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Dick o' the Fens: A Tale of the Great East Swamp

George Manville Fenn

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Dick o' the Fens; A Tale of the Great Eastern Swamp, by George ManvilleFenn.


  A number of the actors in this tale speak in a broad LincolnshireFenland dialect, which may make it a little hard for some readers. Someof the more unusual words are annotated in square brackets.

  The Squire sees the gradually encroaching bog and marsh in his land, andrealises that with drainage he could reclaim this as good farm land. Onthe other hand some of the locals would rather see the fen remain, alongwith their various occupations, and the wonderful and fragile wet-landnatural history. When digging begins there are a number of nastyincidents--torching of houses, malicious woundings of horses and cows,gunshot wounds to humans, and even murders.

  A constable is called in, and takes a dislike to Dick, the Squire's son,and to his friend Tom. He tries to pin the blame on them. At timeseven Dick's father is inclined to think that way, too. But eventuallythe culprit is found. There are the tense moments typical of thisauthor, and you will perhaps learn a lot about fenland natural history.A good read, and better still to listen to it. NH





  Dick Winthorpe--christened Richard by order of his father at the Hall--sat on the top of the big post by the wheelwright's door.

  It was not a comfortable seat, and he could only keep his place bytwisting his legs round and holding on; but as there was a spice ofdifficulty in the task, Dick chose it, and sat there opposite TomTallington--christened Thomas at the wish of his mother, FarmerTallington's wife, of Grimsey, the fen island under the old dyke.

  Tom Tallington was seated upon one side of a rough punt, turned up tokeep the rain from filling it, and as he was not obliged to hold on withhis legs he kept swinging them to and fro.

  It was not a pleasant place for either of the lads, for in front of themwas a ring of fire where, upon the ground, burned and crackled and fumeda quantity of short wood, which was replenished from time to time byMark Hickathrift, the wheelwright, and his lad Jacob.

  At the first glance it seemed as if the wheelwright was amusing himselfby making a round bonfire of scraps, whose blue reek rose in the countryair, and was driven every now and then by the wind over the boys, whocoughed and sneezed and grumbled, but did not attempt to move, for therewas, to them, an interesting feat about to be performed by thewheelwright--to wit, the fitting of the red-hot roughly-made iron tirein the wood fire upon the still more roughly-made wheel, which had beenfitted with a few new spokes and a fresh felloe, while FarmerTallington's heavy tumbril-cart stood close by, like a cripple supportedon a crutch, waiting for its iron-shod circular limb.

  "Come, I say, Mark, stick it on," cried Dick Winthorpe; "we want to go."

  "'Tarn't hot enough, my lad," said the great burly wheelwright, rollinghis shirt sleeves a little higher up his brown arms.

  "Yes, it is," said Tom Tallington. "You can see it all red. Why don'tyou put it on cold, instead of burning the wood?"

  "'Cause he can't make one fit, and has to burn it on," said Dick.

  The wheelwright chuckled and put on some more wood, which crackled androared as the wind came with a rush off the great fen, making thescattered patches of dry reeds bend and whisper and rustle, and rise andfall, looking in the distance of the grey, black, solemn expanse likethe waves of the sea on a breezy day.

  "Oh! I say, isn't it choky!" cried Tom.

  "Thou shouldstna sit that side then," said the wheelwright.

  "Hoy, Dave!" shouted Dick Winthorpe. "Hi, there: Chip, Chip, Chip!" hecried, trying to pat his leg with one hand, the consequence being thathe overbalanced himself and dropped off the post, but only to stay downand caress a little black-and-white dog, which trotted up wagging itsstump of a tail, and then beginning to growl and snarl, twitching itsears, as another dog appeared on the scene--a long, lank, rough-haired,steely-grey fellow, with a pointed nose, which, with his lean flanks,gave him the aspect of an animal of a vain disposition, who had tried tolook like a greyhound, and failed.

  This dog trotted out of the wheelwright's workshop, with his coat fullof shavings and sawdust, and lay down a short distance from the fire,while the little black-and-white fellow rushed at him, leaped up, andlaid hold of his ear.

  "Ha, ha! look at old Grip!" cried Tom Tallington, kicking his heelstogether as the big dog gave his ears a shake, and lay down with hishead between his paws, blinking at the fire, while his little assailantuttered a snarl, which seemed to mean "Oh you coward!" and trotted awayto meet a tall rugged-looking man, who came slouching up, with longstrides, his head bent, his shoulders up, a long heavy gun over hisshoulder, and a bundle of wild-fowl in his left hand, the birds bangingagainst his leather legging as he walked, and covering it with feathers.

  He was a curious, furtive-looking man, with quick, small eyes, a smoothbrown face, and crisp, grizzly hair, surmounted by a roughly-made cap offox-skin.

  He came straight up to the fire on the windy side, nodded and scowled atthe wheelwright as the latter gave him a friendly smile, and then turnedslowly to the two boys, when his visage relaxed a little, and there wasthe dawning of a smile for each.

  "What have you got, Dave?" cried Dick, laying hold of the bunch ofbirds, and turning them over, so as to examine their heads and feet;and, without waiting for an answer, he went on--"Three curlews, twopie-wipes, and a--and a--I say, Tom, what's this?"

  Tom Tallington looked eagerly at the straight-billed, long-legged,black-and-white bird, but shook his head, while Chip, the dog, who hadseated himself with his nose close to the bunch, uttered one short sharpbark.

  "I say, Dave, what's this bird?" said Dick.

  The man did not turn his head, but stood staring at the fire, and said,in a husky voice, what sounded like "Scatcher!"

  "Oh!" said Dick; and there was a pause, during which the fire roared,and the smoke flew over the wheelwright's long, low house at the edge ofthe fen. "I say," cried Dick, "you don't set oyster-catchers in the'coy."

  "Yow don't know what you're talking about," growled the man addressed.

  "Why, of course he didn't," cried Tom Tallington, a stoutly-built lad ofsixteen or seventeen, very much like his companion Dick, only a littlefairer and plumper in the face. "They ain't swimmers."

  "No, of course, not," said Dick. "Kill 'em all at one shot, Dave?"

  The man made no answer, but his little dog uttered another short bark asif in assent.

  "Wish I'd been there," said Dick, and the dog barked once more, afterwhich the new-comer seemed to go off like a piece of machinery, for hemade a sound like the word "kitch," threw the bunch of birds to thewheelwright, who caught them, and dropped them in through the openwindow of the workshop on to his bench, while Dave jerked his gun offhis shoulder, and let the butt fall between his feet.

  Just then the wheelwright roared out, with one hand to his cheek:

  "Sair--_rah_! Ale. Here you, Jake, go and fetch it."

  The short thickset lad of nineteen, who now came from behind the housewith a fagot of wood, threw it down, and went in, to come back in a fewmoments with a large brown jug, at the top of which was some froth,which the wind blew off as the vessel was handed to the wheelwright.

  "She's about ready now," said the latter. "You may as well lend a hand,Dave."

  As he spoke, he held out the jug to the donor of the birds, who onlynodded, and said
, as if he had gone off again, "Drink;" and propping thegun up against the crippled cart, he took off his rough jacket and hungit over the muzzle.

  In kindly obedience to the uttered command, the big wheelwright raisedthe brown vessel, and took a long draught, while Dave, after hanging uphis jacket, stood and looked on, deeply interested apparently, watchingthe action of the drinker's throat as the ale went down.

  Jacob, the wheelwright's 'prentice, looked at the ale-jug with one eyeand went on placing a piece of wood here and another there to keep upthe blaze, while Dick went and leaned up against the cart by the gun.

  Then the jug was passed, after a deep sigh, to Dave, who also took along draught, which made Jacob sigh as he turned to go for some morewood, when he was checked by a hollow growl from Dave, which came out ofthe pot.

  But Jacob knew what it meant, and stopped, waiting patiently till Davetook the brown jug from his lips, and passed it to the apprentice,letting off the words now:

  "Finish it."

  Jacob was a most obedient apprentice, so he proceeded to "finish it,"while the wheelwright and Dave went to the workshop, and as he wasraising the vessel high Tom Tallington stooped, picked up a chip of woodfrom a heap, gave Dick a sharp look, and pitched it with so good an aimthat it hit the jug, and before the drinker could lower it, Tom hadhopped back against the cart, striking against the gun, and nearlyknocking it down.

  "I see yow, Masr' Dick," said Jacob, grinning; "but yow don't get none.Ale arn't good for boys."

  "Get out!" cried Dick; "why, you're only a boy yourself. 'Prentice,'prentice!"

  "Not good for boys," said Jacob again as he finished the last dropperseveringly, so that there should be none left; and then went indoorswith the jug.

  "Dick--I say," whispered Tom as, after slipping one band into the bigopen pocket of the hanging coat, he drew out a well scraped and polishedcow-horn with a cork in the thin end.

  Chip, the dog, who was watching, uttered a remonstrant bark, but theboys paid no heed, being too intent upon the plan that now occurred toone, and was flashed instantaneously to the other.

  "Yes, do," whispered Dick. "How much is there in it?"

  "Don't know; can't see."

  "Never mind, pitch it in and let's go, only don't run."

  "It would be too bad," said Tom, laughing.

  "Never mind--we'll buy him some more powder. In with it."

  "No," said Tom, hesitating, though the trick was his suggestion.

  Dick snatched the powder-horn from his companion, gave a hasty glance atthe workshop, from which came the clink of pincers, and pitched the hornright into the middle of the blaze.

  Chip gave a sharp bark, and dashed after it, but stopped short, growlingas he felt the heat, and then went on barking furiously, while the twoboys walked off toward the rough road as fast as they could, soon to bebeyond the reach of the wheelwright's explosion of anger, for theyregretted not being able to stop and see the blow-up.

  "What's your Chip barking at?" said the wheelwright, as the two menwalked out, armed with great iron pincers, the wheelwright holding apair in each hand. "What is it, Chip?"

  The dog kept on barking furiously, and making little charges at thefire.

  "There's summat there," said Dave in a low harsh voice. "Where's theyboys?"

  "Yonder they go," said the wheelwright.

  "Then there's summat wrong," said Dave, taking off his fox-skin cap andscratching his head.

  An idea occurred to him, and he ran to his coat.

  "Hah!" he ejaculated in a voice that sounded like a saw cutting wood andcoming upon a nail; "keep back, Chip! Here, Chip, boy; Chip! They'vethrowed in my powder-horn."

  "Eh!" cried the wheelwright.

  Pop! went the horn with a feeble report, consequent upon there beingonly about a couple of charges of powder left; but it was enough toscatter the embers in all directions, and for a few moments all stoodstaring at the smoking wood in the midst of which lay the great irontire, rapidly turning black.

  Dave was the first to recover himself.

  "Come on," he shouted, and, pincers in hand, he seized the heated ring,the wheelwright followed suit, the apprentice joined, and lifting theglowing iron it was soon being hammered into its place round the smokingwheel, the soft metal bending and yielding, and burning its way till,amidst the blinding smoke, it was well home and cooling and shrinking,this part of the business being rapidly concluded by means of buckets ofwater brought by Jacob, and passed along the edge of the wheel.

  "I say, Tom, it wasn't half a bang," said Dick as the two lads rantowards home with the wind whistling by their ears.

  "No," was the panted-out reply; "but I say, what will old Dave say?"

  "I don't care what he says. I shall give him a shilling to buy somemore powder, and he can soon make himself another horn."