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Full Online Book HomeEssaysLuke, The Rabbit-contractor: The Brook-path
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Luke, The Rabbit-contractor: The Brook-path Post by :rprosser Category :Essays Author :Richard Jefferies Date :April 2011 Read :1018

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Luke, The Rabbit-contractor: The Brook-path

The waggon-track leading to the Upper Woods almost always presented something of interest, and often of beauty. The solitude of the place seemed to have attracted flowers and ferns as well as wild animals and birds. For though flowers have no power of motion, yet seeds have a negative choice and lie dormant where they do not find a kindly welcome. But those carried hither by the birds or winds took root and flourished, secure from the rude ploughshare or the sharp scythe.

The slow rumble of waggon-wheels seldom disturbed the dreamy silence, or interrupted the song of the birds; so seldom that large docks and thistles grew calmly beside the ruts untouched by hoofs. From the thick hedges on either side trailing brambles and briars stretched far out, and here and there was a fallen branch, broken off by the winds, whose leaves had turned brown and withered while all else was green. Round sarsen stones had been laid down in the marshy places to form a firm road, but the turf had long since covered most of them. Where the smooth brown surfaces did project mosses had lined the base, and rushes leaned over and hid the rest.

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.

(The end)
Richard Jefferies's essay: Luke, The Rabbit-Contractor: The Brook-Path

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