rats - CHAPTER VI.


A November Day—A Laid-up Ferret—A Tramp Home in the Wet—A Snug Evening—Things Students should Know—Muzzling Ferrets—Sucking Blood—A Strange Use for a Dog's Tail.

            I TRUST that, in the five chapters I have written, I have said enough to give some of my scholars a slight taste and liking for the profession I am advocating, and in some small degree have weaned their young affections from such pernicious pastimes as studying classical authors, doing sums, and cutting their names on their desks. If I have not done this I have written to little purpose, and I fear the next chapter will damp off a few who have only followed me and my dogs on fine days in pleasant paths; but I may as well tell you at once that life is no more all beer and skittles in rat-catching than it is in such minor professions as the Army, the Church, the Bar, school-keeping, etc.; and just to see if you are "real grit," boys, I will show you another picture.

            Jack, get the ferrets while I let the dogs out. We must go and see if we can find a few rats, for it is a week since the ferrets had flesh, and we shall have them getting ill; and, Jack, bring four in the little bag, and put that inside your game-bag, for it looks like rain, and I don't like to see them half-drowned. Yes, it does look like rain, though as yet it is only a dull, misty, chilly day in mid-November down here in the country, but in London it is a thick black fog, and all work is being done by gaslight. It is bad and depressing here, but ever so much worse there; so cheer up, dogs, and step out, Jack. We will go down by the beck and home by the clay-pits, for I know of no other place near where we are so likely to find a few rats, and I don't want to make a long day of it.

            Go over the bridge, Jack. You take that side with Chance and a young one, and I will do this side with the other dogs. Hie in, dogs! Search him out, lads! And on we go, but in two miles we only kill a water-hen that Pepper catches as it rises out of some sedges, and which goes into my bag to replenish the ferrets' larder. The mist hangs low, the bushes are wet, the ground soft, and there is a dreary sigh in the wind. The cattle are eating fast, as they always do before rain; and the sheep, startled by the sight of the dogs, caper and jump as they gallop all down the meadow; and again their playfulness warns me of a wet tramp home. Some young colts stand at the door of an open shed, dull and depressed looking, and the horses ploughing on the sides of the hill send up a thick steam. No birds twitter or sing, no insects hum, distant sounds are muffled and indistinct. The teams in the waggons on the road hard by creep along and take little notice beyond a toss of the head at the carter's whip as he walks beside them with a heavy step cracking it. The only brisk thing to be seen is the doctor's gig as it whisks past.

            "Hie up, dogs! shake yourselves and don't go to sleep! Come over, Jack; I have had enough of this brook; and if we don't find at the clay-pits, home we go." And we trudge off to some ponds half a mile further away. They are well-known to both men and dogs, and the latter bolt on ahead and arrive first; and when we come up we find them all clustered round a hole in a high bank 'midst thick dripping bushes. In goes a ferret, but not in the way I like to see. There is no hurry, no ecstatic wriggle of the tail as it slowly draws itself into the hole. Then all stand round expecting to see a rat take a header into the pond; but no, five minutes pass, and Pepper begins to move, and is told "stand." Ten minutes pass, and Jack gets restless. Fifteen minutes, and I begin to shift my feet, which are planted deep in sticky mud by the side of the pond, and just then the first drops of rain appear. Ah, there is the ferret! Jump up and get it, Jack. But before he can do so, it has drawn itself into the hole backwards, which means that it has killed a rat inside and that it only came out to tell us so, and that it was going back to have a good long sound sleep curled up by the rat's warm body. There is nothing for it but to dig it out; and oh, what a dig, all among roots and thorns on the sloping sides of the pond, in thick sticky clay, with the rain coming down in a steady pour! Jack hunches his back and leans against a tree, Pepper and Wasp wander away down a ditch and scratch for an hour at a drain that has a rabbit in it, and the old dogs sit and watch me and drip and shiver. I dig here, I dig there; I slip and fall on the bank; the water mixed with yellow clay runs up my arm from the spade, and yet that beastly ferret sleeps peacefully in its warm bed. I lose the hole, come down on roots as thick as my leg and stones that strike fire as the spade strikes them; and so two hours of discomfort to all drift by, and I am just feeling about for the last time with the spike end of the spade, when I again hit off the hole and, opening it out, come upon a nice warm rat's nest made of leaves, with the ferret curled up snugly with a dead rat.

            "Home, dogs, home! Cheer up, Jack! Cold are you, and wet? Well, never mind; only two miles, and we will walk fast. Pepper, Pepper, Wasp, Wasp, where on earth have you got to? Ah, there you are, and a nice mess you have made of yourselves trying to scratch out a hole five hundred yards long. Come along all! "And off we tramp, Jack and I in the middle of the road, splish splash at every step, the water squirting high up our gaitered legs, and the dogs, with drooping tails, dripping coats and woe-begone looks, coming along behind us in Indian file close under the shelter, such as it is, of the hedge.

            We pass the postman, who only nods, and meet a flock of sheep all draggled and dirty. An empty cart with a sack over the seat stands at the pot-house, and pigs wander listlessly about the yard with their backs arched up. Under the waggon-shed some cocks and hens stand each on one leg, with their tails drooping, apparently too disgusted to prune their feathers and fly up to roost in the rafters. The smoke beats down from the chimneys and gets lost in the wind and rain which buffets and pelts at our back. Cold spots begin to be felt at the bend of our arms and knees; then a shiver runs down the back, which develops into a trickle of water that at last gets into our boots and goes squish, squish, at every step, and at last oozes over the tops; and our teeth chatter with cold, for now here and there among the rain-drops appear a few flakes of snow, which rest on the mud of the road for a second, and then melting, add to the deep slush that trickles down the hill by our side. At every open shed the dogs shelter a minute, shake themselves like dripping mops, and with arched backs stand on three legs and shiver; but we whistle them on and at last reach home. After throwing a good bundle of dry straw on the kennel benches and feeding dogs and ferrets, Jack and I get under shelter and soon find ourselves in dry clothes before a good fire, feeling a little swollen and stiff about our faces and hands, and much inclined for forty winks.

            The wind howls in the chimney, lashes the bare branches of the trees, rattles the window frames, and appears angry that it cannot get at us, and the rain drives in fitful gusts against the windows, and hisses in the big wood fire on the hearth; and as I sit in my snug arm-chair, I dimly feel that the external storm adds greatly to the internal comfort, and then I fancy I nod off to sleep, for I think no more till supper is announced, and hunger and my wife stir me up to consciousness again.

            Having finished a good supper and got my pipe drawing beautifully, I remember one or two things that I think the student should be told. The first is, never put a line on a ferret when ratting. It hampers a ferret in a narrow, twisting, turning rat's hole, and cutting into the soft earth at the turns soon brings the ferret to a dead stop. Then rats' holes are chiefly in hedge-banks, which are full of roots, and the line is pretty sure to get twisted round some of these, and then it will be a long dig to free it. Remember, too, a ferret has to go down the hole and face a beast nearly as big as itself, with teeth like lancets and with courage to use them, and so should be as free as possible; and lining a ferret is about equal to setting a student with the gloves on to fight against another without them. Then some way back I mentioned ferrets' bells. They are little hollow brass balls with an iron shot in them that make a pretty tinkling sound, and are supposed to be tied round the ferret's neck. In my opinion, if you put a bell on it, you may as well put the ferret in the bag and keep it there. The theory about bells is, that a ferret running down a hole jingling its bell will fill a rat with fear and make it bolt, but this is all nonsense; rats are not so easily frightened. Again, it is said that if a ferret comes out of a hole in a thick hedge unseen, the bell will let you know where it is; but I must say I never lost a ferret in a hedge or felt the want of a belled one. I consider a bell a useless dead weight on a ferret, and the cord that goes round its neck to fasten it is apt to get hitched on to a root and hold the ferret a prisoner. A bell is only good for a sharp shopman to sell to a flat.

            I need hardly say, never muzzle a ferret when rat-catching. It would be brutal not to let the ferret have the use of its teeth to protect itself with. Muzzling ferrets appertains solely to rabbiting, but it is useful to know how to do it. Take a piece of twine a foot long, double it, and tie a loop at the double. Tie the string round the ferret's neck, with the loop on the top; bring the two ends down under the chin and tie them together there; pass them over the nose and tie them there, shutting the mouth tight; pass one string along the nose, between the eyes, through the loop on the top of the neck, and bending it back, tie it to the other loose string from the knot on the top of the nose. Cut the ends off, and, provided you have not made a lot of "granny" knots, your muzzle will keep on all day. There are other ways of doing the trick, such as passing the string behind the ferret's dog-teeth, bring it under the jaw, then over the nose, on the top of the neck; tie it there and again under the neck. I hate this plan, and have seen a ferret's mouth badly cut by the string. I have heard of another plan which is too brutal to mention. Cut the muzzle off directly you have done with it, for I don't suppose a ferret likes having its mouth tied up any more than you or I should.

            Never wantonly hurt any animal, especially those that work for you and suffer in your service. Just think of the amount of pluck a ferret shows each time you put it into a rat's hole. Fancy yourself in its place, going down a lot of dark crooked passages that you don't know, only just wide enough to allow you to pass, and have to face a beast somewhat like yourself and as big, that you know will attack you. Why, if ferrets got V.C.'s, they would, on high days and holidays when they wished to display them all, have to employ a string of sandwich-men walking behind them with the boards covered with V.C. Three or four times in my life I have had ferrets die of the wounds they have received from rats. I have had them in hospital for weeks, and I have had them blinded. Speaking of blind ferrets, I am not much of an oculist, but I don't believe a ferret can see in the dark. I never could find any difference between the way my blind ferret worked in a hole and that of one with good eyes; in fact, my blind ferret was as good a little beast as ever killed a rat, and she did kill many a score after she lost both eyes. I believe a ferret when in a hole uses a sense we don't possess—I mean the sense of touch with the long nose whiskers.

            Some years ago the Field opened its pages to a long discussion on the subject of ferrets sucking the blood of their victims after they have killed them. Writers pretending to know all about it said they did do so. These men are to be pitied, not laughed at, for you see in the days of their youth "Rat-catching for the Use of Schools" was not written, and therefore they had not learnt better. A ferret no more sucks the blood of the things it kills than a dog does. If you doubt this, give a fresh-killed rat to a ferret, let it fasten on it, and then peep at the corners of its mouth, and you will find an opening there into the mouth, out of which blood would flow if the ferret had it in its mouth; and look down its throat, you will not find blood in it, nor will there be blood on the portion of the rat that has been held in its mouth. No, people are misled by a ferret sending its teeth deep home in the flesh and making a sucking sound as it with difficulty breathes through its nose and the corners of its mouth. If you watch a ferret after it has killed a rat, it will, as soon as it is sure the rat is dead, begin chewing at the skin of the head or throat till it has made an entrance, and will then eat the flesh.

            To finish this chapter, I will tell you a story which you are never to put into practice. Some long time ago I found myself far from home in a country village, and having nothing to do, I went for a walk, and soon came upon a brother professional rat-catcher; and thinking I might learn a wrinkle from him that would come in useful, I joined him and carefully watched him and his dogs.

            I saw at once that three of the latter were very good and up to their work; but there was a fourth, a nondescript sort of beast with a long tail, that appeared quite useless; and I observed with amusement that directly the man put a ferret into a hole, the dog tucked its tail tight between its legs and went and stood well out in the field. I asked the man why he kept such a useless beast, and with a chuckle he answered, "Well, mate, I'll own up he ain't much to boast on for rat-killing, nor yet for looks, but he has his use like some other of we h-ugly ones. You see, sir, I've got one or two ferrets as won't come out of a 'ole, but stand a peeping at the h-entrance and waste a lot of time. Then that 'ere dawg comes in useful. I catches him, lifts him up, and sticks his bushy tail down to the ferret, who catches tight hold, and I draws it out. Nothing ain't made for nothing, and I expect that dawg was made for drawing ferrets." The man may have been right, but I was quite sure the unfortunate dog did not take an active pleasure in his vocation.

            There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again; but before leaving, let me point out to you, Croker, minor, that if that caricature I have observed you drawing behind your book is meant for me, it is, like most things you do, incorrect; my nose is not so long, and I part my hair on the left side, not the right.

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