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   Chapter 5 WOODLAND TWILIGHT TRAITORS ON THE GIBBET

The Amateur Poacher By Richard Jefferies Characters: 23974

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


In a hedge that joined a wood, and about a hundred yards from it, there was a pleasant hiding-place beside a pollard ash. The bank was hollow with rabbit-buries: the summer heat had hardened the clay of the mound and caused it to crack and crumble wherever their excavations left a precipitous edge. Some way up the trunk of the tree an immense flat fungus projected, roughly resembling the protruding lip of a savage enlarged by the insertion of a piece of wood. If formed a black ledge standing out seven or eight inches, two or three inches thick, and extending for a foot or more round the bark. The pollard, indeed, was dead inside, and near the ground the black touch-wood showed. Ash timber must become rarer year by year: for, being so useful, it is constantly cut down, while few new saplings are planted or encouraged to become trees.

In front a tangled mass of bramble arched over the dry ditch; it was possible to see some distance down the bank, for nothing grew on the top itself, the bushes all rising from either side-a peculiarity of clay mounds. This narrow space was a favourite promenade of the rabbits; they usually came out there for a few minutes first, looking about before venturing forth into the meadows. Except a little moss, scarcely any vegetation other than underwood clothed the bare hard soil of the mound; and for this reason every tiny aperture that suited their purpose was occupied by wasps.

They much prefer a clear space about the entrance to their nests, affording an unencumbered passage: there were two nests within a few yards of the ash. Though so generally dreaded, wasps are really inoffensive insects, never attacking unless previously buffeted. You may sit close to a wasps' nest for hours, and, if you keep still, receive no injury. Humble-bees, too, congregate in special localities: along one hedge half a dozen nests may be found, while other fields are searched for them in vain.

The best time to enter such a hiding-place is a little before the sun sinks: for as his beams turn red all the creatures that rest during the day begin to stir. Then the hares start down from the uplands and appear on the short stubble, where the level rays throw exaggerated shadows behind them. When six or eight hares are thus seen near the centre of a single field, they and their shadows seem to take possession of and occupy it.

Pheasants, though they retire to roost on the trees, often before rising come forth into the meadows adjacent to the coverts. The sward in front of the pollard ash sloped upwards gradually to the foot of a low hill planted with firs, and just outside these about half a dozen pheasants regularly appeared in the early evening. As the sun sank below the hill, and the shadow of the great beeches some distance away began to extend into the mead, they went back one by one into the firs. There they were nearly safe, for no trees give so much difficulty to the poacher. It is not easy even to shoot anything inside a fir plantation at night: as for the noose, it is almost impossible to use it. The lowest pheasant is taken first, and then the next above, like fowls perched on the rungs of a ladder; and, indeed, it is not unlikely that those who excel in this kind of work base their operations upon previous experiences in the hen roost.

The wood pigeons begin to come home, and the wood is filled with their hollow notes: now here, now yonder, for as one ceases another takes it up. They cannot settle for some time: each as he arrives perches awhile, and then rises and tries a fresh place, so that there is a constant clattering. The green woodpecker approaches at a rapid pace-now opening, now closing his wings, and seeming to throw himself forward rather than to fly. He rushes at the trees in the hedge as though he could pierce the thick branches like a bullet. Other birds rise over or pass at the side: he goes through, arrow-like, avoiding the boughs. Instead of at once entering the wood, he stays awhile on the sward of the mead in the open.

As the pheasants generally feed in a straight line along the ground, so the lesser pied woodpecker travels across the fields from tree to tree, rarely staying on more than one branch in each, but, after examining it, leaves all that may be on other boughs and seeks another ahead. He rises round and round the dead branch in the elm, tapping it with blows that succeed each other with marvellous rapidity. He taps for the purpose of sounding the wood to see if it be hollow or bored by grubs, and to startle the insects and make them run out for his convenience. He will ascend dead branches barely half an inch thick that vibrate as he springs from them, and proceeds down the hedge towards the wood. The 'snop-top' sounds in every elm, and grows fainter as he recedes. The sound is often heard, but in the thick foliage of summer the bird escapes unseen, unless you are sitting almost under the tree when he arrives in it.

Then the rooks come drifting slowly to the beeches: they are uncertain in their hour at this season-some, indeed, scarce care to return at all; and even when quite dusk and the faint stars of summer rather show themselves than shine, twos and threes come occasionally through the gloom. A pair of doves pass swiftly, flying for the lower wood, where the ashpoles grow. The grasshoppers sing in the grass, and will continue till the dew descends. As the little bats flutter swiftly to and fro just without the hedge, the faint sound of their wings is audible as they turn: their membranes are not so silent as feathers, and they agitate them with extreme velocity. Beetles go by with a loud hum, rising from those isolated bunches of grass that may be seen in every field; for the cows will not eat the rank green blades that grow over and hide dried dung.

A large white spot, ill-defined and shapeless in the distance and the dimness, glides along the edge of the wood, then across in front before the fir plantation, next down the hedge to the left, and presently passes within two yards, going towards the wood again along this mound. It is a white owl: he flies about five feet from the ground and absolutely without a sound. So when you are walking at night it is quite startling to have one come overhead, approaching from behind and suddenly appearing. This owl is almost fearless; unless purposely alarmed he will scarcely notice you, and not at all if you are still.

As he reaches the wood he leaves the hedge, having gone all round the field, and crosses to a small detached circular fir plantation in the centre. There he goes out of sight a minute or two; but presently appears skirting the low shed and rickyard yonder, and is finally lost behind the hedges. This round he will go every evening, and almost exactly at the same time-that is, in reference to the sun, which is the clock of nature.

Step never so quietly out from the mound, the small birds that unnoticed have come to roost in the bushes will hear it and fly off in alarm. The rabbits that are near the hedge rush in; those that are far from home crouch in the furrows and the bunches. Crossing the open field, they suddenly start as it seems from under your feet-one white tail goes dapping up and down this way, another jerks over the 'lands' that way. The moonbeams now glisten on the double-barrel; and a bright sparkle glitters here and there as a dewdrop catches a ray.

Upon the grass a faint halo appears; it is a narrow band of light encircling the path, an oval ring-perhaps rather horseshoe shape than oval. It glides in front, keeping ever at the same distance as you walk, as if there the eye was focussed. This is only seen when the grass is wet with dew, and better in short grass than long. Where it shines the grass looks a paler green. Passing gently along a hedge thickly timbered with oak and elms, a hawk may perhaps start forth: hawks sometimes linger by the hedges till late, but it is not often that you can shoot one at roost except in spring. Then they invariably return to roost in the nest tree, and are watched there, and so shot, a gunner approaching on each side of the hedge. In the lane dark objects-rabbits-hasten away, and presently the footpath crosses the still motionless brook near where it flows into the mere.

The low brick parapet of the bridge is overgrown with mosses; great hedges grow each side, and the willows, long uncut, almost meet in the centre. In one hedge an opening leads to a drinking-place for cattle: peering noiselessly over the parapet between the boughs, the coots and moorhens may be seen there feeding by the shore. They have come up from the mere as the ducks and teal do in the winter. The broader waters can scarcely be netted without a boat, but the brook here is the very place for a moonlight haul. The net is stretched first across the widest spot nearest to the pool, that no fish may escape. They swim up here in the daytime in shoals, perch especially; but the night poachers are often disappointed, for the fish seem to retire to deeper waters as the darkness comes on. A black mass of mud-coated sticks, rotten twigs, and thorn bushes, entangled in the meshes, is often the only result of much toil.

Once now and then, as when a preserved pond is netted, a tremendous take occurs; but nets are rather gone by, being so unwieldy and requiring several men to manage effectually. If they are not hung out to dry properly after being used, they soon rot. Now, a large net stretched along railings or a hedge is rather a conspicuous object, and brings suspicion on the owner. It is also so heavy after use that until wrung, which takes time, a strong man can barely carry it; and if a sudden alarm comes it must be abandoned.

It is pleasant to rest awhile on the parapet in the shadow of the bushes. The low thud-thud of sculls in the rowlocks of a distant punt travels up the water. By-and-by a hare comes along, enters on the bridge, and almost reaches the gate in the middle before he spies anything suspicious. Such a spot, and, indeed, any gateway, used to be a favourite place to set a net, and then drive the hares towards it with a cur dog that ran silent. Bold must be the man that would set a net in a footpath now, with almost every field preserved by owner or tenant. With a bound the hare hies back and across the meadow: the gun comes to the shoulder as swiftly.

On the grass lit by the moon the hare looked quite distinct, but the moment the gaze is concentrated up the barrel he becomes a dim object with no defined outline. In shooting on the ground by twilight or in the moonbeams, waste no time in endeavouring to aim, but think of the hare's ears-say a couple of feet in front of his tail-and the moment the gun feels steady pull the trigger. The flash and report come together; there is a dull indescribable sound ahead, as some of the shot strikes home in fur and some drills into the turf, and then a rustling in the grass. The moorhens dive, and the coots scuttle down the brook towards the mere at the flash. While yet the sulphurous smoke lingers, slow to disperse, over the cool dewy sward, there comes back an echo from the wood behind, then another from the mere, then another and another beyond.

The distant sculls have ceased to work in the rowlocks-those in the punt are listening to the echoes; most likely they have been fishing for tench in the deep holes under the black shadow of the aspens. (Tench feed in the dark: if you wish to take a big one wait till it is necessary to fix a piece of white paper on the float.) Now put the empty cartridge in your pocket instead of throwing it aside; pull the hare's neck across your knee, and hurry off. But you may safely stay to harle him; for those very echoes that have been heard a mile round about are the best safeguard: not one man in a thousand could tell the true direction whence the sound of the explosion originated.

The pleasure of wandering in a wo

od was so great that it could never be resisted, and did not solely arise from the instinct of shooting. Many expeditions were made without a gun, or any implement of destruction, simply to enjoy the trees and thickets. There was one large wood very carefully preserved, and so situate in an open country as not to be easily entered. But a little observation showed that the keeper had a 'habit.' He used to come out across the wheatfields to a small wayside 'public,' and his route passed by a lonely barn and rickyard. One warm summer day I saw him come as usual to the 'public,' and while he was there quietly slipped as far as the barn and hid in it.

In July such a rickyard is very hot; heat radiates from every straw. The ground itself is dry and hard, each crevice choked with particles of white chaff; so that even the couch can hardly grow except close under the low hedge where the pink flower of the pimpernel opens to the sky. White stone staddles-short conical pillars with broad capitals-stand awaiting the load of sheaves that will shortly press on them. Every now and then a rustling in the heaps of straw indicates the presence of mice. From straw and stone and bare earth heat seems to rise up. The glare of the sunlight pours from above. The black pitched wooden walls of the barn and sheds prevent the circulation of air. There are no trees for shadow-nothing but a few elder bushes, which are crowded at intervals of a few minutes with sparrows rushing with a whirr of wings up from the standing corn.

But the high pitched roof of the barn and of the lesser sheds has a beauty of its own-the minute vegetation that has covered the tiles having changed the original dull red to an orange hue. From ridge to eaves, from end to end, it is a wide expanse of colour, only varying so much in shade as to save it from monotony. It stands out glowing, distinct against the deep blue of the sky. The 'cheep' of fledgeling sparrows comes from the crevices above; but swallows do not frequent solitary buildings so much as those by dwelling-houses, being especially fond of cattle-sheds where cows are milked.

The proximity of animals apparently attracts them: perhaps in the more exposed places there may be dangers from birds of prey. As for the sparrows, they are innumerable. Some are marked with white patches-a few so much so as to make quite a show when they fly. One handsome cock bird has a white ring half round his neck, and his wings are a beautiful partridge-brown. He looks larger than the common sort; and there are several more here that likewise appear to exceed in size, and to have the same peculiar brown.

After a while there came the sound of footsteps and a low but cheerful whistle. The keeper having slaked a thirst very natural on such a sultry day returned, and re-entered the wood. I had decided that it would be the best plan to follow in his rear, because then there would be little chance of crossing his course haphazard, and the dogs would not sniff any strange footsteps, since the footsteps would not be there till they had gone by. To hide from the eyes of a man is comparatively easy; but a dog will detect an unwonted presence in the thickest bush, and run in and set up a yelping, especially if it is a puppy.

It was not more than forty yards from the barn to the wood: there was no mound or hedge, but a narrow, deep, and dry watercourse, a surface drain, ran across. Stooping a little and taking off my hat, I walked in this, so that the wheat each side rose above me and gave a perfect shelter. This precaution was necessary, because on the right there rose a steep Down, from whose summit the level wheat-fields could be easily surveyed. So near was it that I could distinguish the tracks of the hares worn in the short grass. But if you take off your hat no one can distinguish you in a wheat-field, more particularly if your hair is light: nor even in a hedge.

Where the drain or furrow entered the wood was a wire-netting firmly fixed, and over it tall pitched palings, sharp at the top. The wood was enclosed with a thick hawthorn hedge that looked impassable; but the keeper's footsteps, treading down the hedge-parsley and brushing aside the 'gicks,' guided me behind a bush where was a very convenient gap. These signs and the smooth-worn bark of an ash against which it was needful to push proved that this quiet path was used somewhat frequently.

Inside the wood the grass and the bluebell leaves-the bloom past and ripening to seed-so hung over the trail that it was difficult to follow. It wound about the ash stoles in the most circuitous manner-now to avoid the thistles, now a bramble thicket, or a hollow filled with nettles. Then the ash poles were clothed with the glory of the woodbine-one mass of white and yellow wax-like flowers to a height of eight or nine feet, and forming a curtain of bloom from branch to branch.

After awhile I became aware that the trail was approaching the hill. At the foot it branched; and the question arose whether to follow the fork that zig-zagged up among the thickets or that which seemed to plunge into the recesses beneath. I had never been in this wood before-the time was selected because it was probable that the keeper would be extremely occupied with his pheasant chicks. Though the earth was so hard in the exposed rick-yard, here the clayey ground was still moist under the shadow of the leaves. Examining the path more closely, I easily distinguished the impression of the keeper's boot: the iron toe-plate has left an almost perfect impression, and there were the deep grooves formed by the claws of his dog as it had scrambled up the declivity and the pad slipped on the clay.

As he had taken the upward path, no doubt it led direct to the pheasants, which was sure to be on the hill itself, or a dry and healthy slope. I therefore took the other trail, since I must otherwise have overtaken him; for he would stay long among his chicks: just as an old-fashioned farmer lingers at a gate, gazing on his sheep. Advancing along the lower path, after some fifteen minutes it turned sharply to the right, and I stood under the precipitous cliff-like edge of the hill in a narrow coombe. The earth at the top hung over the verge, and beech-trees stood as it seemed in the act to topple, their exposed roots twisting to and fro before they re-entered the face of the precipice. Large masses of chalky rubble had actually fallen, and others were all but detached. The coombe, of course, could be overlooked from thence; but a moment's reflection convinced me there was no risk, for who would dare to go near enough to the edge to look down?

The coombe was full of fir-trees; and by them stood a long narrow shed-the roof ruinous, but the plank walls intact. It had originally been erected in a field, since planted for covers. This long shed, a greenish grey from age and mouldering wood, became a place of much interest. Along the back there were three rows of weasels and stoats nailed through the head or neck to the planks. There had been a hundred in each row-about three hundred altogether. The lapse of time had entirely dissipated the substance of many on the upper row; nothing remained but the grim and rusty nail. Further along there hung small strips without shape. Beyond these the nails supported something that had a rough outline still of the animal. In the second row the dried and shrivelled creatures were closely wrapped in nature's mummy-cloth of green; in the third, some of those last exposed still retained a dull brown colour. None were recent. Above, under the eaves, the spiders' webs had thickly gathered; beneath, the nettles flourished.

But the end of the shed was the place where the more distinguished offenders were gibbeted. A footpath, well worn and evidently much used, went by this end, and, as I afterwards ascertained, communicated with the mansion above and the keeper's cottage some distance below. Every passenger between must pass the gallows where the show of more noble traitors gave proof of the keeper's loyal activity. Four shorter rows rose in tiers. To the nails at the top strong beaks and black feathers adhered, much bedraggled and ruffled by weather. These crows had long been dead; the keeper when he shot a crow did not trouble to have it carried home, unless a nail was conspicuously vacant. The ignoble bird was left where he fell.

On the next row the black and white of magpies and the blue of jays alternated. Many of the magpies had been despoiled of their tails, and some of their wings, the feathers being saleable. The jays were more numerous, and untouched; they were slain in such numbers that the market for their plumage was glutted. Though the bodies were shrunken, the feathers were in fair condition. Magpies' nests are so large that in winter, when the leaves are off the trees, they cannot but be seen, and, the spot being marked, in the summer old and young are easily destroyed. Hawks filled the third row. The kestrels were the most numerous, but there were many sparrow-hawks. These made a great show, and were stuck so closely that a feather could hardly be thrust between them. In the midst, quite smothered under their larger wings, were the remains of a smaller bird-probably a merlin. But the last and lowest row, that was also nearest, or on a level with the face of a person looking at the gallows, was the most striking.

This grand tier was crowded with owls-not arranged in any order, but haphazard, causing a fine mixture of colour. Clearly this gallery was constantly renewed. The white owl gave the prevalent tint, side by side with the brown wood owls, and scattered among the rest, a few long horned owls-a mingling of white, yellowish brown, and tawny feathers. Though numerous here, yet trap and gun have so reduced the wood owls that you may listen half the night by a cover and never hear the 'Who-hoo' that seems to demand your name.

The barn owls are more liable to be shot, because they are more conspicuous; but, on the other hand, as they often breed and reside away from covers, they seem to escape. For months past one of these has sailed by my window every evening uttering a hissing 'skir-r-r.' Here, some were nailed with their backs to the wall, that they might not hide their guilty faces.

The delicate texture of the owl's feathers is very remarkable: these birds remind me of a huge moth. The owls were more showy than the hawks, though it is commonly said that without sunlight there is no colour-as in the case of plants grown in darkness. Yet the hawks are day birds, while the owls fly by night. There came the sound of footsteps; and I retreated, casting one glance backward at the black and white, the blue and brown colours that streaked the wall, while the dull green weasels were in perpetual shadow. By night the bats would flit round and about that gloomy place. It would not do to return by the same path, lest another keeper might be coming up it; so I stepped into the wood itself. To those who walk only in the roads, hawks and owls seem almost rare. But a wood is a place to which they all flock; and any wanderer from the north or west naturally tends thither. This wood is of large extent; but even to the smaller plantations of the Downs it is wonderful what a number come in the course of a year. Besides the shed just visited, there would be certain to be another more or less ornamented near the keeper's cottage, and probably others scattered about, where the commoner vermin could be nailed without the trouble of carrying them far away. Only the owls and hawks, magpies, and such more striking evidences of slaughter were collected here, and almost daily renewed.

To get into the wood was much easier than to get out, on account of the thick hedge, palings, and high sharp-sparred gates; but I found a dry ditch where it was possible to creep under the bushes into a meadow where was a footpath.

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