Tom Brown's Schooldays

Thomas Hughes

Part 2 - Chapter 4 - The Bird-Fanciers


"I have found out a gift for my fair -
I have found where the wood-pigeons breed;
But let me the plunder forbear,
She would say 'twas a barbarous deed."
— ROWE.
"And now, my lad, take them five shilling,
And on my advice in future think;
So Billy pouched them all so willing,
And got that night disguised in drink."
— MS. Ballad.

The next morning, at first lesson, Tom was turned back in his lines, and so had to wait till the second round; while Martin and Arthur said theirs all right, and got out of school at once. When Tom got out and ran down to breakfast at Harrowell's they were missing, and Stumps informed him that they had swallowed down their breakfasts and gone off together - where, he couldn't say. Tom hurried over his own breakfast, and went first to Martin's study and then to his own; but no signs of the missing boys were to be found. He felt half angry and jealous of Martin. Where could they be gone?

He learnt second lesson with East and the rest in no very good temper, and then went out into the quadrangle. About ten minutes before school Martin and Arthur arrived in the quadrangle breathless; and catching sight of him, Arthur rushed up, all excitement, and with a bright glow on his face.

"O Tom, look here!" cried he, holding out three moor-hen's eggs; "we've been down the Barby road, to the pool Martin told us of last night, and just see what we've got."

Tom wouldn't be pleased, and only looked out for something to find fault with.

"Why, young un," said he, "what have you been after? You don't mean to say you've been wading?"

The tone of reproach made poor little Arthur shrink up in a moment and look piteous; and Tom with a shrug of his shoulders turned his anger on Martin.

"Well, I didn't think, Madman, that you'd have been such a muff as to let him be getting wet through at this time of day. You might have done the wading yourself."

"So I did, of course; only he would come in too, to see the nest. We left six eggs in. They'll be hatched in a day or two."

"Hang the eggs!" said Tom; "a fellow can't turn his back for a moment but all his work's undone. He'll be laid up for a week for this precious lark, I'll be bound."

"Indeed, Tom, now," pleaded Arthur, "my feet ain't wet, for Martin made me take off my shoes and stockings and trousers."

"But they are wet, and dirty too; can't I see?" answered Tom; "and you'll be called up and floored when the master sees what a state you're in. You haven't looked at second lesson, you know."

O Tom, you old humbug! you to be upbraiding any one with not learning their lessons! If you hadn't been floored yourself now at first lesson, do you mean to say you wouldn't have been with them? And you've taken away all poor little Arthur's joy and pride in his first birds' eggs, and he goes and puts them down in the study, and takes down his books with a sigh, thinking he has done something horribly wrong, whereas he has learnt on in advance much more than will be done at second lesson.

But the old Madman hasn't, and gets called up, and makes some frightful shots, losing about ten places, and all but getting floored. This somewhat appeases Tom's wrath, and by the end of the lesson he has regained his temper. And afterwards in their study he begins to get right again, as he watches Arthur's intense joy at seeing Martin blowing the eggs and gluing them carefully on to bits of cardboard, and notes the anxious, loving looks which the little fellow casts sidelong at him. And then he thinks, "What an ill-tempered beast I am! Here's just what I was wishing for last night come about, and I'm spoiling it all," and in another five minutes has swallowed the last mouthful of his bile, and is repaid by seeing his little sensitive plant expand again and sun itself in his smiles.

After dinner the Madman is busy with the preparations for their expedition, fitting new straps on to his climbing-irons, filling large pill-boxes with cotton-wool, and sharpening East's small axe. They carry all their munitions into calling-overs and directly afterwards, having dodged such prepostors as are on the lookout for fags at cricket, the four set off at a smart trot down the Lawford footpath, straight for Caldecott's Spinney and the hawk's nest.

Martin leads the way in high feather; it is quite a new sensation to him, getting companions, and he finds it very pleasant, and means to show them all manner of proofs of his science and skill. Brown and East may be better at cricket and football and games, thinks he, but out in the fields and woods see if I can't teach them something. He has taken the leadership already, and strides away in front with his climbing- irons strapped under one arm, his pecking-bag under the other, and his pockets and hat full of pill-boxes, cotton-wool, and other etceteras. Each of the others carries a pecking-bag, and East his hatchet.

When they had crossed three or four fields without a check, Arthur began to lag; and Tom seeing this shouted to Martin to pull up a bit. "We ain't out hare-and-hounds. What's the good of grinding on at this rate?"

"There's the Spinney," said Martin, pulling up on the brow of a slope at the bottom of which lay Lawford brook, and pointing to the top of the opposite slope; "the nest is in one of those high fir-trees at this end. And down by the brook there I know of a sedge-bird's nest. We'll go and look at it coming back."

"Oh, come on, don't let us stop," said Arthur, who was getting excited at the sight of the wood. So they broke into a trot again, and were soon across the brook, up the slope, and into the Spinney. Here they advanced as noiselessly as possible, lest keepers or other enemies should be about, and stopped at the foot of a tall fir, at the top of which Martin pointed out with pride the kestrel's nest, the object of their quest.

"Oh, where? which is it?" asks Arthur, gaping up in the air, and having the most vague idea of what it would be like.

"There, don't you see?" said East, pointing to a lump of mistletoe in the next tree, which was a beech. He saw that Martin and Tom were busy with the climbing-irons, and couldn't resist the temptation of hoaxing. Arthur stared and wondered more than ever.

"Well, how curious! It doesn't look a bit like what I expected," said he.

"Very odd birds, kestrels," said East, looking waggishly at his victim, who was still star-gazing.

"But I thought it was in a fir-tree?" objected Arthur.

"Ah, don't you know? That's a new sort of fir which old Caldecott brought from the Himalayas."

"Really!" said Arthur; "I'm glad I know that. How unlike our firs they are! They do very well too here, don't they? The Spinney's full of them."

"What's that humbug he's telling you?" cried Tom, looking up, having caught the word Himalayas, and suspecting what East was after.

"Only about this fir," said Arthur, putting his hand on the stem of the beech.

"Fir!" shouted Tom; "why, you don't mean to say, young un, you don't know a beech when you see one?"

Poor little Arthur looked terribly ashamed, and East exploded in laughter which made the wood ring.

"I've hardly ever seen any trees," faltered Arthur.

"What a shame to hoax him, Scud!" cried Martin. - "Never mind, Arthur; you shall know more about trees than he does in a week or two."

"And isn't that the kestrel's nest, then?" asked Arthur. "That! Why, that's a piece of mistletoe. There's the nest, that lump of sticks up this fir."

"Don't believe him, Arthur," struck in the incorrigible East; "I just saw an old magpie go out of it."

Martin did not deign to reply to this sally, except by a grunt, as he buckled the last buckle of his climbing-irons, and Arthur looked reproachfully at East without speaking.

But now came the tug of war. It was a very difficult tree to climb until the branches were reached, the first of which was some fourteen feet up, for the trunk was too large at the bottom to be swarmed; in fact, neither of the boys could reach more than half round it with their arms. Martin and Tom, both of whom had irons on, tried it without success at first; the fir bark broke away where they stuck the irons in as soon as they leant any weight on their feet, and the grip of their arms wasn't enough to keep them up; so, after getting up three or four feet, down they came slithering to the ground, barking their arms and faces. They were furious, and East sat by laughing and shouting at each failure, "Two to one on the old magpie!"

"We must try a pyramid," said Tom at last. "Now, Scud, you lazy rascal, stick yourself against the tree!"

"I dare say! and have you standing on my shoulders with the irons on. What do you think my skin's made of?" However, up he got, and leant against the tree, putting his head down and clasping it with his arms as far as he could.

"Now then, Madman," said Tom, "you next."

"No, I'm lighter than you; you go next." So Tom got on East's shoulders, and grasped the tree above, and then Martin scrambled up on to Tom's shoulders, amidst the totterings and groanings of the pyramid, and, with a spring which sent his supporters howling to the ground, clasped the stem some ten feet up, and remained clinging. For a moment or two they thought he couldn't get up; but then, holding on with arms and teeth, he worked first one iron then the other firmly into the bark, got another grip with his arms, and in another minute had hold of the lowest branch.

"All up with the old magpie now," said East; and after a minute's rest, up went Martin, hand over hand, watched by Arthur with fearful eagerness.

"Isn't it very dangerous?" said he.

"Not a bit," answered Tom; "you can't hurt if you only get good hand-hold. Try every branch with a good pull before you trust it, and then up you go."

Martin was now amongst the small branches close to the nest, and away dashed the old bird, and soared up above the trees, watching the intruder.

"All right - four eggs!" shouted he.

"Take 'em all!" shouted East; "that'll be one a-piece."

"No, no; leave one, and then she won t care, said Tom.

We boys had an idea that birds couldn't count, and were quite content as long as you left one egg. I hope it is so.

Martin carefully put one egg into each of his boxes and the third into his mouth, the only other place of safety, and came down like a lamplighter. All went well till he was within ten feet of the ground, when, as the trunk enlarged, his hold got less and less firm, and at last down he came with a run, tumbling on to his back on the turf, spluttering and spitting out the remains of the great egg, which had broken by the jar of his fall.

"Ugh, ugh! something to drink - ugh! it was addled," spluttered he, while the wood rang again with the merry laughter of East and Tom.

Then they examined the prizes, gathered up their things, and went off to the brook, where Martin swallowed huge draughts of water to get rid of the taste; and they visited the sedge-bird's nest, and from thence struck across the country in high glee, beating the hedges and brakes as they went along; and Arthur at last, to his intense delight, was allowed to climb a small hedgerow oak for a magpie's nest with Tom, who kept all round him like a mother, and showed him where to hold and how to throw his weight; and though he was in a great fright, didn't show it, and was applauded by all for his lissomness.

They crossed a road soon afterwards, and there, close to them, lay a great heap of charming pebbles.

"Look here," shouted East; "here's luck! I've been longing for some good, honest pecking this half-hour. Let's fill the bags, and have no more of this foozling bird-nesting."

No one objected, so each boy filled the fustian bag he carried full of stones. They crossed into the next field, Tom and East taking one side of the hedges, and the other two the other side. Noise enough they made certainly, but it was too early in the season for the young birds, and the old birds were too strong on the wing for our young marksmen, and flew out of shot after the first discharge. But it was great fun, rushing along the hedgerows, and discharging stone after stone at blackbirds and chaffinches, though no result in the shape of slaughtered birds was obtained; and Arthur soon entered into it, and rushed to head back the birds, and shouted, and threw, and tumbled into ditches, and over and through hedges, as wild as the Madman himself.

Presently the party, in full cry after an old blackbird (who was evidently used to the thing and enjoyed the fun, for he would wait till they came close to him, and then fly on for forty yards or so, and, with an impudent flicker of his tail, dart into the depths of the quickset), came beating down a high double hedge, two on each side.

"There he is again," "Head him," "Let drive," "I had him there," "Take care where you're throwing, Madman." The shouts might have been heard a quarter of a mile off. They were heard some two hundred yards off by a farmer and two of his shepherds, who were doctoring sheep in a fold in the next field.

Now, the farmer in question rented a house and yard situate at the end of the field in which the young bird-fanciers had arrived, which house and yard he didn't occupy or keep any one else in. Nevertheless, like a brainless and unreasoning Briton, he persisted in maintaining on the premises a large stock of cocks, hens, and other poultry. Of course, all sorts of depredators visited the place from time to time: foxes and gipsies wrought havoc in the night; while in the daytime, I regret to have to confess that visits from the Rugby boys, and consequent disappearances of ancient and respectable fowls were not unfrequent. Tom and East had during the period of their outlawry visited the farm in question for felonious purposes, and on one occasion had conquered and slain a duck there, and borne away the carcass triumphantly, hidden in their handkerchiefs. However, they were sickened of the practice by the trouble and anxiety which the wretched duck's body caused them. They carried it to Sally Harrowell's, in hopes of a good supper; but she, after examining it, made a long face, and refused to dress or have anything to do with it. Then they took it into their study, and began plucking it themselves; but what to do with the feathers, where to hide them?

"Good gracious, Tom, what a lot of feathers a duck has!" groaned East, holding a bagful in his hand, and looking disconsolately at the carcass, not yet half plucked.

"And I do think he's getting high, too, already," said Tom, smelling at him cautiously, "so we must finish him up soon."

"Yes, all very well; but how are we to cook him? I'm sure I ain't going to try it on in the hall or passages; we can't afford to be roasting ducks about - our character's too bad."

"I wish we were rid of the brute," said Tom, throwing him on the table in disgust. And after a day or two more it became clear that got rid of he must be; so they packed him and sealed him up in brown paper, and put him in the cupboard of an unoccupied study, where he was found in the holidays by the matron, a gruesome body.

They had never been duck-hunting there since, but others had, and the bold yeoman was very sore on the subject, and bent on making an example of the first boys he could catch. So he and his shepherds crouched behind the hurdles, and watched the party, who were approaching all unconscious. Why should that old guinea-fowl be lying out in the hedge just at this particular moment of all the year? Who can say? Guinea-fowls always are; so are all other things, animals, and persons, requisite for getting one into scrapes - always ready when any mischief can come of them. At any rate, just under East's nose popped out the old guinea-hen, scuttling along and shrieking, "Come back, come back," at the top of her voice. Either of the other three might perhaps have withstood the temptation, but East first lets drive the stone he has in his hand at her, and then rushes to turn her into the hedge again. He succeeds, and then they are all at it for dear life, up and down the hedge in full cry, the "Come back, come back," getting shriller and fainter every minute.

Meantime, the farmer and his men steal over the hurdles and creep down the hedge towards the scene of action. They are almost within a stone's throw of Martin, who is pressing the unlucky chase hard, when Tom catches sight of them, and sings out, "Louts, 'ware louts, your side! Madman, look ahead!" and then catching hold of Arthur, hurries him away across the field towards Rugby as hard as they can tear. Had he been by himself, he would have stayed to see it out with the others, but now his heart sinks and all his pluck goes. The idea of being led up to the Doctor with Arthur for bagging fowls quite unmans and takes half the run out of him.

However, no boys are more able to take care of themselves than East and Martin; they dodge the pursuers, slip through a gap, and come pelting after Tom and Arthur, whom they catch up in no time. The farmer and his men are making good running about a field behind. Tom wishes to himself that they had made off in any other direction, but now they are all in for it together, and must see it out.

"You won't leave the young un, will you?" says he, as they haul poor little Arthur, already losing wind from the fright, through the next hedge. "Not we," is the answer from both. The next hedge is a stiff one; the pursuers gain horribly on them, and they only just pull Arthur through, with two great rents in his trousers, as the foremost shepherd comes up on the other side. As they start into the next field, they are aware of two figures walking down the footpath in the middle of it, and recognize Holmes and Diggs taking a constitutional. Those good-natured fellows immediately shout, "On." "Let's go to them and surrender," pants Tom. Agreed. And in another minute the four boys, to the great astonishment of those worthies, rush breathless up to Holmes and Diggs, who pull up to see what is the matter; and then the whole is explained by the appearance of the farmer and his men, who unite their forces and bear down on the knot of boys.

There is no time to explain, and Tom's heart beats frightfully quick, as he ponders, "Will they stand by us?"

The farmer makes a rush at East and collars him; and that young gentleman, with unusual discretion, instead of kicking his shins, looks appealingly at Holmes, and stands still.

"Hullo there; not so fast," says Holmes, who is bound to stand up for them till they are proved in the wrong. "Now what's all this about?"

"I've got the young varmint at last, have I," pants the farmer; "why, they've been a-skulking about my yard and stealing my fowls - that's where 'tis; and if I doan't have they flogged for it, every one on 'em, my name ain't Thompson."

Holmes looks grave and Diggs's face falls. They are quite ready to fight - no boys in the school more so; but they are prepostors, and understand their office, and can't uphold unrighteous causes.

"I haven't been near his old barn this half," cries East. "Nor I," "Nor I," chime in Tom and Martin.

"Now, Willum, didn't you see 'em there last week?"

"Ees, I seen 'em sure enough," says Willum, grasping a prong he carried, and preparing for action.

The boys deny stoutly, and Willum is driven to admit that "if it worn't they 'twas chaps as like 'em as two peas'n;" and "leastways he'll swear he see'd them two in the yard last Martinmas," indicating East and Tom.

Holmes has had time to meditate. "Now, sir," says he to Willum, "you see you can't remember what you have seen, and I believe the boys."

"I doan't care," blusters the farmer; "they was arter my fowls to-day - that's enough for I. - Willum, you catch hold o' t'other chap. They've been a-sneaking about this two hours, I tells 'ee," shouted he, as Holmes stands between Martin and Willum, "and have druv a matter of a dozen young pullets pretty nigh to death."

"Oh, there's a whacker!" cried East; "we haven't been within a hundred yards of his barn; we haven't been up here above ten minutes, and we've seen nothing but a tough old guinea-hen, who ran like a greyhound."

"Indeed, that's all true, Holmes, upon my honour," added Tom; "we weren't after his fowls; guinea-hen ran out of the hedge under our feet, and we've seen nothing else."

"Drat their talk. Thee catch hold o' t'other, Willum, and come along wi' un."

"Farmer Thompson," said Holmes, warning off Willum and the prong with his stick, while Diggs faced the other shepherd, cracking his fingers like pistol-shots, "now listen to reason. The boys haven't been after your fowls, that's plain."

"Tells 'ee I see'd'em. Who be you, I should like to know?"

"Never you mind, farmer," answered Holmes. "And now I'll just tell you what it is: you ought to be ashamed of yourself for leaving all that poultry about, with no one to watch it, so near the School. You deserve to have it all stolen. So if you choose to come up to the Doctor with them, I shall go with you, and tell him what I think of it."

The farmer began to take Holmes for a master; besides, he wanted to get back to his flock. Corporal punishment was out of the question, the odds were too great; so he began to hint at paying for the damage. Arthur jumped at this, offering to pay anything, and the farmer immediately valued the guinea-hen at half a sovereign.

"Half a sovereign!" cried East, now released from the farmer's grip; "well, that is a good one! The old hen ain't hurt a bit, and she's seven years old, I know, and as tough as whipcord; she couldn't lay another egg to save her life."

It was at last settled that they should pay the farmer two shillings, and his man one shilling; and so the matter ended, to the unspeakable relief of Tom, who hadn't been able to say a word, being sick at heart at the idea of what the Doctor would think of him; and now the whole party of boys marched off down the footpath towards Rugby. Holmes, who was one of the best boys in the School, began to improve the occasion. "Now, you youngsters," said he, as he marched along in the middle of them, "mind this; you're very well out of this scrape. Don't you go near Thompson's barn again; do you hear?"

Profuse promises from all, especially East.

"Mind, I don't ask questions," went on Mentor, "but I rather think some of you have been there before this after his chickens. Now, knocking over other people's chickens, and running off with them, is stealing. It's a nasty word, but that's the plain English of it. If the chickens were dead and lying in a shop, you wouldn't take them, I know that, any more than you would apples out of Griffith's basket; but there's no real difference between chickens running about and apples on a tree, and the same articles in a shop. I wish our morals were sounder in such matters. There's nothing so mischievous as these school distinctions, which jumble up right and wrong, and justify things in us for which poor boys would be sent to prison." And good old Holmes delivered his soul on the walk home of many wise sayings, and, as the song says—

"Gee'd 'em a sight of good advice;"

which same sermon sank into them all, more or less, and very penitent they were for several hours. But truth compels me to admit that East, at any rate, forgot it all in a week, but remembered the insult which had been put upon him by Farmer Thompson, and with the Tadpole and other hair-brained youngsters committed a raid on the barn soon afterwards, in which they were caught by the shepherds and severely handled, besides having to pay eight shillings - all the money they had in the world - to escape being taken up to the Doctor.

Martin became a constant inmate in the joint study from this time, and Arthur took to him so kindly that Tom couldn't resist slight fits of jealousy, which, however, he managed to keep to himself. The kestrel's eggs had not been broken, strange to say, and formed the nucleus of Arthur's collection, at which Martin worked heart and soul, and introduced Arthur to Howlett the bird-fancier, and instructed him in the rudiments of the art of stuffing. In token of his gratitude, Arthur allowed Martin to tattoo a small anchor on one of his wrists; which decoration, however, he carefully concealed from Tom. Before the end of the half-year he had trained into a bold climber and good runner, and, as Martin had foretold, knew twice as much about trees, birds, flowers, and many other things, as our good-hearted and facetious young friend Harry East.