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    Chapter 17

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    Chapter 17
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    An Old Road Leading Nowhere

    So many and minute were the directions I received about the
    way from the blessed cowkeeper, and so little attention did I
    give them, my mind being occupied with other things, that they
    were quickly forgotten. Of half a hundred things I remembered
    only that I had to "bear to the left." This I did, although
    it seemed useless, seeing that my way was by lanes, across
    fields, and through plantations. At length I came to a road,
    and as it happened to be on my left hand I followed it. It
    was narrow, worn deep by traffic and rains; and grew deeper,
    rougher, and more untrodden as I progressed, until it was
    like the dry bed of a mountain torrent, and I walked on
    boulder-stones between steep banks about fourteen feet high.
    Their sides were clothed with ferns, grass and rank moss;
    their summits were thickly wooded, and the interlacing
    branches of the trees above, mingled with long rope-like
    shoots of bramble and briar, formed so close a roof that I
    seemed to be walking in a dimly lighted tunnel. At length,
    thinking that I had kept long enough to a road which had
    perhaps not been used for a century, also tired of the
    monotony of always bearing to the left, I scrambled out on the
    right-hand side. For some time past I had been ascending a
    low, broad, flat-topped hill, and on forcing my way through
    the undergrowth into the open I found myself on the level
    plateau, an unenclosed spot overgrown with heather and
    scattered furze bushes, with clumps of fir and birch trees.
    Before me and on either hand at this elevation a vast extent
    of country was disclosed. The surface was everywhere broken,
    but there was no break in the wonderful greenness, which the
    recent rain had intensified. There is too much green, to my
    thinking, with too much uniformity in its soft, bright tone,
    in South Devon. After gazing on such a landscape the brown,
    harsh, scanty vegetation of the hilltop seemed all the more
    grateful. The heath was an oasis and a refuge; I rambled
    about in it until my feet and legs were wet; then I sat
    down to let them dry and altogether spent several agreeable
    hours at that spot, pleased at the thought that no human
    fellow-creature would intrude upon me. Feathered companions
    were, however, not wanting. The crowing of cock pheasants
    from the thicket beside the old road warned me that I was on
    preserved grounds. Not too strictly preserved, however, for
    there was my old friend the carrion-crow out foraging for his
    young. He dropped down over the trees, swept past me, and was
    gone. At this season, in the early summer, he may be easily
    distinguished, when flying, from his relation the rook. When
    on the prowl the crow glides smoothly and rapidly through the
    air, often changing his direction, now flying close to the
    surface, anon mounting high, but oftenest keeping nearly on a
    level with the tree tops. His gliding and curving motions are
    somewhat like those of the herring-gull, but the wings in
    gliding are carried stiff and straight, the tips of the long
    flight-feathers showing a slight upward curve. But the
    greatest difference is in the way the head is carried. The
    rook, like the heron and stork, carries his beak pointing
    lance-like straight before him. He knows his destination, and
    makes for it; he follows his nose, so to speak, turning
    neither to the right nor the left. The foraging crow
    continually turns his head, gull-like and harrier-like, from
    side to side, as if to search the ground thoroughly or to
    concentrate his vision on some vaguely seen object.

    Not only the crow was there: a magpie chattered as I came from
    the brake, but refused to show himself; and a little later a
    jay screamed at me, as only a jay can. There are times when I
    am intensely in sympathy with the feeling expressed in this
    ear-splitting sound, inarticulate but human. It is at the
    same time warning and execration, the startled solitary's
    outburst of uncontrolled rage at the abhorred sight of a
    fellow-being in his woodland haunt.

    Small birds were numerous at that spot, as if for them also
    its wildness and infertility had an attraction. Tits,
    warblers, pipits, finches, all were busy ranging from place to
    place, emitting their various notes now from the tree-tops,
    then from near the ground; now close at hand, then far off;
    each change in the height, distance, and position of the
    singer giving the sound a different character, so that the
    effect produced was one of infinite variety. Only the
    yellow-hammer remained constant in one spot, in one position,
    and the song at each repetition was the same. Nevertheless
    this bird is not so monotonous a singer as he is reputed. A
    lover of open places, of commons and waste lands, with a bush
    or dwarf tree for tower to sit upon, he is yet one of the most
    common species in the thickly timbered country of the Otter,
    Clyst, and Sid, in which I had been rambling, hearing him
    every day and all day long. Throughout that district, where
    the fields are small, and the trees big and near together, he
    has the cirl-bunting's habit of perching to sing on the tops
    of high hedgerow elms and oaks.

    By and by I had a better bird to listen to--a redstart. A
    female flew down within fifteen yards of me; her mate followed
    and perched on a dry twig, where he remained a long time for
    so shy and restless a creature. He was in perfect plumage,
    and sitting there, motionless in the strong sunlight, was
    wonderfully conspicuous, the gayest, most exotic-looking bird
    of his family in England. Quitting his perch, he flew up into
    a tree close by and began singing; and for half an hour
    thereafter I continued intently listening to his brief strain,
    repeated at short intervals--a song which I think has never
    been perfectly described. "Practice makes perfect" is an
    axiom that does not apply to the art of song in the bird
    world; since the redstart, a member of a highly melodious
    family, with a good voice to start with, has never attained to
    excellence in spite of much practising. The song is
    interesting both on account of its exceptional inferiority and
    of its character. A distinguished ornithologist has said that
    little birds have two ways of making themselves attractive--by
    melody and by bright plumage; and that most species excel in
    one or the other way; and that the acquisition of gay colours
    by a species of a sober-coloured melodious family will cause
    it to degenerate as a songster. He is speaking of the
    redstart. Unfortunately for the rule there are too many
    exceptions. Thus confining ourselves to a single family--that
    of the finches--in our own islands, the most modest coloured
    have the least melody, while those that have the gayest
    plumage are the best singers--the goldfinch, chaffinch,
    siskin, and linnet. Nevertheless it is impossible to listen
    for any length of time to the redstart, and to many redstarts,
    without feeling, almost with irritation, that its strain is
    only the prelude of a song--a promise never performed; that
    once upon a time in the remote past it was a sweet, copious,
    and varied singer, and that only a fragment of its melody now
    remains. The opening rapidly warbled notes are so charming
    that the attention is instantly attracted by them. They are
    composed of two sounds, both beautiful--the bright pure
    gushing robin-like note, and the more tender expressive
    swallow-like note. And that is all; the song scarcely begins
    before it ends, or collapses; for in most cases the pure sweet
    opening strain is followed by a curious little farrago of
    gurgling and squeaking sounds, and little fragments of varied
    notes, often so low as to be audible only at a few yards'
    distance. It is curious that these slight fragments of notes
    at the end vary in different individuals, in strength and
    character and in number, from a single faintest squeal to half
    a dozen or a dozen distinct sounds. In all cases they are
    emitted with apparent effort, as if the bird strained its pipe
    in the vain attempt to continue the song.

    The statement that the redstart is a mimic is to be met with
    in many books about birds. I rather think that in jerking out
    these various little broken notes which end its strain,
    whether he only squeaks or succeeds in producing a pure sound,
    he is striving to recover his own lost song rather than to
    imitate the songs of other birds.

    So much entertainment did I find at that spot, so grateful did
    it seem in its openness after long confinement in the lower
    thickly wooded country, that I practically spent the day
    there. At all events the best time for walking was gone when
    I quitted it, and then I could think of no better plan than to
    climb down into the old long untrodden road, or channel, again
    just to see where it would lead me. After all, I said, my
    time is my own, and to abandon the old way I have walked in so
    long without discovering the end would be a mistake. So I
    went on in it once more, and in about twenty minutes it came
    to an end before a group of old farm buildings in a hollow in
    the woods. The space occupied by the buildings was quite
    walled round and shut in by a dense growth of trees and
    bushes; and there was no soul there and no domestic animal.
    The place had apparently been vacant many years, and the
    buildings were in a ruinous condition, with the roofs falling
    in.

    Now when I look back on that walk I blame myself for having
    gone on my way without trying to find out something of the
    history of that forsaken home to which the lonely old road had
    led me. Those ruinous buildings once inhabited, so wrapped
    round and hidden away by trees, have now a strange look in
    memory as if they had a story to tell, as if something
    intelligent had looked from the vacant windows as I stood
    staring at them and had said, We have waited these many years
    for you to come and listen to our story and you are come at
    last.

    Something perhaps stirred in me in response to that greeting
    and message, but I failed to understand it, and after standing
    there awhile, oppressed by a sense of loneliness, I turned
    aside, and creeping and pushing through a mass and tangle of
    vegetation went on my way towards the coast.

    Possibly that idea or fancy of a story to tell, a human
    tragedy, came to me only because of another singular
    experience I had that day when the afternoon sun had grown
    oppressively hot--another mystery of a desolate but not in
    this case uninhabited house. The two places somehow became
    associated together in my mind.

    The place was a little farm-house standing some distance
    from the road, in a lonely spot out of sight of any other
    habitation, and I thought I would call and ask for a glass
    of milk, thinking that if things had a promising look on my
    arrival my modest glass of milk would perhaps expand to a
    sumptuous five-o'clock tea and my short rest to a long and
    pleasant one.

    The house I found on coming nearer was small and mean-looking
    and very old; the farm buildings in a dilapidated condition,
    the thatch rotten and riddled with holes in which many
    starlings and sparrows had their nests. Gates and fences were
    broken down, and the ground was everywhere overgrown with
    weeds and encumbered with old broken and rusty implements, and
    littered with rubbish. No person could I see about the place,
    but knew it was inhabited as there were some fowls walking
    about, and some calves shut in a pen in one of the numerous
    buildings were dolefully calling--calling to be fed. Seeing a
    door half open at one end of the house I went to it and rapped
    on the warped paintless wood with my stick, and after about a
    minute a young woman came from an inner room and asked me what
    I wanted. She was not disturbed or surprised at my sudden
    appearance there: her face was impassive, and her eyes when
    they met mine appeared to look not at me but at something
    distant, and her words were spoken mechanically.

    I said that I was hot and thirsty and tired and would be glad
    of a glass of milk.

    Without a word she turned and left me standing there, and
    presently returned with a tumbler of milk which she placed on
    a deal table standing near me. To my remarks she replied in
    monosyllables, and stood impassively, her hands at her side,
    her eyes cast down, waiting for me to drink the milk and go.
    And when I had finished it and set the glass down and thanked
    her, she turned in silence and went back to that inner room
    from which she first came. And hot and tired as I had felt a
    few moments before, and desirous of an interval of rest in the
    cool shade, I was glad to be out in the burning sun once more,
    for the sight of that young woman had chilled my blood and
    made the heat out-of-doors seem grateful to me.

    The sight of such a face in the midst of such surroundings had
    produced a shock of surprise, for it was noble in shape, the
    features all fine and the mouth most delicately chiselled, the
    eyes dark and beautiful, and the hair of a raven blackness.
    But it was a colourless face, and even the lips were pale.
    Strongest of all was the expression, which had frozen there,
    and was like the look of one on whom some unimaginable
    disaster or some hateful disillusionment had come, not to
    subdue nor soften, but to change all its sweet to sour, and
    its natural warmth to icy cold.
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