“See here, you’d best lose the bitch–till tomorrow, anyway. She ain’t the sight to please a strict man, like your dad, on the Sabbath day. What’s more, she won’t heal for a fortni’t, not to deceive a Croolty-to-Animals Inspector at fifty yards; an’ with any man but me she’ll take a month.”
My friend Yorkshire Dick said this, with that curious gypsy intonation that turns English into a foreign tongue if you forget the words and listen only to the voice. He was squatting in the sunshine, with his back against an oak sapling, a black cutty under his nose, and Meg, my small fox-terrier, between his thighs. In those days, being just fifteen, I had taken a sketch-book and put myself to school under Dick to learn the lore of Things As They Are: and, as part of the course, we had been the death of a badger that morning–Sunday morning.
It was one of those days in autumn when the dews linger in the shade till noon and the blackberry grows too watery for the connoisseur. On the ridge where we loafed, the short turf was dry enough, and the sun strong between the sparse saplings; but the paths that zigzagged down the thick coppice to right and left were soft to the foot, and streaked with the slimy tracks of snails. A fine blue mist filled the gulf on either hand, and beneath it mingled the voices of streams and of birds busy beside them. At the mouth of each valley a thicker column of blue smoke curled up like a feather–that to the left rising from the kitchen chimney of my father’s cottage, that to the right from the encampment where Dick’s bouillon was simmering above a wood fire.
Looking over Dick’s shoulder along the ridge I could see, at a point where the two valleys climbed to the upland, a white-washed building, set alone, and backed by an undulating moorland dotted with clay-works. This was Ebenezer Chapel; and my father was its deacon. Its one bell had sounded down the ridge and tinkled in my ear from half-past ten to eleven that morning. Its pastor would walk back and eat roast duck and drink three-star brandy under my father’s roof after service. Bell and pastor had spoken in vain, as far as I was concerned; but I knew that all they had to say would be rubbed in with my father’s stirrup-leather before nightfall.
“‘Tis pretty sport,” said Dick, “but it leaves traces.”
Between us the thin red soil of the ridge was heaped in mounds, and its stain streaked our clothes and faces. On one of these mounds lay a spade and two picks, a pair of tongs, an old sack, dyed in its original service of holding sheep’s reddle, and, on the sack, the carcase of our badger, its grey hairs messed with blood about the snout. This carcase was a matter of study not only to me, who had my sketch-book out, but to a couple of Dick’s terriers tied up to a sapling close by–an ugly mongrel, half fox-half bull-terrier, and a Dandie Dinmont–who were straining to get at it. As for Dick, he never lifted his eyes, but went on handling Meg.
He had the gypsy’s secret with animals, and the poor little bitch hardly winced under his touch, though her under-lip was torn away, and hung, like a red rag, by half an inch of flesh.
We had dug and listened and dug again for our badger, all the morning. Then Dick sent his mongrel in at the hole, and the mongrel had come forth like a projectile and sat down at a distance, bewailing his lot. After him the Dandie went in and sneaked out again with a fore-paw bitten to the bone. And at last Meg stepped in grimly, and stayed. For a time there was dead silence, and then as we pressed our ears against the turf and the violets, that were just beginning their autumnal flowering, we heard a scuffling underground and began to dig down to it, till the sweat streamed into our eyes. Now Dick’s wife had helped us to bring up the tools, and hung around to watch the sport–an ugly, apathetic woman, with hair like a horse’s tail bound in a yellow rag, a man’s hips, and a skirt of old sacking. I think there was no love lost between her and Dick, because she had borne him no children. Anyway, while Dick and I were busy, digging like niggers and listening like Indians–for Meg didn’t bark, not being trained to the work, and all we could hear was a thud, thud now and then, and the hard breathing of the grapple–all of a sudden the old hag spoke, for the first time that day–