FORTUNATELY I don't live by the sea. I say fortunately, because I look upon the sea as a swindler, for it robs one of just half one's little world and upsets all calculations by forcing one to live in a mean semicircle. I actually know a rat-catcher who is stupid enough to live in a village on the east coast, and half his time he and his dogs are at home in idleness and are half starved, because the ever-restless tiresome sea rolls about and disports itself over all that is east of the village, so the poor man can only go rat-catching in one direction. Now and then I go to the sea-side, but when I go there it is on business—not in my Sunday clothes and with a "tripper's" return ticket, but with my dogs, ferrets, nets (the long ones) and the boy Jack; he and I dressed in our well-worn corduroys, gaiters, and navvy boots; and instead of choosing a town to visit with Marine Parade, Esplanades, Lodgings to let, Brass Bands, Nigger Minstrels and spouting M.P.'s, we go to a little village unknown to "trippers," and put up at a small inn for a week or ten days. We sleep in a room not unlike a hay-loft, and take our meals and rest in the common kitchen, with its rattling latticed windows and sanded floor.
We go there twice each winter to kill rabbits on what are called the "Denes," which are great, wide, down-like lands on the top of the steep earth cliff, partially covered with the ever-flowering gorse, a cover dear to rabbits and all sorts of game. We reach the inn in time for an early dinner; and after we have housed the ferrets in a big tub and the dogs in a warm dry shed with heaps of straw to sleep on, Jack and I despatch our food and then start off to inspect the field of our future operations. We have not far to go. First down the street, past two or three dozen flint-pebble cottages; past the church, with its square tower so high that it makes the really big church look small in proportion; past the rectory; past the schools, where some forty or fifty future fishermen and sailors have just finished their tasks for the day and come rolling out, dressed all alike in dark, sea-stained, canvas trousers and thick sailor jerseys; past the low one-storied cottage where the old retired naval captain has lived for many years, and then up a sandy lane between high crumbling banks and out on to the open Denes. We take a path that runs close along on the top of the cliff, mounting a steep hill as we go till we reach a spot half a mile further on, where the sea cliff is four hundred feet high and nearly perpendicular; and here among the ruins of an old church, part of which has fallen with the slipping cliff into the sea many years ago, Jack and I halt and take a look round. We are on the highest spot within miles, and spread out in front of us, as we face inland, are, first, the down-like hills, dotted over with patches of gorse and with turf between as fine and soft as a Persian carpet; then cultivated fields intersected by thick hedges; and in the distance we could distinguish a clustering village here, a homestead there, an old manor-house in its well-kept garden and park-like grounds, and in all directions the square, solid, picturesque towers of village churches peeping from among the trees, that became thicker and thicker the further the eye travelled from the sea. Close to our left, just under the shoulder of a hill which protects it from the keen east wind off the sea, is a tiny village of some ten cottages, all different, all neat and snug-looking, each in its own garden. There is a stand of beehives in one, a honeysuckle-covered porch to another, and, though it is mid-winter, there is a warm home-like look about all. Then there is the one farm-house, well kept and well cared for, but old and belonging to other days, as its gables and low windows denote; and from our high hill we look over the house into a garden and orchard beyond, both enclosed by grey lichen-covered walls. On either side in front of the house are the farm buildings, all, from the big barn to the row of pigsties, thatched with long reeds, which give the whole a pleasant English home appearance.
There are big yards filled with red and white cattle up to their middle in straw, others full of horses or young calves; cocks and hens are everywhere, ducks and geese swim in the big pond by the side of the road, and turkeys, so big and plump they make one long for Christmas, mob together in the yard, and the turkey-cocks "gobble-gobble" at a boy who is infuriating them by whistling. A man crosses the yard with two pails on a yoke, evidently going a-milking; and another passes with a perfect hay-stack on his back, and a dozen great heavy horses come out of the stable in Indian file and stump off to the pond to drink. Beyond the farmstead, in a field on the right of the road, is a double row of heaped up mangels and swedes; and a little further on are a number of stacks, so neatly built and thatched that it seems quite a pity they should soon be pulled down and thrashed, but all showing signs of prosperity and plenty.
Beyond this stands a tiny church, with reed-thatch roof. It is all, church and tower, built of round flint stones as big as oranges, cleverly split in two and the flat side facing outwards; and from the dog-tooth Saxon arch over the door one knows it has seen many generations pass away and find rest from the buffets and storms of the world in the peaceful, carefully-tended "God's acre" that surrounds it. If one passed down the red gravel churchyard path, and on in front of the south door to the far corner, under the big cedar, a small door would be found, which would lead through a well-kept, old-fashioned garden to the Rectory: a good old Elizabethan house, covered with thick creepers up to the very eaves, the model of one of England's snug homes—homes that have turned out the very best men the dear old land has produced, to fight, struggle, conquer or die in all professions, in all parts of the world; men who in such shelters learned to be honest and true, brave and persevering, lions in courage, women in gentleness; who could face hardships and poverty without a moan, and prosperity and riches without swagger; and through all the difficulties of life thought of the old home, and when success arrived, be they ever so far away, packed up and came back to finish their days in just such another home and such surroundings.
Turn round now, Jack; turn round and take a look at the restless sea rolling its big waters on the smooth strip of sand there below on this side; and on the other, Jack, far, far away over there in the south, on the other side of the world, laving the roots of the palm and the mangrove, beneath the burning rays of tropical suns; and away round here, Jack, far in the north, dashing its storm-driven waves against the face of frost-bound rocks and treacherous icebergs. There on the dancing waters, with all sails set, chasing the lights and shadows as they flit before it, sails a boat bound south to sunny climes.
There on the horizon, against wind and wave, steams a collier, taking fuel to lands where the snow lies deep on the ground for four months in the year; and right and left, outward bound or coming home, are various white sails dotting the waters. But, Jack, how about supper? I ordered eggs and bacon for supper, and those chimney corners at the inn looked as if they might be snug and warm to smoke a pipe in afterwards before turning in. Step on, Jack, and have supper ready in half an hour, while I go round by the Rectory and see if the two young gentlemen are at home. They are the right sort, and as keen as Pepper after the rabbits, and they always have half a dozen good terriers as fond of the sport as they are.
At the Rectory I received a kindly welcome from Miss Madge Ashfield, the rector's only daughter and the sister of the two lads I came to enquire for; and I was told that they were not yet back from school, but were expected in three days, and that only that morning a letter came from them asking when I was likely to come and work the Denes. I comforted Miss Madge, who at first feared the pick of the sport might be over before her brothers arrived, by telling her that for the next four days Jack and I should be busy "doctoring" holes, and that during that time we could not "away with" boys or dogs, as both were too noisy for the work.
Miss Madge took me round to the kennels to see some rough wire-haired terriers, old friends; also three new ones, all supposed to be wonders; and she told me she would arrange for her brothers to bring one day five small beagles belonging to a friend.
Jack and I did our duty by the ham and eggs that night at the inn, and the pipe in the old-fashioned chimney corner was very sweet; and if the beds were a bit hard and knubbly, we did not keep awake to think of them, for we had both been up since daybreak. By eight o'clock the next morning we had finished breakfast, given the dogs a few minutes' run to stretch their legs, fed the ferrets that were not wanted, and were on our way to the Denes, each with two strong male ferrets, a spade, and game-bag with cold meat and bread in it. We were on our way to "doctor" the burrows, and this is done by running a muzzled ferret that has first been smeared with a little spirits of tar down every hole, with a line on it. It is necessary to keep very quiet, so as to get the rabbits to bolt. We don't want to kill a single rabbit, but only to disturb hole after hole, bolt what rabbits we can, and leave a nice sweet smell of tarred ferret behind us. No time is lost. Jack goes one way and I another, and every hole is visited till evening shades stop us; then back home to supper and bed, and at it again in the morning; but on the second day we begin by visiting each hole we ferreted the day before, stopping them tight down with sods, and sticking a piece of white paper on the top of such stopped holes. No fear of shutting in a rabbit, as the smell of the tarred ferret will keep them out for days; and no fear of their opening the stopping, as the paper will drive them away. For four days this work goes on, and we are ready to wager there is not a hole in the cliffs or Denes that is not doctored, and not a rabbit that is not above ground.
It was Wednesday night when we had finished, and that evening the two boys from the Rectory came down to the inn to see us and get instructions for the morrow; but I was glad they did not stay long, for we wanted to go to bed early, so as to get a good night and yet be up betimes. By eight o'clock next morning, Jack and I were already back from the Denes, after having run out one thousand yards of long nets. The nets are in lengths of about one hundred yards, and two feet six inches high, made of fine string, and each of the top and bottom meshes knotted on to a cord that runs the entire length. To set these nets, they are threaded on to a smooth stick, four feet long, and the stick with the nets on is thrown over a man's shoulder. The man walks off with the nets along the border of the piece of ground to be enclosed, while another, after fixing the end of the first net fast to a starting stick, follows behind. As the man with the net proceeds, he lets the net slip slowly off the stick on his shoulder, piece by piece; and, as it comes down, the man behind picks up the top line, gives the net a shake, and
CH. V1H.1 Running out Nets. 143
twists the line round the top of stakes previously placed in the ground about fifty yards apart, taking care as he goes that the bottom of the net lies for a few inches on the ground. In this way squares of gorse of about two hundred yards can be entirely enclosed, and every rabbit inside them surrounded like sheep inside a fold.
Our breakfast over, we were soon out again with all our dogs (except old Chance, who had been left at home on account of her age, and also on account of her trick of always liking to go up to the carrier's each night to sleep), and we had also two real good lurchers. At the foot of the Denes we met the boys from the Rectory, with a friend about their own age, and the curate of the next parish with a business-like ash stick under his arm; and among them they had mustered a pack of ten terriers, some of which wanted to begin work by a fight with my dogs; but it takes two to make a quarrel, and my dogs knew better than to waste their strength in fighting when there was a day's work in front of them.
In a few minutes we were at the first piece of netted gorse—a real tearer, close, compact and a mass of thorns; but what dogs or boys care for gorse thorns when rabbits are on foot? So it is, "Over you go, boys!" "Hie in, dogs! Roust them out there!" and the old dogs spring the nets and are at work in a minute, while the young ones blunder and struggle in the nets, and have to be lifted over. The curate, Jack and I, and the man who drove the cart with the nets, and who will carry off the dead rabbits, stand at the nets and take out and kill the rabbits that get caught; and for the first hour we have as much as we can do, and work our hardest. Many rabbits do get through the nets, and others go back, and these latter it is difficult to get into the nets a second time, and they are killed by the dogs in the thick gorse. Yap! yap! yap! "Hie in, good dogs! hie in, young ones! Ah! back there! back! no going over the nets! Would you? Look here! hie there! in you go!" Yap! yap! yap! all scurry, rush and bustle; and the Rectory boys and their friend are all over the square at once, and in ten minutes so tingle from innumerable pricks from the gorse that they are benumbed and feel them no more. "Go, Fly, go!" and a big hare dashes out, with Fly after it, and both jump the net and make for another clump of gorse; but Fly has never been beaten since she was a puppy, and soon returns with the hare in her mouth. "Hie in, dogs! hie in!" There are more yet, and we are bound to make a clean sweep; and so the work goes on.
First one patch, and then another, till lunch-time, which said lunch, according to a long-standing custom, comes up in a cart from the Rectory; but after snatching a hurried bit, the man and I have to bustle away to shift the nets, a work that keeps us hard at it for an hour and more; but long before we have done, the boys, parson and dogs are at it again in one of the first patches we have surrounded, and it is night and the moon is up before we have finished and picked up the nets. We find on counting the bag that we have two hundred and seventy rabbits, and feel content with our day's work. On Friday and Saturday the same work, and when we turned homewards on this last night, it was as much as man, boys or dogs could do to drag themselves along; but we had killed six hundred and fifty rabbits in the three days and were well content.