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The Rabbit-Catcher
by [?]

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.”

“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.