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    Chapter 12

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    Chapter 12
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    Whitesheet Hill

    On Easter Saturday the roadsides and copses by the little
    river Nadder were full of children gathering primroses; they
    might have filled a thousand baskets without the flowers being
    missed, so abundant were they in that place. Cold though it
    was the whole air was laden with the delicious fragrance. It
    was pleasant to see and talk with the little people occupied
    with the task they loved so well, and I made up my mind to see
    the result of all this flower-gathering next day in some of
    the village churches in the neighbourhood--Fovant, Teffant
    Evias, Chilmark, Swallowcliffe, Tisbury, and Fonthill Bishop.
    I had counted on some improvement in the weather--some
    bright sunshine to light up the flower-decorated interiors;
    but Easter Sunday proved colder than ever, with the bitter
    north-east still blowing, the grey travelling cloud still
    covering the sky; and so to get the full benefit of the
    bitterness I went instead to spend my day on the top of the
    biggest down above the valley. That was Whitesheet Hill, and
    forms the highest part of the long ridge dividing the valleys
    of the Ebble and Nadder.

    It was roughest and coldest up there, and suited my temper
    best, for when the weather seems spiteful one finds a grim
    sort of satisfaction in defying it. On a genial day it would
    have been very pleasant on that lofty plain, for the flat top
    of the vast down is like a plain in appearance, and the
    earthworks on it show that it was once a populous habitation
    of man. Now because of the wind and cloud its aspect was bare
    and bleak and desolate, and after roaming about for an hour,
    exploring the thickest furze patches, I began to think that my
    day would have to be spent in solitude, without a living
    creature to keep me company. The birds had apparently all
    been blown away and the rabbits were staying at home in their
    burrows. Not even an insect could I see, although the furze
    was in full blossom; the honey-suckers were out of sight
    and torpid, and the bloom itself could no longer look
    "unprofitably gay," as the poet says it does. "Not even a
    wheatear!" I said, for I had counted on that bird in the
    intervals between the storms, although I knew I should not
    hear his wild delightful warble in such weather.

    Then, all at once, I beheld that very bird, a solitary female,
    flittering on over the flat ground before me, perching on the
    little green ant-mounds and flirting its tail and bobbing as
    if greatly excited at my presence in that lonely place. I
    wondered where its mate was, following it from place to place
    as it flew, determined now I had found a bird to keep it in
    sight. Presently a great blackness appeared low down in the
    cloudy sky, and rose and spread, travelling fast towards me,
    and the little wheatear fled in fear from it and vanished from
    sight over the rim of the down. But I was there to defy the
    weather, and so instead of following the bird in search of
    shelter I sat down among some low furze bushes and waited and
    watched. By and by I caught sight of three magpies, rising
    one by one at long intervals from the furze and flying
    laboriously towards a distant hill-top grove of pines. Then I
    heard the wailing cry of a peewit, and caught sight of the
    bird at a distance, and soon afterwards a sound of another
    character--the harsh angry cry of a carrion crow, almost as
    deep as the raven's angry voice. Before long I discovered the
    bird at a great height coming towards me in hot pursuit of a
    kestrel. They passed directly over me so that I had them a
    long time in sight, the kestrel travelling quietly on in the
    face of the wind, the crow toiling after, and at intervals
    spurting till he got near enough to hurl himself at his enemy,
    emitting his croaks of rage. For invariably the kestrel with
    one of his sudden swallow-like turns avoided the blow and went
    on as before. I watched them until they were lost to sight in
    the coming blackness and wondered that so intelligent a
    creature as a crow should waste his energies in that vain
    chase. Still one could understand it and even sympathize with
    him. For the kestrel is a most insulting creature towards the
    bigger birds. He knows that they are incapable of paying him
    out, and when he finds them off their guard he will drop down
    and inflict a blow just for the fun of the thing. This
    outraged crow appeared determined to have his revenge.

    Then the storm broke on me, and so fiercely did the rain and
    sleet thrash me that, fearing a cold soaking, I fled before it
    to the rim of the plain, where the wheatear had vanished, and
    saw a couple of hundred yards down on the smooth steep slope a
    thicket of dwarf trees. It was, the only shelter in sight,
    and to it I went, to discover much to my disgust that the
    trees were nothing but elders. For there is no tree that
    affords so poor a shelter, especially on the high open downs,
    where the foliage is scantier than in other situations and
    lets in the wind and rain in full force upon you.

    But the elder affects me in two ways. I like it on account of
    early associations, and because the birds delight in its
    fruit, though they wisely refuse to build in its branches; and
    I dislike it because its smell is offensive to me and its
    berries the least pleasant of all wild fruits to my taste. I
    can eat ivy-berries in March, and yew in its season, poison or
    not; and hips and haws and holly-berries and harsh acorn, and
    the rowan, which some think acrid; but the elderberry I can't
    stomach.

    How comes it, I have asked more than once, that this poor tree
    is so often seen on the downs where it is so badly fitted to
    be and makes so sorry an appearance with its weak branches
    broken and its soft leaves torn by the winds? How badly it
    contrasts with the other trees and bushes that flourish on the
    downs--furze, juniper, holly, blackthorn, and hawthorn!

    Two years ago, one day in the early spring, I was walking on
    an extensive down in another part of Wiltshire with the tenant
    of the land, who began there as a large sheep-farmer, but
    eventually finding that he could make more with rabbits than
    with sheep turned most of his land into a warren. The higher
    part of this down was overgrown with furze, mixed with holly
    and other bushes, but the slopes were mostly very bare. At
    one spot on a wide bare slope where the rabbits had formed a
    big group of burrows there was a close little thicket of young
    elder trees, looking exceedingly conspicuous in the bright
    green of early April. Calling my companion's attention to
    this little thicket I said something about the elder growing
    on the open downs where it always appeared to be out of
    harmony with its surroundings. "I don't suppose you planted
    elders here," I said.

    "No, but I know who did," he returned, and he then gave me
    this curious history of the trees. Five years before, the
    rabbits, finding it a suitable spot to dig in, probably
    because of a softer chalk there, made a number of deep burrows
    at that spot. When the wheatears, or "horse-maggers" as he
    called them, returned in spring two or three pairs attached
    themselves to this group of burrows and bred in them. There
    was that season a solitary elder-bush higher up on the down
    among the furze which bore a heavy crop of berries; and when
    the fruit was ripe he watched the birds feeding on it, the
    wheatears among them. The following spring seedlings came up
    out of the loose earth heaped about the rabbit burrows, and as
    they were not cut down by the rabbits, for they dislike the
    elder, they grew up, and now formed a clump of fifty or sixty
    little trees of six feet to eight feet in height.

    Who would have thought to find a tree-planter in the wheatear,
    the bird of the stony waste and open naked down, who does not
    even ask for a bush to perch on?

    It then occurred to me that in every case where I had observed
    a clump of elder bushes on the bare downside, it grew upon a
    village or collection of rabbit burrows, and it is probable
    that in every case the clump owed its existence to the
    wheatears who had dropped the seed about their nesting-place.
    The clump where I had sought a shelter from the storm was
    composed of large old dilapidated-looking half-dead elders;
    perhaps their age was not above thirty or forty years, but
    they looked older than hawthorns of one or two centuries; and
    under them the rabbits had their diggings--huge old mounds and
    burrows that looked like a badger's earth. Here, too, the
    burrows had probably existed first and had attracted the
    wheatears, and the birds had brought the seed from some
    distant bush.

    Crouching down in one of the big burrows at the roots of an
    old elder I remained for half an hour, listening to the
    thump-thump of the alarmed rabbits about me, and the
    accompanying hiss and swish of the wind and sleet and rain in
    the ragged branches.

    The storm over I continued my rambles on Whitesheet Hill, and
    coming back an hour or two later to the very spot where I had
    seen and followed the wheatear, I all at once caught sight of
    a second bird, lying dead on the turf close to my feet! The
    sudden sight gave me a shock of astonishment, mingled with
    admiration and grief. For how pretty it looked, though dead,
    lying on its back, the little black legs stuck stiffly up, the
    long wings pressed against the sides, their black tips
    touching together like the clasped hands of a corpse; and the
    fan-like black and white tail, half open as in life, moved
    perpetually up and down by the wind, as if that tail-flirting
    action of the bird had continued after death. It was very
    beautiful in its delicate shape and pale harmonious colouring,
    resting on the golden-green mossy turf. And it was a male,
    undoubtedly the mate of the wheatear I had seen at the spot,
    and its little mate, not knowing what death is, had probably
    been keeping watch near it, wondering at its strange stillness
    and greatly fearing for its safety when I came that way, and
    passed by without seeing it.

    Poor little migrant, did you come back across half the world
    for this--back to your home on Whitesheet Hill to grow cold
    and fail in the cold April wind, and finally to look very
    pretty, lying stiff and cold, to the one pair of human eyes
    that were destined to see you! The little birds that come
    and go and return to us over such vast distances, they perish
    like this in myriads annually; flying to and from us they
    are blown away by death like sere autumn leaves, "the
    pestilence-stricken multitudes" whirled away by the wind!
    They die in myriads: that is not strange; the strange, the
    astonishing thing is the fact of death; what can they tell
    us of it--the wise men who live or have ever lived on the
    earth--what can they say now of the bright intelligent spirit,
    the dear little emotional soul, that had so fit a tenement and
    so fitly expressed itself in motions of such exquisite grace,
    in melody so sweet! Did it go out like the glow-worm's lamp,
    the life and sweetness of the flower? Was its destiny not
    like that of the soul, specialized in a different direction,
    of the saint or poet or philosopher! Alas, they can tell us
    nothing!

    I could not go away leaving it in that exposed place on the
    turf, to be found a little later by a magpie or carrion crow
    or fox, and devoured. Close by there was a small round
    hillock, an old forsaken nest of the little brown ants, green
    and soft with moss and small creeping herbs--a suitable grave
    for a wheatear. Cutting out a round piece of turf from the
    side, I made a hole with my stick and put the dead bird in and
    replacing the turf left it neatly buried.

    It was not that I had or have any quarrel with the creatures
    I have named, or would have them other than they are
    --carrion-eaters and scavengers, Nature's balance-keepers and
    purifiers. The only creatures on earth I loathe and hate are
    the gourmets, the carrion-crows and foxes of the human kind
    who devour wheatears and skylarks at their tables.
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