Old Reynard in Springtime

IT was a pity to leave the garden on this March day, for it was springing with a new, a varied life. All the little spring flowers were singing together, some with their faces just visible above the spears of grass, others swaying on such delicate stems that they seemed at any moment ready to fly skyward.

Their song must surely have been audible to the goldfish in the pond, for they showed a new vivacity in their movements and the largest leapt clear of the water, with a flourish of his spear-shaped tail. There are seven goldfish, and my children have named them for the days of the week. The one which had just leapt is called ‘Sunday,’ and so they are graduated down to little ‘Saturday Pence,’ for Saturday cannot be separated from the thought of the weekly allowance of tuppence apiece.

It needed no sensitive ear of a goldfish to hear the song of the birds. The missel thrush, perched among the glistening buds of the magnolia tree, poured out his heavenly chatter, and the blackbird whistled richly. In the deep shadow of the trees the ringdove gave forth the sulky sweetness of his call.

How beautiful the trees were in their fine new leafage! Even the pines had a new shine on their needles. The weeping beech trees, which send long trailers drooping to the ground, were forming their thin, satiny leaves. ‘Like the leaves of my new prayer book,’ said my little girl, and she could pay them no higher compliment.

Ours is rather a grim-looking house, despite the ivy that enfolds it, but it stands on a lovely slope which rises to the mystery of a wood. Up this slope the daffodils were uncovering their golden heads in a brave procession, and in the wood the stalks of the bluebells swelled as they drew up moisture from the deep, rich earth.

Halfway up the slope there is a thatched summerhouse, and an old sundial bearing the words: ‘Make the passing shadow work thy will.’ They seemed stern words to me on this blowy soft March morning. How could I make a shadow work my will? And I but another shadow! The motto was better suited to that noted engineer who once lived here. He built the Jubilee Drive that climbs the hills to the Herefordshire Beacon, in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Just beside the sundial a large, thrice-circling hoop of iron hangs from the spreading branch of an oak. In those days the engineer’s servants used to beat on this to summon him from across the valley to his forgotten meals.

I had a fancy to hear its voice speak again. I picked up a stone and struck the hoops sharply. I made them sound their heavy note again and again. Then silence came, and regret. I had frightened the birds. Silence lay thick among the trees. A bloom like the bloom on grapes lay there — silence made palpable.

Then a new sound, as though an echo of the gong, rose from a neighboring wood. Our two puppies came running along the mossy path and looked eagerly up into my face. The Scottic’s tail was a tense question mark above his muscular haunches, the Cairn’s eyes were luminous under a fringe of mouse-colored hair. ‘The hounds!’ tail and eyes said to me, as plain as words could speak. ‘The hounds are baying and we want to go to the Hunt! ’

I had their leads looped over my arm, and before they could run off again I fastened the Scottie’s plaid collar round his neck and slipped on the Cairn’s green harness. The Scottie lay prostrate, grinning up at me. Little shivers ran over the Cairn. When we set off they trotted so close together that their sides touched — the one jogging like a pony, the other moving with smooth slinky grace.

A rabbit darted across the path and there were two simultaneous tugs at the leads. The rabbit disappeared into the rhododendrons and again that sad sweet music of the hounds came on the breeze. We trotted along the path to the iron gate that stands at the back of the grounds. We followed another path to the public road and climbed the steep hill toward the Wyche, with far ahead the Worcestershire Beacon hunched against the blue sky.

We were not the only ones who had heard the baying of the hounds. When we neared the top of the hill, where there is a scattering of small houses, I saw that out of each women and children had come and were standing fascinated, their eyes fixed on a copse on the steep above. Two youths on bicycles had dismounted; two more had clambered down from the seat of a lorry; a farmer had drawn up his pony and sat looking on from the seat of his gig. A man raking in a garden, a laborer digging a drain, threw down their tools and joined us others who had gathered by a low stone wall on which we could rest our arms. I lifted the Scottie and the Cairn on to it and all stared at the copse from where the sound of a horn now rose.

Yet, while we fixed our eyes on this small space, a spacious panorama was spread before us, hill upon hill, fold upon fold, embracing the lovely valleys, encircling the fields where flocks of black-faced sheep grazed. And in the distance the sunlight silvered the black mountains of Wales.

‘There he is!’ cried one of the youths, and ‘Yon’s the fox!’ called a woman, holding up her child to see.

Across a pale-green field he flashed — a bronze arrow of fear. The hounds came tumbling out of the copse after him, in a stream of liver and white, their bellies close to the ground, their throats swelling with the bell-like notes. And after the hounds the horses with flying manes and streaming tails, their riders in pink or brown or gray, stretched their powerful legs across the tender grass.

‘’T is the last day of the huntin’,’ observed an old man at my side. ‘If he gets away to-day he’s safe till autumn.’ The man’s voice expressed neither hope that the fox would escape nor desire that he should be caught. It expressed, in its rich Herefordshire accent, only complete satisfaction in the spectacle before him and complete acquiescence in its finish — whatever that might be.

Suddenly the hounds showed bewilderment; they became silent and scattered themselves across the field. The horses slackened to a trot. The fox had disappeared into some undergrowth that fringed a little stream. A bird began to sing timidly. The Scottie and the Cairn became restive; they looked questioningly into my face. The old man gave it as his opinion that the fox had gone to earth. A gentle spring sweetness rose from the land over which the ancestors of this same fox and these hounds had raced for many generations.

Then a hound raised up his voice and all the pack joined in the clamor. The horn sounded. The Whip shouted. The scent was again strong.

‘Look! Look! There he is! By gum, he’s coming straight this way!’ Excited voices rose all about me. Then I saw the fox.

He came down the hillside toward us, clearly seen by us but still invisible to the Hunt. He came at an easy trot, not spending himself, his head turning warily from left to right as he sought for escape. He showed no fear at the sight of all these people, but drew nearer in his soft, loping trot, his pointed muzzle turning this way and that.

For a moment he disappeared, but again we saw him, now poised on the top of the wall surrounding a cottage garden. A woman stood in the doorway, staring at him open-mouthed. She had been feeding her fowls, which were pecking at the corn, oblivious of the nearness of their enemy.

He hesitated, turning his bright gaze on them, as though he had a mind to pick one up on his way, but the baying of the hounds rose from the other side of the wall and he moved delicately across the vegetable garden. The gate stood open and he trotted through it, like an accustomed visitor, on to the road where we stood.

I have seen foxes in captivity, foxes stuffed, and many skins of foxes, but he was the handsomest I have ever seen. He was large, in beautiful condition, sleek and graceful. His fur was a lovely red russet, and strength and experienced maturity were in every movement.

He gave us a glance, half sneering, wholly self-contained, and crossed the road. I felt the bodies of the terriers rigid against my side. Their hackles rose. The Scottie gave a loud yell of fury as the fox clambered over the wall near us, and struggled to be after him. The Cairn lifted his lip and turned his pretty little face into a mask of hate.

Now through a farm gate the Hunt poured, in a confusion of hounds, horses, and pink coats, into the road. The sides of the horses were heaving; foam flecked their bright coats. I knew some of the riders, but they passed, seeing nothing outside the chase, excepting one, an elderly man who came last and shut the gate after them. He recognized me and touched his cap with his crop. ‘He’s a tough old rascal,’ he exclaimed. ‘He’s been hunted a dozen times this season.’ He himself looked tough-sinewed and wiry. The skin of his thin aquiline face was weatherbeaten and red. The sleeves of his coat were too short — his red wrists protruded; and he had evidently had a fall, for his back was plastered with mud.

Now old Reynard stretched his supple length in desperate need. He flew down the green slope with the hounds baying closer to the red plume of his tail. Their voices had become hysterical, half mad with the lust to tear him to pieces. The horses thundered after the hounds, rising to jump a thorn hedge under which he had slipped. The hounds pressed, whimpering at the delay, through a thorny gap. A young boy was thrown from his pony, but he captured it, remounted, and went boldly after the others.

We, at the top, looked down on the scene, not with godlike impartiality, but heart and soul for the escape of the fox. There had been something in the way he had looked at us. He had taken us into his confidence. ‘See me!’ he had seemed to say. ‘Watch how I will diddle them!’

We could see his russet body flying across a smooth meadow — too smooth, for it meant that the hounds gained on him. But ahead was a wood, and if he could win that he might have a chance.

‘Ah, I do hope he gets away!’ cried the woman whose garden he had passed through. ‘He came that near me I could have touched him and he’d such bright eyes!’

Now the fox did a strange thing. He turned aside and glided into the sparse undergrowth by the edge of the stream. He seemed to be throwing away his one chance of escape. The hounds ran here and there, muzzles snuffling, tails waving. Then one raised his voice, the others jostled him, and again they were off. They disappeared into the wood.

‘ ’T was a master stroke,’ said the man at my side. ‘He came on the scent of another fox and crossed it to save his own skin! He’s thrown the hounds off the scent. I warrant they’ll never get him now.’

It was true. Up the hillside to the right we saw the old fox gliding. There was no mistaking his unusual color, his size, the almost studied grace of his movements. But he moved slowly now. He was very tired.

In the valley the tumult went on. It came mysteriously out of the wood, invisible to us except for the occasional gleam of a polished flank, the flash of a pink coat. The silent hills unrolled themselves, fold upon fold, dark green upon pale green, blue upon purple, purple on the azure horizon.

At last beyond the wood we saw the Hunt flash out and stream across the fields. We saw the hounds slither across the stepping stones of a stream, the horses arched above it for a spectacular moment. The horn sounded faintly, the bright colors dissolved into the colors of hedge and mead.

‘My goodness!’ exclaimed the cottage woman. ‘I thought he was for snatching one of my hens! But just the same I’m glad he got away!’

‘Him’s a noble-looking feller,’ said the old man. ̒̓T is to be hoped he breeds more of his kind this year.’

More of his kind to be hunted! More of his kind to strain with breaking hearts to reach the haven of their burrows or be torn to pieces! Little cubs, playing at their mother’s side through the summer days — reared for this tragic culmination of their strength and speed!

Was it better, I wondered, to be born for this than never to be born at all? For certainly it is the Hunt which preserves the fox. If it were not for the Hunt the farmers would soon demand his extermination, as he increased in boldness and numbers. I thought of old Reynard, now stretched at ease, his breathing gradually becoming tranquil, the baying of the hounds no more than the faint ringing of a distant bell; his woods, his meadows, safe for the summer. Yes, it was better to be born to suffer in the beauty of this world than not to be born at all.

I had lifted the puppies from the wall. The Scottie was already engaged in digging a hole. The Cairn was submitting coyly to the advances of a woman in a burberry coat. The little group of people was already dispersed. Bicycle, lorry, and cart were continuing their way.

As we went toward home my mind turned to the first meet of the season on a day last November. The meet had been at Barton Court and we had gone, packed in our car. The children’s kindergarten class had been given a holiday; so had the boys of the near-by preparatory school. It was a chill morning, but there was rich color on the countryside. The beech mast lay thick beneath the great smooth-boled trees, the russet oak leaves clung sparsely to the wide branches. Sheep grazed close together on the rimy green pastures. A roan pony drew wisps of hay from a shapely new rick.

When we had arrived most of the Hunt was already gathered at the Court. Plates of sandwiches and plum cake, glasses of cherry brandy, were being passed to those who rode and those who came as onlookers. The children ran to join their little friends. Indoors our host was talking to villagers who were enjoying the unusual treat of plum cake and coffee in midmorning.

The cobbles of the yard were wet and slippery; the horses sidled on them impatiently, while their riders cajoled or shouted at them. The dappled hounds stood shoulder to shoulder, gently surging, like a gathering wave. A deep undertone of excitement stirred through all.

Now the hunting season was over. There was peace for the hunted.