Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Mary Russell Mitford (17871855)
From Our Village
THIS old human oak grew on the wild North-of-Hampshire country, of which I have before made honourable mention; a country of heath and hill and forest, partly reclaimed, enclosed, and planted by some of the greater proprietors, but for the most part uncultivated and uncivilised; a proper refuge for wild animals of every species. Of these the most notable was my friend Tom Cordery, who presented in his own person no unfit emblem of the district in which he livedthe gentlest of savages, the wildest of civilised men. He was by calling rat-catcher, hare-finder, and broom-maker; a triad of trades which he had substituted for the one grand profession of poaching, which he followed in his younger days with unrivalled talent and success, and would, undoubtedly, have pursued till his death, had not the bursting of an over-loaded gun unluckily shot off his left hand. As it was, he still contrived to mingle a little of his old occupation with his honest callings; was a reference of high authority amongst the young aspirants, an adviser of undoubted honour and secrecysuspected, and more than suspected, as being one who, though he played no more, oerlooked the cards. Yet he kept to windward of the law, and indeed contrived to be on such terms of social, and even friendly intercourse with the guardians of the game on M. common, as may be said to prevail between reputed thieves and the myrmidons of justice in the neighbourhood of Bow Street. Indeed, his especial crony, the head keeper, used sometimes to hint, when Tom, elevated by ale, had provoked him to overcrowing, that a stump was no bad shield, and that to shoot off a hand and a bit of an arm for a blind, would be nothing to so daring a chap as Tom Cordery. This conjecture, never broached till the keeper was warm with wrath and liquor, and Tom fairly out of hearing, seemed always to me a little super-subtle; but it is certain that Toms new professions did bear rather a suspicious analogy to the old, and the ferrets, and terriers, and mongrels by whom he was surrounded, did really look, as the worthy keeper observed, fitter to find Christian hares and pheasants, than rats and such vermin. So in good truth did Tom himself. Never did any human being look more like that sort of sportsman commonly called a poacher. He was a tall, finely-built man, with a prodigious stride, that cleared the ground like a horse, and a power of continuing his slow and steady speed, that seemed nothing less than miraculous. Neither man, nor horse, nor dog could out-tire him. He had a bold, undaunted presence, and an evident strength and power of bone and muscle. You might see by looking at him, that he did not know what fear meant. In his youth he had fought more battles than any man in the forest. He was as if born without nerves, totally insensible to the recoils and disgusts of humanity. I have known him take up a huge adder, cut off its head, and then deposit the living and writhing body in his brimless hat, and walk with it coiling and wreathing about his head, like another Medusa, till the sport of the day was over, and he carried it home to secure the fat. With all this iron stubbornness of nature, he was of a most mild and gentle demeanour, had a fine placidity of countenance, and a quick blue eye beaming with good-humour. His face was sunburnt into one general pale vermilion hue that overspread all his features; his very hair was sunburnt too. His costume was generally a smock-frock of no doubtful complexion, dirt-coloured, which hung round him in tatters like a fringe, rather augmenting than diminishing the freedom, and, if I may so say, the gallantry of his bearing. This frock was furnished with a huge inside pocket, in which to deposit the game killed by his patronsfor of his three employments that which consisted of finding hares for the great farmers and small gentry, who were wont to course on the common, was by far the most profitable and most pleasing to him, and to them. Everybody liked Tom Cordery. He had himself an aptness to like, which is certain to be repaid in kindthe very dogs knew him, and loved him, and would beat for him almost as soon as for their master. Even May, the most sagacious of greyhounds, appreciated his talents, and would as soon listen to Tom sohoing as to old Tray giving tongue.
Tom was not, however, without that strong sense of natural beauty which they who live amongst the wildnesses and fastnesses of nature so often exhibit. One spot, where the common trenches on the civilised world, was scarcely less his admiration than mine. It is a high hill, half covered with furze and heath and broom, and sinking abruptly down to a large pond, almost a lake, covered with wild water-fowl. The ground, richly clothed with wood,oak, and beech, and elm,rises on the other side with equal abruptness, as if shutting in those glassy waters from all but the sky, which shines so brightly in their clear bosom; just in the bottom peeps a small sheltered farm, whose wreaths of light smoke and the white glancing wings of the wild-ducks, as they flit across the lake, are all that give token of motion or of life. I have stood there in utter oblivion of greyhound or of hare, till moments have swelled to minutes, and minutes to hours, and so has Tom, conveying by his exclamations of delight at its pleasantness, exactly the same feeling which a poet or a painter (for it breathes the very spirit of calm and sunshiny beauty that a master painter loves) would express by different but not truer praise. He called his own home pleasant too; and there, though one loves to hear any home so calledthere, I must confess, that favourite phrase, which I like almost as well as they who have no other, did seem rather misapplied. And yet it was finely placed, very finely. It stood in a sort of defile, where a road almost perpendicular wound from the top of a steep abrupt hill, crowned with a tuft of old Scottish firs, into a dingle of fern and wild brush-wood. A shallow, sullen stream oozed from the bank on one side, and, after forming a rude channel across the road, sank into a dark, deep pool, half hidden amongst the sallows. Behind these sallows, in a nook between them and the hill, rose the uncouth and shapeless cottage of Tom Cordery. It is a scene which hangs upon the eye and memory, striking, grand, almost sublime, and above all eminently foreign. No English painter would choose such a subject for an English landscape; no one in a picture would take it for English. It might pass for one of those scenes which have furnished models to Salvator Rosa. Toms cottage was, however, very thoroughly national and characteristic; a low, ruinous hovel, the door of which was fastened with a sedulous attention to security, that contrasted strangely with the tattered thatch of the roof, and the half-broken windows. No garden, no pigsty, no pens for geese, none of the usual signs of cottage habitation;yet the house was covered with nondescript dwellings, and the very walls were animate with their extraordinary tenants: pheasants, partridges, rabbits, tame wild-ducks, half-tame hares, and their enemies by nature and education, the ferrets, terriers, and mongrels of whom his retinue consisted. Great ingenuity had been evinced in keeping separate these jarring elements; and by dint of hutches, cages, fences, kennels, and half-a-dozen little hurdled enclosures, resembling the sort of courts which children are apt to build round their card-houses, peace was in general tolerably well preserved. Frequent sounds, however, of fear or of anger, as their several instincts were aroused, gave tokens that it was but a forced and hollow truce, and at such times the clamour was prodigious. Tom had the remarkable tenderness for animals when domesticated which is so often found in those whose sole vocation seems to be their destruction in the field; and the one long, straggling, unceiled, barn-like room, which served for kitchen, bed-chamber, and hall, was cumbered with bipeds and quadrupeds of all kinds and descriptions, the sick, the delicate, the newly-caught, the lying-in. In the midst of this menagerie sat Toms wife (for he was married, though without a familymarried to a woman lame of a leg as he himself was minus an arm) now trying to quiet her noisy inmates, now to outscold them. How long his friend the keeper would have continued to wink at this den of live game, none can say: the roof fairly fell in during the deep snow of last winter, killing, as poor Tom observed, two as fine litters of rabbits as ever were kittened. Remotely, I have no doubt that he himself fell a sacrifice to this misadventure. The overseer, to whom he applied to reinstate his beloved habitation, decided that the walls would never bear another roof, and removed him and his wife, as an especial favour, to a tidy, snug, comfortable room in the workhouse. The workhouse! From that hour poor Tom visibly altered. He lost his hilarity and independence. It was a change such as he had himself often inflicted, a complete change of habits, a transition from the wild to the tame. No labour was demanded of him; he went about as before, finding hares, killing rats, selling brooms, but the spirit of the man was departed. He talked of the quiet of his old abode, and the noise of the new; complained of children and other bad company; looked down on his neighbours with the sort of contempt with which a cock pheasant might regard a barn-door fowl. Most of all did he, braced into a gipsy-like defiance of wet and cold, grumble at the warmth and dryness of his apartment. He used to foretell that it would kill him, and assuredly it did so. Never could the typhus fever have found out that wild hill side, or have lurked under that broken roof. The free touch of the air would have chased the demon. Alas poor Tom! warmth, and snugness, and comfort, whole windows, and an entire ceiling, were the death of him. Alas, poor Tom!