told of the docility and intelligence of the lurcher are true, the poacher needs no other help than one of these dogs for ground game. But the dogs called lurchers nowadays are mostly of degenerate and impure breed; still, even these are capable of a good deal.