English Idylls

I. THE CROW STARVER

THE little boy spoke angrily to the dead stick he was dragging; his teeth were white as a weasel’s. The stick was a fallen branch of a pine, and he could just drag it; but when the brambles caught in a stump he tugged and heaved in vain. He threw all his weight on the stick, frowning fiercely at it and making a growling sound in his throat. The brambles gave and he staggered backward, then tugged the stick toward his fire, crying, ‘Ah, ee would, would ee? He-aa-eh! Ee would, would ee?’

I had walked to the spinney along the right of way through the cornfield. The island of hornbeam and pine rose in the middle of the field’s ridge, lapped around by a gentle green sea, for the wheat was raising slender blades into the sunlight. Seeing me, the boy leaped up from beside his fire, seized a clapper, and whirled it round his head. The noise caused a rook three hundred yards away to float into the wind again and drift into the next field.

The boy’s face was thin, his cheek bones high. His long hair fell over the collar of his loose coat — he had robbed an odd-me-dod, or scarecrow, of that coat. It hung to his knees. His head turned quickly at my footfall. His eyes were bright and keen as a bird’s, He had left school a year before; now he was a crow starver. He liked the job, for he was a peculiar child. I remember seeing him one day, when he was about six years old, dart out of his grannie’s cottage and pounce upon a girl carrying a basket of butter. ‘ Give it me!’ he had screeched, hanging to the basket and making angry growling noises. He had seen an orange in the basket. He hung on until the girl, with a laugh, gave it to the urchin, who ran into his cottage and hid it in the dark corner under the table, his hiding place.

A domed heap of turfs and sticks roughly piled and pleached, with a hole in the side facing northeast, away from the gales, was the crow starver’s abode. Into the earth floor stakes had been driven, supporting crosspieces on which rested withies from the brook and bracken from the covert beyond. Two sacks kept him warm.

At dawn he came up from his grannie’s cottage and lit his fire. When the daws and rooks came to plunder the sprouting grain, his voice and his engines of alarm drove them away.

‘Ulloo-oo-oo-a! Ulloo-oo-oo-a!’ His cries floated forlorn with the wailing of the lapwings wheeling and diving above the flinty field. The sound of old tins and baths being walloped came with them, and then his shrill voice and the rattle of his clappers. A length of iron rail hung from a low hornbeam branch, and he beat it with a hammer made from a holly stick pushed through the hole in a flint.

He had a store of birch bark pushed in a niche within his dugout. It burned with a sooty flame, for birch bark is full of oil. A sooty flame of orange bit the twigs — much better kindling than paper, which absorbed the damp. He made tea in an old marmalade pot and drank it without milk. Sometimes he had a little milk — there were goats in the vicarage garden and cows in the water meadow. In the embers he baked potatoes; sweet brown turnip he ate in slices. No one missed a ‘ tettie’ or a ‘ root,’ and no one saw him take them.

I used to visit him at night, when he lay in the opening of his shelter. The fire cast flame-light and shadow on his grinning squirrel-like face, as skits of wind rested and sped onward, rolling the bright sparks over the ground. He was happy in the spinney. One must not look too closely among the embers of his fire — after all, there were many rabbits, and an occasional one found with puffed face in a pegged noose of brass wire was anyone’s property. ‘A didden till the snare; a only found ’n in ’n.’

Sixpence a day, from dawn till sunset, banging the rusty tins and whirling the clapper. A mind unformed, a nature without pity, a brain experienced in artfulness. He had never known a father. Probably his mother, who rarely saw him, did not know who was his father. He was already formed into a solitary, living with the wind that was never silent in the pines. Sometimes, in dry weather, he slept there, in dreamless sleep as the brilliant stars of early spring swept westward, and the owls flew to the trees, hooted to their mates in the covert below, listened for mice and young rabbits, and flew on again. He knew few names, but he knew where the birds nested and when the flowers came in the hedgerows.

He looks up and listens to a singing lark; and yet I know, if he finds a nest, he will suck the eggs like a crow.

No — he does not feel the cold at night. A quick grin. No, he ‘didden’ want to live in a cottage; but the policeman must n’t know that.

‘Ess, a wull tend to craw starvin’ long as a can, a wull, forever, a wull.’

A mixed flock of rooks and jackdaws fly down to dig the grain. The crow starver springs up; the ragged trousers flap round his thin legs. (When they became entirely disgraceful he would beg a new pair from ‘his reverence,’ and give his own to a scarecrow.)

‘ Ulloo-oo-oo-a! Ulloo-oo-oo-a! ’

Bang, clang, on bath and rail. Rattle of walnut wood on oaken cogs of the clapper. Up rise the birds. The crow starver grins, and suddenly squats by his fire.

‘A made ’n spark, didden a, you?’

The spinney stands on the ridge of the wheat field to-day, but the dugout is fallen in and covered with brambles. The bath and tins are rust in the earth; the clapper is probably an antique in a dealer’s shop, or hanging on a wall somewhere, a relic of old England. When I walk along the right of way now, I walk in a smaller field; hedges, flints, the brook and the covert below, all have shrunken. The pines are not so tall — the pines where every spring a sparrow hawk used to nest. Once the illusion of boyhood arose out of the wheat and the trees and the birds in the sky, a living thing, brilliant as the sun up through the hornbeam leaves.

Other eyes may be finding it there now; my little boy may see it when he is older; but for me it is lost forever, though sometimes a smell of burning wood or a forlorn far cry may bring a glimpse in the mind. For between that vision of green wheat and singing larks and sunshine and the present lies an immense darkness and corruption, a vast negation of all beauty, as of life broken and moving backward to the original void. Its viewless shadow lies over the spinney to-day, and somewhere in that shadow wanders the ghost of the crow starver, dead in the war, with that old wraith of myself in the well-loved places.

Still the beautiful clouds lie over the downs, the larks are singing, the wheat rising green. There is hope in the wide and open sky.

II. STRANGE BIRDS

Standing by the parapet of London Bridge as it shuddered under the wheels of omnibuses, my feet cold on the pavement, I could imagine the wild eyes of an ancient Briton, suddenly brought back to life, filling with terror that the stars had fallen by the river, their vast flickering glares casting shadows about strange cliffs arisen where the forest was. The sun and the moon had fallen, too, and lay shattered and gleaming on the water; the whole sky hung with a haze of fire. And then out of this strange and dreadful scene arose a wild sweet note, startlingly near, passing in the night; another followed, and the spirit flew up with the familiar voices, away from this place where the grass had been dead so long and no trees grew.

I leaned on the cold stone of the parapet. The arc lamps blazed over the ships alongside the wharves, casting a coppery dust of light on cranes and rigging and burdened men. It was a usual night scene in the world’s greatest port. The beautiful cries were gone, beaten under by the gigantic meaningless roar coming out of the stone and iron of the city.

London is old, but the spirit of earth is older, and its wild birds sometimes return to their ancient river haunts. There used to be a kingfisher flying over the reservoir by Hammersmith Bridge, to perch on a snag before the house of William Morris. I saw it twice in 1920, but I have not been there since. I dare say the bird is gone with the black branch in the mud. In flight over the tidal water it drew such a bright line, brilliant blue in the sunlight as it flew away and ruddy brown as it returned. If thought could give it life, it would be there now, fishing the water’s verge for sticklebacks and beetles and shrimps, for all the children to see.

London is the less confining for me when I know that brown owls nest every year in the elms of Hyde Park. Last spring, as I was wandering under one of the great old trees, my hat was struck off my head by the talons of a hen bird whose nest was in the hollow of a branch above. She flew out in the brightest sunlight with her eyes fully opened, alighted halfway up another tree, and uttered her sharp cries of te-jick, te-jick. As I lingered under her nest, she flew down again in a swooping curve and would have struck my face if I had not turned my back and ducked. In her frenzy of protection she struck with her whole body, throwing herself at me behind the spread claws of her feet and falling to the ground with the shock.

I have seen woodpeckers in the Park, both the green and the greater-spotted birds; but I have never heard the yaffling laugh of the one or the beak drumming of the other — the mating calls. Perhaps the birds were solitary, or visitants from outlying woods. I searched many of the trees, failing to find any nesting hole or litter of gouged chips beneath.

The little owl (Athene noctua) has now strayed into London. Early one morning I saw a bird on the rim of the plash around the eastern fountain of Trafalgar Square; it was staring at the sparrows under the pedestal of the Nelson Column. It flew quickly toward them, snatched one in its claws, and bore it off squealing in the direction of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. It is quite possible that many of these owls nest in spring on the roofs of London houses. They appear to adapt themselves anywhere, and to live on any food; pigeons, their eggs, the squabs in the nests, might now be among those things — the swift snipe included — known to nourish these little alien pests, who are in England what rabbits are in Australia.

I have seen kestrel hawks in Greater London, hovering over the waste ground of the gravel pit by the Mazawattee tea factory in New Cross. And every year cuckoos return to the big cemetery at Brockley, flying among the tombstones which fill the fields that half a century ago were under the plough. During a rare space in the rumble of motor transport and drone of tramcars, their calls float faintly to the highroad like an echo of olden summer happiness stealing from that place now set apart for stones and silence.

III. NIGHT MUSIC OF BIRDS

Those restless and wild-piping birds, the waders, are sent wandering by frost to the estuary sand banks, and in the night a thousand cries come through the darkness. The curlews’ notes are more distinct, sounding like a chain of gold bubbles rising in a pool vast and starry. As the tide carries its froth up the channels, the cries increase. There are gulls and plover with them, redshank, dunlin, little stint, and shelduck, and the night is a maze of sweet sounds. The curlew is a shy, nervous bird, and in winter he cannot bear to be separated from his fellows. Sometimes by day a flock goes inland, flying high over the ploughlands, with their tossing wake of gulls and rooks and starlings. They stalk in the marshy fields afar off, rising like many eyelashes, dull brown, and scattered at the sight of a man walking two fields away.

One frosty night, as I listened to the lap and gurgle of the sea racing past the gravel ridges, a faint clamor, like staghounds laid on to the line of a deer far away, came down from the stars. The clamor changed to a trumpeting; the water shook in a net of stars. The night was filled with the rush of vast wings. Honk! honk! from stretched necks; a sudden uprising of frail cries from bank to bank, traveling far down into the distance; the harsh krark! of an uneasy heron. The wild geese were down from the north.

For an hour, as I stamped on the foreshore to keep warm, I heard other birds joining them: mallard, heard half a mile away by the quick whistle of wings from which pinion feathers were missing; green plover, soughing and calling forlornly, See-o-weet see-o-weet!

Listening to the slur and trickle and ‘bubble-link’ in the starlight, I wished I had the power to reproduce in music the variant night cries. Interwoven and continued, they glorified the night. Debussy could have caught and rendered them. Stravinsky could do it; no one knowing the natural life and hearing his original version of ‘Nightingale’ could doubt his power and his feeling. The same spirit is in Shelley’s poetry. The composer of ‘The Immortal Hour’ could change into music the flare and flicker of Sirius; the dry hiss of wind in the rimed shore grasses; the tiny glitter, as of black spiders’ eyes, of the Pleiads; the blue lights of unseen ships lying off Bideford Bay; the luminous smear of starlit mist over the Pebble Ridge; the myriad cries of the birds; the hollow roar of the breakers on the bar. Not only the translation of actual sight and sound into music, but the purest feeling of man who in moments of freedom — of the earth unearthy — becomes one in spirit with the birds, sharing their joyous lives, and hopes arising in their hearts, to be loosed in wildest song when spring comes on the south wind and the earth grows green in the sunshine.