The Pothunters/Chapter 7
Barrett stood at the window of his study with his hands in his pockets, looking thoughtfully at the football field. Now and then he whistled. That was to show that he was very much at his ease. He whistled a popular melody of the day three times as slowly as its talented composer had originally intended it to be whistled, and in a strange minor key. Some people, when offended, invariably whistle in this manner, and these are just the people with whom, if you happen to share a study with them, it is rash to have differences of opinion. Reade, who was deep in a book--though not so deep as he would have liked the casual observer to fancy him to be--would have given much to stop Barrett's musical experiments. To ask him to stop in so many words was, of course, impossible. Offended dignity must draw the line somewhere. That is one of the curious results of a polite education. When two gentlemen of Hoxton or the Borough have a misunderstanding, they address one another with even more freedom than is their usual custom. When one member of a public school falls out with another member, his politeness in dealing with him becomes so Chesterfieldian, that one cannot help being afraid that he will sustain a strain from which he will never recover.
After a time the tension became too much for Barrett. He picked up his cap and left the room. Reade continued to be absorbed in his book.
It was a splendid day outside, warm for April, and with just that freshness in the air which gets into the blood and makes Spring the best time of the whole year. Barrett had not the aesthetic soul to any appreciable extent, but he did know a fine day when he saw one, and even he realized that a day like this was not to be wasted in pottering about the School grounds watching the 'under thirteen' hundred yards (trial heats) and the 'under fourteen' broad jump, or doing occasional exercises in the gymnasium. It was a day for going far afield and not returning till lock-up. He had an object, too. Everything seemed to shout 'eggs' at him, to remind him that he was an enthusiast on the subject and had a collection to which he ought to seize this excellent opportunity of adding. The only question was, where to go. The surrounding country was a Paradise for the naturalist who had no absurd scruples on the subject of trespassing. To the west, in the direction of Stapleton, the woods and hedges were thick with nests. But then, so they were to the east along the Badgwick road. He wavered, but a recollection that there was water in the Badgwick direction, and that he might with luck beard a water-wagtail in its lair, decided him. What is life without a water-wagtail's egg? A mere mockery. He turned east.
'Hullo, Barrett, where are you off to?' Grey, of Prater's House, intercepted him as he was passing.
'Going to see if I can get some eggs. Are you coming?'
Grey hesitated. He was a keen naturalist, too.
'No, I don't think I will, thanks. Got an uncle coming down to see me.'
'Well, cut off before he comes.'
'No, he'd be too sick. Besides,' he added, ingenuously, 'there's a possible tip. Don't want to miss that. I'm simply stony. Always am at end of term.'
'Oh,' said Barrett, realizing that further argument would be thrown away. 'Well, so long, then.'
'So long. Hope you have luck.'
'Thanks. I say.'
'Roll-call, you know. If you don't see me anywhere about, you might answer my name.'
'All right. And if you find anything decent, you might remember me. You know pretty well what I've got already.'
'Right, I will.'
'Magpie's what I want particularly. Where are you going, by the way?'
'Thought of having a shot at old Venner's woods. I'm after a water-wagtail myself. Ought to be one or two in the Dingle.'
'Heaps, probably. But I should advise you to look out, you know. Venner's awfully down on trespassing.'
'Yes, the bounder. But I don't think he'll get me. One gets the knack of keeping fairly quiet with practice.'
'He's got thousands of keepers.'
'Dash his beastly dogs. I like dogs. Why are you such a croaker today, Grey?'
'Well, you know he's had two chaps sacked for going in his woods to my certain knowledge, Morton-Smith and Ainsworth. That's only since I've been at the Coll., too. Probably lots more before that.'
'Ainsworth was booked smoking there. That's why he was sacked. And Venner caught Morton-Smith himself simply staggering under dead rabbits. They sack any chap for poaching.'
'Well, I don't see how you're going to show you've not been poaching. Besides, it's miles out of bounds.'
'Grey,' said Barrett, severely, 'I'm surprised at you. Go away and meet your beastly uncle. Fancy talking about bounds at your time of life.'
'Well, don't forget me when you're hauling in the eggs.'
'Right you are. So long.'
Barrett proceeded on his way, his last difficulty safely removed. He could rely on Grey not to bungle that matter of roll-call. Grey had been there before.
A long white ribbon of dusty road separated St Austin's from the lodge gates of Badgwick Hall, the country seat of Sir Alfred Venner, M.P., also of 49A Lancaster Gate, London. Barrett walked rapidly for over half-an-hour before he came in sight of the great iron gates, flanked on the one side by a trim little lodge and green meadows, and on the other by woods of a darker green. Having got so far, he went on up the hill till at last he arrived at his destination. A small hedge, a sloping strip of green, and then the famous Dingle. I am loath to inflict any scenic rhapsodies on the reader, but really the Dingle deserves a line or two. It was the most beautiful spot in a country noted for its fine scenery. Dense woods were its chief feature. And by dense I mean well-supplied not only with trees (excellent things in themselves, but for the most part useless to the nest hunter), but also with a fascinating tangle of undergrowth, where every bush seemed to harbour eggs. All carefully preserved, too. That was the chief charm of the place. Since the sad episodes of Morton-Smith and Ainsworth, the School for the most part had looked askance at the Dingle. Once a select party from Dacre's House, headed by Babington, who always got himself into hot water when possible, had ventured into the forbidden land, and had returned hurriedly later in the afternoon with every sign of exhaustion, hinting breathlessly at keepers, dogs, and a pursuit that had lasted fifty minutes without a check. Since then no one had been daring enough to brave the terrors so carefully prepared for them by Milord Sir Venner and his minions, and the proud owner of the Dingle walked his woods in solitary state. Occasionally he would personally conduct some favoured guest thither and show him the wonders of the place. But this was not a frequent occurrence. On still-less frequent occasions, there were large shooting parties in the Dingle. But, as a rule, the word was 'Keepers only. No others need apply'.
A futile iron railing, some three feet in height, shut in the Dingle. Barrett jumped this lightly, and entered forthwith into Paradise. The place was full of nests. As Barrett took a step forward there was a sudden whirring of wings, and a bird rose from a bush close beside him. He went to inspect, and found a nest with seven eggs in it. Only a thrush, of course. As no one ever wants thrushes' eggs the world is over-stocked with them. Still, it gave promise of good things to come. Barrett pushed on through the bushes and the promise was fulfilled. He came upon another nest. Five eggs this time, of a variety he was unable with his moderate knowledge to classify. At any rate, he had not got them in his collection. Nor, to the best of his belief, had Grey. He took one for each of them.
Now this was all very well, thought Barrett, but what he had come for was the ovular deposit of the water-wagtail. Through the trees he could see the silver gleam of the brook at the foot of the hill. The woods sloped down to the very edge. Then came the brook, widening out here into the size of a small river. Then woods again all up the side of the opposite hill. Barrett hurried down the slope.
He had put on flannels for this emergency. He was prepared to wade, to swim if necessary. He hoped that it would not be necessary, for in April water is generally inclined to be chilly. Of keepers he had up till now seen no sign. Once he had heard the distant bark of a dog. It seemed to come from far across the stream and he had not troubled about it.
In the midst of the bushes on the bank stood a tree. It was not tall compared to the other trees of the Dingle, but standing alone as it did amongst the undergrowth it attracted the eye at once. Barrett, looking at it, saw something which made him forget water-wagtails for the moment. In a fork in one of the upper branches was a nest, an enormous nest, roughly constructed of sticks. It was a very jerry-built residence, evidently run up for the season by some prudent bird who knew by experience that no nest could last through the winter, and so had declined to waste his time in useless decorative work. But what bird was it? No doubt there are experts to whom a wood-pigeon's nest is something apart and distinct from the nest of the magpie, but to your unsophisticated amateur a nest that is large may be anything--rook's, magpie's, pigeon's, or great auk's. To such an one the only true test lies in the eggs. _Solvitur ambulando_. Barrett laid the pill-boxes, containing the precious specimens he had found in the nest at the top of the hill, at the foot of the tree, and began to climb.
It was to be a day of surprises for him. When he had got half way up he found himself on a kind of ledge, which appeared to be a kind of junction at which the tree branched off into two parts. To the left was the nest, high up in its fork. To the right was another shoot. He realized at once, with keen disappointment, that it would be useless to go further. The branches were obviously not strong enough to bear his weight. He looked down, preparatory to commencing the descent, and to his astonishment found himself looking into a black cavern. In his eagerness to reach the nest he had not noticed before that the tree was hollow.
This made up for a great many things. His disappointment became less keen. Few things are more interesting than a hollow tree.
'Wonder how deep it goes down,' he said to himself. He broke off a piece of wood and dropped it down the hollow. It seemed to reach the ground uncommonly soon. He tried another piece. The sound of its fall came up to him almost simultaneously. Evidently the hole was not deep. He placed his hands on the edge, and let himself gently down into the darkness. His feet touched something solid almost immediately. As far as he could judge, the depth of the cavity was not more than five feet. Standing up at his full height he could just rest his chin on the edge.
He seemed to be standing on some sort of a floor, roughly made, but too regular to be the work of nature. Evidently someone had been here before. He bent down to make certain. There was more room to move about in than he suspected. A man sitting down would find it not uncomfortable.
He brushed his hand along the floor. Certainly it seemed to be constructed of boards. Then his hand hit something small and hard. He groped about until his fingers closed on it. It was--what was it? He could hardly make out for the moment. Suddenly, as he moved it, something inside it rattled. Now he knew what it was. It was the very thing he most needed, a box of matches.
The first match he struck promptly and naturally went out. No first match ever stays alight for more than three-fifths of a second. The second was more successful. The sudden light dazzled him for a moment. When his eyes had grown accustomed to it, the match went out. He lit a third, and this time he saw all round the little chamber. 'Great Scott,' he said, 'the place is a regular poultry shop.' All round the sides were hung pheasants and partridges in various stages of maturity. Here and there the fur of a rabbit or a hare showed up amongst the feathers. Barrett hit on the solution of the problem directly. He had been shown a similar collection once in a tree on his father's land. The place was the headquarters of some poacher. Barrett was full of admiration for the ingenuity of the man in finding so safe a hiding-place.
He continued his search. In one angle of the tree was a piece of sacking. Barrett lifted it. He caught a glimpse of something bright, but before he could confirm the vague suspicion that flashed upon him, his match burnt down and lay smouldering on the floor. His hand trembled with excitement as he started to light another. It broke off in his hand. At last he succeeded. The light flashed up, and there beside the piece of sacking which had covered them were two cups. He recognized them instantly.
'Jove,' he gasped. 'The Sports pots! Now, how on earth--'
At this moment something happened which took his attention away from his discovery with painful suddenness. From beneath him came the muffled whine of a dog. He listened, holding his breath. No, he was not mistaken. The dog whined again, and broke into an excited bark. Somebody at the foot of the tree began to speak.