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The Amateur Poacher By Richard Jefferies Characters: 26960

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The time of the apple-bloom is the most delicious season in Sarsen village. It is scarcely possible to obtain a view of the place, although it is built on the last slope of the Downs, because just where the ground drops and the eye expects an open space, plantations of fir and the tops of tall poplars and elms intercept the glance. In ascending from the level meadows of the vale thick double mounds, heavily timbered with elm, hide the houses until you are actually in their midst.

Those only know a country who are acquainted with its footpaths. By the roads, indeed, the outside may be seen; but the footpaths go through the heart of the land. There are routes by which mile after mile may be travelled without leaving the sward. So you may pass from village to village; now crossing green meads, now cornfields, over brooks, past woods, through farmyard and rick 'barken.' But such tracks are not mapped, and a stranger misses them altogether unless under the guidance of an old inhabitant.

At Sarsen the dusty road enters the more modern part of the village at once, where the broad signs hang from the taverns at the cross-ways and where the loafers steadily gaze at the new comer. The Lower Path, after stile and hedge and elm, and grass that glows with golden buttercups, quietly leaves the side of the double mounds and goes straight through the orchards. There are fewer flowers under the trees, and the grass grows so long and rank that it has already fallen aslant of its own weight. It is choked, too, by masses of clog-weed, that springs up profusely over the site of old foundations; so that here ancient masonry may be hidden under the earth. Indeed, these orchards are a survival from the days when the monks laboured in vineyard and garden, and mayhap even of earlier times. When once a locality has got into the habit of growing a certain crop it continues to produce it for century after century; and thus there are villages famous for apple or pear or cherry, while the district at large is not at all given to such culture.

The trunks of the trees succeed each other in endless ranks, like columns that support the most beautiful roof of pink and white. Here the bloom is rosy, there white prevails: the young green is hidden under the petals that are far more numerous than leaves, or even than leaves will be. Though the path really is in shadow as the branches shut out the sun, yet it seems brighter here than in the open, as if the place were illuminated by a million tiny lamps shedding the softest lustre. The light is reflected and apparently increased by the countless flowers overhead.

The forest of bloom extends acre after acre, and only ceases where hedges divide, to commence again beyond the boundary. A wicket gate, all green with a film of vegetation over the decaying wood, opens under the very eaves of a cottage, and the path goes by the door-across a narrow meadow where deep and broad trenches, green now, show where ancient stews or fishponds existed, and then through a farmyard into a lane. Tall poplars rise on either hand, but there seem to be no houses; they stand, in fact, a field's breadth back from the lane, and are approached by footpaths that every few yards necessitate a stile in the hedge.

When a low thatched farmhouse does abut upon the way, the blank white wall of the rear part faces the road, and the front door opens on precisely the other side. Hard by is a row of beehives. Though the modern hives are at once more economical and humane, they have not the old associations that cling about the straw domes topped with broken earthenware to shoot off the heavy downfall of a thunderstorm.

Everywhere the apple-bloom; the hum of bees; children sitting on the green beside the road, their laps full of flowers; the song of finches; and the low murmur of water that glides over flint and stone so shadowed by plants and grasses that the sunbeams cannot reach and glisten on it. Thus the straggling flower-strewn village stretches along beneath the hill and rises up the slope, and the swallows wheel and twitter over the gables where are their hereditary nesting-places. The lane ends on a broad dusty road, and, opposite, a quiet thatched house of the larger sort stands, endways to the street, with an open pitching before the windows. There, too, the swallows' nests are crowded under the eaves, flowers are trained against the wall, and in the garden stand the same beautiful apple-trees. But within, the lower part of the windows-that have recess seats-are guarded by horizontal rods of iron, polished by the backs of many men. It is an inn, and the rods are to save the panes from the impact of an excited toper's arm.

The talk to-day, as the brown brandy, which the paler cognac has not yet superseded, is consumed, and the fumes of coarse tobacco and the smell of spilt beer and the faint sickly odour of evaporating spirits overpower the flowers, is of horses. The stable lads from the training stables far up on the Downs drop in or call at the door without dismounting. Once or twice in the day a tout calls and takes his 'grub,' and scribbles a report in the little back parlour. Sporting papers, beer-stained and thumb-marked, lie on the tables; framed portraits of racers hang on the walls. Burly men, who certainly cannot ride a race, but who have horse in every feature, puff cigars and chat in jerky monosyllables that to an outsider are perfectly incomprehensible. But the glib way in which heavy sums of money are spoken of conveys the impression that they dabble in enormous wealth.

There are dogs under the tables and chairs; dogs in the window-seat; dogs panting on the stone flags of the passage, after a sharp trot behind a trap, choosing the coolest spot to loll their red tongues out; dogs outside in the road; dogs standing on hind legs, and painfully lapping the water in the horse-trough; and there is a yapping of puppies in the distance. The cushions of the sofa are strewn with dogs' hairs, and once now and then a dog leisurely hops up the staircase.

Customers are served by the landlady, a decent body enough in her way: her son, the man of the house, is up in the 'orchut' at the rear, feeding his dogs. Where the 'orchut' ends in a paddock stands a small shed: in places the thatch on the roof has fallen through in the course of years and revealed the bare rafters. The bottom part of the door has decayed, and the long nose of a greyhound is thrust out sniffing through a hole. Dickon, the said son, is delighted to undo the padlock for a visitor who is 'square.' In an instant the long hounds leap up, half a dozen at a time, and I stagger backwards, forced by the sheer vigour of their caresses against the doorpost. Dickon cannot quell the uproarious pack: he kicks the door open, and away they scamper round and round the paddock at headlong speed.

What a joy it is to them to stretch their limbs! I forget the squalor of the kennel in watching their happy gambols. I cannot drink more than one tumbler of brown brandy and water; but Dickon overlooks that weakness, feeling that I admire his greyhounds. It is arranged that I am to see them work in the autumn.

The months pass, and in his trap with the famous trotter in the shafts we roll up the village street. Apple-bloom and golden fruit too are gone, and the houses show more now among the bare trees; but as the rim of the ruddy November sun comes forth from the edge of a cloud there appears a buff tint everywhere in the background. When elm and ash are bare the oaks retain their leaves, and these are illumined by the autumn beams. Over-topped by tall elms and hidden by the orchards, the oaks were hardly seen in summer; now they are found to be numerous and give the prevailing hue to the place.

Dickon taps the dashboard as the mare at last tops the hill, and away she speeds along the level plateau for the Downs. Two greyhounds are with us; two more have gone on under charge of a boy. Skirting the hills a mile or two, we presently leave the road and drive over the turf: there is no track, but Dickon knows his way. The rendezvous is a small fir plantation, the young trees in which are but shoulder-high. Below is a plain entirely surrounded by the hills, and partly green with root crops: more than one flock of sheep is down there, and two teams ploughing the stubble. Neither the ploughmen nor the shepherds take the least heed of us, except to watch for the sport. The spare couple are fastened in the trap; the boy jumps up and takes the reins. Dickon puts the slip on the couple that are to run first, and we begin to range.

Just at the foot of the hill the grass is tall and grey; there, too, are the dead dry stalks of many plants that cultivation has driven from the ploughed fields and that find a refuge at the edge. A hare starts from the very verge and makes up the Downs. Dickon slips the hounds, and a faint halloo comes from the shepherds and the ploughmen. It is a beautiful sight to see the hounds bound over the sward; the sinewy back bends like a bow, but a bow that, instead of an arrow, shoots itself; the deep chests drink the air. Is there any moment so joyful in life as the second when the chase begins? As we gaze, before we even step forward, the hare is over the ridge and out of sight. Then we race and tear up the slope; then the boy in the trap flaps the reins and away goes the mare out of sight too.

Dickon is long and rawboned, a powerful fellow, strong of limb, and twice my build; but he sips too often at the brown brandy, and after the first burst I can head him. But he knows the hills and the route the hare will take, so that I have but to keep pace. In five minutes as we cross a ridge we see the game again; the hare is circling back-she passes under us not fifty yards away, as we stand panting on the hill. The youngest hound gains, and runs right over her; she doubles, the older hound picks up the running. By a furze-bush she doubles again; but the young one turns her-the next moment she is in the jaws of the old dog.

Again and again the hounds are slipped, now one couple, now the other: we pant, and can scarcely speak with running, but the wild excitement of the hour and the sweet pure air of the Downs supply fresh strength. The little lad brings the mare anywhere: through the furze, among the flint-pits, jolting over the ruts, she rattles along with sure alacrity. There are five hares in the sack under the straw when at last we get up and slowly drive down to the highway, reaching it some two miles from where we left it. Dickon sends the dogs home by the boy on foot; we drive round and return to the village by a different route, entering it from the opposite direction.

The reason of these things is that Sarsen has no great landlord. There are fifty small proprietors, and not a single resident magistrate. Besides the small farmers, there are scores of cottage owners, every one of whom is perfectly independent. Nobody cares for anybody. It is a republic, without even the semblance of a Government. It is liberty, equality, and swearing. As it is just within the limit of a borough, almost all the cottagers have votes, and are not to be trifled with. The proximity of horse-racing establishments adds to the general atmosphere of dissipation. Betting, card-playing, ferret-breeding and dog-fancying, poaching and politics, are the occupations of the populace. A little illicit badger-baiting is varied by a little vicar-baiting; the mass of the inhabitants are the reddest of Reds. Que voulez-vous?

The edges of some large estates come up near, but the owners would hardly like to institute a persecution of these turbulent folk. If they did, where would be their influence at the next election? If a landlord makes himself unpopular, his own personal value depreciates. He is a nonentity in the committee-room, and his help rather deprecated by the party than desired. The Sarsen fellows are not such fools as to break pheasant preserves in the vale; as they are resident, that would not answer. They keep outside the sanctum sanctorum of the pheasant coverts. But with ferret, dog, and gun, and now and then a partridge net along the edge of the standing barley, they excel. So, too, with the wire; and the broad open Downs are their happy hunting grounds, especially in misty weather.

This is the village of the apple-bloom, the loveliest spot imaginable. After all, they are not such desperately bad fellows if you deduct their sins against the game laws. They are a jovial lot, and free with their money; they stand by one another-a great virtue in these cold-blooded days. If one gets in trouble with the law the rest subscribe the fine. They are full of knowledge of a certain sort, and you may learn anything, from the best way to hang a dog upwards.

When we reach the inn, and Dickon calls for the brown brandy, there in the bar sits a gamekeeper, whose rubicund countenance beams with good humour. He is never called upon to pay his score. Good fellow! in addition he is popular, and every one asks him to drink: besides which, a tip for a race now and then makes this world wear a smiling aspect to him.

Dickon's 'unconscious education'-absorbed rather than learnt in boyhood-had not been acquired under conditions likely to lead him to admire scenery. But, rough as he was, he was a good-natured fellow, and it was through him that I became acquainted with a ver

y beautiful place.

The footpath to The Park went for about half a mile under the shadow of elm trees, and in spring time there was a continual noise of young rooks in the nests above. Occasionally dead twigs, either dislodged from the nests or broken off by the motions of the old birds, came rustling down. One or two nests that had been blown out strewed the sward with half a bushel of dead sticks. After the rookery the path passed a lonely dairy, where the polished brazen vessels in the skilling glittered like gold in the sunshine. Farther on came wide open meadows with numerous oak-trees scattered in the midst-the outposts of the great wood at hand. The elms were flourishing and vigorous; but these detached oaks were decaying, and some dead, their hoar antiquity contrasting with the green grass and flowers of the mead.

The mansion was hidden by elm and chestnut, pines and sombre cedars. From the edge of the lawn the steep slope of the Down rose, planted with all manner of shrubs, the walks through which were inches deep in dead leaves, needles, and fir-cones. Long neglect had permitted these to accumulate, and the yew hedges had almost grown together and covered the walk they bordered.

The woods and preserves extended along the Downs, between the hills and the meadows beneath. There was one path through these woods that led into a narrow steep-sided coombe, one side of which was planted with firs. On the other was a little grass, but so thin as scarcely to cover the chalk. This side jutted out from the general line of the hills, and formed a bold bluff, whose white precipitous cliff was a landmark for many miles. In climbing the coombe, it was sometimes necessary to grasp the bunches of grass; for it would have been impossible to recover from a slip till, bruised and shaken, you rolled to the bottom, and perhaps into the little streamlet flowing through the hollow.

The summit was of small extent, but the view beautiful. A low fence of withy had long since decayed, nothing but a few rotten stakes remaining at the very verge of the precipice. Steep as it was, there were some ledges that the rabbits frequented, making their homes in mid-air. Further along, the slope, a little less perpendicular, was covered with nut-tree bushes, where you could scramble down by holding to the boughs. There was a tradition of a fox-hunter, in the excitement of the chase, forcing his horse to descend through these bushes and actually reaching the level meadows below in safety.

Impossible as it seemed, yet when the hounds were in full cry beneath it was easy to understand that in the eagerness of the moment a horseman at the top might feel tempted to join the stirring scene at any risk: for the fox frequently ran just below, making along the line of coverts; and from that narrow perch on the cliff the whole field came into sight at once. There was Reynard slipping ahead, and two or more fields behind the foremost of the pack, while the rest, rushing after, made the hills resound with their chiding. The leaders taking the hedges, the main squadron splashing through a marshy place, the outsiders straining to come up, and the last man behind, who rode harder than any-all could be seen at the same time.

It was a lovely spot, too, for dreaming on a summer's day, reclining on the turf, with the harebells swinging in the faint breeze. The extreme solitude was its charm: no lanes or tracks other than those purely pastoral came near. There were woods on either hand; in the fir plantations the jays chattered unceasingly. The broad landscape stretched out to the illimitable distance, till the power of the eye failed and could trace it no farther. But if the gaze was lifted it looked into blue space-the azure heaven not only overhead, but, as it seemed, all around.

Dickon was always to and fro the mansion here, and took me with him. His object was ostensibly business: now it was a horse to buy, now a fat bullock or sheep; now it was an acre or two of wood that was to be cut. The people of the mansion were so much from home that their existence was almost forgotten, and they were spoken of vaguely as 'on the Continent.' There was, in fact, a lack of ready-money, perhaps from the accumulation of settlements, that reduced the nominal income of the head to a tithe of what it should have been.

Yet they were too proud to have in the modern builder, the modern upholsterer, and, most dreadful of all, the modern 'gardener,' to put in French sashes, gilding and mirrors, and to root up the fine old yew hedges and level the grand old trees. Such is the usual preparation before an advertisement appears that a mansion of 'historic association,' and 'replete with every modern convenience,' is to let, with some thousand of acres of shooting, &c.

They still kept up an establishment of servants-after a fashion-who did much as they pleased. Dickon was a great favourite. As for myself, a mere dreamy lad, I could go into the woods and wander as I liked, which was sufficient. But I recollect the immense kitchen very well, and the polished relics of the ancient turnspit machinery. There was a door from it opening on a square stone-flagged court with a vertical sun-dial on the wall; and beyond that ranges of disused coach-houses-all cloudy, as it were, with cobwebs hanging on old-fashioned post-chaises. Dickon was in love with one of the maids, a remarkably handsome girl.

She showed me the famous mantelpiece, a vast carved work, under which you could stand upright. The legend was that once a year on a certain night a sable horse and cloaked horseman rode across that great apartment, flames snorting from the horse's nostrils, and into the fireplace, disappearing with a clap of thunder. She brought me, too, an owl from the coach-houses, holding the bird by the legs firmly, her hand defended by her apron from the claws.

The butler was a little merry fellow, extremely fond of a gun, and expert in using it. He seemed to have nothing to do but tell tales and sing, except at the rare intervals when some of the family returned unexpectedly. The keeper was always up there in the kitchen; he was as pleasant and jovial as a man could well be, though full of oaths on occasion. He was a man of one tale-of a somewhat enigmatical character. He would ask a stranger if they had ever heard of such-and-such a village where water set fire to a barn, ducks were drowned, and pigs cut their own throats, all in a single day.

It seemed that some lime had been stored in the barn, when the brook rose and flooded the place; this slaked the lime and fired the straw, and so the barn. Something of the same kind happens occasionally on the river barges. The ducks were in a coop fastened down, so that they could not swim on the surface of the flood, which passed over and drowned them. The pigs were floated out of the sty, and in swimming their sharp-edged hoofs struck their fat jowls just behind the ear at every stroke till they cut into the artery, and so bled to death. Where he got this history from I do not know.

One bright October morning (towards the end of the month) Dickon drove me over to the old place with his fast trotter-our double-barrels hidden under some sacks in the trap. The keeper was already waiting in the kitchen, sipping a glass of hot purl; the butler was filling every pocket with cartridges. After some comparison of their betting-books, for Dickon, on account of his acquaintance with the training establishments, was up to most moves, we started. The keeper had to send a certain number of pheasants and other game to the absent family and their friends every now and then, and this duty was his pretext. There was plenty of shooting to be got elsewhere, but the spice of naughtiness about this was alluring. To reach that part of the wood where it was proposed to shoot the shortest way led across some arable fields.

Fieldfares and redwings rose out of the hedges and flew away in their peculiarly scattered manner-their flocks, though proceeding in the same direction, seeming all loose and disordered. Where the ploughs had been at work already the deep furrows were full of elm leaves, wafted as they fell from the trees in such quantities as to make the groove left by the share level with the ridges. A flock of lapwings were on the clods in an adjacent field, near enough to be seen, but far beyond gunshot. There might perhaps have been fifty birds, all facing one way and all perfectly motionless. They were, in fact, watching us intently, although not apparently looking towards us: they act so much in concert as to seem drilled. So soon as the possibility of danger had gone by each would begin to feed, moving ahead.

The path then passed through the little meadows that joined the wood: and the sunlight glistened on the dew, or rather on the hoar frost that had melted and clung in heavy drops to the grass. Here one flashed emerald; there ruby; another a pure brilliance like a diamond. Under foot by the stiles the fallen acorns crunched as they split into halves beneath the sudden pressure.

The leaves still left on the sycamores were marked with large black spots: the horse-chestnuts were quite bare; and already the tips of the branches carried the varnish-coloured sheaths of the buds that were to appear the following spring. These stuck to the finger if touched, as if they really had been varnished. Through the long months of winter they would remain, till under April showers and sunshine the sheath fell back and the green leaflets pushed up, the two forming together a rude cross for a short time.

The day was perfectly still, and the colours of the leaves still left glowed in the sunbeams. Beneath, the dank bronzed fern that must soon shrivel was wet, and hung with spiders' webs that like a slender netting upheld the dew. The keeper swore a good deal about a certain gentleman farmer whose lands adjoined the estate, but who held under a different proprietor. Between these two there was a constant bickering-the tenant angry about the damage done to his crops by the hares and rabbits, and the keeper bitterly resenting the tenant's watch on his movements, and warnings to his employer that all was not quite as it should be.

The tenant had the right to shoot, and he was always about in the turnips-a terrible thorn in the side of Dickon's friend. The tenant roundly declared the keeper a rascal, and told his master so in written communications. The keeper declared the tenant set gins by the wood, in which the pheasants stepped and had their legs smashed. Then the tenant charged the keeper with trespassing; the other retorted that he decoyed the pheasants by leaving peas till they dropped out of the pods. In short, their hatred was always showing itself in some act of guerrilla warfare. As we approached the part of the woods fixed on, two of the keeper's assistants, carrying thick sticks, stepped from behind a hedge, and reported that they had kept a good watch, and the old fox (the tenant) had not been seen that morning. So these fellows went round to beat, and the guns were got ready.

Sometimes you could hear the pheasants running before they reached the low-cropped hawthorn hedge at the side of the plantation; sometimes they came so quietly as to appear suddenly out from the ditch, having crept through. Others came with a tremendous rush through the painted leaves, rising just before the hedge; and now and then one flew screaming high over the tops of the firs and ash-poles, his glossy neck glowing in the sunlight and his long tail floating behind. These last pleased me most, for when the shot struck the great bird going at that rate even death could not at once arrest his progress. The impetus carried him yards, gradually slanting downwards till he rolled in the green rush bunches.

Then a hare slipped out and ran the gauntlet, and filled the hollow with his cries when the shot broke his hindquarters, till the dog had him. Jays came in couples, and green woodpeckers singly: the magpies cunningly flew aside instead of straight ahead; they never could do anything straightforward. A stoat peeped out, but went back directly when a rabbit whose retreat had been cut off bolted over his most insidious enemy. Every now and then Dickon's shot when he fired high cut the twigs out of the ash by me. Then came the distant noise of the beaters' sticks, and the pheasants, at last thoroughly disturbed, flew out in twos and threes at a time. Now the firing grew fierce, and the roll of the volleys ceaseless. It was impossible to jam the cartridges fast enough in the breech.

A subtle flavour of sulphur filled the mouth, and the lips became dry. Sunshine and gleaming leaves and sky and grass seemed to all disappear in the fever of the moment. The gun burned the hands, all blackened by the powder; the metal got hotter and hotter; the sward was poached and trampled and dotted with cases; shot hissed through the air and pattered in showers on the opposite plantation; the eyes, bleared and bloodshot with the smoke, could scarce see to point the tube. Pheasants fell, and no one heeded; pheasants escaped, and none noticed it; pheasants were but just winged and ran wounded into the distant hedges; pheasants were blown out of all living shape and could hardly be gathered up. Not a word spoken: a breathless haste to load and blaze; a storm of shot and smoke and slaughter.

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