The Woodbegoods

E. Nesbit

Chapter 9 - Hunting The Fox


It is idle to expect everyone to know everything in the world without being told. If we had been brought up in the country we should have known that it is not done - to hunt the fox in August. But in the Lewisham Road the most observing boy does not notice the dates when it is proper to hunt foxes.

And there are some things you cannot bear to think that anybody would think you would do; that is why I wish to say plainly at the very beginning that none of us would have shot a fox on purpose even to save our skins. Of course, if a man were at bay in a cave, and had to defend girls from the simultaneous attack of a herd of savage foxes it would be different. A man is bound to protect girls and take care of them - they can jolly well take care of themselves really it seems to me - still, this is what Albert's uncle calls one of the 'rules of the game', so we are bound to defend them and fight for them to the death, if needful. Denny knows a quotation which says -

'What dire offence from harmless causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trefoil things.'

He says this means that all great events come from three things - threefold, like the clover or trefoil, and the causes are always harmless. Trefoil is short for threefold.

There were certainly three things that led up to the adventure which is now going to be told you. The first was our Indian uncle coming down to the country to see us. The second was Denny's tooth. The third was only our wanting to go hunting; but if you count it in it makes the thing about the trefoil come right. And all these causes were harmless.

It is a flattering thing to say, and it was not Oswald who said it, but Dora. She said she was certain our uncle missed us, and that he felt he could no longer live without seeing his dear ones (that was us).

Anyway, he came down, without warning, which is one of the few bad habits that excellent Indian man has, and this habit has ended in unpleasantness more than once, as when we played jungles.

However, this time it was all right. He came on rather a dull kind of day, when no one had thought of anything particularly amusing to do. So that, as it happened to be dinner-time and we had just washed our hands and faces, we were all spotlessly clean (com- pared with what we are sometimes, I mean, of course).

We were just sitting down to dinner, and Albert's uncle was just plunging the knife into the hot heart of the steak pudding, when there was the rumble of wheels, and the station fly stopped at the garden gate. And in the fly, sitting very upright, with his hands on his knees, was our Indian relative so much beloved. He looked very smart, with a rose in his buttonhole. How different from what he looked in other days when he helped us to pretend that our currant pudding was a wild boar we were killing with our forks. Yet, though tidier, his heart still beat kind and true. You should not judge people harshly because their clothes are tidy. He had dinner with us, and then we showed him round the place, and told him everything we thought he would like to hear, and about the Tower of Mystery, and he said -

'It makes my blood boil to think of it.'

Noel said he was sorry for that, because everyone else we had told it to had owned, when we asked them, that it froze their blood.

'Ah,' said the Uncle, 'but in India we learn how to freeze our blood and boil it at the same time.'

In those hot longitudes, perhaps, the blood is always near boiling-point, which accounts for Indian tempers, though not for the curry and pepper they eat. But I must not wander; there is no curry at all in this story. About temper I will not say.

Then Uncle let us all go with him to the station when the fly came back for him; and when we said good-bye he tipped us all half a quid, without any insidious distinctions about age or considering whether you were a boy or a girl. Our Indian uncle is a true-born Briton, with no nonsense about him.

We cheered him like one man as the train went off, and then we offered the fly-driver a shilling to take us back to the four cross-roads, and the grateful creature did it for nothing because, he said, the gent had tipped him something like. How scarce is true gratitude! So we cheered the driver too for this rare virtue, and then went home to talk about what we should do with our money. I cannot tell you all that we did with it, because money melts away 'like snow-wreaths in thaw-jean', as Denny says, and somehow the more you have the more quickly it melts. We all went into Maidstone, and came back with the most beautiful lot of brown- paper parcels, with things inside that supplied long-felt wants. But none of them belongs to this narration, except what Oswald and Denny clubbed to buy.

This was a pistol, and it took all the money they both had, but when Oswald felt the uncomfortable inside sensation that reminds you who it is and his money that are soon parted he said to himself -

'I don't care. We ought to have a pistol in the house, and one that will go off, too - not those rotten flintlocks. Suppose there should be burglars and us totally unarmed?'

We took it in turns to have the pistol, and we decided always to practise with it far from the house, so as not to frighten the grown-ups, who are always much nervouser about firearms than we are.

It was Denny's idea getting it; and Oswald owns it surprised him, but the boy was much changed in his character. We got it while the others were grubbing at the pastry-cook's in the High Street, and we said nothing till after tea, though it was hard not to fire at the birds on the telegraph wires as we came home in the train.

After tea we called a council in the straw-loft, and Oswald said -

'Denny and I have got a secret.'

'I know what it is,' Dicky said contemptibly. 'You've found out that shop in Maidstone where peppermint rock is four ounces a penny. H. O. and I found it out before you did.'

Oswald said, 'You shut-up. If you don't want to hear the secret you'd better bunk. I'm going to administer the secret oath.'

This is a very solemn oath, and only used about real things, and never for pretending ones, so Dicky said -

'Oh, all right; go ahead! I thought you were only rotting.'

So they all took the secret oath. Noel made it up long before, when he had found the first thrush's nest we ever saw in the Blackheath garden:

'I will not tell, I will not reveal,
I will not touch, or try to steal;
And may I be called a beastly sneak,
If this great secret I ever repeat.'

It is a little wrong about the poetry, but it is a very binding promise. They all repeated it, down to H. O.

'Now then,' Dicky said, 'what's up?'

Oswald, in proud silence, drew the pistol from his breast and held it out, and there was a murmur of awful amazement and respect from every one of the council. The pistol was not loaded, so we let even the girls have it to look at. And then Dicky said, 'Let's go hunting.'

And we decided that we would. H. O. wanted to go down to the village and get penny horns at the shop for the huntsmen to wind, like in the song, but we thought it would be more modest not to wind horns or anything noisy, at any rate not until we had run down our prey. But his talking of the song made us decide that it was the fox we wanted to hunt. We had not been particular which animal we hunted before that.

Oswald let Denny have first go with the pistol, and when we went to bed he slept with it under his pillow, but not loaded, for fear he should have a nightmare and draw his fell weapon before he was properly awake.

Oswald let Denny have it, because Denny had toothache, and a pistol is consoling though it does not actually stop the pain of the tooth. The toothache got worse, and Albert's uncle looked at it, and said it was very loose, and Denny owned he had tried to crack a peach-stone with it. Which accounts. He had creosote and camphor, and went to bed early, with his tooth tied up in red flannel.

Oswald knows it is right to be very kind when people are ill, and he forbore to wake the sufferer next morning by buzzing a pillow at him, as he generally does. He got up and went over to shake the invalid, but the bird had flown and the nest was cold. The pistol was not in the nest either, but Oswald found it afterwards under the looking-glass on the dressing-table. He had just awakened the others (with a hair- brush because they had not got anything the matter with their teeth), when he heard wheels, and, looking out, beheld Denny and Albert's uncle being driven from the door in the farmer's high cart with the red wheels.

We dressed extra quick, so as to get downstairs to the bottom of the mystery. And we found a note from Albert's uncle. It was addressed to Dora, and said -

'Denny's toothache got him up in the small hours. He's off to the dentist to have it out with him, man to man. Home to dinner.'

Dora said, 'Denny's gone to the dentist.'

'I expect it's a relation,' H. O. said. 'Denny must be short for Dentist.'

I suppose he was trying to be funny - he really does try very hard. He wants to be a clown when he grows up. The others laughed.

'I wonder,' said Dicky, 'whether he'll get a shilling or half-a-crown for it.'

Oswald had been meditating in gloomy silence, now he cheered up and said -

'Of course! I'd forgotten that. He'll get his tooth money, and the drive too. So it's quite fair for us to have the fox-hunt while he's gone. I was thinking we should have to put it off.'

The others agreed that it would not be unfair.

'We can have another one another time if he wants to,' Oswald said.

We know foxes are hunted in red coats and on horseback - but we could not do this - but H. O. had the old red football jersey that was Albert's uncle's when he was at Loretto. He was pleased.

'But I do wish we'd had horns,' he said grievingly. 'I should have liked to wind the horn.'

'We can pretend horns,' Dora said; but he answered, 'I didn't want to pretend. I wanted to wind something.'

'Wind your watch,' Dicky said. And that was unkind, because we all know H. O.'s watch is broken, and when you wind it, it only rattles inside without going in the least.

We did not bother to dress up much for the hunting expedition - just cocked hats and lath swords; and we tied a card on to H. O.'s chest with 'Moat House Fox-Hunters' on it; and we tied red flannel round all the dogs' necks to show they were fox-hounds. Yet it did not seem to show it plainly; somehow it made them look as if they were not fox-hounds, but their own natural breeds - only with sore throats.

Oswald slipped the pistol and a few cartridges into his pocket. He knew, of course, that foxes are not shot; but as he said -

'Who knows whether we may not meet a bear or a crocodile.'

We set off gaily. Across the orchard and through two cornfields, and along the hedge of another field, and so we got into the wood, through a gap we had happened to make a day or two before, playing 'follow my leader'.

The wood was very quiet and green; the dogs were happy and most busy. Once Pincher started a rabbit. We said, 'View Halloo!' and immediately started in pursuit; but the rabbit went and hid, so that even Pincher could not find him, and we went on. But we saw no foxes. So at last we made Dicky be a fox, and chased him down the green rides. A wide walk in a wood is called a ride, even if people never do anything but walk in it.

We had only three hounds - Lady, Pincher and Martha - so we joined the glad throng and were being hounds as hard as we could, when we suddenly came barking round a corner in full chase and stopped short, for we saw that our fox had stayed his hasty flight. The fox was stooping over something reddish that lay beside the path, and he cried -

'I say, look here!' in tones that thrilled us throughout.

Our fox - whom we must now call Dicky, so as not to muddle the narration - pointed to the reddy thing that the dogs were sniffing at.

'It's a real live fox,' he said. And so it was. At least it was real - only it was quite dead - and when Oswald lifted it up its head was bleeding. It had evidently been shot through the brain and expired instantly. Oswald explained this to the girls when they began to cry at the sight of the poor beast; I do not say he did not feel a bit sorry himself.

The fox was cold, but its fur was so pretty, and its tail and its little feet. Dicky strung the dogs on the leash; they were so much interested we thought it was better.

'It does seem horrid to think it'll never see again out of its poor little eyes,' Dora said, blowing her nose.

'And never run about through the wood again, lend me your hanky, Dora' said Alice.

'And never be hunted or get into a hen-roost or a trap or anything exciting, poor little thing,' said Dicky.

The girls began to pick green chestnut leaves to cover up the poor fox's fatal wound, and Noel began to walk up and down making faces, the way he always does when he's making poetry. He cannot make one without the other. It works both ways, which is a comfort.

'What are we going to do now?' H. O. said; 'the huntsman ought to cut off its tail, I'm quite certain. Only, I've broken the big blade of my knife, and the other never was any good.'

The girls gave H. O. a shove, and even Oswald said, 'Shut up', for somehow we all felt we did not want to play fox-hunting any more that day. When his deadly wound was covered the fox hardly looked dead at all.

'Oh, I wish it wasn't true!' Alice said.

Daisy had been crying all the time, and now she said, 'I should like to pray God to make it not true.'

But Dora kissed her, and told her that was no good - only she might pray God to take care of the fox's poor little babies, if it had had any, which I believe she has done ever since.

'If only we could wake up and find it was a horrid dream,' Alice said.

It seems silly that we should have cared so much when we had really set out to hunt foxes with dogs, but it is true. The fox's feet looked so helpless. And there was a dusty mark on its side that I know would not have been there if it had been alive and able to wash itself.

Noel now said, 'This is the piece of poetry':

'Here lies poor Reynard who is slain,
He will not come to life again.
I never will the huntsman's horn
Wind since the day that I was born
Until the day I die -
For I don't like hunting, and this is why.'

'Let's have a funeral,' said H. O. This pleased everybody, and we got Dora to take off her petticoat to wrap the fox in, so that we could carry it to our garden and bury it without bloodying our jackets. Girls' clothes are silly in one way, but I think they are useful too. A boy cannot take off more than his jacket and waistcoat in any emergency, or he is at once entirely undressed. But I have known Dora take off two petticoats for useful purposes and look just the same outside afterwards.

We boys took it in turns to carry the fox. It was very heavy. When we got near the edge of the wood Noel said -

'It would be better to bury it here, where the leaves can talk funeral songs over its grave for ever, and the other foxes can come and cry if they want to.' He dumped the fox down on the moss under a young oak tree as he spoke.

'If Dicky fetched the spade and fork we could bury it here, and then he could tie up the dogs at the same time.'

'You're sick of carrying it,' Dicky remarked, 'that's what it is.' But he went on condition the rest of us boys went too.

While we were gone the girls dragged the fox to the edge of the wood; it was a different edge to the one we went in by - close to a lane - and while they waited for the digging or fatigue party to come back, they collected a lot of moss and green things to make the fox's long home soft for it to lie in. There are no flowers in the woods in August, which is a pity.

When we got back with the spade and fork we dug a hole to bury the fox in. We did not bring the dogs back, because they were too interested in the funeral to behave with real, respectable calmness.

The ground was loose and soft and easy to dig when we had scraped away the broken bits of sticks and the dead leaves and the wild honeysuckle; Oswald used the fork and Dicky had the spade. Noel made faces and poetry - he was struck so that morning - and the girls sat stroking the clean parts of the fox's fur till the grave was deep enough. At last it was; then Daisy threw in the leaves and grass, and Alice and Dora took the poor dead fox by his two ends and we helped to put him in the grave. We could not lower him slowly - he was dropped in, really. Then we covered the furry body with leaves, and Noel said the Burial Ode he had made up. He says this was it, but it sounds better now than it did then, so I think he must have done something to it since:

THE FOX'S BURIAL ODE

'Dear Fox, sleep here, and do not wake, We picked these leaves for your sake You must not try to rise or move, We give you this with our love. Close by the wood where once you grew Your mourning friends have buried you. If you had lived you'd not have been (Been proper friends with us, I mean), But now you're laid upon the shelf, Poor fox, you cannot help yourself, So, as I say, we are your loving friends - And here your Burial Ode, dear Foxy, ends. P. S. - When in the moonlight bright The foxes wander of a night, They'll pass your grave and fondly think of you, Exactly like we mean to always do. So now, dear fox, adieu! Your friends are few But true To you. Adieu!'

When this had been said we filled in the grave and covered the top of it with dry leaves and sticks to make it look like the rest of the wood. People might think it was a treasure, and dig it up, if they thought there was anything buried there, and we wished the poor fox to sleep sound and not to be disturbed.

The interring was over. We folded up Dora's bloodstained pink cotton petticoat, and turned to leave the sad spot.

We had not gone a dozen yards down the lane when we heard footsteps and a whistle behind us, and a scrabbling and whining, and a gentleman with two fox-terriers had called a halt just by the place where we had laid low the 'little red rover'.

The gentleman stood in the lane, but the dogs were digging - we could see their tails wagging and see the dust fly. And we SAW WHERE. We ran back.

'Oh, please, do stop your dogs digging there!' Alice said.

The gentleman said 'Why?'

'Because we've just had a funeral, and that's the grave.'

The gentleman whistled, but the fox-terriers were not trained like Pincher, who was brought up by Oswald. The gentleman took a stride through the hedge gap.

'What have you been burying - pet dicky bird, eh?' said the gentleman, kindly. He had riding breeches and white whiskers.

We did not answer, because now, for the first time, it came over all of us, in a rush of blushes and uncomfortableness, that burying a fox is a suspicious act. I don't know why we felt this, but we did.

Noel said dreamily -

'We found his murdered body in the wood, And dug a grave by which the mourners stood.'

But no one heard him except Oswald, because Alice and Dora and Daisy were all jumping about with the jumps of unrestrained anguish, and saying, 'Oh, call them off! Do! do! - oh, don't, don't! Don't let them dig.'

Alas! Oswald was, as usual, right. The ground of the grave had not been trampled down hard enough, and he had said so plainly at the time, but his prudent counsels had been overruled. Now these busy-bodying, meddling, mischief-making fox-terriers (how different from Pincher, who minds his own business unless told otherwise) had scratched away the earth and laid bare the reddish tip of the poor corpse's tail.

We all turned to go without a word, it seemed to be no use staying any longer.

But in a moment the gentleman with the whiskers had got Noel and Dicky each by an ear - they were nearest him. H. O. hid in the hedge. Oswald, to whose noble breast sneakishness is, I am thankful to say, a stranger, would have scorned to escape, but he ordered his sisters to bunk in a tone of command which made refusal impossible.

'And bunk sharp, too' he added sternly. 'Cut along home.'

So they cut. The white-whiskered gentleman now encouraged his angry fox-terriers, by every means at his command, to continue their vile and degrading occupation; holding on all the time to the ears of Dicky and Noel, who scorned to ask for mercy. Dicky got purple and Noel got white. It was Oswald who said -

'Don't hang on to them, sir. We won't cut. I give you my word of honour.'

'YOUR word of honour,' said the gentleman, in tones for which, in happier days, when people drew their bright blades and fought duels, I would have had his heart's dearest blood. But now Oswald remained calm and polite as ever.

'Yes, on my honour,' he said, and the gentleman dropped the ears of Oswald's brothers at the sound of his firm, unswerving tones. He dropped the ears and pulled out the body of the fox and held it up.

The dogs jumped up and yelled.

'Now,' he said, 'you talk very big about words of honour. Can you speak the truth?'

Dickie said, 'If you think we shot it, you're wrong. We know better than that.'

The white-whiskered one turned suddenly to H. O. and pulled him out of the hedge.

'And what does that mean?' he said, and he was pink with fury to the ends of his large ears, as he pointed to the card on H. O.'s breast, which said, 'Moat House Fox-Hunters'.

Then Oswald said, 'We WERE playing at fox-hunting, but we couldn't find anything but a rabbit that hid, so my brother was being the fox; and then we found the fox shot dead, and I don't know who did it; and we were sorry for it and we buried it - and that's all.'

'Not quite,' said the riding-breeches gentleman, with what I think you call a bitter smile, 'not quite. This is my land and I'll have you up for trespass and damage. Come along now, no nonsense! I'm a magistrate and I'm Master of the Hounds. A vixen, too! What did you shoot her with? You're too young to have a gun. Sneaked your Father's revolver, I suppose?'

Oswald thought it was better to be goldenly silent. But it was vain. The Master of the Hounds made him empty his pockets, and there was the pistol and the cartridges.

The magistrate laughed a harsh laugh of successful disagreeableness.

'All right,' said he, 'where's your licence? You come with me. A week or two in prison.'

I don't believe now he could have done it, but we all thought then he could and would, what's more.

So H. O. began to cry, but Noel spoke up. His teeth were chattering yet he spoke up like a man.

He said, 'You don't know us. You've no right not to believe us till you've found us out in a lie. We don't tell lies. You ask Albert's uncle if we do.'

'Hold your tongue,' said the White-Whiskered. But Noel's blood was up.

'If you do put us in prison without being sure,' he said, trembling more and more, 'you are a horrible tyrant like Caligula, and Herod, or Nero, and the Spanish Inquisition, and I will write a poem about it in prison, and people will curse you for ever.'

'Upon my word,' said White Whiskers. 'We'll see about that,' and he turned up the lane with the fox hanging from one hand and Noel's ear once more reposing in the other.

I thought Noel would cry or faint. But he bore up nobly - exactly like an early Christian martyr.

The rest of us came along too. I carried the spade and Dicky had the fork. H. O. had the card, and Noel had the magistrate. At the end of the lane there was Alice. She had bunked home, obeying the orders of her thoughtful brother, but she had bottled back again like a shot, so as not to be out of the scrape. She is almost worthy to be a boy for some things.

She spoke to Mr Magistrate and said -

'Where are you taking him?'

The outraged majesty of the magistrate said, 'To prison, you naughty little girl.'

Alice said, 'Noel will faint. Somebody once tried to take him to prison before - about a dog. Do please come to our house and see our uncle - at least he's not - but it's the same thing. We didn't kill the fox, if that's what you think - indeed we didn't. Oh, dear, I do wish you'd think of your own little boys and girls if you've got any, or else about when you were little. You wouldn't be so horrid if you did.'

I don't know which, if either, of these objects the fox-hound master thought of, but he said -

'Well, lead on,' and he let go Noel's ear and Alice snuggled up to Noel and put her arm round him.

It was a frightened procession, whose cheeks were pale with alarm - except those between white whiskers, and they were red - that wound in at our gate and into the hall among the old oak furniture, and black and white marble floor and things.

Dora and Daisy were at the door. The pink petticoat lay on the table, all stained with the gore of the departed. Dora looked at us all, and she saw that it was serious. She pulled out the big oak chair and said, 'Won't you sit down?' very kindly to the white- whiskered magistrate.

He grunted, but did as she said.

Then he looked about him in a silence that was not comforting, and so did we. At last he said -

'Come, you didn't try to bolt. Speak the truth, and I'll say no more.'

We said we had.

Then he laid the fox on the table, spreading out the petticoat under it, and he took out a knife and the girls hid their faces. Even Oswald did not care to look. Wounds in battle are all very well, but it's different to see a dead fox cut into with a knife.

Next moment the magistrate wiped something on his handkerchief and then laid it on the table, and put one of my cartridges beside it. It was the bullet that had killed the fox.

'Look here!' he said. And it was too true. The bullets were the same.

A thrill of despair ran through Oswald. He knows now how a hero feels when he is innocently accused of a crime and the judge is putting on the black cap, and the evidence is convulsive and all human aid is despaired of.

'I can't help it,' he said, 'we didn't kill it, and that's all there is to it.'

The white-whiskered magistrate may have been master of the fox-hounds, but he was not master of his temper, which is more important, I should think, than a lot of beastly dogs.

He said several words which Oswald would never repeat, much less in his own conversing, and besides that he called us 'obstinate little beggars'.

Then suddenly Albert's uncle entered in the midst of a silence freighted with despairing reflections. The M.F.H. got up and told his tale: it was mainly lies, or, to be more polite, it was hardly any of it true, though I supposed he believed it.

'I am very sorry, sir' said Albert's uncle, looking at the bullets.

'You'll excuse my asking for the children's version?'

'Oh, certainly, sir, certainly,' fuming, the fox-hound magistrate replied.

Then Albert's uncle said, 'Now Oswald, I know I can trust you to speak the exact truth.'

So Oswald did.

Then the white-whiskered fox-master laid the bullets before Albert's uncle, and I felt this would be a trial to his faith far worse than the rack or the thumb-screw in the days of the Armada.

And then Denny came in. He looked at the fox on the table.

'You found it, then?' he said.

The M.F.H. would have spoken but Albert's uncle said, 'One moment, Denny; you've seen this fox before?'

'Rather,' said Denny; 'I - '

But Albert's uncle said, 'Take time. Think before you speak and say the exact truth. No, don't whisper to Oswald. This boy,' he said to the injured fox-master, 'has been with me since seven this morning. His tale, whatever it is, will be independent evidence.'

But Denny would not speak, though again and again Albert's uncle told him to.

'I can't till I've asked Oswald something,' he said at last. White Whiskers said, 'That looks bad - eh?'

But Oswald said, 'Don't whisper, old chap. Ask me whatever you like, but speak up.'

So Denny said, 'I can't without breaking the secret oath.'

So then Oswald began to see, and he said, 'Break away for all you're worth, it's all right.'

And Denny said, drawing relief's deepest breath, 'Well then, Oswald and I have got a pistol - shares - and I had it last night. And when I couldn't sleep last night because of the toothache I got up and went out early this morning. And I took the pistol. And I loaded it just for fun. And down in the wood I heard a whining like a dog, and I went, and there was the poor fox caught in an iron trap with teeth. And I went to let it out and it bit me - look, here's the place - and the pistol went off and the fox died, and I am so sorry.'

'But why didn't you tell the others?'

'They weren't awake when I went to the dentist's.'

'But why didn't you tell your uncle if you've been with him all the morning?'

'It was the oath,' H. O. said -

'May I be called a beastly sneak
If this great secret I ever repeat.'

White Whiskers actually grinned.

'Well,' he said, 'I see it was an accident, my boy.' Then he turned to us and said -

'I owe you an apology for doubting your word - all of you. I hope it's accepted.'

We said it was all right and he was to never mind.

But all the same we hated him for it. He tried to make up for his unbelievingness afterwards by asking Albert's uncle to shoot rabbits; but we did not really forgive him till the day when he sent the fox's brush to Alice, mounted in silver with a note about her plucky conduct in standing by her brothers.

We got a lecture about not playing with firearms, but no punishment, because our conduct had not been exactly sinful, Albert's uncle said, but merely silly.

The pistol and the cartridges were confiscated.

I hope the house will never be attacked by burglars. When it is, Albert's uncle will only have himself to thank if we are rapidly overpowered, because it will be his fault that we shall have to meet them totally unarmed, and be their almost unresisting prey.