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Burr Junior, Page 3

George Manville Fenn


  "What a fuss about nothing!" I thought to myself, as we went on, down abeautiful lane, with tempting-looking woods on either side, andfox-gloves on the banks, and other wild-flowers full of attractions tome as a town boy. There was a delicious scent, too, in the air, which Ihad yet to learn was from the young shoots of the fir-trees, growingwarm in the sunshine.

  I had made no boy friendships up to then, and, as I glanced sideways atthe pleasant, frank face of the lad walking quickly by me, just at atime when I had been oppressed by the loneliness of my position, freshfrom home and among strangers, a strong feeling of liking for him beganto spring up, and with it forgetfulness of the misery I had suffered.

  "Hi! look! there he goes," cried Mercer just then, and he pointed upinto an oak tree.

  "What is it?" I said excitedly.

  "He's gone now; wait a minute, and you'll soon see another. There heis--listen."

  He held up his hand, and I stood all attention, but there was no soundfor a few minutes. Then from out of the woods came plainly.

  _Chop chop, chop chop_.

  "I can't see him," I said. "Some one's cutting down a tree."

  Mercer burst into a roar of laughter.

  "Oh, I say, you are a Cockney!" he cried. "Cutting down a tree! Why,you don't seem to know anything about the country."

  "Well," I rejoined rather warmly, "that isn't my fault. I've alwayslived in London."

  "Among the fogs and blacks. Never mind, you'll soon learn it all. Idid. Wish I could learn my Latin and mathicks half as fast. That isn'tanybody cutting wood; it's a squirrel."

  "A squirrel?"

  "Yes; there he goes. He's coming this way. You watch him. He's cross,because he sees us. There, what did I say?"

  I looked in the direction he pointed out, and saw the leaves moving.Then there was a rustle, and the little brown and white animal leapedfrom bough to bough, till I saw it plainly on a great grey and greenmossy bough of a beech tree, not thirty feet away, where it stoodtwisting and jerking its beautiful feathery tail from side to side, andthen, as if scolding us, it began to make the sounds I had beforeheard--_Chop, chop, chop, chop_, wonderfully like the blows of an axefalling on wood.

  "Wonder whether I could hit him," cried Mercer, picking up a stone.

  "No, no, don't! I want to look at him."

  "There's lots about here, and they get no end of the nuts in the autumn.But come along."

  We soon left the squirrel behind, and Mercer stopped again, in a shadypart of the lane.

  "Hear that," he said, as a loud _chizz chizz chizz_ came from a drysandy spot, where the sun shone strongly.

  "Yes, and I know what it is," I cried triumphantly. "That's a cricketescaped from the kitchen fireplace."

  Mercer laughed.

  "It's a cricket," he said, "but it's a field one. You don't know whatthat is, though," he continued, as a queer sound saluted my ears,--alow, dull whirring, rising and falling, sometimes nearer, sometimesdistant, till it died right away.

  "Now then, what is it?" he cried.

  "Knife-grinder," I said; "you'll hear the blade screech on the stonedirectly."

  "Wrong. That's Dame Durden with her spinning-wheel."

  "Ah, well, I knew it was a wheel sound. Is there a cottage in there?"

  "No," he said, laughing again; "it's a bird."


  "It is. It is a night-jar. They make that noise in their throats, andyou can see them of a night, flying round and round the trees, likegreat swallows, catching the moths."

  I looked hard at him.

  "I say!"

  "Yes; what?"

  "Don't you begin cramming me, because, if you do, I shall try a fewLondon tales on you."

  Mercer laughed.

  "There's an old unbeliever for you. I'm not joking you; I never do thatsort of thing. It is a bird really."

  "Show it to me then."

  "I can't. He's sitting somewhere on a big branch, long way up, and youcan't find them because they look so like the bark of the tree, and youdon't know where the sound comes from. They're just like thecorn-crakes."

  "I've read about corn-crakes," I said.

  "Well, there's plenty here. You wait till night, and I'll open ourbedroom window, and you can hear them craking away down in the meadows.You never can tell whereabouts they are, though, and you very seldom seethem. They're light brown birds."

  We were walking on now, and twice over he stopped, smiling at me, sothat I could listen to the night-jars, making their whirring noise inthe wood.

  "Now, was I cramming you?" he said.

  "No, and I will not doubt you again. Why, what a lot you know aboutcountry things!"

  "Not I. That's nothing. You soon pick up all that. Ever hear anightingale?"

  "No, I don't think so."

  "Then you haven't. You'll hear them to-night, if it's fine, singingaway in the copses, and answering one another for miles round."

  "Why, this must be a beautiful place, then?"

  "I should think it is--it's lovely. I don't mean the school; I hatethat, and the way they bore you over the lessons, and the more stupidyou are, the harder they are upon you. I'm always catching it. 'Tain'tmy fault I'm so stupid."

  I looked at him sharply, for he seemed to me to be crammed full ofknowledge.

  "The Doctor told me one day I was a miserable young idiot, and that Ithought about nothing but birds and butterflies. Can't help it. I liketo. I say, we'll go egging as soon as we've seen the owls. Wonderwhether I can get an owl's egg for my collection. I've got twonight-jars'."

  "Out of the nest?"

  "They don't make any nest; I found them just as they were laid on somechips, where they were cutting down and trimming young trees forhop-poles. Such beauties! But come along. Yes, he said I was a youngidiot, but father don't mind my wanting to collect things. He likesnatural history, and mamma collects plants, and names them. She cantell you the names of all the flowers you pass by, and--whisht--snake!"

  "Where? Where?"

  "Only gone across here," said my companion, pointing to a winding trackin the dusty road, showing where the reptile must have crossed from oneside to the other.

  "Which way did he go?" I said; "let's hunt him."

  "No good," said my companion quietly. "He's off down some hole longenough ago. Never mind him; I can show you plenty of snakes in thewoods, and adders too."

  "They sting, don't they?" I said.


  "They do. Adders or vipers are poisonous."

  "Yes, but they don't sting; they bite. They've got poisoned fangs. Youcan see an adder along here sometimes. Perhaps we shall see one to-day,warming himself in the sun."

  But we did not, for a few minutes later we approached a swing gate, justas the keeper came round a curve in the opposite direction.

  "Here you are, then," he said, "just right. Farmer Dawson's gone off tomarket, and so we shan't have to ask leave. Come on, and let's see ifwe can find Jem Roff."

  He pushed open the gate, and we went along a cart track for somedistance, and then on through one of the hop-gardens, with its tallpoles draped with the climbing rough-leaved vines, some of which hadreached over and joined hands with their fellows, to make loops andfestoons, all beautiful to my town-bred eyes, as was the glimpse Icaught of a long, low old English farmhouse and garden, with a row ofbee-hives, as we went round a great yard surrounded by buildings--stables, barns, sheds, and cow-houses, with at one corner four talltowers, looking like blunt steeples with the tops cut off to accommodateas many large wooden cowls.

  "What are they?" I asked.



  "Oast-houses, where they dry the hops over a fire on horse-hair sheets,"said Mercer. "Look! that's the pigeon-cote," he continued, pointing tothree rows of holes cut in the woodwork which connected the bricktowers. "The owl's nest's in one of those."

  Just then a middle-aged
man, with a very broad smile upon his face, anda fork in his hand, came up.

  "Here, Jem," said the keeper, "the young gentlemen want to see the owl'snest."

  The smile departed from the man's face, which he wiped all over with onehand, as he frowned and shook his head.

  "Nay, nay," he said. "The master's very 'tickler 'bout them howls.Why, if I was to kill one, he'd 'most kill me."

  "The young gents won't hurt 'em, Jem."

  "Nay, but they'd be wanting to take eggs, or young ones, or suthin'."

  "Well, I should like one egg," said Mercer.

  "Ah, I thowt so! Nay, you mustn't goo."

  "Oh yes, let us go," said Mercer. "There, I won't touch an egg."

  "An' you won't touch the birds?"


  "Nor him neither."

  "Oh, I won't touch them," I said eagerly.

  "You see the master says they do no end of good, killing the mice andyoung rats."

  "And I say they do no end of mischief, killing the young partridges andfezzans and hares," said the keeper. "Better not let me get a sight o'one down our woods."

  The man wiped his face again with his hand, and looked at us bothattentively.

  "Young master here said he'd stooff a magpie for me if you shot one, BobHopley."

  "So I will," said Mercer, "if Mr Hopley shoots one for you."

  "That's a bargain then," said the man, rummaging in his pocket, aftersticking the fork in the ground. "Here, this way," he continued, as hedrew out a bright key. "Coming, Bob?"

  "No, I don't want to see owls, 'less they're nailed on my shed door."

  He seated himself on the edge of a great hay-rack, and we followed thefarmer's man through a door into the dark interior of one of theoast-houses, where we looked up to see the light coming in through theopening at the side of the cowl, and then followed Jem up some stepsinto a broad loft, at one corner of which was a short ladder leading upto a trap-door in the floor overhead.

  "Mind your heads, young gents, ceiling's pretty low."

  We had already found that out by having our caps scraped by a rough beamunder which we passed.

  "Now then, go up the ladder and push the trap-door open gently, so asnot to frighten 'em. Turn the door right over, and let it down by thestaple so as it lies on the floor. 'Tain't dark; plenty o' light comesthrough the pigeon-holes."

  "Haven't you got any pigeons now, Jem Roff?"

  "No, nor don't want none. Up wi' ye, and let me get back to my work."

  Mercer needed no further invitation, and, followed closely by me, hecrossed to the corner where the ladder stood, climbed up, thrust thetrap-door over, and disappeared--head--shoulders--body--legs.

  Then I climbed too, and found myself in a dirty, garret-like place, litby the rays falling through about a score of pigeon-holes.

  For a few moments the place was dim, and I could hardly make outanything, but very soon after my eyes grew accustomed to the half light,and I was ready to join in Mercer's admiration as he cried,--"Isn't he abeauty!"

  For we were looking where, in one corner, sitting bolt upright, with hiseyes half closed, there was a fine young owl, just fully fledged and fitto fly, while nothing could be more beautiful than his snow-white,flossy breast, and the buff colour of his back, all dotted over withgrey, and beautifully-formed dots.

  "Oh, shouldn't I like him to stuff!" cried Mercer. "He'll never look soclean and beautiful again."

  "But what's that?" I cried, pointing at a hideous-looking goblin-likecreature, with a great head, whose bare skin was tufted with patches ofwhite down. Its eyes were enormous, but nearly covered by anasty-looking skin, which seemed to be stretched over them. Projectingbeneath was an ugly great beak, and its nearly naked body, beneath thetoppling head and weak neck, was swollen and bloated up as if it wouldcrack at a touch. Altogether it was as disgusting a looking object asit was possible to imagine.

  "That's his young brother," cried Mercer, laughing.

  "Young nonsense! It must be a very, very old owl that has lost all itsfeathers."

  "Not it. That chap's somewhere about a fortnight old; and look there,you can see an egg in the nest, too. Shouldn't I like it!"

  "Then it's the nest belonging to three pairs of owls?" I said.

  "No. That's the way they do--hatch one egg at a time. They all belongto the same pair."

  I felt a little incredulous, but my attention was taken up then by asemicircle of little animals arranged about two feet from thenesting-place.

  "Why, they're all big mice," I said.

  "No; nearly all young rats," said Mercer, counting. "Twenty-two," hecried, "and all fresh. Why, they must have been caught last night.That's a fine mouse," he cried, taking one up by its tail.

  "Why, that must be a young rat," I said. "That little one's a mouse."

  "No; this is a field mouse. Look at his long tail and long ears. Therats have got shorter, thicker tails, and look thicker altogether."

  "Now then, are you young gents a-coming down?" shouted Jem.

  "Yes. All right. Directly. Oh, isn't that fellow a beauty!" hecontinued, throwing down the mouse he had lifted back into its place inthe owls' larder. "I say, don't the old ones keep up a good supply!"

  A second summons from the man made us prepare to descend, the full-grownowl making no effort to escape, but blinking at us, and making a soft,hissing noise. The goblin-looking younger one, however, gaped widely,and seemed to tumble over backwards from the weight of its head. It wasso deplorable and old-looking a creature that it seemed impossible thatit could ever grow into a soft, thickly feathered bird like the other,and I said so.

  "Oh, but it will," said Mercer; "all birds that I know of, except ducksand chickens and geese, are horridly ugly till they are fledged. Youngthrushes and rooks are nasty-looking, big-eyed, naked things at first.There: you go on down."

  I descended through the trap-door, and he followed, the man looking atus searchingly, as if he had not much faith in our honesty when face toface with such temptations as owls' eggs, but his look was onlymomentary, and he took it for granted that we had kept our word.

  "Where are the old birds, Jem?" said my companion.

  "Oh, right away somewhere in the woods, asleep. Want to see them?"

  "Of course."

  "Then you must come at night, and you'll see these young ones sitting atone of the holes giving a hiss now and then for the old birds to comeand feed them, and every now and then one of them flies up."

  "Yes, I know," said Mercer, "so still and softly that you can't hear thewings. But I should like that egg."

  "Then you had better ask the master, and see what he says."

  "Well, my lads," cried Hopley, in his bluff, deep voice, "seen theowls?"

  "Yes; and now, I say, Bob Hopley, you'll let us go through the bigbeech-wood, and round by the hammer pond?"

  "What for?" said the keeper.

  "It's holiday to-day, and I want to show this chap, our new boy, round."

  "What! to teach him mischief like you know?"

  "Get out. I don't do any mischief. You might let us go."

  "Not my wood, it's master's."

  "Well, he wouldn't mind."

  "And I've got young fezzans in coops all about the place."

  "Well, we don't want the pheasants."

  "I should think not, indeed; and just you look here: I see you've gotthat chap Magglin up at work in your garden again; you just tell himfrom me that if ever I see him in our woods, I'll give him a pepperingwith small shot."

  "You carry your impudent messages yourself, or tell the Doctor," saidMercer sharply.

  "What?" cried the keeper, scowling at us.

  "I say, you take your impudent messages yourself. You know you daren'tshoot at him."

  "Oh, daren't I? I'll let him see."

  "It's against the law, and your master's a magistrate. You know youdaren't. What would he say?"

  The keeper raised his gun with both hands, breathed
on the mottledwalnut-wood stock, and began to polish it with the sleeve of hisvelveteen jacket. Then he looked furtively at Jem Roff, then at me, andlastly at Mercer, before letting the gun fall in the hollow of his arm,and taking off his cap to give his head a scratch, while a grim smilebegan to play about his lips.

  "You've got me there, youngster," he said slowly, and Jem began tochuckle.

  "Of course I have," said Mercer confidently. "Besides, what's that gotto do with me?"

  "Why, he's a friend of yours."

  "That I'm sure he's not. He's a nasty, mean beggar, who makes me payever so much for everything he does for me. You ask him," continuedMercer, giving his head a side wag at me, "if only this morning hedidn't make me give him twopence for a pen'orth of worms."

  "Yes, that he did," I said, coming to my companion's help.

  "Humph!" grunted the keeper. "Well, youngsters, never you mind that,you pay him, and keep him at a distance. He's no good to nobody, and Iwonder at Doctor Browne, as teaches young gents to be gents, should keepsuch a bad un about his place. He's a rank poacher, that's what he is,and there ain't nothing worse than a poacher, is there, Jem Roff?"

  "Thief," said that gentleman.

  "Thief? I don't know so much about that. Thieves don't go thievingwith loaded guns to shoot keepers, do they?"

  "Well, no," said Jem.

  "Of course they don't, so that's what I say--there aren't nothing worsethan a poacher, and don't you young gents have anything to do with him,or, as sure as you stand there, he'll get you into some scrape."

  "Who's going to have anything to do with him?" cried Mercer pettishly.

  "Why, you are, sir."

  "I only buy a bird of him, sometimes, to stuff."

  "Yes, birds he's shot on our grounds, I'll be bound, or else trappedones."

  "Well, they're no good, and you never shoot anything for me. P'r'aps heis a bad one, but if I pay him, he is civil. He wouldn't refuse to lettwo fellows go through the big woods."

  "Thought you was going fishing."

  "Not till this evening, after tea."

  "Where are you going?"

  "Down by the mill."

  "Wouldn't like to try after a big carp, I s'pose, or one of our oldperch?"

  "Wouldn't like!" cried Mercer excitedly.

  "No, I thought you wouldn't," said the keeper. "There, I must be off."

  "Oh, I say, Bob Hopley, do give us leave."

  "What leave?"

  "To have an hour or two in the hammer pond. There's a good chap, do!"

  "The master mightn't like it. Not as he ever said I wasn't to let anyone fish."

  "Then let's go."

  "No, my lads, I'm not going to give you leave," said the keeper, with atwinkle in his eyes; "but there's a couple o' rods and lines all right,under the thatch of the boat-house."

  "Yes, Bob, but what about bait?"

  "Oh, I don't know 'bout bait. P'r'aps there's some big worms in themoss in that old tin pot in the corner."

  "Oh, Bob!" cried Mercer excitedly, while I felt my heart beat heavily.

  "Yes, now I come to think of it, there is some worms in that tin pot, asI got to try for an eel or two."

  "Then we may go?"

  "Nay, nay, don't you be in a hurry. It won't do. Why, if I was to letyou two go, you might catch some fish, a big carp, or a perch, or one ofthey big eels."

  "Yes, of course we might."

  "And if you did, you'd go right back to the school and tell youngMagglin, and he'd be setting night lines by the score all over thepond."

  "No; honour! We'll never say a word to him!" we cried.

  "Then you'll tell all your schoolmates, and that big long hop-pole chap,what's his name?"

  "Burr major," said Mercer eagerly.

  "And that big fat-faced boy?"


  "Yes, that's him, and I'll give him Dicksee if he chucks stones at myPolly's hens. We shall be having 'em lay eggs with the shells broke."

  "Oh, nonsense, Bob! We won't tell."

  "And them two, and all the others coming and wanting leave to go fishingtoo."

  "No, no, I tell you," cried Mercer, but the keeper, with a malicioustwinkle in his eyes, kept on without heeding him.

  "And half of 'em'll be falling in, and t'other half tumble after 'em topull 'em out, and the whole school getting drowned, and then, what wouldthe Doctor say?"

  "I say, Jem Roff, just hark at him!" cried Mercer impatiently.

  "Oh, if you don't want to hear me talk, I can keep my mouth shut. Goodmorning."

  He nodded shortly, and, shouldering his gun, marched off.

  "Oh, I say, isn't he provoking? and he never gave us leave.--Bob!"

  No answer.

  "Bob Hopley!"

  But the keeper strode on without turning his head, and Mercer stoodwrinkling up his forehead, the picture of despair.

  "And there are such lots of fish in that pond," he cried, "and I didwant to show my friend here, Jem Roff."

  "Well, why don't you go, then? He's only teasing you."

  "Think so," cried my companion, brightening up.

  "Why, didn't he tell you where the rods and lines were, and the worms?You go on and fish. I should."

  "You would, Jem?"

  "Of course."

  "But there won't be time before dinner now," said Mercer thoughtfully."I say, are you hungry?"

  "Not very," I said, "and I've got some biscuits left."

  "Then come on," cried Mercer. "Don't tell him weave gone, Jem, and Iwill stuff that mag for you splendidly, see if I don't."

  "I shan't see him, my lad. There, off you go."

  "Yes: come on!" cried Mercer excitedly; "and--I say, Jem, lend us abasket."

  "What for?"

  "To put the fish in?"

  "You go and ketch 'em first, lad, and by and by I'll come round that waywith one under my arm, and you might give a fellow an eel, if you getone."

  "You shall have all the eels, Jem."

  "Thank-ye. Then look here! you bait one line with the biggest worms youcan find, and do you know the penstock?"

  "What, down in the deep corner, under the trees?"

  "Yes; it's ten foot deep there. You fish right on the bottom, in thatcorner, and you'll have some sport."

  "Hallo!" cried Mercer, laughing. "I say, Burr, junior, hark at him.How does he know? I say, Jem, how many eels have you caught there, eh?"

  "You go and begin," said the man, with a dry laugh. "I won't forgetabout the basket."

  "Nor I about the eels. Come on," cried Mercer. "Here, look sharp;let's run!"

  He caught hold of my hand, raced me through the hop-garden, and out intothe lane.

  "Now, down here," he said, as we reached a stile. "We can get acrossthis field, and then into the woods, and--quick, do as I do!"

  As he spoke, he dropped down on his knees, and began hunting about atthe bottom of the hedge, while I made clumsy efforts to do the same.

  "What is it?" I said eagerly.

  "Pretend it's a snake. Can't you see?"


  "There's Eely Burr and old Dicksee coming down the lane, and they'llwant to come too. Hist! don't look. Lie down; p'r'aps they haven'tseen us, and they'll go by."

  "But it's all stinging nettles," I said.

  "What of that? Here, this way; they won't sting if you go down hard."

  And, throwing himself into a great bed of the venomous weeds, he layperfectly still, and I was obliged to follow suit, but not withoutsuffering two or three stings.