Scattered here and there are the workmen's houses, modern and attractive in appearance. Contrasting with these in age, and more interesting from a different point of view, is the keeper's cottage, several hundred years old, built in the early English style of architecture, and resembling in general construction the home of Shakespeare at Stratford-Upon-Avon. It is built of half timber and pebble-dashing, and roofed with large slabs of stone in lieu of tile or thatch. It is almost entirely coved with roses, and presents a most picturesque appearance, with the evening sun brightening its patches of green moss while its shadow slowly lengthens upon the grass. Over a hundred years ago it was used for secreting smuggled goods brought from the coast of France. The present occupant, Taylor, is a typical groundkeeper, strong-bodied and thick-legged, and always accompanied in his walks by two fine retrievers. As he passes along with the gun over his shoulder, he presents a formidable appearance indeed to would be poachers.
Down through the meadows we come to the playground of the poet Shelley, where the old mill stands, its grinding-stones propped against its sides, quietly registering the flight of time. Swans glide to and fro upon the pond or rest upon its edge; black-and-white rabbits scurry across the wooded paths; fan-tailed pigeons disport upon the lawn; in the tall grass tiny fawns feign sleep, while furtively watching with half-closed eye; and everywhere the mischievous emu stalks about in conscious pride of his importance in this strange land.
Being a special aversion of the game-keeper's, this bird takes apparent delight in annoying him in every way. Prying about until he finds a choice nest of pheasant's eggs, he dispatches the dainty morsels instantly, thereby destroying the hopes of both the keeper and the hen. Every effort to break him of this pernicious habit has been unsuccessful. Once the keeper resolved upon a plan which he thought would without a doubt prove effectual. Having hard boiled a number of eggs, he carried them in steaming-hot water to the field and placed them before the ever-ready emu. Much to his surprise, the dish seemed to appeal to the voracious appetite of the bird, for in a twinkling they were gone, a seeming look of wonder accompanying his grateful appreciation of this unusual attention.
The chief entrance to the court is through granite lodge gateway flanked on each side by square towers. The inner walls are decorated with sets of red-deer horns, the peculiar cup-like upper tines of which furnish ideal spots for nesting birds.
A drive, with the most charming outlook on each side, leads to the house, which contains many apartments, bright and cheerful and homelike in the extreme. Some of these are furnished with antique suits of armor and rare pictures.
Mr. Lucas's particular "den" is ornamented with spears, javelins, trophies of the hunt, and prizes won at cricket and tennis. The men of the family have long been famous cricket-players. The present Mr. Lucas is very keen at the game, and his two sons at Eaton bid fair to sustain the family record. With the exception of a few weeks' shooting and fishing in Scotland, the greater part of Mr. Lucas's time is spent at Warnham Court. Here is seen a fair sample of the life led by the country gentry of England. Home is the center about which an Englishman's thoughts revolve, home life is his most cherished sentiment, and right cordially he welcomes his guests to share its enjoyments. There are many gay gatherings at the court during the hunting season, which begins in October with the pheasant shooting.
The bird is not indigenous to England, but with great adaptability he contents himself in the large area of open field and woodland cover which is provided for him in that country. His welfare is looked after by the keeper, whose vigil is not relaxed from early spring until late in the autumn. His first care is for the eggs. With several assistants he searches the covers for rudely built nests, which are usually concealed in the dense shadows of the thickets, marking each clump of secreting bushes further to aid him upon his return, ten days later, to collect the eggs, of which each nest will then contain about eight. In the meantime he has constructed false nests of sticks and leaves, elevated upon a structure of branches, in which he has placed several eggs, and beneath them a trap set for the destructive jackdaw. Frequently, in bad weather, the eggs are found here and there upon the ground, where they have been dropped by the capricious bird, who lacked patience to build and sit upon a nest. Eighteen eggs are put under a common hen to hatch, while the pheasant is left to lay another seven or eight, which she is allowed to dispose of as she wishes. In many cases the mother instinct, with the assistance of warm earth, triumphs, and after retiring for three weeks she may be seen (about the middle of May) proudly parading the outskirts of the cover with a brood of tiny turkey-like babies, of whose youth limitations, however, she has no conception, for, unless circumstance be very favorable, the chicks succumb in early infancy to the wet and cold, or later to hunger, should there be a protracted dry season.
Simultaneously the open fields become a chirping, moving mass; a miniature city appears, its avenues bordered with tiny laurel-trees, each shading a pent-roofed house, the occupant of which is the hen with her adopted fluffy mites, not half so large as she might naturally expect them to be. The front of each house is composed of slats, with spaces between for the little ones to run in and out, and large enough for the mother to put her head through and warn the chicks at the slightest sign of danger. Their only drink is an occasional drop of rain or sip of dew; but the food is moist, and consists of rice, barley, lettuce, onions, maize, rabbit, etc., chopped fine and boiled together. This mixture four times a day is strewn though each path where the little ones expectantly gather. They are very shy, but soon learn to recognize the feeder in the distance, and as he strolls carelessly along, whistling his call and dispensing the contents of his basket, some, made bolder by hunger, venture to meet him and forget their fear in the enjoyment of his bounty, while others, whose efforts at providing a meal for themselves have been more successful, hold aloof and stealthily mingle with the grass until one ceases to distinguish them.
Ants also form an indispensable part of the young pheasant's diet. Huge hills of these insects and their eggs are sometimes thrown up by the spade, and these are received by the old hen with gluttonous and inviting clucks. She fully realizes the dependence of her and her family upon the good keeper, and usually greets him with expressions of delight, though once in a while, in great distress and excitement, she tells him of an attempted sally upon her young by a weasel or his big brother, the stoat. At such times, after comforting her as best he can, the keeper, gun in hand, takes his stand, motionless and hidden from view, awaiting the reappearance of the enemy, who at length crawls cunningly past the trap set for him in the small hillside, and darts upon the flock, quickly killing one here and there before he is brought down by a shot from the keeper. A clatter of rejoicing sounds from the throats of the hens, and in a very few moment they see their enemy dangling from a tree or bush, a ghastly warning to other marauders. And in the mysterious light of the moon the owl himself avoids the spot as he circles through the air, frightening with his flight the pheasants in his way.
The birds are shifted in about seven or eight weeks. The cocks have by that time begun to show their distinguishing plumage, and some of the more precious ones have already wandered off to care for themselves. A damp or windy evening is preferably selected for the operation, that the sound of footsteps may not disturb the sleeping brood. Sacks are carefully slipped beneath the coops, secured above, and the whole placed upon a large wagon and conveyed to the edge of the covers, where they are evenly distributed. From this time life begins in earnest for the young bird, and he is gradually weaned from the feeder and hen.
One season the keeper made a pet of a young cock, which became so completely tamed that even after taking up his abode in the cover he would, at the familiar call, cautiously emerge, compare the general appearance of the man with the voice, and, being satisfied as to his identity, walk quickly toward him, ready for the usual frolic. The keeper would imitate that peculiar whirring sound of the bird and make a sidewise lunge; at the same time the young pheasant would raise his wings and dart forward and backward before his advancing and retreating opponent, and watching his chance, dive at the keeper's hat and knock it upon the ground, then, turning swiftly, make for the cover, his vanishing figure presenting a ridiculous appearance of inward and stifled laughter.
The same cock, which was rather remarkable for the unusual expanse of white round his neck, afforded the keeper much amusement one day in a conversation with the cowman, who wanted to know if all that white was "natural." "No," Taylor replied, taking advantage of the other's ignorance; "I catch him every Saturday night and change his collar." "There," exclaimed the exultant cowman, "I told my wife it couldn't grow that way."
With many others, this interesting bird came to his death in a most unfortunate manner. At the sound of an approaching mowing-machine he took refuge in the erstwhile protecting length of grass, and was cut and mangled in the knives.
In spite of the many casualties, the birds number about six hundred in October, when the host assembles his guests for the shooting.
Upon an early morning the keeper stations "three guns" well back between each two covers, and the beaters dressed, dressed in white smocks, enter the bushes to startle the birds. As they rush across the open for the next cover, they are met by a volley of shot. This operation is repeated until a semicircle is described, and the sportsmen find themselves opposite the starting point.
The running of the deer begins in November, and it is said they often take as keen an interest in the hunt as their pursuers. The hounds are never allowed to kill them, and the same ones are often run for successive years. Twenty-five of the heifers and does are selected for the season's sport, and two are usually run in a week. The one chosen for the day is drawn in a queer-looking two-wheeled covered cart to the appointed place. The back of the cart is lowered until it is level with the ground. When the door is opened, the deer steps out, sniffs the air, with his head up, and takes a sweeping glance around before he is off like a shot. He is given five minutes' "law," while the well-trained hounds and horses stand trembling impatient to be off in pursuit.
The old English staghounds have become extinct, and foxhounds, bred for the purpose of the chase, have succeeded them. So fleet are they that the horses become jaded in their efforts to keep up with them.
Spring and summer in turn affords its own particular sport - tennis, cricket, croquet, etc. And never must be forgotten the hospitable afternoon tea, served upon warm days in the shade of the lawn, when one feels comfortable in the knowledge that even the laborers in the field are resting for the nonce and enjoying the refreshing cup.
Written by Annie Hardcastle Knight.
Originally published in the Century Magazine, December 1902.
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