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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Amateur Poacher - Chapter 8. Churchyard Pheasants: Before The Bench
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The Amateur Poacher - Chapter 8. Churchyard Pheasants: Before The Bench Post by :eggibiz Category :Nonfictions Author :Richard Jefferies Date :May 2012 Read :2561

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The Amateur Poacher - Chapter 8. Churchyard Pheasants: Before The Bench

CHAPTER VIII. CHURCHYARD PHEASANTS: BEFORE THE BENCH

The tower of the church at Essant Hill was so low that it scarcely seemed to rise above the maples in the hedges. It could not be seen until the last stile in the footpath across the meadows was passed. Church and tower then came into view together on the opposite side of a large open field. A few aged hawthorn trees dotted the sward, and beyond the church the outskirts of a wood were visible, but no dwellings could be seen. Upon a second and more careful glance, however, the chimney of a cottage appeared above a hedge, so covered with ivy as hardly to be separated from the green of the boughs.

There were houses of course somewhere in Essant, but they were so scattered that a stranger might doubt the existence of the village. A few farmsteads long distances apart, and some cottages standing in green lanes and at the corners of the fields, were nearly all; there was nothing resembling a 'street'--not so much as a row. The church was in effect the village, and the church was simply the mausoleum of the Dessant family, the owners of the place. Essant Hill as a name had been rather a problem to the archaeologists, there being no hill: the ground was quite level. The explanation at last admitted was that Essant Hill was a corruption of D'Essantville.

It seemed probable that the population had greatly diminished; because, although the church was of great antiquity, there was space still for interments in the yard. A yew tree of immense size stood in one corner, and was by tradition associated with the fortunes of the family. Though the old trunk was much decayed, yet there were still green and flourishing shoots; so that the superstitious elders said the luck of the house was returning.

Within, the walls of the church were covered with marble slabs, and the space was reduced by the tombs of the Dessants, one with a recumbent figure; there were two brasses level with the pavement, and in the chancel hung the faded hatchments of the dead. For the pedigree went back to the Battle of Hastings, and there was scarce room for more heraldry. From week's end to week's end the silent nave and aisles remained empty; the chirp of the sparrows was the only sound to be heard there. There being no house attached to the living, the holder could not reside; so the old church slumbered in the midst of the meadows, the hedges, and woods, day after day, year after year.

You could sit on the low churchyard wall in early summer under the shade of the elms in the hedge, whose bushes and briars came right over, and listen to the whistling of the blackbirds or the varied note of the thrush; you might see the whitethroat rise and sing just over the hedge, or look upwards and watch the swallows and swifts wheeling, wheeling, wheeling in the sky. No one would pass to disturb your meditations, whether simply dreaming of nothing in the genial summer warmth, or thinking over the course of history since the prows of the Norman ships grounded on the beach. If we suppose the time, instead of June, to be August or September, there would not even be the singing of the birds. But as you sat on the wall, by-and-by the pheasants, tame as chickens, would come up the hedge and over into the churchyard.

Leaving the church to stroll by the footpath across the meadow towards the wood, at the first gateway half-a-dozen more pheasants scatter aside, just far enough to let you pass. In the short dusty lane more pheasants; and again at the edge of the cornfield. None of these show any signs of alarm, and only move just far enough to avoid being trodden on. Approaching the wood there are yet more pheasants, especially near the fir plantations that come up to the keeper's cottage and form one side of the enclosure of his garden. The pheasants come up to the door to pick up what they can--not long since they were fed there--and then wander away between the slender fir trunks, and beyond them out into the fields.

The path leads presently into a beautiful park, the only defect of which is that it is without undulation. It is quite level; but still the clumps of noble timber are pleasant to gaze upon. In one spot there still stands the grey wall and buttress of some ancient building, doubtless the relic of an ecclesiastical foundation. The present mansion is not far distant; it is of large size, but lacks elegance. Inside, nothing that modern skill can supply to render a residence comfortable, convenient, and (as art is understood in furniture) artistic has been neglected.

Behind the fir plantations there is an extensive range of stabling, recently erected, with all the latest improvements. A telegraph wire connects the house with the stable, so that carriage or horse may be instantly summoned. Another wire has been carried to the nearest junction with the general telegraphic system; so that the resident in this retired spot may communicate his wishes without a moment's delay to any part of the world.

In the gardens and pleasure-grounds near the house all manner of ornamental shrubs are planted. There are conservatories, vineries, pineries; all the refinements of horticulture. The pheasants stray about the gravel walks and across the close-mown lawn where no daisy dares to lift its head. Yet, with all this precision of luxury, one thing is lacking--_the one thing, the keystone of English country life--_i.e. a master whose heart is in the land.

The estate is in process of 'nursing' for a minor. The revenues had become practically sequestrated to a considerable extent in consequence of careless living when the minor nominally succeeded. It happened that the steward appointed was not only a lawyer of keen intelligence, but a conscientious man. He did his duty thoroughly. Every penny was got out of the estate that could be got, and every penny was saved.

First, the rents were raised to the modern standard, many of them not having been increased for years. Then the tenants were in effect ordered to farm to the highest pitch, and to improve the soil itself by liberal investment. Buildings, drains, and so forth were provided for them; they only had to pay a small percentage upon the money expended in construction. In this there was nothing that could be complained of; but the hard, mechanical, unbending spirit in which it was done--the absence of all kind of sympathy--caused a certain amount of discontent. The steward next proceeded to turn the mansion, the park, home farm, and preserves into revenue.

Everything was prepared to attract the wealthy man who wanted the temporary use of a good country house, first-class shooting and hunting. He succeeded in doing what few gentlemen have accomplished: he made the pheasants pay. One reason, of course, was that gentlemen have expenses outside and beyond breeding and keeping: the shooting party itself is expensive; whereas here the shooting party paid hard cash for their amusement. The steward had no knowledge of pheasants; but he had a wide experience of one side of human nature, and he understood accounts.

The keepers were checked by figures at every turn, finding it impossible to elude the businesslike arrangements that were made. In revenue the result was highly successful. The mansion with the first-class shooting, hunting, and lovely woodlands--every modern convenience and comfort in the midst of the most rural scenery--let at a high price to good tenants. There was an income from what had previously been profitless. Under this shrewd management the estate was fast recovering.

At the same time the whole parish groaned in spirit. The farmers grumbled at the moral pressure which forced them to progress in spite of themselves. They grumbled at the strange people who took up their residence in their midst and suddenly claimed all the loyalty which was the due of the old family. These people hunted over their fields, jumped over the hedges, glanced at them superciliously, and seemed astonished if every hat was not raised when they came in sight. The farmers felt that they were regarded as ignorant barbarians, and resented the town-bred insolence of people who aped the country gentleman.

They grumbled about the over-preservation of game, and they grumbled about the rabbits. The hunt had its grumble too because some of the finest coverts were closed to the hounds, and because they wanted to know what became of the foxes that formerly lived in those coverts. Here was a beautiful place--a place that one might dream life away in--filled with all manner of discontent.

Everything was done with the best intention. But the keystone was wanting--the landlord, the master, who had grown up in the traditions of the spot, and between whom and the people there would have been, even despite of grievances, a certain amount of sympathy. So true is it that in England, under the existing system of land tenure, an estate cannot be worked like the machinery of a factory.

At first, when the pheasant-preserving began to reach such a height, there was a great deal of poaching by the resident labourers. The temptation was thrust so closely before their faces they could not resist it. When pheasants came wandering into the cottage gardens, and could even be enticed into the sheds and so secured by simply shutting the door, men who would not have gone out of their way to poach were led to commit themselves.

There followed a succession of prosecutions and fines, till the place began to get a reputation for that sort of thing. It was at last intimated to the steward by certain gentlemen that this course of prosecution was extremely injudicious. For it is a fact--a fact carefully ignored sometimes--that resident gentlemen object to prosecutions, and, so far from being anxious to fine or imprison poachers, would very much rather not. The steward took the hint, and instead increased his watchers. But by this time the novelty of pheasants roaming about like fowls had begun to wear off, and their services were hardly needed. Men went by pheasants with as much indifference as they would pass a tame duck by the roadside.

Such poachers as visited the woods came from a distance. Two determined raids were carried out by strangers, who escaped. Every now and then wires were found that had been abandoned, but the poaching ceased to be more than is usual on most properties. So far as the inhabitants of the parish were concerned it almost ceased altogether; but every now and then the strollers, gipsies, and similar characters carried off a pheasant or a hare, or half a dozen rabbits. These offenders when detected were usually charged before the Bench at a market town not many miles distant. Let us follow one there.

The little town of L----, which has not even a branch railway, mainly consists of a long street. In one part this street widens out, so that the houses are some forty yards or more apart, and it then again contracts. This irregularly shaped opening is the market-place, and here in the centre stands a rude-looking building. It is supported upon thick short pillars, and was perhaps preceded by a wooden structure. Under these pillars there is usually a shabby chaise or two run in for cover, and the spot is the general rendezvous of all the dogs in the town.

This morning there are a few loafers hanging round the place; and the tame town pigeons have fluttered down, and walk with nodding heads almost up to them. These pigeons always come to the edge of a group of people, mindful of the stray grain and peas that fall from the hands of farmers and dealers examining samples on market days. Presently, two constables come across carrying a heavy, clumsy box between them. They unlock a door, and take the box upstairs into the hall over the pillars. After them saunters a seedy man, evidently a clerk, with a rusty black bag; and after him again--for the magistrates' Clerk's clerk must have _his clerk--a boy with some leather-bound books.

Some of the loafers touch their hats as a gentleman--a magistrate--rides up the street. But although the church clock is striking the hour fixed for the sessions to begin he does not come over to the hall upon dismounting in the inn-yard, but quietly strolls away to transact some business with the wine-merchant or the saddler. There really is not the least hurry. The Clerk stands in the inn porch calmly enjoying the September sunshine, and chatting with the landlord. Two or three more magistrates drive up; presently the chairman strolls over on foot from his house, which is almost in the town, to the inn, and joins in the pleasant gossip going on there, of course in a private apartment.

Up in the justice-room the seedy Clerk's clerk is leaning out of the window and conversing with a man below who has come along with a barrow-load of vegetables from his allotment. Some boys are spinning tops under the pillars. On the stone steps that lead up to the hall a young mother sits nursing her infant; she is waiting to 'swear' the child. In the room itself several gipsy-looking men and women lounge in a corner. At one end is a broad table and some comfortable chairs behind it. In front of each chair, on the table, two sheets of clean foolscap have been placed on a sheet of blotting-paper. These and a variety of printed forms were taken from the clumsy box that is now open.

At last there is a slight stir as a group is seen to emerge from the inn, and the magistrates take their seats. An elderly man who sits by the chair cocks his felt hat on the back of his head: the clerical magistrate very tenderly places his beaver in safety on the broad mantelpiece, that no irreverent sleeve may ruffle its gloss: several others who rarely do more than nod assent range themselves on the flanks; one younger man who looks as if he understood horses pulls out his toothpick. The chairman, stout and gouty, seizes a quill and sternly looks over the list of cases.

Half a dozen summonses for non-payment of rates come first; then a dispute between a farmer and his man. After this the young mother 'swears' her child; and, indeed, there is some very hard swearing here on both sides. A wrangle between two women--neighbours--who accuse each other of assault, and scream and chatter their loudest, comes next. Before they decide it, the Bench retire, and are absent a long time.

By degrees a buzz arises, till the justice-room is as noisy as a market. Suddenly the door of the private room opens, and the Clerk comes out; instantly the buzz subsides, and in the silence those who are nearest catch something about the odds and the St. Leger, and an anything but magisterial roar of laughter. The chairman appears, rigidly compressing his features, and begins to deliver his sentence before he can sit down, but the solemn effect is much marred by the passing of a steam ploughing engine. The audience, too, tend away towards the windows to see whose engine it is.

'Silence!' cries the Clerk, who has himself been looking out of window; the shuffling of feet ceases, and it is found that after this long consultation the Bench have dismissed both charges. The next case on the list is poaching; and at the call of his name one of the gipsy-looking men advances, and is ordered to stand before that part of the table which by consent represents the bar.

'Oby Bottleton,' says the Clerk, half reading, half extemporizing, and shuffling his papers to conceal certain slips of technicality; 'you are charged with trespassing in pursuit of game at Essant Hill--that you did use a wire on the estate--on land in the occupation of Johnson.'--'It's a lie!' cries a good-looking, dark-complexioned woman, who has come up behind the defendant (the whilome navvy), and carries a child so wrapped in a shawl as to be invisible. 'Silence! or you'll have to go outside the court. Mr. Dalton Dessant will leave the Bench during the hearing of this case.' Mr. Dalton Dessant, one of the silent magistrates already alluded to, bows to the chairman, and wriggles his chair back about two feet from the table. There he gazes at the ceiling. He is one of the trustees of the Essant Hill property; and the Bench are very careful to consult public opinion in L---- borough.

The first witness is an assistant keeper: the head keeper stands behind him--a fine man, still upright and hearty-looking, but evidently at the beginning of the vale of years; he holds his hat in his hand; the sunlight falls through the casement on his worn velveteen jacket. The assistant, with the aid of a few questions from the Clerk, gives his evidence very clear and fairly. 'I saw the defendant's van go down the lane,' he says:

'It bean't my van,' interrupts the defendant; 'it's my brother's.'

'You'll have an opportunity of speaking presently,' says the Clerk. 'Go on' (to the witness).

'After the van went down the lane, it stopped by the highway-road, and the horse was taken out. The women left the van with baskets, and went towards the village.'

'Yes, yes; come to the point. Did you hide yourself by order of the head keeper?'

'I did--in the nutwood hedge by Three Corner Piece; after a bit I saw the defendant.'

'Had you any reason for watching there?'

'There was a wire and a rabbit in it.'

'Well, what happened?'

'I waited a long time, and presently the defendant got over the gate. He was very particular not to step on the soft mud by the gate--he kind of leaped over it, not to leave the mark of his boots. He had a lurcher with him, and I was afraid the dog would scent me in the hedge.'

'You rascal!' (from the defendant's wife).

'But he didn't, and, after looking carefully round, the defendant picked up the rabbit, and put it and the wire in his pocket.'

'What did you do then?'

'I got out of the hedge and came towards him. Directly he saw me he ran across the field; I whistled as loud as I could, and he' (jerking a thumb back towards the head keeper) 'came out of the firs into the lane and stopped him. We found the wire and the rabbit in his pocket, and two more wires. I produce the wires.'

This was the sum of the evidence; the head keeper simply confirmed the latter part of it. Oby replied that it was all false from beginning to end. He had not got corduroy trousers on that day, as stated. He was not there at all: he was in the village, and he could call witnesses to prove it. The Clerk reminded the audience that there was such a thing as imprisonment for perjury.

Then the defendant turned savagely on the first witness, and admitted the truth of his statement by asking what he said when collared in the lane. 'You said you had had a good lot lately, and didn't care if you was nailed this time.'

'Oh, what awful lies!' cried the wife. 'It's a wonder you don't fall dead!'

'You were not there,' the Clerk remarked quietly. 'Now, Oby, what is your defence? Have you got any witnesses?'

'No; I ain't got no witnesses. All as I did, I know I walked up the hedge to look for mushrooms. I saw one of them things'--meaning the wires on the table--'and I just stooped down to see what it was, 'cos I didn't know. I never seed one afore; and I was just going to pick it up and look at it' (the magistrates glance at each other, and cannot suppress a smile at this profound innocence), 'when this fellow jumped out and frightened me. I never seed no rabbit.'

'Why, you put the rabbit in your pocket,' interrupts the first witness.

'Never mind,' said the Clerk to the witness; 'let him go on.'

'That's all as I got to say,' continues the defendant. 'I never seed no such things afore; and if he hadn't come I should have put it down again.'

'But you were trespassing,' said the Clerk.

'I didn't know it. There wasn't no notice-board.'

'Now, Oby,' cried the head keeper, 'you know you've been along that lane this ten years.'

'That will do' (from the chairman); 'is there any more evidence?'

As none was forthcoming, the Bench turned a little aside and spoke in low tones. The defendant's wife immediately set up a sobbing, varied occasionally by a shriek; the infant woke up and cried, and two or three women of the same party behind began to talk in excited tones about 'Shame.' The sentence was 2_l_. and costs--an announcement that caused a perfect storm of howling and crying.

The defendant put his hands in his pockets with the complacent expression of a martyr. 'I must go to gaol a' spose; none of ourn ever went thur afore: a' spose _I must go.' 'Come,' said the Clerk, 'why, you or your brother bought a piece of land and a cottage not long ago,'--then to the Bench, 'They're not real gipsies: he is a grandson of old Bottleton who had the tollgate; you recollect, Sir.'

But the defendant declares he has no money; his friends shake their heads gloomily; and amid the shrieking of his wife and the crying of the child he is removed in the custody of two constables, to be presently conveyed to gaol. With ferocious glances at the Bench, as if they would like to tear the chairman's eyes out, the women leave the court.

'Next case,' calls the Clerk. The court sits about two hours longer, having taken some five hours to get through six cases. Just as the chairman rises the poacher's wife returns to the table, without her child, angrily pulls out a dirty canvas bag, and throws down three or four sovereigns before the seedy Clerk's clerk. The canvas bag is evidently half-full of money--the gleam of silver and gold is visible within it. The Bench stay to note this proceeding with an amused expression on their features. The woman looks at them as bold as brass, and stalks off with her man.

Half an hour afterwards, two of the magistrates riding away from the town pass a small tavern on the outskirts. A travelling van is outside, and from the chimney on its roof thin smoke arises. There is a little group at the doorway, and among them stands the late prisoner. Oby holds a foaming tankard in one hand, and touches his battered hat, as the magistrates go by, with a gesture of sly humility.

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