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    Chapter 8

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    Chapter 8
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    A Gold Day At Silchester

    It is little to a man's profit to go far afield if his chief
    pleasure be in wild life, his main object to get nearer to the
    creatures, to grow day by day more intimate with them, and to
    see each day some new thing. Yet the distance has the same
    fascination for him as for another--the call is as sweet and
    persistent in his ears. If he is on a green level country
    with blue hills on the horizon, then, especially in the early
    morning, is the call sweetest, most irresistible. Come away
    --come away: this blue world has better things than any in
    that green, too familiar place. The startling scream of the
    jay--you have heard it a thousand times. It is pretty to
    watch the squirrel in his chestnut-red coat among the oaks in
    their fresh green foliage, full of fun as a bright child,
    eating his apple like a child, only it is an oak-apple,
    shining white or white and rosy-red, in his little paws; but
    you have seen it so many times--come away:

    It was not this voice alone which made me forsake the green
    oaks of Silchester and Pamber Forest, to ramble for a season
    hither and thither in Wiltshire, Dorset, and Somerset; there
    was something for me to do in those places, but the call
    made me glad to go. And long weeks--months--went by in my
    wanderings, mostly in open downland country, too often under
    gloomy skies, chilled by cold winds and wetted by cold rains.
    Then, having accomplished my purpose and discovered
    incidentally that the call had mocked me again, as on so many
    previous occasions, I returned once more to the old familiar
    green place.

    Crossing the common, I found that where it had been dry in
    spring one might now sink to his knees in the bog; also that
    the snipe which had vanished for a season were back at the old
    spot where they used to breed. It was a bitter day near the
    end of an unpleasant summer, with the wind back in the old
    hateful north-east quarter; but the sun shone, the sky was
    blue, and the flying clouds were of a dazzling whiteness.
    Shivering, I remembered the south wall, and went there, since
    to escape from the wind and bask like some half-frozen serpent
    or lizard in the heat was the highest good one could look for
    in such weather. To see anything new in wild life was not to
    be hoped for.

    That old grey, crumbling wall of ancient Calleva, crowned with
    big oak and ash and thorn and holly, and draped with green
    bramble and trailing ivy and creepers--how good a shelter it
    is on a cold, rough day! Moving softly, so as not to disturb
    any creature, I yet disturbed a ring snake lying close to the
    wall, into which it quickly vanished; and then from their old
    place among the stones a pair of blue stock-doves rushed out
    with clatter of wings. The same blue doves which I had known
    for three years at that spot! A few more steps and I came
    upon as pretty a little scene in bird life as one could wish
    for: twenty to twenty-five small birds of different species
    --tits, wrens, dunnocks, thrushes, blackbirds, chaffinches,
    yellowhammers--were congregated on the lower outside twigs of
    a bramble bush and on the bare ground beside it close to the
    foot of the wall. The sun shone full on that spot, and they
    had met for warmth and for company. The tits and wrens were
    moving quietly about in the bush; others were sitting idly or
    preening their feathers on the twigs or the ground. Most of
    them were making some kind of small sound--little exclamatory
    chirps, and a variety of chirrupings, producing the effect of
    a pleasant conversation going on among them. This was
    suddenly suspended on my appearance, but the alarm was soon
    over, and, seeing me seated on a fallen stone and, motionless,
    they took no further notice of me. Two blackbirds were there,
    sitting a little way apart on the bare ground; these were
    silent, the raggedest, rustiest-looking members of that little
    company; for they were moulting, and their drooping wings and
    tails had many unsightly gaps in them where the old feathers
    had dropped out before the new ones had grown. They were
    suffering from that annual sickness with temporary loss of
    their brightest faculties which all birds experience in some
    degree; the unseasonable rains and cold winds had been bad for
    them, and now they were having their sun-bath, their best
    medicine and cure.

    By and by a pert-looking, bright-feathered, dapper cock
    chaffinch dropped down from the bush, and, advancing to one of
    the two, the rustiest and most forlorn-looking, started
    running round and round him as if to make a close inspection
    of his figure, then began to tease him. At first I thought it
    was all in fun--merely animal spirit which in birds often
    discharges itself in this way in little pretended attacks and
    fights. But the blackbird had no play and no fight in him, no
    heart to defend himself; all he did was to try to avoid the
    strokes aimed at him, and he could not always escape them.
    His spiritlessness served to inspire the chaffinch with
    greater boldness, and then it appeared that the gay little
    creature was really and truly incensed, possibly because the
    rusty, draggled, and listless appearance of the larger bird
    was offensive to him. Anyhow, the persecutions continued,
    increasing in fury until they could not be borne, and the
    blackbird tried to escape by hiding in the bramble. But he
    was not permitted to rest there; out he was soon driven and
    away into another bush, and again into still another further
    away, and finally he was hunted over the sheltering wall into
    the bleak wind on the other side. Then the persecutor came
    back and settled himself on his old perch on the bramble, well
    satisfied at his victory over a bird so much bigger than
    himself. All was again peace and harmony in the little social
    gathering, and the pleasant talkee-talkee went on as before.
    About five minutes passed, then the hunted blackbird returned,
    and, going to the identical spot from which he had been
    driven, composed himself to rest; only now he sat facing his
    lively little enemy.

    I was astonished to see him back; so, apparently, was the
    chaffinch. He started, craned his neck, and regarded his
    adversary first with one eye then with the other. "What, rags
    and tatters, back again so soon!" I seem to hear him say.
    "You miserable travesty of a bird, scarcely fit for a weasel
    to dine on! Your presence is an insult to us, but I'll soon
    settle you. You'll feel the cold on the other, side of the
    wall when I've knocked off a few more of your rusty rags."

    Down from his perch he came, but no sooner had he touched his
    feet to the ground than the blackbird went straight at him
    with extraordinary fury. The chaffinch, taken by surprise,
    was buffeted and knocked over, then, recovering himself, fled
    in consternation, hotly pursued by the sick one. Into the
    bush they went, but in a moment they were out again, darting
    this way and that, now high up in the trees, now down to the
    ground, the blackbird always close behind; and no little bird
    flying from a hawk could have exhibited a greater terror than
    that pert chaffinch--that vivacious and most pugnacious little
    cock bantam. At last they went quite away, and were lost to
    sight. By and by the blackbird returned alone, and, going
    once more to his place near the second bird, he settled down
    comfortably to finish his sunbath in peace and quiet.

    I had assuredly witnessed a new thing on that unpromising day,
    something quite different from anything witnessed in my wide
    rambles; and, though a little thing, it had been a most
    entertaining comedy in bird life with a very proper ending.
    It was clear that the sick blackbird had bitterly resented the
    treatment he had received; that, brooding on it out in the
    cold, his anger had made him strong, and that he came back
    determined to fight, with his plan of action matured. He was
    not going to be made a fool every time!

    The birds all gone their several ways at last, I got up from
    my stone and wondered if the old Romans ever dreamed that this
    wall which they made to endure would after seventeen hundred
    years have no more important use than this--to afford shelter
    to a few little birds and to the solitary man that watched
    them--from the bleak wind. Many a strange Roman curse on this
    ungenial climate must these same stones have heard.
    Looking through a gap in the wall I saw, close by, on the
    other side, a dozen men at work with pick and shovel throwing
    up huge piles of earth. They were uncovering a small portion
    of that ancient buried city and were finding the foundations
    and floors and hypocausts of Silchester's public baths; also
    some broken pottery and trifling ornaments of bronze and bone.
    The workmen in that bitter wind were decidedly better off than
    the gentlemen from Burlington House in charge of the
    excavations. These stood with coats buttoned up and hands
    thrust deep down in their pockets. It seemed to me that
    it was better to sit in the shelter of the wall and watch the
    birds than to burrow in the crumbling dust for that small
    harvest. Yet I could understand and even appreciate their
    work, although it is probable that the glow I experienced was
    in part reflected. Perhaps my mental attitude, when standing
    in that sheltered place, and when getting on to the windy wall
    I looked down on the workers and their work, was merely
    benevolent. I had pleasure in their pleasure, and a vague
    desire for a better understanding, a closer alliance and
    harmony. It was the desire that we might all see nature--the
    globe with all it contains--as one harmonious whole, not as
    groups of things, or phenomena, unrelated, cast there by
    chance or by careless or contemptuous gods. This dust of past
    ages, dug out of a wheat-field, with its fragments of men's
    work--its pottery and tiles and stones--this is a part, too,
    even as the small birds, with their little motives and
    passions, so like man's, are a part. I thought with self
    shame of my own sins in this connection; then, considering
    the lesser faults on the other side, I wished that Mr. St.
    John Hope would experience a like softening mood and regret
    that he had abused the ivy. It grieves me to hear it called a
    "noxious weed." That perished people, whose remains in this
    land so deeply interest him, were the mightiest "builders of
    ruins" the world has known; but who except the archaeologist
    would wish to see these piled stones in their naked harshness,
    striking the mind with dismay at the thought of Time and its
    perpetual desolations! I like better the old Spanish poet who
    says, "What of Rome; its world-conquering power, and majesty
    and glory--what has it come to?" The ivy on the wall, the
    yellow wallflower, tell it. A "deadly parasite" quotha! Is
    it not well that this plant, this evergreen tapestry of
    innumerable leaves, should cover and partly hide and partly
    reveal the "strange defeatures" the centuries have set on
    man's greatest works? I would have no ruin nor no old and
    noble building without it; for not only does it beautify
    decay, but from long association it has come to be in the mind
    a very part of such scenes and so interwoven with the human
    tragedy, that, like the churchyard yew, it seems the most
    human of green things.

    Here in September great masses of the plant are already
    showing a greenish cream-colour of the opening blossoms, which
    will be at their perfection in October. Then, when the sun
    shines, there will be no lingering red admiral, nor blue fly
    or fly of any colour, nor yellow wasp, nor any honey-eating or
    late honey-gathering insect that will not be here to feed on
    the ivy's sweetness. And behind the blossoming curtain, alive
    with the minute, multitudinous, swift-moving, glittering
    forms, some nobler form will be hidden in a hole or fissure in
    the wall. Here on many a night I have listened to the
    sibilant screech of the white owl and the brown owl's clear,
    long-drawn, quavering lamentation:

    "Good Ivy, what byrdys hast thou?"
    "Non but the Howlet, that How! How!"
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