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    Chapter 15

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    Chapter 15
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    Summer Days on the Otter

    The most characteristic district of South Devon, the greenest,
    most luxuriant in its vegetation, and perhaps the hottest in
    England, is that bit of country between the Exe and the Axe
    which is watered by the Clyst, the Otter, and the Sid. In any
    one of a dozen villages found beside these pretty little
    rivers a man might spend a month, a year, a lifetime, very
    agreeably, ceasing not to congratulate himself on the good
    fortune which first led him into such a garden. Yet after a
    week or two in this luxurious land I began to be dissatisfied
    with my surroundings. It was June; the weather was
    exceptionally dry and sultry. Vague thoughts, or "visitings"
    of mountains and moors and coasts would intrude to make the
    confinement of deep lanes seem increasingly irksome. Each day
    I wandered miles in some new direction, never knowing whither
    the devious path would lead me, never inquiring of any person,
    nor consulting map or guide, since to do that is to deprive
    oneself of the pleasure of discovery; always with a secret
    wish to find some exit as it were--some place beyond the
    everlasting wall of high hedges and green trees, where there
    would be a wide horizon and wind blowing unobstructed over
    leagues of open country to bring me back the sense of lost
    liberty. I found only fresh woods and pastures new that were
    like the old; other lanes leading to other farm-houses, each
    in its familiar pretty setting of orchard and garden; and,
    finally, other ancient villages, each with its ivy-grown grey
    church tower looking down on a green graveyard and scattered
    cottages, mostly mud-built and thatched with straw. Finding
    no outlook on any side I went back to the streams, oftenest to
    the Otter, where, lying by the hour on the bank, I watched the
    speckled trout below me and the dark-plumaged dipper with
    shining white breast standing solitary and curtseying on a,
    stone in the middle of the current. Sometimes a kingfisher
    would flash by, and occasionally I came upon a lonely grey
    heron; but no mammal bigger than a watervole appeared,
    although I waited and watched for the much bigger beast that
    gives the river its name. Still it was good to know that he
    was there, and had his den somewhere in the steep rocky bank
    under the rough tangle of ivy and bramble and roots of
    overhanging trees. One was shot by a farmer during my stay,
    but my desire was for the living, not a dead otter.
    Consequently, when the otter-hunt came with blaze of scarlet
    coats and blowing of brass horns and noise of barking hounds
    and shouts of excited people, it had no sooner got half a mile
    above Ottery St. Mary, where I had joined the straggling
    procession, than, falling behind, the hunting fury died out of
    me and I was relieved to hear that no quarry had been found.
    The frightened moorhen stole back to her spotty eggs, the
    dipper returned to his dipping and curtseying to his own image
    in the stream, and I to my idle dreaming and watching.

    The watching was not wholly in vain, since there were here
    revealed to me things, or aspects of things, that were new. A
    great deal depends on atmosphere and the angle of vision. For
    instance, I have often looked at swans at the hour of sunset,
    on the water and off it, or flying, and have frequently had
    them between me and the level sun, yet never have I been
    favoured with the sight of the rose-coloured, the red, and the
    golden-yellow varieties of that majestic waterfowl, whose
    natural colour is white. On the other hand, who ever saw a
    carrion-crow with crimson eyes? Yet that was one of the
    strange things I witnessed on the Otter.

    Game is not everywhere strictly preserved in that part of
    Devon, and the result is that the crow is not so abhorred and
    persecuted a fowl as in many places, especially in the home
    counties, where the cult of the sacred bird is almost
    universal. At one spot on the stream where my rambles took me
    on most days a pair of crows invariably greeted my approach
    with a loud harsh remonstrance, and would keep near me, flying
    from tree to tree repeating their angry girdings until I left
    the place. Their nest was in a large elm, and after some days
    I was pleased to see that the young had been safely brought
    off. The old birds screamed at me no more; then I came on one
    of their young in the meadow near the river. His curious
    behaviour interested me so much that I stood and watched him
    for half an hour or longer. It was a hot, windless day, and
    the bird was by himself among the tall flowering grasses and
    buttercups of the meadow--a queer gaunt unfinished
    hobbledehoy-looking fowl with a head much too big for his
    body, a beak that resembled a huge nose, and a very monstrous
    mouth. When I first noticed him he was amusing himself by
    picking off the small insects from the flowers with his big
    beak, a most unsuitable instrument, one would imagine, for so
    delicate a task. At the same time he was hungering for more
    substantial fare, and every time a rook flew by over him on
    its way to or from a neighbouring too populous rookery, the
    young crow would open wide his immense red mouth and emit his
    harsh, throaty hunger-call. The rook gone, he would drop once
    more into his study of the buttercups, to pick from them
    whatever unconsidered trifle in the way of provender he could
    find. Once a small bird, a pied wagtail, flew near him, and
    he begged from it just as he had done from the rooks: the
    little creature would have run the risk of being itself
    swallowed had it attempted to deliver a packet of flies into
    that cavernous mouth. I went nearer, moving cautiously, until
    I was within about four yards of him, when, half turning, he
    opened his mouth and squawked, actually asking me to feed him;
    then, growing suspicious, he hopped awkwardly away in the
    grass. Eventually he permitted a nearer approach, and slowly
    stooping I was just on the point of stroking his back when,
    suddenly becoming alarmed, he swung himself into the air and
    flapped laboriously off to a low hawthorn, twenty or thirty
    yards away, into which he tumbled pell-mell like a bundle of
    old black rags.

    Then I left him and thought no more about the crows except
    that their young have a good deal to learn upon first coming
    forth into an unfriendly world. But there was a second nest
    and family close by all the time. A day or two later I
    discovered it accidentally in a very curious way.

    There was one spot where I was accustomed to linger for a few
    minutes, sometimes for half an hour or so, during my daily
    walks. Here at the foot of the low bank on the treeless side
    of the stream there was a scanty patch of sedges, a most
    exposed and unsuitable place for any bird to breed in, yet a
    venturesome moorhen had her nest there and was now sitting on
    seven eggs. First I would take a peep at the eggs, for the
    bird always quitted the nest on my approach; then I would gaze
    into the dense tangle of tree, bramble, and ivy springing out
    of the mass 'of black rock and red clay of the opposite bank.
    In the centre of this rough tangle which overhung the stream
    there grew an old stunted and crooked fir tree with its tufted
    top so shut out from the light by the branches and foliage
    round it that it looked almost black. One evening I sat down
    on the green bank opposite this tangle when the low sun behind
    me shone level into the mass of rock and rough boles and
    branches, and fixing my eyes on the black centre of the mass I
    encountered a pair of crimson eyes staring back into mine. A
    level ray of light had lit up that spot which I had always
    seen in deep shadow, revealing its secret. After gazing
    steadily for some time I made out a crow's nest in the dwarf
    pine top and the vague black forms of three young fully
    fledged crows sitting or standing in it. The middle bird had
    the shining crimson eyes; but in a few moments the illusory
    colour was gone and the eyes were black.

    It was certainly an extraordinary thing: the ragged-looking
    black-plumaged bird on its ragged nest of sticks in the deep
    shade, with one ray of intense sunlight on its huge nose-like
    beak and blood-red eyes, a sight to be remembered for a
    lifetime! It recalled Zurbaran's picture of the "Kneeling
    Monk," in which the man with everything about him is steeped
    in the deepest gloom except his nose, on which one ray of
    strong light has fallen. The picture of the monk is gloomy
    and austere in a wonderful degree: the crow in his interior
    with sunlit big beak and crimson eyes looked nothing less than
    diabolical.

    I paid other visits to the spot at the same hour, and sat long
    and watched the crows while they watched me, occasionally
    tossing pebbles on to them to make them shift their positions,
    but the magical effect was not produced again.

    As to the cause of that extraordinary colour in the crow's
    eyes, one might say that it was merely the reflected red light
    of the level sun. We are familiar with the effect when
    polished and wet surfaces, such as glass, stone, and water,
    shine crimson in the light of a setting sun; but there is also
    the fact, which is not well known, that the eye may show its
    own hidden red--the crimson colour which is at the back of the
    retina and which is commonly supposed to be seen only with the
    ophthalmoscope. Nevertheless I find on inquiry among friends
    and acquaintances that there are instances of persons in which
    the iris when directly in front of the observer with the light
    behind him, always looks crimson, and in several of these
    cases. the persons exhibiting this colour, or danger signal,
    as it may be called, were subject to brain trouble. It is
    curious to find that the crimson colour or light has also been
    observed in dogs: one friend has told me of a pet King
    Charles, a lively good-tempered little dog with brown eyes
    like any other dog, which yet when they looked up, into yours
    in a room always shone ruby-red instead of hyaline blue, or
    green, as is usually the case. From other friends I heard of
    many other cases: one was of a child, an infant in arms, whose
    eyes sometimes appeared crimson, another of a cat with yellow
    eyes which shone crimson-red in certain lights. Of human
    adults, I heard of two men great in the world of science, both
    dead now, in whose eyes the red light had been seen just
    before and during attacks of nervous breakdown. I heard also
    of four other persons, not distinguished in any way, two of
    them sisters, who showed the red light in the eyes: all of
    them suffered, from brain trouble and two of them ended their
    lives in asylums for the insane.

    Discussing these cases with my informants, we came to the
    conclusion that the red light in the human eye is probably
    always a pathological condition, a danger signal; but it is
    not perhaps safe to generalize on these few instances, and I
    must add that all the medical men I have spoken to on the
    subject shake their heads. One great man, an eye specialist,
    went so far as to say that it is impossible, that the red
    light in the eye was not seen by my informants but only
    imagined. The ophthalmoscope, he said, will show you the
    crimson at the back of the eye, but the colour is not and
    cannot be reflected on the surface of the iris.
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