FROM the high ground of Windwhistle Cross many hundreds of fields are seen, covering the slopes of the hills like a far-lying patchwork of irregular green and brown pieces stitched together with thick dark wool; some fields bright with sunlight, others dull under distant clouds. Most of these fields, varying in extent from a rood to fifty acres, are enclosed by wide banks of earth and stone, topped with hedges of beech, ash, thorn, elm, furze, and bramble.
In every one of these banks are many holes; they are tunneled from gate to gate. Few of the tunnels are straight or level. They rise and fall and twist round inner pieces of rock. Each system has several outlet and inlet holes, with one or more bolt holes used only in panic, hidden by the grass and the plants on the bank.
Sometimes the rabbits, which scratch out these systems, called ‘buries,’ cause the earth and stones of the banks to fall down, when sheep and cattle tread the breaks into gaps and wander from their rightful pasture. The rabbits nibble the roots of turnip, mangel, and rape; they eat the young corn, the clover, the cabbages, the peas; they dig for potatoes, and rasp the bark of fruit trees. They multiply rapidly — a doe having five or six litters a year, with five or six young to each litter.
Part of the area of these fields seen from Windwhistle Cross, which come by gates to narrow lanes leading past farms and hamlets to the roadways, is traversed from October to February by a Ford van loaded with rectangular wicker baskets, each bearing two stout hazel-wood bars on which are strung the crossed hind legs of dead rabbits — a hind leg being thrust between the bone and sinew of the other. The van stops at the cottages of trappers, and other places where rabbits are collected. The collector gets down from beside the driver, examines the rabbits, selects what he will take, Weighs them on a spring balance, and buys them by weight. The price in a normal season varies from 5 1/2d. to 7d. a pound, including the skin.
In his round the buyer is regular and punctual, and if he knows he will change his time he sends postcards to the trappers, who are busy men. The rabbits, which are sent by train to one of the largest Midland factory cities, must be scarcely injured — that is, caught by the forepaws only. A rabbit trapped by the hind legs often strips the flesh in its struggles, and is not marketable. In five months the van carries rabbits to the value of £6000; that is, between 120,000 and 150,000 rabbits are sent away in the wicker baskets. Actually double the number may be caught during this period, but buzzards and crows ‘ break abroad ’ some of them by day, the fox and the badger take them by night. Many are trapped lightly by the forepaw and escape. Indeed, one rabbit in five packed in the baskets has a forepaw already missing.
In our village there are several trappers. One of them pays for the trapping rights of a farm by giving so many weeks’ labor to the farmer in summer. A good trapper visits his gins at daybreak and in the evening, but some go along their banks only three times in a week, having other work to do. During the first hours of its agony of struggling, a rabbit fills the night with crying; but terror and pain, long borne with hunger and perhaps the beating of rain and wind, bring the ease of little-knowing.
Besides the regular trappers, there are farmers who hold from seven to ten or twenty acres of land and keep two or three cows, besides a sow and her farrow. Sometimes they bring home a couple of rabbits, taken in their halfdozen rusty gins tilled for rat or rabbit, or shot in the early morning, or caught by the dog at dimmit. The ‘bad ones’ they eat themselves; others may be offered at the doors of one or the other of the bungalows or small modern houses built since the Great War in and around the village. The unsold rabbits are hung up until an old man called ‘Muggy’ knocks with his stick on the door, standing there with a basket.
‘Good morning to you, ma’m. Any rabbuts to-day, please? Thank you very much.’ It may be: ‘Good morning, midear. I hope you’m very well. Will you please to ask your mother if she has any rabbut skins? I’m paying three ha’pence to-day — rabbut skins is come back.’ Or: ‘Rabbut skins is gone up — I’m giving tuppence to-day, if you please. That’s right, ma’m, thank you very much.’
Between the two villages he walks slowly, giving a cheery ‘good day’ to all he meets on the way. Sometimes he has a joke to tell, or a riddle to ask. ‘Now, sir, let me ask you a question, please. Can you tell me what it is that is longer when cut off at both ends? I am asking you a plain question, if you please. Just listen to what I be asking, if you please. What is it that grows longer when cut off at the ends? That’s it, if you can answer me.’
The riddle may have been asked before, and Muggy forgotten; but no matter. As with his other riddle (Why did Gladstone wear yellow braces? ’To keep his trousers up, if you please, sir. That’s it!’), the answer is not known.
‘ ’T is a grave,’ says Muggy, moving away, and stopping to explain that in his ‘kid days’ he saw a coffin lowered in Ham churchyard but coming to rest on the eastern and western edges, so that the grave had to be dug longer while the mourners waited around the pit. ‘Yes, sir. That be the explanation. Good day, sir.’
He has no remarks or comments to offer on the actions of other people, and is not concerned with your own. ‘I don’t want to know your own business, midear. No, sir. ’T is no concern of mine what other volks be doing of. I don’t want to know their business.’
Muggy was born at the inn called the Manor House, which is opposite the clubroom steps where now he rests, perched above the stream; but as a young man he sold the inn and went to America, coming back to end his days in the village. For some years, when first I knew him, he had a shanty in the corner of a hillside field, which he reached by climbing the ‘ditched’ wall on juts of stone. The shanty was as tall as himself, but not much longer or wider than a coffin. His bed was a shelf, and he cooked on an oil stove covered with soot as the stones of the ‘ ditch’ outside were covered with moss. His larder was a box on a post, beside his letter box. In the shanty he shaved and washed and ate, kept his accounts with the rabbit collector, wrote his occasional letters, stored his rabbit skins; until the local sanitary authorities found and condemned it. He migrated to the village up the valley, renting in Ham a two-roomed cot for three pounds a year. But after a year the landlord had a grandson timeexpired in the Army and coming home from Malta with a wife and baby; so he ‘rose the rent’ another pound; and Muggy, whose income from rabbits and their skins, telegram tips, watercress and crabs in summer, could not meet this increase, came out and made a room in a cottage opposite, long since disused as a dwelling, wherein sacks of artificial manure, fagots, and garden tools were kept by the landlord of the Rock Inn.
His journeys between the two villages begin to take longer, his jokes and riddles are rarer; but his cheerful courtesy still brightens the wayside. Everyone knows Muggy, and is sure of him — no casting of eyes on the road or the hedge, awaiting the unsure and awkward moment of glancing up and acknowledging that it is a fine day, or what dirty weather we’re having, or that it looks like more rain. Muggy is plain as a field is plain, plough, arrish, or pasture; a rare and simple being, warped to no property, true to itself, and, therefore, to all men. Shakespeare would have loved him.