WHAT do you say, boys? Shall we drop this and have a day's outdoor practice? To tell the truth, I don't think much of book-learning, especially if the book is written by myself; but I do believe in practice. Come along! It is the middle of October—just the nicest time of the year and the very best for ratting, for the vermin are yet out in the hedges, fine and strong from feeding in the corn, and with few young ones about. Come, Jack, we'll get the ferrets first; and off I go with the boy to the hutch, while the dogs in the kennel, having heard our steps and perfectly understanding what is up, bark and yap at the door, jump over each other, tumble and topple about like mad fiends. Before I get to the box I hear the ferrets jumping up at the sides, and when I open the lid half a dozen are out in a moment, and these I bag as a reward for their activity. I throw the others a rat to console them for being left at home, and, giving the ferrets to Jack, I strap on a big game bag, take up my spade, return and let the dogs out, and off we start.
Step out quick, Jack; there are three miles to go before we get to work, and it is 8 a.m. and I expect a big day. Yes, Chance, old lady, a fine day—a perfect day—a day to make both the feet and the heart light and every human sense rejoice. There has been just a little frost in the night: you can see that by the way the elms have spread a golden carpet under their branches in the lane and by their leaves that yet keep falling slowly one by one in the fresh, but dead still, air, and by the smell of the turnips, the fresh stubble and the newly turned earth behind yonder plough. The sun shines, cobwebs are floating through the air and get twisted round one's head, and far and near sounds such as a cart on the high road, a sheep dog barking, a boy singing, birds chirping, insects humming, the patter of our own feet, and the whispering of the brook under the bridge, all form part of a chorus heaven-sent to gladden the heart of man. I have heard tell, Chance, or I have seen it in a book, or I have felt it myself, I don't quite know which, that those who in youth have had such a walk as this, and have heard the music, smelt the perfumes and seen the sights (that is if they were blessed with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to take in), have never forgotten it. The memory appears for a time to pass away amidst the struggles of life, but it is never dead; to the soldier in battle, to the statesman in council, or the priest in prayers, to those in sorrow or in joy or in sickness, there may come, no one knows from where, no one knows why, a golden memory of such days, of such a walk. Perhaps it is only a gleam resting but a second upon the mind, and perhaps leaving it saddened with a longing for days that are past, but yet I think making one feel a better man, giving one courage and hope, reminding one that, hard as the battle of life may be to fight, dark and gloomy as the days may be just now, another morning may arise for us, far, far more bright and glorious and joyful, one that will not be shadowed over by a returning night; but then that is only for the brave, the honest, the truthful—for those who are up early and strive late, never beaten, never doubting, always pressing forward.
But, come out of that, Wasp! Don't you know that cows kick if you sniff at their heels? Tinker, old man, keep your spirits up; Pepper, come back from that wood, for it is preserved. Yes, Jack, I think I'll fill my pipe again. Baccy does taste good on a day like this; but what doesn't? I feel like a ten-year-old and as fit as a fiddler. Grindum, give over blinking and don't look so benevolent. No, Chance, no, old lady, I can't pull your tail, for you haven't got one. What, Jack, you say I haven't spoken for the past mile? Well, I suppose I have been thinking, and my thoughts have not been wholly sad ones. Open the gate; here we are; and you get over on the other side of the hedge and don't talk or make a noise, for I can see by the work the rats s-w-a-r-m. Steady, dogs, steady! And so we start.
The hedge is just what it should be, and if it had been made for ratting it could not be better. A round bank of soft earth, a shallow ditch with grass, little bush or bramble, and a gap every few yards. There is a gateway in the middle, which will make a hot corner later on when Grindum has taken his stand there; and there is a pipe under the gateway, the far end of which I shall close. The rats have never been disturbed, for the runs are as fresh as Oxford Street, and I have already seen one or two rats run into the hedge lower down from out the wheat stubble, and, there! that whistle has sent a lot more in. Steady, Wasp! Well done, Chance; you have marked one in that hole near you, or more than one, is there? Well, the more the merrier! Stand, dogs, stand! Are you ready, Jack? And in goes a ferret as lively as quicksilver and as fierce as a tiger.
For a minute all is quiet; then a slight stir on the other side and two snaps of Tinker's lantern-jaws, and two rats dead; three others out of a side hole are killed by Wasp, and three others accounted for by Grindum, and that fool Pepper is racing and jumping down the hedge a mile off. Whistle! whistle! and back he comes, and at that moment Jack picks up a ferret on the other side, it having gone through the hole. Chance sniffs at it and says it is swept clear, and I block it up with my heel, and Jack does the same to the bolt-hole, so that if a rat does come back later on the dogs will have a chance; and then on we go a few yards to the next hole which Chance marks. This time the ferret went in like a lion and came out like a lamb, with the blood running out of the side of its face; and whilst I am examining the bite, a real patriarch rat bolted at a side hole near Pepper, who strikes at it, misses taking a proper hold and gets it too far back, and the next moment the blood is pouring from a bite above his eye; but the rat is dead, and Pepper but little the worse.
I thought it was too late in the year for young ones, but it was not, for at the next hole we came to the ferret got into a nest, killed a lot of young ones and "laid up," and, as I had not a box-trap with me, I had to dig it out. This took some time, as I lost the hole, and Jack, whilst down grubbing with his hands, broke into a wrong one in which the old rat was ready for him, and at once bit him through the end of his finger. Jack sucked it well and did not mind, but I did not much like the appearance of things, for in half-an-hour I had had a ferret laid up, and a dog and a boy bitten badly by rats, and these bites are often very poisonous. Fortunately this time Jack took no harm and was soon well. As soon as Jack pulled his hand out of the rat's hole, Pincher put his long nose in, and all was over in a minute. Soon after I came on the ferret curled up in a nest of young rats, all minus their heads; and so that ferret, from being gorged with food, was no more good for work, and had to be put away with the bitten one.
After this we got on much faster; the holes were close together, and even with the greatest care lots of rats bolted and went forward, but I would not allow the dogs to disturb fresh ground by following them. Some went back, and Pepper and Wasp had a good time, for I let them follow and work them alone, having stopped all back holes after ferreting them. Now and then, Jack and I had to go back, as there was an old pollard tree covered with ivy, and many of the rats got up that, and Pincher had to be lifted up into the crown to displace them, and then when they jumped down, three or four at a time, there was a grand scrimmage.
When we had got twenty yards or so from the gateway, Grindum went forward and stood there and killed a dozen rats that tried to pass, and a lot more went into the pipe under the roadway. These we left alone, only after we had passed we stopped up the open end and opened the shut one, so that in future rats going back might wait quietly in the arch till we were ready for them. By the time we had got as far as the gate it was just noon, so we called the dogs back to a tree we had passed, and then Jack and I sat down and paid attention to the game bag, which was well provided with cold meat and bread and cheese and a bottle of beer.
I am not a good hand at picnics and never was. I mean those big gatherings with ladies, lobster salad, hot dishes, plates, knives, spoons, champagne, etc. I find the round world was created a little too low down to sit upon with comfort; my knees don't make a good table; flies get into my beer and hopping things into my plate. I have to get up and hand eatables about; things bite me, and more creep about me, and it does not look well to scratch. The hostess looks anxious about her glass and plate; someone has forgotten the salt, and someone else the corkscrew. The host, be he ever so sad, makes fun, and made fun is magnified misery to me. No, I don't like picnics; I would rather be at home and feed upon a table; and yet a snack at noon-day, after hard work, sitting under a tree, with your hands as plates, with a good "shut-knife," a silent companion and the dogs all round you, is pleasant. Double Gloucester then equals Stilton, and bottled beer nectar; and then the pipe in quiet, while Jack takes the dogs, after they have finished the scraps, to the pond to drink. Talk of Havanas! Well, talk of them, but give me that pipe as I loll, half asleep, resting against the tree, my legs spread out, and my hat tipped over my nose. I half close my eyes and go nearly to sleep, but keep pulling at the pipe, and half unconsciously hear the leaves whispering above, the insects humming, the stubble rustling, the trembling of a thrashing machine, and the rush of a train in the far distance. Jack returns from the pond, throws himself on the ground on his face, kicks his legs in the air and whistles softly, with the gentle Grindum blinking beside him. Chance and Tinker lie out full length on their sides and go to sleep. Wasp stretches on the ground, with her legs out behind her, and drags herself about with her front feet. Pepper sits down, scratches his ear, and then dashes at a passing bumble bee, and all becomes a pleasant jumble of sights and sounds; but, with a start, I recover myself, drop my pipe, topple my hat off and lose my temper, for that everlastingly restless, volatile, good-for-nothing, ramshackly beast, Pepper, has been and licked me all up the side of the face! The dream, the quiet, the rest is all broken, so, jumping up, I tip my pipe out on the heel of my boot, give a stretch, grasp the spade, and off we go to finish our job.
For three hours we work our way on, and a line of dead rats on the headland marks our progress, till at last we reach the bottom of the field and our bank is done. Pepper has got three more bites, another ferret is done for by a nip on the nose, and Jack has torn his trousers and is very dirty; but there is yet the drain pipe under the gate to attend to, and it is getting on in the day. I cut three or four long sticks and tie them tightly together, and then to the end of this fasten a good hard bunch of grass, and back we go to the drain. I go to one end with Grindum and Pincher, whilst Jack takes the sticks, Pepper and Wasp to the other end, and gently and slowly shoves the sticks through. Two venturesome rats bolt at my end and are killed. When the sticks appear I grasp them and gradually draw the wisp of grass into the drain. It fits tight and takes some pulling, but it comes steadily along, wiping all before it. Faster and faster the rats bolt and are killed, and even old Chance, who began by watching us, gets excited and joins the sport. Pepper and Wasp dash in for a last worry, which is over in a few minutes, when twenty-four rats are cast by Jack up on to the bank. Well done, dogs! well done, good dogs! Woo-hoop, woo-hoop! Good dogs! That's the way, my boys! Woo-hoop! woo-hoop! And the dogs roll on the ground, stretch, wipe the dirt out of their eyes with their paws, and rub their faces in the grass.
Jack goes backwards and forwards and collects the spoil, and we count up seventy-three real beauties, a few of which I really think should be fourpenny beasts, they are so big. Never mind, seventy-three rats at twopence each comes to twelve and twopence—not such a bad day's work; and, Jack, you shall have a hot supper to-night; and oh, you dogs, you dogs, think of the supper I will give you! Bones with lots of meat on, oatmeal and such soup! Think of it, dogs! think of it! And so the work ends, and all are happy and contented.
Three miles down turning twisting lanes to reach home, Grindum and I first, then Jack, and the rear brought up by the long and now a little drooping tail of Tinker. All have had enough; even the volatile young Pepper trots slowly, and therefore looks ever so much more business-like.
Before we start the shades are falling, and as we trudge along nature's evening vespers speak of the closing day. Workmen sitting sideways on quiet harnessed cart-horses stump past with a friendly "Good night, neighbour, good night!" Women with children in "go-carts" bustle past in a hurry to get home and fetch up the supper. Farm horses are drinking in the pond or browsing on the rank grass at the side; sparrows are chattering in the old alder bush before going to bed in the ivy on the church; pigs in the homestead are calling for their supper; the cows pass us coming home to be milked; rooks fly steadily to the old elm trees near the Manor; and a robin pipes clear and shrill on the roof of the shed in the cottage garden. There are partridges calling out "cheap wheat" in the stubble, and peewits crying on the meadows. Cock pheasants noisily flutter up to roost in the firs, and the old doctor standing at his door makes soft music with his violin.
The parson joins us and has a cheery word for all, especially the dogs, who are all his personal friends; and so we jog on and reach the village, where the wood smoke rises straight in a blue cloud from the cottage chimneys, and the fire-light sends a ruddy gleam across the roads. Groups of men and boys stand about resting, little children race and play, and oh, such a delicious whiff of something stewing, with a little bit of onion in it, comes from the open door of the village ale-house! And this reminds us all that our suppers are near, and we finish the evening's walk quite briskly.
No need to say, "Kennel, dogs, kennel!" All go in of their own accord, and in five minutes are busy at their savoury-smelling hot supper. The ferrets are fed and locked up, and then, unlacing our boots at the back door and kicking them off, the day is done. Supper, rest and quiet, a pipe, a book, bed and happy dreams are all before us.
"Now, Croker, minor, you will go to the Doctor's study before school to-morrow. You have been most inattentive, and it is not the first time I have had occasion to speak to you. You can go now, but don't forget that this is tub night, as you all have done on the last four occasions. If I have further complaints on this head from the matron, I shall take you all out for a long day's rat-catching, so I advise you all to be very careful." Five minutes later this master is smoking in his room and says to another master who is doing the same, "I say, Potts, do you knew I think these new lessons on rat-catching are all very well; but I think they are beyond the capacity of schoolboys. Why, they strain my mind, and I think they should only be taken up at the universities and during the last term; and then the boys do so hate them," etc.