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Title:      Nature in Downland
Author:     W. H. Hudson [1841-1922]
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A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Title:      Nature in Downland
Author:     W. H. Hudson [1841-1922]




WITH A NOTE BY EDWARD GARNETT [1868-1937]

1900
Reprinted
>From the edition of 1923, London
J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd.




A NOTE ON HUDSON'S LITERARY ART

I

In a letter to me, of December 10, 1916, Hudson, speaking of the
appreciative reviews of the American edition of Green Mansions, adds,
"Not a gleam of the critical faculty in anything!" And, on turning
over the few critical obituary notices that appeared after Hudson's
death, one felt a certain disappointment. Excluding the papers written
by Mr. H. J.  Massingham [Footnote: _The Nation_, August 26, 1922.]
and Mr. John Galsworthy [Footnote: _The Evening Post_, New York,
September 16, 1922.] there was nothing said in point of insight that
approached the sharp felicity of Mr. Conrad's tribute: "You can't tell
how this fellow gets his effects. He writes as the grass grows." Our
professional literary guides spoke in terms eulogistically vague or
magisterial.  Mr. J. C. Squire's estimate of Hudson's creative
achievement [Footnote: _The Observer_, August 20, 1922.] certainly had
a judicial ring. But, without the taste for Hudson's quality, a
critical appraisement suggests a game of blind man's buff. Let me
quote a passage:

For Mr. Hudson's English very seldom failed. The style being the man,
the style had limitations. The man's love for nature burned with a
steady and equable radiance; he drank, if you like, perpetually from
that fountain, but never to intoxication. He seldom felt like
rhapsodising: he never came near swooning with sesthetic delight nor
was taken up in religious exaltation. Spirit and sense were always
awake in him, but temperate in their enjoyments. Add his general lack
of humour and his proclivity towards retrospection and regret, and you
get naturally something like a dead-level of writing. For a man who
wrote so much and so well he produced very few "memorable pages." The
anthologists who hunt for purple passages of prose will find that he
constantly baffles them; one page is so like another, and when they
like two sentences they will not want the third, which will very
likely change the subject. He had the defects of his qualities and the
qualities of his defects. He wrote carefully; his constructions are
clear and his epithets accurate. Beyond that the deliberate artificer
did not often go. He was preoccupied with his matter; he wrote about
certain things in a certain mood, and took no pains to play upon the
eyes and ears of his readers. One looks through his style as through
glass--slightly-tinted glass--at the objects behind it; and his
loveliest passages as a rule are simply those in which the loveliest
objects are mentioned.


The tone here is of magisterial finality, but these restricted
encomiums do not seem to have got the range either of Hudson's spirit,
or of his masterpieces, or of his literary art. They cannot be
stretched to apply, on the one hand, to _Idle Days in Patagonia,
Nature in Downland, Hampshire Days, A Shepherd's

Life_, or, on the other, to _The Purple Land, El Ombu, Green
Mansions_. Mr. A. Glutton Brock, in his moving tribute to Hudson,
[Footnote: _Times Literary Supplement_, August 24, 1922.] comprehends,
indeed, what Mr. Squire failed to grasp, the passionate depth of
Hudson's nature, the breadth of his outlook and its spiritual beauty,
as when he writes: "He seemed to be of no particular age and of no
sex, but rather a wonderful experiencing spirit, at once impartial and
passionate, giving out beauty like the sea under a sunset and
heightening it by deep and calm reflection." But when he discusses
Hudson's style Mr. Brock has nothing to say but the following:


He practised no vulgar arts, and, at the same time, there was nothing
in his style to tickle those absurd people who read books for their
style.  You can read Mr. Conrad and feel that you are doing something
remarkable, that you are enjoying what the mob would not understand;
but anyone can understand Hudson. There is nothing strange in his
choice of words or in the turn of his sentences. Many of them, taken
by themselves, have no character; they might even seem loose and vague
and commonplace. He had no literary sense of the associations of
words, and could say that his forest heroine in Green Mansions had a
piquant expression. Perhaps because of a youth spent in South America
and without literary intercourse, he wrote always like a provincial
without regard for the fashions of his own time. You might think,
indeed, from his style, though not from his matter, that he was one of
these Victorians who had the power of writing badly so well.  Like
them, he had no professional arts, and never tried to make a sharp
distinction between the written and the spoken word. He was as
incapable of writing as of talking for effect; and quick popularity
comes to those who, whether vulgarly or preciously, do write for
effect.


In these remarks the critic has thrown a wide net round the
"naturalness" of Hudson's style, and has landed a draught of
half-truths. He has noted, justly, that Hudson's style is unequal, at
times loose, and that occasionally it lapses by infelicities of
phrasing.  [Footnote:In saying that Hudson wrote in _Green Mansions_
that the heroine had "a piquant expression," Mr. Brock's memory seems
to have misled him. What Hudson wrote was "a bright, piquant face," p.
83.] But as to the high felicity of Hudson's style and art in his
masterpieces, Mr. Brock is silent; and what can we make of his strange
assertion that "Hudson had no literary sense of the association of
words"? One thinks of the literary magic, of the haunting rhythms of
_El Ombu_, where each word is inevitable. One thinks--but to say more
is superfluous: let the reader examine for himself any score of pages
in _Nature in Downland_.

It is interesting to turn from the professional critics to one of
Hudson's fellow-craftsmen, Mr. Galsworthy, and mark his verdict: "As
simple narrator Hudson is well-nigh unsurpassed; as a stylist he has
few if any literary rivals.... The very simplicity and intimacy of his
prose, this singular faculty of giving to his readers thought and
feeling free from the barriers of style, hides from the reader, as it
were, the greatness of that achievement." The apparent contradiction
here, " a stylist... who communicates thought and feeling free from
the barriers of style," is, in fact, a final tribute to Hudson's
quality.




II


Let us come to particulars. We must remember that Hudson wrote more
than twenty volumes, and that his nature books, no less than his
romances, have, each, their own character. His style is not of one
kind but of great variety.  Further, the quality of Hudson's style
varies in degree as his object is (a) to record and comment on the
facts he has observed, and (b) to infect us with his own emotions and
his aesthetic delight in the spectacle of nature's life. In a book, a
chapter or a page he may rise from the comparatively low level of
imparting knowledge to the high altitude of poetry sublimated in
exquisite prose. Thus in _The Naturalist in La Plata_ (1892), which is
addressed primarily to natural history students, he appeals largely to
intellectual interest and little to our aesthetic sense. His style
here is plain, direct and a little bald, but quite sufficing for his
purpose. But in the nature book that followed, _Idle Days in
Patagonia_ (1893), one of Hudson's objects was to mirror the strange,
brooding solitariness of primitive Patagonia and its atavistic effect
on the mind and senses. His prose has a masculine directness and
force, a distinctive clarity and gravity, which, in certain chapters,
as in that entitled "The War with Nature," rises to high eloquence.
One feels often in its resonance traces of a Spanish strain. If "the
anthologists who hunt for purple passages of prose" find only "a dead
level of writing" therein, or in such descriptions as that of the
night spent by Hudson, when disabled, in the cabin (Chapter II.), or
that of the wounded Magellanic eagle owl (Chapter XII.), or that of
the strange fascination of the grey, bleak waste of the Rio Negro
(Chapter XIII.), then their sense of literary style must either be
atrophied or hypertophied. If Hudson's nature book _Birds in London_
(1898) produced few memorable passages it is because he is recording
careful observation of a bird census, conducted in the distasteful
environment of the sooty metropolis.  His aversion from that "old
melancholy scene," when both he and the birds, "the few metropolitan
species," were cut off from the liberating joy of sun and wind over
marsh and heath and hillsides and forest glades and shining rivers, is
felt in the book's lack of emotional beauty. The "natural style" here
grows tame, chilled by the dull London parks and squares. But what a
change in spirit, in power, in shining loveliness of diction is
wrought two years later in Hudson's style in _Nature in Downland_
(1900)! Though in the matter of natural history others of the nature
books are more original, this is the finest and most finished in
literary art. The spirit, the character, the natural features of the
South Downs, of its soil, plant and bird life, human story and
changing atmosphere, are caught by him with exquisite freshness and
ease.  What is the literary method by which he secures so perfect a
mirage? The introductory chapter answers this question.  It is in the
nature of an overture. First we see the August sky from Kingston Hill,
the vast void blue sky with no mist or cloud in it; and in the burning
sun and wind thousands upon thousands of balls of silvery thistle-down
are flying away from the untilled, unenclosed downs up into the
infinite azure. And this sensation of aerial space, of light and heat,
of wind-swept slopes and hollows, so characteristic of the great chalk
hills, is driven deeper by an intimate memory of the South American
pampa. A feeling of the past, of days and nights spent in another very
similar scene in a vaster continent, is called in to lighten and
spiritualise the impression and liberate us from, the present. All
nature to Hudson's sense is one and infinite, there beyond the seas,
and here in this rolling downland with its vista of the wooded Sussex
weald lying beneath, and its glimpse of the grey glistening ocean.
Then, by a transition to the men of Sussex, Hudson further expands our
mental vision by transporting us back a century to the birthplace of
Hurdis, the author of _The Favorite Village_, the Vicar of
Bishopstone; and then follows a lovely passage in which Hudson
describes his own visit to "the tiniest and most characteristic
downland village" and the beautiful sight that his eyes rested on as
he sat at service in the little church and gazed through the open
side-door at the round yellow hill and blue sky and a white calf
standing motionless, "like a calf hewn out of a block of purest white
chalk," in the green meadow in brilliant sunlight. Hurdis and his
fellow-Sussex writers recall Richard Jefferies and his last sad days
at Goring, and, characteristically, Hudson blends his sorrowful
musings on Jefferies' premature death with "a mysterious adventure"
which he himself had, on coming to Goring, with "a poor outcast and
wanderer" who had the Jefferies countenance.  [Footnote: I may note
here that on first reading this passage I took Hudson warmly to task
for some of his words on Jefferies, and Hudson said he would alter
them later. But the whole passage is so imbued with Hudson's feeling
that now I would not wish a word away.] The chapter ends with a
description of an early morning hour spent by Hudson in watching a
grey plover and ringed dotterels on their feeding-ground on Goring
Beach, while he talked with an old carter Whose horse was eating
ribbon seaweed. But again the thought of Jefferies' end conies, "and
deep beneath my happiness was an ineffable sadness." Now this lament
for a man "who was prematurely torn away from the green world he
worshipped" is like a low chord which reverberates in our
consciousness, a chord struck to contrast with the bright silvery
notes of the morning theme. This introductory chapter may appear
simple, but the crystalline purity of its style, like clear sea-water
in a weed-fringed reef, holds a profusion of tones and shadows. It
contains the subtle essence of Hudson's personality. But its very
quietness and sureness, its grace and gravity, may deceive the
sophisticated. "His loveliest passages as a rule are simply those in
which the loveliest objects are mentioned," says the critic naively.
No. They are those passages inspired by Hudson's spirit when
delighting most in nature's life and moved most to purest beauty of
feeling. For examples of Hudson's variety of mood and tone let the
reader compare with the introductory chapter the one on Chichester.
Here is Hudson, the pure artist, rejoicing in giving rein to his
loathing for the besotted god worshipped by the followers of Bung,
"the men with soulless bloated faces and watery eyes." I do not know
in all literature a more powerful diatribe addressed to the soul of a
town than in these amazing pages on a decaying, mouldy, rotting-down
moral atmosphere, or a more burning fury against soulless stupidity
than in the description of the tortured white owl. Let the reader turn
for pleasure and relief back to the two preceding chapters, XII. "West
of the Adur," and XIII. "The Maritime District," and note how the
character of the multiplicity of features and aspects and form of
living nature has been seized by Hudson with equal fidelity and zest.
The pages on the mischief-loving magpies (pp. 206-207), the little
story of the poor family and the stolen sovereign, on the following
page, the account of the missel-thrushes' orgies in Kingly Bottom, the
sketch of the character of the hawthorns and junipers; and the whole
passage on the fascination of gloomy dark autumn weather in the
maritime district (Chapter XIII.)--how beautifully do these
descriptions contrast with the spiritual chiaroscuro of Chapters VIII.
and IX., "Silence and Music" and "Summer Heat." These last two
chapters, especially, exhaling the breath of summer, have the effect
of living poetry. The aesthetic charm of every chapter in turn, and of
the book as a whole, lies indeed in the cunning diversity of pattern
that Hudson weaves, a pattern that enmeshes Nature's variability and
elusiveness, her mutability and fecundity, a pattern of blended tones
and glowing colours. And the cunning diversity of patterns is secured
by Hudson's many glancing, allusive, yet detailed strokes, by his
genius for swift observation, by his far-ranging knowledge, his human
curiosity, his freshness of emotion, his deep passion and spiritual
tenderness, all directed by his aesthetic faculty. The art is
instinctive. He wrote, indeed, "as the grass grows," and this is
precisely why, as Mr. Galsworthy declares, "the very freshness and
intimacy of Hudson's prose... hides from its reader, as it were, the
greatness of that achievement."

EDWARD GARNETT.  February, 1923.




CONTENTS


A NOTE ON HUDSON'S LITERARY ART. By Edward Garnett

CHAPTER I

THISTLE-DOWN

On Kingston Hill--View from the hill--A day of thistledown--A memory
of the pampas--Down of the dwarf thistle--First sight and pleasant
memories of the downs--Resolution to write a book--Jennings'
_Rambles_--Sussex in literature--Less favoured than other
counties---Minor poets--Hurdis--_The Favorite Village_--In Bishopstone
church--Richard Jefferies--Birds on the beach at Goring--Horses eating
sea-weed.

CHAPTER II

CHARM OF THE DOWNS

Scope and limits of this work--A general description of the
downs--Agreeable sensations; an inquiry into their causes--Gilbert
White's speculations--The pleasures of the downs due to a variety of
causes--Their shapely human-like curves--Connection between the senses
of sight and touch--Effects of flowing outlines--Instinctive delight
in wide horizons--The desire to fly--Effect of a series of dome-like
forms--The joy of mountains.

CHAPTER III

THE LIVING GARMENT

The South Downs most agreeable in the hot season--Beauty of the
bindweed--Black oxen--The old Sussex breed of cattle--Black oxen in
poetry--Suggestion for group of statuary--Black and gold in
nature--Turf of the downs--Result of breaking up the turf--A new
flora--xv Variety of colonising plants--Beauty oi the chance-made
gardens of the downs--Flowers in barren places--Forget-me-not--Viper's
bugloss--Effects of blue flowers in masses--A shepherd boy in
sainfoin--Field scabious--Fertile spots--Dropwort and
heath--Harebells--Brilliant colour and intensity of life--Minute
flowers of the turf--Old Gerarde--Eyebright: its obscure habits--The
dwarf thistle.

CHAPTER IV

A FAIRY FAUNA

Insect-life of the downs--Common snail--Adder-like colouring of some
snails--The "thrushes' anvil"--Eccentric motions of flies--Peculiar
colouring of some flies--The cow-dung fly--A thyme-loving
fly--Butterflies--Disposition and habits of the small blue--Sleep in
insects--The humble-bee--Intoxicating effect of thistle flower on
bees--The unknown faculties of insects--De Quincey's "gluttonism."

CHAPTER V

WILD LIFE

Wild life confined to the furze--The rabbit and his enemy--The fox
abundant--A badgers' earth--Tenacity of the badger--Dead shrews--Moles
without water--Catching moles for fun--A shepherd on
moles--Birds--Extinct species--A shepherd's reminiscences--Buzzards
building on bushes--Black game in Ashdown Forest--The last stone
curlew--Long-eared owl--Pre-natal suggestion in the lower
animals--Existing large birds--A colony of gulls at Seaford--Kestrel
preying on grasshoppers--Turtle-dove--Missel-thrush and small
birds--Wheatears and sea-poppies--Shrike--the common lizard's
weakness--Sheep killed by adders--Beauty of the adder--A handful of
adders--Shepherd boy and big snake.

CHAPTER VI

THE SHEPHERD OF THE DOWNS

The shepherd as a picturesque figure--His best qualities racial--The
Saxon type predominant in downland--The peasant's good looks--A great
beer-drinker--Scene in a village public-house--Bad and good qualities
of the peasant--Character in a small boy--Beauty of person--A
labourer's family--A pet lamb and the Salvation Army--A Sussex
maid--Persistence of type--The Culpepper family--The shepherd's good
looks--Contented minds--A talk with a shepherd.

CHAPTER VII

SHEPHERDS AND WHEATEARS

The shepherd's altered condition--His loss of the wheatear
harvest--The passion for wheatears--Arrival of the birds on the
downs--"Our ortolan"--Coops--The wheatear's habits--Sensitiveness to
rain--Hurdis and the "pence of ransom"--A great dame collecting
wheat-ears--John Dudeney's recollections--Shepherds cease taking
wheatears--Probable reason--How the birds are now
obtained--Bird-catchers, poulterers, and fanners--The law must be
enforced--Lark-eating.

CHAPTER VIII

SILENCE AND MUSIC

The art of music--Natural music--Sussex voices--A pretty girl with a
musical voice--Singing of the peasants--Dr.  Burton on Sussex
singing--Primitive singing--A shepherdess and her cries--The Sussex
sheep-dog's temper--Silence of the hills--Bird music of the
downs--Common bunting--Linnet--Stonechat--Whinchat---The distance
which sound travels--Experience with tramps--Singing of
skylarks--Effects which cannot be expressed.

CHAPTER IX

SUMMER HEAT

When the downs are most enjoyable--July in the wooded lowland--The
bliss of summer--Children's delight in heat--Misery of cold--Piers
Plowman--Langland's philosophy--The happiest man in Sussex--A
protection from the sun--Heat not oppressive on the hills--Birds on
Mount Harry--A cup of cold water--Drawing water in a hat--Advantages
of a tweed hat--An unsympathetic woman--Beauty of kindness.

CHAPTER X

SWALLOWS AND CHURCHES

Abundance of swallows in downland villages--The swallows' bat-like
faculty--Old house at Ditchling--Church owls and Ditchling
Church--Shingled spires--Pleasure of finding churches open--A strange
memorial in a downland church--A nap in West Firle
churchyard--Slow-worms in churchyards--Increase of swallows at
Ditchling--House-martins on telegraph wires--The telegraph a benefit
to birds--Telegraph poles in the landscape--Sound of telegraph
wires--A cockney's bird-lore--A Sussex man on swifts--Swifts at
Seaford--A Somerset bird-boy's strange story.

CHAPTER XI

AUTUMN

Suddenness of the change from summer to autumn on the downs--Birds in
autumn--Meadow-pipits--Shore birds on the hills--September
flowers--Remnant of insect-life--Effect of rough weather--Effect on
the mind of the cessation of life--Man's long life--An immortal
surveying the insect tribes of human kind--The prospect from the
hills--Pleasure of walking.

CHAPTER XII

WEST OF THE ADUR

Autumn on the west downs--Abundance of birds--Village of
Cocking--Drayton's _Polyolbion_--A company of magpies; their
inconsequent behaviour--Magpie and domestic pigeon--Story of a pet
magpie--Blackberries on the downs--Elderberries--Yews at Kingly
Bottom--A tradition--Yew-berries and the missel-thrushes'
orgy--Hawthorn wood--Charm of the thorn-tree--Beeches on the west
downs--Effect of trees on the South Downs--Gilpin's strictures
answered--Characteristic trees and bushes--Juniper--A curious
effect--Character of the juniper tree.

CHAPTER XIII

THE MARITIME DISTRICT

The autumnal movement of birds--Linnets on the downs--Birds wintering
in the maritime district--Character of the district--Birdham--Rooks
and starlings--Skylarks and finches--Dunnock and wren--Pewits on the
Cuckmere--Pewit's hatred of the rook--Pewit's wing-exercises--Pewits
in flocks--Black-headed gulls--Charm of the maritime district--Gloomy
weather--Missel-thrush: his temper, habits, and song--The spire of
Chichester Cathedral: its aesthetic value in the landscape.

CHAPTER XIV

CHICHESTER

Chichester at a distance and near--Smells and sights--Public-house
signs--Habits of the people--Brewers' policy--The church and the
clergy--In the cathedral--A wood-carving--Market-day--Early
associations--The Market Cross and a mystery--Visit to
Midhurst---Decaying inns--Increase of temperance and the
cause--Chichester mud--Caging owls--The owl at AHriston--A miserable
daw--A white owl's _Ile du Diable_--An ideal home for an owl--A
prisoner without hope.

CHAPTER XV

WINTER IN WEST DOWNLAND

A good-bye to towns--Charm of West Downland in winter --A cow-boy
singing and a missel-thrush--A vein of stupidity--Anecdotes--Bats
eating bacon--Riding to Ringmer and a downland man's
ignorance--Chilgrove ---Gilbert White--Yew, juniper, and clematis--A
wooded combe--A host of wood-pigeons--Beautiful downland
scenery--Falling beech-leaves on snow--South Harting--Conclusion.

INDEX




CHAPTER I

THISTLE-DOWN

On Kingston Hill--View from the hill--A day of thistle-down--A memory
of the pampas--Down of the dwarf thistle--First sight and pleasant
memories of the downs--Resolution to write a book--Jennings'
_Rambles_--Sussex in literature--Less favoured than other
counties--Minor poets--Hurdis--_The Favorite Village_--In Bishopstone
church--Richard Jefferies --Birds on the beach at Goring--Horses
eating sea-weed.

On one of the hottest days in August of this exceptionally hot year of
1899, I spent a good many hours on the top of Kingston Hill, near
Lewes. There are clear mornings, especially in the autumn months, when
magnificent views of the surrounding country can be had from the flat
top of that very long hill. Usually on hot summer days the prospect,
with the sea of downland and the grey glinting ocean beyond on one
side, the immense expanse of the wooded Sussex weald on the other, is
covered with a blue obscuring haze, and this hot, windy August day was
no exception. The wind, moreover, was so violent that all winged life,
whether of bird or insect, had been driven into hiding and such scanty
shade as existed; it was a labour even to walk against the wind. In
spite of these drawbacks, and of the everywhere brown parched aspect
of nature, I had here some hours of rare pleasure, felt all the more
because it had not been looked for.

Kingston Hill is not one of the dome-shaped downs, where when not on
the very summit you are on a slope: the top forms a level plateau or
tableland of considerable extent, covered with a thick turf and
occasional patches of furze, with some bramble and elder bushes. After
aimlessly wandering about over this high plain for some time I went to
a spot where the hill sloped away toward the valley of the Ouse.
Beyond the vast sweep of parched ground beneath me, green meadows and
trees were visible, with scattered village and farm houses, and the
two small churches of Iford and Kingston vaguely seen in the haze.

Here, sitting on the dry grass with my face to the wind, I spent two
or three hours in gazing at the thistle-down. It is a rare thing to
see it as I had it before me that day; the sight of it was a surprise,
and I gave myself up to the pleasure of it, wishing for no better
thing. It was not only that the sight was beautiful, but the scene was
vividly reminiscent of long-gone summer days associated in memory with
the silvery thistle-down. The wide extent of unenclosed and untilled
earth, its sunburnt colour and its solitariness, when no person was in
sight; the vast void blue sky, with no mist nor cloud on it; the
burning sun and wind, and the sight of thousands upon thousands of
balls or stars of down, reminded me of old days on horseback on the
open pampa--an illimitable waste of rust-red thistles, and the sky
above covered with its million floating flecks of white.

But the South American thistle-down, both of the giant thistle and the
cardoon with its huge flower-heads, was much larger and whiter and
infinitely more abundant. By day the air seemed full of it, and I
remember that when out with my brother we often enjoyed seeing it at
night. After a day or days of wind it would be found in immense masses
in the sheltered hollows, or among the tall standing stalks of the dry
plants. These masses gleamed with a strange whiteness in the dark, and
it used to please us to gallop our horses through them. Horses are
nervous, unintelligent creatures, liable to take fright at the most
familiar objects, and our animals would sometimes be in terror at
finding themselves plunged breast-deep into this unsubstantial
whiteness, that moved with them and covered them as with a cloud.

The smaller, more fragile English thistle-down, in so few places
abundant enough to appear as an element in the scene, is beautiful
too, and its beauty is, I am inclined to think, all the greater
because of its colour. Seen against the deep greens and browns of the
vegetation in late summer it appears white, but compared with a white
feather or white flower we see that it is silvery, with a faint yellow
or brown tinge, lighter but a little like the brown tinge in the
glistening transparent wings of some dragon-flies and other insects.

The down on that August day was of the dwarf thistle, which has an
almost stemless flower, and appears as a purple disc on the turf. It
is the most common species, universal on the sheep-walks: so abundant
was it this year that as you walked about the brown and yellow turf
appeared everywhere flecked with silvery white--a patch of white for
every square yard of ground in some places--of the dry flower with its
mass of down spread around it.  Thus it was that sitting on the hill,
gazing over the wide slope before me, I became sensible of the way in
which ball after ball rose up from the ground to fly towards and past
me. It was as if these slight silvery objects were springing
spontaneously into existence, as the heat opened and the wind lifted
and bore them away. All round me, and as far off as such slight gauzy
objects could be seen, they were springing up from the grass in this
way in hundreds and thousands. Looking long and steadily at them
--their birth and their flight--one could fancy that they were living
things of delicate aerial forms that had existed for a period hidden
and unsuspected among the matted roots of the turf, until their time
had come to rise like winged ants from the soil and float on the air.

When, lying on my back, I gazed up into the blue sky, the air as far
as I could see was still peopled with the flying down; and beyond all
that was visible to the naked eye, far from the earth still more down
was revealed by my glasses--innumerable, faintly-seen silvery stars
moving athwart the immeasurable blue expanse of heaven.

Somehow, looking back at that day of abundant thistle-down, the best
day of its kind that I have experienced in England, I find that it is
not only a pleasant memory, but also exists as a symbol of all my days
on the South Downs. For they can all be shortened in the mind to one
day, marked with a thousand scenes and events, beginning with my first
sight from a distance of these round treeless hills that were strange
to me. Treeless they were, and if not actually repelling, as indeed
some have found them, they were at all events uninviting in their
naked barren aspect. No sooner had I begun to walk on and to know and
grow intimate with them than I found they had a thousand unimagined
pleasures, springing up in my way like those silvery stars of down on
Kingston Hill--a pleasure for every day and every hour, and for every
step, since it was a delight simply to walk on that elastic turf and
to breathe that pure air.

But for all my pleasure and interest in the district, I had no
faintest thought of a book about it. Why, indeed, should anyone dream
of a book about this range of hills, so near to the metropolis, its
sea coast and coast towns the favourite haunt of hundreds of thousands
of annual visitors; every hill in the range, and every species of wild
bird and mammal and insect and flower, known to everyone? Without
inquiry I took it that there were books and books about the South
Downs, as there are about every place on earth and every earthly
thing; and that I did not know them because I had not looked for them,
and they had never by chance come in my way. It thus happened that in
all my rambles in downland, with no motive but pleasure and health, I
did only that which it is customary for me to do in all places where I
may happen to be--namely, to note down every interesting fact I came
across in my field naturalist's journal. Now all at once "something
has come into my mind"--to wit, a little book exclusively about these
hills, in which I shall be able to incorporate a good number of
observations which would otherwise be wasted. But I do not say like
downright old Ben Jonson that it "must and shall" be written, whether
far removed from the wolf's black jaw and the other objectionable
animal's hoof or not. For it will be, I imagine, a small unimportant
book, not entertaining enough for those who read for pleasure only,
nor sufficiently scientific and crammed with facts for readers who
thirst after knowledge.

Now I am beginning to find out that there does not appear to be any
book about the South Downs, although that district certainly is and
has always been regarded as one of England's "observables." It is true
that a portion of Louis Jennings' _Rambles Among the Hills_ treats of
the Sussex range, and is excellent reading; but this little work does
not satisfy me, since the author misses that which to many of us is
the most interesting part of the subject--namely, the wild life of the
district. His libellous remarks on that worthy little beast, the mole,
are proof that he is no naturalist, and could not touch on such
subjects without going astray.  Curiously enough, Sussex, or any part
of it, can hardly be said to exist in literature; or if it has any
place there and in our hearts it is a mean one, far, far below that of
most counties. Let me, however, say in parentheses that I am not a
great reader, and know few books, that on this subject I therefore
speak as a fool, or, at all events, an ignorant person.  But so far as
I know, this county, so near to the metropolis, so important
geographically with its long coast line of over seventy miles on the
Channel, the "threshold of England," as it has been called, the
landing-place of the Conqueror and eternal grave of Saxon dominion,
has produced no genius to stamp its lineaments on our minds. The
Sussexian, who cares to make the boast, may indeed claim that his
county has given as great names as any other to poetic and dramatic
literature--Shelley, Collins, Otway, Fletcher. But Sussex was nothing
to these writers, and they are nothing to Sussex. Their connection
with their native place was slight; its scenery never entered into
their souls to give a special colour to their lives and life-work. How
differently other counties have fared in this respect! Who does not
know a hundred, a thousand, places in England, as well as he knows his
own home, though he may never have seen them? One has but to let one's
thoughts fly hither and thither at random over the face of the
country. The whole rude coast of Cornwall, where we must have lived
long years in the roar of the sea, is as well known to us as the cliff
at Dover and the enduring image of the suspended samphire-gatherer.
What a strange significance there is in the names of many places in
the south-west and western counties --Dorset, Devon, and Somerset! How
many rivers we know, and how many hill-ranges all over the land, from
the Quantocks to the Cheviots! But even the glorious hills and lakes
and forests have not painted themselves more vividly on our minds than
the featureless flats, the low shores and saltings, the wide moors;
the Essex marshes with the tragic figures of Rebow and Gloria; the
lonely heath by Poole water, where we have listened by night and day
to the mysterious voices of the wind; and the Lincolnshire fen-land,
over whose desolate expanse, shimmering in the summer heat, Mariana
gazed each day in vain and said despondingly, "He cometh not!" Hills,
valleys, wolds, dales, plains, marshes, rivers, lakes, moors, heaths,
woods, towns, villages, are in this way known familiarly to us all
over the land; but the county of Sussex is not included in this
spiritual geography.

>From the writers of genius who have made so much of the scenery of
England familiar to us all, to those literary South Saxons who have
stayed at home and written something, little or much, about their
native land--Hayley, William Hay, Charlotte Smith, Parsons, Hurdis,
with a few more of even less account--is indeed a tremendous descent.
These are now forgotten, and their works will never come back; for
though important in their own day, they were, viewed at this distance,
little people who could have no place with the immortals. But I do not
despise them on that account; being of that tribe myself, I have a
kindly feeling for little people, not for the living only, who write
in the modern fashion and are by some thought great, but also for
those who have been long dead, whose fame has withered and wasted in
the grave. And for the last of the few singers I have mentioned I
cherish a very special regard, and should now like to tell how the
forgotten name of Hurdis came by chance to be associated in my mind
with the South Downs.

When I was a youth a very long time ago, in a distant land, poetry
about nature had a peculiar fascination for me; but it was hard to
find, and I fed mostly (when I got anything to eat) on what would now
be regarded as mere dry husks. A battered old volume of Shenstone was
one of the three or four poetical works I possessed. In a book of
elegant extracts, in verse and prose, I came upon some passages from
Hurdis--his _Village Curate_--which greatly delighted me; and now in
another world, and after a thousand years, as it seems, I am surprised
to find that they still live in memory. I will even venture to quote
some lines of the favourite passages:

  It was my admiration
  To view the structure of that little work,
  A bird's nest--mark it well, within, without;
  No tool had he that wrought, no knife to cut,
  No rail to fix, no bodkin to insert,
  No glue to join: his little beak was all:
  And yet how neatly finished! What nice hand,
  With every implement and means of art,
  And twenty years' apprenticeship to boot,
  Could make me such another? Fondly then
  We boast of excellence, whose noblest skill
  Instinctive genius foils!

It was not strange that these lines pleased me, for I was myself then
a diligent seeker and great admirer of little birds' nestles; they
were pretty objects to look at, and there was, moreover, a mystery
about them which made them differ from all other things.  For though
so admirably fashioned--whether attached to slender swaying reeds and
rushes, or placed down among the grasses, or on wood, or high among
the clustering leaves on trees--as to seem a natural growth, with
their gem-like pearly and speckled eggs, many-coloured, resting in
them like bright polished seeds in an opening capsule, yet it was not
so; they had not been produced by Nature like leaf and flower and
fruit, but were artificial basket-houses built with much labour, with
many selected materials gathered in many places, by the little winged
men and women called birds.

The other remembered passage, too long to quote in full, concludes
with these excellent lines:

  Give to repose the solemn hour she claims,
  And from the forehead of the morning steal
  The sweet occasion. Oh, there is a charm
  Which morning has, that gives the brow of age
  A smack of youth, and makes the lips of youth
  Shed perfumes exquisite.

Nothing more did I learn of Hurdis until quite recently, after it had
occurred to me to write this book, when at the Brighton Library, in
looking through a collection of works, mostly rubbish, on local
subjects, I came upon a long poem entitled _The Favorite Village_, by
the Rev. James Hurdis--a thin quarto bound in calf in the old style,
on coarse bluey-grey paper, "Printed at the Author's own Press,
Bishopstone, Sussex, 1800." This was to me a delightful discovery, not
only on account of the old memories I have mentioned, but because the
poem had the South Downs for its subject; also because Bishopstone,
the "favorite village," the author's birthplace and where in after
life he was vicar, was well known to me, although I had not yet been
in its church. After reading the work two or three times, I am
compelled to say that it is very bad poetry, reminding one, in its
prosy diction and occasional rhetorical outbursts, now of _The Task_
and now of _The Seasons_. In all the mass of descriptive matter about
the downs I am unable to find a passage worth quoting. In spite of my
disappointment, when Sunday came I went to Bishopstone with a new and
lively interest, and saw that small pretty village among the downs
near Newhaven in its brightest and best aspect. It was early August;
the corn was all cut and most of it carried, and the round treeless
hills were yellow in that brilliant morning sunshine --straw-yellow
against the pure ethereal blue of heaven. And in a hollow among the
great hills nestled Bishopstone, out of sight but not out of hearing
of the sea, when its "accents disconsolate" sound afar in the silence
of the night--the tiniest and the most characteristic of the downland
villages.  The few houses, cottages, and farm buildings, each one
unlike all the others, its own character stamped upon it, but all
alike rich in the ornament of yellow, orange, grey and rust-red lichen
stains, were picturesquely grouped about the small ancient flint
church; and there was shade of beech and elm, and the trees were
ancient-looking too, and tempest-beaten, like most others in this
treeless land.

I was so fortunate as to have a seat near the middle of the church,
abreast of the side door which stood wide open admitting the summer
light and warmth and out-door sounds; so that while following the
service I could let my eyes rest on the landscape.  That was a
beautiful picture I had to look at, with the doorway for frame; a
round yellow hill and the blue sky beyond, and between the hill and
the church a green meadow, low outhouse and fences, and a small
paddock or enclosure with rooks and daws and small birds coming and
going. And by-and-by, into that green enclosure came a white calf, and
remained there for some time, standing motionless, in the centre of
the picture. The brilliant sunlight made it luminous, and it was like
a calf hewn out of a block of purest white chalk. I did not keep my
eyes constantly on it; and after an interval, on looking again I found
that it was gone, and that two red calves had taken its place. These
were moving about cropping the grass, while several starlings were
searching for grubs close to them. But these red animals were not so
fascinating as the white one.  And all the time I was looking at that
changing picture, while following the service, I was thinking of the
old last-century poet who had been dear to me so long ago--so far
away. The story of his life, and his writings, poor though some of
them may seem to us at this day, show that his feeling for his native
place was one of strange intensity, a life-long passion; and when the
_Venite Laudamus Domino_ filled the little church with a sudden
tempest of musical sound, the thought of his dust lying close by came
to my mind, and I wished that that loud noise of the living in a quiet
place could wake him out of his hundred years' sleep for a brief
spell, so that he might taste the summer sunshine once more, and look
once more, though but for a moment, on his beloved hills and home.

Enough of Hurdis: after having been his debtor since boyhood it is
satisfactory to feel that that ancient obligation has at length been
discharged in full.

We may say of Sussex that its native writers have done nothing, or
nothing worth doing, for it; and that no outside writers of note have
come to its aid, as has happened in the case of some other counties.
Had Richard Jefferies lived it would, I believe, have been different.
It is true that his soul was dyed, and dyed deeply, in that North
Wilts nature which he had first beheld, where his revelation came to
him; but the visible world was too much for him, and his senses too
well trained, to let him rest satisfied with memories; and we may see
in _The Story of my Heart_ and some other of his writings, that the
Sussex coast country where he found a home powerfully attracted and
held him. The thirteen years that have passed since his sad death
would have brought his splendid powers, always progressing until the
last day of his life, to their fullest maturity: perhaps, too, that
strain of intense unnatural feeling, which he so strangely
misinterpreted, and which in his book just named touches the borders
of insanity, would have been outgrown. I am not sure that he had not
outlived that phase before he died, since his latest work is decidedly
of a higher quality and, even when most inspired by passion,
essentially more sober than the famous _Story_. That he would
eventually have written a book about the downs and the maritime
district of Sussex, as good as any work we have had from him, I feel
certain.

Why I said so much about forgotten Hurdis a little while back has been
explained, and now a second apology seems necessary. Jefferies was
much in my mind just now because by chance I happen to be writing this
introductory chapter in the last house he inhabited, and where he
died, in the small village of Goring, between the sea and the West
Sussex downs.

A strange, I had almost said a mysterious, adventure befell me as I
came hither. On a cloudy melancholy day in September I came in search
of this cottage, and walking to the church by a narrow lane with a low
trim wall-like hedge on either side, my thoughts were of Jefferies,
who had doubtless often walked here, too, feeling the icy hand on him
of one that walked invisible at his side. My mind was full of sadness,
when, hearing the crunching of gravel beneath other feet than my own,
I suddenly looked up, and behold, there before me stood the man
himself, back on earth in the guise of a tramp!  It was a most
extraordinary coincidence that at such a moment I should have come
face to face with this poor outcast and wanderer who had the Jefferies
countenance as I knew it from portraits and descriptions.  It was the
long thoughtful suffering face, long straight nose, flowing brown
beard, and rather large full blue eyes. I was startled at the
expression, the unmistakable stamp of a misery that was anguish and
near to despair and insanity. He passed me, then paused, and after a
moment or two, said hesitatingly, "Can you spare a penny?" I gave him
something without looking at his face again, and went on my way sorry
that I had met him, for I knew that those miserable eyes would
continue to haunt me.

Here, sitting in the room that was his--the author of the strange
_Story_--the morning sun filling it with brightest light, the sounds
he listened to coming in at the open window--the intermittent
whispering of the foliage and the deeper continuous whisper of the
near sea, and cries and calls of so many birds that come and go in the
garden, each "deep in his day's employ"--I cannot but think of him and
lament again that he was prematurely torn away from this living green
world he worshipped.

Last evening when the tide began to ebb I went down by the wet shaded
lane to the beach, and sat there for a long time watching a flock of
half-a-dozen little ringed dotterels running about and feeding on a
small patch of clean sand among the shingle. For three days these
dotterels had come to the same spot at the turn of the tide, one grey
plover always in their company. Evidently no one with a gun had seen
and fired at this plover, and living with the small tame dotterels he
had grown tame, too; and it seemed wonderful to me that this shy bird
should continue quietly feeding within forty yards of where I sat,
glass in hand, never tired of admiring his rarely seen figure and
beautifully harmonious grey mottled plumage.

Very early this morning, on going to the beach, I found the birds back
on their little feeding-ground, just uncovered by the sea; and close
by, sitting on a groin, was an old man, a carter with his cart and two
horses beside him, patiently waiting for the water to get a little
lower before taking up a load of sand in his cart. He was a handsome
old man, of the type I have so often admired on the Sussex downs, with
a strong large frame, noble aquiline features, and an intelligent
expression. He told me that he had seen a kingfisher flying along the
coast, just over the water: its shining blue colour had startled him
as it flashed by, for it was a rare sight at that spot. I had watched
one, probably the same bird, two or three days before, fishing from a
groin in a rough sea. The old man got down from his seat and, picking
up a very big bunch of ribbon seaweed, shook out the water and sand
and gave half of it to one horse and half to the other. They ate it
greedily, as if it had been the most fragrant new-mown hay. I had seen
New Forest ponies browsing on furze, deftly cutting off the big
prickly blossoming sprays with their uncovered chisel--like teeth, and
calmly chewing them up apparently without hurt to their tender mouths;
but to see horses contentedly champing seaweed was new to me. Some
horses liked it and some refused to eat it, he told me.  It was
supposed to be good for them to eat it in moderation; his own opinion
was that horses that ate seaweed were stronger and kept their health
better than others.

And so we talked for half an hour, standing in the glorious morning
sunshine, the green withdrawing sea growing smoother by degrees, but
far out we could see it still rough with big rollers, foam-crested;
the little ringed dotterels and the large grey plover running about on
the sand and feeding unconcerned near us; the big patient horses
standing with masses of wet seaweed glistening at their feet. It was
very wonderful, and I was happy and laughed with the old carter as we
talked; but the thought of Jefferies, slain before his time by hateful
destiny, still haunted me, and deep down beneath my happiness was an
ineffable sadness.




CHAPTER II

CHARM OF THE DOWNS


Scope and limits of this work--A general description of the
downs--Agreeable sensations: an inquiry into their causes--Gilbert
White's speculations--The pleasures of the downs due to a variety of
causes--Their shapely human-like curves--Connection between the senses
of sight and touch--Effects of flowing outlines--Instinctive delight
in wide horizons--The desire to fly--Effect of a series of dome-like
forms--The joy of mountains.


When I stated, perhaps ignorantly, in the last chapter that nothing
had been done by writers of note or of genius for Sussex, the
statement did not include works of a purely scientific description.
There is no lack of that kind of literature; the geology especially of
the great range of chalk hills that distinguish this county, and of
the Weald, has been treated at very considerable length.

I am not concerned with this aspect of the subject--the framework or
skeleton of downland and the wonderful story of its creation; but only
with its smooth surface from the aesthetic point of view, and with the
living garment of the downs, its animal and vegetable forms, from the
point of view of the lover of nature and, in a moderate degree, of the
field naturalist. These impressions of the downs--of their appearance
and the feelings they evoke in us--need only to be prefaced by a few
sentences descriptive of the range generally.

The South Downs and the Sussex Downs, as general use will now have it,
mean the same thing; strictly speaking, the name of South Downs is
limited to that portion of the range which rises abruptly from the
flat marsh of Pevensey, and extends from Beachy Head westward to the
river Adur, a distance of twenty-six miles. The range of the South
Downs proper is itself cut through by two rivers--the Cuck-mere, with
the famous old village of Alfriston on its bank, and the more
important Ouse, which flows by Lewes and enters the sea at Newhaven.
Two other rivers cut through the Sussex range before it enters
Hampshire--the Arun, with the picturesque town of Arundel on its
banks, a dozen miles or so west of the Adur, and about nine miles west
of the Arun the little Lavant. The whole length of the Sussex range,
from Beachy Head to the western extremity of the county, is
fifty-three miles.

For the first sixteen miles of its westward course from Pevensey the
range keeps to the sea, forming an almost continuous white cliff to
Brighton. At this point it begins to diverge gradually from the coast,
until at Chichester near the west border of the county the strip of
low flat land between the sea and the downs has a breadth of several
miles.

On the south side of the range the hills are as a rule lowest, and
slope gradually to the sea. The aspect of the downs on this side is
familiar to most of us, owing to the large number of persons, probably
amounting to millions annually, who visit one or other of the seaside
towns and villages that extend in a chain along this part of the south
coast, from Eastbourne to the Selsey peninsula, near Chichester.  The
hills are highest on the north side, where they rise abruptly from the
flat weald, like a gigantic buttressed wall, or an earthwork reared of
old by Titans. The loftiest part of the range is in the South Downs
proper, where, in the neighbourhood of Lewes, east and west of that
town, one may walk many miles along the crest of the hill, on a turf
which makes walking a joy, and keep at a height of from 700 to 860
feet above the sea level, the ocean six or seven miles distant on one
hand, the deep-green wooded flat country of the weald on the other.

West of the break caused by the river Adur, the range, on its north
side, rises again to a height of about 800 feet, at Chanctonbury, and
continues high to the valley of the Arun. West of that river the downs
are less high, and being wooded differ in the character of their
scenery from that of the great naked hills in the eastern part of the
range.

I myself prefer to approach the downs on the north side, rather than
walk five to seven or eight miles from the coast before getting to the
highest point. The climb up the steep smooth escarpment is a good
preparation, an intensifier of the pleasure to follow. Those who know
the downs are all agreed that it _is_ a rare pleasure to be on them.
And when we have had our upward toil on a hot day, and are at length
on the level plateau-like summit, on the turf; when the wind has blown
us dry, and we have experienced that sense of freedom and elation
which is the result of rising from a low level into a ratified
atmosphere, these purely physical sens"a-tions are succeeded by a
higher, more enduring pleasure, which the mind receives from the
prospect disclosed. I mean the prospect of the vast round green hills
extending away on either hand to the horizon. What is the secret of
this peculiar pleasure?  We may say off-hand that it is nothing but
the instinctive delight which we have in wild nature and a wide
prospect. And this is no doubt a principal element in the
feeling--wild nature and a wide prospect in unenclosed country, an
elastic turf under foot, and full liberty to roam whithersoever we
will.  There is another element resulting from the conformation of the
earth's surface--the special character of the scenery. The wildness,
the wide horizon and sense of liberty after the confinement of roads
and fences and hedges, come first: it is the local aspect, appealing
as it does to the aesthetic faculties, which makes the feeling
distinctive. Thus, among mountains, on moors, and in vast desolate
marshes, on iron-bound coasts, and on wide seaside flats and saltings,
and on level plains, I experience this same feeling of elation, which
yet differs in character in each locality, and I may be able to
analyse my feelings in all or some of these cases and find out why
they differ. What is to be said concerning the special quality of the
South Downs--the mental flavour they impart?

I remember that Gilbert White speculated on this very question, in the
often-quoted Letter LVI., where he says:


Though I have now travelled the Sussex Downs upwards of thirty years,
yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with fresh
admiration year by year, and I think I see new beauties each time I
traverse it.... For my own part, I think there is something peculiarly
sweet and amusing in the shapely-figured aspect of chalk hills, in
preference to those of stone, which are rugged, broken, abrupt, and
shapeless. Perhaps I may be singular in my opinion... but I never
contemplate these mountains without thinking I perceive somewhat
analogous to growth in their gentle swellings and smooth fungus-like
protuberances, their fluted sides and regular hollows and slopes, that
carry at once the air of vegetative dilatation and expansion: or was
there ever a time when the calcareous masses were thrown into
fermentation by some adventitious moisture--were raised and leavened
into shape by some plastic power, and so made to swell and heave their
broad backs into the sky, so much above the less animated clay of the
wild below?


"Sweet and amusing" are not words we should now use in this
connection; but the description is pleasant, and the speculations,
albeit fanciful, are suggestive; for it is a fact that the
attractiveness of these broad hills is in a measure due to their
fungus-like roundness and smoothness. But not only to these qualities,
as we find when we leave the chain to look upon an isolated down: it
fails to attract; the charm is not in the one but in the many.
Furthermore, it is due to a combination of various causes. To begin
with, we have the succession of shapely outlines; the vast
protuberances and deep divisions between, suggestive of the most
prominent and beautiful curves of the human figure, and of the "solemn
slope of mighty limbs asleep." That modern poet's vision of a Titanic
woman reclined in everlasting slumber on the earth, her loose
sweet-smelling hair lying like an old-world forest over leagues of
ground; the poet himself sitting for ever, immersed in melancholy, in
the shadow of her great head, has seemed a mere outcome of a morbid
imagination. Here, among the downs, the picture returns to the mind
with a new light, a strange grandeur; it is not a mere "flower of
disease" and nothing more, but is rather a start-lingly vivid reminder
that we ourselves are anthropomorphic and mythopoeic, even as our
earliest progenitors were, who were earth-worshippers in an
immeasurably remote past, before the heavenly powers existed.

Here, too, where the lines of the earth are most human-like, we are
reminded of the philosophic doctrine that for us all nature is a
secondary object of the passion of love, and that to this fact the
beauty of nature is chiefly due. The scene also takes us back to the
discredited Hogarthian notion concerning the origin of our idea of
beauty; and at the same time of Burke's theory of the beautiful. This,
too, has fallen into neglect, if not contempt, oddly enough, since it
contains the germ of our modern philosophy of the beautiful. Perhaps
it would not be an exaggeration to say that it contains a good deal
more than the germ. Burke was assuredly right in maintaining that
there exists a very close connection between the senses of sight and
feeling, and in tracing the agreeable sensations arising from the
contemplation of soft and smooth surfaces in this connection. To put
the theory into five short words--_what we see we feel_.

When we look on a landscape, particularly when it is seen from a
considerable elevation, the body goes with the mind or vision; in
other words, locomotion is associated with seeing--we are there, as it
were, roaming corporeally over the expanse we are gazing on. When we
look at the sky, or a cloud, or the sea, the sight does not
instinctively rest on it, but is satisfied with a glance; if we
continue to gaze, not occupied with something in us, but seeing
vividly, it is because some object or some strange or beautiful
atmospheric effect excites our admiration or curiosity; or because we
are artists, or sailors, or fishermen, and have an interested motive
in studying water or sky. "I cannot stand all day on a naked beach
watching the capricious hues of the sea," pathetically wrote Charles
Lamb from some spot on the south coast. "I would fain retire into the
interior of my cage. While I gaze on the sea I want to be on it, over
it, across it. There is no home for me here." I have read that in
convents and harems there is an arrangement of the windows which
prevents the inmates from looking out or down upon the earth; they are
constrained to look up, presumably because there is no male form, nor
shadow nor reflection of one, in the void above.  Those who have been
fenced in from harm in this fashion must have hated the blue sky as
much as Tennyson's worn-out mariners hated the dark blue wave. I have
noticed that birds when perched do, even when they appear to be
reposing, gaze a good deal at the sky. They are aerial, of the sky,
and are accustomed to travel and dwell there with spread wings; and
their fellows and enemies are there.

The sea and the sky in their ordinary aspects do not hold the
attention, because we are not of them, and do not feel them, and the
sensation of moving in or on them is consequently not here associated
with seeing. The sight dwells with pleasure on the downs, because they
are, in appearance, easy to walk upon, and in a sense are being walked
upon when looked at.

Here, it may be remarked, that a surface which appears easy to the
feet is also easy to the sight. The greater pleasure which we receive
from flowing outlines than from those that are angular, as Herbert
Spencer has pointed out, is due to the harmonious unrestrained action
of the ocular muscles occupied in the perception of such outlines. On
these downs, for the sight and that bodily sensation which cannot be
dissociated from sight, there are no impassable chasms, no steep
heights difficult to climb, nor jagged rocks and broken surfaces to
impede free movement and passage.

Finally we have as another important element in our pleasure the large
prospect disclosed. Why a wide horizon should have so great a
fascination for us, wingless walkers on the level ground, is a curious
question. It is not merely a childish delight in a novel sensation; I
should rather look on it as a survival, like our fighting, hunting,
and various other instincts--an inherited memory of a period when the
hill--top was at the same time refuge, fortress, and tower of
observation from which all hidden things stood revealed--where men,
losing their fear and feeling superior to their enemies, were lifted
above themselves.

One would be only too glad to believe the feeling to be different in
its origin, and in a sense prophetic--like the unnecessarily large
brains of primitive man, according to the Wallacian doctrine--pointing
to a time when we shall be able, with the aid of perfected machinery,
or better still, by means of some mysterious undeveloped faculty
within us, to rise from earth and float hither and thither at will
through the boundless fields of air.

Oddly enough, that desire which we all have at times for wings, or at
all events for the power of flight, and which like other vague and
idle promptings is capable of cultivation and of being made a real
source of pleasure, most often comes to me on these great green hills.
Here are no inviting woods and mysterious green shades that ask to be
explored: they stand naked to the sky, and on them the mind becomes
more aerial, less conscious of gravity and a too solid body. Standing
on one great green hill, and looking across vast intervening hollows
to other round heights and hills beyond and far away, the wish is more
than a wish, and I can almost realise the sensation of being other
than I am--a creature with the instinct of flight and the correlated
faculty; that in a little while, when I have gazed my full and am
ready to change my place, I shall lift great heron-like wings and fly
with little effort to other points of view.

To come back from this digression, or flight. It is true that the
extent of earth visible from the very highest downs is not really
great, but with a succession of dome-like outlines extending to the
horizon we have to take into account the illusion of infinite distance
produced on the mind by the repetition of similar forms. The
architect, in a small way, produces the same effect in his colonnades.
I was once very much struck by an effect of this kind at sea, in the
South Atlantic, when during perfectly calm weather there was a
stupendous swell, the long vast glassy rollers succeeding one another
at regular intervals.  Viewed from the bridge of the steamer the ocean
appeared to have increased immeasurably in extent; the horizon was no
wider than before, yet it was as if I had been lifted hundreds of feet
above the surface.

Those of my readers whose minds run on mountains, and the joy of
mountains, may say here that, in spite of the illusion produced, the
height of the downs is really so small that the pleasure arising from
that cause must be comparatively very little.  It is, I think, a very
common error that the degree of pleasure we have in looking on a wide
prospect depends on our height above the surrounding earth--in other
words, that the wider the horizon the greater the pleasure. The fact
is, once we have got above the world, and have an unobstructed view
all round, whether the height above the surrounding country be 500 or
5000 feet, then we at once experience all that sense of freedom,
triumph, and elation which the mind is capable of. This "sudden
glory," which may be ours on a very modest elevation, is the most we
can hope for: we can no more get a new sensation or a larger measure
of the quickly-vanishing pleasure we have enjoyed by transporting
ourselves to the highest summits on the globe, than we can change a
Skye terrier into an eagle by taking it three or four miles up in a
balloon and throwing it out of the car.

What we do get by ascending to greater heights, to the limits of our
endurance, is the mountain scenery, the new aspects of nature, which
have an aesthetic value. This is the same kind of pleasure which we
experience in walking or riding through a picturesque country; but the
aesthetic pleasure of the mountain may actually seem more, or keener,
on account of the greater novelty--the unlikeness of the scene to the
more or less familiar aspects of nature on the level earth. For we
live on the earth and pay but brief visits to mountain summits.




CHAPTER III

THE LIVING GARMENT


The South Downs most agreeable in the hot season--Beauty of the
bindweed--Black oxen--The old Sussex breed of cattle--Black oxen in
poetry--Suggestion for group of statuary--Black and gold in
nature--Turf of the downs--Result of breaking up the turf--A new
flora--Variety of colonising plants--Beauty of the chance-made gardens
of the downs--Flowers in barren places--Forget-me-nots--Viper's
bugloss--Effects of blue flowers in masses--A shepherd boy in
sainfoin--Field scabious--Fertile spots--Dropwort and
heath--Harebells--Brilliant colour and intensity of life--Minute
flowers of the turf--Old Gerarde--Eyebright: its obscure habits--The
dwarf thistle.


The South Downs, in their cultivated parts, are seen at their best in
July and August, when the unreaped corn turns from green to red gold:
whether the tint be yellow or red, it strikes one as more intense than
on the lower levels.  Then, too, among the ripe corn, along the ragged
fringes of the field, and close to the dusty path, the bindweed,
adorned with its delicate rose-coloured blossoms, runs riot; and
twining in and out among the dry, bright stalks, its green,
string-like wandering stem has something of the appearance of an
exceedingly attenuated tree-snake. Why is it that this most graceful
weed, seen in the wheat, invariably gives me the idea of a sentient
being delighting in its own mischievous life? It is the pretty spoilt
darling of the fields who has run away to hide in the corn, and to
peer back, with a roguish smile on its face, at every passer-by.
Perhaps the farmer is partly to blame for the fancy, for the bindweed
vexes his soul, as it will vex and hinder the reapers by-and-by; and
he abuses it just as if it had a moral sense and ears to hear, and
ought to be ashamed of itself.  It pleased me to be told by a village
maiden that not bindweed, nor convolvulus, but _lilybind_ was the true
name of this pretty plant.

Here one may see the corn reaped with sickles in the ancient way; and
better still, the wheat carried from the field in wains drawn by two
or three couples of great, long-horned, black oxen. One wonders which
of the three following common sights of the Sussex downs carries us
further back in time: the cluster of cottages, with church and farm
buildings, that form the village nestling in the valley, and, seen
from above, appearing as a mere red spot in the prospect; the cloaked
shepherd, crook in hand, standing motionless on some vast green slope,
his grey, rough-haired sheep-dog resting at his feet; or the team of
coal-black, long-horned oxen drawing the plough or carrying the corn.

The little rustic village in the deep dene, with its two or three
hundred inhabitants, will probably outlast London, or at all events
London's greatness; and the solitary shepherd with his dog at his feet
will doubtless stand watching his flock on the hillside for some
thousands of years to come; but these great, slow, patient oxen cannot
go on dragging the plough much longer; the wonder is that they have
continued to the present time. One gazes lovingly at them, and on
leaving casts many a longing, lingering look behind, fearing that
after a little while their place will know them no more for ever.

I have described these oxen used in farm-work on the downs as black in
colour, and very nearly all of them are black; but the fact is, this
variety only dates back about a century in this district, and was
introduced from Wales, though for what reason no one appears to know,
since the original red Sussex ox was always a "kindly and handsome"
beast and a good worker. A few teams of the red oxen may still be seen
among the downs, probably some of these, as on the Earl of
Chichester's farm at Stanmer, being kept more for the sentiment of the
thing than for any other reason. They are noble-looking animals,
well-shaped, long-horned, of a deep, rich, red colour, a very much
deeper red than the Devonshire cattle, but not brown. These are of the
original Sussex breed, for which this county was once famous when it
was undoubtedly the greatest cattle-breeding district in England. "How
great on all sides is the abundance of cattle, but how strange a
solitude of men!" says an old traveller, when speaking of the Sussex
weald. And Arthur Young, in his famous _Tour through the Southern
Counties_ (1768) telling of the bad roads in this cattle-breeding
district, says: "Here I had a sight, which indeed I never saw in any
other part of England, namely, that going to church in a village not
far from Lewes, I saw an ancient lady of very good quality drawn to
church in her coach with six oxen: nor was it done but out of mere
necessity, the way being so stiff and deep that no horses could go in
it." The necessity no longer exists; and the horse is rapidly taking
his place even in the oxen's proper work. Down to 1834, according to
Ellman, the well-known improver of the South Down sheep, almost every
farmer in Sussex worked oxen as well as horses. What a change to the
present time, when the few farmers who still make use of oxen tell you
that even those few are not bred in the county, that Sussex is now
obliged to go into other counties to get its cattle! Within the last
five or six years I have seen the use of oxen given up in farms where
they had always been employed, and I greatly fear that those who will
walk on the downs a quarter of a century hence will see no patient
team of "slow black oxen."

It is possible that black oxen similar to those of Sussex may still be
used in farm-work in some parts of Ireland: I have not penetrated far
into the interior of that distant country. At all events, it seems
unlikely that a Nationalist and leader of the "Celtic School," Mr. W.
B. Yeats, should have come to the most Saxon district in England to
get that grand and sombre simile with which he concludes his poetic
drama of _The Countess Cathleen_:

  Tell them that walk upon the floor of peace
  That I would die and go to her I love;
  The years like great black oxen tread the world,
  And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
  And I am broken by their passing feet.

The black oxen figure nobly, too, in Mrs. Marriott Watson's poem,
_On the Downs_, and these are our familiar Sussex beasts. I will
here quote more than the necessary lines; and the reader who knows
and loves the district will agree that a more perfect picture of
downland in one of its many aspects was never written:

  Broad and bare to the skies.
  The great down country lies.
  Green in the glance of the sun.
  Fresh with the keen, salt air:
  Screaming the gulls rise from the fresh-turned mould,
  Where the round bosom of the wind-swept wold
  Slopes to the valley fair.

  Where the pale stubble shines with golden gleam,
  The silver plough-share cleaves its hard-won way
  Behind the patient team,
  The slow black oxen toiling through the day:
  Tireless, impassive still
  From dawning dusk and chill
  To twilight grey.
  Far off, the pearly sheep
  Along the upland steep
  Following the shepherd from the wattled fold,
  With tinkling bell-notes falling sweet and cold
  As a stream's cadence, while a skylark sings
  High in the blue with eager, outstretched wings,
  Till the strong passion of his joy he told.


If unlimited wealth were mine I should be tempted to become the owner
of one of these great hills, to place upon it, as a gift to posterity,
a representation in some imperishable material of these black cattle
engaged with their human fellow-creatures in getting in the harvest.
Doubtless the people of the future would say that the hill was never
really mine to dispose of as I thought proper; but I imagine that for
their own sakes they would respect the statuary, the memorial of a
vanished time:

    Cold Pastoral!
  When old age shall this generation waste,
  Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
  Than ours, a friend to man.

To begin with, a sculptor of genius would be required, a giant among
artists; and the materials would be gigantic blocks of granite and
marble--red, black, grey, and yellow. From these would be wrought,
twice or thrice the size of life, a group--a partly-loaded waggon,
drawn by three couples of great black bullocks, attended by four or
five labourers in their rough grey garments, strong men with brown
bearded faces and smooth-cheeked youths; one on the top of the load,
the others with their forks tossing up more sheaves; the oxen holding
up their horned, shaggy fronts--all but the leaders, who have more
freedom; and these would be turning aside with lowered heads, eagerly
snatching mouthfuls of yellow straw from a sheaf fallen by chance in
their way.

I have simply described what I saw in the course of my last late July
ramble on the downs; and it seemed only natural to wish to be able to
set up a copy which would remain unruined by time and weather for at
least a thousand years. The arrangement of the group as well as the
form of the creatures composing it--men and great rough-hewn
cattle--was wonderfully fine; but I also think that colour was a
principal element in the fascinating effect the spectacle
produced--the contrast of those large living black masses with the
shining red and gold of the wheat. How strikingly
beautiful--startlingly, one might almost say, on account of its
rarity--this contrast of black and gold is in nature may be seen even
in so comparatively small a creature as a blackbird, perched or moving
about amid the brilliant yellow foliage of a horse-chestnut or some
other tree in October. Again, a large mass of yellow sunlit foliage
seen against a black rain-cloud shows us the same contrast on a grand
scale.

The downs are nowhere tame, but I seldom care to loiter long in their
cultivated parts. It seems better to get away, even from the sight of
labouring men and oxen, and of golden corn and laughing bindweed, to
walk on the turf. This turf is composed of small grasses and clovers
mixed with a great variety of creeping herbs, some exceedingly small.
In a space of one square foot of ground, a dozen or twenty or more
species of plants may be counted, and on turning up a piece of turf
the innumerable fibrous interwoven roots have the appearance of
cocoa-nut matting. It is indeed this thick layer of interlaced fibres
that gives the turf its springiness, and makes it so delightful to
walk upon. It is fragrant, too. The air, especially in the evening of
a hot spring day, is full of a fresh herby smell, to which many minute
aromatic plants contribute, reminding one a little of the smell of
bruised ground-ivy. Or it is like the smell of a druggist's shop,
blown abroad and rid of its grosser elements: the medicine smell with
something subtler added--aroma and perfume combined, the wholesome
fragrance of the divine Mother's green garment, and of her breath.

But all the untilled downland is not turf: there are large patches of
ground, often of twenty or thirty to a hundred acres in extent, where
there is no proper turf, and the vegetation is of a different
character.  Some of these patches have a very barren appearance, and
others are covered with grass and flowers in spring, but in summer are
dry and yellow or brown, when the turf all round keeps its verdure.
This difference in the vegetation is not caused by a difference of
soil, as one is at first apt to imagine, but to the fact that the
ground of some former period has been tilled. I have looked at many
patches of this kind of land, which had not been tilled for periods of
from five to five-and-twenty years, and they mostly had the same
character. In spring they produce a scanty crop of thin grass, rarely
worth cutting, and by July it has all vanished; and the sun-baked soil
has by then an exceedingly barren appearance, with its sprinkling of
thistles, and a few minute creeping herbs. This kind of land, spoilt
by the plough, is said by the shepherds to be "sickly"; and the grass
that grows in it, little in quantity and poor in quality, they call
"gratton grass."

It has been said that if the turf is once destroyed by ploughing on
the downs it never grows again.  This is not absolutely true, as we
may find in the old Roman earthworks, of which there are so many on
the high downs, and which are now covered with as close and rich a
turf as may be seen anywhere.  But this is undoubtedly to go too far
back. That Nature takes an unconscionably long time to remake the turf
characteristic of the downs, when once it has been unmade by the
plough, there is a means of knowing. It happened that in 1800, when
wheat rose to the enormous price of 160 shillings, and even more, per
quarter, that on the South Downs, as in many other places throughout
the country, a great deal of grazing land was brought under
cultivation.  Much of this land, which was cultivated for a year or
two, has remained untilled ever since; and we see that like the
"sickly" lands that were tilled ten to twenty years ago it has not yet
got a turf. But in some respects it differs from the sickly land; for
although unlike the turfy downland which exists side by side with it,
it possesses a vegetation which has all the appearance of having
existed at that spot from of old. So unlike the barren, thistly, and
weedy waste lands and fallows does it look, so harmonious, so natural
all that grows upon it, that in some cases you would find it hard to
believe that the plant life is not native, but has migrated hither,
and was only able to take permanent hold of the soil because of the
destruction of the turf. These plants came in fact as weeds, but have
long established their position as members of the flora of the downs,
albeit in their larger growth, social habits, and shorter life they
differ markedly from the older flora of the turf.

The most curious thing about this vegetation of the lands that have
been tilled very many years ago is that it varies in an extraordinary
degree in different places. A slight difference in the local
conditions, as, for instance, depth of soil, etc., in different hills,
or different spots on the same hill, has probably brought about this
result. At one place two or three species have by chance fallen upon a
suitable unoccupied spot, after the turf has been killed, and have
spread over it and continued in possession ever since; but on the next
spot different species have colonised.  Some of these places are
overgrown with tall grass, a monotonous green, with scarcely a flower
among it; but in most places the eye is caught by colour, and the
colour will be yellow, red, blue, purple, or white, according to the
species that predominate; or it may be blue and yellow, or red and
white, or a mixture of all colours.

Another marked difference between the true native flora of the turf,
and these intruders which have become natives, is in the longer life,
or at all events more lasting freshness, of the former. Except in very
dry seasons, when the intense heat burns the hills brown, the turf is
always green and blossoming from March to October. The colonising
grasses and herbs are at their best in May and June.

A noteworthy fact about these wild chance-made gardens scattered far
and wide over the downs is that, besides their variety and beauty,
there is in some a singularity which adds to their attractiveness, and
causes them to be vividly remembered afterwards. This is not solely
caused by the contrast of patches or islands of vegetation unlike that
about it, which gives it something of an exotic appearance, but also
by colour effects not often seen. Some of the prettiest effects are
found on spots where it may be said that "nothing grows"--nothing,
that is to say, from the agriculturist's and the shepherd's points of
view, where there is an exceedingly thin soil on summits and high
slopes, and the plough having once broken up and ruined the ancient
turf has made the ground barren for ever. Two such spots I will
describe.

On one the thin poor soil was of a fine red colour, thinly overgrown
with an extraordinary variety of plants, with fine wiry stems and few
and scanty leaves, but with flowers almost normal as to size.  There
was nowhere a mass or patch of bright colour, but over the whole
surface a sprinkling of yellow, red, white, purple, and blue colour,
the flowers everywhere mixed with golden brown and silvery brown
grasses, while under this thin herbage appeared the red ground flecked
with white flints. It was a curiously beautiful and fascinating
picture. There is nothing in art that can give us any idea of effects
of this kind, which are not uncommon in nature; but I suppose it is a
fact that artists do sometimes attempt to produce them; and if we have
never seen the originals, or having seen can blot them out, their
attempts may not seem wholly futile. We may see it, for instance, in
some exceedingly beautiful examples of the potter's art, when every
colour used in painting clay has been thrown upon a vase or plaque and
by chance a happy effect has resulted.  We see it too in some old
Persian and Turkish carpets, in which a variety of very pure and
beautiful colours are woven in a fabric without design or pattern.
Again, we get an effect of this kind in a few stained-glass windows.
The one I have in my mind at this moment has given me more pleasure
than any other window in any church or cathedral in England; and it is
without design, for it was destroyed some three or four centuries ago,
but the fragments were gathered up by pious hands, and after many
years restored to their place pieced anyhow together.

A second even more barren spot, a couple of miles from the one
described, was, so far as my experience goes, absolutely unique in
character, and as simple and chaste in its one beautiful colour as the
other was rich and varied with its sprinkling of half a hundred
colours. Walking on the long plateau-like top of the high down I saw
before me a perfectly white piece of ground, an area of about twelve
to fourteen acres, and concluded that it was an old ploughed field
overgrown with white campion; but on arriving at the place I found
that my sheet of white blossoms was nothing but a field thickly strewn
with white flints. It is often said, and it is perhaps true, that the
flints of the chalk downs after exposure to the air become whiter than
any other flints; and these were white indeed--white as white blossoms
in summer, and as a field covered with snow in winter.  That any spot
with so thin a soil, where the blanket or matting of the turf must
have rested on a bed of flinty chalk, had been thought worth
cultivating was something to wonder at. Now, until I was within twenty
or thirty yards of this stony field, where it touched the green turf,
it appeared absolutely without any plant life, but at that short
distance I found that it was overgrown with forget-me-not, a plant
that, like the pimpernel, is always found on waste stony or barren
places on the downs where the turf has been destroyed. But in most
places it grows among other plants: here it had the whole field to
itself, and grew to a height of nine or ten inches; its exceedingly
thin, dark-coloured, wire-like, leafless stems crowned with their
loose clusters of minute turquoise blue blossoms. The smallness of the
flowers and thread-like fineness of the stems had made them invisible
until seen close at hand, and then how beautiful they looked! The
whole level expanse, thick strewn with shining white flints, appeared
covered with a thin veil or mist of a most exquisite blue.

Of the more splendid--one might almost say bizarre--effects, caused by
masses of bright-coloured flowers, a good many instances could be
given if space allowed. One must suffice. This was a very dense growth
of viper's bugloss covering about an acre of ground on the summit of a
down east of the Cuckmere stream. This plant usually grows scattered
about even when most abundant, as I have found it in some spots in
Suffolk: here the rough stalks studded with their intense blue flowers
grew thick as corn, one other plant with them--namely, the large
woolly thistle, which grew to the same height as the bugloss stalks,
and had flowers of an enormous size. One of these big flower-heads
would have filled a small coffee-cup. It struck me as most curious
that the purple of the thistle and the bright blue of the bugloss
looked so well together; but the sight was a very beautiful as well as
a singular one.

I will here remark that large masses of blue flowers seen under a blue
sky in a strong light, however novel and enchanting the sight may be
as long as the vision rests on it, does not leave as distinct and
vivid a picture on the mind as masses of flowers of any other colour
seen in similar conditions. It is true that a sheet of wild hyacinths
in a wood in spring is a beautiful sight that we never forget. But in
this case there is a background of trees, and deep shadow and green
above, between the blue of the flowers and the blue of the sky.

My mention of the big or woolly thistle reminds me of another pretty
effect of a colonising flower on the downs which I should not perhaps
have thought much about but for an incident and an attractive human
figure in the picture.

During a walk among the South Downs one day in June, looking up from
the valley I was in, I saw far up near the top of the hill in front of
me a shepherd boy standing motionless, his crook in his hand, his dog,
held by a cord or chain, at his side.  Wishing to have a talk with him
I began the ascent of the rather steep slope, and he, divining my
intention, waited for me. As I came close to him he made a very pretty
picture, standing against the blue sky knee-deep in the tall grass,
just beginning to flower, which covered that part of the down. Among
the grass sainfoin grew abundantly, and the green grass was sprinkled
everywhere with the rose-red of its blossoming spikes. Even a very few
flowers of any other colour would have taken something from the
exquisite beauty of that chance green and rose-red arrangement. But
there were no other flowers. The young shepherd, aged about fifteen,
had one of those perfectly Saxon faces which you see more in Sussex
than anywhere in England--a large round face, rosy brown in colour,
shy blue eyes and light brown hair, worn long. The expression, the shy
yet pleased look --pleased that the monotony of his long solitary day
would be broken by this chance encounter with a stranger--was
childlike and very pretty. He had loose-fitting grey clothes on, and a
round grey peak-less cap; and for ornament he had fastened in the
middle of it, where there had perhaps once been a top-knot or ball, a
big woolly thistle flower. It was really very curious to note how that
one big thorny flower-head with its purple disc harmonised with
everything about the boy and gave him a strange distinction.

Most of the colonising plants on the downs have, as I have said, their
period of greatest beauty in May and June: the common field scabious
is an exception. Like the blue devil's-bit scabious it is also found
on the turf; but it flourishes chiefly on (and on account of its long
stem is best suited to) the grass lands that have once been tilled. In
such localities it is very common and outlasts all its neighbours of
other species, and a very pretty effect is sometimes produced by that
flower "blooming alone" when abundant in the tall grass burnt yellow
by the heats of July and August. The pale mauve-blue of the flower and
pale yellow of the grass are complementary colours, and almost as
pleasing as the rose-red of sainfoin blossom with the vivid green of
June grass.

When these wild gardens of the old broken-up grounds are sere and
flowerless, or the flowers are few, the downs where the turf has never
been destroyed still glow with colour as in spring; and it is then
most delightful to visit those wilder places where many hours, or even
a whole day, may be spent out of sight of any human form, not even
excepting a solitary shepherd, standing motionless and statuesque on
the side of a distant hill.

Happily such desert spots still exist, wild as when the vanished
bustard had his home in them; miles upon miles of rough vegetation;
acres of luxuriant furze, flowerless now at the end of summer, darkest
green with a bloom of lighter green, bluish in tint, on its tops. The
furze is like the pine in this; and looking down upon it one can fancy
oneself a Titan standing waist-deep in a vast pine-forest, with the
blue-green feathery tree-tops all about one. Elsewhere the furze may
be seen growing among other bushes, appearing as blotches of darkest
green among greens of various lighter shades; trailing brambles, and
briars still waving aloft a few white and red roses; and in and out
among them, hanging everywhere in beautiful rags, and binding bush to
bush with ropes of many-shaped leaves, convolvulus and fragrant
woodbine, wild clematis in its silky beard, and bryony beaded with
green and scarlet berries.  Among the bushes on the lower slopes one
stumbles on places of extraordinary fertility, where the thistle,
foxglove, ragwort, viper's bugloss, agrimony, and wild mignonette grow
to a man's breast; while over them all the mullein lifts its great
flowery rod to a height of six to nine feet. From these luxuriant
patches you pass to more open ground covered with golden seeding
grasses, and heather, fiery purple-red, and emerald-green spots
powdered white with woodruff, and patches of purple thyme. One
afternoon, tired with a long day's ramble in the burning sun, I cast
myself down on one of these fragrant beds and fell into a doze. That
night when I threw off my clothes I noticed that the fragrance still
clung to them, and when I woke next morning the air of the room was so
charged with it that for a moment I fancied myself still out of doors,
where I had fallen asleep on that purple flowery bed.

The heather on the downs is of two species--the pale purple ling, or
dwarf heath, and the fiery purple-red small-leafed heath. I decline to
call it by its common but absurd name--absurd, I mean, when speaking
of it as a common plant of the Sussex Downs. From July to September is
the blossoming time of the heath, but at one favoured spot I have
found the small-leafed species in fullest bloom in June; and as in
this instance heather and June-flowering dropwort were blossoming
together, where there was no other plant to spoil the harmony, a
unique and very striking effect was produced. The dropwort is found
all over the chalk hills, everywhere a smaller, neater plant than its
great, tall, rank cousin of the moist meads, the fragrant meadowsweet.
On the close-cropped turf of the downs the dropwort may be seen
flowering with no more than a couple of inches of stem, but when it
grows among furze or heather it sends up a stem from a foot to
eighteen inches high. At the spot I have spoken of, the fiery blossoms
of the heather covered an area of about three-quarters of an acre, on
the slope of a furzy down, and over the whole of the ground the
dropwort grew, sprinkled so evenly and abundantly that almost every
square yard of ground had its one slim stem crowned with its loose
cream-coloured cluster. Not a leaf does this plant show--nothing but
the slim tall stem with its flower-cluster rising several inches above
the level of the rough heather; the intense purple-red glow of the
myriads of small heath bells, massed, or thickly sprinkled over the
dusky green of the ground; above, the slender stems waving their small
creamy-white flags and rags of blossoms in the wind;--the effect of
the whole, the contrast in form and colour, the airy motions of one
and immobility of the other, was most fascinating.

One of the latest summer flowers of the downs, which is so abundant as
to give a colour to the scene in some spots, is the harebell. It is a
dainty flower, airy and delicate in shape, waving or trembling to
every breath on its hair-like stem, of an exquisite tender blue, the
nearest, I think, of any flower to the cerulean hue of the small
butterfly's wings. It blooms everywhere on the hills from July to
September, but is most abundant about the end of August; and one
cannot help wondering to see this frail flower looking its brightest
and best--"enjoying the air it breathes"--when the weather is dryest
and hottest. Like the dropwort, it abounds more and grows tallest when
it has the protection of some thorny or uneatable plant--heath, furze,
or bitter grass. On some of the high downs a grass grows which the
sheep refuse to touch; it is dull green in colour, changing to
greenish-brown in late summer, and grows thickly and evenly over the
ground to a height of five or six inches, forming a soft carpet which
is pleasant to walk on. The shepherds call it "ur-grass." I am not
sure about the spelling, but it is pronounced something like "ugh!"--a
familiar grunt of exclamation of disgust. The summit of Ditchling
Beacon, the highest point of the South Downs (and of Sussex), is
clothed with this grass, and at the end of last August, after the long
excessively hot season, before any rain had fallen, the harebells were
so abundant as to give a blue tinge to the earth. While resting on the
ground at this spot, it occurred to me to measure a square yard of the
surface and count the fully-open blossoms contained within that space.
They numbered sixty-four.  Before finishing with this part of the
subject it may be observed that on these high, treeless downs, in the
burning sun, the flowers are more intense in colour than those that
bloom in the shade and close shelter of the woods and forests of the
weald, even those of the same species--the poor

  Half-faded blossoms, pale with heat
  And full of bitter summer.

Looking round upon the living garment of many colours, especially
where the glowing orange-yellow patches of ragwort are most
conspicuous, one can fancy that the strayed pack-horses of a silk
merchant of the olden time have passed this way, and that the sharp
claws of the bramble have caught and pulled the packages to pieces,
scattering far and wide the shining fabrics of all the hues in the
rainbow. This brilliancy in the colour of the flowers has a
counterpart in the greater intensity of life in the creatures; or so
it seems to me. The hum of the bees; the lightning-quick movement of
the lizard and of the adder, when one is so fortunate as to catch a
glimpse of him--a sinuous, swift-moving band of a shining golden-brown
colour; the frantic scuttling into cover of the disturbed rabbit; the
lively movements and music of the small birds--all give one the idea
that the hottest time of the summer is their period of greatest
activity.

These blossoming places in the wilderness which I have tried to
describe, and which make the thought of our trim, pretty artificial
gardens a weariness, are not too many: in most places the untilled
downs are bare of furze and bramble and the plants that take advantage
of the bramble's protection, and are close-cropped by the sheep. Their
very smoothness gives them a character which is quite unique and has a
peculiar charm. Flowers are abundant and in considerable variety, but
many that are luxuriant in rich soils, wherever there is shelter and
protection, here scarcely look like the same species: they have
changed their habits of growth, their form and size, to suit the
different conditions. The luxury of long stems, the delight of waving
in the wind, and the ambition to overtop their neighbours, would here
be fatal. Their safety lies in nestling down amid the lowly grass,
keeping so close to the earth as to be able to blossom and ripen their
seed in spite of the ever-nibbling sheep--the living lawn-mowers
perpetually moving about over them. The vegetation has the appearance
of a beautiful tapestry worked in various shades of green, roughened
with the slender dry bents standing out like pale yellow thread-ends
from the green texture; flecked, and in places splashed with brilliant
colour--red, purple, blue, and yellow. Or if you look at the flowers
with the sun before you they appear like shining gems sewn into the
fabric and forming an irregular pattern.  The commonest flowers of the
close-fed downs are mostly quite small. Commonest in spring, when
indeed yellow flowers most abound, is the bird-foot trefoil. The wee
fairy yellow trefoil is common, too; and clovers red and clovers
white; and the kidney vetch, with curious embossed or jewelled
flower-heads. Creeping rock-rose with soft, silky petals, and
clustered bell-flower, deep blue, looking like Canterbury bells picked
from their stalk and scattered about on the grass. Crane's-bill and
musky stork's-bill--mere specks of red; little round-leaved mint, a
faint misty purple; and the scented plantain, its leaves like leaves
cut out of green cloth, pressed flat and sewn upon the green fabric.
Rest-harrow, very dark green on a light green turf, with minute pink
and white butterfly blossoms. Woodruff, round and among the furze
bushes, like powdery snow newly fallen on the green earth: and
curiously named squinancy-wort, exceeding small and fragrant, blooming
all over the turfy downs, here white, there rose-red, or deep red, or
purple, so variable is it in colour. More abundant still, and more
variable, is the minute milkwort, quaintly and prettily described by
old Gerarde: "The flower grows at the top of a blew colour, fashioned
like a little bird, with wings, tail, and body, only to be discovered
by those who do observe the same." It is indeed blue in many places,
as if a summer shower of blue rain had fallen from an unclouded sky,
and the small stems were still beaded with the drops; but by-and-by,
as you walk over the downs, you will find--if you do observe the
same--that the flower is getting a paler and paler blue, and finally
your little milkwort is seen to be purest white. Continuing your walk
again, you will soon be in some place where the tiny bird-blossom will
have a rosy blush, and to the blushing flowers will succeed pink, then
red, then purple, and then blue again. It is interesting to note that
the different colours are not often seen together, or in one place.
Blue, white, pink, and purple flowers are all at some distance apart,
although all may be found on one hill, with flowers of intermediate
shades between.  Thus we see that in this species the colour is not
fixed and the mark of a distinct variety, as in the pimpernel and
other species which produce flowers of different colours. The colour
of the milkwort probably depends on the character of the soil, or some
other local condition. Has anyone ever tried the experiment of growing
the plant in beds from seeds produced by flowers of different colours?
Observant old Gerarde described them all separately, and made their
number six. "The fourth kind," he says, "is like the last in every
respect, but that it hath white floures, otherwise it is very like."
Then he says: "The purple milkwort differeth from the others in the
colour of its floures, wherein especially consisteth the difference."
And finally, his sixth milkwort "is like unto the rest in each
respect, saving that the floures are of an overworn ill-favoured
colour, which maketh it to differ from the others of its kind."

Next to the delight of flowers themselves is to me that of listening
to the old herbalist discoursing of the same; and this would I say of
no other work on plant-lore, for these are mostly a weariness to read.
The old author is simple, not concerning himself overmuch about the
reason of things, or, as he would say, he loveth not to dance in
quagmires.  And sometimes he is almost childlike in his repetitions
and reaffirmations; but the colour of his style is never overworn, and
he is for ever fresh and full of variety and agreeable surprises, like
Nature herself, who maketh her plants not for meat and medicine only,
but some to be esteemed for beauty alone, and as garlands and crowns
for pleasure. Indeed, there is not seldom a lustre in his words that
serves to remind one of the red whortle he greatly admired, which is
full of juice of so orient and beautiful a colour to limn withal that
Indian lacca cannot be compared thereunto. Nor let it be forgot that
it was he who invented the name of Traveller's Joy; and by increasing
the pleasure which all have in that green and silver adorner of our
country waysides and hedges, may even be said to have added something
to nature.

It would not be possible to mention all nor half the numerous small
pretty flowering herbs that mingle their roots in the close matting of
the turf that covers the sheep-fed downs; but a word must be said of
the eyebright, that minute shrub a couple of inches high, deepest
green in colour, with many small yet conspicuous blossoms, white and
rose-colour, streaked with purple, and for the pupil of its eye, one
spot of divine yellow. It is a flower that brightens the eye that sees
it, since no person can look at it and not feel gladdened at the
sight.  It blossoms from July to October, and I always find it on very
steep slippery downs, often where the chalk crops out of the thin
soil, and I imagine the cause of this to be that this plant to save
itself must be out of reach of the nibbling sheep. All other herbs may
be eaten down often to the roots without being destroyed or defeated
in their object of ripening their seed at last; but at the slightest
pull the eyebright comes up, root and branch, and I think that most if
not all of the plants that grow on accessible ground must get eaten up
before they can ripen their seed. Why the plant comes up so easily in
the sheep's mouth, or in your hand if you attempt ever so gently to
pull one small flowering branchlet, is the eyebright's secret. The
plant is supposed to be a semi-parasite that feeds on the roots of
other plants, and on examining a piece of turf you find that its
root-stems scarcely penetrate to the soil under the mat of roots of
the other plants; that from its root-stems very fine hair-like fibres
branch out, and are loosely fastened to the grass roots; but whether
these fine fibres suck the sap of the roots they attach themselves to,
or merely feed on exudations and other neglected or rejected
materials, the botanists are not yet able to tell us.

Among the numerous small blooms of the downs, a few of which I have
named, there is one that is big, comparatively--the largest, most
conspicuous, and most generally distributed all over the chalk hills.
This is the dwarf or plume thistle. Its leaves you do not notice, nor
even see unless you look for them, for, like the plantain leaves, they
are found close to the ground; sewn, so to speak, into the fabric of
the turf. The solitary flower-head is practically stemless, and rests
like a cup or vase on the earth--a great amethyst among gems of other
colours and of smaller size.

Though it looks so big among the little blooms, you see that it is not
really big when the queen humble-bee drops upon it and well-nigh blots
out its purple disc with her large, black, hairy body.




CHAPTER IV

A FAIRY FAUNA


Insect life of the downs--Common snail--Adder-like colouring of some
snails--The "thrushes' anvil"--Eccentric motions of flies--Peculiar
colouring of some flies--The cow-dung fly--A thyme-loving
fly--Butterflies--Disposition and habits of the small blue--Sleep in
insects--The humble-bee--Intoxicating effect of thistle flower on
bees--The unknown faculties of insects--De Quincey's "gluttonism."


In the last chapter we had an account of a fairy flora, as we call the
numerous minute herbaceous plants, mixed with small grasses and
clovers, which clothe the sheep-fed downs in a grassy and flowery
mantle. The fairy flora has a fairy fauna to match it. Where there is
no bush vegetation nor heath and rough herbage for shelter, there are
no birds. At all events none breed on the naked unsheltered ground,
unless it be a wheatear that makes his nest in an old rabbit-hole in
some open stony spot. But of the birds and beasts of downland I shall
treat in the next chapter. The creatures that mostly impress us in all
the open shelterless places are the insects. We think less of the
innumerable small inconspicuous snails, whitey-grey like the small
fragments of chalk seen in the turf; indeed we think of them not at
all unless we hear by chance the crunching of their frail shells
beneath our soles as we walk. Alas, that, glad to exist ourselves, we
should thus unwittingly tread out so many small sparks of life!

A word here about our common banded snail (_Helix nemoralis_), which
is common everywhere in the furzy places, but is incapable of
existence on the close-cropped turf. Everyone knows how extremely
variable in colour the shell of this snail is; in every garden a
pretty collection may be made of shells, red, yellow, cream, and brown
of many shades; shells marked and unmarked, with great variety, too,
in their markings. Now most of the shells I see on the downs are of
one type; indeed, you may in some parts search the furzy spots for
miles without getting a snail of any other type. The ground colour is
yellow, or yellowish white, with broad black longitudinal bands. Not
only is it a most conspicuous coloration, but seen casually down among
the vivid green of the furze and herbage it often startles a person by
its curiously close resemblance to a small portion of a
highly-coloured adder's coil. This chance resemblance to a dangerous
creature does not, however, serve the snail as a protection from his
principal enemies, the thrushes. Wherever there is a patch of furze
there you will find the "thrushes' anvil," usually a flint half or
nearly quite buried in the soil a few feet away from the bushes, and
all round the anvil the turf is strewn with shattered shells.

To return to the insects of the downs. Of these flies thrust
themselves most on our attention; it is, in fact, impossible to
overlook creatures that conduct themselves in so wildly eccentric a
manner. One big yellow fly like a honey-bee comes directly at you with
a loud hostile hum or buzz, hovers for a few moments, dashes away in a
straight line, turns off at a tangent, and, rushing back again,
proceeds with extraordinary velocity to describe curves and circles,
parallel lines, angles, and other geometric figures in the air; and
finally drops down within a few inches of you, to remain motionless as
a fly carved out of a yellow pebble until the impulse sends him off
again.  What his motives are, what it all means, we are unable to
guess; we can only conclude in our ignorance, judging from
appearances, that he is mad; that, in fact, the proverbial March hare
is a preeminently sane and sensible creature in comparison.  Somewhat
of this light-headedness is, I imagine, seen in most of the flies,
from the burliest bluebottle to the small gilded variety. What would
it be, I wonder, if these minute creatures grew to the size of ducks
and geese? Our whole time would be spent in watching their amazing,
meaningless antics; nothing else would be talked or even thought about
in the world. In the end, we should become strictly nocturnal, in
order to be out of their way, or else we should ourselves go mad in
their company.

The peculiarity of another species, which is like a house-fly in size
and shape, is in his colouring; on his jet-black body he wears a broad
transverse crimson bar. Of this pretty, most singular fly there is a
pleasant story to tell. In August, when he abounds most, wild thyme is
in the height of its blossoming season in many places on the downs,
both in the hills and in the deep vales and hollows; and its round
patches of deep green creeping plants, purpled over with bloom, are
exceedingly conspicuous on the paler green or yellow or grey-brown of
the turf. To these small islands of fragrance the fly resorts, and the
whole island or patch may sometimes be found swarming with them.

Does the unentomological reader happen to know an insect, a fly, of
quaint and curious aspect, known to many persons by the good, honest,
vernacular name of cow-dung fly, and regarded by some good people as
an ugly, repulsive-looking, hump-backed, hairy creature? It is an
Asilus--a big fly that slays and devours other flies, even as we kill
and eat cows, sheep, and many other creatures more innocent and
beautiful than ourselves. In spring this fly spreads all over the
country, especially in meadows and grass lands, where he exhibits that
extraordinary predilection for cow-dung which gives him his name.  To
a piece of fresh cow-dung they flock in such numbers that it is soon
covered with a dense mass of them, their yellow, hairy, round-backed
bodies making it look like an embossed mound of dark gold. The exact
hue closely resembles what we call "old gold," or gold without the
glint. When disturbed they rise up with a loud buzz like a swarm of
angry wasps, and after wheeling about in a confused noisy cloud for a
few moments they settle again, and the mound of old gold is formed
once more. It is a fascinating sight; and a nature-lover of a
sensibility as exquisite as that of Charles Lamb, when he looked at
the Fleet Street crowd at eleven o'clock at night, might, too, shed
"tears of happiness at the sight of so much life."

Now, just as the cow-dung attracts the great golden fly, so does the
purple patch of thyme attract the smaller crimson-banded fly of the
downs. I suppose it is the scent that draws him, and possibly they go
to it more for pleasure than profit; at all events, they are not so
much occupied in feeding on the flowers as in rapidly moving about
over and among them; not flying but creeping and running hither and
thither, crossing and recrossing each other's track in every
direction, a maze of black and red flies performing a sort of
complicated dance, all agitating and waving their glistening wings, as
if that bath of sweetness had made them mad with delight.

Some of my readers may be inclined to ask--Why, when describing an
interesting habit of any creature, do I not give the scientific name?
Well, it would undoubtedly be easy to do so in some cases; for
instance, when speaking of the common or house sparrow, or the
stag-beetle, it would be easy to follow the example of those writers
who besprinkle their pages with the learned names of every familiar
creature. But the flies are a small and an exceedingly numerous
people. When you happen on a fly that by chance draws your attention
by its curious actions or appearance, it is not so easy as the
uninformed person may think to give it a name; I have tried it and
therefore know.  I have consulted books and books, and found not what
I sought: I have also consulted entomologists, and they have asked me
in a tone of surprise and mild remonstrance if I had taken them for
Dipterists, when, as I ought to have known, they were Lepidopterists,
or else Coleopterists. This is indeed the poor, puzzled field
naturalist's great trouble, that so many monograph compilers occupy
themselves with these two great orders of insects, while other orders,
just as interesting when you come to look at the creatures, are
neglected. Well, it is a comfort to hear that there _is_ a Dipterist
in England, and that he has nearly finished writing the very book that
many of us want--a monograph of the British flies.

Butterflies are abundant; a brimstone yellow shining in the sunlight
has a very splendid appearance as he flutters airily by you on his
way; but the larger brilliant-coloured species rest not here, where
the green flowery surface is too smooth for them. The red admiral is
common enough in furzy places; but on the close-cropped turf the
largest butterfly is the grey heath--the sedentary "gatekeeper," who
seldom flies until disturbed. A brown, a skipper, the small heath, a
small copper--these are some of the most common species. Most abundant
is the little pale blue of the chalk downs; in fact, he outnumbers all
the others together. Sitting on the grass, you can sometimes count as
many as thirty or forty fluttering about in sight and near you at one
time. It is curious to note that the hue of the sky and atmosphere on
this insect's wings appears to have "entered his soul," to make him
more aerial in habits, more light-hearted and playful in disposition
than his other-coloured relations. If one has ever seen the great blue
Morpho butterfly of the tropics, one recalls its wonderful beauty,
soaring high in the sunlight, its colour changing in depth at every
moment; now pale as our pale little blue of the downs, now azure, now
deepest sapphire; and now flashing white as polished silver, or as
crystal. This is the angel among butterflies, as our small blue of the
downs is the fairy; and, wide apart as they are, it is the heavenly
hue in both that distinguishes them above other creatures of their
class.

As a compensation for their greater activity the little blues have a
shorter day than the other kinds; like little children who have been
running about playing all day long, they go to bed early. Before six
o'clock, when other butterflies are still abroad and active, when the
sun is more than two hours from setting, and the humble-bee has yet
two hours of labour before him, they are tired out and their briefer
day is finished. Now most butterflies when they go to rest tumble
anyhow into bed; in other words, they creep or drop into the herbage,
take hold of a stem, and go to sleep in any position, their appearance
being that of a dead or faded leaf.  The blue has a quite different
habit. As a rule, even where the down is smoothest and without
shelter, there exist slight hollows or depressions, where the grass is
higher and rougher than in other places; and to such spots the blues
gather from all around; but instead of creeping down into the grass,
they settle on the very tips of the dry bents. At some spots in an
area of a few square yards they may be found in scores; one or two or
three, and sometimes as many as half a dozen, on one bent, sitting
head down, the closed wings appearing like a sharp-pointed grey
leaflet at the end of the stem. It is hard to believe that they can
really be asleep, sitting thus exposed, their great black eyes looking
very wide awake, the afternoon sun pouring its light into their tiny
brains; but when touched they scarcely move, and they will even suffer
you to pick them off and replace them on the bent without flying away;
and there they will remain through the night, however strong the wind
may blow.

What we call sleep in an insect resembles the somnambulistic state,
rather then sleep as we experience it. Thus this resting butterfly can
be made to act, and he usually does the right thing. He keeps his hold
on the bent when the wind beats, and when after being plucked off he
is replaced, he grasps it firmly again; finally, when tossed up, he
flies away and slants down until he touches the grass, then fastens
himself once more to a stem; but there is no doubt that he does it all
unconsciously, like a person in a hypnotic condition doing what he has
been willed to do.

The little blue butterfly's habit of roosting on the tips of the bents
is, I imagine, advantageous, and may be one cause of the abundance of
this species.  At sunset, if you narrowly observe the ground in one of
those depressions or hollows where the grass grows thickest and
tallest, and which are the sleeping-places of all the small
butterflies and other diurnal insects of the downs, you will be
surprised at the number of the rapacious species of various kinds to
be seen busily quartering the ground like so many wood-ants in quest
of prey. They do not climb to the tops of the smooth slender bents,
and the small blue is therefore safe from them; but it is a wonder
that any of the skippers and other species that creep into the shelter
of the grass should escape the multitude of insect foxes, cats, and
weasels prowling about in search of a meal.

When all the small butterflies and diurnal flies and beetles and the
quaint goat-faced grasshopper have gone to rest, the humble-bee is
still at work.  No short day for him! (_It_ or _her_ it ought to be,
but let that pass.) He reminds me of a London omnibus-driver who was
talked to by a zealous Socialistic friend of mine on the advantages of
an eight-hours' day. His reply was, "I don't at all hold with them
principles. Ain't a day got twenty-four hours? And what does that
mean? It means, I take it, that there's twelve hours for work and
twelve for rest.  Half one and half the other. There's no getting over
that--it's too plain. I've always worked twelve hours a day, and, say
what you like, I ain't going against nature."

That is also the humble-bee's philosophy; but although he is very
stable-minded there are moments when he is tempted to depart from it.
The thistle flower overcomes him with its deliciousness, and he will
stick to it, feasting on its sweets, forgetful of the community's
claim on him and of the law of his being, until he is no longer in a
fit condition to go home. At all events, he refuses to do so.  Walking
about on the downs in the fading light you will find the belated
reveller half buried in the purple disc, clasping it affectionately to
his bosom; and however stupefied with nectar he may seem, you will
observe that he still continues to thrust at the small tubular florets
with his proboscis, although probably with a very uncertain aim. If
you compassionately touch him with a finger-tip to remind him of the
lateness of the hour, he will lurch over to one side and put out one
or two of his anterior legs or arms to make a gesture waving you off.
And if your ears were tuned to catch the small inaudible sounds of
nature, you would doubtless hear him exclaiming with indistinct
utterance, "Go 'way; for goo'ness sake don't'sturb me; lemme be--I'm
a' right."

It is noticeable that even in his cups he never wholly loses the
characteristic dignity of manner coupled with gentleness we so greatly
admire in him. There may be in his order creatures equally
intelligent, but morally, or at all events in manner, he is decidedly
their superior. So peaceable and mild in disposition is he, so
regardful of the rights of others, even of the meanest, that he will
actually give place to a fly coming to feed at the same flower.  It is
on this account that, alone among insects, the humble-bee is
universally regarded with esteem and affection. In his virtues, and in
all that is best in him, he is very human. It is therefore not
strange, during a late walk, when we bid good-night and goodbye to the
darkening downs, that it grieves us a little to find so estimable an
insect in such a plight.

We often say, and it is easily said, that this or that animal is
human-like; but if the truth could be known about such matters we
should probably find that the social humble-bee, with all his virtues,
is just as far removed from us as any other creature with an
articulated cylindrical body. It is sad to think, or so it appears to
me after a day agreeably spent on the downs in the society of this
small people, that in spite of all our prying into nature's secrets,
all our progress and the vast accumulations of knowledge at our
disposal, we do not and never can know what an insect knows or feel
what it feels. What appearance this visible world has to an eye with
twenty thousand facets to it is beyond our power to imagine or
conceive. Nay, more, we know that these small bodies have windows and
avenues which ours are without; that they are conscious of vibrations
which for us do not exist; that millions of "nimble emanations," which
miss us in spite of our large size, hit them. We can gaze through a
magnifying-glass at certain of their complex organs of sense, but
cannot conjecture their use. They are as great a mystery or as
meaningless to us as our most delicate and complicated scientific
instruments would seem to a wild man of the woods. If it were not for
our limitations--if we could go a little beyond our tether--we could
find out the cause of the seemingly mad behaviour of the fly.

De Quincey wrote very prettily about what he called "gluttonism"--the
craving of the mind to know and enjoy all the good literature and
music and art-work that had been produced; and finally to know the
lives of all men--all who are living and all who had lived on the
earth. It strikes one that this craving, as he described it, though he
says that it afflicts us all, and that he himself had been reduced to
an extremity of wretchedness by it, must be set down as one of the
many inventions of that fascinating but insincere writer. Speaking for
myself, if the power to attain to all that De Quincey craved, or
pretended that he craved for, were mine, I should not value it; I
should give it all to be able to transform myself for the space of a
summer's day into one of these little creatures on the South Downs;
then to return to my own form and place in nature with a clear
recollection of the wonderland in which I had been. And if, in the
first place, I were permitted to select my own insect, I should
carefully consider them all, since they differ as greatly from each
other as bird from serpent, and fish from mammal. I should pass in
review the slow beetle, heavily armoured, and the fantastic fly, a
miracle of inconsequence; the esteemed humble-bee, and the wasp, that
very fine insect gentleman in his mood of devilish cheerfulness; the
diligent ant, absorbed in his minute business; the grasshopper, with
his small stringed instrument and long grave countenance; and the
dragon-fly, with those two great gem-like orbs that reflect a nature
of an unimaginable aspect.  And after all I should make choice of the
little blue butterfly, despite his smallness and frivolity, to house
myself in.

The knowledge of that strange fairy world it inhabits would be
incommunicable, like the vision vouchsafed to some religionist of
which he has been forbidden to speak; but the memory of it would be a
secret perennial joy.




CHAPTER V

WILD LIFE


Wild life confined to the furze--The rabbit and his enemy--The fox
abundant--A badgers' earth--Tenacity of the badger--Dead shrews--Moles
without water--Catching moles for fun--A shepherd on
moles--Birds--Extinct species--A shepherd's reminiscences--Buzzards
building on bushes--Black game in Ashdown Forest--The last stone
curlew--Long-eared owl--Pre-natal suggestion in the lower
animals--Existing large birds--A colony of gulls at Seaford--Kestrel
preying on grasshoppers--Turtle-dove--Missel-thrush and small
birds--Wheatears and sea-poppies--Shrike--The common lizard's
weakness--Sheep killed by adders--Beauty of the adder--A handful of
adders--Shepherd boy and big snake.


The very small animal life, the fairy fauna as I have called it, is
that of the close-cropped turf; the larger wild life of bird and beast
and reptile is almost exclusively confined to the rough spots
overgrown with furze, bramble, and other bush and dwarf-tree
vegetation, in some places intermixed with bracken and heather. These
rough isolated places are sometimes like islands on a wide expanse of
smooth turf; and for those who love wildness, and wild creatures, they
are often delightful spots in which to spend a long summer's day.
Here the creatures live a comparatively undisturbed life; at all
events it may be said that they are not much disturbed by man out of
the shooting and hunting seasons. There are partridges, mostly
red-legs, and a few wild pheasants in some places, and rabbits
everywhere. Seeing these last so abundant and so tame in the presence
of man, one might imagine that an island of furze on the downs is a
perfect paradise for bunny all the summer long; but it is not so; his
chiefest and most subtle enemy, the fox, is always lurking near,
watching him in all his outgoings and incomings. I doubt that foxes
are anywhere in England more numerous than in some of the furze-grown
places on the South Downs.  It is true they are hunted in their
season, else they would not be in existence at all, but I do not think
that more than one fox in every six or eight born each year is killed
by the hounds. How they are kept within reasonable limits I cannot
say; I can only say that some of them do meet with a violent death,
during the summer months, in spite of the strong feeling in favour of
their preservation among the farmers. As a rule the farmer declines to
make any claim for lambs destroyed, and if his wife sends in a claim
for a dozen or twenty chickens taken, she gets a sympathetic message,
possibly a pair of gloves, from the M.F.H., and there the matter ends.
Still, the red rascal does often meet with his deserts; I have found
foxes at midsummer, in fine condition and with a splendid coat of
hair, lying dead among the furze, and could only say, "Careless
fellow! you have gone and got yourself bitten by an adder, and there's
an end of you."

In spite of hounds and "adders," the fox continues only too numerous.
In the course of one morning's walk I have come upon four foxes in a
furzy down, and where I saw four there must have been forty.

The badger, too, still exists in some of the rough furzy spots. At one
place in the South Downs I discovered an earth in the centre of a
large clump of old furze, mixed with elder bushes, growing on an
exceedingly steep slope, where a man could hardly stand upright. In
the middle of the clump there were five great holes and an enormous
heap of flints and lumps of hard chalk, many of them weighing six to
seven pounds. These badgers must indeed have possessed an amazing
strength to make their earth in such a place. The trunks and low
horizontal branches of the elder bushes had been used, some to rub
their hide on and some to clean their clay-covered feet, so that some
were rubbed smooth and others plastered with clay. The floors of the
burrows as far down as one could see and feel were thickly carpeted
with freshly-gathered moss, carried down to form the nest.

It struck me very forcibly when viewing this earth, and thinking of
its occupant's tremendous power, tenacity, and hardiness, and of his
excessive shyness and strictly nocturnal habits, that, in spite of his
rarity, he may yet win in the race of life with his more numerous and
protected neighbour, the fox. That fox-hunting will eventually die out
as a national sport in this country is now a common belief even among
those who pursue it with the greatest enthusiasm; and when that time
arrives there will be nothing to save the fox from the fate of the
wolf, the marten, and the wild cat; unless indeed a new sentiment
should spring up in the place of the existing one to preserve him as a
member of the British fauna--a sentiment similar to that which has
preserved the useless heron in this country, and is now saving the
golden eagle from extermination in the north of Scotland. It is so
easy to kill the fox, and he is such a destructive beast, that half a
century hence we can imagine the farmer and henwife saying, "If the
fox is wanted alive for the sake of his beauty, or for some such
reason, the good people who want him must pay for his keep, otherwise
it must be a life for a life."

But the badger is not destructive; or at all events the damage he
inflicts on the farmer is comparatively insignificant, and he is very
hard to kill. Though our largest savage beast he has, up till now,
maintained his existence throughout the length and breadth of the
land, in spite of much persecution; and we now see that there is
growing up a feeling in favour of his preservation, which will make
his position safer.

I learned on inquiry that the badgers whose earth I had found were not
in any danger of being disturbed, and I was told of a second earth a
few miles from the first where the animals were also allowed to be at
peace.

The stoat is not uncommon on the downs, and loyally aids the fox in
his labour of keeping the rabbits down. The common shrew also abounds,
although these high and excessively dry hills strike one as a most
unsuitable district for such an animal.  And here as in other places
it is a common thing to find these quaint little creatures lying dead
in bare open spots. All the dead shrews I have examined on the downs
had been killed, and from the crushed condition of some of them I take
it that the fox, like the cat and some other rapacious creatures,
mammal and bird, often kills him on sight and only discovers
afterwards that he has got a shrew instead of a mouse.

The mole is not universal; indeed on many hills no traces of him are
to be seen, but he is common nevertheless, and on some of the high
South Downs exceedingly abundant. Seeing him so numerous at the very
highest points--the summit of Ditchling Hill and the long ridge
extending from Ditchling Beacon to Mount Blackcap--the thought came
into my mind that the moles were not like the birds and like myself,
merely visitors on these heights, but old residents, and that their
colonies had doubtless existed for scores and for centuries of years.
And yet how could this be, since there is no water? For we have been
taught to believe that the mole is a thirsty creature, that he must
drink often, or at regular intervals, and drink deeply; and that to
satisfy this want he makes runs to the nearest watercourse, that when
there is no stream or pond near he sinks a well. Here there are no
water-courses, and the dew ponds, few and far between, were all dried
up during the excessively hot summer of 1899.  The mole could not
possibly sink a well in that hard chalk. Even human beings cannot do
it. The few cottages that exist in this neighbourhood have no wells.
The cottagers depend on the rain-water they catch and store, and when
this is consumed in summer they have to go a distance of three or four
miles for a supply. Yet here on the highest point, nearly a thousand
feet above the flat country of the weald, the nearest place where it
would be possible for them to obtain water, with nothing but the thin
crust of soil above the hard chalk for them to live and move in, the
moles were most abundant and active during the hot dry summer months.

One hot July morning, about ten o'clock, I was standing on Ditchling
Hill looking at the hundreds of fresh mounds which the moles had been
throwing up, and finding that they were still at work, it suddenly
struck me that it would be a good plan to capture one of the
industrious little beggars to ask him to tell me the secret of his
presence in that waterless land. It is always best to go to the
fountain-head for information. After a little watching I detected a
movement in the loose earth in the last mound of a long row of hills
marking the course of a new run. Placing myself over the mound I
waited till it stirred again, then plunged my hand into the loose
earth and grabbed at the little beast, but he slipped like quicksilver
out of my hand and was gone. I very soon found another mole at work
throwing up earth a foot or so in advance of a chain of seventeen
hills of fresh dark mould all in a line.  Altering my simple tactics,
I thrust the point of my stick into the sod a few inches back from the
point where he was working, and so cut off his retreat, and then
caught and pulled him out. I have, first and last, interviewed a good
many moles and know their disposition pretty well, but the extreme
excitability and violence of this mole of the high downs fairly
surprised me. Taking him to a spot where there was a smooth, close,
hard turf, I released him, when, finding that he could not break
through the matted roots and bury himself in the soil, he began to act
in the maddest way, wriggling his body and dashing himself on the
ground, screaming all the time as if someone was murdering him,
although I was not touching nor even standing very near him. It was
useless to interrogate so irrational a creature; and leaving him to
make his way back to his own subterraneous city, or Welbeck Abbey, I
walked on still occupied with my mole problem.  I could not suppose
that want of water had made this individual mad, seeing that he was
sleek and well-nourished and had struggled powerfully when I had held
him in my hand. If I, so much bigger than a mole, had his strength and
shape I could move mountains.

Walking on I met an intelligent-looking shepherd, who was, I found, a
good observer and something of a naturalist; and to him I put the
question that occupied me. He told me that he had been shepherding on
these hills above forty years, and the moles had always been there
where they had no water to drink. "They must drink or die," said I:
"it is down in the books, and therefore it must be true." He shook his
head at the books and replied that the moles come out at night to lick
the grass--the dew was enough for them. "If that is so," I said, "then
they must die of thirst in seasons when there is no dew." "They _do_
die," he answered; "in very dry windy summers, when there is no dew,
you find a good many moles lying about dead on these hills every
morning." He added that they did not all die; that a year or so after
a time of great mortality they became numerous again.

The story I had heard of the moles dying in numbers when there was no
moisture to be got from the grass was afterwards confirmed by other
persons whom I questioned on the subject--some of them shepherds, and
some men of other occupations whose lives had been passed among the
downs.  Yet I could not say that the books are entirely wrong in what
they tell us: it is a fact, I believe, that in lowlands where access
to the water is easy moles do drink at regular intervals, and must
drink to live; and we may believe that the hill-top moles in the
course of long centuries, probably thousands of years, have become
inured to other conditions, and, like many mammals found in waterless
deserts, are able to exist without drinking. Moles transplanted from
the lowlands would doubtless quickly perish on these hills.


When we come to the bird life of the downs we find that the species
are not many. Nevertheless, there is more to be said about the birds
than the mammals of this district, and much that I have to say about
them must be reserved for other chapters.  It may be said, without
injustice, that Sussex has distinguished itself above all counties,
with perhaps the exception of Norfolk, in the large number of native
species it has succeeded in extirpating during the present century.
>From its forest and heath lands, its marshes and shingled flats, its
cliffs and downs, the following species among others of less account
have disappeared: the raven, kite, common buzzard and honey buzzard,
hen harrier and Montagu's harrier: of shore birds and terns, several
species: bittern and reed pheasant, bustard, stone curlew, blackcock,
chough, guillemot, razor-bill, kittiwake, and shag. Augustus Hare, in
his lately-published work _Sussex_, speaks of Beachy Head as a haunt
of thousands of sea-fowl--puffins, sea-gulls, choughs, etc.  Bless the
man! he is many years behind the times.  On all the fifteen miles of
precipitous chalk cliffs extending from Beachy Head to Brighton the
only birds to be seen now are those commonest universal
cliff-breeders, the herring-gull and jackdaw, and a few kestrels. The
one surviving pair of peregrine falcons that haunt this coast have in
recent years been annually robbed of their eggs or young.

It is not possible, said to me a gentleman residing on this south
coast a year or two ago, for any man to see a large rare bird and not
"go for it." The pleasure of shooting it is too great to be resisted,
however sorry he may be that all these fine birds are being
exterminated throughout the country. If he is not himself a collector
he will be sure to have a friend or neighbour who is, and who will be
delighted to have a Sussex-killed raven, spoonbill, honey buzzard, or
stone curlew sent him as a present.

This he said to me in explanation of his motives in shooting a
buzzard.

I will here quote a passage touching on the bird life of the South
Downs, in the early years of this century, from M. A. Lower's account
of the shepherd's life in his _Contributions to Literature_ (London,
1854).  "Here are," Lower says, "the very words of one now dead, who
had himself carried the shepherd's crook and worn the shepherd's
greatcoat for many years on these hills ":


The life of a shepherd in my young days was not the same as it is
now.... You very seldom see a shepherd's hut on our hills in these
times, but formerly every shepherd had one. Sometimes it was a sort of
cave dug in the side of a bank or link, and had large stones inside.
It was commonly lined with heath or straw. The part above ground was
covered with sods of turf, or heath, or straw, or boughs of hawth. In
rough, shuckish weather, the shepherd used to turn into his hut and
lie by the hour together, only looking out once in a while to see that
the sheep didn't stray too far. Here he was safe and dry, however the
storm might blow overhead, and he could sit and amuse himself as he
liked best. If he could read so much the better. It was in my hut,
over in the next bottom to this, that I first read about Moses and his
shepherding life, and about David's killing of the lion and the bear.
Ah, how glad I felt that we hadn't such wild beasties to frighten and
maybe kill our sheep and us. The worst we ever had to fear were the
foxes that sometimes killed a young lamb or two. But there was
otherwhile a crueller than that. If a ewe happened to get overturned
on a lonesome part of the hill the ravens and carrion crows would come
and pick out her eyes before she was dead. This happened to two or
three of my ewes, and at last I got an old gun and shot all the crows
and ravens I could get nigh. Once I shot an eagle, but that was the
only eagle I ever saw. Since the hills have been more broken by the
plough such birds are but seldom seen. There haven't been any wild
turkeys either for many a year. I have heard my father say he killed
two or three no great while before I was born: they used to call them
bustards. There used to be a good many buzzards on the hill when I was
a boy. They did no hurt to the sheep, but they destroyed the game and
the chickens. Once I set up a pair of clams for one in a thorn-bush in
Box-holt Bottom, and when I went to look the next morning I found my
bird catched by the legs. He was such a great fellow that I was afraid
to tackle him, and was obliged to fetch him several raps over the head
with my hook, which brought him sprawling, clams and all, to the
ground, and I had a great to-do before I could kill him. Mottly
Simmonds, a shepherd's boy that I once knew, put a long bit of string
with a running knot to it round a buzzard's nest that he'd found in
the hawth upon Norton Top, and when he saw her a-coming he got ready,
and as soon as she was settled he pulled the string and catched her
round both legs.


Old men of eighty or more who have shepherded on these downs may still
remember when buzzards occasionally built their nests on a hawth or
furze bush; to others it sounds like a story of ancient times, a
picture of wild-bird life of the days when great bustards roamed in
flocks on the downs and white spoonbills nested on the trees of West
Dean, near Chichester.

The extermination of the black grouse is even more recent. The Rev.
Edward Turner, in a paper printed in the _Sussex Archaeological
Collections_, Vol.  XIV. p. 62, writes as follows:


Ashdown Forest was well stocked with black game. So numerous were
these birds at the commencement of the present century that it was
hardly possible to ride or walk about it in any direction without
disturbing some of them. At that time the forest was thickly covered
with heath, but since then this has been so generally cut and carried
away that the black game, deprived of the food and shelter they so
much delight in, have gradually disappeared, and in this locality are
now very rarely to be met with. This is to be deplored, for an old
blackcock, with his forked tail and glossy sable plumage, is one of
the finest of the British birds.


Of the species that have been extirpated on the downs, just now one is
inclined to most keenly regret the stone curlew, not only because it
is a fine big bird, singularly interesting in its habits, and
possessing a powerful wild cry to gladden the souls of those who hear
it, but also because its loss is so recent. In the early part of the
century it was quite common on the downs, and bred on all the barren
stony spots on the highest hills, as well as on the extensive shingly
flats on the Pevensey coast. In spite of incessant persecution it
clung to its ancient southern haunt, and succeeded each year in
rearing a few young down to about twenty-five to thirty years ago. The
shepherds knew it well, and the old and middle-aged men among them
have many stories of their own experiences in hunting for its two
stone-coloured eggs in the flinty places. During the last quarter of a
century it has trembled on the verge of extinction, and I think I can
say with truth that it is now, like the great bustard, nothing but a
memory. One pair bred not far from Chanc-tonbury Ring about four or
five years ago. In the spring of 1897 another pair bred on a down
south of the village of Jevington, and the eggs were found by a
shepherd and given by him to "the young squire," the landlord's son,
for his collection. In July this year (1899) I disturbed a stone
curlew on the same down; a solitary bird, probably a survivor of the
pair that tried to breed here two years before, revisiting his old
home. And perhaps that wild yet human-like whistle it uttered in my
hearing was its last farewell to downland.

It will be news to most naturalists that the long-eared owl frequented
and probably bred in the thorn, holly, and furze patches among the
South Downs until recently. I had this from the same observant
shepherd who enlightened me about the moles, and the information came
out incidentally. He was telling me of some curious experiences and of
curious things he had seen during the long years of his shepherding on
these hills; and related that about fifteen years ago a ewe in his
flock dropped a lamb which had a round flat face with two round
staring eyes set close together in the middle of it, and a nose coming
to a sharp point, and bent downward like a hooked beak. The lamb
appeared healthy and strong at birth, but it could not suck, its mouth
being tightly closed, and in a day or two it died.  Its resemblance to
an owl in its face, he said, was quite wonderful; and it was his
belief that the ewe when feeding among the furze had come upon an owl
sitting in the middle of a bush, and the shock of suddenly seeing its
round face and staring eyes had caused that deformed owlish
countenance in the lamb.

His story did not surprise me, although monstrosities of that kind,
which are the result of what my friend Mr. Frederic W. H. Myers has
called (in the human subject) "pre-natal suggestion," are
comparatively rare among the lower animals. My belief is that they are
very much more frequent among domestic than among wild animals, and
that they are more common than we think. Not one case in a hundred is
ever heard of, and when we do hear of one we are satisfied to classify
it as a "freak of nature." This, however, does not explain the fact
that a cow, or sheep, or cat, or some other creature, will
occasionally produce an offspring in the likeness of another very
different animal. This same shepherd had another case in his flock.
This was of a lamb clothed in a brown fur instead of wool--the fur, in
fact, of a hare; and his belief was that the ewe, when pregnant, had
been frightened by a hare suddenly jumping out of the heather or
bushes where it had been crouching.

What did surprise me was that this man, with only the light of nature
to go by, had found the right interpretation of these strange cases.
With regard to the first case, I asked him where on the downs could a
sheep ever see an owl. He then told me that a good many owls had
always inhabited the largest furze patches, and that he had seen the
birds closely on a good many occasions in the summer months, and was
quite sure that it was the long-eared owl. He had never flushed an owl
of another species in the downs, but had occasionally seen a white owl
at night or late in the evening. He believed that the long-eared owl
had now forsaken the downs.  But though he was so positive about his
facts, I am still in doubt as to the species: our memories play
strange trick's with all of us at times; and after all it may have
been in the autumn months that the birds were seen, and that the
species was the world-wandering short-eared owl.

The only comparatively big birds to be met with now among the downs
are those very common species that visit the district more or less
regularly to feed.  Large numbers of rooks from the wooded lowlands
and daws from the sea-cliffs have their favourite feeding-grounds on
the sheep-walks. The black-headed and common gulls winter on the
coasts, and wherever the land is tilled are seen following the plough
in autumn and spring. The bigger herring-gull breeds on the cliffs,
and may be seen flying over the downs every day throughout the year.
Wood-pigeons, the kestrel, an occasional sparrow-hawk, and a few stray
birds of other rarer species are also to be seen. In the valleys of
the rivers Cuckmere, Ouse, and Arun, that cut through the range,
herons from the Parham heronry are common. I have frequently seen as
many as a dozen to twenty together in the autumn months. Pewits and a
few redshanks breed in the valleys in spring.

I have said that the only sea-bird that now breeds on the cliffs along
the southern edge of the South Downs is the herring-gull. Their most
interesting colony is at Seaford Head, where I have observed them
during the last three summers. At that spot they are not decreasing,
and they have as neighbours a large number of jackdaws, and two or
three pairs of kestrels. I have a suspicion that the hawks do not
consider that their eggs and young are safe from attack by their big
loud-voiced neighbours, as I occasionally see a kestrel rise and
furiously buffet the gulls passing and repassing before its nest on
the face of the cliff.

In the first week of June last I had the good fortune to see the gulls
at this spot in a new and beautiful aspect. At the top of the cliff,
where it is about four hundred feet high, a quantity of earth has
fallen or crumbled away, leaving a gap about thirty to forty feet
deep, and into this I crept and placed myself as near the edge as I
could safely get. Lying there perfectly still, the birds, which had
been flying up and down before me uttering their loud anxious cries,
began to settle on all the near projecting pieces of chalk where they
could watch me. By-and-by I had twenty-four of them all perched close
to me, in pairs or small groups of three or four, some of them
standing on the chalk where it was partly overgrown with patches of
sea-pink, or thrift. The intense whiteness of the sunlit chalk and
rosy red of the numerous flat little flowers gave a novel and very
beautiful appearance to the birds. For they were very near, and quite
motionless, though clamouring with open beaks and swollen throats, and
all their colours were clearly visible--the white and tender pale grey
of the plumage, the shining yellow eye and yellow beak, with its
orange-red patch on the lower mandible, and the flesh-coloured legs.

It is interesting to watch the kestrel in summer, after his breeding
season, hunting for food on the parched downs. He is most common on
the high ridge on the northern border of the range, overlooking his
woodland home on the flat country below. It strikes one as curious to
see this bird haunting the same slopes day after day, flying about by
the hour, pausing at intervals to hover motionless for a minute or so,
then dashing down to seize his prey; for you know that no creature as
big as the smallest baby mouse exists at the spot. The fact is, he is
catching grasshoppers, which are abundant; and the wonder is that all
this important strategy, these beautiful evolutions and display of
wing-power, should be put in practice for such a purpose. The pipits
and larks creeping on the surface capture and swallow their
grasshoppers without any trouble. But the kestrel has but one method,
and he cannot vary it; he must look for his quarry when at a height of
sixty or seventy feet from the surface, even if it be a grasshopper;
and must hover long as if to take a sure aim, and finally precipitate
himself upon it with as much violence as he uses for a mouse or bird.

Another common bird of the downland is the turtle-dove. A shepherd
told me that on the arrival of these birds last spring a flock of not
less than five hundred fed every day for over a week in some fields at
the foot of Mount Blackcap, near Lewes.  The birds are certainly very
abundant, and wherever there is a patch of large furze mixed with
whitethorn and bramble bushes you find them breeding in numbers, their
frail platform nests placed four or five feet above the ground out of
reach of the foxes.  It is pleasant to listen to their low monotonous
crooning in these quiet solitary places.

In June the missel-thrushes, after rearing their young, forsake the
woodlands and homesteads of the weald and the maritime district for
the open downs, and are met with everywhere in small flocks of half a
dozen to thirty or forty birds. During the sultry hours they keep
close in the shelter of the furze and bramble bushes, and when
disturbed rush violently out, emitting their harsh cry, and when
flying away look almost white in the dazzling sunlight.

But the missel-thrush is a gipsy and rover at this season of the year
in all the open treeless districts in the country. The small breeding
species characteristic of the furze-clad downs are the common bunting
and yellowhammer, the whitethroat, dun-nock, meadow pipit, stonechat,
and whinchat. Most of these vanish at the approach of winter, some to
seek other climes, and others, the dunnock included, to spend the cold
months in sheltered situations in the lowlands.

A few birds of the woods and homesteads also come in summer to the
solitary furze-gardens--thrush and blackbird, robin, wren, and
chaffinch.  And here too you find the red-backed shrike; but he is
most common among the thorns at the foot ,of the downs on the north
side of the range.  All these birds of the downs, I have said, inhabit
and breed in the furze and other bushes. The skylark and wheatear are
exceptions. The skylark is fairly common all over the hills, and
breeds either in the corn-fields or on the untilled downs where they
are covered with a thick grass which the sheep refuse to eat. The
wheatear does not find many suitable breeding-places on the smooth
turf of the sheep-walks; the barren, rough, stony places he loves best
are few and far between. He usually lays his eggs in an old
rabbit-hole on some spot where the chalk and flints are only partially
covered by a scanty turf. At one spot very near the sea I found ten or
twelve pairs breeding quite close together. And here again, as in the
case of the gulls seen standing on and against the patches of rose-red
sea-pink, I came upon a wonderful flower-and-bird scene and living
picture of exquisite beauty, and saw the pretty wheatear as I had
never seen him before, and most probably shall never see him again.
The birds were breeding near the top of a high down where it sloped or
dropped very abruptly to the valley below. It was a rough flinty
place, honeycombed with rabbit-holes, and thickly grown over with big
sea-poppy plants in full blossom.  Lying coiled up in a hollow of the
ground I had this garden of poppies, which covered about half an acre
of ground, all round and above me, and looking up, the higher graceful
grey plants, blossom-crowned, were seen against the sky. The great
flower, as I then saw it for the first time, its purest yellow made
luminous and brilliant with the sunlight streaming through it, seen
against the ethereal blue beyond, had a new unimaginable loveliness.
The wheatears were all round me, some with grubs in their beaks, but
not venturing to enter their nesting-holes, flitting from place to
place; some remaining in one place to keep watch, others going and
coming. But as time went on, and I still refused to stir, they grew
tired of waiting, and of uttering their chacking alarm-note and
flirting their pretty tails, and began carrying food into the burrows:
two of these were within a dozen yards of my resting-place. But even
after they had quieted down, at intervals one of the birds would rise
up and suspend himself motionless in the air and watch me for some
moments. Down at the foot of the hill below me some of the birds were
to be seen hunting for insects on the lawn-like turf, and as they flew
slowly over it, close to the surface, on rapidly beating wings, they
had the appearance of great black-winged butterflies flitting across
the green sward.

Near this colony, at a spot where there is a good deal of furze, I
observed that the wheatear, like some small birds of the woodland, is
a great hater of the red-backed shrike. When attacking he hovers like
a kestrel at a height of eight or ten yards above his enemy, then
dashes down upon him and finally chases him away. It is not very
probable that young wheatears are often or ever attacked by the
shrike; but this pretty little bird looks what he is--a butcher among
birds; and besides, the wheatear has doubtless seen him attack the
young of other species, and slay them with his hawk-like beak.


A few notes on the reptiles of the downs will conclude this long
chapter on wild life.

The common lizard is found everywhere among the gorse and heath, but
is not so abundant as in suitable localities in the lowlands. Everyone
is familiar with the debilitating or paralysing effect produced on
rabbits and hares by a stoat when he hunts them; and we are familiar,
too, with a similar weakness in the frog when pursued by a snake. But
it is not known that our common little lizard suffers in the same way.
I do not see how any snake, even the swift-moving smooth snake that
preys almost exclusively on that creature, could ever catch lizards if
they were not subject to this singular infirmity.  But the lizard is
not so easily overcome with terror, or hypnotised, if anyone prefers
that word, as the frog; nor does he appear so weak on the high downs
as I have found him on the heaths of Hampshire and Surrey. He is so
alert, and quick to vanish into cover at the slightest alarm, that it
is not nearly so easy to experiment with the lizard as it is with the
frog. It is in fact exceedingly difficult, and fifty lizards may be
found and not one will wait quietly to be experimented on. But my
experience is that when a walking-stick is thrust snakewise through
the grass or heath towards the basking lizard, he at once begins to
suffer mysteriously in his brightness and vigour, and his efforts to
escape become feebler while the hidden imaginary enemy steals after
him. On the downs I found that the stick thrust towards the lizard in
many instances did not produce the debilitating effect; but the little
creature, instantly changing his habits, ran quickly to and up a bush.
One that I had frightened with my stick amused me by emerging on the
top of a furze bush, and sitting there, high as my breast, and safe
from snakes as he perhaps thought, curiously eyed me with his bright
bird-like little eyes.

This then is our alert and elusive little lizard's weakness, and
though I have occasionally played on it for fun during the last two or
three summers, I pitied him, and was almost sorry that I had found it
out.

Once only in the South Downs have I seen the lizard's worst enemy, the
smooth snake. He is like the creature he pursues, alert and quick to
escape, and may not be quite so rare as we imagine.

The adder is common in suitable places, on the high slopes, especially
where the gorse bushes grow mixed with heath and tussocky grass. In
some spots they are no doubt very numerous, as a good many sheep die
of adder's bite. Occasionally a sheep is bitten in the side, and one
can only suppose in such cases that the animal has lain down on a very
sluggish adder basking in the sun at the side of a furze bush. But
most of the victims are bitten on the nose. Sheep, I believe, have no
instinctive fear of a serpent; and they are always curious about any
odd-looking object they see, and will go out of their way to smell at
and touch it with their nose: it is not strange that they occasionally
get killed.

I see fewer adders by chance, and am less successful in finding when I
look for them, here than in some favourite haunts in other southern
counties, simply because I go to the downs in summer and not in early
spring. Those who are familiar with the adder, and occasionally look
for and find him, know that he is most easily found and oftenest seen
by chance when the year is young. This is not because after his winter
sleep he is still dull of sense, slow to move, and made drowsy or
lethargic by the unaccustomed heat of the sun. In early spring he is
on the contrary more alert, more sensitive to the earth-tremors that
warn him of an approaching danger, than at any later period. It is
certain, too, that the females, when heavy with young in June and
July, are much less wary and quick to slip away than at other seasons.

In spring, especially in March, when winter is still in the air, the
adder must find a sheltered spot looking towards the sun; and whether
on a bank, or at the side of a furze or bramble bush, or on the lower
part of any sloping ground, the young spring grass, or the old pale
dead grass and leaves of last year, serve to show him up. Once your
eye has caught and distinguished his form, it looks strangely
conspicuous--a something separate from the vegetation it rests upon.
He is like a richly-coloured or brightly-embroidered garter, or
ribbon, dropped by chance on the pale colourless ground.  Seeing him
thus, looking so startlingly bright, so separate from his
surroundings, one is apt to imagine that careful Mother Nature has not
been so careful of her adder as she has of most of her other weak and
persecuted children. At this early season the adder's only protection
is his alertness and shy habit.

In summer the case is different, when in place of the young fresh
grass and the pale neutral ground-tints that make him so conspicuous,
thare is a rough surface and a rich and various colouring; and though
not invisible he is not easily distinguishable. On hot days he does
not lie exposed to the sun, but prefers to rest where grasses and
herbage, mixed perhaps with the feathery foliage of the lower branches
of a bush, shot through and sprinkled and spotted with shifting
sunlight and shadow, make up a broken picture, the numberless minute
details of which you cannot see separately. If, on such a variegated
ground, you are able to detect and closely regard without alarming
him, you will be rewarded with a very beautiful sight. You will see
that his ground-colour, whatever the precise tint may be, from pale
yellow or palest brown, to a copper or terra-cotta red, assimilates to
the colour of the soil, and to the stems and leaves of ripe grasses;
and that the sand in the earth, the seeding grasses, and scaly coil,
sparkle alike at each point where a sunbeam touches them. The zigzag
band, too, fits in with the shadows, and is not easily distinguishable
from the dark wavering lines and spots and blotches made by twigs and
leaves that intercept the sunlight.

The adders of the downs are not so varied in colour as in the New
Forest, and in most cases have a light yellowish ground-colour with an
intense black mark.  Some beautiful varieties are, however, to be
seen.  Last summer a shepherd described to me one he had killed as a
very pretty creature, with a bright chestnut-red zigzag band on a
whitish body.

At a dinner-table at a village in the downs where I was staying, I
once found it necessary to explain to the others that it did not make
me miserable to be out all day, and on most days alone, on the downs.
It was, I assured them, a constant pleasure to see the beautiful
creatures there--the birds, the adder, the fox, and others. After a
long silence, a man sitting opposite to me said, "Excuse me, sir, but
did I understand you to say that you consider the adder a beautiful
creature?" I replied in the affirmative, and after another interval of
silence he laid down his knife and fork and delivered himself as
follows: "Well, that I can't understand. An adder is an adder, and
there's no doubt about what a man feels when he sees it. I have never
heard anyone till this moment say the contrary. Most people kill an
adder when they find one. I don't. When I suddenly see an adder before
me when I am out walking or riding, and stop still, and he gives me a
look out of his eyes, and I see that he is just getting ready to fly
at me, I don't stop to kill him. I'm off. You call that a beautiful
creature---"

This is one and a somewhat extreme view of the adder's character.  But
it comes nearest to the popular feeling about that creature whose
power to harm us we so greatly exaggerate.  Here is a case which
presents us with the opposite extreme.  A gentleman of Bognor, Mr.  W.
H.  B.  Fletcher, occasionally amuses himself by taming adders, which
he takes with a butterfly net on the downs.  He is accustomed to pick
up his tame adders by the handful--six or seven at a time, all
wriggling and winding round and among his open fingers; and he affirms
that after an adder has been four or five days in his keeping it
becomes so tame that it may be handled with impunity--by Mr.
Fletcher.  In fact, his serpents are of so gentle a disposition that
he doubts if it would be possible to tease them into an attempt to
bite him.  He has shown me a collection of photographs, of his hand
grasping a bunch of adders, not to be hurled in anger and with deadly
effect at his enemies, but picked up simply to show what exceedingly
mild and sweet-tempered creatures they are when you trust them and
they are accustomed to a human hand.  Now it is common knowledge that
some persons possess a quality, or energy, which enables them to
handle the most irritable and venomous reptiles with safety: a touch
of their hand, and, in some extreme cases, their mere presence, will
soothe and make them harmless.  I do not say that it is so in this
case.  Mr.  Fletcher laughs at such an explanation of his power, and
says that he would not venture to pick up wild adders by their tails,
as I sometimes do. His adders are savage at first, but in a very short
time grow accustomed to the hand, and may then be taken up and handled
by any person. Dr. Giinther says he has met with cases similar to the
one I have related; and he tells of a gentleman who, to show how
harmless the tamed adder can be made, is accustomed to put one into
the hands of his little child.

The ring-snake, though found in the valleys, is exceedingly rare on
the high downs. But the snake compared with the adder is a great
traveller, and he is sometimes met with miles away from the low
meadows and pasture lands where the frog abides; and I will conclude
this chapter with a strange story of a big snake found by a
shepherd-boy on one of the highest points of the South Downs, between
the villages of Jevington and Willingdon. He was an intelligent boy of
thirteen, and finding him in a lonely spot with his flock I stopped to
have a chat with him, and he was delighted to talk about the small
birds, the foxes, rabbits, adders, and other inhabitants of the furze
bushes known to him.  After some talk I said good-bye and went on; but
had not walked fifty yards before he came running after me, to say
that he had forgotten to tell me about the big snake. One day last
summer he was with his flock near a wheat-field, and in the corn he
found a skylark's nest, with five young birds in it.  In the evening
he told two of his playmates about the nest; and next day they all
went together to visit it, and agreed to take the young birds home and
bring them up in cages; and as young larks usually die when taken
small they planned to leave them in the nest until they were grown and
almost ready to fly. When the proper time came, and the birds were
nearly ready to make their escape, they went to the field with a cage;
but on arriving at the spot found the nest empty, and a huge snake
lying coiled up near it. When they discovered it they were very much
afraid, owing to its great size and threatening aspect, as it rose up
and hissed loudly at them. But it moved away very slowly, hindered,
like the famous serpent of Horsham, by "a quantity of thickness in the
middle." Arming themselves with big flints, they began to stone it,
and one sharp flint striking it with great force cut its body open,
when, from the wound, out fell one of the full-grown young larks. When
they had finished killing the snake, and pressed its body where the
thickness was with their feet, the other four birds were forced out.
They took the snake home, and all the people in the village came to
look at it, hanging to the branch of a tree; and the schoolmaster
measured it with a foot-rule, and found that it was exactly four feet
in length. Its body, the boy said, was as thick as his arm.

There was nothing incredible in his story. There are
well-authenticated cases, of much bigger snakes, some six feet long,
killed in England. Last summer I caught and measured four snakes in
the New Forest, and the two biggest were three feet, and three feet
one inch, respectively. If these snakes had been killed they would
probably have measured more, as it is exceedingly difficult to get the
proper length when they are violently struggling to free themselves,
and contracting their bodies; but I should have been very sorry to
kill one even to add several inches to its three feet.




CHAPTER VI

THE SHEPHERD OF THE DOWNS


The shepherd as a picturesque figure--His best qualities racial--The
Saxon type predominant in downland--The peasant's good looks--A great
beer-drinker--Scene in a village public-house--Bad and good qualities
of the peasant--Character in a small boy--Beauty of person--A
labourer's family--A pet lamb and the Salvation Army--A Sussex
maid--Persistence of type--The Culpepper family--The shepherd's good
looks--Contented minds--A talk with a shepherd.


That solitary cloaked figure on the vast round hill, standing
motionless, crook in hand, and rough-haired dog at heel, sharply seen
against the clear pale sky, is one of those rare human forms in this
land, which do not ever seem out of place in the landscape. It is
undoubtedly a form to attract and fascinate the eye. But behind the
seeing eyes are the differing busy minds. There are those, for
instance, who are interested solely in the image, the semblance; who
are not, like the fox in the fable, concerned as to what is inside of
a pretty head, but who look on living faces and forms as on carvings
and sculptures in a gallery.  Then, again, there are those who
perpetually crave to get at the human heart in any human figure; who
will go on pushing down or peeping behind screen after screen, and are
never satisfied until they have seen behind the last screen of all. I
am not sure if these were to follow the downland shepherd to his lowly
home, to converse familiarly every day and live intimately with him,
that they would not be disappointed, and conclude that the differences
between him and others of his rank and race, who have other
occupations--the labour of the weald, for instance--are very much on
the surface and hardly worth troubling about.

I class myself somewhere between the two extremes: not satisfied with
the mere semblance or appearance of things, seeing men as trees and
rocks, or as works of art, I am nevertheless not teased--"tormented,"
De Quincey would have written--with that restless desire to pry into
and minutely examine the secret colour and texture of the mind of
every person I meet. It is the mental attitude of the naturalist,
whose proper study is not mankind but animals, including man; who does
not wish to worry his brains overmuch, and likes to see very many
things with vision a little clearer than the ordinary, rather than to
see a very few things with preternatural clearness and miss all the
rest.

In the case of the downland shepherd, this comparatively superficial
knowledge which contents me has made me greatly admire him. That he
differs considerably from others on the surface we cannot but see; and
it would indeed seem strange if this had not been the case, since the
conditions of his life are and have been for generations unlike those
of other peasants; still, his best and sterling qualities are
undoubtedly of the race. Probably the villagers of the downs and the
weald of Sussex have more Saxon blood in their veins than the people
of any other part of England: at all events it may, I think, be said
that the Saxon characteristics, physical and moral, predominate in
them. Many of the coast people, those especially who are seafarers,
are markedly of Danish descent: away from the sea the Saxon type is
commonest; the round, rosy face, steady, sometimes hard blue eyes, and
light brown hair. Red and yellow hair, too, is very common--every
shade from the pale reddish yellow miscalled "ginger," to the intense
colour miscalled "carroty," and the beautiful "auburn" and "Venetian"
reds.

They are a good-looking people, and good to live with, though I do not
admire, or perhaps it would be better to say love, them as much as I
do the people of Somerset. It is probably due to the Celtic blood in
the peasants of that county that gives their women a softness and
sweetness exceeding that of other counties, a more delicate red colour
when they are young. But the Sussexians, though perhaps not the best,
nor the most lovable, are quite good enough, and are, I believe, the
strongest and hardiest in Southern England. They may also be described
as fairly sober, although they drink a good deal--more perhaps than
the people of any other southern county; but they have remarkably
steady heads and carry their liquor well. It is true that you will
generally find a few topers at the village inn, boozing at all hours
of the day, but that you will find all the country over; and it will
always be the same so long as publicans are permitted by the
authorities to serve habitual topers and half-drunk men generally with
liquor. We know that the public-houses are now all tied, and tied very
strictly, and if the publican does not sell as much beer as the
villagers, drunk or sober, are anxious to drink, he must turn out and
give place to someone with a better sense of what is due to the
brewer.

I was much amused one morning at a drinking scene I witnessed in the
village public at East Dean.  It was only eleven o'clock, but in the
bar-room I found six men, who had evidently been there drinking a long
time, each with a tall blue mug of beer at his side. Five of them were
middle-aged--all over forty, I should say, and all Saxons with hard
red faces and hard blue eyes. These were men who could drink gallons
of beer, then walk very steadily home; only a slight wavering in their
eyes when they looked at me told that they had been a long time busy
with their blue mugs. But the sixth was a young man of a different
type: he had not the breadth and depth of chest of the others, and his
eyes and hair were dark and his face pale. And he was pretty drunk.
The talk, after ranging over a variety of subjects, was finally all
about getting up early in the morning to go to work, and the degree of
reluctance each man felt at the necessity of turning out of bed. On
this subject the young and tipsy man spoke feelingly, and was almost
eloquent. He said that with him it generally depended on how much beer
he had drunk the previous day: if he had drunk a good deal, then he
woke with such a bad head and such a weight on him that to turn out
was a positive torture, and he was miserable all day long. He
believed, he added, that it must be pretty much the same with
everybody.

No one answered him a word; he was touching on delicate ground. But
their silence piqued him, and staring defiantly round he continued,
"If you ask me, I'll tell you what my opinion really is. My opinion is
that beer is the curse of the country.  And when I say that beer is
the curse of the country I'm pretty blank well sure that I'm pretty
blank well right." And here, to emphasise his expression of opinion,
which had not perhaps been strong enough to satisfy him, he banged his
fist on the deal table at which he sat, and in doing so accidentally
capsized his tall blue mug, and sent the contents streaming all over
the wood. Picking up the mug he rapped loudly on the table with it,
and when the publican came from an inner room ordered him to wipe up
the spilt beer and fill his mug again.

Consistent young man! The others gazed at him with grave disapproval
in their blue not quite steady eyes, but said nothing. His sentiments
were no doubt regarded as most unnatural, his words as flat treason to
their order. They did not consider, or did not know, that their order
in another larger sense was not his; that they were distant children
of those who came with Ella to these purple shores, abandoned by Rome;
that they had not so greatly degenerated in fourteen centuries as not
to be able to drink any dark-eyed and pale-faced young man into the
deepest depths of intoxication, or the grave, without themselves
experiencing a qualm, physical or mental.

Putting aside the subject of drink, perhaps the two greatest faults of
this people (and too much beer may be the reason of both) is that they
are not very thrifty and not very pure. In some of the villages
illegitimate children are as plentiful as blackberries. But
altogether, the good qualities are more and greater than the vices, or
"amiable weaknesses"; and no person can help admiring their rock-like
stability of character, their sturdy independence of spirit, and, with
it, patient contentment with a life of unremitting toil; and, finally,
their intense individuality. You will recognise even in the children
these strong enduring qualities, which make the Sussexian peasant a
man "self-centred as the trees and animals are." Here is an account of
a conversation I had with a little fellow, under nine, at a village on
the northern border of the downs. At sunset on a misty autumn evening
I set out to walk to a spot about three miles from the village. The
children had just been released from school, and I overtook a group of
them going my way in a lane a little distance from the village.  Not
being quite sure of the way I asked them to direct me; but they were
too eager to help, and the short cuts they recommended across fields
and commons, and through woods, with turnings this way and that way,
and numerous other details, only served to confuse me, and saying that
it was no good I walked on. Then the small rosy, round-faced,
blue-eyed boy said he was going a couple of miles my way and would
show me how to get to my place.

Before we had gone many yards a grey mist came over and obscured the
scene. It was getting dark, too, and I remarked to the little fellow
that the days would be shorter still by-and-by, and that it would be
very dark and lonely for him after school hours. He replied that he
knew the way well across the fields and common, and by the lanes, and
he was not afraid of the dark. Not when it is quite black, I asked,
and raining or snowing? No, he said, however dark it was he could not
lose his way, and he didn't mind the rain in the least. He had a good
coat for winter, and good boots. Here he asked me to stop and look at
his boots. He had another nicer pair for Sunday wear. Then he gave me
a description of all his possessions in the way of garments; but the
winter coat which his mother had made for him was the possession he
valued most. I asked him if his father worked on a farm. No, he said,
his father had left home a long time ago and would never return.
Perhaps he had gone to some other country: he did not know where he
was, and never expected to see him again. Bit by bit he told me more
of his story. There were two--himself, not nine, and a little brother,
too little to go to school.  They lived with a woman who took care of
them in a cottage a couple of miles from the village. His mother, left
to provide for herself and children, had gone into service at
Brighton. She worked very hard and kept them well clothed. He would
see her at Christmas, and be with her a whole week; that would be a
happy time. Then I remarked tentatively, "I suppose it was drink that
caused the trouble." "Oh, no," he returned quickly; "father did not
drink--he was not a man of that sort. Father was not a bad man. I
should like to see him again, but he will never come back." Then I
said, determined to get at the bottom of the affair: "If your father
was not bad, and loved his children, why did he go away and throw this
burden on your poor mother and cause all this sorrow?" He was silent
for a few moments, and then, with all the gravity in the world, he
replied, "It was an upset," and beyond that not one word would he say.
If I had given him silver and gold, it would not have unlocked his
firm little lips.

That little word _upset_ is an exceedingly useful one in the peasant's
limited vocabulary, and covers a great variety of domestic
infelicities in which the passion of anger plays a part, from the
trivial disagreements between husband and wife which will be forgotten
before the sun sets, to the tragedy that severs all sacred ties and
will be a bitterness in the heart to the very end of life.

>From what I have said so far it will appear that strength rather than
grace and beauty is the principal characteristic of this people. But
beauty we know is everywhere: and I do not now mean that beauty which
is inherent in all human beings, in all things, for those who have
eyes to see it, but beauty in the ordinary sense, visible to all, the
lustre that is like genius, and springs up we know not how nor why in
the most unpromising places. Beauty and grace and sweetness and
melody--you will find them here, too, in the shadow of the downs,
although not so frequently as in the sweet west country. Still, my
experience is that the fair to see, and the pleasant and gracious, and
the graceful in mind and manner, are not very rare.

It was my experience at a small downland village, where I desired to
spend a few days, to find on arrival that, besides the inn where I
wished not to go, there was but one cottage in the place in which it
would be possible to get a lodging, and in this chance cottage to meet
the sweetest people of their class I have ever stayed with in any
village in England.  And I have visited many villages and stayed in
many cottages.

It chanced that a number of persons who had no home in the
neighbourhood had found occupation in the village, and some of them,
eight or nine I think, had received accommodation at this place.
Hearing that the house was full I was not very confident of getting a
bed; but when I came and looked at the place, and passed into the
peaceful shadows of its grey walls and ancient trees, and when I
knocked at the door under the porch, and it was opened to me by a
comely young woman with the softest dark eyes and soft and most
musical voice, I begged her not to refuse me and make me walk miles
away in that blazing sun when I was tired and hungry and wanted food
and rest. She considered the matter for some moments, then asked me in
to dinner, for it was the dinner-hour; and later in the day some
good-natured fellow was persuaded to give up his room to me and accept
a shake-down in another part of the house.

The place really was a house, although let at a cottage rental to a
working-man. It was a very old farmhouse, deprived of its land and
standing apart in its own grounds, with large shade-trees in front and
an orchard behind. There were many rooms, low-ceilinged and scantily
furnished, and an immense old kitchen with a brick floor. The charm of
the place was outside, where for long years Nature had had a free hand
to make it beautiful in her own matchless way. The rough stone walls
and low-tiled roof were overgrown with ivy, and small creepers, and
grey and yellow lichen and stone-crop; and all the orchard and the
ground that had once been garden was covered with grass and with wild
flowers and garden flowers--wallflower, periwinkle, marigold, and
others--run wild.

The tenant was a giant of a man with the hugest hands and immense long
hairy arms like a gorilla, and a head that looked as if it had been
roughly hewn out of some great black rock. Big and rough and dark, he
looked almost dangerous, and I wondered how he had won that very
gentle pretty woman to be his wife. But "something had come into his
heart," perhaps, to alter its nature and make him in disposition like
herself. He was like a good, preternaturally grave, child, and being
inarticulate he seldom opened his mouth. I remember one hot afternoon
when we were at tea his sudden appearance in the doorway, and how,
leaning on the doorframe looking in and down upon us, tired and black
and dusty, his shirt-sleeves rolled up displaying his huge hairy arms,
he seemed like some strange half-human monster who had just come up
out of the interior of the earth, where he had been occupied blowing
the bellows for Vulcan, or on some such huge grimy task. His wife cast
a glance at him, and after a little while, and with just the faint
suspicion of a smile playing about her mouth, she remarked, "Look at
Old Blackie!" It was plain to anyone who could read the feeling in the
expression and the voice that she loved her rough giant.

She was helped in the housework by a sister, a nice-looking girl of
nineteen, and there were two little children, perfect little Saxons
with round rosy faces, light hair, and blue eyes, as unlike their
parents in appearance as they were in their indomitable little
tempers. But they were pretty, delightful children for all that.

Besides the people of the house there were four unhuman inmates--a
semi-domestic robin who visited the kitchen at all hours; a tabby cat
who was perpetually being dragged hither and thither by the two little
ones, and bore it all with singular equanimity; a very old
good-tempered collie dog, and a pet lamb.  The lamb was often tethered
in the orchard to keep him out of mischief, and whenever I went near
him he would look to me for a biscuit or a lump of sugar, and failing
to get it he would try to eat my clothes.  It was on account of this
animal that I found out something of the inner life of the people of
the house which I should not otherwise have known. I told my gentle
hostess that her lamb was not quite happy left alone tied up in the
orchard, and I wondered that they, poor hard-working people, had
burdened themselves with so unsuitable an animal for a pet.

She said that the lamb was not intended to be kept as a pet; they had
it for another purpose, and what that purpose was I easily drew from
her and her husband.

They were religious people, and had always been "church," as their
parents and grandparents had been before them, but now for a very long
time past the church had been growing less and less to them, until
they had ceased to attend it, although there was no chapel there and
they had joined no other sect. The only reason of this estrangement
appeared to be that their pastor was not a spiritual-minded man, and
though a good many years vicar in a small parish, he did not even know
his own parishioners, and was wholly occupied with his own mundane
affairs and amusements. Now it is just as hard, nay impossible, for
the ordinary Christian to live his ideal life apart from teachers and
fellow-disciples as for a sheep left behind by the flock, and lost or
abandoned by the shepherd, to exist by itself on the hills. And these
two, feeling the great want in their lives, had allowed their hearts
and hopes to go out to the Salvation Army. There would be no coldness
nor want of guidance and encouragement in that fold! It was not their
wish to put on a distinctive garb, nor in any way to make themselves
conspicuous in a place where there was no--what shall I
say--_barracks_, but to continue to live their own lives in the old
way in their remote village, only feeling that there was a bond
between them and other servants of their Master, that they were not
alone. Thus far had they got when they heard that a great meeting of
the Army was about to take place at the Crystal Palace--a jubilee or
important celebration of some kind, at which the world-wandering
General himself would be present to preside over a gathering of people
from all parts of the kingdom, and from all the kingdoms of the earth.
They resolved that the husband should attend the meeting, and in due
time, having got permission from his master, he journeyed up to
London, and after an absence of two or three days he returned with
heart and mind full of the wonderful things he had witnessed. She had
never been to London, and had never seen a big crowd; but little by
little, taking up the disjointed bits of information that fell from
him at odd times, and piecing them together, she had succeeded in
forming a fairly accurate though somewhat vague mental picture of the
scene.  It was a vast palace of glass, filled with an excited
multitude that no man could number. People were there from all
countries, all regions of the earth; and black and yellow and red
skins were seen among the white; and some of these people were in
strange garments of bright colours, such as the heathen wear.  And
there was a great noise of prayer and praise and of countless musical
instruments, and cries of joy and of shouting Hosannah to the Lord.
Most wonderful was it to see how one feeling, one spirit, animated all
alike, that in all those thousands upon thousands there was no eye
that was not wet with tears and no face that did not shine with a
divine passion of love and joy.

When she had finished the story, he, the silent man, added, "I can't
say what I felt, but when I saw it all I could only say, 'If Heaven is
like this, then it must be a good place to be in.'" Could he have said
more?

After that great event it was planned that the wife should go up to
the next annual gathering of the Army, and that like very many others
of its friends she should take some little gift or thank-offering; and
after many days' discussion it was settled that, as they lived in the
South Downs, a lamb would be the most appropriate gift to offer.
Money was put by for the purpose, and a young lamb bought at a
neighbouring farm and reared by hand so as to make it very tame. It
would, they thought, look so well in a procession of gift-bearers, its
fleece washed white as snow, its neck decorated with bright ribbons
and flowers, its mistress leading it by a silken cord.

I had forgotten all about the lamb, and was not too delighted to hear
of the glorious future that awaited it. No doubt it would look very
pretty in its snowy fleece, blue ribbons and flowers, led by its
gentle, dove-eyed mistress; but close behind her and her singing
fellow-processionists I could see as in a vision the Salvation butcher
in his red waistcoat, keeping time to the music while sharpening a big
broad-bladed knife on a screaming steel.

But it was idle to vex my mind about the ultimate destiny of an animal
created for man's use. I daresay that even that famous lamb that was
accustomed to attend Mary in all her walks had its throat cut in the
end, and was very much relished, with mint sauce, by the worthy
persons who ate it.

To return to the good people whose simple faith and lovable
disposition was a refreshment to my soul. How they worked and how they
dreamed, looking forward to the day that would be more than any other
day in the year! By five in the morning the good man was away to his
work, and any time from six to seven I could count on getting a cup of
tea in the kitchen. At nine we breakfasted: at one dined: at five had
tea, and supped when we dropped in, at nine or ten o'clock. The hour
of eleven found us often still at table, and our poor host, who had
been toiling all day in the blazing sun, would sometimes drop off over
his supper.  "Poor old Blackie has gone to sleep," his wife would say,
and leaning over and shaking his shoulder she would cry in his ear,
"Wake up!" Then he would start and rub his drowsy eyes, and go on with
his meal, and by-and-by she who had aroused him would drop her head;
and he would lean over and shake her by the arm, and in turn cry,
"Wake up!" It was often a merry time when we were together drinking
our last cups of tea before tumbling tired to bed. Some would have
preferred beer or something stronger, but it was curious to note how
those two rare elements of personal charm and the subtle flame of
religious feeling united in this woman, exercised a subduing and
refining influence on that mixed crew in the house, and made even the
most godless anxious to seem better than they were in her loved eyes.

Of the wife's sister, whom I have mentioned, one slight incident which
impressed me at the moment remains to be told. She was utterly unlike
her sister in her high bright colour, fluffy golden brown hair,
blue-grey eyes, and perfect aquiline features.  One evening she came
in from the orchard, where she had been having a game of romps with
the little children on the grass before putting them to bed, and to
amuse them had pulled some slender sprays of small-leafed ivy and sewn
them round the band of her cloth cap. Forgetting the garland, and
flushed and merry, she came in and sat down opposite the west window,
through which the level rays of the setting sun streamed full on her
face.  Looking at it, as it appeared in profile in that dim
interior--the classical lines of the face and sunlit hair and ivy
crown--the effect was as of something quite familiar and yet novel and
never previously seen. It was in fact a face and head that we are all
familiar with in art, now for the first time in my experience seen
alive. I vaguely remembered, too, that once upon a time the old Romans
had possessed an important settlement close by, perhaps at that very
spot; and the thought came to me that perhaps long long centuries ago,
one summer evening, a Roman maiden of nineteen came in from a merry
game with her married sister's little ones on the grass, her shining
hair crowned with ivy; and had sat down in some dim room among her
people, just when the sun was going down behind the great downs, and
poured its red light on her flushed, beautiful young face.

It pleased the girl to be told that she was like a Roman-British maid
who had lived at that spot seventeen centuries ago; but she could not
say that she had any but peasant's blood in her veins. Her parents and
grandparents, and their families as far back as she knew, were all of
the working class, and their home was the Sussex Downs. But the family
memory seldom goes back far enough--it is rare for it to extend
farther than three generations back. We see that racial characters are
practically everlasting, that they are never wholly swamped. Families
of distinct races may go on mixing and remixing their blood for scores
of generations; yet children ever and anon will continue to be born
that seem not the offspring of their parents, or of any near
progenitors; but in them the ancient type that was obscured and
appeared about to be lost for ever is suddenly restored, distinct in
all its lineaments.  It is as if a cask of soured and turbid liquor,
in some day of strange atmospheric conditions, had suddenly run clear
again, and had again the lost fragrance and flavour, and sparkle and
brilliant colour: and this is a miracle of nature, an eternal mystery,
and is like a reincarnation and a resurrection.

As with racial characters, so it is, although in a less degree, with
fixed family features, and with the characters, physical and moral,
that are produced by what is called good blood. These features and
characters may become obscured and even disappear for a time; but they
are not lost; from generation to generation they will ever and anon
continue to reappear. This well-known fact and the less familiar fact
that a very large number of persons of good family are constantly
being submerged in the lower ranks, is to my mind a sufficient and the
only explanation of the numerous handsome and beautiful faces and
figures to be found among the peasantry.

I here recall the case of the once-important and numerous Sussex
family of Culpepper; a member of that family, the old herbalist, has
made the name familiar to everyone. For centuries the Culpeppers were
landowners in various parts of the county, and at one period there
were two baronetcies in the family. Yet in the course of the last two
centuries they have sunk into utter obscurity, and there is not now
one person of that name in Sussex above the condition of a labourer.

Similar cases may be found in every part of the country: the point
that concerns us here is that probably in no other part of Sussex,
perhaps in no other part of the kingdom, has the process of sinking to
the lower social level been so frequent as in down-land.  Or perhaps
it would be more correct to say, that nowhere else have the old
families that have lost their position in the country left so many
descendants who bear their names and are labourers on the lands that
were once their ancestors'. Among those of his class in downland the
shepherd appears to have the largest infusion of good blood: it shows
itself in the fine and even noble features that are so frequently
found among them, and a degree of intelligence beyond that of the
average shepherd of other districts.

One of the numerous, mostly minute, differences to be detected between
the downland shepherd and other peasants--differences due to the
conditions of his life--refers to his disposition. He has a singularly
placid mind, and is perfectly contented with his humble lot. In no
other place have I been in England, even in the remotest villages and
hamlets, where the rustics are not found to be more or less infected
with the modern curse or virus of restlessness and dissatisfaction
with their life. I have, first and last, conversed with a great many
shepherds, from the lad whose shepherding has just begun to the
patriarch who has held a crook, and "twitched his mantle blue," in the
old Corydon way, on these hills for upwards of sixty years, and in
this respect have found them all very much of one mind. It is as if
living alone with nature on these heights, breathing this pure
atmosphere, the contagion had not reached them, or else that their
blood was proof against such a malady.

One day I met a young shepherd on the highest part of the South Downs,
who was about twenty-three years old, handsome, tall, well-formed, his
face glowing with health and spirits. I shared my luncheon with him,
and then sitting on the turf we talked for an hour about the birds and
other wild creatures which he knew best. He told me that he was paid
twelve and sixpence a week, and had no prospect of a rise, as the
farmers in that part had made a firm stand against the high wages (in
some cases amounting to eighteen shillings) which were being paid at
other points. I was tempted as an experiment to speak slightingly of
the shepherd's homely trade. It was all very well in summer, I said,
but what about winter, when the hills were all white with snow; when
the wind blew so strong that a man could not walk against or face it;
when it was wet all day, and when all nature was drowned in a dense
fog, and you cannot see a sheep twenty yards off? "We are accustomed
to all weathers," he replied. "We do not mind the wet and cold--we
don't feel it." I persisted that he earned too little, that
shepherding was not good enough for him. He said that his father had
been a shepherd all his life, and was now old and becoming infirm;
that he (the son) lived in the same cottage, and at odd times helped
the old man with his flock, and was able to do a good many little
things for him which he could not very well do for himself, and would
not be able to pay a stranger to do them. That, I said, was all right
and proper; but his father being infirm would not be able to follow a
flock many years longer on the hills, and when the old man's
shepherding days were over the son would be free. Besides, I added, a
young man wants a wife--how could he marry on twelve and sixpence a
week? At that there came a pleasant far-away look in his eyes: it
could be seen that they were turned inward and were occupied with the
image of a particular, incomparable She. He smiled, and appeared to
think that it was not impossible to marry on twelve and sixpence a
week.




CHAPTER VII

SHEPHERDS AND WHEATEARS


The shepherd's altered condition--His loss of the wheatear
harvest--The passion for wheatears--Arrival of the birds on the
downs--"Our ortolan"--Coops--The wheatear's habits--Sensitiveness to
rain--Hurdis and the "pence of ransom"--A great dame collecting
wheatears--JohnDude-ney's recollections--Shepherds cease taking
wheatears--Probable reason--How the birds are now
obtained--Bird-catchers, poulterers, and farmers--The law must be
enforced--Lark-eating.


To all those who love the Sussex Downs and their people it must be a
source of regret that the old system of giving the shepherd an
interest in the flock was ever changed. According to the old system he
was paid a portion of his wages in kind--so many lambs at lambing
time; and these, when grown, he was permitted to keep with the flock
to the number of twenty or twenty-five, and sometimes perhaps more. At
shearing time he was paid for the wool, and he had the increase of his
ewes to sell each year. He was thus in a small way in partnership with
his master, the farmer, and regarded himself, and was also regarded by
others, as something more than a mere hireling, like the shepherd of
to-day, who looks to receive a few pieces of silver at each week's
end, and will be no better off and no worse off whether the years be
fat or lean.

One would imagine that the old system must have worked well on the
downs, as it undoubtedly does in other lands where I have known it,
and I can only suppose that its discontinuance was the result of that
widening of the line dividing employer from employed which has been so
general. The farmer did not improve his position by the change--I
believe he lost more than he gained: it was simply that the old
relations between master and servant were out of date. He was a better
educated man, less simple in his life than his forefathers, and
therefore at a greater distance from his shepherd; it would remove all
friction and simplify things generally to put the shepherd on the same
level with the field labourer and other servants: and this was done by
giving him a shilling more a week in exchange for the four or five or
six lambs he had been accustomed to receive every year.

There have been other, although less important, changes in the life of
the lonely man who follows his flock on the hills: one that has a
special interest for me refers to the annual wheatear harvest, which
was formerly a source of considerable profit to the shepherds of the
South Downs. Those who engaged in taking the birds were accustomed to
make each season from four or five pounds to twenty--occasionally
thirty or forty--pounds. A few shepherds have been known to make as
much as fifty pounds.  Thus the most successful actually made more by
wheatear-catching from July to September than the farmers paid them
for the whole year's shepherding.  It is sometimes said that wheatears
are not now eaten, and that the shepherds no longer take them, because
the birds are now so few in number that it would not be worth anyone's
while to catch them.  There is no doubt that they have decreased very
much; but they are still eaten, though the shepherds do not catch
them, and, as we shall see presently, the complaint that they have
decreased is so old that we read of its having been made a century
ago.

The passion for wheatears, so far as I know, was confined to a part of
the south coast, and dates some centuries back in time. At all events,
it existed and was strong in the time of the Stuarts, and at a later
period the demand for the birds increased with the growth of the coast
towns of Eastbourne and Brighton.

The pretty little grey and white, black-winged bird that loves the
stony desert places of the earth is a strict emigrant, returning to
and quitting these shores earlier than most species; and in July,
after rearing their young, the southward movement begins, and from all
parts of England and Wales, and from Scotland and the islands, the
birds come in pairs and in small parties of half a dozen or more to
the downs. They are most abundant on the higher part of the range
called the South Downs, where they spend a few days on the hills,
running and flitting over the close-cropped turf, and playfully
pursuing one another in the air. It is a season of rest and recreation
on the "threshold of England" before their voyage over sea and
subsequent long journey into the interior of a distant continent; and
when, having rested, they depart, they are succeeded by others, so
that they are never, or but rarely, abundant at any one time, but are
always arriving and always departing. They are very fat when they
arrive on the downs, and the season during which the shepherds took
them, from mid-July to mid-September, must have been a blessed time
for the gourmets of the past.  Whenever the wheatear ("our ortolan,"
as it was affectionately called) is mentioned by writers of two or
three centuries ago, the charm of the bird (on the table) is so
rapturously dwelt upon, with such an air of rolling a fat delicious
morsel in the mouth, and smacking the lips after deglutition, and
stroking a well-satisfied stomach, that one is led to think that the
happiness of the great, the wise, and the good of that age was centred
in their bellies, and that they looked on the eating of wheatears as
the highest pleasure man could know; unless indeed they considered it
an even higher one "to see all their friends drunk and happy about
them."

In July the shepherds made their "coops," as their traps were
called--a T-shaped trench about fourteen inches long, over which the
two long narrow sods cut neatly out of the turf were adjusted, grass
downwards. A small opening was left at the end for ingress, and there
was room in the passage for the bird to pass through toward the chinks
of light coming from the two ends of the cross passage. At the inner
end of the passage a horse-hair springe was set, by which the bird was
caught by the neck as it passed in, but the noose did not as a rule
strangle the bird.

On some of the high downs near the coast, notably at Beachy Head, at
Birling Gap, at Seaford, and in the neighbourhood of Rottingdean, the
shepherds made so many coops, placed at small distances apart, that
the downs in some places looked as if they had been ploughed. In
September, when the season was over, the sods were carefully put back,
roots down, in their places, and the smooth green surface was restored
to the hills.

The wheatear when travelling flies low, and has the habit of alighting
on any barren or stony piece of ground. If a heap of flints be
collected, or a few sods be turned earth upwards, not a bird will come
in sight of the place but will go out of his way to settle on it, and
the larger the patch of ground thrown into coops the more birds come
to it. Again, the bird has the habit of going into any hole or crevice
it finds in the stony or barren spots it loves to visit.  I have
noticed the same habit in birds of other species that breed in dark
holes. The fact that on bright and cloudless days few wheatears were
caught in the coops and that considerable numbers were always taken on
days of flying clouds and of shadow and sunlight, seems to show that
the birds make use of the holes as a shelter. They probably greatly
dislike being wetted by rain; and indeed the bird's safety must in a
great degree depend on his ability to keep himself dry, since a wet
plumage interferes with flight, and the wheatear, on account of his
conspicuous plumage, as well as of the open exposed character of the
ground he inhabits, must be more liable than almost any other species
to be attacked by hawks that prey upon small birds. The sudden gloom
caused by a cloud obscuring the sun is the forerunner of a
swift-coming storm to the bird, a sudden shadow being associated with
rain in his mind, and he flies to shelter himself in the nearest hole;
and if the gloom falls on the earth fifty or a hundred times a day he
will act in the same way every time. It was owing to this extreme
sensitiveness of the wheatear, and its inability to distinguish
between a rain-cloud and a cloud without rain, that the shepherds were
so successful in taking them in their simple traps. So well did the
shepherd know this habit and weakness of the bird, that on a dry day
of unbroken cloud he did not look to get more than a few birds; on a
day of continual sunshine he hardly thought it worth while to visit
his coops; but on a day of flying clouds and broken lights he would go
the round of his coops three or four times to collect the birds and
reset the snares.

Hurdis, the poet of the downs, in _The Favorite Village_, in a long
passage on the subject of wheatear-catching, has the following lines:


  So when the fevered cloud of August day
  Flits through the blue expanse...
  The timorous wheatear, fearful of the shade,
  Trips to the hostile shelter of the clod,
  And where she sought protection finds a snare.

  ... Seized by the springe
  She flutters for lost liberty in vain,
  A costly morsel, destined for the board
  Of well-fed luxury, if no kind friend,
  No gentle passenger the noose dissolve,
  And give her to her free-born wing again.
  Incautious bird, such as thy lot is now,
  Such once was mine...

And in the end, recalling how he was delivered and by whom, he
resolves that his hand shall "at distance imitate"---


  And to the feathery captive give release.
  The pence of ransom placing in its stead.
  Go, fool, be cheated of thy wing no more!

His "pence of ransom" requires a word of explanation.  It was
customary for those who required a supply of wheatears for a big
dinner, when there were none or not enough to be had in the market, to
go out themselves to the downs and collect them from the coops, and to
leave the price of as many birds as were found caught and taken. All
the coops from which the birds were taken were left uncovered, and a
small pile of silver and copper coins, the market value of the birds,
placed in the last trench. The shepherd going the rounds of his coops
would count the money, reset the springes, and go back satisfied to
his flock.

When the tender-hearted clergyman-poet left his pence for the birds,
which he took from the coops merely to set them free, his neighbours
must have regarded him as an exceedingly eccentric person, for the
birds were caught to be eaten by important persons in Sussex; indeed,
the wheatear was created for that purpose, even as the robin
redbreast, wren, and swallow--sacred birds in other lands--were made
to be eaten by the people of Italy.

A middle-aged man, a native of the village of East Dean, described to
me how a very great lady of Eastbourne, who entertained a good deal,
and liked her birds fresh caught, used often to go out driving in a
carriage and pair on the downs; and he, a boy of twelve, used to run
after the carriage in hopes of getting a penny; and how, on arriving
at a number of coops, the big liveried footman would jump down and
uncover coop after coop and wring the necks of the little birds he
took out, until he had got as many as his mistress wanted, and then
she would hand him the money to leave in a trench, and the carriage
would drive off.

A shepherd of the South Downs, named John Dudeney, afterwards a
schoolmaster in Lewes, where I believe one or two of his
granddaughters still keep a school, was included by M. A. Lower in his
_Worthies of Sussex_, on account of his passion for books and other
virtues. And it will be allowed by everyone that a poor peasant youth,
who, when shepherding on the hills, acquired a knowledge of astronomy
and of other out-of-the-way subjects, and taught himself to read the
Bible in Hebrew, was deserving of a place among the lesser celebrities
of his county.

In a too-short account which Dudeney gave of his early life and
struggles to make money enough to buy books as well as to live, there
is an interesting note or two on his experiences as a
wheatear-catcher. Here is a picture of his early shepherding days:


I have sometimes been on the hills in winter from morning to night,
and have not seen a single person during the whole day.  In the snow I
have walked to and fro under the shelter of a steep bank, or in a
bottom or a combe, while my sheep have been by me scraping away the
snow with their forefeet to get at the grass, and I have taken my book
out of my pocket, and as I walked to and fro in the snow have read to
pass away the time.  It is very cold on the downs in such weather. I
remember once, whilst with my father, the snow froze into ice on my
eyelashes, and he breathed on my face to thaw it off. The downs are
very pleasant in summer.


Yes, they are.


At midsummer, 1799, I removed to Kingston, near Lewes, where I was
under-shepherd for three years. The flock was large (1400), and my
master, the head shepherd, being old and infirm, much of the labour
devolved on me. While here I had better wages, 6 pounds a year; I had
also part of the money obtained from the sale of wheatears, though we
did not catch them here in great numbers, a dozen or two a day, seldom
more. The hawks often injured us by tearing them out of their coops,
scattering their feathers about, which frightened the other birds from
the coops.  During winter I caught the moles, which, at twopence each,
brought me a few shillings.


It is a pity that Dudeney did not give the name of the bold hawk that
tore the captive birds out of the coops. The kite, buzzard, harriers,
as well as peregrine falcon and sparrow-hawk, were common in those
days. Some of the old shepherds say that the stoats were a great
nuisance, and robbed them of a good many birds. One old shepherd, who
caught wheatears for many years near Seaford, told me that the
starlings gave him most trouble. They would go poking into the coops
and get themselves caught.  They were unsaleable, and so he ate them.
As soon as he took them out of the traps he pulled their heads off.
That, he informed me, is the only proper thing to do. If you pull off
their heads they are good to eat, but if you leave their heads on they
are not good.

I always leave my starlings' heads on.

Dudeney next tells us what he did at Westside Farm, at Rottingdean,
where he was afterwards engaged.


The farm extending along the sea-coast, I caught great numbers of
wheatears during the season for taking them, which lasted from the
middle of July to the end of August. The most I ever caught in one day
was thirteen dozen. We sold them to a poulterer at Brighton, who took
all we could catch at eighteenpence a dozen.  From what I have heard
from old shepherds, it cannot be doubted that they were caught in much
greater numbers a century ago than of late. I have heard them speak of
an immense number being taken in one day by a shepherd of East Dean,
near Beachy Head. I think they said he took nearly a hundred dozen; so
many that he could not thread them on crow-quills in the usual manner,
but took off his round frock and made a sack of it to pop them into,
and his wife did the same with her petticoat.  This must have been
when there was a great flight. Their numbers are now so decreased that
some shepherds do not set up any coops, as it does not pay for the
trouble.


This last statement describing the state of things a century ago
struck me as very curious when I first read it; that the birds had now
decreased so much that it was not worth while setting up coops, was
precisely what the shepherds had said when I asked them why they had
given up catching the wheatears. But it is not the truth, or not the
whole truth. For about eighty years after Dudeney's days at
Rottingdean, the shepherds in that neighbourhood and all along the
South Down range continued to catch wheatears, and were glad to do so.
There is one old firm of poulterers in Brighton whose custom it was to
pay the shepherds for all the birds they sent in at the end of the
season. When pay-day arrived the shepherds would come in, and a very
substantial dinner with plenty of beer would be served to them; and
after the meal and toasts and songs every man would be paid his money.
At these yearly dinners, which were continued down to about 1880, as
many as fifty shepherds have been known to attend. Yet this firm could
not have had more than a third or a fourth part of the wheatears
supplied by the shepherds to deal with.

About the date just named, or a little later, the Rottingdean farmers
began to forbid their shepherds engaging to supply the Brighton
poulterers with wheatears: the men, they said, were so much occupied
in going the rounds of their coops that they neglected their proper
work. The example of these farmers spread over the downs, and their
action was, so far as I know, the real cause of the somewhat sudden
abandonment by the shepherds of their ancient supplementary trade of
catching wheatears.  That they no longer follow it is a cause of
profound regret to the poulterers, for the demand still exists and
must somehow be supplied. Fowlers were engaged to go out and shoot and
trap the birds the best way they could, but the shot so injured the
delicate plump little bodies that this method was discontinued. For
some years past the big poulterers have been compelled to engage the
services of the ordinary bird-catcher of the Brighton slums, who takes
the birds with the common clapnets.  His method is to go out with a
couple of "pals" to help and to spread his nests at the side of one of
the small solitary dew-ponds on the hills.  In very dry hot weather
there are always some wheatears flitting and running about on the turf
in the neighbourhood of the pond, to which they go at intervals to
drink. The nets spread, the helpers make a wide circuit, and when they
see a few birds walk quietly towards them, making them move on towards
the pond. Once they are near it and spy one of their kind (the decoy
wheatear tied to a peg) they fly to it and are taken in the nets. The
number of birds taken in this slow laborious way is not enough to meet
the demand that still exists. "We could," said one of the largest men
in the trade at Brighton to me last summer, "sell four times as many
wheatears as we can get at six shilling a dozen."

It is curious to have to add that the industrious bird-catcher cannot
now get even this insufficient supply of birds without exposing
himself to the risk of prosecutions and fines.

In the East Sussex bird-protection order, which was made law in June
1897, the wheatear is a scheduled bird, and is therefore fully
protected during the close time, which, in that county, extends to
September I. The wheatears are in season and are taken in July and
August. The poulterers and game-dealers in the coast towns, and some
of the farmers, are in league with the bird-catcher, and are perhaps
more deserving of punishment than the man from the slums who does the
dirty work. A certain number of farmers, who do not mind what they do
if they are paid, allow bird-catchers to have a "pitch" on their land,
and are not ashamed to take some small sum, usually ten to twenty
shillings a year, for the privilege. The bird-catcher spreads his nets
as far from the road as he can, and gives out that he is catching
starlings with the farmer's permission. The starling is not a
scheduled bird, and, though protected, may be taken by any person on
his own land, or by anyone with the owner's consent. Catching
wheatears for starlings has gone on unpunished until now, or rather to
the end of the last close time in East Sussex, September 1, 1899, and
ought not to be any longer tolerated. When the wheatear season comes
round once more efforts will, I trust, be made by residents on the
south coast, who are anxious to preserve our wild bird life, to
enforce the law; and I hope to be there to help them.

It is often said that the wheatears have decreased, and will continue
to decrease, owing to the continual spread of cultivation and the
consequent diminution of the open, barren, and stony lands which the
bird inhabits. All the more need then to put an end to the wholesale
taking of the birds when they arrive on the South Downs, during
migration. The wheatear is a pretty, interesting bird, a sweet singer,
and dear to all who love the wildness and solitude of hills and of
desert, stony places. It is not fair that it should be killed merely
to enable London stockbrokers, sporting men, and other gorgeous
persons who visit the coast, accompanied by ladies with yellow hair,
to feed every day on "ortolans" at the big Brighton hotels.

Lark-eating, which revolts us even more than wheatear-eating, is,
alas! too common and widespread in the country to be suppressed in the
same easy way. It will not soon be ended--there are too many Britons
with the Italian's debased passion for a song-bird's flesh. But the
feeling of intense disgust and even abhorrence the practice arouses in
all lovers of nature grows, and will continue to grow; and we may look
forward to the time when the feeders on skylarks of to-day will be
dead and themselves eaten by worms, and will have no successors in all
these islands.




CHAPTER VIII

SILENCE AND MUSIC


The art of music--Natural music--Sussex voices--A pretty girl with a
musical voice--Singing of the peasants--Dr. Burton on Sussex
singing--Primitive singing--A shepherdess and her cries--The Sussex
sheep-dog's temper--Silence of the hills--Bird music of the
downs--Common bunting--Linnet--Stonechat--Whinchat--The distance which
sound travels--Experience with tramps--Singing of skylarks--Effects
which cannot be expressed.


Perhaps it would be as well to explain at the outset that about music
proper I have next to nothing to say in spite of the heading of this
chapter. Music is inexpressibly delightful, but when I am with or very
near to or fresh from nature 1 am cold to it; and when listening I am
in a curious way more than fastidious. That which is wholly satisfying
to the trained followers and professors, who live and move and have
their beings in a perpetual concord of sweet sounds; that which they
regard as perfection and the best expression of all that is best in
man, is not a great thing to me. Even when it most enchants me, if it
does not wholly swamp my intellect, I have a sense of something
abnormal in it, or at all events, of something wholly out of
proportion to and out of harmony with things as they exist. That music
comes to us naturally, that it is an instinct, nobody will deny; it is
only music as an art and an end in itself, cultivated in the highest
degree for its own sake alone, and taken out of its relation with
life, that I am compelled to regard as a mere by-product of the mind,
a beautiful excrescence, which is of no importance to the race, and
without which most of us are just as rich and happy in our lives.

This question does not concern us. Music in another wider sense is,
like beauty, everywhere--the elemental music of winds and of waters,
of

  The lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain,

and the music of bird voices. For just as the bird, as Ruskin says, is
the cloud concentrated, its aerial form perfected and vivified with
life; so, too, in the songs and calls and cries of the winged people
do we listen to the diffused elemental music of nature concentrated
and changed to clear penetrative sound.  Listen to the concealed
reed-warbler, quietly singing all day long to himself among the reeds
and rushes: it is a series of liquid sounds, the gurgling and chiming
of lapping water on the shallow pebbled bed of a stream. The beautiful
inflected cry of the playing pewit is a mysterious lonely sound, as of
some wild half-human being blowing in a hollow reed he had made.
Listen again to a band of small shore birds--stints, dotterels, knots,
and dunlins--conversing together as they run about on the level sands,
or dropping bright twittering notes as they fly swiftly past: it is
like the vibrating crystal chiming sounds of a handful of pebbles
thrown upon and bounding and glissading musically over a wide sheet of
ice.

>From these small sounds and the smaller still of insect life, to the
greater sounds of bird and mammal--the noise of the herring and
black-backed gulls drifting leisurely by at a vast height above the
earth, and ever and anon bursting out in a great chorus of laugh-like
cries, as if the clouds had laughed; the innumerable tremulous
bleatings of a driven flock; the percussive bark of the shepherd's
dog, and the lowing of kine in some far-off valley. They are all
musical, and are in a sense music. And, best of all, there is the
human voice. Even a musical artist, in spite of an artist's prejudice,
an old English composer, has said that speech, the sweet music of it,
is infinitely more to us than song and the sound of all our musical
instruments.

I cannot say that the Sussexians have more musical voices than the
people of any other part of the kingdom, but their speech is pleasant,
more so than in most counties, and they are certainly fond of singing.
The people of the downs have in my experience the nicest voices in
speaking. And here as in other places you will occasionally find a
voice of the purest, most beautiful quality. I would go more miles to
hear a voice of that description speaking simple words, than I would
go yards to listen to the most wonderful vocal flights of the greatest
diva on earth. Not that the mere pleasure to the sense would not be
vastly greater in the latter case; but in the other the voice, though
but of a peasant saying some simple thing, would also say something to
the mind, and would live and re-live in the mind, to be heard again
and often, even after years; and with other similar voices it would
serve to nourish and keep alive a dream. And after all a dream may be
a man's best possession; though it be but of an immeasurably remote
future--a time when these tentative growths, called art, and valued as
the highest good attainable --the bright consummate flower of
intellect--shall have withered, and, like tendrils no longer needed,
dropped forgotten from the human plant.

One such voice I heard to my great delight in or near a hamlet not
many miles from Singleton in the West Sussex Downs. Sauntering along
the path in a quiet green very pretty place, I spied a girl pushing a
perambulator with a baby in it before her, using one hand, while in
the other hand she held an apple, which she was just beginning to eat.
It was a very big apple, all of the purest apple-green colour except
where she had bitten into it, and there it was snowy white. She was a
slim, gracefully-formed girl of about fifteen, with the Sussex round
face and fine features, but with a different colour, for her skin was
a clear dark one, her eyes soft deep blue, and her unbound hair, which
was very abundant and very fine, was black, but showing chestnut-brown
where the wind had fluffed it about her face. Perhaps her mouth, with
its delicately-moulded lips, was her finest feature; and it was very
pretty, as she came up to where I stood waiting for her, to see her
small, even, sharp, pearly teeth cut into the polished green apple.
But though she was so lovely to look at, if I had allowed her to pass
by without speaking the probability is that her image would have soon
faded out of memory. We see and straightway forget many a pretty face.
But when I spoke to her and she answered in a musical voice of so
beautiful a quality, that was like a blackbird's voice and a
willow-wren's, yet better than either, the rare sweet sound registered
itself in my brain, and with it the face, too, became unforgettable.
When she had given me her answer I thought of other things to ask--the
name of the next village (which I knew) and the next, and the distance
to each, with many other unnecessary inquiries, and still every time
she spoke it was more to me than a "melody sweetly played in tune";
and it was at last with the greatest reluctance that I was compelled
to thank her and let her go.

As to the singing of the Sussex peasants, I must confess that it has
amused rather than delighted me, but at the same time it is
interesting. You can best hear it in the village ale-house or inn in
the evening, especially on a Saturday, when a pleasant break in the
week has come with rest from toil, and money has been paid for wages,
and life has a more smiling aspect than on most days. Beer, too, of
which unusually large quantities are consumed at such times, makes
glad the Sussexian heart, and song is with him the natural expression
of the feeling.  Willum, asked for a song, without much demur sings it
with all his heart; he is followed by Tummas, who scarcely waits to be
asked; and then Gaarge, who began clearing his throat and moistening
his lips when Tummas was in the fourteenth and last stanza, bursts out
with his rollicking song with a chorus in which all join. Then follow
Sammel and Bill (to distinguish him from Willum), and finally John
Birkenshaw, the silent man, who has been occupied all the evening
drinking beer and saying nothing, gives by general request his
celebrated murder ballad in twenty-three stanzas. Before it is quite
finished, when he is pointing the moral of his gruesome tale, warning
all fond mothers to look well after their daughters dear, and not
foolishly allow them to go out walking with young men of doubtful
reputation, the listeners begin to yawn and look drowsy; but they
praise his performance when it is happily over, and John wipes his
forehead, drinks his beer, and says good-night.

As to their manner of singing, it was admirably described about the
middle of the eighteenth century by a Dr. John Burton, a clergyman,
who was accustomed to "travel" into Sussex at intervals, and who
recorded his observations on the country and its people in an amusing
work entitled _Iter Sussexiense_.

It has been remarked of the modern writer, Jules Janin, that when all
the good work he has produced has been forgotten by the world, he will
still be remembered by his unconsciously humorous description of the
lobster as "the Cardinal of the Sea." A fate of that kind has befallen
Burton, who is remembered only as the author of an exceedingly
ridiculous saying. He affirms that oxen, pigs, and women are
long-legged in this county, and, speculating as to the reason, asks:
"May it be from the difficulty of pulling the feet out of so much mud
by the strength of the ankle that the muscles get stretched, as it
were, and the bones lengthened?"

Of the Sussex manner of speaking and singing, Dr. Burton wrote:


They raise their voices to a sharp pitch, and moreover deliver all
their words fluently and in a sort of sing-song.... The more
shrill-toned they may be, the more valued they are; and in church they
sing psalms by preference, not set to the old simple tune, but as if
in tragic chorus, changing about with strophe and antistrophe and
stanza, with good measure, but yet there is something offensive to my
ears, when they bellow to excess and bleat out some goatish noise with
all their might.


The description is true of to-day, only the goatish noise, which is
offensive to most ears, is not now heard so much in church, where
indeed the Sussex peasant is not often seen: you hear it in the
alehouse and the cottage.

What strikes me as the most curious and interesting point about their
singing--their love of high-pitched voices, and, in many of their
ballads, their go-as-you-please tuneless tuneful manner, with the
prolonging of some notes at random and "bleating out of goatish
noises"--is its resemblance to the singing of the Basques, which is
perhaps the most primitive kind of vocal music that survives in
Europe.  This Basque singing in its turn strongly reminds me of all
the Indians' singing I have heard in South America, including that of
the Tehuelches--the Patagonian nomad race. The gauchos of the pampas,
too, have inherited something of that manner of singing from their
progenitors, or else have caught it from the aborigines. The Basques
and the red men, like our Sussexians, are fond of shrillness and acute
sounds, but do not, like the East Indians, cultivate falsetto.

I have described the sweetest, most musical voice heard in Sussex as
that of a young girl in the downs; another downland girl's voice was
one of the acutest carrying voices I ever heard in my life. She was
shepherding (a rare thing for a girl to do) on the very high downs
between Stanmer and Westmeston; and for two or three days during my
rambles among the hills in that neighbourhood I constantly heard her
oft-repeated calls and long piercing cries sounding wonderfully loud
and distinct even at a distance of two miles and more away. It was
like the shrill echoing cries of some clear-voiced big bird--some
great forest fowl, or eagle, or giant ibis, or rail, or courlan, in
some far land where great birds with glorious voices have not all been
extirpated.

It was nice to hear, but it surprised me that all that outcry, heard
over an area of seven or eight square miles, was necessary. At a
distance of a mile I watched her, and saw that she had no dog, that
her flock, numbering nine hundred, travelled a good deal, being much
distressed by thirst, as all the dew-ponds in that part of the downs
were dry. When her far-sounding cries failed to make them turn then
she had to go after them, and her activity and fleetness of foot were
not less remarkable than her ringing voice; but I pitied her doing a
man and dog's work in that burning weather, and towards evening on my
way home I paid her a visit. She was a rather lean but wiry-looking
girl, just over fifteen years old, with an eager animated face, dark
skin and blackish fuzzy hair and dark eyes. She was glad to talk and
explain it all, and had a high-pitched but singularly agreeable voice
and spoke rapidly and well. The shepherd had been called away, and no
shepherd boy could be found to take his place: all the men were
harvesting, and the flock had been given into her charge. The shepherd
had left his dog, but he would not obey her: she had taken him out
several days, leading him by a cord, but no sooner would she release
him than he would run home, and so she had given up trying.

I advised her to try again, and the next day I spent some time
watching her, the dog at her side, calling and crying her loudest,
flying over the wide hill-side after the sheep; but the dog cared not
where they went, and sullenly refused to obey her. Here is a dog,
thought I, with good, old-fashioned, conservative ideas about the
employment of women: he is not going to help them make themselves
shepherdesses on the South Downs. A probably truer explanation of the
animal's rebellious behaviour was given by a young shepherd of my
acquaintance.  The dog, he said, refused to do what he was told
because the girl was not his master's daughter, nor of his house. The
sheep-dog's attachment to the family is always very strong, and he
will gladly work for any member of it; but for no person outside.  "My
dog," he added, "will work as willingly and as well for any one of my
sisters, when I leave the flock to their care, as he will for me; but
he would not stir a foot for any person, man or woman, not of the
family." He said, too, that this was the common temper of the Sussex
sheep-dog; faithful above all dogs to their own people but suspicious
of all strangers, and likely at any time to bite the stranger's hand
that caresses them.

I daresay he was right: I have made the acquaintance of some scores of
these downland dogs, and greatly admired them, especially their brown
eyes, which are more eloquent and human in their expression than any
other dog's eyes known to me; yet it has frequently happened that
after I had established, as I imagined, a firm friendship with one, he
has suddenly snapped or growled at me.


My account of that most extraordinary hullaballoo among the hills made
by the young shepherdess has served to remind me of the subject I had
set myself to write about in this chapter, and which in all these
pages I have not yet touched upon--the wonderful silence of the downs,
and the effect of nature's more delicate music heard in such an
atmosphere. That clear repeated call of the young shepherdess would
have sounded quite different from six to eight hundred feet below on
the flat weald, where it would have mixed with other sounds, and a
denser atmosphere and hedges and trees would have muffled and made it
seem tame and commonplace. On the great smooth hills, because of their
silence and their thinner, purer atmosphere, it fell startlingly on
the sense, and the prolonged cries had a wild and lonely expression.

This silence of the hills does not impress one at once if the mind is
occupied with thinking, or the eyes with seeing. But if one spends
many hours each day and many days in lonely rambles (and who would not
prefer to be alone in such a place?) a consciousness of it grows upon
the mind. The quiet, too, becomes increasingly grateful, and the
contrast between the hills and the lowland grows sharper with each
day. Coming down to the village where one sleeps, it seems like a town
full of business and noise, and the sound of a train in the distance
has a strangely disturbing effect. The coarse and common sounds of the
lowlands do not penetrate into the silent country of the hills. The
sounds there are mostly of birds, and these are comparatively few and
are not the loud-voiced. Furthermore, when they are the same voices
which you are accustomed to hear in hedge and field and orchard, they
do not seem quite the same. The familiar note of the homestead has a
more delicate, spiritualised sound.  The common characteristic
songsters of the islands and miniature forests of furze are the
linnet, white-throat, dunnock, meadow pipit, yellowhammer, common
bunting, whinchat, and stonechat. They are none of them loud-voiced,
and their songs do not drown or kill one another, but are rather in
harmony and suited to that bright quiet land. I have said that the
song--thrush among other birds of the orchard goes to the downs and
sometimes breeds there. Now, although I am as fond of the music of
this thrush as anyone can be, heard from the tree-tops in woods and
lanes and fields, where it sounds best, it was never a welcome voice
on the downs. I seldom heard it in those wilder quiet furze islands
among the high hills; and if the loud staccato song burst out in such
a place I always had a strong inclination to go out of my way and
throw a stone at the singer to silence him. On the other hand, I never
tired of listening to even the poorest of the characteristic species;
even the common bunting was a constant pleasure. In the wide sunny
world I preferred him to his neighbour and relation, the yellowhammer.
The sound he emits by way of song is certainly bright, and, like some
other bird-voices, it is associated in my mind in hot and brilliant
weather with the appearance of water spouting or leaping and sparkling
in the sun. Doubtless such expressions as "needles of sound,"
"splinters," and "shafts," and "jets of sound," etc., to be found in
writers on bird-music, are not wholly metaphorical, but actually
express the connection existing in the writer's mind between certain
sounds and sights.  The common bunting's little outburst of confused
or splintered notes, is when heard (by me) at the same time mentally
seen as a handful of clear water thrown up and breaking into sparkling
drops in the sunlight.  Of the songsters of the furze on the downs the
best to my mind is the stonechat. It is true that the linnet has one
exquisite note, the equal of which for purest melody and tender
expression is not to be found among our feathered vocalists. Those who
are so utterly without imagination as to keep a linnet (for the love
of it) in a wire prison, cannot hear this note as I hear it. To sing
it properly the little bird must be free of the summer sunshine, the
wide blue sky and green expanse of earth, the furze bushes, aflame
with their winged blossoms and smelling of spice; for that
incomparable note, and the carmine colour which comes not on his
feathers in captivity, express his gladness in a free aerial life.

If we except that one angelical note, the linnet is nearly on a level
as a singer with the other species I have named; but the stonechat
comes first in the order of merit, and I think the whinchat comes
next. The ornithological books on this point tell us only that the
stonechat has a short and simple, or a short but pleasant (or not
unpleasant) song; and there is indeed not much more to say of it as we
usually hear it. No sooner does he catch sight of a human form in his
haunts than he is all excitement and trouble, and will flit and perch
and flit again from bush-top to bush-top, perpetual uttering his two
little contrasted alarm-notes, the _chack, chack_, as of two pebbles
struck together, which he has in common with other chats, and the thin
little sorrowful piping sound. This anxious temper keeps him from
singing in our presence, and causes us to think that he sings but
rarely. Then, too, his voice is not strong, and does not carry well,
and it is not strange that when heard in a place where bird-notes are
many and loud it attracts but little attention. Heard in the perfect
silence of the downland atmosphere, where the slightest sound flies
far, it strikes me as a very delicate and beautiful song, in its
character unlike that of any other British species.

One day last June I had a pleasant experience with this bird. I sat
still among bushes, where stone-chats were breeding, until they got
over their anxiety or forgot my presence, and began to sing; first one
and then another, and at last I had three singing within hearing
distance. To sing the stonechat flies up almost vertically from his
perch on the topmost spray of a bush to a height of forty or fifty to
a hundred feet, and at the highest point pours out a rapid series of
double notes, the first clear and sharp, the next deeper or somewhat
throaty, then the clear again, the und rising and falling
rhythmically; and as he sin. ne drops rapidly a distance of a couple
of feet, then flutters up and drops again and again. It is both dance
and song, and a very pretty performance.

The whinchat's song is even less well known, or less regarded, than
that of its more conspicuously coloured relation, the stonechat. Thus,
William Borrer, in his _Birds of Sussex_, expresses the opinion that
this species has no song; yet he had spent eighty years of his long
life in a rural district where the whinchat is fairly common, and had
been a lifelong observer of the birds of his county. It is in fact a
low gentle song that cannot be heard far, and when other birds are
singing it is not regarded.  The song is a warble of half a dozen
notes, and is hardly longer than the redstart's song, with which it
has been compared. But it is not like it. The whinchat's best notes,
though low, have a full, sweet, mellow quality which makes them
comparable to the blackbird and the blackcap. The redstart's best and
opening note is bright, yet plaintive, and reminds one at the same
time of two such unlike songsters as the swallow and the robin.

Sitting quietly on a low bush the whinchat will sometimes warble for
half an hour at a stretch, uttering his few notes, and repeating them
after an interval so short as to produce at a little distance the
effect of a continuous warble like that of the garden-warbler or
sedge-warbler. But he is never like them, excited, and in a hurry to
get his notes out: he sings in a leisurely manner. Now one June day in
a furzy place I began to hear the almost continuous warble of the
bird, and standing still I tried to catch sight of him in a clump
about fifty yards away. I was sure he was in that clump and could not
be further away, for even a distance of fifty yards was almost too far
to hear so low a song distinctly. I sat down to listen and watch, and
the song, very sweet and beautiful, went on and on, and still I could
see nothing. At length I got up and went to the clump and saw no bird,
but the song still went on no louder than before: I walked, following
up the sound, and discovered the bird at a distance of over four
hundred yards from where I had began to listen to it.

I was greatly surprised on this occasion at the distance sound will
travel on these silent hills; I was still more surprised on another
day when I met with an amusing experience.

Sometimes, when in some very lonely spot, such as I loved to spend a
day in, human voices were distinctly heard coming from a great
distance when no human form was in sight. I was reminded of poor Peter
Wilkins, alone in his desolate antarctic island, listening during the
long polar night to the mysterious sounds of invisible people talking
and laughing, now on this side, now on that, or else far up in the
pale dim sky. But these voices did not make me miserable; I had my
"beautiful creatures" for company, and wished not for other.  Still I
did not wholly escape from my own kind.  One afternoon in July, in the
loneliest spot I knew, where half the side of a great down is
overgrown with luxuriant furze, I heard a sound of eager talking, as
of persons engaged in argument, which appeared to grow louder and
louder; and at last I spied coming down into the wilderness of furze
three human figures, and turning my binocular on them made out that
they were three very unpleasant-looking tramps, each with a big
bundle, and they were evidently coming to camp at that place. After I
had been observing them for some time they all at once caught sight of
me, standing motionless among the bushes at a distance of about six
hundred yards, and were thrown into a great state of excitement.
"Don't lose sight of him! Keep your eye on him while I hide the things
away!" I heard one cry to the others, after which he disappeared for
some time among the bushes. For half an hour longer they kept their
eyes on me, and at length the one who had hidden his treasures away,
plucking up courage, came towards me, and when within about fifty
yards began to explain that he and his mates were doing no harm, but
had only come to that spot to cook a bit of food and to rest. I
answered that I didn't mind--what they did there was no business of
mine. That greatly relieved him; for having guilty consciences, they
doubtless had jumped to the conclusion that I was there in the
interests of the landlord to attend to the safety of the rabbits and
warn off suspicious-looking human beings. He then took notice of my
curiously-shaped binocular, and asked me what I used it for. I told
him that it was for watching birds--that was my business, and I would
attend to it and leave him to attend to his.  I spoke a little
sharply, not because of any feeling of enmity towards tramps
generally, but because he was a singularly unpleasant specimen. He was
a small man with low cunning and rascality written on his dirty face,
in ancient corduroys, waistcoat all rags, and a once black frock coat,
too big for him, shining with dirt and grease as if it had been
japanned in patches: a rusty bowler hat and broken earth-coloured
boots completed his attire. His manner was even worse--or rather both
of his manners, for at first he had cringed and was now jaunty. He
took the hint and went back to his companions.

Three days later I spent the last half of a day at the same place.
There was a stony spot there, where the ground was quite covered with
bleached flints, with many chipped specimens among them, and late in
the day, while waiting for the sun to set, I amused myself by turning
over and examining these fragments. A babble of voices in eager
discussion reached my ears and grew louder and nearer, and at length I
spied coming over the hill towards me the same three vagabonds I had
met there before.  And again, on first catching sight of me stooping
among the bushes, they were greatly alarmed, and becoming silent
separated and hid themselves in the furze. After watching me for some
time they made the discovery that I was the harmless person whose
business it was to watch birds encountered some days before, and
coming out from hiding they went on their way. When they had got past
me the same man who had talked with me on the former occasion turned
back and came up to where I was standing.  He still wanted to talk,
but I did not encourage him. Then he stood silent for some time
watching me picking up flints, and at last he said, "I see that you
are interested in flints. I found a very curious one the other day,
which I think you would like to see. It is perfectly round like a
bullet, and weighs about a pound. It has a hole in it, and I think it
is hollow inside. I hid it under a furze bush, and you can see it if
you will go to the place with me." I told him that perfectly round
flints with a hollow inside were quite common on the downs: that if I
wanted any I could find a dozen, or twenty, or forty any day. It
surprised him, he said, to hear that round flints were so common, as
he had never seen but that one. Then he tried to introduce other
topics, and, snubbed again, he at last left me and went after his
companions. Meanwhile they had been steadily walking on, and when he
at last overtook them they were a quarter of a mile from me.  On
catching them up he exclaimed "I say!" to call attention to something
he wished to tell them, and I listened. "The other day," he said,
"that man was a naturalist; to-day he is a geologist!"

It surprised me to hear him use such words, and show so perfect a
knowledge of their right meaning; but it amazed me that I had been
able to hear them distinctly at that great distance. It was a new
experience, and produced a feeling that I had somehow, without
noticing it at the time, been re-made and endowed with a new set of
senses infinitely better than the old ones. The tramps, unaccustomed
to the hills, of course had no idea of the distance their voices
carried, or they would not have talked about keeping their eyes on me
and hiding their parcels, etc., when they first saw me. I noticed
subsequently that lowland people generally spoke a great deal louder
than was necessary on the downs.  They were accustomed to a denser and
noisier atmosphere, and were like people who have been conversing with
a deaf person, and when they speak to others cannot drop the habit of
shouting. The shepherd's manner of speaking, and his voice too, I
think, have been modified somewhat by his surroundings. At all events,
he speaks quietly and has a very clear voice; a man with a loud thick
speech is not a native of the hills.

But it is when listening to the music of the larks that we are best
able to appreciate the wonderful silence of the hills, and the
refining effect of long distances in this pure thin atmosphere on the
acutest and brightest bird sounds.

The skylark is found all over downland, and is abundant wherever there
is cultivation. On the sheep-walks, where favourable breeding-places
are comparatively few, he is so thinly distributed that you may
sometimes ramble about for half a day and not put up more than half a
dozen birds. And yet here, on these sheep-fed hills, out of sight of
corn-fields, you hear the lark all day long--not one nor half a dozen,
nor a score or two, but many scores, and I should say hundreds of
larks. Go where you like, to the summit of the highest hill, or down
the longest slopes into the deepest combe or valley at its foot,
everywhere you are ringed about with that perpetual unchanging stream
of sound. It is not a confused, nor a diffused, sound, which is
everywhere, filling the whole air like a misty rain, or a perfume, or
like the universal hum of a teeming insect life in a wood in summer;
but a sound that ever comes from a great distance, out of the sky: and
you are always in the centre of it; and the effect is as of an
innumerable company of invisible beings, forming an unbroken circle as
wide as the horizon, chanting an everlasting melody in one shrill,
unchanging tone. You may hear it continuously for hours, yet look in
vain to see a bird; I have strained my sight, gazing for an hour, and
have not seen one rising or coming back to earth, and have looked up
and listened in vain to hear one singing overhead. And I have looked
all about the sky with my strong glasses without being able to detect
one small brown speck on the vast blue expanse. This was because the
birds on these smooth, close-cropped hills, especially in the dry
months of July and August, were really very few and far between--so
far, indeed, that not a bird came within ken. And yet on account of
the immense distance the sound travels you can hear the voices of
hundreds.

The highest notes of the lark on these hills may, I believe, be heard
three miles away. That sound carries three times as far on these
heights as it does on the level country I am positive; and if this be
so, the highest notes of all the birds singing on a windless day
within a circuit of eighteen miles are audible. Many, probably most,
of the birds one hears are singing over distant corn-fields; but the
fields are too far to be seen, or they are on slopes behind
interposing summits and ridges. It may happen (it has been my
experience many scores of times) that no bird is near enough for the
listener to hear any of its lower, harsh, or guttural notes.  But if
the listener is near a corn-field, or if any birds are singing near
him, these guttural notes will be audible, and the effect of the music
will not be quite the same.

The song of the lark is a continuous torrent of contrasted guttural
and clear shrill sounds and trills, so rapidly emitted that the notes,
so different in character, yet seem to interpenetrate or to overlap
each other; and the effect on the ear is similar to that on the eye of
sober or dull and brilliant colours mixed and running into one another
in a confused pattern. The acutest note of all, a clear piercing sound
like a cry several times repeated, is like a chance patch of most
brilliant colour occurring at intervals in the pattern. As the
distance between listener and bird increases the throat-notes cease to
be audible; beginning with the lowest they are one by one sifted out,
and are followed by the trills; and finally, at a very great
distance--as far, in fact, as anything of the song is left--the
occasional shrill reiterated notes I have described alone can be
heard.

Let the reader, then, who has not been on these downs in summer on a
brightest, windless day, and listened alone to this sound--alone,
since a companion's talk or even his silent presence would in most
cases mar the effect--let him imagine if he can the effect of a great
number of birds all round the sky pouring out their highest, shrillest
notes, so clarified and brightened by distance as to seem like no
earthly music. To say of a sound that it is bright is to use a too
common metaphor; this sound shines above all others, and the multitude
of voices made one by distance is an effulgence and a glory.  I have
listened to it by the hour, never wearying nor ceasing to wonder at
that mysterious beautiful music which could not be called crystalline
nor silvery, but was like the heavenly sunshine translated into sound;
subtle, insistent, filling the world and the soul, yet always at a
vast distance, falling, falling like a lucid rain. No other sound
would have seemed worth listening to there. The richest, most
passionate strains of the nightingale, if such a bird had by chance
sung near me in a bush, would have seemed no more than the chirruping
and chiding of a sparrow.  And when I have called to mind the best
things our poets have said of the lark, their words have sounded to me
strangely commonplace and even insipid: "Up with me, up with me into
the clouds"--it is but the common brown bird of the corn-fields, the
bird of earth with a nest and a sitting mate, and a song full of harsh
guttural sounds mixed with clear notes, they have had in their mind.
But this is not strange, and I am the last person to abuse the poets,
since, apart from nature, they provide me with the chief pleasure I
have in life.

It is a common experience of the artist with the brush to see effects
in nature which he would never dream of attempting to transfer to
canvas. They are beyond him--they are outside of the outermost limits
of his art. So, too, there are things innumerable that mock the artist
in words--even the inspired poet. Of all who have written, Keats has
perhaps come nearest, on a few rare occasions, to an expression of the
feeling which the visible world, in certain of its aspects and certain
of its sights and sounds, inspires in us. That is the utmost--and how
much is it? If any man can say that Keats has expressed all or as much
as he has felt in nature or more than he has felt, I would say of such
a man that he does not inhabit the same world with me, but lives in
some other world.




CHAPTER IX

SUMMER HEAT


When the downs are most enjoyable--July in the wooded lowland--The
bliss of summer--Children's delight in heat--Misery of cold--Piers
Plowman--Langland's philosophy--The happiest man in Sussex--A
protection from the sun--Heat not oppressive on the hills--Birds on
Mount Harry--A cup of cold water--Drawing water in a hat--Advantages
of a tweed hat--An unsympathetic woman--Beauty of kindness.


The downs to my mind are most enjoyable during the eight or ten
hottest weeks of the year; not only because of the greater intensity
of life and colour at that season, but also because the heat of the
sun, always less oppressive than on the country below, and endurable
even at its greatest, as we had it in the exceptionally hot and dry
season of 1899, is at most times a positive pleasure. Midsummer down
on the level country makes us shade-lovers; here where the air is more
elastic we can rejoice to be in a shadeless land. And the charm of the
downs at this season, if by chance rain has fallen to refresh and make
them blossom, is never more appreciated than when the visitor goes to
them direct from the wooded district of the weald. During the last
half of July the woodland atmosphere weighs somewhat heavily on the
spirits.  Month by month the colour has deepened until it is almost
sombre and resembles the everlasting uniform green of a tropical
forest. The tree-shaded bushes and briars, the rank grasses, creepers,
and weedy flowering plants, wear to our anthropomorphic mind and
vision something of a weary look; they have felt the decay which is
not yet apparent; the brightest blossoms welcome us to their shady
retreats with a somewhat pathetic smile. Birds are more abundant than
in spring, but they are mostly silent and appear anxious to escape
notice, slipping secretly away and speaking to one another in low
voices that have an unfamiliar sound. It may even seem that there is
something of mystery, or of apprehension, in their infrequent subdued
notes, which, they utter involuntarily when disturbed; that they are
prescient of coming changes, and have even some dim knowledge of that
long journey from which so few will return to their places in spring;
that they have already begun to listen for the breath of autumn,
rustling the leaves with a sharper sibilant sound than that of summer.
The quietude reminds us of the sick-room; the hot, languid air is like
a feverish breath that infects the blood. It is a joy to escape from
such confinement, to go out into that lofty treeless world, into the
glory of the sun that burns and does not hurt.

The power of the sun and its joy is not felt so early on the downs as
on the lower country, and last season it was not until the middle of
June that I experienced the blissful sensation and feeling in its
fullness. Then a day came that was a revelation; I all at once had a
deeper sense and more intimate knowledge of what summer really is to
all the children of life; for it chanced that on that effulgent day
even the human animal, usually regarded as outside of nature, was
there to participate in the heavenly bounty. That I felt the happiness
myself was not quite enough, unhuman, or uncivilised, as I generally
am, and wish to be. High up the larks were raining down their
brightest, finest music; not rising skyward nor falling earthward, but
singing continuously far up in that airy blue space that was their
home.  The little birds that live in the furze, the titlarks,
whitethroats, linnets, and stonechats, sprang upwards at frequent
intervals and poured out their strains when on the wing. Each bird had
its characteristic flight and gestures and musical notes, but all
alike expressed the overflowing gladness that summer inspired, even as
the flowers seemed to express it in their intense glowing colours; and
as the butterflies expressed in their fluttering dances, and in the
rapturous motions of their wings when at rest. There were many rabbits
out, but they were not feeding, and when disturbed ran but fifteen or
twenty yards away, then sat and looked at me with their big, round,
prominent eyes, apparently too contented with life to suspect harm.
But I saw no human creature in the course of a long ramble that
morning until I was near the sea, when on approaching a coastguard
station I all at once came upon some children lying on the grass on
the slope of a down.  There were five of them, scattered about, all
lying on their backs, their arms stretched crossways, straight out,
their hands open. It looked as if they had instinctively spread
themselves out, just as a butterfly at rest opens wide its wings to
catch the beams. The hot sun shone full on their fresh young faces;
and though wide awake they lay perfectly still as I came up and walked
slowly past them, looking from upturned face to face, each expressing
perfect contentment; and as I successively caught their eyes they
smiled, though still keeping motionless and silent as the bunnies that
had regarded me a while before, albeit without smiling, Brer Rabbit
being a serious little beast. Their quietude and composure in the
presence of a stranger was unusual, and like the confidence of the
wild rabbits on that day was caused by the delicious sensation of
summer in the blood. We in our early years are little wild animals,
and the wild animals are little children.

Cold, and the misery of cold have I known; cold of keen wind and
bitter frost; cold of rain that rained every day where there was no
fire to dry me, and no shelter; cold of long winter nights, spent
shivering; and cold from hunger and thinness of blood. That was indeed
what winter really meant to a majority of men, even in this long
civilised land not so many centuries ago. These children reminded me
of my own experiences in the past, and of the state of things in old
times. For our little ones, even in this altered age in which we have
made our own conditions, in their quick and keen response to nature's
influences, perpetually recall our own past to us, and that of the
race. The sight of their faces lit with the strong sunlight from above
and the summer bliss from within, brought back the vision of old Piers
Plowman, ill-fed and gaunt and ragged, following his plough on a
winter's day--the picture which has often made me shiver with the
sensation of remembered cold. Lines that had printed themselves
indelibly on my memory, so keenly did I feel when I read them, now
seemed all at once to have a new and deeper significance.  "There the
poor dare plead," the old poet says; and by "there" he means after
life and its miseries, at the Judgment-seat:

  There the poor dare plead.
  And prove by pure reson
  To have allowance of his lord,
  By the lawe he it claimeth:
  Joye that never joye hadde
  Of rightful jugge he asketh.
  And seth, Lo, briddes and beasts.
  That no blisse ne knoweth.
  And wilde wormes in wodes,
  Through winter thou them grievest
  And maketh them well nigh meke
  And mild for defaute;
  And after thou sendeth them somer,
  That is their sovereign joye
  And blisse to all that ben
  Both wilde and tame.

Note that this interpretation of Christ's teaching is not quite the
same as ours, in these times of plenty. This old poet's philosophy is
founded on the parable, literally taken, of Lazarus and Dives: you
cannot have your sumptuous fare and purple and fine linen both here
and hereafter. For all those whose portion in this life was perpetual
toil and want and misery, and who bore it patiently (for patience was
then the chief virtue), there was compensation after death. That was
the law of the parable:

  By the lawe he it claimeth.

It was only natural that the author of the Vision, living amid the
conditions so hard for us to realise, which he describes, should have
held such a belief, that it should seem "pure reson" to him. For He
who rules over all is just even to the "briddes and beasts" and "wilde
wormes in wodes." With winter He grieves them and afterwards sends
them summer; that is their bliss, the vital beams that gladden the
stonechat and rabbit, and, piercing below the surface, unfreeze the
torpid adder's blood. So, too, for poor humanity there is a glorious
eternal summer after this life's bitter winter. This is the teaching
of the Vision--poverty borne with patience is the best life, better
and blesseder than riches:

  For though it be sour to suffre
  Thereafter cometh swete;
  As on a walnut without
  Is a bitter bark;
  But after that bitter bark,
  Be the shelle awaye.
  Is a kernel of comfort
  Kind to restore.

At the end of June, a fortnight after seeing the coastguard children,
I was again vividly reminded of the bliss of summer "to all that ben"
in an amusing way. It was an excessively hot morning, the hottest of
the year so far, and I felt it all the more for being down in the
valley of the Ouse, on a dusty flinty road, weary to walk in, between
the little riverside villages of Southease and Rodmell.  Here I spied
a man coming towards me at a swinging pace; he was short and
thick-set, aged about thirty, clad in old earth-coloured clothes, a
small peakless cap thrust far back on his head, his broad face--the
countenance of a genial ruffian--ashine with sweat and happiness. His
swinging gait, jolly expression, and a bunch of freshly-pulled yellow
flag lilies which he had stuck in the breast of his ragged old coat,
plainly showed that he was no professional tramp.  Yet he stopped me
with a loud hearty greeting and the remark that it was splendid
weather; then he added that he would be glad of a bit of bread and
some beer at the next village, but was stony-broke.  Now I had nothing
but a florin in my pocket, and as my intention was to be out rambling
all day I knew that I should badly want some money for refreshments
before evening, and there was no place near to get change. I explained
this to him, with apologies for not relieving his wants. "Oh, never
mind," he returned, "I'll manage to get to Newhaven.  I've just come
out," he added. "I've been doing time over there"; here he jerked his
thumb over his shoulder in the direction of Lewes. Then remarking
again that it was a splendid day, and that he was very glad to be out
once more, he bade me a hearty good-bye and went on his way to the
coast. I looked after him, almost expecting to hear him burst out
singing. He was probably the happiest man in Sussex on that hot
morning. And no wonder, since coming out of gaol, whither he had
perhaps been sent when the year was young, he had passed directly from
the winter of his dim stone cell to summer in the fullness of its
glory. He must indeed have been happy and seen all familiar things
with a strange magical beauty in them, when he plucked those yellow
flags to wear them as a big buttonhole!  It was the only way in which
he could express his overflowing joy, and love of life and liberty and
of green mother earth; since he could not, like the resuscitated
serpent, get himself a new shining garment for the occasion, nor like
the wild bird sing a new wonderful song.

But the hottest season is after June--the season when, as I have said,
the downs are to me most attractive. At this season my custom on going
out on the hills is to carry a wetted pocket-handkerchief or piece of
sponge in my hat: by renewing the moisture three or four times, or as
often as water is found, I am able to keep my head perfectly cool
during a ramble of ten or twelve hours on a cloudless day in July and
August. Long ago, in South America, I discovered that the wet cloth
was a great improvement on the cabbage-leaf, or thick fleshy leaf of
some kind, which is universally used as a brain-protector.  So long as
the head is comfortable there is nothing to fear, the rest of the
system being safeguarded by nature. Exercise keeps the body cool.

In the course of a hot summer day on these shadeless hills one may
experience a variety of temperatures and a succession of contrasted
sensations.  Lying flat on the grass on a lower slope it is
excessively hot; merely to sit or stand up is to enter into another
and more temperate climate; in toiling up a steep slope the sensation
is that of wading chin-deep in a hot bath with one's clothes on;
higher up a breeze is often met which strikes one with a delicious
chill. The sudden cold produced by rapid evaporation refreshes and
exhilarates at the same time; it is like a draught of cider to the
parched reaper. However motionless the air may be in the valleys, the
deep clefts dividing the downs, there is always some wind on the
summits.

There are of course some days in July and August when there is
scarcely a breath of wind even on the highest crests; yet even so the
heat is never so oppressive there. If at the height of 300 feet you
feel that it would be a relief to creep into the shade of even a
stunted blackthorn or furze-bush, at 800 feet you can still sit or
even lie in the full blaze and enjoy it. Birds as well as men feel
this; frequently on a hot windless day I have been surprised on
getting to the highest point in any place at the number of birds
collected on it; not to feed but merely to repose during the idle
noonday hours.  One August day, on coming to the summit of Mount
Harry, west of Lewes, I found a company of rooks and daws not far
short of a hundred, a large covey of red-legged partridges, many
starlings, and about thirty missel-thrushes, all gathered at one spot
on and near the big barrow on the hill top. I should have been glad to
sit down quietly among them, but they would not have it so, birds
having no power to distinguish those who wish for a "better
friendship" with them; and so, some with a discontented caw or croak,
others with whir of wings, and still others with harsh scolding notes,
they all flew away in different directions, and left me with no
companions except those wan people who are always with us and look
less substantial than ever in the strong sunlight; and with nothing to
think about but an old unhappy thing; how on "that dim day of light,"
May 14, 1264, dead bodies covered the ground, and gasping and groaning
was heard on every side; and either was desirous of bringing the other
out of life, and the father spared not the sonne, nor the sonne the
father, and Christian blood was shed without pitie on all that green
solitary hill.

The shepherd of the downs, out for the day in summer, has a provision
against thirst in his can of water or cold tea, which is usually kept
concealed in a furze-bush. To carry water is a precaution which I
never take, because, for one reason, I love not to be encumbered with
anything except my clothes.  Even my glasses, which cannot be
dispensed with, are a felt burden. Then, too, I always expect to find
a cottage or farm somewhere; and the water when obtained is all the
more refreshing when really wanted; and finally the people I meet are
interesting, and but for thirst I should never know them.

That ancient notion of the value of a cup of cold water, and the merit
there is in giving it, is not nearly dead yet in spite of
civilisation. Water is the one thing it is still more blessed to give
than to receive; and if you approach any person wearing on your face
the look of one about to ask for some benefit, and your request is for
a drink of water, you are sure to make him happy. This is not said
cynically: if by chance one of our millionaire dukes has ever in his
life given a drink of water to some poor, very thirsty man, he will
secretly know that this action on his part gave him more happiness
than it did to build a cathedral, or give a park to the public, or to
win the blue ribbon of the turf, or even to be Prime Minister.

On one excessively sultry breathless morning, when I had foolishly
gone out for a long ramble without my usual protection for the head, I
all at once began about noon to suffer intolerably from both heat and
thirst. I was probably below par on that day, for I had never felt
more parched, even when travelling for twelve hours in the sun without
a drink of water; and as to the heat, I experienced that most
miserable sensation of a boiling brain--a feeling which associates
itself in the mind with the image of a pot boiling on the fire,
bubbling and puffing out jets of steam. The nearest inhabited place in
sight was a small farmhouse on the crest of a hill about two and a
half miles away, with deep hollows and hills to descend and ascend
between. But down below me, at the bottom of the valley, not much more
than half a mile from where I stood, there was a small, half-ruined,
barn-like building, and not far from the building a shepherd was
standing watching his flock. To him I went and asked if any water was
to be had at that place. He shook his head. "No well there?" I said,
indicating the old stone building.  "Oh, yes, there's an old well
there; you can drag the stone off, but you can't get any water without
a bottle and string." The fellow's indifference irritated me, and
turning my back on him I went and hunted for the well, and succeeded
in dragging aside the heavy stone that covered it, to find that the
water was not more than about seven feet below the surface. Twisting
the band of my tweed hat in the crook of my stick handle, then lying
so as to hang well over the edge, I managed to fish up a hatful of
water, and drank the whole of it, much to the shepherd's amusement,
who had followed me to watch operations. The water was delightfully
cold and refreshing, and the well-soaked hat, when I put it on, kept
my head cool for the rest of the day.

My hat of an unsuitable material had proved directly useful in that
case. The straw hat is of course lighter and cooler than any other;
but no person with any consideration for the feelings of a bird in the
matter would think of wearing it, any more than he would think of
sporting white or light-coloured flannels. White and black are equally
bad for those who go a-birding. There is nothing like tweeds of a
greyish-brown indeterminate colour, with a tweed hat to match.

A second amusing adventure, which I had at a farm in a deep hollow in
the midmost part of the South Down range, where it is broadest,
remains to be told. The small grey old house, shaded by old trees, so
far removed from the noise of the world in that deep valley among the
great hills, had enchanted me when I first beheld it, and hearing
later that the people of the house sometimes took lodgers in summer, I
went to inquire. I left the village north of the downs where I was
staying a little after seven o'clock in the morning, and after being
out on the hills for over six hours in a great heat, visiting many
furzy places in my ramble, I went down to that shady peaceful spot
where I hoped to find a home. Some old trees grew on the lawn, and on
a chair in the shade sat a grey-haired man in broadcloth clothes, his
feet in red carpet-slippers, looking very pale and ill. He was, I
supposed, a visitor or guest, and a town man; probably a prosperous
tradesman out of health, too old to make any change in the solemn
black respectable dress he had always worn on Sundays and holidays.
Going on to the open front door I knocked, and after a time my summons
was answered by the landlady, a person of a type to be met with
occasionally not in Sussex only but all over the country, the very
sight of which causes the heart to sink; a large, heavy-bodied,
slow-minded, and slow-moving middle-aged woman, without a gleam of
intelligence or sympathy in her big expressionless face; a sort of
rough-hewn pre-adamite lump of humanity, or gigantic land-tortoise in
petticoats. When questioned, she said No, she could not take me in.
Yes, she took lodgers and had a party now; they were going, but then
another party had engaged to come. She never took but one party at a
time--that was her way. Cross-questioned, she said that it didn't
matter whether it was a single man who was out every day and all day
long or a family of a dozen, so long as it was one party. She laid
herself out to do for one party at a time, and had never taken more
and couldn't think of taking two--it upset her.

Very well, that point was decided against me; it was now time to say
that I had been out walking in the sun for over six hours and was
hungry and thirsty and tired--could she give me something to eat while
I rested? No, she could not; it was hard to get anything in such an
out-of-the-way place, and the provisions in the house were no more
than were needed. Oh, never mind, I returned, some bread and cheese
will do very well--I'm very hungry.  But there was no bread and cheese
to spare, she said. Then, I said, I must make a drink of milk do.
There was no milk, said she, or so little that if she gave me any they
would be short. Then, I said, getting cross, perhaps you will be so
good as to give me a drink of water. She revolved this last request in
her dull brain for a minute or so, then saying that she could do that,
slowly went away to the kitchen to get the water.

During our colloquy another person, a well-dressed elderly woman, the
wife of the man in broadcloth and slippers, had come into the hall and
listened.  She now dived into her rooms, and in a very few moments
returned with as much bread and cheese as a hungry man could eat on a
plate; then taking the glass of water from the landlady's hand, she
insisted on carrying the plate and the glass out to the lawn, where I
could rest in the shade while eating.  The other woman had meanwhile
stared in an uncomprehending way, the dull surprise in her look
gradually changing to something resembling admiration.  What a strange
thing it was that her lady lodger had popped into the hall, listened
like a robin to half a dozen words, and understood the whole matter in
a flash; and that though it was no concern of hers, and she had been
asked for nothing, and had her own anxieties and her ailing husband to
attend to, she had in an instant supplied my wants. And not only that,
she had added pleasant words, spoken quite naturally in a nice voice,
just as if I had been someone belonging to her instead of a
rough-looking stranger. Now she, ponderous earthy soul that she was,
could not have spoken in that tone if she had practised the trick for
fifty years. Truly her lodger was a wonderful woman!

While eating my lunch I got into conversation with the man in
broadcloth and slippers, his wife meanwhile coming and going, now with
a cushion for his head or something else for his comfort, or only to
flit round us in a bird-like way and see how we were getting on. But
when I had finished the water and went back for more, she met me in
the hall with a bottle of ginger-beer. Now that is a drink which I
care not for on account of its mawkishness, but on this occasion the
taste was delicious; and even its whitish colour, which had always
been unpleasant to my sight, now looked beautiful, and was caused by a
mixture of that precious fluid which is more refreshing and gladdening
to the heart than purple wine or any other drink.




CHAPTER X

SWALLOWS AND CHURCHES


Abundance of swallows in downland villages--The swallow's batlike
faculty--Old house at Ditchling--Church owls and Ditchling
Church--Shingled spires--Pleasure of finding churches open--A strange
memorial in a downland church--A nap in West Firle
churchyard--Slow-worms in churchyards--Increase of swallows at
Ditchling--House-martins on telegraph wires--The telegraph a benefit
to birds--Telegraph poles in the landscape--Sound of telegraph
wires--A cockney's bird-lore--A Sussex man on swifts--Swifts rising
from a flat surface--The swift mystery--Swifts at Seaford--A Somerset
bird-boy's strange story.


The down country appears to have a great attraction for the swallow,
house-martin, and swift. One must group these three together.  The
last is swallow-like in his appearance and aerial habits, and to the
popular mind is, and always will be, a swallow. It may be that the
causes which have resulted in a decrease in the number of these birds
in many other parts of the country are local, and have not affected
this district. At all events, during the last few years these species,
although declining elsewhere, have been exceedingly abundant in the
villages and hamlets among and at the foot of the downs. At some spots
where they most abounded, looking down on the village from a high
window or other elevation, the effect was produced of a multitude of
bees or other insects, flying about over a hive or some such centre of
attraction, so numerous were the birds. Among the villages, Alfriston
and Ditchling appeared to be the most favoured by swallows and
martins. At the former I counted thirteen martins' mud nests stuck to
the wall of a small cottage opposite to the house I was staying at.
These nests and some hundreds more were occupied, and mostly had young
birds in them; yet more nests were being made, and if a woman came out
of her front door and emptied a bucket of dirty water in the road,
half a dozen martins would quickly drop down on the wet place to get a
little mortar for the nests they were building. The ancient chimneys
and picturesque red-tiled roofs of the houses were as attractive to
the swallows as the walls under the eaves to the martins. The birds
were in hundreds. Sitting at a front window, while waiting for my
breakfast, the air seemed full of swallows whirling about like
house-flies in a room, and of the sound of their voices. Presently
another sound was heard, something between a rumbling and a
fluttering, and down the chimney into the room flew or tumbled a
swallow. I closed the window and tried to catch it to put it out, but
the poor bird flew wildly about the room and I could not get near it.
Now I noticed that although the two well-cleaned windows at the front
were in appearance two patches of shining light and open ways to
liberty, the bird in all his wild flights about the large dim room
never touched them. Almost any other bird would have instantly dashed
himself against the glass. Tired of the vain chase, I finally put up
one sash of a window and sat down: at once the captive, doubtless
feeling a way of escape in the more elastic air coming to it from that
direction, flew straight from the other side of the room and passed
out. Its action appeared to show that the swallow, in spite of its
feathery covering, has an almost bat-like sensitiveness to enable it
in unusual circumstances to avoid striking against any object in its
flight. It has been observed that bats flying round in a dimly-lighted
room were not deceived by the light coming through a pane of glass;
but, on the other hand, they would flutter before a keyhole or any
other small aperture through which a current of out-door air could
come. This exquisite sensitiveness of the bat's wing, which is nerve
as well as organ of flight, is a corrective of vision, which is liable
in all creatures to deception. That the swallow, too, should be found
possessed of this additional sense, came to me as a surprise.

At Ditchling the extraordinary abundance of swallow and swift life
interested me more than the ancient traditional yarns about Alfred the
Great's connection with the village; and, a long time after, that of
Anne of Cleves (poor thing!) who, as a divorced lady, appears to have
inhabited a good many houses in these parts. The church of this same
village is greatly admired by artists as well as by antiquarians; it
also possessed that which to my mind made it the most perfect sacred
edifice in all the downs district--namely, a family of white owls,
strictly protected by the parson, tamer than most birds of their kind.

The nest, or breeding-hole, was under the eaves, and after the young
were hatched, every evening just when the sun went down behind the
great round hills, strange noises would begin to issue from the
hole;--sounds as of a sleeper with a bad cold in his head,
uncomfortably breathing through his nose, prolonged, sibilant, and
tremulous, and occasionally deeper as if in imitation of the
death-rattle in a human throat. These noises were uttered by the young
birds, crying for their tea, or breakfast, or whatever we like to call
their first meal. And presently the old owls would shuffle out to fly
about the village in their usual flopping, unballasted, aimless
manner, this way and that, seemingly at random as if they had lost
their steering intelligence. But in twenty minutes to half an hour one
would be back from the neighbouring rickyard with a mouse in his
claws.

Seated on one of the lichen-stained tombstones, or in a chair on a
small lawn abutting on the churchyard, each evening while waiting for
the owls to come out, I found my sight resting with a rare and
untiring pleasure on the church before me; so perfect a building it
was of its kind, so well placed on its mound with the old red-tiled
houses harmoniously grouped about it, and so noble a background had
the picture in the great round darkening hills and the luminous
evening sky.

There is a strong family resemblance in the churches of this district:
they are small in small villages, built of stone or flint, with low
square towers surmounted by small shingled spires. Wood and stone have
the same grey colour of age and weather, and the exposed wood has the
appearance of being perdurable as the stone. It is indeed
long-lasting, the shingles being made of hard butt oak and pinned with
oak wood, or fastened with copper nails. In long, excessively dry
summers, like that of 1899, the shingles shrink and grow loose, and
rattle in the hot violent winds so loudly that a person up in the
belfry might imagine that their time had nearly come, that a mightier
blast will by-and-by tear them off, to whirl them away like
thistle-down and scatter them wide over the country. Such a fear would
be idle; they rattle but keep their hold until the rain comes to soak
and tighten them in their places; and they will still be there in all
weathers when we that see them and think about their mutations shall
no longer be sensible to summer's heat and winter's wet and cold.

I forget who it was who said of some peaceful village churchyard that
it made one in love with death to be in such a place. That is a
feeling which may be experienced in some of the villages
here--Wilmington, Berwick, and West Firle, for instance.  Ditchling
churchyard is too high above the surrounding level, and unshaded with
trees, to allow of such a fancy. Often during a long walk over the
downs in hot weather I have thought of the church and churchyard
before me as of a shaded fountain in a parched desert. Arrived at the
place I have gone straight to the church, and am happy to say that in
many instances I have found it open "for private meditation and
prayer." When on such occasions I find the door locked against me,
then the building is no longer what it was originally intended for,
and sacred, but is that inhospitable place where a cup of cold water
was refused me when I was athirst, and my only wish is for a piece of
red chalk to set a mark upon it.

Coming from the burning heat and glare of noon, how grateful the
coolness and how beautiful the rich everlasting twilight of the
interior seem! It is in the ancient peaceful village church, of all
houses made with hands, that one can know that perfect rest and
contentment, the peace which passeth understanding, experienced in our
communings with nature, where nature has not been marred by man.

Only on one occasion did I experience feelings very different from
those I have described, in a downland church, which I found open one
day at noon, my favourite hour. On taking a seat about the middle of
the church, I noticed that there was but one memorial in it--a mural
tablet of enormous size--on the wall at my right, lettered from top to
bottom; but for some time I paid no attention to it. By-and-by,
turning my sight that way, the huge solitary marble with the big
inscription arrested my attention and I began to read, first with but
slight curiosity, almost mechanically, then with surprise and
amusement, and when I got to the end, for the first time in my life I
burst out laughing in a church. This is what I read:


  NEAR THIS PLACE LIES INTERRED
  THOMAS JOHNSON
WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE AT CHARLTON
DECEMBER 20TH, 1744.
FROM HIS EARLY INCLINATION TO FOXHOUNDS
HE SOON BECAME AN EXPERIENCED HUNTSMAN.
HIS KNOWLEDGE IN THE PROFESSION, WHEREIN HE
HAD NO SUPERIOR, AND HARDLY AN EQUAL,
JOINED TO HIS HONESTY IN EVERY OTHER PARTICULAR,
RECOMMENDED HIM TO THE SERVICE, AND GAIN'D
HIM THE APPROBATION OF SEVERAL OF THE NOBILITY
AND GENTRY. AMONG THESE WERE THE LORD CONWAY,
EARL OF CARDIGAN, THE LORD GOWER, THE DUKE
OF MARLBOROUGH, AND THE HONOURABLE M. SPENCER.
THE LAST MASTER WHOM HE SERVED, AND IN WHOSE SERVICE
HE DIED, WAS CHARLES DUKE OF RICHMOND
LENNOX AND AUBIGNY, WHO ERECTED THIS MONUMENT
TO THE MEMORY OF A GOOD AND FAITHFUL SERVANT
AS A REWARD TO THE DECEASED
AND AN INCITEMENT TO THE LIVING.
Go thou and do likewise.--St. Luke, chap. X. ver. xxxvii.
_Here Johnson lies. What Hunter can deny
Old honest_ TOM _the tribute of a sigh?
Deaf is the Ear, which caught the opening sound,
Dumb is that Tongue, which cheered the Hills around.
Unpleasing Truth, Death hunts us from our Birth,
In view, and Men, like Foxes, take to Earth_.



Even now, when I think of that village in the West Sussex Downs, and
remember the effect the inscription in its church produced on me when
I first saw it, I am teased with a sudden impulse to explode. But
though I laughed I was not pleased, and to amusement succeeded
disgust; for even those who are without reverence, and are mockers at
religion, do because of their humanity yet reverence one saying and
one parable of Christ, and think with unconscious worship that those
were beautiful and sacred words used by Him on that occasion, which
are here put to so degraded a use. The church, even before I left it,
had ceased to be a sacred building.  There might be something there to
interest the archaeologist; to me it was only old Tom Johnson's house,
and was no better than the village ale-house to sit and rest in.

No such feeling have I experienced in any other downland church; and
into how many of them, all along the range, from Pevensey to the
Hampshire border, have I entered to find rest and refreshment in
burning summer weather!

Cooled in blood and brain, I pass out from the dim church to the
churchyard; and however deeply shaded by old trees it may be, the
moving air and green tempered sunlight strike me with a new, keen,
instant pleasure, as if I had just escaped from confinement in an
underground cell or vault. On such occasions I am less in love with
death than with sleep.

I remember that in the cool shady churchyard at Firle, lying under a
tree on a thick brown and green turf, soothed by the musical sounds of
blackbird and blackcap, I fell into a very pleasant doze, and that
when my eyes began gradually to open they rested on a silvery-grey
sinuous streak on the grass, close to my face. First I took it for a
ribbon, then a cord, and at last it dawned on me that it was a poor
little sham serpent, with the adder's black mark on its belly, on
which, adder-like, it is compelled to go; but its back silvery grey,
to symbolise its dove-like innocence. So motionless was it that I
thought it dead, or else that the drowsy peaceful spirit of the place
had breathed upon us both. But when I picked it up it woke too,
quickly enough, and was glad, when I grew tired of playing with it, to
be released.

It struck me at the time as a curious coincidence that my last meeting
with a slow-worm before this one at Firle was also in a churchyard.
This occurred two months earlier in the season, at Boldre, in the New
Forest. Coming out of church after Sunday morning service, I went with
a party of young girls to look at Gilpin's tomb in the churchyard.
Pushing some ivy growing against the stone aside we disturbed the
little silvery snake, who appeared to have made a home of the grand
old Forest parson's last resting-place.

>From churches, owls, and snakes (or lizards) let us return to the
subject of swallows. At Ditchling I believe the house-martins were
rather more than twice as numerous as the chimney-swallows. In August
some idea of the rapid increase that was going on in the former
species could be had, owing to the habit of the young birds of
congregating on the telegraph wires in the village. There were four
wires, and at one spot in the middle of the village one lot of the
young birds would crowd the wires for a length of forty or fifty
yards. This crowd numbered about 300; I counted them, and they always,
when they settled on the wires, occupied the same spot, and in about
the same numbers. A short distance away, at the end of the village
street, a second lot, numbering about 150, would congregate. There
were no chimney-swallows in these two crowds: it was rare even to see
more than two or three adult martins among the young birds. The two
gatherings were composed of martins bred in the village, and now able
to take care of themselves: the parent birds were all occupied in
hatching more eggs and feeding more young--second and third broods.
Here, then, were 450 house-martins reared in the village by the middle
of August; and as breeding would go on for five or six weeks longer,
at least 150 more birds would be reared, making an increase of 600 in
this species for the season. The chimney-swallows would rear
altogether not less than 200 young, so that the total swallow increase
would be at least 800.

The young martins were very tame, and were a pretty and interesting
ornament of the village, attracting a good deal of attention even from
the most stolid of the natives, as they sat preening their feathers
and dozing in the hot sun, rows on rows of birds above the noisy
little street, seen sharply against that ever cloudless bright blue
summer sky.

Lying in bed at five o'clock in the morning I could see and admire
them, as they were directly before and on a level with my open bedroom
window.  Very early one morning a half-dressed, dirty-looking little
boy rushed out of the cottage opposite, and seizing hold of a passing
dog began to tease and drag it about; the dog after a few minutes
escaped out of his hands and ran away. Then the naughty boy, looking
round for something else to exercise his energies on, caught sight of
the crowd of martins high above him, and began to shout at them to
make them fly. Then he tried to climb up by one of the posts, but
always after getting up a few feet slipped down. His next move was to
get a stick and beat loudly on the telegraph pole, and when all these
efforts had failed he fell to shouting again, and shouted and yelled
so loudly and persistently that his mother, crazed by the noise, at
length rushed forth and hunted him in. The martins had quietly sat out
the whole performance.

It is curious to see in rural districts how the telegraph line from
being, like the lighthouse, a danger to birds, killing and maiming
considerable numbers, has in time grown to be an advantage to them,
affording a convenient perch and lofty look-out which many species
habitually prefer to trees and bushes. It has become _natural_ to
them, as if we had supplied a real want in their lives, an omission of
nature. So, too, it is curious to note that the long line of tall
straight poles and suspended wires, which one would imagine to be
nothing but a disfigurement to the landscape, fit into it at many
points so admirably as to be an improvement, a positive beauty in the
scene, reminding one of those tall guide-posts with a crosspiece near
the top to be found on some of the extensive tidal flats on our sea
coast. The upright pole and the flagstaff, and even the lower
finger-posts and the slender stone cross in many villages, produce an
effect like that of the slim Lombardy poplar in the landscape and
please the eye. The gibbet, too, in vanished days doubtless had a
similar aesthetic value.

  Breath of Christian charity.
  Blow, and sweep it from the earth!

shouted the poet; but who in these days, in spite of charity, would
not welcome back this ancient ornament to the landscape, if it could
but be used to suspend our universally abhorred scorchers by the neck
until they were dead, dead, dead, and food for crows and pies?

In its sound, too, the rural telegraph line appeals to the aesthetic
sense; it is a harp and mysterious voice in the desert and in all
solitary silent places.  I remember, years ago, in South America,
seeing a group of natives standing and listening to the tremulous
musical hum that rose and fell with the wind, and hearing them gravely
say that they could hear the voices of men sending messages and
talking to each other over long distances, but could not make out what
they were saying. Even for us there is a slight something of mystery
in the swelling and dying tones, and the sound is in itself beautiful
and very natural. It closely resembles that most musical and
human-like sound of insect life, which may be heard in many spots on
the high downs in July and August; a sound of innumerable bees and
honey-eating flies in the flowering heather, their individual small
voices blended into one loud continuous hum that rises, too, and falls
with the wind. A man led blindfolded over the downs to one of these
flowery places, and standing there in the hot breeze, would probably
think that he was listening to the harp of the tall wooden pole and
suspended wires.


I noticed that in some of the villages in the downs there were no
swifts; in other villages and in the coast towns they were abundant.
It was not uncommon to see as many as thirty or forty swifts rushing
about in the air together, and the downs district generally appeared
to be as favourable to these birds as to the swallows. At one village,
one morning, I was standing in a garden watching the numbers of
swifts, swallows, and martins peopling the air overhead. When my host
came out to me I called his attention to the birds. "I call them all
swallows," he said, and in spite of all I could say on the subject he
assured me that he could see no difference between swift,
chimney-swallow, and house-martin.  "Are you a native of this place?"
I asked.  "Oh no, I was born within sound of Bow Bells," he returned
with pride. That explained his invincible ignorance. But the
Sussexian, though he knows a great deal more than a cockney, also
makes some funny mistakes. One day at Lewes I noticed a lot of swifts,
about twenty-four birds, rushing round and round in their usual mad
way, and at each turn coming down and passing so close to the gable of
a stone house, a public school near the station, as to touch the stone
wall a yard or two below the roof with their wings. At intervals after
five or six rushes they would scatter all about the sky, then in a
minute or two gather and resume their mad flight over the same aerial
racecourse, touching the wall again each time as they swept by. I
presently noticed that half a dozen workmen, standing close by in a
group, were also observing the birds and talking about them. "I wonder
what these mad birds are after?" I said, going up to the men. One of
them undertook to enlighten me. "They are swifts," he said, "but here
we call them Black Jacks. They are after insects--that's what they
feed on. I mean flies," he kindly explained. He then went on to say
that when swifts are seen rushing round in a bunch at one spot it is
because flies are most abundant there, and that the birds catch many
more flies than they can eat. He once saw a swift fluttering on the
ground, unable to rise, and picking it up he found that flies were
swarming all over it. So many flies had this swift caught and put
there in its feathers that the weight of them had borne it down to the
ground. I ventured to tell him that he was wrong, that the flies he
had seen swarming in the plumage of a fallen swift were parasitical on
the bird, and that the swift was probably in poor condition and so
much infested and tormented by the insects as to be unable any longer
to fly. My man looked gravely at me but said nothing, and I took his
silence to mean that he did not believe the parasite story, or was not
pleased at being put right about his familiar Black Jacks in the
presence of his comrades, who were not ornithologists.

The old belief that the swift, when by chance he comes down, is unable
to rise from a flat surface owing to the length of his wings, is, I
think, well-nigh obsolete, although one does occasionally hear it.
Swifts get many a fall in spring, and are often to be seen getting up
again from the ground.  During the last ten or fifteen years starlings
have increased enormously all over the country. They are liked better
than formerly, and are not shot so much nor driven away from their
roosting-places in winter, nor are they used much now for
trap-shooting--a form of sport which has been long declining.  One
result of this increase of starlings is that the bird is becoming
especially numerous in the towns and villages, and that in April he
takes possession of the swift's breeding-holes under the eaves of
cottages, and similar situations. The swifts, on their arrival in May,
find themselves dispossessed of their holes, and fight to recover
them. Then in the early mornings you may see swifts and starlings
falling from the eaves clenched together, and, when on the ground,
separating and rising up to renew the combat at the entrance to the
hole.

The swift question, which interests naturalists at the present time,
is the habit of the bird, or of the males when breeding is in
progress, of rising up higher and higher in the air at a late hour in
the evening until they disappear from sight, and finally cease to be
heard. It is supposed that these mounting birds, who are not seen to
return, although it is possible that they do return after dark, spend
the night at a vast height rushing or sailing about in the air, and
that with morning they return.

In the evening, when there are eggs or young in the nest, it may be
observed that the females are out feeding and rushing about with their
mates, and that the males drive them back to the nests before going
off themselves for their supposed night out. For some evenings in
June, at Seaford, where the swifts were very numerous, I watched this
interesting performance, and it was curious and amusing to see a pair
in some cases, the hen-bird wildly rushing away, the mate in mad
pursuit, and then when with infinite pains she had been driven home
suddenly dashing off again, and the wild chase about the sky beginning
afresh. Once I saw the hen-bird break away four times after being
brought to the breeding-hole; but after the fourth time she remained
in the nest, and the good zealous husband went away to enjoy himself.
A swift chasing his wife home in the evening can easily be
distinguished from one swift chasing another swift for fun, or
whatever the motive is that keeps them in a perpetual hunt after one
another. He follows her closely in all her mad flights and sudden
doublings until he has got her face towards home, and then keeping
close to her agitates his wings in a peculiar manner, at intervals
gliding smoothly, uttering all the time a measured sharp clicking
chirp--a sound as of repeated strokes on a piece of metal.

In Somerset I heard a curious little story which may prove of interest
to those who are accustomed to watch the flight of the swifts on
summer evenings with the object of finding out their secret.

One April evening, near Wells, I was sauntering along a road separated
from a copse by an old moss-grown stone wall, when I noticed a boy
moving cautiously about in the deep shadows of the trees, and watching
me suspiciously.

"Found any nests?" I called out suddenly to him. He very quickly
replied that he was not looking for nests, and had seen none; then he
added that he was looking for primroses. Now he had no primroses in
his hands, and as a matter of fact none grew in that particular copse;
but I did not point this out to him, being desirous of engaging him in
conversation.  He was a singular-looking boy, about fourteen to
fifteen years old; very thin, with long legs, small head, and sharp
round face, and was dressed in earth-coloured, threadbare clothes much
too small for him. With that small sharp face and those shifty eyes
under his little grey cap, he looked curiously like some furred
creature--rat or vole, with perhaps a dash of stoat in his
composition, and if his nose had been longer I might have added that
there was even a touch of the shrew-mouse in his appearance.

After I had been standing there speaking to him for a little while he
got over his distrust, and coming out of the shadow of the trees
climbed upon the wall, and sitting there became quite talkative, and
told me all about his life and the wild creatures he had observed. He
was a farm labourer's son, and his birthplace and home was high up on
the Mendips, in the ancient desolate village of Priddy, a few miles
from Wells. Since he was big enough to run about he had been employed
as a bird-scarer on the farm where his father worked, and he appeared
to have been an extremely observant boy. Talking of swifts he said,
"They screechers be curious birds: did you ever hear, zur, that they
be up flying about all night and come back in the marning?"

I asked him if someone had told him that, and he said No, he had found
it out himself. Morning after morning he had noticed, just after
sunrise, that a number of swifts suddenly made their appearance at the
same spot, not far from a field that he had to watch. The birds would
appear first at a great height, and rush straight down as if falling
from the sky, until within a few yards of the earth, when they would
dash off in various directions or begin flying about the village. It
came into his head to play them a trick, and one morning he took the
loaded gun, used for scaring the rooks, and stationed himself a little
before sunrise at the spot where the swifts invariably made their
descent. Shortly after sunrise they appeared, first as small specks in
the sky, coming down with tremendous speed; and waiting until they
were within thirty yards of his head he fired his gun into the middle
of the bunch.  Instantly the birds scattered, but after a few moments
came together again and began to mount higher and higher until they
disappeared from sight in the sky, and he saw no more of them until a
later hour in the day.

It struck me as extremely improbable that this most circumstantial
story was invented by the boy; in any case, perhaps it would be as
well if those who are accustomed to watch the swifts rising on a
summer evening until they disappear from sight, and to listen to their
shrill triumphant screams growing fainter and fainter until they cease
to be audible, would also watch for their return at sunrise in the
morning.




CHAPTER XI

AUTUMN


Suddenness of the change from summer to autumn on the downs--Birds in
autumn--Meadow-pipits--Shore birds on the hills--September
flowers--Remnant of insect-life--Effect of rough weather--Effect on
the mind of the cessation of life--Man's long life--An immortal
surveying the insect tribes of human kind--The prospect from the
hills--Pleasure of walking.


On the South Downs the change from summer to autumn is almost
startling in its suddenness.  The rough September days of wind and
driving rain, and of nights when the temperature drops almost to
freezing point, make little difference in the lower sheltered country;
flowers fade and life lessens gradually there, and from August onwards
the change is scarcely perceptible until in October the autumnal
colours begin to appear in the trees.  On the treeless hills the
effect of a spell of rough weather with a touch of winter in it is
infinitely greater: you are astonished at the almost total absence of
life and colour, the naked cheerless aspect of things: September is
then like December.

Succeeding warm days bring back a little of the lost bloom, and birds
increase again;--rooks, starlings, missel-thrushes, and some others
that were driven away by the bad weather now return to their old
feeding-grounds. Migrants and wanderers, too, appear in limited
numbers; small parties of wheatears, stonechats, and pied wagtails.
The most numerous of these travellers that camp on the downs are the
meadow-pipits. Everywhere on the sheep-walks you come upon their
scattered flocks, looking like a lot of mice creeping about on the
turf. They have a thin little chirping note as they fly from you--a
slight sorrowful sound, yet distinctly reminiscent of their tinkling
fairy-like summer song.

Another melancholy but wilder and more musical bird-sound to be heard
on the high downs is the cry of migrating shore birds, dotterels and
sandpipers as a rule. They are seen in flocks of two or three dozen to
a hundred or more, sometimes associating with starlings and feeding
among the scattered sheep.  It is a beautiful cry which they utter as
they rise to wheel about in a small cloud over the green down,
changing from grey to white, and white to grey.  That wild, clear,
inflected note has the sound and smell and freshness of ocean in it.

In warm weather you may look again for flowers: yellow patches of
dwarf whin, and here and there among the browns and dull greens a
glowing bunch of the small-leafed heath or the paler purple ling.
Most summer flowers in fact linger on into or bloom again in
September. On a mullein stalk covered with dry seed-vessels you will
find a solitary blossom; the honeysuckle has a few blooms, pale and
scentless: and here and there all over the downs you will find,
"blooming alone," the dwarf thistle, hawkweed, rockrose, bedstraw,
milfoil, viper's bugloss, harebell, thyme, sweet woodruff, and many
more. The scabious, both blue and mauve, is perhaps the commonest
flower at this season; and the minute delightful eyebright, the most
abundant in certain spots where the soil is thinnest and the turf
scarcely covers the underlying chalk. But night by night the year is
busy with her cold fingers picking these last gems out of her
mantle--the ornaments that accord not with her faded cheeks and
sorrowful eyes.

Greatest of all seems the change with regard to insect life: but a few
days ago you moved in a world teeming with millions of brilliant
active beings, so numerous and small and swift in their motions as to
be "seen rather than distinguished." And now?--Well, if the wind is
still and the sun shines and you miss and look for them, you will find
a few left: a bumble-bee mechanically going about on his rounds with a
listless flight and the merest ghost of his old hum; a songless
grasshopper; a solitary fly trying to appear cheerful. You look in
vair. for the merry little blue butterflies and the grey heaths, so
numerous a little while ago. It is a surprise to see so splendid a
creature as the red admiral: he is one of a second brood, and has come
too late into his inheritance and will not keep it long. For the rest
you will see an occasional common white, or a small heath; or your
sight may be attracted by a spot of glowing colour on the sunny side
of a gorse bush--a small copper with open wings basking and bathing in
the vital heat and light, perhaps for the last time, before day comes
to a chilly end.

Even these few survivors may not remain long; the September sunshine
is very sweet and pleasant to behold, and may last many days; but it
is never confidently looked for, and would not seem half so sweet if
it could be expected to last. After golden days the grey come again,
and the wind blows everlastingly; the high hill-tops are once more
barren and bleak, and you are glad to come into rough brambly places,
where all wild winged life that has not been blown away has hidden
itself from the blast. But how little it is! Perhaps you will see a
yellowhammer rush out of its hiding-place and perch on a bush-top near
to see what creature has disturbed it. There for a few moments it will
sit, swayed about, its feathers roughed, its long tail blown over its
back or to the side at right angles with its body--a picture of
discomfort. You may think that on such a day more may be seen by
sitting still in the shelter of a bush than by roaming; you may sit
for an hour, or for hours, and see nothing, and hear nothing--not an
echo of any summer note. Nothing but the wind sweeping through the
yellow bents with a long scythe-like sound, rising in gusty moments to
a loud sharp hiss.

On such a day of silence and desolation a remembrance of the late
summer has come back suddenly like a lightning-flash to my mind, with
such startling vividness as to affect me powerfully. A vision of the
vanished insect life that a little while ago covered these green
flowering hills. I moved and had my being amid that life as in a
golden mist spread over the earth; my ears were full of the noise of
innumerable fine small voices blending into one voice; wheresoever I
looked their minute swift-moving bodies appeared as thin dark lines on
the air and over the green surface. Forms so infinitely varied, yet so
wonderfully fashioned, each aglow with its complete separate life, and
all in harmony with all life and all nature, responsive in a million
secret springs to each and every external influence; so well balanced
in their numerous parts and perfect in their equipment, so intense in
their lives as to seem fitted to endure for ever. And now in so short
a time, in a single day and night as it seems, it is all over, the
feast and fairy-dance of life; the myriads of shining gem-like bodies
turned to dead dust, the countless multitude of brilliant little
individual souls dissipated into thin air and blown whithersoever the
wind blows!

The first and inevitable effect of such a thought, when the tremendous
tragedy of the passing year is brought unexpectedly and vividly before
the mind, compressed into a moment of time, is a profound melancholy,
as of a black shadow of apprehension coming over the soul. But it is
like a shadow on the earth on a day of flying cloud and broken
sunshine that is quickly gone. That teeming life of yesterday has
indeed vanished from our sight for ever; it is nothing now, and its
place will know it no more; but extinction came not on it before the
seeds of the life that is to be were sown--small and abundant as the
rust-coloured seed of the mullein, that looked like inorganic dust,
and was shaken out of its dead cups by the blast and scattered upon
the ground. Or smaller still, like the infinitesimal particles
enclosed within the round case of the dead fungus of the downs--the
devil's snuff-box of the peasant--which, when trodden upon, or broken
by a blow of a stick, sends out a dense purple or deep yellow vapour,
which floats away in the wind and vanishes. The still earth is full of
it. Out of the matted roots of the turf and from the grey soil
beneath, innumerable forms of life resembling those that have vanished
will spring to light--creatures of a thousand beautiful shapes, lit
with brilliant colour, intense in their little lives, for ever moving
in a passionate, swift, fantastic dance.

And we shall see it all again, and in seeing renew the old familiar
pleasure. For these innumerable little lives quickly pass while ours
endure. Furthermore, the brief life which they have is but one, and
though their senses be brilliant they see not beyond their small
horizons. To us the Past and the Future are open, like measureless
countries of diversified aspect, lying beyond our horizon; yet we may
see them and are free to range over them at will. It may even happen
that the autumnal spectacle of the cessation of life on the earth,
nature's yearly tragedy, brought thus suddenly and sharply before the
mind's eye, may cause us to realise for the first time what this
freedom of the mind really means. It multiplies our years and makes
them so many that it is a practical immortality. A vivid consciousness
of it, coming thus suddenly, puts the soul in a proud temper, and we
all at once begin to abhor the sickly teachings of those who see in
nature's mutations, in cloud and wind and rain and the fall of the
leaf, and the going out of ephemeral life, nothing but mournful
messages, dreary symbols, reminders of our mortality. It is a false,
debilitating doctrine which they preach and sing; an ancient fable, a
tale of a bogie invented a thousand years ago to frighten unruly
children and make them good. We are rather of the Psalmist's virile
mind, when he said that those who had compassed him round, and had
come to him like bees, were extinct as the fire under the thorns; and
then triumphantly cried, "_I_ shall not die, but live!"

Let us imagine a god, or immortal being of some kind, in a reverie,
seated on some great hill--Caburn, or Firle, or Cissbury--seeing as in
a vision the "insect tribes of human kind" that have dwelt upon these
green downs since the coming of man--Saxon, and Dane, and Roman, and
Briton, and the earlier races that were slain by the Celt, and the
earlier still, and others and still others further back in time. All
the events of long thousands of years, all the thousands of
"generations of deciduous men," called back and seen passing in
procession before that clear cold immortal mind. Dark and pale races,
speaking strange tongues; love and hate and all passions, heard and
seen in music and laughter and cries, and agitated speech, and faces
ashen white and burning red, and wide fixed eyes; tumults and wars
upon wars, the shock of furious battle, the shouts of victory that
frightened nature. And thereafter peace; toil and rest, and day and
night; a young mother sitting on the summit of some high hill, looking
out upon the vast range, the illimitable green world, the distant grey
and silver sea, all the world sleeping in a peaceful sunshine and no
cloud on all the sky;--a young mother fondling her firstborn and
laughing in pure gladness of heart. And then the fading out of earth
of that golden sunshine, and the grey chill evening of fear and
flight; men drunk with blood, still thirsting for blood, their mouths
frothing, their eyes ablaze, streaming over the hills, untiring as
wolves on the track of the fugitives. The slayers in their turn are
slain by death; in long quiet years there is a slow recovery of lost
good, increase of people, and little children with shrill glad voices
playing merry games in all the hollows of the hills, and staining
their lips purple with blackberries, as in the old forgotten years.
And once more strife, and all natural calamities--cold, and fever, and
wasting famine; people with white skeleton faces sitting in rows on
the hill-side, like those who sit by the river waiting for the slow
ferryman to ferry them over, one by one. Slain by men or by some
natural agency, still they pass and pass, and are succeeded by
others--other tribes, other races, speaking a new language, but swayed
by the same passion, and war still succeeds war.  Then peace again,
the lasting peace that causes all sweet and gentle feelings, all
virtues, all graces, to flourish--the peace that is like a secret,
unfelt malady which is slowly consuming a beautiful woman's life.  And
after long quiet, the battle-cry, the strange men with the old wolfish
hunger and fury in their faces, the heavens darkened again with the
smoke of cruel fires; and after the storm, quiet again, the old
silence and desolation, wild-flowers blooming everywhere on the graves
of a dead, forgotten people.

We can imagine that even he, albeit immortal, recalling and seeing
again that immeasurable procession of human forms--the long long
series of events and the millions of passionate, strenuous lives that
have ceased to be--all compressed into a few moments of time, would
feel his mind darkened with a sudden great shadow of sorrow. But the
shadow would quickly pass; and his immortality would again be to him
like the sun shining in a blue sky that is without a cloud.


Those who walk on the downs at this season, where they are highest and
treeless, will sometimes feel that the loss of all that life and
colour that made the summer so much to them is in some respects a
gain. The vision that a little time ago roamed bee-like above the
surface from bloom to bloom, ever finding and pausing to contemplate
some fresh object of beauty or interest, is now free to take longer
flights.

The sunlight may not be so bright, but the air is clearer now: there
are mornings and whole days when the world is free from the haze that
lately brooded on the scene and dimmed all things, when you can look
beyond Sussex and see much of Kent and Surrey, Hampshire and the Isle
of Wight. You may walk for a day along the hill-top, along the
northern rim of the range, and seldom lose sight of the sea, its grey,
immeasurable expanse silvered with the sunlight; while far down at
your feet you have the flat wooded district of the weald. On its plain
you see scattered village church towers and spires, and houses showing
red, white, or slate-black among the green oaks; but the trees are
everywhere so abundant in hedgerows and shaws and fragments of forest
that it becomes easy mentally to see this region as it was before the
Sussex iron workers so greatly altered it. One needs but to gaze on
the scene, then close the eyes, and the gaps and the straight lines of
hedge and fence, and the white and red spots of walls and roofs, and
white puff of steam swiftly vanish, swallowed up or blotted out in the
boundless expanse of deep uniform green, the unbroken forest of
Andredsweald, as the Saxons and the Romans before them saw it from
their encampments on the downs, and as William Hay, of Glyndbourne,
described it a century ago in his _Mount Caburn_:

  All was one wild inhospitable waste,
  Uncouth and horrid, desert and untraced.
  Hid by rough thickets from the face of day.
  The solitary realms of beasts of prey;

too gloomy for the nightingale to sing there, and too wet and cold and
dark for the heat--and light-loving adder to have a home in it.

The hills in this clear autumn weather, familiar as their forms are
and often as we have walked on them, seem almost like a new region to
the eye, known and yet novel; the preternatural distinctness and
nearness of the heights around us produce the illusion that we
ourselves have changed to something better and higher, and have a more
piercing sight and greater power and swiftness. It is as if like
Mercury we had wings on our heels, and are able to move with a freedom
never before known. Thus, in September, I at length begin to see men
cantering over the open turfy downs without envying them their horses:
at last the old second horse-back nature that clings to me drops off;
the rider may gallop proudly past me to vanish over the next hill, yet
leave me content and even glad to be on foot.

These walks on the downs in the cooler season are most exhilarating on
the high, treeless, and in most places uncultivated hills east of the
Adur. But for beautiful and varied scenery and abundance and variety
of wild life, the range west of the Adur is most attractive in
September and October, when the foliage, especially the beech, takes
its autumn colour, and birds in thousands come down from the north to
spend the winter, or remain for a short time in this district before
crossing the sea.




CHAPTER XII

WEST OF THE ADUR


Autumn on the west downs--Abundance of birds--Village of
Cocking--Drayton's _Polyolbion_--A company of magpies: their
inconsequent behaviour--Magpie and domestic pigeon--Story of a pet
magpie--Blackberries on the downs--Elderberries--Yews at Kingly
Bottom--A tradition--Yew-berries and the missel-thrushes'
orgy--Hawthorn wood--Charm of the thorn-tree--Beeches on the west
downs--Effect of trees on the South Downs--Gilpin's strictures
answered--Characteristic trees and bushes--Juniper--A curious
effect--Character of the juniper-tree.


Throughout the southern half of England generally, the season from the
beginning of April to the end of June is incomparably the most
interesting time of the year to the bird lover.  It is the season of
the return of the migrants, of song, and of breeding. If there is a
district which may be regarded as an exception it is assuredly that
part of the Sussex downs west of the Adur, or perhaps it would be
safer to say west of the Arun; for while the inland bird life in other
places is diminishing day by day, here it is increasing. To these
wooded and partially cultivated downs, and to the sheltered strip of
rich, flat, maritime country that lies between them and the sea, birds
in numbers resort in the autumn from the colder northern country,
either to winter or to remain for some weeks or even months before
crossing the sea. From September until November this movement and
ingathering is going on, until the birds, visitors and residents, are
incredibly abundant and a wonder to see. This abundance has been
specially noticeable during the last three or four seasons, on account
of the great increase in bird life throughout the country since the
winter of 1894-5. Since that disastrous time there have been no
killing frosts, and the summers have been favourable for breeding,
with the result that our common small birds have increased and
multiplied to an extraordinary extent. The increase is not, however,
confined to the small passerines; it has been equally great in the
rooks and wood-pigeons, and, in a less degree, in numerous other
species.

One bright day in early October, at Cocking, I witnessed a pretty and
amusing little comedy in bird life, which I relate not only for the
interest of the incident but also to give an idea of the abundance of
resident birds in this part of downland.

Cocking is one of many singularly interesting villages that nestle,
half-hidden, in the shelter of the downs on the northern edge of the
range. Out of a wooded combe in the side of the sheltering hill issues
a stream, and where it flows or trickles past the village it spreads
out and forms a marsh grown over with tall reed and flowering rush, in
summer blue with water forget-me-not and water-mint.  At the side of
this blossoming marsh, in the middle of the green churchyard,
sheltered and concealed by ancient trees, stands the small old church,
one of the prettiest to be seen in the district. The stream is a part
of the West Rother, that same pretty little river which Michael
Drayton some three centuries ago spoke of as running wild in the woods
where it, or she, lived, and being no comfort to the aged hill who was
her father. Drayton was all for personifying the principal features in
the landscape--hills, valleys, woods, marshes, rivers, and what not.
Male and female made he them, and of all ages, connected with each
other by human ties of all kinds; and when he gets into a broken
country like this it becomes difficult to follow him, and to know what
the pother is all about; for his characters are always quarrelling
among themselves and threatening in lofty rhymes to "do" for each
other.

Going to the top of the hill above Cocking I sat down against a hedge,
which sheltered me from the wind, and looked upon the scene spread out
before me. At the foot of the bare down ran a low thorn hedge,
dividing it from the yellow stubble fields beyond. At each end of the
hedge there were masses of high trees, fir and beech, and among the
trees on one side a farm-house and buildings were seen. Beyond the
bare down and fields and village, the flat, wooded district of the
weald spread out before me, with the little red-coloured town of
Midhurst in the middle of the picture. As I sat there, idly watching
the wood-pigeons constantly arriving in small parties of three or four
to a dozen to settle down on the yellow stubble field beneath me, then
letting my sight rest on the small red town two or three miles away,
and, a mile or so to the west of it, the village and station of
Elstead, it all at once came into my mind that close by, in the small
village of Trotton, where his father was curate, Otway was born.
Taking up my binocular, I began excitedly seeking among the green oaks
near Elstead for that famous spot, but before I could satisfy myself
that I had picked it out a chance glance at the yellow field at the
foot of the down revealed a black and white patch on the pale stubble
which had not been there a few minutes before. Bringing my glasses to
bear on the patch, which was alive and moving, I discovered that it
was a party of fifteen magpies busily running about feeding and
playfully chasing one another on the ground. This was to me a most
astonishing sight; it is rare in England to see as many as fifteen
magpies together, even where game is not preserved, and here I was in
a corner of Sussex where pheasant-preserving is carried to an extreme
that occasionally excites the disgust of even the most enthusiastic
sportsmen. Not far from the spot where I was sitting there was one
small property which was notoriously overstocked with pheasants, and
yet because a big man was coming down for one day's shooting, the
owner, not satisfied that his birds would be enough, had just bought
five hundred more and put them in his woods. They were thicker on the
ground than fowls on a poultry-farm, and tamer than fowls.

Naturally, after catching sight of these miraculous magpies, I thought
no more about unhappy Otway, but gave all my attention to them, and
counted them at least fifteen times over to make sure that they were
fifteen. Not many yards from them, near the low hedge, a number of
pheasants were sunning themselves; and by the side of the flock of
magpies a covey of nine or ten partridges were slowly and quietly
moving about, searching for grain; and all about them and over the
whole field of many acres the wood-pigeons in twos and threes and
larger parties were also quietly feeding, while fresh parties were
continually arriving. In that clear air and bright sunshine they
looked lavender-coloured on the pale yellow stubble. The wood-pigeons
scattered over the field must have numbered six or seven hundred. It
was curious and amusing to note the behaviour of the magpies, flighty,
inconsequent, and perpetually interfering with one another, when thus
seen side by side with the diligent, quietly-moving pigeons and
partridges, each occupied with his own business. One magpie would find
or pretend to find something which he would look down at very
intently, and at once two or three of his neighbours would rush
excitedly up; then all of them, putting their heads together, would
stare at the strange object for a few seconds, and then fall to
quarrelling, or chasing each other's long tails round and round, or
doing some other ridiculous thing.

By-and-by a domestic pigeon, a pretty red bird with conspicuous white
wing-feathers, came flying from the farm-house not far off and settled
down to feed among some wood-pigeons, twenty or thirty yards from the
magpies. One of the magpies raised its head and gazed intently for
some moments at the new-comer, then rising rushed at and drove it away
with violence. The pigeon circled over the field two or three times,
then alighted again a little further away. Again the same magpie got
up and went for it; and the same thing happened over and over again,
until the persecuted pigeon gave up trying to feed there and flew back
to the farm-house, and the magpie, well satisfied, returned to its
game of romps with its fellows. How amusing these crow-brained
creatures are, not only when we see them as pets, and laugh at their
pranks, but away from us in their wild state where there is no human
witness of their actions! They are like preternaturally shrewd and
mischief-loving little boys, who for the love of wildness in them have
been changed into wild birds.  I could imagine this particular magpie
saying, "No, no! You may be a very pretty bird, and inoffensive, and a
first cousin of our friend and neighbour the ringdove, who lays very
nice eggs in summer; but you are tame, domestic, and have no business
to come here to associate with wild birds. Off you go!" That evening,
at the inn where I was staying, I spoke about the magpies and their
funny little ways, my mind being still full of the subject, whereupon
the landlady told me the following story. Her husband, she said, was
exceedingly fond of magpies, and always kept one when he had the
chance, and this fondness dated back to the period of childhood, when
a very amusing tame magpie was kept by his father. He was a carpenter
in a little rustic village in North Hampshire; his earnings were
small, and he was accustomed to hand over a sum of twenty shillings to
his wife every Saturday for housekeeping.  There were nine children to
keep, and to make the most of her money she used to go on Saturday
afternoon to the nearest town, six miles distant, to purchase the
week's provisions and groceries and anything else that was required.
Two or three of the biggest children would accompany her to help her
with the basket on their return. Now it fell out that on a certain
Saturday she had all her money in one coin, a gold sovereign, and this
she placed on the kitchen dresser while putting her things on; but in
a few minutes, when she was ready to start, the money was gone.
Naturally the whole house was thrown into the greatest trouble and
excitement, and immediately everyone began hunting in every likely and
unlikely place for the missing sovereign, for now the poor distracted
woman began to think that she could not have put it on the dresser
after all. But it could not be found, and when hope was gone she could
not restrain her tears; and the children, seeing her crying, realised
that there would be no exciting visit to the town, no Saturday
afternoon sweeties, nor any good things in the house, but a long, long
week of want before them, and they too burst out crying.  It was then
that the eldest girl all at once thought of the pet magpie they kept,
and of its love of mischief; and, jumping up, she ran to the open cage
which served the bird as a roosting-place by night, and which he
occasionally visited by day. And there the coin was found, stuck
edgeways between the wooden floor and side of the cage, and in a
moment, at a loud cry of joy from the finder, the tears and
lamentations of the whole house were turned to laughter and happiness.

There is an abundance of wild fruit to attract fruit-eating birds to
the downs in autumn. Throughout the range, including the high treeless
South Downs, the bramble flourishes greatly among the furze on the
slopes, and in the combes and valleys; and from July to the end of
September the bushes are covered with clusters of the beautiful
blue-black and crimson embossed berries for every hand and beak to
pluck. The hands are few indeed except in the vicinity of Brighton--a
pleasant place "for a Wen," as Cobbett said of it, but too populous
now, and no longer pleasant to those who love to look upon an
unsullied nature. On a blazing August day I have seen two miles of
dusty road running inland from the town sprinkled with a straggling
procession of poor children, many of them too small and feeble for
such an adventure--children from the slums and mean streets of the
overgrown Islington-by-the-Sea; a long straggling column of
ragamuffins out on a raiding expedition to the distant brambly downs,
each carrying a bag, or basket, or mug, or tin pail, or old
tea-kettle, or some other kitchen utensil, in which to store the juicy
loot. Away from Brighton, outside of its smoke-cloud, and out of sight
of its people, big and little, creeping like black ants over the green
hills, the wild garden is all for the birds.  They are many, and they
feast every day and all day long; but for all their feasting the fruit
is still plentiful when, in early October, the devil flies abroad, as
some believe, to spit on the bramble-bushes and make its berries
uneatable.

The elder is common on the downs, and ripens early, and I have noticed
that the berries are devoured as fast as they ripen; not, I think,
because they taste better than blackberries to the birds, but because
they are so easily gathered, and being small and round, are easily
swallowed whole even by the smallest bird. A bird, as a rule, likes to
swallow his fruit rather than to peck at it; he generally has to peck
at the blackberry, and, compared with the clusters of the elderberry,
it is not so easily got at.

Of our fruit-eating birds the missel-thrush is the most common on the
downs; this bird loves the yew-berry above all wild fruits, and there
is one spot in this district where he can feast on it as he cannot do
anywhere else in the kingdom. This is at the famous "grove," as it is
called, of yews at Kingly Bottom, in one of the prettiest spots among
the West Sussex downs, near the small village of West Stoke, about
five miles from Chichester. The grove is an isolated wood, or rather
forest, composed almost wholly of yew trees, growing in a broad combe
in the side of a down; and above the dark green of the yews the round
light-green summit is seen like a head crowned with a row of immense
barrows. Tradition tells that at this spot a great battle was fought
by the men of Chichester against the Danes about eleven centuries ago,
and that the slain sea-kings were buried in the mounds on the hill,
hence the name of Kingly Vale or Bottom.  The belief is that many of
these yew trees are two thousand years old. In one part of the wood,
on the right hand as you go up from the vale, there is no undergrowth,
and in this part you may walk freely among the dark religious trees
with trunks like huge rudely-fashioned pillars of red and purple
ironstone.  One has here the sensation of being in a vast cathedral;
not like that of Chichester, but older and infinitely vaster, fuller
of light and gloom and mystery, and more wonderful in its
associations.  Coming from this sacred dim interior, I have found on
its threshold a tree the like of which is hardly to be seen in
England. This is a large and very perfect yew with horizontal branches
of great length, the lowest of which come down to the ground on all
sides, and are interwoven with and form part of an immense and most
beautiful tangle of juniper, thorn, bramble and briar, grown through
and overgrown and bound together with honeysuckle and deep green ivy
and light green traveller's joy, the last hoary-silver with its
profusion of downy dry seed-feathers.  I had measured the trunks of
other trees, but the girth of this could not be taken unless a man
went down on his belly and drew himself snakewise through the
protecting natural hedge. May no sacrilegious hand with hatchet or
billhook ever cut a way through it.

This wood is a paradise of the missel-thrushes in autumn. Numerous all
over the downs, it is not strange when rough weather comes that they
should gather to it, not only for the sake of the perfect shelter from
the rain and wind it affords, but also for the abundance of the fruit
they like so well.  They seem to delight as much in its insipid sweet
taste as in the somewhat acrid flavour of the orange-scarlet
rowan-berries. In the yew-berry there is a disagreeable bitterness
under the sweet gummy pulp, which is probably deleterious in a slight
degree; but the bird tastes only the sweet, and is not concerned about
the wholesomeness of his food when he is eating not to satisfy hunger,
but purely for pleasure.  In most places where yew trees are few and
far between, we see that the missel-thrushes, assisted by the
song-thrush and blackbird, devour the fruit as soon as it ripens. In
this wood the profusion is so great that the birds can go on with
their feast into October without making much impression on the myriads
of rose-coloured berries that gem the dark feathery foliage. And they
do feast! It is worse than a feast, it is a perfect orgy. When a bird,
with incredible greediness, has gorged to repletion he flies down to a
spot where there is a nice green turf and disgorges, then, relieved,
he goes back with a light heart to gorge again, and then again.  The
result is that every patch or strip of green turf among or near the
trees is thickly sprinkled over with little masses or blobs of
disgorged fruit, bright pinky red in colour, looking like strawberries
scattered about the ground and crushed by passing feet, In a single
blob or pellet I have counted as many as twenty-three whole berries,
as bright red as when on the tree, embedded in a mass of viscid pulp,
mixed with many of the dark green and poisonous stones of the
half-digested berries.

The wood I have described, where the intemperate missel-thrushes have
their revels, is almost unique in character: there is on the downs
west of the Adur another wood of a kind rarely seen that has a
singular charm. This is a hawthorn wood growing on the high downs east
of the village of Findon, and about halfway between Cissbury Hill and
Chancton-bury Ring. I have come across patches of wood, exclusively
thorns, in Savernake Forest, Albury Park, and on private estates in
different parts of the country, but not one comparable to this in
extent and beauty.  The peculiar charm of the hawthorn--and that it
possesses a very great charm everyone will allow--appears to be due to
its variety--to the individuality as well as the beauty of the tree.
It certainly has a specific character as marked as that of any forest
tree we have, and is quite unlike any other, unless we say that it is
a miniature oak in appearance, and has the attractive roughness and
majesty of the great tree in little, with a more varied and tender
colour, more light and shade, a richer beauty.  This is the specific
character: then there is the very piquant individual character, which
is an added distinction; for two thorns are not like two oaks, or
beeches, or elms. Many forest trees are best seen in masses; for
instance, the elm in its summer foliage and the beech in its autumn
colour. The hawthorn, like the holly and, in a less degree, some other
trees, is best seen growing by itself; and the most perfect thorn wood
is that where there is ample room for a person to walk freely about in
it and see every tree, or a large proportion of the trees, all round.
That is the character of the wood I am describing, and its beauty is
greatly enhanced by the character of the open sunlit ground it grows
on--a soft elastic turf, like that of the sheep-walks, but more
closely eaten down by the innumerable rabbits that have their home in
the wood; its harmonious greens and browns touched or mixed with the
brighter colours of lichen and moss, rust-red and orange and tender
grey and emerald-green.

Here, better than in most places, the infinite variety of the thorn
may be admired, especially in its colour, from August onward to
October, when the many-tinted leaves are finally shed. It is a
familiar fact that the drier and poorer the soil on which a tree grows
the more beautiful will be the dying colours of the foliage; and these
thorns on the high chalk hills are doubtless more brilliantly coloured
in September than most trees of their kind.  But though so various and
charming on that account, you do not get masses of splendid colour in
the thorn, owing to the looseness of its foliage and to the various
colours and shades of colour which may be seen on almost any tree. Or
if in any one tree you get a mass of intense colour, it is in the
fruit and not the leaf.  Here are many trees so entirely covered with
berries as to appear at a short distance like trees cut out of deepest
crimson coral.

For great masses of intense colour nothing can compare with the beech,
which flourishes above all trees on the West Sussex downs. And here it
may be remarked that it is not only in its magnificent autumn colours
that the beech adds greatly to the attractiveness of the downland
scenery in West Sussex. At other seasons, too, even when stript bare,
the tall beeches please the eye. One would say that it was a very bold
experiment to plant groves of beeches and firs on the summits of these
round, smooth, pale green hills, yet it has been justified by the fine
effect produced. Here are groves that remind one of the unrivalled
Hollywater Clump in Wolmer Forest--groves visible at an immense
distance, standing like many-pillared temples on the high hills. One
does not wish even these most conspicuous groves away, because, I
imagine, the country is wooded generally, and the hills are more
scattered about and not so high; it is a broken wooded country, and
the tall, slender beeches and firs predominate.

On the South Downs proper, east of the Adur, the case is wholly
different: the hills are larger and there is less tillage; the clumps
or groves and woods so few that the effect is strange and
inharmonious.  The isolated grove that springs suddenly to the sight
as one mounts a hill, shady and deepest green on a pale unshaded
country, is a blot on the landscape; and here, if anywhere in England,
one would be glad to see an axe laid at the root of trees of noble
growth.  For one cannot say of these trees that they are the "nobler
growth of thought," rather we might say that in planting trees in such
a place we have been playing fantastic tricks with nature.

I must confess that I am speaking only for myself; perhaps no one
would agree with me; and it may be that many a pilgrim to the South
Downs, who has cooled himself in burning summer weather in the
delicious shade of Stanmer, will consider my words almost
sacrilegious. Then I have to reckon with Parson Gilpin, who rode over
these downs a century or longer ago, and scornfully said of them that
they were "entirely destitute of ornament." An occasional glimpse of
the sea, he wrote, imparted a little life and variety to the tame
monotonous scene. It is true that he gave a little faint praise to the
situation of Lewes; but even this he qualified by saying that the
hills round Lewes were chalk--"and chalk spoils any landscape." Poor
old chalk!

I am not abusing Gilpin; on the contrary, I love and reverence his
memory because of his life-work, about which he wrote no book, and
told the world nothing. Nevertheless, I cannot help smiling when I
recall the fact that this last book, in which, like the glorified
landscape gardener that he was, he spoke in dispraise of the downs,
was inscribed _to the memory_ of a still living wife, the faithful
companion of his rambles for over fifty years. Of course he quite
expected that she would be gone before the book was out; but he was
greatly mistaken, just like the rogues who lied in the famous ballad
of the mad dog and the man who was bitten by it. He it was, even
Gilpin, who died, leaving his good wife alive and well to publish the
book, dedication and all!

One need not fear to offend the parson of Boldre by poking a little
fun at him at this distant day, so long after he visited Sussex and
spoke slightingly of chalk. His subsequent rambles, of which we have
no report, must have considerably enlarged his ideas about scenery and
other matters.

We have seen that the West Sussex downs excel in the beauty of their
beeches; that they can boast of the noblest grove or wood of yew trees
in this country, and also possess a hawthorn wood of rare beauty. It
may be added that the furze also flourishes at numerous points from
end to end of the range: many and many a shining yellow sheet of
bloom, from three or four to twenty or thirty acres in extent, have I
seen and revelled in among these hills in May and June. Here, too,
that charming climber, the wild clematis or traveller's joy, finds its
most favourable soil, and flourishes amazingly. I have never seen it
look so fine in winter as among the downs; in sheltered hollows among
the hills you will find clumps of trees, evergreen holly and yew,
mixed with leafless oak and thorn and beech, partially veiled or
clouded with the unshed silver-grey fluff to a height of thirty or
forty feet from the ground.  In England we call that silver-grey down
_Old Man's Beard_; in another country I have heard it called _Angel's
Hair_.

There is another fine plant characteristic of the Sussex downs, the
jumper, which is not flourishing; and this is all the more to be
regretted, because it is not, like the furze and thorn and clematis,
to be found all over the land; compared with these species the juniper
is a rare plant, very local in its distribution.  In many places the
ground has been cleared of it to give better food to the sheep, or
when well grown it has been cut down for fuel and for other purposes;
and we may say that in many places the juniper is disappearing from
the downs simply because the great landowners have not thought proper
to preserve it. Yet how congenial the soil is to it, how readily it
grows, may be seen on some downs, as at Kingly Vale for instance,
where large areas are covered or rather thickly sprinkled over with
its bushes. But you will not find here one large or well-grown bush;
it is all a dwarf scrub, where no doubt the largest plants are
periodically cut down.

One must go to other districts, in many cases where the soil is less
favourable to it, but where it has not been ill-treated, to see the
juniper in its perfection.  It is a handsome plant, but its greatest
attraction lies in its variety. The variety of the hawthorn, which
gives a charm to that tree, consists as much in colour and light and
shadow as in form; in the juniper the variety is in the form rather
than in colour. To appreciate this character of the plant, it must be
seen where it is pretty abundant, on some open spot away from all
other tree and bush vegetation. At a distance it may be mistaken for a
furze-bush, being not unlike that plant in size, colour, and manner of
growth. Seen nearer, it is not of so rough and prickly an aspect; its
pine-needle-like fine foliage give it a somewhat feathery appearance;
it is brighter green than the furze; the topmost slender sprays,
gracefully curved at their tips, are tinged with red; and where the
foliage is thick there is a bluish tint on the green that is like a
bloom. In some lights, especially in the early mornings, when the
level sunbeams strike on the bushes, wet with dew or melting
hoar-frost, this blueness gives the plant a rare, delicate, changeful
beauty. Even here on the downs, where most of the junipers one finds
are a poor scrub, I have been enchanted at the effects produced by the
light on it, but the loveliest effect was in part fortuitous, and came
as a delightful surprise.

The south-west gales of October and November had blown the fallen
leaves of a beech-wood for miles over the downs, and at one spot where
an area of thirty or forty acres was thickly sprinkled over with a
juniper scrub, a drift of yellow and red leaves had formed at the foot
of every bush. Here, on the light green smooth turf, the little bushes
or tufts, three or four feet apart, showing a blue bloom and play of
rainbow colour in their feathery green foliage, each with its drift of
intense russet-gold at its foot, made a very singular and very
beautiful picture.

Where the juniper is abundant and grows large, the plants are
curiously unlike, and, viewed at a distance of a couple of hundred
yards or so, they have something of the appearance of a grove or wood
of miniature trees of different species: alike in colour, in their
various forms they look some like isolated clumps of elms, others
columnar in shape, others dome-like, resembling evergreen oaks or
well-grown yews; and among these and many other forms there are tall
straight bushes resembling Lombardy poplars and pointed cypresses.

It is, however, not often that one may see even the large fine
junipers all _shapely_ in their various forms: some are ragged
unlovely bushes, and this is most often the case where they grow in
woods and are to some extent shaded by other trees.

It is to be wished that something could be done to prevent the
destruction of this handsome bush.  If some one of the great
landowners of the downs would but create a juniper preserve at some
point where the plant grows spontaneously and well, he would deserve
the gratitude of all lovers of nature who are accustomed to take their
summer rambles in downland.




CHAPTER XIII

THE MARITIME DISTRICT


The autumnal movement of birds--Linnets on the downs--Birds wintering
in the maritime district--Character of the district--Birdham--Rooks
and starlings--Skylarks and finches--Dun-nock and wren--Pewits on the
Cuckmere--Pewit's hatred of the rook--Pewit's wing-exercises--Pewits
in flocks--Black-headed gulls--Charm of the maritime district--Gloomy
weather--Missel-thrush: his temper, habits, and song--The spire of
Chichester Cathedral: its aesthetic value in the landscape.


The autumnal movement of birds, both migrants and residents, is most
marked throughout the downland and maritime districts of Sussex during
the month of October. Swallows gather in numbers in the weald at the
foot of the downs, but on the long strip of country, hilly and flat,
that lies between the weald district and the sea the insectivorous
migrants are not much seen, as they do not break their journey here.
The exceptions are the wheatear, pied wagtail, stonechat (travelling
in small flocks), and the meadow-pipit.  In October, when cold and wet
weather has set the more dilatory seed-eating migrants in motion,
together with all those kinds that leave their summer haunts to winter
elsewhere within the country, birds in multitudes arrive at this
"threshold of England," some to rest and recruit their strength before
taking their flight across the Channel, others in search of suitable
winter quarters; and so long as the weather permits, numbers of these
travellers keep to the hills.

On the cultivated downland farms the linnets are most abundant, and if
the weather keeps mild, will haunt the stubble-fields down to the end
of November.  As many as three or four thousand birds may sometimes be
seen in a flock, and it is a fine spectacle when they rise and wheel
about the field, and after three or four turns drop down, a shower of
birds, vanishing all at once from sight. A person may then stand
within fifty yards of the flock without hearing the faintest sound, or
being able to see one of the little brown creatures busily searching
for seeds on the brown soil; then suddenly they are all up again, an
innumerable multitude of swiftly-rushing twittering birdlings,
brought, as it were, by a miracle into existence!

>From the stubbles they fly to a brake or thick hedge, and sit so
closely crowded together on every twig that the leafless thorns are
brown with them on the sunny side. If the weather be not too cold one
may then hear the winter singing of the linnet, delightful to listen
to. Heard at a distance of sixty or seventy yards, it is like the
rushing sound the wind makes in beechen woods in summer; but when the
listener goes nearer he finds that this confused noise is composed of
innumerable fine melodious notes, a mass and an indescribable tangle
of sound, resembling the evening concert of an immense host of
starlings, gathered at their roosting-place, but more musical.

These large flocks are probably made up of birds from hundreds of
furze-grown commons, moors, and mountain-sides all over the kingdom,
and will by-and-by take their departure to countries beyond the sea.
When cold blasts have driven these and all other loiterers from the
exposed hills, the maritime district is then the chief haunt and
winter home of birds.  Probably this district has the most numerous
and varied feathered population to be found anywhere in England during
the winter months.

The strip of low country extending along the coast from the mouth of
the river Adur to the border of Hampshire has a strongly-marked
character of its own. The extreme fertility of the soil, and the
mildness of the climate, due to the shelter of the downs on the north
side, and to the nearness of the sea, which is never cold, has made
Worthing what it is--the chief vineyard and garden of rare fruits in
England. This is the character of the maritime district, although
where the range of hills retires furthest from the sea, the flat
country is less sheltered from the north and east winds. But
throughout the climate is remarkably mild, even in the widest part
between the downs and the promontory of Selsey Bill. In January, after
walking from Harting over downs white with half-frozen snow, when a
furious north-east wind was blowing, I came to Selsey, and found a
different climate. There was no snow on the green fields and muddy
roads; the wind was light and not unpleasantly cold, and thrushes,
hedge-sparrows, and wrens were singing.

A few miles from Chichester, on an arm of the sea, which at low water
is mostly a mud-flat, there is a parish and village of Birdham, or
Bridham. This birds' home doubtless acquired its name in early Saxon
times, on account of the great numbers of sea--and water-fowl that
resorted to the spot in winter; and Chichester harbour is still a
favourite haunt of water-fowl in severe weather. But the entire
maritime district is a Birdham in winter: the mild climate,
everlasting verdure, abundance of food and water, and a sparse human
population make it indeed an ideal wintering-place for many birds that
have their breeding haunts on the hills and other exposed districts
throughout the country.

Rooks and starlings are excessively abundant. It is a wonder how any
grub can escape their prying eyes and busy prodding beaks. On some
favourite feeding-grounds the surface is often covered with grass and
moss plucked up by them to get at the grubs at the roots. When the
grass freshly pulled up is examined, the leaves are invariably seen to
be wilted or of a sickly colour. It is indeed this faded appearance of
the grass that reveals the hiding-place of the larva to the bird, and
it may be safely said that he never pulls a blade of grass without
sufficient reason. But the starlings pull up moss in most places on
the chance, I imagine, of finding insects concealed under it. Skylarks
winter on the grassy flats in considerable numbers, and flocks of
bramb-lings are met with everywhere. Flocks, too, of chaffinches,
yellowhammers, corn and reed buntings, and linnets and redpolls. But
the goldfinches are a very few solitary birds: you will see perhaps
two or three in a day's walk, and you will probably see quite as many
grey wagtails, or even kingfishers.  One day in the course of an eight
miles' walk I saw two rare birds--one goldfinch and one great crested
grebe.

I have said in a former chapter that the dunnock, or hedge-sparrow,
breeds in the furze-bushes all over the downs, but in the cold season
forsakes that part of the country. Doubtless many of those downland
birds spend the winter in the maritime district, where they are
extremely numerous in December and January. The downland wrens may
have the same habits, as they are just as abundant: as you walk the
brisk little brown bird flits out of the scanty hedges or from the
sides of the ditches at every few yards.

Herons come to fish, and pewits are common, but not in such great
numbers as we often see them in the valleys of the rivers Arun, Ouse,
and Cuck-mere.  The artist's picture of the narrow valley of the
last-named stream, taken from a point close to Exceat Bridge, on a
November evening, shows a large flock of these birds that continued
flying near us and passing and repassing over our heads during the
whole time he was occupied in making the sketch.

The pewit breeds in all the downland valleys, and I have often amused
myself watching him defending the field where he had his nest against
all suspected birds. When the hills are dry in summer the moist green
fields and water-meadows are attractive to the downland rooks; but
these white-faced crows are hated by the plover, and he will not allow
them to feed on the sacred ground where his treasures are.  The rook,
we know, is an egg-stealer on occasion; the pewit evidently believes
that he is always one, and he perhaps knows him better than we do.
Still, it is rather hard on the hungry rook; for it may happen that
the meadow or field forbidden to him is precisely the one which he is
most anxious to investigate. Hundreds of starlings, those lesser rooks
he is accustomed to associate with, may be there, full in sight,
feasting on fat grubs; but no sooner does he come to join them than
the jealous pewit is up in arms, and then begins that furious
persecution which he cannot stand against, and flying from it he is
chased and buffeted for a distance of five or six hundred yards from
the ground.

In September and October the resident pewits are joined by others of
their kind; and in the valley of the Cuckmere, a favourite
wintering-ground, you may see a flock of as many as two thousand
birds, looking at a distance, when they are up and flying round, like
a vast cloud of starlings. No bird appears to take greater pleasure in
the exercise of his own powers of flight than the pewit. Flying is to
him like riding, cycling, rowing or sailing, and skating (I wish I
could add ballooning or rushing about in a flying-machine) to
ourselves. It is his sport; and during the spring and summer season,
when pewits live in pairs or small parties, he spends a great part of
his time in those quite useless, but doubtless exhilarating, displays
which we are never tired of watching. Rising to a considerable height
in the air, he lets himself go, with the determination apparently of
breaking the pewit record; that is to say, of rushing downwards in the
approved suicidally insane manner, with sudden doublings this way and
that, and other violent eccentric motions designed to make him lose
his head; and finally to come at fullest speed within an inch, or as
much less than an inch as he can, of dashing himself into a pulp on
the ground below.

Blake, in his tiger song, exclaims:

  And what shoulder, and what art,
  Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

The pewit, too, compared with man, must have a remarkable heart, and
brain, and nerves, to do such things purely for the fun of it. Here,
sitting on a hill-side, I watched a male bird, amusing himself in the
air while his mate was on the nest, rise up and repeat the action of
pretending to go mad and hurl himself down to destruction over fifty
times without resting. Then he alighted, and I began to imagine what
his sensations must be: his brain, I thought, must seem to him to have
got away somehow from his body and to be rushing madly this way and
that through the air. Meantime the bird was standing placidly
regarding his mate; then he nodded his head once or twice to her, and
in a twinkling was off, high up, and at his capers once more.

In autumn and winter, when a large number of pewits are congregated,
their wing-exercises are mostly of another kind. Each bird is then,
like the starling, or linnet, or dunlin, in its flock, one of a
company; and we see and note not individuals but an entire crowd, or
army, moved by one mind or impulse. The birds often spend many hours
of the day in the air, travelling up and down stream, often changing
their formation; now seen as a flock, a mass, extending wings on
either side, until they present a front of several hundred feet in
length, then closing again and changing their disposition they are
seen as a long column or winding stream of birds. The smoothness and
discipline with which these evolutions are conducted incline one to
think that sight and hearing in some gregarious species of aerial
habits are supplemented by another faculty--a very delicate sense of
touch, as in the bat; that it is a sensation of repulsion informing
each member of the flock of the nearness to it of others, and prevents
them from touching or striking against and impeding one another. When
the flock turns or changes its formation, it may be observed that
while numbers of birds are streaming away to this or that side with
accelerated speed, others, at points where confusion would seem
inevitable, suspend their flight, and remain almost motionless at
equal distances apart until the moment comes for them to join in the
swift movement.

Black-headed gulls are as abundant as rooks on the flat country and on
the neighbouring downs where there is tillage, and may often be seen
in screaming crowds following close at the heels of the ploughman.
When not feeding they are seen at rest on a green field, and at a
distance may be taken for a great patch of unmelted snow. That
beautiful order which so many gregarious birds observe when on the
wing in flocks is adhered to by the gulls even when resting on the
earth. They invariably sit or stand on the grass with beaks all
pointing one way, to the wind, all at equal distances apart. These
white flocks resting on the green fields are a familiar feature of the
winter landscape in this district.

Altogether, this is a spot in which an observer of wild birds may pass
a very pleasant winter season.  For others, too, the flat land with
its mild climate and perpetual verdure must have a charm in spite of
miry ways and sodden soil. Even under a grey sky, and it is not always
grey, there is colour in the landscape. The trees are mostly elms, and
their rich browns and purples relieve the universal green of the
earth. Ivy is most luxuriant in this damp land, and wraps the trunks
and branches of trees, and houses and fences, in its dark mantle. On
account of the very limited horizon a man has when on a perfectly flat
surface, the leaflessness of the winter trees is an advantage here,
and enables one to see the distant small villages scattered over the
district; the stone farm-house, its old red-tiled roof stained with
many-coloured moss and lichen; the great barn and outbuildings,
thatched with pale yellow straw; and the small, ancient, ivied Norman
church, with the sacred yew in its churchyard.  In late autumn, when
the shortness and darkness of the days are most noticeable, and in
winter, there are often long spells of mild, wet weather, when the
south-west wind blows continuously, when it rains every day, until the
green earth is like a swollen sponge, and the roads are deep with
mire, and stream and ditch and drain are full to overflowing; when in
the intervals of the rain and in rainless days there are driving
mists, sudden showers, and everywhere the spray and smell of salt
water and of seaweed.  Days, too, without any rain, when the vast
heavens are filled with clouds that have never a rift nor a sunlit
spot in them; a universe of slaty-black vapour, miles deep, rising
ever from the dim moaning sea to drown the earth and all that is in it
in everlasting gloom. Such days are known all over the land and
depress the soul, and when such a cloud has been long above us we pine
for a sight of the pure blue of heaven and the sunshine, even as a
prisoner pines for liberty.

Yet, strange as it may sound, this low, flat land on a level with the
sea has had the greatest charm for me in precisely such gloomy weather
as I have described. In summer this district does not attract me; I
look at the hills and would be walking on their elastic turf, and
breathing that exhilarating air. The summer atmosphere is heavy and
motionless here; still, one would say that winter wet and gloom would
make the place intolerable. I can only suppose that on account of the
lowness and flatness of the land, the nearness of the sea and the
superabundant moisture, the gloom is deepest here in dark weather--it
has always seemed so to me; and that the darkness serves to accentuate
the special character of the district, and pleases me for that reason.
That my pleasure is as great as that which I experience on the
treeless hills in July and August, when the sun is brightest, I do not
for a moment say; I can only say that in the gloomiest weather, a
perpetual twilight which made trees, buildings, hedges, cattle, and
all objects look dim and distant even when close by, I have rambled
all day long without any sense of depression or weariness; and that
when, hungry and thirsty, I have sought refreshment at one of the
little village inns, and have found only stale bread without any
cheese to eat, and nothing but four-ale to drink--ale at fourpence a
quart--I have eaten the bread and drunk the beer (a tankard, not a
quart of it), and have gone forth comforted and happy to resume my
wanderings.

There is one thing to make a lover of bird-music happy in the darkest
weather in January in this maritime district. Mid-winter is the season
of the missel-thrush. The song-thrush has been heard since the end of
November, but he is not the true winter singer. He is heard often
enough--a bird here and a bird there--when the sun shines, and in
cloudy or in wet weather too, if it be mild. But when it is too gloomy
for even his fine temper, when there is no gleam of light anywhere and
no change in that darkness of immense ever-moving cloud above; and the
south-west raves all day and all night, and day after day, then the
storm-cock sings his loudest from a tree-top and has no rival. A
glorious bird!

He breeds earlier than most birds, and we have seen that after that
labour is ended he repairs to the downs and leads a gipsy existence in
bands of a dozen or so, feeding on snails and grasshoppers, drinking
at the dew-ponds, and resting at noon in the shade of the
furze-bushes; also that in autumn he feasts (often too well) on wild
fruits, especially the poisonous yew-berry. But during all that
pleasant vagrant summer life, when he sings not and has no family
cares, he is still in disposition the bird we know so well in the
orchard and copse, the big olive-coloured spotty thrush that sits
motionless and statuesque and flies from you with an angry scream; the
bird whose courageous spirit and fierce onslaught in defence of his
nest makes him the equal of crafty crows and pies, and of hawks, in
spite of their hooked beaks and cruel sharp talons. Those large black
conspicuous spots on his breast and his habit of singing in weather
that makes all other voices silent, seem appropriate to a bird of his
bold aggressive temper.

As I walked one hot day on the northern ridge of the South Downs, a
party of half a dozen missel-thrushes flew up from the ground before
me, and rising high in the air went away towards the weald.  A
telegraph line crosses the hills at that point, and just when the
thrushes rose up and flew from me a sparrow-hawk came up swiftly
flying over the ridge and perched on the telegraph wire. I have
observed that this hawk, like the cuckoo, cannot properly grasp the
wire and sit firm and upright on it as most passerine birds are able
to do. Like the cuckoo he wobbles and drops his wings upon the wire to
help to keep him up. It was so in the present case: the hawk was
swaying about trying to hold on to the thin smooth wire when the
thrushes passed over him, thirty or forty yards above, all but one,
and this one remained hovering motionless in the air for a space of a
few seconds directly above the hawk, then dropped like a stone upon
his back, and knocked him clean off his perch.

It is often stated by writers on British birds that the missel-thrush
ceases singing in March or April; this is a mistake, as I frequently
hear him in May and June. But why, I have often asked myself, is he
silent on many days in January and February when the weather is mild,
and the song-thrush is loudest? I have a suspicion that the
missel-thrush is less tolerant of other bird-voices near him than most
species; and I think that the loud persistent singing of the
song-thrush is more disturbing to him than any other bird-voice. At
all events, I have often listened for the missel-thrush, in localities
where he was abundant, and have not heard him when the song-thrush was
singing. In the same localities I have heard the missel-thrush singing
everywhere on days when his rival was silent.

When all the most luscious of the wild fruits have been eaten, and
frosts and winds make the open downs impossible to live on, the
missel-thrushes break up their flocks and every bird goes back to his
lowland home. There is then not an orchard, nor copse, nor grove,
without a pair of the big thrushes; and on the flat-wooded country on
the north of the downs these birds are, I think, just as numerous.
Home again from his long outing, the missel-thrush soon begins to
sing; and if you should observe him in rough or gloomy weather,
perched on an elm-top, swayed about this way and that by the gusts,
singing his best, you must believe that this dark aspect of things
delights him; that his pleasure in life, expressed with such sounds
and in such circumstances, must greatly exceed in degree the
contentment and bliss that is ours, even when we are most free from
pain or care, and our whole beings most perfectly in tune with nature.

As to the song; although we probably value it most for its
associations, and because it is often heard when other bird-voices are
silent, it is also beautiful in itself. The sound is beautiful in
quality, but the singer has no art, and flings out his notes anyhow;
the song is an outburst, a cry of happiness, and is over in a moment,
and after a moment of silence he repeats it, and so on for ten or
twenty minutes or longer. In its quality the sound is most like the
blackbird's; and when, in early spring, the blackbird, perched on a
tree-top, first tries his long-disused voice, the short confused
phrases he blurts out are so like the song of the missel-thrush that
anyone may be easily deceived by them. The difference in the voices of
the two birds is that the missel-thrush is not so full and mellow, and
is slightly metallic or bell-like; and it is probably due to this
quality that the song carries much further than that of the blackbird.

What the missel-thrush is to the hearing, the spire of Chichester
Cathedral is to the sight in this flat district--the chief feature and
object of beauty and interest for the eyes to rest upon. In a way it
is always present. It may be seen at an immense distance from the
downs--from Cissbury Hill, for instance, and from the hill-tops far
away to the west, and from the borders of Hampshire; but down on the
flat green country amidst which it rises, so tall and lessening to a
point, we look at it with different eyes, and its aesthetic value in
the scene is greater and of a different kind.

The sound, too, of the cathedral bell, booming out the hour in deep,
measured strokes, will, if the wind be favourable, follow you many a
mile as you walk by the harbour--

  Over the wide-watered shore
  Swinging slow with sullen roar.

Where Milton heard the great bell he had in his mind when he wrote the
lines in Penseroso I do not know, but they admirably describe this
great bell sound from the vast bell-tower at Chichester, when it
travels seawards over the flat harbour country, where land and water
mix. It is the character of the country, its flatness and silence and
the loneliness of its shores, that gives to this one great sound its
importance, or value. For a similar reason this solitary soaring spire
has a value above that of any other spire in the land.

We are accustomed to hear Salisbury Cathedral greatly praised; and as
a spire it is doubtless very great, a more beautiful and a nobler work
than that of Chichester. There is no comparison. Nevertheless, I
admire Chichester most, in spite of its inferiority when viewed merely
as a work of art. But I do not look at it with the architect's eye. In
the inferior work I see nothing but an object that fits in with and
forms a part of the landscape: more than that, it "pulls" the scene
together, and gives it a unity and distinction which it would never
have possessed if by chance men had not built that spire precisely
where it stands. This is not the case at Salisbury: I go out and away
from the town and gaze at it from different points, and still see
nothing but a spire, which, merely as a spire, may be the finest thing
in the world, but is in no way related to the scene amidst which it is
placed. We admire Salisbury just as we admire St. Paul's, for itself
alone: it receives nothing from, and gives nothing to, nature: it is a
gem of great value that would look just as well in any other setting.
When I view the Chichester spire, it is but as a part of the scene--of
all that visible nature that inspires in us feelings compared with
which the highest pleasure the best and most perfect works of art can
give is but a poor insipid thing, and as dreams compared to realities.

It is not, however, from all points of view that the Chichester spire
is of so much account in the landscape.  The line of the downs must
appear beyond it; and downs and spire look best from the green level
land between the cathedral and the sea. In some states of the weather
the spire has a singular beauty, as when sun-flushed, it appears white
against a black cloud. Perhaps the most beautiful effect is an
afternoon or evening one, when there are clouds, but in the east and
north a pale clear sky, against which the grey spire and distant downs
appear sharply outlined; the earth green, but the hills in shadow
deepest indigo blue. This effect is a very common one in autumn and
winter evenings.




CHAPTER XIV

CHICHESTER


Chichester at a distance and near--Smells and sights--Public-house
signs--Habits of the people--Brewers' policy--The church and the
clergy--In the cathedral--A wood-carving--Market-day--Early
associations--The Market Cross and a mystery--Visit to
Midhurst--Decaying inns--Increase of temperance and the
cause--Chichester mud--Caging owls--The owl at Alfriston--A miserable
daw--A white owl's _He du Diable_--An ideal home for an owl--A
prisoner without hope.


To those who know not Chichester, that same tall, star-pointing spire
in a green level land with round blue hills beyond, is not only a
thing of beauty, a symbol and remembrancer; but seen at a distance,
day by day, from many points, may come to be even more than all these
to the mind. An ancient town, remote and rural; the sights and sounds
and quietude of nature, as in a village, around and in it, where men
may lead cleaner, saner, less strenuous lives than in the great
centres of population, and have other and better ideals.

But it is not so; for Chichester is not in itself sacred, nor
pleasant, nor fragrant to the nostrils.  On the contrary, I am here
always conscious of an odour not easily described. Perhaps it comes
nearest in character to an effluvium ascending in warm and damp
weather from long-covered old forgotten cesspools, mixed with
something more subtle or volatile, like a fragrance that has lost its
pleasantness. It may be musk, with which the town dames perfumed
themselves in bygone centuries, still clinging to the old spot; and it
may be the ghost of old incense, which filled the sacred buildings
every day for ages before its ceremonial use was discontinued. This
odour, or this mixture of smells, of which the natives are not
conscious, and the sights which meet the eye, have in my case a
profoundly depressing effect. This depression is probably the malady
commonly known as "the chichesters," from which many persons who visit
this town are said to suffer.

As to the sights: when you enter and walk in the streets, you
encounter a strange procession of signs, advancing to meet you, not
always singly, but often in twos and threes. They are implements of
husbandry, arms of all colours and degrees, castles, railways,
telegraphs, globes, ships, tuns, anchors, crosses, and all sorts of
objects. Products of the earth, too, are there, and signs that have
rural associations--barley mows, wheat-sheafs, chestnuts, oaks,
bushes, etc., etc. These are followed by creatures, wild and domestic,
outlandish and familiar, real and fabulous--the most wonderful happy
family on the globe. Behind a lively unicorn, run, trot, and prance a
number of horses of all colours, and after these, white harts; then
cows, spotted and red, and dogs, and bulls, and lambs, and swans, and
eagles, and after them all a playful dolphin.  Nor is this all; to the
procession of birds and beasts and fishes, succeed things great and
beautiful and magnificent--fountains and rainbows, and the sun in his
glory, and the rising sun, and the moon and half-moon, and doubtless
many stars and constellations; and angels, too, and beautiful thoughts
and emotions, good intents, and hope, and I daresay faith and charity
to keep her company.

These, the reader will understand, are public-house signs and names.
They are symbols and descriptions not of things in nature and the
soul, but of something better and dearer to the Chiches-terians, and
their chief good. As to beauty in the moral or material world--

  The bubbles that swim
  On the beaker's brim
  And break on the lips while meeting

is the most beautiful sight they know, and their joy for ever.

The amazing sight of all these signs, and other sights that are
happily rare in small rural towns, led me to make a few inquiries, and
the result may interest those of my readers who care to hear something
(not too much) about the little ways and vagaries of their own
species.

There are 12,000 souls in the town; that is to say, an adult male
population of 3000. This number includes a rather large body of
clergymen and ministers, and perhaps a couple of hundred highly
respectable persons who do not go to bars. To provide this village
population with drink there are seventy public-houses, besides several
wine and spirit merchants, and grocers with licences. To keep all
these houses open, all these taps perpetually running, there must be
an immense quantity of liquor consumed.  At eight o'clock in the
morning you will find men at all the bars, often in groups of three or
four or half a dozen, standing, pipe in mouth and tankard in hand; and
at eleven at night, when closing-time comes, out of every door a
goodly crowd of citizens are seen stumbling forth, surprised and
sorry, no doubt, that the day has ended so soon. In the streets, near
the railway station, at the Market Cross, and at various corners, you
will see groups of the most utterly drink-degraded wretches it is
possible to find anywhere in the kingdom--men with soulless bloated
faces and watery eyes, dressed like tramps--standing idle with their
hands in their pockets.  But there is not a penny there, or they would
not be standing in the mud and rain; and as for doing any work, they
are past that. Here that rare spectacle, a man without a shirt, has
met my sight, not once nor twice, but several times, the naked flesh
showing through the rents of a ragged jacket buttoned or pinned up to
the neck. These loathly human objects are strangely incongruous at
that spot, under the great spire, in sight of the green open healthy
downs, in perhaps the richest agricultural district in England.

But, it may be said, even allowing that every adult male in Chichester
drinks every day, and drinks deeply, also allowing for market-day,
when farmers and others who come into the town on business no doubt
consume a good deal of beer and spirits, how is it possible for so
many licensed houses to exist?

The publicans themselves told me how it was managed. They assert, and
complain bitterly, that there are thirty or forty licensed houses too
many in Chichester, and that if they had to pay anything approaching
to the rents paid for houses of this description in other towns they
could not live.  Fortunately (and this is the silver lining to the
poor publican's cloud) the rents are nominal, and in very many
instances the houses are rent-free. The brewers own them, and find it
more to their profit to give the house rent-free than to close it. The
brewers, in fact, pay a heavy premium to the drink-sellers, lest any
of their seventy precious licences should be lost.

As there are some extremists about just now, it is perhaps as well to
say that I do not agree with them; and that, though not so
enthusiastic as a clerical acquaintance of mine, who assures me that
he "simply adores gin," I am by no means an abstainer. Wine is among
the kindly fruits of the earth which I appreciate, and failing that I
can drink either ale or stout, or a mixture of both. But the perpetual
swilling in Chichester is enough to turn the stomach of even the most
tolerant man.

And the clergy and ministers of the gospel--there are, besides the
cathedral, at least twenty churches and chapels in this small
town--what are they doing in the matter? Nothing, I fear, and probably
they have long discovered that nothing is to be done.  The churches
open on Sundays at an hour when the seventy public-houses are closed,
and a certain number of women and a few married men attend the
services. The cathedral has at least two services every day, and you
will as a rule find six or eight to a dozen persons at the afternoon
service; and these few are women, or strangers who have come in to
look at the building. The eloquence, if there is any, the lessons, the
sweet and beautiful voices singing "anthems clear," are all wasted on
the desert breath of that vast, vacant interior. The ghostly men walk
the town like ghosts indeed, and are unseen or unnoticed, and at an
immeasurable distance from the people they brush against; and they are
like pilgrims and passengers in the city, whom nobody knows; nor does
anyone inquire who they are, and what they are doing there.

On a rainy miserable day that was market-day, when the wind was cold
and the streets were foul with mud; and the bellowings, bleatings, and
grunt-ings of the animals, and the smell of the same, filled the air,
I, greatly suffering from "the chichesters," fled into the cathedral
and broke my resolution never to enter that interesting part of the
interior from which the non-paying public, the poor undistinguished
herd of which I am a member, are excluded. I paid my coin and signed
my name, and was one of a small exploring party of persons, damp and
depressed as myself, under the guidance of a sexton or verger.  He,
unlike us, was in a rather merry mood, and gave a humorous colour to
old traditions and historical incidents. When we had duly cursed
Cromwell the Destroyer, as I daresay we had cursed him in many another
noble building and in many a ruin, we came in our rambles to an
ancient small chapel where we saw some curious old monkish
wood-carvings which the Puritans ought in consistency to have
destroyed, but did not. Here were oak seats in rows, and on the back
of each one was a carving representing some humorous, fanciful, or
grotesque scene, but I looked attentively at only one, the first that
caught my eye. In this, a fox sat at ease in a chair, his legs
crossed, his brush thrown carelessly like a long coat-tail across his
lap, a stringed instrument on which he was merrily playing in his
hand; his foot was pressed on the bosom of a goose, lying, poor
wretch, screaming and flapping its wings at his feet; while he,
inclining his sharp nose a little, was looking down much amused at the
struggles of his victim. Opposite to him, in another chair, sat an
ape, listening to the performance with all the gravity in the world.

Perhaps, thought I, those harsh and gloomy-minded men, who, in their
zeal for their unlovely religion, destroyed so many works that had
been a joy to men for centuries, had after all some sense of humour;
and, with swords to hack in their hands, relented when they looked at
this wicked and most comical fox.

I was still occupied with this carving when some person threw open a
door, and called excitedly to our guide that a drove of pigs had
broken or got into the cathedral grounds, and he was wanted at once to
help get them out.

"I am not surprised," I remarked. "The whole town swarms with pigs."
"Market-day!" he cried, and, apologising for leaving us so
unceremoniously, he rushed away to give the assistance required.

I followed and gained the street, then took shelter from the driving
rain under the ancient famous Market Cross, a richly-decorated stone
pavilion, with many empty niches from which the stone effigies of
great men were thrown down and shattered by the destructive
Cromwellians.

This structure stands at the meeting of four streets--East, West,
South, and North Streets. Formerly the cattle-market was held at this
spot, and the narrow busy thoroughfares were then filled with cattle,
sheep, and pigs, and of people buying and selling. A woman in a shop
close by told me that about thirty years ago, when she was a child,
the calves were always penned in the street directly before the house
where she lived with her parents.  The calves were brought in the day
before market-day; and all night long, and a great part of the next
day, the distressful lowings of the poor beasts sounded through the
house; and so great was the effect on her, that up to the present
time, after so many years, she cannot hear a calf calling without
experiencing a sudden sense of misery and desolation, which is torture
to her mind. So vivid are the impressions received, and so lasting the
associations formed, pleasant and painful, in a child's mind! These
seemingly trivial associations have a subtle influence, and are part
of the character, a harmony or a discord according to their nature;
and altogether they count for much in the little obscure history and
tragedy of each individual life.

But we are now under the Market Cross.

If a stranger in the town, coming out of the empty desolate cathedral
at the end of the afternoon service, should take refuge from the rain
under its arches, he will presently see there a small, wizened, grey,
threadbare ghost of a man, and probably take no notice of him. But if
he, the stranger, with the confused sound of prayer and praise in that
sacred empty building still in his ears, and a vague feeling of wonder
and curiosity in his mind, should by chance fix his eyes on that
small, faded, expressionless face, its colourless orbs will meet his,
and he will read in them a vague response, an unshaped answer to his
unshaped questions; and, by-and-by, the mysterious man, with a slight
nod of invitation, will pass out, and the stranger, anxious to get to
the bottom of the mystery, will follow. He will be led into I know not
which of the four ways--North, South, East, or West; but close by, in
one of them, his guide will pause, look back, then lightly run down a
flight of narrow crooked stairs leading to a cellar. Following, the
stranger will find himself in a dim, silent, crypt-like place,
smelling of ancient damp and mould, dark at first to his unaccustomed
eyes. But in a little while he will discern a huge recumbent form,
paler in colour than the floor of rotting wood, the dripping stone
walls, and vaulted roof--a stupendous human-shaped monster, like a
Daniel Lambert increased to ten times his great size; his naked body
and limbs extended on the black wet floor, apparently dead and swollen
by death, but the head raised, supported by a hand and arm; the face,
round as an ancient warrior's shield, but larger, turned to him, froth
and yellow slime dropping from the obscene mouth, the wide bloodshot
eyes fixed with a challenging gaze on his. Fascinated by that gaze,
he, wide-eyed too, will stare back, even as a crystal-gazer looks
expectant into a glass globe before him; and in those pale blue watery
orbs he will see visions appearing and vanishing like lightning, an
inconceivably rapid succession of faces, forms, events--wrecked lives
of innumerable men, broken hearts and homes made desolate; famine and
every foul disease; feverish dreams and appetites, frantic passions,
crimes, ravings of delirium, epilepsy, insanity; and strewn over all,
the ashes of death--all seen in one briefest moment of time.

Amazed and terrified at the sight of such things, he will turn and
hurry away from that dreadful presence, a sudden darkness in his heart
as if all the light and sweetness and glory had gone out of the world,
all hope from the soul. And his guide will no longer be there; nor
will he miss him, nor require to be told that he has been face to face
with a god, the only god known and worshipped by the people of this
town.

To come back. We have always known, since Cowper lived and was once
near Chichester, that "man made the town," and that he did not well
make it, seeing that all vices and unhealthy appetites and habits and
modes flourish most and take a darker colour in its close atmosphere.
This being true of all towns, the only fair way to judge the moral
state of any one town is to compare it with others, or with one other,
not greatly differing from it in population, pursuits, and other
conditions. Here, then, is an experience which seemed to me to throw a
pretty strong light on the comparative position, with regard to the
drinking habits of the people, of the cathedral town of Sussex.

>From this agricultural centre, with a tall spire and many tavern signs
to distinguish it, I went to Midhurst, on the other side of the downs,
to find myself in a small, old, and extremely picturesque town, which,
in its rough-paved, crooked, uneven streets, ancient timbered houses,
its curfew bell, and darkness and silence at night, seemed to have
suddenly carried me back into mediaeval times. But in spite of its
hoary aspect and air of antiquity and remoteness and the number of
inns, some very large, clustering about the central part, I felt as I
wandered aimlessly about, and talked, when a chance offered, to
working-men and with cottage women and children, that I had come into
a different and better moral atmosphere. The inns appeared mostly
empty, or doing nothing, and wore a neglected and decaying appearance.
At night I went forth to explore, and stumbling along on the broken,
up-and-down pavements, in a darkness made visible by a few
widely-separated street lamps, I noticed that there were no lights, or
nothing but a faint glimmer, in the windows of the inns and taverns.
Finally, I made my way to a house which I had noticed and admired by
daylight, taking it from its size and general appearance to be the
oldest and most important inn or hotel in the town. After trying two
or three doors, I found one that was not locked, and groped my way
into a dim passage. To my summons a woman came with a candle, and led
me into a large, dark, fireless room, and explained that there were no
lights or fires in the parlours because no callers had been expected
that evening. I declined to sit down in that cold, cheerless place,
and, after some hesitation, she took me to an inner private room,
where the landlord was sitting before a big fire. The room was
exceedingly dirty, the floor littered with rubbish, and two or three
days' ashes and cinders heaped in the fireplace; but it was warm, and
light, and social. The landlord was eating his supper; he had it on
the extreme corner of the clothless deal table, and it consisted of
bread and cheese and raw onions. The room was full of the odour. I sat
down on the other side of the fire; and there, in the innermost
domestic circle, the so-to-speak fragrant bosom of the family, we had
a good hour's talk, chiefly on the decline of the public business in
Midhurst--a melancholy subject. I learnt that formerly there were more
public-houses in the town, but some had been compelled to close, and
that others were given by the owners, the brewers, rent free. My host
paid not one penny rent for the grand old house he occupied, and even
so he could hardly make a decent living out of it. Certainly his
evening meal had not struck me as too luxurious and expensive.
Another tenant of an ancient house close by was in even a worse case.
This landlord, to make both ends meet and save the house, had
conceived the happy idea of providing sleeping accommodation to poor
vagrants at fourpence a night. He had gone into the byways and hedges
for his guests, and his house had become well known to all the tramps
and beggars that infest that part of Sussex. The ragged, verminous
person who "begs your pardon" and wishes to say a word to you, is a
common object in Midhurst or the neighbourhood. The word he wishes to
say is that he is in want of just one penny to make up the sum of
fourpence to pay for a bed at the hotel.  A Midhurst man, a moderate
drinker, with whom I had some conversation, told me that he had been
all his life in the town, and that a great improvement in the drinking
habits of the people had come about during the last twenty years.
Notwithstanding that the population had been increasing, and a good
deal of building going on, some of the old inns had been given up and
no new ones had been opened, while others still open were in the
degraded bankrupt state of those I have described. The brewers were
probably not making anything out of houses kept up in this way; such
houses may even be a loss to them, but being capitalists they can
afford to hold on and wait for better times. A glorious wave of
drunkenness may yet be witnessed in the land. The improvement noted
had thus been brought about in spite of all that the brewers and their
zealous and faithful friends and helpers, the licensing authorities,
had been able to do to prevent it.

My interlocutor's belief was that this better state of things had
resulted from the Education Act. Lads and young men now had interests,
amusements, and ways of passing their leisure time which did not exist
for their fathers. Newspapers and periodicals to read; cheap
non-intoxicating drinks, and tea and coffee when wanted; indoor games,
and field sports, the love of which is fostered at school, have served
to make them independent of the tavern for amusement.  I think it may
be added that cigarette-smoking, which has become universal among the
young people in the rural districts during the last five or six years,
has been a blessing, too. It is true that in itself it is an evil, but
a very mild one compared with the foul pipe of strong shag which the
young men and youths of the peasant class used to smoke, and which is
an incentive to beer-drinking.

Refreshed and exhilarated at what I had heard and seen at Midhurst, I
went on my way, and before going many miles arrived at a place where
there was a man who was a large employer of labour. I was assured that
he would not employ a man from Mid-hurst on account of the well-known
drunken habits of the people of that town!

What then shall we say of the cathedral town, which has lost none of
its beer-houses, where doors are not closed and windows darkened at
eight o'clock because it is not expected that anyone will call; where
the brewers and their good friends, the licensing authorities, are
determined that when a man staggers out of one tavern he shall not be
obliged to walk more than twenty yards before finding another, where
he may go in to quench his thirst?

But we have now happily done with this town and this subject. On many
a wet day in autumn and winter, when walking in the streets and roads,
I looked attentively at the mud, attracted by its peculiar grey
colour; but I had no scientific person at my elbow to tell me about
that soil and explain the cause of its pallid hue. Left to my own
imaginings, I considered that Chichester was very old, that it was no
doubt a walled town, perhaps very ancient, before Christ came, and
that countless "generations of deciduous men" had fallen, to mix their
ashes with the soil until it had in time taken that greyish colour. It
was a comfort to reflect that if we cannot have anything in human
shape better than "these common men," now in the place of the vanished
and forgotten, that these too will in a little while fade and fail and
mix with and still further enrich the earth; and that out of a soil so
fertilised, other brighter, higher forms and intelligences will
eventually spring to life to make glad the world.

Before departing, never to return, I stepped aside from the road, and
very carefully wiped the ash-coloured mud from my boots on the wet
grass, for I wished not to take any of it away.

That was to me a sad day when I left, for I had but just come to the
finish of a fight which I had been waging for some days, in which I
had been finally worsted; and my only consolation in defeat was that
it was in Chichester and not in any other town known to me in which
the incident had occurred.

I have a great regard for the owl; the white owl, sometimes called the
domestic owl, being a special favourite; and it greatly excites my
indignation to see this bird in captivity. There is no reason, no
excuse to be made, for confining him; he does not sing and twitter,
nor amuse his gaoler with lively motions and brilliant colour.
Beautiful to see when flying at sunset about the village and farm
where he is not persecuted, and grotesque beyond description when
viewed by day in his dimly-lighted loft or tower, rocking his body to
and fro, now crouching cat-like, then stretching himself up, and all
the time making strange weird faces at you, in a cage he is a most
pitiful spectacle, a depressed, dead-alive-looking white owl, no
longer white, his beautiful plumage smirched and disarranged.

  A robin redbreast in a cage
  Puts all heaven in a rage,

said Blake; and a white owl in a cage must produce the same effect, if
we may indeed believe that unearthly eyes regard us, and see the
fantastic tricks which we play with our unhappy fellow-creatures.

On one occasion only have I seen a caged owl without disgust and
anger; this, oddly enough, was in downland, and the reader if, or
when, he is in that part of the country, may see the bird for himself,
and admire it as I did. It was at Alfriston, the ancient interesting
village among the South Downs; and the bird was not the white nor any
British owl, but an exceedingly fine specimen of the beautiful Cape
horned owl. It is owned by an old dame, Mrs. Bodle, who keeps a very
small sweet-stuff, orange, bun and lemonade shop in the village
street.  It was picked up, a young injured bird, by Mrs.  Bodle's son,
a soldier in South Africa, about seventeen years ago, and sent as a
gift to his mother far away in the downland village. She has indeed
cherished and kept it well, and loves it for itself as well as for her
long-absent son's sake; very proudly she told me that many who had
seen had wished to possess it, and had offered her a big price for her
bird. Now the fame of the owl has spread; and all summer long, when
visitors to the ancient village from Eastbourne, Seaford, Brighton,
and other coast towns, are perpetually coming, many of them find their
way to the little shop; and Mrs.  Bodle does a good business and must
be making a nice little fortune, and imagines (good soul!) that her
ginger pop is more refreshing, her oranges and chocolates sweeter, and
her buns more sustaining than those that others sell. But it is a
delusion: most of those who eat her sweets and drink her lemonade go
to see the bird, who sits all day (at the receipt of custom) in his
big cage in a dim corner; strange and beautiful to look at in his
rich, golden, tawny plumage, barred and mottled like a tiger-cat, with
round, luminous, orange-coloured eyes, and the weird ornament of two
large black ears. Mrs. Bodle informed me that he had a beautiful
voice, but that he would only sing to or talk with her; on all others
he looked gravely out of his brilliant orbs, but made no sound.
However, after a little persuasion we got him to talk to us, and the
note repeated again and again was like the cooing of a dove, but more
musical; it was a softer, mellower, and more human sound than the hoot
of the wood-owl.

Very different was the life of the white owl in Chichester. At the inn
where I stayed on my last visit, I found three unhappy prisoners; two
of these, a jackdaw and a blackbird, were kept in rabbit-hutch-like
cages fixed against the ceiling of a long, narrow, dimly-lighted
passage. It was sad to see the poor daw, the bird that loves soaring
in wind and sunshine, shut up in that narrow house in a perpetual
twilight, his head, when he sat on his perch, pressed against the
ceiling. He always perched at the same end of his hutch, and the
constant pressure of his head on one spot had made a hole in the
plaster above. People were passing and repassing through that passage
all day long, but without noticing the daw; for he was hung above the
line, so to say, and to see him it was necessary to look up. Now, I
observed that whenever I paused before the cage and looked up, the
bird would instantly jump on to his perch, and, turning his back to
me, fix his head against the ceiling in the corner, and remain
motionless in that strange position. A silent, sullen daw--and no
wonder! He did not, like Sterne's captive starling, cry continually,
"I can't get out"; he made no cry, and had no hope of ever feeling the
wind and the sun, or ever seeing the blue sky and green earth again.
Eight to nine years had he been immured in that cursed prison, and he
would never leave it until his tortured life had left him; then his
dead body would be taken out, and another bird, I daresay, put there
in his place.

The third prisoner was the owl, and I think he was even worse off than
the others; for he was kept in an always malodorous and usually
uncovered cage, in the kitchen, where a big fire was burning sixteen
to seventeen hours every day. The heat must have been--and alas! still
must be--dreadful to the poor bird; but if speech had been given him
he would, I think, have complained most of the gas jets: they were
burning all about him until twelve o'clock every night, and the
sensation they produced must have been as of fine heated needles,
heated red and heated white, stabbing and pricking his sensitive
eye-balls. In this chamber of torture the miserable bird had existed
for nine months.

When I went to the landlady to plead for the owl, I was very
diplomatic, remembering what certain wise men have taught us--namely,
that if we want to get anything out of anybody we must not begin by
rubbing him up the wrong way.  I praised her greatly for her merciful
heart, and told her how it had delighted me to hear her fame in
Chichester as a lover and protector of animals. But her treatment of
her feathered pets was wrong; and in mild language I imparted my views
on the subject.  She was disturbed at what I said about the owl, and
began to excuse herself, saying that she had taken in the bird solely
to give it a safe and happy home, but she had no desire to keep it as
it was a silent dull bird, and that if I wished I could take it away
and set it free.

I was delighted at my success, and promised to find before long a
suitable home for the bird.

For some days after that I kept a look-out during my rambles; and one
afternoon, in the maritime district, I came to a small village which
struck me as an ideal home for an owl. For it was a small and most
rustic place, consisting of a little church and a great thatched barn
and many farm buildings.  But the farm-house itself, even in this land
of great old farms that were once manors, was a surprise to me. It was
a very large low stone building, partly overgrown with ivy, and nearly
surrounded by an ancient foss, with great old elm trees growing out of
the banks. The people who lived in this grey old manse were worthy of
their home: the lady of the house, who received me, was young and fair
to see, and gracious in mind and manner; and when I told her my
errand, she said that she and her husband were very fond of birds and
had a peculiar regard for the white owl; and that if I would take and
release it in their barn she herself would place food for it there
every day and see that it was not disturbed, until it had recovered
its strength and the use of its wings and could find its own living.
Meanwhile my landlady had changed her mind, and when I was ready to
take the bird she informed me that she had decided not to part with
it; that on thinking the matter over she had found out that she had
become attached to the owl, and she also thought that the bird would
be unhappy if taken from the home and the surroundings he was
accustomed to.

In vain I begged and pleaded, not that day only, but the next, and for
several days. She would not part with the bird for love or money. Up
till then I had visited the bird every day, and opening its cage would
put my hand in to caress it. It liked to be gently stroked on the
breast, and when caressed in this way would play with my fingers,
biting them but very gently with his beak. But from that time I was
ashamed to go near him, or even to look at him; for I had promised him
his liberty, and could not keep my word. Nor was it necessary that I
should look at to see him; his melancholy image was too deeply graved
in my mind--a feathered Dreyfus, Semitic features and all, the head
bowed, the weary eyes closed, the hooked nose just visible amidst a
wilderness of white whiskers. I could only try to believe that there
is some foundation for the ancient belief held in so many lands, that
the owl is indeed a supernatural, or sacred, bird; that when this
captive had been tortured to death and its carcass thrown into the
dust-heap, the loving kindness that had been shown to him would have a
swift and suitable reward.




CHAPTER XV

WINTER IN WEST DOWNLAND


A good-bye to towns--Charm of West Downland in winter--A cow-boy
singing and a missel-thrush--A vein of stupidity--Anecdotes--Bats
eating bacon--Riding to Ringmer and a downland man's
ignorance--Chilgrove--Gilbert White--Yew, juniper, and clematis--A
wooded combe--A host of wood-pigeons--Beautiful downland
scenery--Fallen beech-leaves on snow--South Harting--Conclusion.


It would not be appropriate, nor even seemly, that a book of this
sort, treating of rural scenes and wild life, in which, while keeping
a vigilant eye on what my pen was doing, I have yet allowed it to hint
or suggest, in a few faintly-traced lines, what communion with nature
really is to me--it would not be proper that it should conclude with
an account of any town, and the writer's adventures, the thoughts and
experiences that afflicted him, during his sojourn in it.

A friend of mine, a downland rector, expressed his disappointment at
finding that this book was not what he had thought it was intended to
be--a Flora of the South Downs. It was true, he said, that plants had
not interested him, and that the only wild flowers he could give a
name to when he saw them were the daisy and dandelion; still it would
have been a satisfaction to have a Flora of the downs on his
bookshelves for reference; and that was what he had looked for,
instead of this--well--this sort of thing.

As a fact, there are several printed lists of the downland plants to
be had by those who want them; and doubtless there are scores of men
and women who would be only too delighted to compile more such
lists--as many lists, manuals, floras, in fact, as the publishers and
the public would like to buy. Had I written a book of that kind,
instead of "this sort of thing," I should not have been able to say
anything about the smells of Chichester, material and moral, which are
in no way related to flowers.

It cannot be said of other downland towns that they are inodorous, or
sweet, or flowery; they are not that: we all know of _loud_ smells,
the metaphor being common, and coming down to Brighton with senses
purified and sharpened by the mountain air one is hailed and assailed
by perfect trumpet-blasts from the innumerable fried-fish shops that
flourish in that watering-place. The smells of the cathedral town are
not of this pronounced and vulgar description; they are subtle,
mysterious, but unhappily they cling longer to the mind.

No; it was better in the end, or before the end, to escape from that
atmosphere out into the fresh world; to be blown through and through
by the winter gale, until that effluvium, and all memory of it, had
been blown out of my nostrils and soul; to be washed clean by the
lustral water of the rain, sparkling silvery and crystal as it fell,
and the wind-chased snow-flakes that first whitened and then melted on
me--to be one with nature, purified and myself once more.

Better days than those spent in roughest weather on the hills I could
not well have known. "Oh, but you should visit this part of downland
in spring!" I was told again and again. It was good enough in
mid-winter in spite of weather of the kind we call bad; so good indeed
as to make me somewhat sceptical as to its far greater attractiveness
in summer. Is there anything in rural England more gratifying to the
eye than a winter prospect in this green diversified country, with
leafless beechen woods spread over slopes and summits, and gathered
like darkest purple clouds within the combes and hollows of the great
round hills!

Glad as I was to be out in wind and rain and snow on the summits, it
was often a relief to escape from so furious a blast by going down to
the sheltered weald, the flat, wooded country between Mid-hurst and
Harting, where I loved to walk, and where these rambles had to end. I
walked by the Rother, that fairest Sussex river, among the brown and
purple woods, and darker pine. Walking there one day about noon, when
the sky was a very soft blue, with a few fleecy grey clouds floating
in it, and the wind was still, I came to a wide heath somewhere
between Midhurst and Trotton. It was very silent; only two sounds were
audible, and I stood for some time listening to them. One was the
sound of a boy singing. He was a cow-boy; I could see him out in the
middle of the heath, standing among the furze-bushes, where his cows
were grazing. He was perhaps a choir-boy in one of the village
churches; at all events, he was singing a hymn in a trained and very
beautiful voice. In that still, open air, at the distance I heard him
(two to three hundred yards), the voice seemed purer and sweeter than
any boy's voice I have ever heard in any church or cathedral. No doubt
it was the distance, the silence of nature, the wild, solitary scene,
and perhaps, too, the abundant moisture in the air, that gave the
voice its exceeding beauty; and the effect was as if this sound, too,
had been cleansed and clarified by the rains, even as the sky had been
washed to that softest, lucid blue. I listened to the boy singing and
singing, with a short interval after each verse, and to the one other
sound, which came to me from an equal distance on the opposite
side--the singing of a solitary missel-thrush. The clear, bell-like
note of the bird filled the intervals in the boy's singing; and the
bird, like the boy, had a clearer, purer voice on that day; and like
the other, too, he sang verse after verse, with short intervals
between. The effect was indescribably beautiful. At last I thought I
would go and make the boy's acquaintance. Many a little fellow tending
cows on a heath have I talked with, and this one had something more in
him than all those I had known. As I went over the rain-sodden heath,
often getting into hidden water, the singing ceased, and when I had
got to where the cows were feeding among some large furze-bushes the
boy was not there, or at all events not visible.  I had seen his grey
cap as he watched my approach from behind a bush a few minutes before;
but he was not there now; he had concealed himself like a shy little
lizard, or furze wren, and after looking about among the bushes for
some minutes, I gave it up.

Possibly it was nothing more than a little rustic's shyness that had
made him hide; but it is a fact, I think, that there is a streak or
vein of stupidity, which, running eastward from Hampshire, crops up in
many places among the West Sussex downs.

One day, seeing a youth harnessing a pony at a gate, I asked him the
name of a hill over which I had just walked. "I don't know," he
returned, evidently surprised at the question; "I never heard that it
had a name." A hill, I assured him, must have a name; and I remarked
that he was probably new to the neighbourhood. He assured me that he
was a native of the place, and that to his knowledge the hill had no
name; then he added casually, "We call it Bepton Hill."

A day or two later a man told me of an inn, away from any road, in a
deep wooded valley among the hills, where I could get refreshment, and
he was very particular about giving me proper directions.  "What is
the name of the inn?" I asked, and he replied that it had no name. "An
inn," I said, "must have a name--it is not like a hill that can do
without one." He shook his head. "We call it the Oak," he remarked
finally; "but if it has a name I never heard it, and I have known the
place a good many years now."

I might have been among the aborigines of Venezuela, or of some other
wild remote land, where every person and perhaps every place has a
real name which is a secret known to few, and sometimes to nobody; and
an appellation besides which is not a real name, but a sort of
nickname, or false or common name, by which he or she or it is called.

Amusing instances of ignorance, too, and of old erroneous beliefs
which have died out in most places, are commonly met with in this
out-of-the-way corner of Sussex. One spring-like evening in January,
when talking with some working-men at the village of Lavant, I called
their attention to a bat flying to and fro near us as a proof of the
mildness of the weather.

"You call it a bat," said one man, "and I grant it's very like one;
but I call it a fluttermouse. You see it's bigger than a bat; but they
are all of one specie. The bigger ones, the fluttermouses as we calls
them, are the ones that eats the bacon. They comes down the chimney to
get it, when it's hanging there to smoke." I tried to convince him
that he was blaming the wrong animal, but he stuck to it that it was
the fluttermouses and not the mouses that stole the bacon, and finally
asserted that he had actually seen them at it.

About this matter Gilbert White remarks, "The notion that bats go down
chimneys and gnaw men's bacon, seems no improbable story." This
reference to White has served to remind me that one of the most
surprising instances of ignorance I have met with in the downs was in
an educated man.

Readers of the Selborne Letters are familiar with the name of Ringmer,
the pretty, old Sussex village in the neighbourhood of Lewes whither
the famous naturalist used to make an annual journey on horseback.
His visits were to his aunt Rebecca, the wife of Henry Snooke, and the
house they lived in is still standing. The egregious Mr. Augustus
Hare, in his _Sussex_, speaking of Ringmer, reminds his readers that
it was from this village that White dated "several of his stilted
letters."

During the summer of 1898, in the course of a ramble on the downs, I
made the acquaintance of a gentleman who is a native, and had spent
the sixty odd years of his life in those parts. Both the man and the
name he bore interested me, the name being a peculiar and a very
ancient one at that spot.  The family is now impoverished and decayed,
but there was little sign of decay in my casual acquaintance, despite
his years. A straight wiry man, with alert hawk-like eyes, extremely
active in his habits, a field naturalist in a way, devoted to sport,
and an excellent judge of the points of a horse or dog. He also had
some acquaintance with books, and took an interest in most things;
above all things he was interested in his own beloved South Downs, and
he maintained that for a man who preferred an outdoor life, and the
freedom of an unenclosed country and of great hills, there was no spot
on the globe to compare with it.

In the course of a conversation I had with him after we had known each
other a few days and were becoming fairly intimate, he spoke two or
three times of his rides to Ringmer. At length, with a laugh, I said
that he reminded me of Gilbert White, who, although living far away in
Hampshire, was also accustomed to ride to Ringmer. As he did not
appear to understand my remark, I was compelled to explain that I was
speaking of the Rev. Gilbert White, author of the _Natural History of
Selborne_.  Alas! I only made matters worse, since after ransacking
his brain for some moments, he confessed that he had never heard the
name of Gilbert White nor of the village of Selborne.

I was reminded of an experience I had on a steamboat in the Solent. It
was many years ago, when I was a stranger in a strange land. I got
into conversation with a gentleman on the deck, who lived on the
island, and when near Cowes he gave me the names of several of the
yachts we saw anchored there, and told me a good deal about their
owners.  He said that the island was now a favourite place of
residence for men who had made a name in the world, and he proceeded
to speak of several of these famous persons. I was a little ashamed to
find that they were nearly all unknown to me. The greatest among them,
judging from his way of speaking of him, was the editor of a sporting
paper, who had built himself a house in the neighbourhood of Osborne.

I remarked that he had omitted all mention of one of the great men who
lived on the island--Alfred Tennyson. "Who's he?" said my
interlocutor.  "A retired admiral? No! What has he done?--does he keep
a yacht?"

I did not think he kept a yacht; and he had not done anything that I
knew of except to write poetry: he was the poet-laureate.

"A poet!--I know nothing about poets," he said a little curtly, and
very soon afterwards walked off.

It is one of our commonest delusions that the balance in which we
weigh our fellow-creatures, our measure and perspective, are those in
use by mankind generally: very naturally it disgusted him to have my
poor little obscure poet--all poets were little obscure people to his
mind--brought into the distinguished company of sporting men who kept
their yachts in the Solent! All that I could readily understand--my
delusion was just as natural as, and not less laughable than his; but
to meet with a gentleman who was naturalist as well as sportsman, who
had spent all the years of his life on that "majestic chain of
mountains called the South Downs," and was accustomed to ride to
Ringmer, yet was ignorant of the name of White of Selborne, filled me
with astonishment and even humiliation.

About the house at Ringmer in which White spent so many of his
autumns, the late Mark Antony Lower, the well-known and excellent
writer on local subjects, relates that some years ago (the date is not
given, but I believe it must have been about 1850) a gentleman who
occupied it as tenant had all the nightingales frequenting the grounds
destroyed. Their late singing disturbed his rest. A strange fate for
the birds that "sing darkling," the creatures of "ebullient heart," to
have met at such a spot! This irritable gentleman, like my downland
friend, had never perhaps heard of the parson of Selborne; on the
other hand, he had perhaps heard too much about him, and desired,
after the fashion of the Stratfordian who cut down the sacred mulberry
tree, to express his disapproval of the man or of his work. That his
neighbours did not hunt him out of the village, or even gently remove
him from a world in which he was manifestly out of place--"a harsh
discordant thing"--does not show us the Ringmerites in too favourable
a light.

There are many, memories of Gilbert White in this part of downland, as
it was his custom when travelling to Ringmer to break his journey at
Chil-grove, a charming spot among the downs about midway between
Petersfield and Chichester, and at Shopwyke House, close to
Chichester. Chilgrove Manor was owned by his friend, Mr. Woods, who
gave White the information about the stone-curlews on the downs; and
Shopwyke House was owned by another member of the Woods family, who
was Gilbert White's relation by marriage. The present squire of
Chilgrove is a grandson of White's friend. During my rambles in this
part I paid two visits to Chilgrove House, which has been rebuilt
since White's time, and retain very pleasant recollections of the kind
and gracious members of the family I saw there.

But if there remains anything of interest to be said about White's
intercourse with the Woods family and his connection with this part of
Sussex, it will doubtless be told by my friend Dr. Bowdler Sharpe in
the new edition of the _Letters_ he is preparing for the press. We
have lately had a good many editions of White; but this will be
definitive--one which every British naturalist will feel obliged to
add to his collection; and with this book, and the exhaustive Life
lately contributed to the _Dictionary of National Biography_ by
Professor Alfred Newton, on our shelves, there will be, I imagine, a
slackening of the hunt after fresh materials, since there can be but
little left to reward even the most diligent gleaner.


In Chapter XII. I have said not a little about the arborescent
vegetation characteristic of the West Sussex downs; and I trust the
reader will pardon me if I go back to that subject here. At Chilgrove
there is a wood which, seen at a distance, looks almost as uniformly
dark as the famous yew grove at Kingly Bottom; but although the yew
abounds greatly in it and the trees are well grown, throwing out
immense horizontal branches near the ground, giving it that dark and
sombre aspect, it is on a nearer view found to be composed of all the
trees and bushes characteristic of the chalk downs--yew, beech, holly,
thorn, juniper, furze, and wild clematis. It grows on the side, near
the top, of a long, steep, hanger-like hill, and overhangs the
Chilgrove vale. A wilder and more beautiful wood of that peculiar type
found only among the West Sussex downs I had never seen. Most of it
was an almost impenetrable thicket and tangle, and in the open spaces
the foot sank deep in the thick growth of softest moss. Here were the
largest furze and juniper bushes I have seen in Sussex, the junipers
being, some of them, poplar-and cypress-shaped, and others with
wide-spreading branches, looking like yews of a lively green. Some
were fifteen to eighteen feet high, with a girth of two to three feet;
and some of the yew-shaped bushes had branches six to eight feet in
length.  Here I observed that the great masses of black-green yew-tree
foliage formed a wonderfully effective background to the feathery
foliage of the juniper, a bright but very delicate glaucous green.

On the edge of this wood I found that curiosity in plant life--a
perfect wild clematis tree. As a rule when a thorn tree, robbed of
light and air by a too luxuriant clematis spread over it, perishes and
finally crumbles to dust, the semi-parasite dies after it, being
unable to keep itself up, or to live when prostrate on the earth.
Occasionally, however, it does succeed in keeping off the ground for a
time, but in most cases it has a widowed, forlorn appearance, swayed
about this way and that on its too slender stem, its head bowed down,
and the long attenuated twigs drooping like loosened hair to the
earth. Here is a clematis that has a different aspect, with a round,
straight, and shapely trunk, twenty-seven inches in circumference; its
height is eighteen feet, and its innumerable fine pendulous branches
give it the appearance of a weeping-willow tree.  At the end of
January when I saw it, it was still clothed in down as with a
silver-grey fluffy foliage.

On the north escarpment of the downs, at this point, there are some
fine yew groves and woods in the deep combes and hollows and
ravine-like clefts in the sides of the hills. The finest of these is
on the north side of the great down west of West Dean woods. Here, in
the side of the hill, there is an immense basin-shaped combe, its
sloping circular sides covered with a dense dark growth of yews, and
under these, the flat bottom of the basin is filled with a beechen
wood. Seated on the turf on the rim of this great hollow in the side
of the hill, one evening in late January, I had beneath me a scene to
make a man's heart glad. I had only just discovered this hidden wood,
and it came as a complete surprise; nothing quite like it had I seen
before. In summer, when the beeches would appear from above as a floor
of deep uniform green, there would not perhaps have been any special
beauty in this spot. Winter had given the charm and magical effect it
had for me on that evening, when the sun was going down in a cold but
very clear sky. For the tall beeches on which I looked down appeared
as innumerable white or pale columns standing on a floor of red and
russet gold, and white columns and golden floor were all the more
beautiful for being seen through the almost cloud-like tracery of
innumerable purple and purplish-red or "murrey"-coloured branchlets.
The rich colour of that temple and palace of nature--the golden floor
and purple roof--made the wide band of the yew wood seem black by
contrast; and above the black yews the smooth turf of the hilltop
looked a pale green.

One thing that added greatly to the charm of this wood was the vast
multitude of wood-pigeons which were congregated in it. It was, I
found, their favourite roosting-place in this neighbourhood.  Alarmed
at my presence they began to rush out of the trees on all sides in
numbers, the sudden sharp clatter of their wings sounding at a
distance like castanets. By-and-by they were all on the wing, gathered
in one immense flock, rushing about this way and that in the vast
wooded hollow beneath my feet, looking at times almost white as they
streamed over the black yews and caught the level sunbeams on their
upper plumage. This flock could not have numbered less than two to
three thousand birds.  Finally they began to settle on the beeches,
and when all had settled, and with my powerful binocular I had brought
them so close to me as to be able to see distinctly all the delicate
shading of their plumage and the brighter colours of beak and eye, I
had before me as fascinating a tree-and-bird scene as it is possible
to imagine. The colour and grace of it could not be described--the
multitude of birds, thick as starlings in the purple branches, not yet
recovered from their alarm, but every one still moving its head and
flirting its tail, and evidently anxious to keep an eye on the
suspicious-looking (although gunless) intruder on their privacy.

Of all man's inventions, this is to me the most like a divine
gift--this double tube in my hand, which enables me to follow the
beautiful children of the air in their flight; and when they are at
home and safe in woods, and on green waves, and on cliffs, to sit or
float as it were invisible and unsuspected among them.

West of the wooded spots I have described in the neighbourhood of West
Dean, the charm of this part of the downland country if anything
increases; until, at Up Park and South Harting, when we are on the
border of Hampshire, and can no further go, we are in the midst of the
most beautiful scenery of the West Sussex downs.

At this point there are more woods and copses resembling in character
those described, composed of yew, thorn, holly, juniper, and furze;
but the large woods are mostly beech. In a former chapter I have
described a singular and very pretty effect produced by fallen beech
leaves blown in drifts against the juniper scrub on an open down. At
Up Park again I saw another pretty scene caused by beech leaves
carried to a distance by the wind.  On the lower slope of a large
smooth round down, covered with frozen snow, there was a beech wood,
through which a violent north-east wind was blowing, lifting myriads
of fallen leaves and driving them over the smooth hill. The scene
reminded me of a great migration of butterflies, a phenomenon which I
had witnessed on two occasions in a distant country.  The travelling
insects flew close to the surface, and their bright-red fluttering
wings showed well against the green of the spring grass that covered
the plain; but these innumerable fallen leaves, red and russet gold,
in the winter sunshine, chased by the wind over that wide expanse of
snow, produced an effect even more novel and beautiful.

The village of South Harting itself is not unworthy of its setting of
green hills and purple woods: of all the downland villages it is to my
mind the most attractive. It is, moreover, distinct and individual,
without any resemblance to the others that one likes best--Alfriston,
Jevington, West Dean (the village of that name on the Cuckmere),
Wilmington, Berwick, Ditchling, and perhaps half a dozen more. Its
attractiveness is partly due to its unrivalled situation, and in part
to the materials of which it is built--a smooth cream-coloured stone
dressed with red brick. The creamy-white stone, set off with the deep
red of the door and window mouldings, and the corners of the walls,
has a peculiarly soft and delicate appearance. Best of all, the
church, rarely beautiful in itself, is in perfect harmony with its
surroundings. It is a large, low building, cream-white and red like
the houses and cottages, with an immense sloping red-tiled roof,
stained with many-coloured lichen and adorned with the most graceful
shingled spire to be seen in downland.

The church at Alfriston has been called the "Cathedral of the South
Downs"; and from a historical and archaeological point of view, it may
be the most important and interesting of the downland churches; for
pure beauty it cannot compare with that of South Harting. The sight of
a church like this, and the pleasure it gives, makes one almost weep
to think of all the important churches one knows, built by the best
architects, of the best materials, and at an enormous cost, which fail
to please us, and are often even distressing to look at, all because
they are out of place where they stand--out of keeping and out of
harmony with every building and every object near them, and with the
surrounding scenery.


An account of the last day but one spent by me at this pleasant spot
will perhaps strike the reader as a not inappropriate ending of this
chapter, and of the book. It was a spring-like day in mid-February
(1900), a few miles from Harting, when, after dinner, I went out for a
long walk with a man who was a native of the place. It is the rarest
thing for me to have a companion out of doors: a day in the woods or
any wild place with another is to me, in most cases, a wasted day. But
with this man I went gladly; for although not an educated person, and
no naturalist, there was that in him which made him to differ from the
others of his class: in his way of thinking and mode of life he was
somewhat apart. Besides, he badly wanted to show me something, and to
tell me something. What he wanted to show me was the scenery amid
which he had lived; and he took me a round of twelve or fourteen
miles, in the course of which we came two or three times on the Rother
and followed its windings for some distance; we also visited two or
three pretty little rustic villages, and passed through several woods
and copses, and up and down some hills, pausing from time to time to
take in a particularly fine prospect.

These were the scenes familiar to him since his childhood, amidst
which he had lived with a few intervals all his life. He told me that
on three or four occasions he had left home to better himself, and had
been absent from one to three years; but though he could make more
money at a distance, and had more comforts, he had on each occasion
felt himself compelled to return, and he had now definitely abandoned
all idea of leaving his native place again. He was anxious to make me
understand the character and strength of the feeling that always drew
him back; and in a roundabout but singularly effective method he
succeeded very well. It was not any human tie--it was the place. This,
away from home, was his experience. When he was hungry he enjoyed his
food, and when he was tired, rest was grateful. He slept well, and
always after a night's rest felt refreshed and glad to begin the day's
work, and his health always and everywhere was remarkably good. But it
was all of no benefit: every feeling of comfort, of a want relieved,
of satisfaction, of pleasure, was but for a moment; it passed and left
him still wanting, wishing, waiting, for something else. It was like
the feeling a traveller has who is anxious to get to the end of his
journey. He might just as well have been out of health, or out of work
and penniless--hungry, ill-clothed, and with an anxious mind. And on
each occasion, when, on account of this perpetual gnawing
dissatisfaction with life, he came back to the old place, instantly
the trouble vanished; he breathed freely and was at rest once more,
perfectly contented, perfectly happy.

It took him a long time to tell me all this, as he had some difficulty
in putting his ideas into words; and then followed the declaration--a
wholly false conclusion to which he had been brought--that the scenery
in this corner of West Sussex, amid which he had lived and which he
had shown me with so much pride, was the most perfectly beautiful in
the whole country. For how else could it have taken such a hold upon
his heart as to make it impossible for him to exist in any comfort
away from it?

He was not overpleased to hear me say that he was mistaken; that the
home feeling is in some degree universal in men born and bred amid
rural scenes, but varies greatly in different persons; and that when
it is exceptionally strong, as in his case, it produces an illusion
and a delusion--a belief that the one loved spot is in itself in some
way better than all other places; that the superior beauty, or charm,
or restfulness which the heart finds in that spot is actually inherent
in it. Much more I said on this subject, and told him that men had
been known even to die of that malady that had affected him, although
the scenes for which they had pined had not been distinguished by
beauty or any peculiarly attractive quality above others.

I fancy that after all I did not convince him of his error. I rather
hope not. For now when I recall the scenes we looked upon
together--that wild stream of the Rother; the small old-world peaceful
villages; the hills of so pure and fresh a green, their lower slopes
and valleys purple and dark with beech and pine; when I find how
persistently it all comes back to me, and how vivid and beautiful the
impression is, I am not quite sure that I was wholly right in my
philosophy, and that his delusion was nothing but a delusion.





INDEX

COMPILED BY MRS. E. HUBBARD

ADDER, sheep bitten by, spring colouring,; choice of a resting-place,
protective character of colouring, eeling with regard to, tame

Adur, scenery west of the, east of the

Ale-house, village, singing in,

Alfred the Great, his traditional connection with Ditchling,

Alfriston, abundance of swallows at; tame Cape horned owl at; church
at

Andredsweald, forest of,

"Angel's Hair,"

Anne of Cleves, her connection with Ditchling

Anvil, thrushes', for breaking snail-shells on

Arun, scenery west of the, pewits in the valley of

Ashdown Forest, black grouse formerly present in

Asilus, its habits

Associations, early, their permanence


Autumn, sudden appearance of, on the downs; vanishing of insect-life
in,; clearness' of air in,;

annual movement of birds in.

Avifauna, extirpation of species of, in Sussex

Bacon, bats eating,

Badger, on the downs his great strength; his "earth,"

Barrows at Kingly Vale

Bats, their sensitiveness of wing,

Beachy Head, impoverished

bird-life on

Beautiful, the, theories of

Beech leaves, fallen, seen against

junipers; fluttering over snow

Beech wood in autumn; in winter

Beer, a beer-drinker's denunciation of

Bell of Chichester Cathedral

Bepton Hill, named but nameless

Bindweed among the corn

Binocular, its magical powers

Birds, sky watched by; those now extinct in Sussex; smaller, of the
downs; then-various music; on Mount Harry; autumnal abundance on the
west downs, their love of elder-berries, wintering in the maritime
district

_Birds of Sussex_, by William Borrer

Bird-boy's story of swifts

Bird-catchers, wheatear catching by

Birdham or Bridham

Bishopstone, a visit to

Bittern, disappearance of, from Sussex

Black and gold in nature

Black grouse, extermination of, in Sussex

"Black Jacks,"

Blue butterfly, abundance of, on the downs; mode of settling for
sleep; autumnal disappearance of,

Blue flowers in masses, effect of

Boldre, Gilpin's tomb at

Borrer, William, his _Birds of Sussex_

Boxholt Bottom, a buzzard caught in

Boy, a Sussex; a sweet-voiced,

Blackberry-gatherers

Bramblings

Brewers, their policy as to public-houses

Brighton poulterers, wheatears caught for

Bunting breeding on the downs,

Burke on the connection between sight and feeling

Burton, Dr. John, his _Iter Sussexiense_; on Sussex speech and singing

Bustard, disappearance of, from Sussex; its former presence on the
downs

Butterflies of the downs

Buzzard, extirpation of, in Sussex; motive for shooting, its former
presence in Sussex

Carter, talk with a

Chalk in landscape, Gilpin's opinion of

Chanctonbury Ring, altitude of; stone curlews recently breeding near

Characteristics, racial, durability of

Chichester, the cathedral spire; local odour of, public-houses

cathedral services

"Chichesters, the,"

Children in summer

Chilgrove Manor; junipers at

Chough, disappearance of, from Sussex

Churches of the downs,

Churchyards, their charm,

Clap-nets, wheatears now caught in

Clematis, wild, on the downs, in tree-form

Cocking, village of; bird comedy at

Cold, bitter experience of

Collectors, injury caused by

Colour of flowers, intensity of, on the downs

_Contributions to Literature_, by M. A. Lower, quoted

"Coops" for wheatear catching

Cottage welcome, a

Cow-dung fly, its habits

Cuckmere, pewits in the valley of the; a wintering-ground for pewits

Culpepper, the family of

Danish descent of Sussex coast-dwellers

Daw, caged, at Chichester

De Quincey's "gluttonism,"

Dew as water-supply for moles,

Ditchling, abundance of swallows at; white owls at; the churchyard of

Ditchling Hill, abundance of moles on; attempted mole-catching on

Dotterels, ringed, with grey plover

Downs, carrying power of sound on the; when most enjoyable

Drayton, Michael, on the Rother,

Drink-question, the, at Chichester

Drinking scene at East Dean

Dropwort on the downs

Dudeney, John, one of Lower's "Sussex worthies,"; his wheatear
catching

Dunnock, breeding on the downs; its winter quarters

Dwarf thistle

Eagle, shooting of, by Sussex shepherd

"Earth" of a badger described

Earthworks, Roman, on the downs

East Dean, drinking scene at, wheatear catching at,

East Sussex bird-protection order

Education Act, its working for temperance

Elder-berries, birds' fondness for

Ellman on the former use of oxen in Sussex

Entomology, specialisation of

Epitaph on a huntsman

Eye, compound, of insects

Eyebright on the downs

Fear, paralysing effect of

Field scabious

Firle, slow-worm at

Fletcher, Mr. W. H. B., his tame adders

Flies, insane behaviour of; and swifts

Flight, instinctive desire for the power of; pewits' display of

Flints, whiteness of, on the downs; round and hollow

Flock formation of birds, how achieved

Flora of the downs

Flowers, colonising, on the downs, of the downs in summer, in autumn,

"Fluttermouse,"

Forget-me-not on flinty soil,

Forms, repetition of similar

Fox abundant on the downs monkish wood-carving of a,

Fragrance of downs turf

Fruit, wild, abundant on the downs

Furze, ponies browsing on its pine-like tints wild life in the; on the
downs

Gardens of the downs, chance-made

"Gatekeeper" butterfly

Gerarde, milkwort described by, charm of his _Herbal_,

Gibbet, aesthetic value of

Gilpin's tomb at Boldre his low opinion of down scenery, dedication of
his book

Girl, classic appearance of, a sweet--voiced, acting as shepherd,

"Gluttonism," De Quincey on

Goldfinch, rarity of

Good looks and good blood

Goring, Richard Jefferies' home at

Grasshoppers, kestrels preying on

"Gratton grass,"

Grebe, great crested

Grove of yews at Kingly Bottom

Groves on hill-tops

Gunther, Dr., on tame adders

Guillemot, disappearance of, from Sussex

Gull, black-headed, following the plough; standing motionless;
herring, breeding on Seaford Head, buffeted by kestrel

Harebell, its abundance on the downs

Hat, tweed, advantages of,

Hawks, wheatears taken from the coops by

"Hawth," or furze

Hawthorn, character of its growth; its individuality,

Hay, William, of Glyndbourne, quoted as to the weald,

Head, how to keep it cool in summer

Heat always tolerable on the hills

Heather on the downs

Hen harrier, disappearance of, from Sussex

Herons in the maritime district,

Heronry at Parham

Home feeling, intensity of,

Honey buzzard, disappearance of, from Sussex

Horizon, a wide, its fascination,

Horses, their terror at drifts of thistle-down; seaweed eaten by; oxen
superseded by

House-martins at Ditchling; their rapid increase

Humble-bee, his diligence, overcome by thistle honey; an esteemed
insect

Hurdis, the Rev. James, a Sussex writer; his _Village Curate_; his
_Favorite Village_; quoted as to wheat-ear catching

Hut, the shepherd's

Inns at Chichester; at Midhurst

Insects of the downs; nature of sleep in,; their nightly enemies;
their autumnal vanishing

Iron workers, wooded region changed by

_Iter Sussexiense_, by Dr. John Burton

Janin, Jules, his description of the lobster

Jefferies, Richard, his connection with Sussex; his death at Goring

Jennings, Louis, his _Rambles among the Hills_

Jevington, stone curlews recently breeding near

July, the woodland in

Juniper on the Sussex Downs, variety in the growth of; its changeful
beauty

Keats, his feeling for nature

Kestrels buffeting gulls on Sea-ford Head; hawking for grasshoppers

Kingfisher fishing in the sea,

Kingly Bottom or Vale, yew grove at

Kingston Hill; a shepherd of

Kite, disappearance of, from Sussex

Kittiwake, disappearance of, from Sussex

Lamb, an owl-faced, a hare-furred, the, and the Salvation Army

Lamb, Charles, his distaste for the sea

Lavant, bat-lore at

Lewes, swifts at

Life and heat, relation between,

"Lilybind,"

Ling on the downs

Linnet, its music and colour in freedom; in autumn,

Lizard, the common, on the downs; in presence of a snake

Lower, Mark Antony, on Sussex bird-life; his _Worthies of Sussex_,
nightingale killing recorded by

Magpie and domestic pigeon, thieving by a

Magpies at play

Maid, a Sussex

Maritime district, the; a winter home for birds; herons in the

Market Cross at Chichester

Martins' nests at Alfriston,

Meadow-pipit breeding on the downs; on the downs in autumn

Midhurst, visit to; decline of publicans in

Milkwort, Gerarde's description of; its varying colours

Missel-thrush, the, a summer rover; its abundance on the downs; its
gluttony, its gallant temper; attack by, on perching sparrow-hawk;
intolerance of other bird-voices; quality of song

Moles, presence of, on the downs far from water; an excitable
specimen; their death from drought on the downs

Montagu's harrier, disappearance of, from Sussex

Morpho butterfly, varying blue of

Mount Blackcap, flock of turtle-doves at

_Mount Caburn_, by William Hay, quoted

Mount Harry, varied company of birds on; memories relating to

Mud at Chichester

Music, the art of, in nature, of the human voice

Myers, Mr. F. W. H., on prenatal suggestion

Names, rustic difficulties as to,

Nest, mother swift driven to the, by her mate

Nightingales, destruction of, on account of their singing

"Old man's beard,"

_On the Downs_, by Mrs. Marriott Watson, quoted

"Ortolans," wheatears appearing as

Owl, Cape horned, at Alfriston, long-eared, recently in the South
Downs; in furze patches; white, at Ditchhng church; caged, at
Chichester

Oxen, black, their use in Sussex.  introduced from Wales, in poetry,
red, the old Sussex breed of

Pampas, thistle-down on the

Parasites on swifts

Parham, heronry at

Partridges, red-legged, on the downs

"Pence of ransom," Hurdis's

Peregrine falcons on Bsachy Head

Pewit, its abundance in the valleys; its hatred of the rook; its
wing-exercises

Pheasants, purchase of, for shooting

Piers Plowman, quoted

philosophy of

Pigeon, domestic, chased by magpie

Plover, grey, in company with ringed dotterels

Pre-natal suggestion

Protection of wheatears

Publicans, concessions to, at Chichester

Public-houses, results of the "tied" system on

Rabbits, on the downs; in summer,

Rabbit-holes, wheatears nesting in

Ravens, disappearance of, from Sussex; ewes attacked by,

Razor-bill, disappearance of, from Sussex

Red admiral, autumnal second brood of

Redshanks in Sussex

Redstart, its song

Reed pheasant extinct in Sussex

Reptiles of the downs

Ring-snake rare on the high downs

Ringmer, Gilbert White's visits to; destruction of nightingales at

Rivers of the downs

Romans, probable racial traces of the

Roman earthworks on the downs

Rook pulling up grass; hated by pewit

Rother, the, described by Dray-ton; a walk by

Rottingdean, wheatear catching at

Sainfoin, shepherd boy standing in

Salvation Army, its function, Saxon characteristics of Sussex peasants

Scabious, an autumn flower of the downs

"Screechers,"

Seaford Head, colony of herring-gulls at; kestrels and jackdaws at

Sea-kings, traditional burial of, at Kingly Vale

Sea-poppy, wheatears nesting among,

Seaweed, horses eating

Sense-organs, unexplained, in insects

Shag, disappearance of, from Sussex

Sheep, growth of plants affected by, fatality among, from snake-bite

Sheep-dog, its refusal to help a girl shepherd; its disposition

Shepherd, a naturalist; former life on the downs; curious experiences
of a, his picturesqueness, his Saxon characteristics, his good blood
and good looks, his contentment, his wheatear harvest, girl acting as,

Shepherd-boy, on the downs, and snake

Shopwyke House

Shore birds, notes of

Shrew, the common, on the downs

Shrike, red-backed; hated by the wheatear

"Sickly" land

Sight and touch, connection between

Signs, public-house, at Chichester

Silence of the hills

Singing in Sussex; primitive, of boy and missel-thrush,

Skylark, snake and; on the downs, distance at which song of, is
audible, character of its song

Sleep in insects, nature of

Slow-worm in a churchyard

Smells, peculiar, of Chichester,

Snails, their adder-like colouring,

Snake, its power over the frog, smooth, on the South Downs, ring,
rarity of, a large specimen

"Snuff-box, the devil's,"

Songsters of the hills

Sound, travelling power of, in hill air

Sounds, description of, in terms of sight; of the telegraph wires

South Downs, definition of its range,; former bird-life on the

South Harting, its attractiveness; love of a native for

Sparrow-hawk, his inability to grasp a telegraph wire; attack by
missel-thrush on

Spoonbills, former nesting of, at West Dean

Starlings, in wheatear traps, swifts' breeding-places usurped by

Statuary, suggestion for a group of

Stoats, their presence on the downs; trapped wheat-ears eaten by

Stonechat, breeding on the downs; character of its song

Stone curlew, disappearance of, from Sussex

_Story of my Heart_, Jefferies', 13 Stupidity in downland Summer, the
joy of

Sussex peasants, their characteristics Swallow, in the down country,
bat-like sensitiveness of wings of

Swifts, in the downs, a workman's explanation of their ways, parasites
on, power of rising from a flat surface, their struggle with
starlings, their nightly retreat to the sky discussed; hen-birds
driven to their nests

Telegraph poles in the landscape

Telegraph wires, their service to perching birds their music, in South
America, difficulty of certain birds in grasping

Temperance, causes working for

Thirst, an experience of,

Thistle, bees intoxicated by honey of; the dwarf, the woolly

Thistle-down; South American

"Threshold of England, the,"

Thrift, or sea-pink, white gulls on

Thyme, lasting fragrance of its attraction for certain flies,

"Tied" system of public-houses,

Tillage, former, its effect on vegetation

_Tour through the Southern Counties_, Young's, quoted as to use of
oxen

Tramps, encounters with; at Midhurst

"Traveller's Joy," its name due to Gerarde; on the downs

Trotton, Otway born at

Turf of the downs; its fragrance; slow in forming

Turtle-dove common in down-land

"Upset," an, a comprehensive term

"Ur-grass,"


Valleys of the downs, herons in

Vegetation, special, of formerly tilled soil

Viper's tmgloss

_Vision_, Piers Plowman's, quoted

Vision of "the generations of deciduous men,"; of the drink demon

Voices, Sussex; lasting impression left by sweetness of, heard from
afar on the downs

Wages of the Sussex shepherd, formerly paid partly in kind

Wales, black oxen introduced from

Water, a. cup of cold

Water-fowl, Chichester harbour a winter haunt of

Watson, Mrs. Marriott, her poem _On the Downs_ quoted

Weather, gloomy, pleasures of

Well, drawing water at a

West Dean, spoonbills formerly nesting at; yew grove near

West Rother, the, described by Drayton

West Sussex Downs, varied character of; charm of, in winter

Wheat, tillage influenced by price of,

Wheatear, breeding-places of, among sea-poppies its enmity to the
red-backed shrike, its migration and rest, former mode of trapping,
its sensitiveness to cloud-shadows, now scheduled

Wheatear harvest, the shepherd's

Whinchat, breeding on the downs, quality of its song

White, Gilbert, on the charm of the Sussex Downs; on bacon-eating
bats,; memories of, in West Sussex,

Whitethroat breeding on the downs

"Wild turkeys,"

Winter, resort of birds to the maritime district in, in downland in,

Wood-carving, a monkish specimen of

Wood-pigeons, at Cocking; multitudes of, in a beech wood,

Woods family, their connection with Gilbert White

Worthing, mildness of climate,

Wren, its winter quarters,

Yeats, W. B., quoted,

Yellowhammer, breeding in the downs, in windy autumn,

Yew--berry, missel--thrushes feasting on

Yew trees, grove of, at Kingly Bottom, near West Dean,

Young, Arthur, employment of oxen recorded by



THE END




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