The Linhay on the Downs

ON the high down above the sea, in the corner of the last rough grazing field, stands a linhay, half fallen into ruin. It is built of boles of spruce fir, unhewn but barked, and boarded with rough wooden boards. It has a roof of corrugated iron. The roof is intact, but many of the wooden boards have fallen with the rusted nails. Those boards remaining are green and damp, and shaggy with gray lichens.

The linhay had been built with its eastern end open for bullocks to shelter in stormy weather; but the gentleman farmer had sold the down with his other land after the Great War, and the new owner had let it fall ruinous. Battering winds and rain straight from off the Atlantic, and the hot sun of summer, had warped and rotted the boards, and opened two other walls to the weather.

On windy days buzzard hawks he over the down on crooked wings, watching for rabbits in the heather slope below, or turn and glide over the line of the hill. It is a beautiful and desolate place, where the spirit can spread itself wide and airy as the sea and the sky.

One morning I set out for the linhay with a companion. As we climbed the road to Windwhistle Cross the wind blew harder, and found cold places in our clothes. Past the spinney the way lay over fields, cutting across the broad and rushing gale. I was more hardened than my companion, who covered her face with her gloved hands and walked with bowed head. After a while we reached a wall of stone and earth, tunneled by rabbits and lying broken in gaps. The wind, seeking to level all things, was whipping up bits of stone and earth over the wall, and we had to shield our eyes. Plants growing on the crumbling riband of earth remaining on the top of the stones were pressed tightly down, guarding their leaves among the mosses from the stripping storms. White splashes marked the stones, where in still weather the buzzards had waited and watched for rabbits to lollop out of their buries.

We reached the ruined linhay, and realized it would give no shelter for a fire, as in other expeditions. The hollow was frigid in shadow, and scoured by the wind. The last stone wall before the heather and brambles of the wild seaward slope stood a few strides away, and behind this we sat down and rested. An easy matter to break the old boards with a fifty-pound slab of ironstone fallen from the wall, but not so easy to make a fire. Half a box of matches and chips sliced with a knife, however, changed the acrid smoke of deal wood into flame, and the flame into red and black brittle embers, which wasted in sparks over the grass.

While we were munching our sandwiches in the sunshine my companion, who had been staring into the shadowcut interior of the linhay ten yards away, asked me if I saw anything above a stone against the inner wall. Yes, I saw a pair of ears upraised, and a dark brown eye below them.

I stood up, and the ears went down flat; but the brown eye continued to watch. A rabbit was squatting there.

I sat down out of the wind, and soon afterward the ears were raised again. The wind tore at the flames, and rocked a loose stone on the wall behind us. It was blowing harder. We moved away, spreading a raincoat before a derelict plough which old grasses had partly covered. Sea gulls, shifting and slanting in swift, uneven gliding, began to appear above our heads, first in pairs, and then in many numbers. The sunlight was put out, and it was instantly chilly. I got up and looked over the wall.

I saw a grand and terrible sight. The headland, which lay out into the bay, dark and puny under the vastness of sky that seemed to begin just beyond my feet, was blurred and lost. Beyond a mile or two from the extended sands below, where hundreds of gulls were standing, still and tiny as scattered whitish seeds, all was chaos. It was as though the sky was falling; as though a monstrous spectre had risen out of the vast sea and was moving to overthrow the land.

We picked up our raincoats, gathered them back from the wind, and allowed ourselves to be billowed into the linhay. The air blows thudded against the boards of the intact side — the shippen was open west, south, and east, except for the round support posts, gnawn with damp at the base, which remained upright. Wind, rebounding from the single wall, flung over us like a comber, dropping dust and straw specks in our ears and the corners of our eyes. It was cold on the rough trodden floor, whereon lay flakes of blard, and dried dung of bullocks. The slabs of stone lay against the wall, about six inches from the bottom board, and in the space the rabbit was crouching, its ears pressed on its shoulders, its life quivering behind the staring dark eyes.

The headland was gone; the sky was falling. Beyond the forming ridges of distant waves the sea seemed to be taking on a wrinkled dull gray skin, like molten lead in a trough; and as we watched, the falling blackness was riven, and in the rift a snout arose, and spread upward into the shape of a funnel as it traveled over the surf to the shore. We saw the tiny white seeds sprout with wings, and settle on the sands again. The open linhay trembled, and we buttoned our coats to the neck.

A ladder was fixed to the middle post of one side of the linhay, leading to the tallat, or loft, through an open trapdoor seven feet above our heads. We climbed up, and were in an open space crossed by beams under slanting corrugated iron sheets, lit at the seaward end by a window frame without glass. The floor was rotten in places. Wooden pegs of shares, some with tarnished brass-wire loops, were thrown in one corner, with a sack. The skull of a mouse, with brittle bones interlocked in grayish fur, lay on one beam, where an owl had roosted. I looked through a break in the floor; the rabbit was still beside the stone.

Wind noises ran through the bleak tallat, coming in at the eaves, the floor cracks, the window frame stripped of putty and paint, where owls had perched. They filled the loft, like the hollow and curious voices of straying things, never of the earth or its life. The light drained from the rafters, the floor, each other’s face. The plaining voices were lost in the buffets of the iron roof. The skull of the mouse rolled on the beam, and the bones fell aslant, joining a trickle of broken straws along the floor. My companion wrapped her coat closer round her legs. I peered through an empty square of the window, and saw grayness rushing up the heather slope of the down. I saw the fire by the wall, already gutted of embers, kicked as though by an invisible foot. The charred lengths of board, flecked with yellow and red points of flame, rose up and flew yards, and fell flat, smoking violently in the grass.

The voices wailed and shrieked, seeming to dissolve the substance of the tallat in a pallor of darkness. Straw specks and mice bones whirled on the floor, suddenly to rise up and scatter. The linhay was shuddering in the wind. Would the inner core of its uprights hold in the storm? I trod a careful way to the trapdoor, and the wind threw up the wide skirt of the raincoat into my face.

We waited, our backs to the screaming drafts racing up the corrugations of the iron roof. Suddenly a hatch in the walled angle above the trapdoor burst its wooden latch and flung half open, before wedging against the floor and shaking on the ragged grass background of the field below. An amazing object moved slowly across the grassy rectangle cut by the lichen-frayed door. My companion saw it and clutched my arm.

The object moved on three thin legs, threw its head up and down with a roll and a flop. It paused, got its hind legs under it, and took another hop forward, dragging something on the ground. Each forward movement, which needed about five seconds to prepare, took it perhaps six inches nearer shelter. By its head and tail it was a fox — but was it a fox? The tail hung like a piece of old rope, the small head was almost without hair, the ribs showed under creases of skin muddy and stuck with tufts, through which the sharp points of shoulders and hips seemed about to break with the weight of the swelled body. I had just turned my glass into focus and seen that it was a vixen, dragging the chain and iron peg of a rusty rabbit gin clamped on its foreleg, when the first hail smote the roof with an immense clattering crash, and the linhay rocked with the hollow thunder of the wind. I feared it would turn over, crumple, and be carried through the stone wall immediately behind. The field space below the door was a gray blank; the day was torn up and hurtling past us. Jets of icy air were driven through the floor, and up between body and clothes. The sack slid over the green and rotting floor boards, reached the square of the trapdoor, jumped to the rafters, on which it moulded itself before falling. It was snatched through the hatch. I yelled in my companion’s ear that it would be best to stand by that hatch, to jump clear when the linhay should buckle and rise. I took her hand, cold as stone, and guided her along one of the joists, lest the floor break under our shoes.

We had reached the eastern end when the black of the storm fell on the down. Immediately we were under a torrent. I saw alarm with the misery in the dim face beside mine. The linhay was lurching under the falling flood. Skits blown in from the open window tasted salt on my lips. And the sea was a mile away, at the end of a downward slant of fifteen degrees! It must have been a waterspout we saw rising in the rift.

The earth under the linhay was awash. The water ran in wrinkled sheets prickled with rain. I could see nothing of fox or rabbit. The smashing of wood for the fire had given me warmth, but this warmth was used and gone after five more minutes in the tallat. My companion was rigid, as though being enclosed in an icicle; her teeth chattered. The wind pushed thorns under our nails and in our jawbones, and drew its brambles down our ears and cheeks. Our toes were broken in glacial gins.

There was no grandeur in the elements now; imagination was disharmonized from the sun. Nature was indifferent to the sufferings of all life. I could bear the screeching icy jets with fortitude, but my companion suffered, having no dolorous background in memory to make the present ineffectual. In that background for me were days and nights in water and clay-marn to the waist, with death above the leafless winter hedge shot stooping-high; days and nights without sleep, weeks and months without hope, without liberty — life with neither present nor future, worse than death, for death was release; life more terrible than being in a gin, for God has blessed man with the power to reason, and I knew that if I sought release and failed, or escaped from killing men I did not hate nor had ever seen before, I should be caught and shot before sunrise in peace-time clothes, with a bandage over my eyes and a white paper mark pinned opposite my heart, still joined in spirit to the mother who bore me in pain and afterjoy, and my name and my regiment would be read out on three successive parades to every soldier in the British Army in that alien country. These memories of 1914, and later ones far, far worse, made a background in endurance for the human spirit that had suffered and survived them. The pain as of thorns pushed under finger nails was nothing — it would pass.

The linhay withstood the storm, as it had others, held by the stout cores of its upright posts. The day began to grow again in the glacial twilight of the loft. Old boards grew swiftly green; the battering on the roof suddenly ceased with a few lingering taps against the iron sheets. Drops falling by the empty squares of the window were white; they glittered! — and blue and white sea and sky were beyond.

Kneeling down, and moving my face to a crack between the floor boards, I looked for rabbit and fox. Sight was limited, so I crawled stiffly—sometimes blowing through my half-clenched hands for warmth— to the trap, and peered over. The floor of the shippen was like the Salient in the winter of 1917 seen from a low-flying aeroplane. Hoof holes, shapeless and trodden into one another, were filled with water to their broken edges. Wind wrinkled the sky gleams by the posts. Against the inner wall the vixen sat, on one of the slabs of ironstone. Her back and neck were curved like a snail shell, and her nose touched the mud. She was shivering with every breath. The foot of the broken foreleg, and the gin that gripped it, were in the mud. Beside her on the other slab, about eighteen inches away, sat the rabbit. It looked about it with the relaxed movements and expression of an animal at ease. I had heard of timid and preying animals sheltering together innocently during a storm, but this was the only time I had witnessed such a pleasing sight.

A sound from above, from my companion, made vixen and rabbit look up together. We kept still, and they relaxed. I saw the vixen turn her mangy head toward the rabbit, which continued to nibble its forepaw. The narrow head began to droop, and a voice above me begged to be allowed to get down. I had forgotten those bluish hands, rough with chilblains. The field was a brilliant green, and steaming in the hot rays of the sun.

As I climbed down the ladder I saw, from the tail of my eye, the rabbit in a series of splashes crossing to the grass beyond the round posts. It disappeared. The vixen had risen on the stone. Her mouth was open, showing her teeth. She stood on three legs placed close together, swaying to keep balance, her brush pressed against the wall. She tried to stay herself with her broken leg, but it gave no support, and each time she nearly tipped into the mud.

There used to live in the village an old trapper who nearly died of the effects of a fox’s bite, which festered and made his hand swell, and his joints to be painful with inner corruption. This animal must have been feeding on slugs, beetles, and carrion left by magpies and buzzards — rats thrown out of gins in cornfields, broken carcasses of rabbits — and its teeth were probably more dirty than those of a healthy fox. How else had it survived, limping for weeks or months (long before clicketing time, perhaps), dragging the gin clanking on every stone, and rattling on the hard ground? I was afraid of its bite, having seen, some years before, a fox dead in a gin with lockjaw. Better to kill it, and so put myself out of my misery, for it was a woeful sight; and, although the poor beast might have been used to its slow and crippled ways, there were the cubs, soon to be born. Better to knock the ‘viccy’ on the nose with my stick, and bury her under a heap of stones.

My companion and I ran over the grass in the wind and the sunshine, swinging our arms, and laughing at each other with the pain in toes and fingers. We had a warm, dry cottage in the valley over the down, a garden filled with vegetables, fruit trees, stores of apples, potatoes, and wood for firing; shelves of books to read, clothes to wear, and flowers to tend in the coming spring and summer; we had a merry little babe with six teeth, who watched the rooks flying over the roof with sticks for theirnests, and shouted’ Duka duk!’ to them. So when we were warm again we returned with the sack to the linhay and, putting it over the head of the vixen, held her easily in her weak struggles, carried her into the field, trod on the steel spring to open the creaking iron jaws of the gin, and lifted out the paw. An easy matter to snick with a knife the frayed tendons, and to bind the stump with my tie, securing it with string. Then the sack was pulled away, rolling over the vixen. She kicked and scrambled on her three and a half feet, and faced us, snarling, with arched back and ears laid flat. I tapped the gin beside her with my stick and she snapped at it. Pushing the end through the spring, I drew it away; she lifted the stump and made the other foreleg rigid, as though to resist. Slowly we walked backward, drawing the gin over the wet grass. She whined, holding out a quivering stump. Five yards, ten yards, twenty yards — slowly we drew away from her, while she watched with raised ears and shifting feet.

We stood still. She arose and hobbled away, as though still dragging the iron. We watched her to the grass-tied plough under the wall. Here she smelt food, and down went her nose, searching for scraps of bread and boiled bacon left by us for the birds. We saw her rolling on her back in the sunlight before she disappeared through the gateway to the slope of furze and heather.

The daffodils in the garden broke yellow, and danced for weeks in the wind until their blooms were frayed; the sand martins and the chiffchaffs came back to the village. We saw the first swallows flitting over the seaward slope of the down. A trapper called to us from the bank, stopping his work to tell us of what he thought was a very strange thing. He had found something in one of his rabbit gins in the sand hills below. The sand had been laid by rain after he had tilled the gins the afternoon before, and visiting them that morning he had seen the prints of a walking fox, the marks of scurry round the gin it had sprung, and the trail leading away. How the bit of raggedy stuff had got in the gin he could n’t think. Had he got it? No, he had ‘throwed it away, not thinking much of it at the time; ’t was a bit of old raggedy black stuff, with yaller stripes on’n. Aiy, like a wasp!’

I knew that regimental tie.