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   Chapter 2 THE OLD PUNT A CURIOUS 'TURNPIKE'

The Amateur Poacher By Richard Jefferies Characters: 22999

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The sculls of our punt, being short and stout, answered very well as levers to heave the clumsy old craft off the sand into which it sank so deeply. That sheltered corner of the mere, with a shelving sandy shore, and a steep bank behind covered with trees, was one of the best places to fish for roach: you could see them playing under the punt in shoals any sunny day.

There was a projecting bar almost enclosing the creek, which was quite still, even when the surf whitened the stony strand without, driven before a wet and stormy south-wester. It was the merest routine to carry the painter ashore and twist the rotten rope round an exposed root of the great willow tree; for there was not the slightest chance of that ancient craft breaking adrift. All our strength and the leverage of the sculls could scarcely move her, so much had she settled. But we had determined to sail that lovely day to visit the island of Calypso, and had got all our arms and munitions of war aboard, besides being provisioned and carrying some fruit for fear of scurvy. There was of course the gun, placed so as not to get wet; for the boat leaked, and had to be frequently baled out with a tin mug-one that the haymakers used.

Indeed, if we had not caulked her with some dried moss and some stiff clay, it is doubtful if she would have floated far. The well was full of dead leaves that had been killed by the caterpillars and the blight, and had fallen from the trees before their time; and there were one or two bunches of grass growing at the stern part from between the decaying planks.

Besides the gun there was the Indian bow, scooped out inside in a curious way, and covered with strange designs or coloured hieroglyphics: it had been brought home by one of our people years before. There was but one man in the place who could bend that bow effectually; so that though we valued it highly we could not use it. By it lay another of briar, which was pliable enough and had brought down more than one bird.

Orion hit a rabbit once; but though sore wounded it got to the bury, and, struggling in, the arrow caught the side of the hole and was drawn out. Indeed, a nail filed sharp is not of much avail as an arrowhead; you must have it barbed, and that was a little beyond our skill. Ikey the blacksmith had forged us a spearhead after a sketch from a picture of a Greek warrior; and a rake-handle served as a shaft. It was really a dangerous weapon. He had also made us a small anchor according to plan; nor did he dip too deeply into our pocket-money.

Then the mast and square-sail, fitted out of a window-blind, took up a considerable space; for although it was perfectly calm, a breeze might arise. And what with these and the pole for punting occasionally, the deck of the vessel was in that approved state of confusion which always characterises a ship on the point of departure. Nor must Orion's fishing-rod and gear be forgotten, nor the cigar-box at the stern (a present from the landlady at the inn) which contained a chart of the mere and a compass.

With a 'yeo-heave-ho!' we levered her an inch at a time, and then loosened her by working her from side to side, and so, panting and struggling, shoved the punt towards the deep. Slowly a course was shaped out of the creek-past the bar and then along the edge of the thick weeds, stretching so far out into the water that the moorhen feeding near the land was beyond reach of shot. From the green matted mass through which a boat could scarcely have been forced came a slight uncertain sound, now here now yonder, a faint 'suck-sock;' and the dragon-flies were darting to and fro.

The only ripple of the surface, till broken by the sculls, was where the swallows dipped as they glided, leaving a circle of tiny wavelets that barely rolled a yard. Past the low but steep bluff of sand rising sheer out of the water, drilled with martins' holes and topped by a sapling oak in the midst of a great furze bush: yellow bloom of the furze, tall brake fern nestling under the young branches, woodbine climbing up and bearing sweet coronals of flower.

Past the barley that came down to the willows by the shore-ripe and white under the bright sunshine, but yonder beneath the shadow of the elms with a pale tint of amber. Past broad rising meadows, where under the oaks on the upper ground the cattle were idly lying out of the sultry heat.

Then the barren islands, strewn with stone and mussel-shells glistening in the sunshine, over which in a gale the waves made a clean sweep, rendered the navigation intricate; and the vessel had to be worked in and out, now scraping against rocky walls of sandstone, now grounding and churning up the bottom, till presently she floated in the bay beneath the firs. There a dark shadow hung over the black water-still and silent, so still that even the aspens rested from their rustling.

Out again into the sunshine by the wide mouth of the Green River, as the chart named the brook whose level stream scarce moved into the lake. A streak of blue shot up it between the banks, and a shrill pipe came back as the kingfisher hastened away. By the huge boulder of sarsen, whose shoulder projected but a few inches-in stormy times a dangerous rock to mariners-and then into the unknown narrow seas between the endless osier-beds and withy-covered isles.

There the chart failed; and the known landmarks across the open waters-the firs and elms, the green knoll with the cattle-were shut out by thick branches on either hand. In and out and round the islets, sounding the depth before advancing, winding now this way, now that, till all idea of the course was lost, and it became a mere struggle to get forward. Drooping boughs swept along the gunwales, thick-matted weeds cumbered the way; 'snags,' jagged stumps of trees, threatened to thrust their tops through the bottom; and, finally, panting and weary of poling through the maze, we emerged in a narrow creek all walled in and enclosed with vegetation.

Running her ashore on the soft oozy ground, we rested under a great hawthorn bush that grew at the very edge, and, looking upwards, could see in the canopy above the black interlaced twigs of a dove's nest. Tall willow poles rose up all around, and above them was the deep blue of the sky. On the willow stems that were sometimes under water the bark had peeled in scales; beneath the surface bunches of red fibrous roots stretched out their slender filaments tipped with white, as if feeling like a living thing for prey.

A dreamy, slumberous place, where the sedges slept, and the green flags bowed their pointed heads. Under the bushes in the distant nook the moorhen, reassured by the silence, came out from the grey-green grass and the rushes. Surely Calypso's cave could not be far distant, where she

with work and song the time divides,

And through, the loom the golden shuttle guides.

For the Immortals are hiding somewhere still in the woods; even now I do not weary searching for them.

But as we rested a shadow fell from a cloud that covered the sun, and immediately a faint sigh arose from among the sedges and the reeds, and two pale yellow leaves fell from the willows on the water. A gentle breeze followed the cloud, chasing its shadow. Orion touched his rod meaningly. So I stepped ashore with the gun to see if a channel could be found into the open water, and pushed through the bush. Briar and bramble choked the path, and hollow willow stoles; but, holding the gun upright, it was possible to force through, till, pushing between a belt of reeds and round an elder thicket, I came suddenly on a deep, clear pool-all but walking into it. Up rose a large bird out of the water with a bustling of wings and splashing, compelled to 'rocket' by the thick bushes and willow poles. There was no time to aim; but the old gun touched the shoulder and went off without conscious volition on my part.

The bird flew over the willows, but the next moment there was a heavy splash somewhere beyond out of sight. Then came an echo of the report sent back from the woods adjoining, and another, and a third and fourth, as the sound rolled along the side of the hill, caught in the coombes and thrown to and fro like a ball in a tennis-court. Wild with anxiety, we forced the punt at the bulrushes, in the corner where it looked most open, and with all our might heaved it over the weeds and the mud, and so round the islet into the next pool, and thence into the open water. It was a wild duck, and was speedily on board.

Stepping the mast and hoisting the sail, we drifted before the faint breath of air that now just curled the surface, steering straight across the open for the stony barren islands at the mouth of the bay. The chart drawn in pencil-what labour it cost us!-said that there, a few yards from the steep shore, was a shoal with deep water round it. For some reason there always seemed a slight movement or current-a set of the water there, as if it flowed into the little bay.

In swimming we often came suddenly out of a cold into a stratum of warm water (at the surface); and perhaps the difference in the temperature may have caused the drift, for the bay was in shadow half the day. Now, wherever there is motion there will fish assemble; so as the punt approached the shoal the sail was doused, and at twenty yards' distance I put the anchor into the water-not dropping it, to avoid the splash-and let it slip gently to the bottom.

Then, paying out the cable, we drifted to the edge of the shoal without the least disturbance, and there brought up. Orion had his bait ready-he threw his line right to windward, so that the float might drag the worm naturally with the wind and slight current towards the shoal.

The tiny blue buoy dances up and down on the miniature waves; beyond it a dazzling path of gold stretches away to the distant osier-islands-a path down which we came without seeing it till we looked back. The wavelets strike with a faint 'sock-sock' against the bluff overhanging bow, and then roll on to the lee-shore close at hand.

It rises steep; then a broad green ledge; and after that, still steeper, the face of a long-deserted sand-pit, where high up a rabbit sits at the mouth of his hole, within range, but certain to escape even if hit, and therefore safe. On the turf below is a round black spot, still showing, though a twelvemonth has gone by since we landed with half a dozen perch, lit a fire and cooked the fishes. For Molly never could 'a-bear' perch, because of the hardness of the scales, saying she would as soon 'scrape a vlint;' and they laughed to scorn our idea of skinning them as you do moorhens, whose 'dowl' no fingers can pick.

So we lit a fire and blew it up, lying on the soft short grass in a state of nature after a swim, there being none to see us but the glorious sun. The skinned perch were sweeter than any I have tasted since.

'Look!' whispers Orion, suddenly. The quill above the blue buoy nods as it lifts over the wavelets-nods again, sinks a little, jerks up, and then goes down out of sight. Orion feels the weight. 'Two pounds, if he's an ounce!' he shouts: soon after a splendid perch is in the boat, nearer three pounds perhaps than two. Flop! whop! how he leaps up and down on the planks, soiled by the mud, dulling his broad back and barred sides on the grit and sand.

Roaming about like this with the gun, now on the water in the punt, and now on land,

we gradually came to notice very closely the game we wished to shoot. We saw, for instance, that the rabbit when feeding or moving freely, unless quickened by alarm, has a peculiar way of dwelling upon his path. It almost resembles creeping; for both fore feet stop while the hinder come up-one hinder foot slightly behind the other, and rather wide apart.

When a fall of snow presents a perfect impression of his passage, it appears as if the animal had walked slowly backwards. This deceives many who at such times go out to pick up anything that comes in their way; for they trace the trail in the wrong direction. The truth is, that when the rabbit pauses for the hinder feet to come up he again rests momentarily upon these before the two foremost are put forth, and so presses not only the paw proper but the whole first joint of the hind leg upon the snow. A glance at the hind feet of a rabbit will show what I mean: they will be found to display plain signs of friction against the ground.

The habit has given the creature considerable power of standing up on the hinder feet; he can not only sit on his haunches, but raise himself almost upright, and remain in that position to listen for some little time. For the same reason he can bark the ash saplings higher up than would be imagined: where he cannot reach, the mice climb up and nibble straight lines across the young pole, as if done with a single stroke from a saw that scraped away the rind but did not reach the wood.

In front of a large rabbit bury the grass will be found discoloured with sand at some distance from the mouth of the hole. This is explained by particles adherent to the rabbits' hind feet, and rubbing off against the grass blades. Country people call this peculiar gait 'sloppetting;' and one result of it is that the rabbits wear away the grass where they are numerous almost as much as they eat it away.

There was such a space worn by the attrition of feet sprinkled with sand before the extensive burrow at the top of the meadow where I shot the woodpigeon. These marks suggested to us that we should attempt some more wholesale system of capture than shooting. It was not for the mere desire of destruction, but for a special purpose, that we turned our attention to wiring. The punt, though much beloved, was, like all punts, a very bad sailer. A boat with a keel that could tack, and so work into the wind's eye, was our ambition.

The blacksmith Ikey readily purchased every rabbit we obtained at sixpence each. Rabbits were not so dear then as now; but of course he made a large profit even then. The same rabbits at present would be worth fifteen or eighteen pence. Every sixpence was carefully saved, but it was clear that a long time must elapse before the goal was attained. The blacksmith started the idea of putting up a 'turnpike'-i.e. a wire-but professed ignorance as to the method of setting it. That was a piece of his cunning-that he might escape responsibility.

The shepherd, too, when obliquely questioned, shook his head, pursed his lips, threw his pitching-bar over his shoulder, and marched off with a mysterious hint that our friend Ikey would some day put his 'vut in it.' It did not surprise us that the shepherd should turn his back on anything of the kind; for he was a leading man among the 'Ranters,' and frequently exhorted them in his cottage.

The carter's lad was about at the time, and for the moment we thought of applying to him. He was standing on the threshold of the stable, under the horseshoes and weasles' feet nailed up to keep the witches away, teasing a bat that he had found under the tiles. But suddenly the dusky thing bit him sharply, and he uttered an oath; while the creature, released, flew aimlessly into the elms. It was better to avoid him.

Indoors, they would have put a very heavy hand upon the notion had they known of it: so we had to rely solely upon the teaching of experiment. In the first attempt, a stick that had been put by for the thatcher, but which he had not yet split, was cut short and sharpened for the plug that prevents the animal carrying away the wire when snared. This is driven into the earth; at the projecting end a notch was cut to hold the string attached to the end of the wire away from the run.

A smaller stick supported the wire above the ground; this latter only just sufficiently thrust into the sward to stand firmly upright. Willow was used for this at first; but it is a feeble wood: it split too much, or bent and gave way instead of holding the wire in its place. The best for the purpose we found were the nut-tree rods that shoot up among the hazel thickets, no larger than the shaft of an arrow, and almost as straight. A slit about half an inch deep was made in the upper end, and in this slit the shank of the wire was sunk. Once or twice the upright was peeled; but this was a mistake, for the white wand was then too conspicuous. The bark should be left on.

Three copper wires twisted tight formed the snare itself; we twisted them like the strands of a rope, thinking it would give more strength. The wire projected horizontally, the loop curling downwards. It was first set up at a spot where a very broad and much-worn run-more like a footpath than a rabbit track-forked into several lesser runs, and at about five yards from the hedge. But though adjusted, as we thought, with the utmost nicety, no rabbit would put his neck into it-not even in the darkness of the night. By day they all played round it in perfect safety.

After waiting some time it was removed and reset just over a hole-the loop close to the opening. It looked scarcely possible for a rabbit to creep out without being caught, the loop being enlarged to correspond with the mouth of the hole. For a while it seemed as if the rabbits declined to use the hole at all; presently, however, the loop was pushed back, showing that one must have got his nose between it and the bank and so made a safe passage sideways. A run that crossed the field was then selected, and the wire erected at about the middle of it, equidistant from either hedge. Near the entrance of the buries the rabbits moved slowly, sniffing their way along and pausing every yard or so. But they often increased their speed farther away, and sometimes raced from one mound to the other. When going at that rate it appeared natural to conclude that they would be less careful to pick and choose their road.

The theory proved so far correct that next day the upright was down, but the wire had snapped and the rabbit was gone. The character of the fracture clearly indicated how it had happened: the rabbit, so soon as he found his head in the noose, had rolled and tumbled till the wire, already twisted tight, parted. Too much twisting, therefore, weakened instead of strengthening. Next a single wire, somewhat thicker, was used, and set up nearly in the same place; but it broke again.

Finally, two strands of medium size, placed side by side, but only twisted once-that is, just enough to keep them together-were employed. The lesser loop-the slip-knot, as it might be called-was at the same time eased in order to run quicker and take a closer grip. Experiments with the hand proved that this style of wire would bear a great strain, and immediately answered to a sudden jerk. The running noose slipped the more easily because the wires were smooth; when twisted the strands checked the noose, the friction causing a slight sound. The wire itself seemed nearly perfect; but still no rabbit was caught.

Various runs were tried in succession; the size of the loop, too, was now enlarged and now decreased; for once it seemed as if a rabbit's ears had struck it aside, and on another as if, the loop being too large or too low down, one of the fore feet had entered and drawn it. Had it been the hind leg the noose would have held, because of the crook of the leg; but the fore foot came through, leaving the noose drawn up to a size not much larger than a finger-ring. To decide the point accurately, a full-grown rabbit was shot, and Orion held it in a position as near as possible to that taken in running, while I adjusted the wire to fit exactly. Still no success.

At last the secret was revealed by a hare. One day, walking up the lane with the gun, and peeping over into the ploughed field, I saw a hare about sixty yards away. The distance was too great to risk a shot, or rather it was preferable to wait for the chance of his coming nearer. Stepping back gently behind the bushes, I watched him run to and fro, gradually approaching in a zig-zag line that must carry him right across in front. I was positive that he had not seen me, and felt sure of bagging him; when suddenly-without any apparent cause-up went his head, he glanced round, and was off like the wind.

Yet there had not been the faintest noise, and I could not understand it, till all at once it occurred to me that it must be the scent. The slight, scarcely perceptible, breeze blew in that direction: instantly he crossed the current from me he detected it and fled. Afterwards I noticed that in the dusky twilight, if the wind is behind him, a hare will run straight at you as if about to deliberately charge your legs. This incident by the ploughed field explained the failure of the wire. Every other care had been taken, but we had forgotten to allow for the extreme delicacy of a wild animal's sense of smell.

In walking to the spot selected for the snare it is best to avoid even stepping on the run, and while setting it up to stand back as far as convenient and lean forward. The grass that grows near must not be touched by the hand, which seems to impart a very strong scent. The stick that has been carried in the hand must not be allowed to fall across the run: and be careful that your handkerchief does not drop out of your pocket on or near it. If a bunch of grass grows very tall and requires parting, part it with the end (not the handle) of your stick.

The same holds good with gins, especially if placed for a rat. Some persons strew a little freshly plucked grass over the pan and teeth of the trap, thinking to hide it; but it not only smells of the hand, but withers up and turns brown, and acts as a warning to that wary creature. It is a better plan if any dead leaves are lying near to turn them over and over with the end of a twig till they fall on the trap, that is if they are dry: if wet (unless actually raining at the time), should one chance to be left with the drier under surface uppermost, the rat may pause on the brink. Now that the remotest chance of leaving a scent was avoided the wire became a deadly instrument. Almost every morning two or three rabbits were taken: we set up a dozen snares when we had mastered the trick. They were found lying at full length in the crisp white grass, for we often rose to visit the wires while yet the stars were visible. Thus extended a person might have passed within a few yards and never noticed them, unless he had an out-of-doors eye; for the whiter fur of the belly as they lay aside was barely distinguishable from the hoar frost. The blacksmith Ikey sauntered down the lane every evening, and glanced casually behind the ash tree-the northern side of whose trunk was clothed with dark green velvet-like moss-to see if a bag was lying for him there among the nettles in the ditch. The rabbits were put in the bag, which was pushed through the hedge.

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