The Rabbit-Catcher by James Runciman

Story type: Literature

I had the fancy to walk out one winter’s morning in a very lonely place. The wind was laden with sleet, and as I walked on the top of the cliffs it struck my right cheek viciously, and then screamed away past through the furze-bushes. The light was coming up slowly over the leaden sea, and the waves seemed cowed by the steady flogging of the sleet. I heard the woods complaining from afar off, and the whistling curlew as he called overhead made me think of messengers of evil. Presently I came to a great range of rounded hills, which were covered by withered bracken. Certain gaps led through these hills to the beach, and along the beach I determined to walk. My terrier concluded that rabbits were vanity. He drooped his ears and tail, and trotted along as if he were reproaching me for my rashness. I was glancing out over the grey trouble of the sea, and watching the forlorn ships cowering along like belated ghosts, when I heard a click to the right of me. Looking up the bluff, I saw a tall powerful lad who had just straightened himself up. He had two rabbits slung over his shoulder, and his big bag seemed to contain many more. I walked towards him to have a look at what he was doing, and I found him manoeuvring with a great steel trap. When he had finished, we dropped into conversation in that easy way proper to wild places where few men ever come. I noticed his build and his face. His rough bonnet covered his forehead, but I could see he had plenty of thick brown hair. His eye was blue like tempered steel, and shone with a steady gleam from under projecting brows. His mouth was beautifully shaped, and his lips were full and resolute. For the rest, he was built like an ordinary dalesman–broad and flat in the shoulders, lean in the flank, and strong of limb. His clothing was coarse and poor, and his hands were rough and very red.

I said, “What takes you out at this time of the morning?”

“Oh! I was just lookin’ round the traps. My father rents the hills from here to the Clough, and I work with him.”

“You find it chilly work this weather?”

“It’s grey and cold; but we haven’t to mind those things.”

“Are you busy all day?”

“No. I only go to the traps twice, and then drive the rabbits into the town, and the rest o’ the time I’m clear.”

“Then where do you live?”

“I stop by myself mostly in the wooden house at the Poachers’ Hollow, and old Betty Winthrop comes and does what’s wanted to keep the place right.”

We walked on exchanging small talk until we came to the hollow, and I saw the tiny hut where my new friend lived. The hollow was a gruesome place. It acted as a kind of funnel whereby the wind from the great woods was poured over the beach, and sent moaning away across the sea. In summer it was gay with bracken, and golden ragwort, and wild geranium, but in winter it looked only fit for adventurous witches to gambol in.

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I said, “The wind must yell awfully here when it is a gusty night.”

A curious look came into the young fellow’s eye, and gave me a new interest in him. He answered:

“I like it. The wind here’s like nowhere else. It plays tunes on the trees there as it comes through, and I get the echoes of them. Sometimes I hear the men’s voices, and then I know what it is. It’s the old Norsemen going out over the sea to look at their tracks again. Bless you, I’ve heard them talk about the Swan’s bath. Sometimes the dead ladies come and whisper, and I know they’re walking in the woods all the time the dusk lasts.”

I stared very much. This speech did not sound very sane, and yet it was uttered by a quiet young lad who looked as if he might be trusted. I thought, “Oh! Here’s a kind of poet, or something of that sort,” and I said, smilingly, “How do you come to know about the Norsemen, then?”

“I have several books. I got one on a stall–a very good one about heroes. It has a lot in it about the Norsemen. If you come in you can see my books. You might have some tea. I put the kettle ready before I went out.”

I stepped into the hut, and found it warm and cosy. A cake of barley bread was on the table, and a little black teapot stood there also. There was no furniture but a low wooden bed, one chair, a settle, and a broad shelf. On the shelf was a slate scrabbled all over with geometrical figures, and one of these figures was a parabola with two tangents drawn touching. This puzzled me much. I sat down to warm my hands and my half-frozen face, and when I felt comfortable I said,

“Do you read conic sections, young gentleman?”

His bonnet was off now, and I saw his broad, compact forehead and his massive temples. He looked capable of reading anything.

He replied, quite simply:

“Oh, yes! I read geometrical conics.”

“And did you teach yourself?”

“Yes. It isn’t hard after you’ve got over the sixth book of Euclid.”

I grew more and more puzzled and interested. We had some tea, which made me feel positively luxurious, and then I looked at the backs of the books. There were “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and “Tappan on the Will.” Then came Shakespeare, a shilling edition of Keats, Drew’s “Conic Sections,” Hall’s “Differential Calculus,” Baker’s “Land Surveying,” Carlyle’s “Heroes,” a fat volume of Shelley, “The Antiquary,” White’s “Selborne,” Bonnycastle’s “Algebra,” and five volumes of “The Tales of the Borders.”

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“You have a capital lot of books, my man. I suppose you know them all by heart, pretty well?”

“Yes, I know them; not by heart exactly, but I’ve had a lot of time these two winters, and I’ve gone over them and written about them.”

“Well, which do you like best of all?”

“My fancy’s all for mathematics, but I like poetry.”

“Ah! And I suppose you write poetry–don’t you, now?”

He was not abashed–he said in an ordinary tone, “Very often. It doesn’t seem good, but I go on at it. It pleases me and puts away the time now and then. There’s some in that copy-book at your side.”

I know what a fearful thing youthful poetry is, and I felt a discreet dread. But I opened the book and saw that the young man had been writing verses in a large strong hand. I did not read much. There was one pair of broken quatrains which I remember:–

“Though toil is heavy I’ll not be sad,
I’ll rest content while my pulses beat;
If I work, and love, and trust and be glad,
Perchance the world will come to my feet.
But if no fortune ever be mine,
If my bones on this grey hill-side must lie,
As long as I breathe I’ll not repine,
I’ve gladly lived and I’ll gladly die.”

“You’re not very particular about the form of your verses,” said I.

“No! I never count syllables. I only go by accents.”

“Um! Well. I shall meet you again, and you shall come and see me.”

All that winter I was secluded. Day after day broke with wild weather. Sometimes the snow came and laid all the bracken under its gentle coverlid. Sometimes the wind came in from the sea, and as the mad squalls tore off the crests of the breakers, our cottage was smothered with yellow foam. I liked to go along to the wooden hut and sit with my young friend, although the tramp back in the chill darkness was not always very safe. He used also to visit me, and I lent him books. He was much taken with Burke, and would talk with a solemn enthusiasm when I encouraged him to speak about the American war and the Revolution. He began to try prose writing during this same winter, and I sometimes read his attempts. After he had shown me some quiet fragments, describing his own daily work, I advised him not to trouble himself with verse any more, and he went on imitating his favourite prose writers with curious persistence.

February came in, bringing worse weather than ever. One night the wind rose so that by nine o’clock it was hardly possible to stand in the open. The sky was like iron, and the dull red which had appeared in the West at sundown changed to a cold, neutral dimness. The birds were in great trouble, the gulls especially wailing with a peevish sharpness that made the skin creep. I looked out twice into the roaring darkness, and could see nothing except the flash of the “white horses” as they trampled and reared far out at sea. The fire was better than that wild company, so I sat a little, and then slept. A loud knocking awaked me, and, going to the door, I found that the dawn had come, and that my young friend was there.

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“What is the matter?”

“Get dressed, sir. There’s bad work coming, the gale’s worse, and there’s a brig trying to work north. He’ll never get round the point. You go nor’ard and rouse the Hundalee men, and I’ll go south and rouse the chaps at the Bay. Good-bye.”

When I got out the wind hit me so that I had to turn and gasp a second for breath. It seemed as though the sea were going to invade the land. There was not a vestige of black or green water for half a mile from the beach. Nothing but wild masses of angry whiteness coiling and winding and shivering themselves against each other. Twice the wind stopped me as I fought my way north, and once I had fairly to lie down in a hollow until a shrieking blast gave me leave to step on. But I got to the village and told the men, and a dozen strong fellows went back with me. There was no lifeboat within eight miles, so we harnessed two horses to a pair of the ordinary wheels used to launch herring-boats after the winter is over, and we took one of the smaller sort of trouting-boats with us.

When we reached the Point the men from the south were there, and my young friend was among them. All were excited, for the brig was fighting her way still through the awful sea. She would not bear enough sail to steady her in the least, and she could only claw her way inch by inch to the north-east.

The Point was a long sandy spit, which sloped gradually away into deep water. If the vessel could weather it, she might get away to the north, but she had gone too far into the bay, and the fishermen saw that she must choose between going ashore on the rocks of the bay and hitting the Point. In the latter event the vessel might hold for a while before the seas finally smashed her.

The brig rose sometimes on the cross seas until we could see her copper. Then she would seem to strike savagely at the driving mist as her masts lashed forward; then she would lurch to leeward, and lie for a few horrible seconds as though she never would rise again. It could not last. My young friend said:

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“Let’s get the coble down to the water’s edge.”

The volleys of wind and the thunder of water had frightened the horses, and they stood trembling and cowed. The men had to let the boat slide down the grassy channel, which was, as it were, bevelled in the low bulge of the Point.

They had not long to wait. The brig suddenly came round, as though her helm had been put hard up.

“Rudder’s gone,” said one of the fishermen.

Sea after sea struck the vessel astern, and threatened to swamp her, but she managed always to shake herself. She came on like a cork that is rushed down a gutter by a shower, only giving a roll and going yard-arm under as cross-seas hit her.

At last she stopped.

“Touched,” said one of the men.

But she rose again and lumbered yet a few yards forward. Then she beat herself heavily, and the next sea doubled clean over her.

“We can’t do nothin’, chaps. The coble winnot get two yards till she’s over.”

This came from the oldest fisherman.

“Oh! for Christ’s sake, let’s shove off,” said my young student, clasping his hands. He was pale, and his eyes shone, as they always did when he was excited.

“It’s very well to say shove off, my bonny man, but look at it! We brought the boat for fear there might be a chance, but there’s no chance at all.”

“I think we might just have a try,” said a large, grave man. “Will three o’ you come, and I’ll steer her myself?”

“I’ll be one,” said a stiff little man, known as “Catfish.”

“Let me go,” said the young rabbit-catcher.

“I can pull as well as ever a one of you,” he pleaded, when the large man looked doubtful. I wanted to go, but it was decided that a fisherman would pull better than I. So we got the boat hurled through the smother of foam, and presently we heard the “Crack, crack,” as the vanguard of the real water began to strike at her.

My youngster was pulling with his hat off, and I saw him now and then, as the boat swooped upward, and hung almost perpendicularly on the striped side of a travelling wave. I believe I prayed. An old man, whose son was rowing the stern oar (cobles only need three oars, two on one side, and a long one astern) said, “Lord, have mercy on you, my bonny Harry.” Then he sobbed once, and his face became fixed, like a mask of carven stone.

I do not know how long the wild buffeting lasted, but I know that presently the bows of the boat appeared returning over a doubling sea, and as she made her downward flight I saw a black, huddled mass in her.

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Then there was a rush, and the coble came up on the sand. Only one trip was needed. Five men were brought ashore; the other two hands had been taken overboard by one sea just before the ship lost her rudder.

Years went by, and I returned to dwell in cities. One evening I went to dine at a club. I was lounging in the reading-room, when a splendid-looking man attracted my attention. He was a magnificently-built young fellow, with a fine beard, and bright, steel-blue eyes. When he rose, I saw that he was perfectly dressed, and when he spoke to a waiter, his voice seemed deep, and his accent fine.

I looked down at my paper, and I then felt that he was looking at me. When I looked up, he had risen, and was looking steadily in my face. He made a step forward.

“Pardon me. How very, very strange!” I said; “I’m at a loss to remember you. You’ll forgive me.”

“Don’t you remember the Poachers’ Hollow, and the brig, and Burke, and the Differential?”

Then I knew, and we shook hands heartily. We dined together, and he told me how his change of fortune had come about.

“It all came through that shipwreck,” he explained.

“How was that?”

“Well, directly I got home and changed, I sat down and wrote an account of the whole concern in some very gaudy prose, and I drove the pony into the town and handed the letter in at the ‘Sentinel’ office. My account was printed. Old Mr. Willits–you remember him–sent to the editor to know who had done it, and then sent for me. He was very grumpy and crusty at first, but I explained my position to him simply, and he got very good humoured. He sent me to a tutor for two years and a half; then I won a Trinity scholarship, and scored two or three other things; then I went to the University, and slogged like a slave. Mr. Willits helped me. I did very well in the Tripos–not so well as men who started younger–but still I landed ninth. Now I’m principal of the new college that —- endowed, and I have a very good thing indeed.”

So my friend, the rabbit-catcher, became a successful man, and, I am sure, I wished him joy.

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